Indian Dynamism versus British Conservatism In India
The new provincial assemblies had a much larger representation from the rural areas and this inevitably led to a demand in all of them for agrarian reforms. In Bengal, because of the permanent settlement and for other reasons, the condition of the tenantry was worst of all. Next came the other big zamindari (landlord) provinces, chiefly Bihar and the United Provinces, and thirdly the provinces where originally some kind of peasant proprietor-ship had been established (Madras, Bombay, Punjab, etc.), but where big landed estates had also grown up. The permanent settlement came in the way of any effective reform in Bengal. Almost everybody is agreed that this must go, and even an official commission has recommended it, but vested interests still manage to prevent or delay change. The Punjab was fortunate in having fresh land at its disposal. For the Congress the agrarian question was the dominating social issue and much time had been given to its study and the formulation of policy. This varied in different provinces as conditions were different and also the class composition of the provincial Congress organizations, differed from one another. There was an all-India agrarian policy which had been formulated by the central organization and each province added to it and filled in the details. The United Provinces Congress was in this respect the most advanced and it had reached the conclusion that the zamindari (landlord) system should be abolished. This, however, was impossible under the Government of India Act of 1935, even apart from the special powers of the Viceroy and the Governor, and the second chamber which largely consisted of the landed class. Changes had thus to be made within the larger framework of this system, unless of course some revolutionary upheaval ended that system itself. This made reform difficult and terribly complicated and it took much longer than was anticipated.
However, substantial agrarian reforms were introduced and the problem of rural indebtedness was also attacked. So also labour conditions in factories, public health and sanitation, local self-government, education both in the lower stages and in the university, literacy, industry, rural development, and many other problems were tackled. All these social, cultural, and economic problems had been ignored and neglected by previous governments, their function had been to make the police and the revenue departments efficient and to allow the rest to take their own course. Occasionally some little effort had been made and com-missions and inquiry committees had been appointed, which produced huge reports after years of labour and travelling about. Then the reports had been put away in their respective pigeon-holes and little was done. Even proper statistics had not been collected, in spite of insistent popular demand. This lack of statistics and surveys and necessary information had been a serious impediment in the way of progress in any direction. Thus the new provincial governments had, apart from the normal work of administration, to face a mountain of work, the result of years of neglect, and on every side urgent problems faced them. They had to change a police-state into a socially guided state—never an easy job but made much more difficult by the limitation on their power, the poverty of the people, and the divergence of outlook between these provincial governments and the central authority, which was completely autocratic and authoritarian, under the Viceroy.
We knew all these limitations and barriers, we realized in our hearts that we could not do much till conditions were radically changed—hence our overwhelming desire for independence— and yet the passion for progress filled us and the wish to emulate other countries which had gone so far ahead in many ways. We thought of the United States of America and even of some eastern countries which were forging ahead. But most of all we had the example of the Soviet Union which in two brief decades, full of war and civil strife and in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable difficulties, had made tremendous progress. Some were attracted to communism, others were not, but all were fascinated by the advance of the Soviet Union in education and culture and medical care and physical fitness and in the solution of the problem of nationalities—by the amazing and prodigious effort to create a new world out of the dregs of the old. Even Rabindranath Tagore, highly individualistic as he was and not attracted towards some aspects of the communistic system, became an admirer of this new civilization and contrasted it with present conditions in his own country. In his last death-bed message he referred to the ‘unsparing energy with which Russia has tried to fight disease and illiteracy, and has succeeded in steadily liquidating ignorance and poverty, wiping off the humiliation from the face of a vast continent. Her civilization is free from all invidious distinction between one class and another, between one sect and another. The rapid and astounding progress achieved by her made me happy and jealous at the same time… .When I see elsewhere some 200 nationalities—which only a few years ago were at vastly different stages of development—marching ahead in peaceful progress and amity, and when I look about my own country and see a very highly evolved and intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism, I cannot help contrasting the two systems of governments, one based on co-operation, the other on exploitation, which have made such contrary conditions possible.’
If others could do it, why not we ? We had faith in our capacity, our intelligence, our will to persevere, to endure and succeed. We knew the difficulties, our poverty and backwardness, our reactionary groups and classes, our divisions; yet we would face them and overcome them. We knew that the price was a heavy one, but we were prepared to pay it, for no price could be greater than what we paid from day-to-day in our present condition. But how were we to begin on our internal problems when the external problem of British rule and occupation faced us at every turn and nullified our every effort?
Yet since we had some opportunity, however limited and restricted, in these provincial governments, we wanted to take advantage of it in the fullest measure. But it was a heart-breaking job for our ministers, who were overwhelmed with work and responsibility, and could not even share this with the permanent services, because of the lack of harmony and the absence of a common outlook. Unfortunately also, the number of these ministers was much too small. They were supposed to set an example in plain living and economy in public expenditure. Their salaries were small, and we had the curious spectacle of a minister’s secretary or some other subordinate belonging to the Indian Civil Service drawing a salary and allowances which were four or five times the minister’s salary. We could not touch the emoluments of the Civil Service. Also the minister would travel second-class by railway train, or even third, while some subordinate of his might be travelling first or in a lordly saloon in the same train.
It has often been stated that the central Congress Executive continually interfered with the work of these provincial governments by issuing orders from above. This is entirely incorrect, and there was no interference with the internal administration. What the Congress Executive desired was that a common policy on all fundamental political matters should be followed by the provincial governments, and that the Congress programme, as laid down in the election manifesto, should be furthered in so far as this was possible. In particular, the policy vis-a-vis the governors and the Government of India had to be uniform.
The introduction of provincial autonomy without any change in the central government, which continued to be wholly irresponsible and authoritarian, was likely to lead to a growth of provincialism and diversity, and thus to a lessening of the sense of Indian unity. Probably the British Government had this in view in furtherance of its policy of encouraging disruptive elements and tendencies. The Government of India, irremovable, irresponsible, and unresponsive, still representing the old tradition of British imperialism, stood as solid as a rock, and, of course, pursued a uniform policy with all the provincial governments. The Governors, acting on instructions from New Delhi or Simla did likewise. If the Congress provincial governments had reacted differently from this, each in its own way, they could have been disposed of separately. It was essential, therefore, for these provincial governments to hold together and present a united front to the Government of India. The Government of India, on the other hand, was equally anxious to prevent this co-operation, and preferred to deal with each provincial government separately without reference to similar problems elsewhere.
In August, 1937, soon after the formation of the Congress provincial governments, the Congress Executive passed the following resolution:
The Working Committee recommend to the Congress ministers the appointment of a committee of experts to consider urgent and vital problems, the solution of which is necessary to any scheme of national reconstruction and social planning. Such solution will require extensive surveys and the collection of data, as well as a clearly defined social objective. Many of these problems cannot be dealt with efficiently on a provincial basis, and the interests of adjoining provinces are interlinked. Comprehensive river surveys are necessary for the formulation of a policy to prevent disastrous floods, to utilise the water for the purposes of irrigation, to consider the problem of soil erosion, to eradicate malaria, and for the development of hydro-electric and other schemes. For this purpose the whole river valley will have to be surveyed and investigated, and large-scale state planning resorted to. The development and control of industries require also joint and co-ordinate action on the part of several provinces. The Working Committee advise therefore that, to begin with, an inter-provincial committee of experts be appointed to consider the general nature of the problems to be faced, and to suggest how, and in what order, those should be tackled. This expert committee may suggest the formation of special committees or boards to consider each such problem separately, and to advise the provincial governments concerned as to the joint action to be undertaken.
This resolution indicates the kind of advice that was sometimes tendered to the provincial governments. It shows also how desirous the Congress Executive was to encourage co-operation between provincial governments in the economic and industrial sphere. That co-operation was not limited to the Congress governments, although the advice was necessarily addressed to them. A comprehensive river survey overlapped provincial boundaries; a survey of the Gangetic valley and the setting up of a Ganga River Commission (a work of the highest importance which yet awaits to be done) could only take place with the co-operation of the three provincial governments—those of the United Provinces, Bihar, and Bengal.
The resolution also demonstrates the importance attached by the Congress to large-scale state planning. Such planning was impossible so long as the central government was not under popular control and the shackles on the provincial governments had not been removed. We hoped, however, that some essential preliminary work might be done and the foundations for future planning laid down. Unfortunately, the provincial governments were so busy with their own problems that there was delay in giving effect to this resolution. Late in 1938 a National Planning Committee was constituted, and I became chairman of it.
I was often critical of the work of the Congress Governments and fretted at the slowness of progress made; but, looking back, I am surprised at their achievements during a brief period of two years and a quarter, despite the innumerable difficulties that surrounded them. Unfortunately, some of their important work did not bear fruit, as it was on the point of completion when they resigned, and it was shelved afterwards by their successor—that is, the British Governor. Both the peasantry and industrial labour benefited and grew in strength. One of the most important and far-reaching achievements was the introduction of a system of mass education called basic education. This was not only based on the latest educational doctrine but was peculiarly suited to Indian conditions.
Every vested interest came in the way of progressive change. A committee appointed by the United Provinces Government to inquire into labour conditions in the Cawnpore textile industry was treated by the employers (chiefly Europeans but including some Indians) with the greatest discourtesy, and many of the facts and figures demanded were refused. Labour had long faced the organized opposition of both the employers and Government, and the police had always been at the disposal of the employers. The change in policy introduced by the Congress Governments was therefore resented by the employers. Of the tactics of employers in India, Mr. B. Shiva Rao, who has had long experience of the Labour movement in India and belongs to the moderate wing of it, writes: ‘The amount of resourcefulness and lack of scruple exhibited on such occasions (strikes etc.) by the employers with the assistance of police would be incredible to one unacquainted with Indian conditions.’ The government of most countries, constituted as it is, inclines towards the employers. In India, Mr. Shiva Rao points out, there is an additional reason for this. ‘Apart from personal animosities, officials in India with rare exceptions have been obsessed with the fear that trade unions, if allowed to develop, would foster mass consciousness; and with the political struggle in India periodically flaring up into movements like non-co-operation and civil disobedience, they have felt presumably that no risks should be taken in regard to the organization of the masses.’
Governments lay down policy, legislatures pass laws; but the actual working out of this policy and the application of these laws depend ultimately on the services and the administrative personnel. The provincial governments had thus inevitably to rely on the permanent services, especially the Indian civil service and the police. These services, bred in a different and authoritarian tradition, disliked the new atmosphere, the assertive attitude of the public, the lessening of their own importance, and their subordination to persons whom they had been in the habit of arresting and imprisoning. They had been rather apprehensive at first as to what might happen. But nothing very revolutionary happened and they gradually settled down to their old routine. It was not easy for the ministers to interfere with the man on the spot and only in obvious cases could they do so. The services formed a close corporation and hung together, and if one man was transferred, his successor was likely to act in the same way. It was impossible to change suddenly the old reactionary and autocratic mentality of the services as a whole. A few individuals might change, some might make an effort to adapt themselves to the new conditions, but the vast majority of them thought differently and had always functioned differently; how could they undergo a sea-change and emerge as crusaders of a new order? At the most they could give a passive and heavy-moving loyalty; there could not, in the very nature of things, be a flaming enthusiasm for the new kind of work to be done, in which they did not believe and which under-mined their own vested interests. Unfortunately even this passive loyalty was often lacking.
Among the higher members of the civil service, long accustomed to authoritarian methods and unchecked rule, there was a feeling that these ministers and legislators were intruders in a domain reserved for them. The old conception that they, the permanent services and especially the British element in them, were India and all others were unimportant appendages, died hard. It was not easy to suffer the new-comers, much less to take orders from them. They felt as an orthodox Hindu might feel if untouchables pushed their way into the sacred precincts of his own particular temple. The edifice of prestige and racial superiority which had been built with so much labour, and which had almost become a religion to them, was cracking. The Chinese are said to be great believers in ‘face,’ and yet I doubt if any among them are so passionately attached to ‘face’ as the British in India. For the latter it is not only individual, racial, and national prestige; it is also intimately connected with their rule and vested interests.
Yet the intruders had to be tolerated, but the toleration grew progressively less as the sense of danger receded. This attitude permeated all departments of the administration, but it was especially in evidence away from headquarters, in the districts, and in matters relating to, what is called, Law and Order, which was the special preserve of the district magistrate and the police. The emphasis of the Congress governments on civil liberty gave the local officials and the police an excuse for allowing things to happen which, ordinarily, no government could have permitted. Indeed I am convinced that in some cases the initiative for these undesirable occurrences came from the local officials or the police. Many of the communal (religious) riots that took place were due to a variety of causes, but the magistrates and the police were certainly not always free from guilt. Experience showed that a quick and efficient handling of the situation put an end to the trouble. What we saw repeatedly was an astonishing slackness and a deliberate evasion of duty. It became obvious that the objective was to discredit the Congress governments. In the Provinces, the industrial city of Cawnpore offered the most glaring example of utter ineptitude and mismanagement on the part of the local officials, which could only be deliberate. Communal (religious) friction, leading sometimes to local riots, had been more in evidence in the late twenties and early thirties. After the Congress governments took office it was in many ways much less. It changed its nature and became definitely political and deliberately encouraged and organized.
The civil service had a reputation, chiefly self-propagated, for efficiency. But it became evident that outside the narrow sphere of work to which they had been accustomed, they were helpless and incompetent. They had no training to function democratically and could not gain the goodwill and co-operation of the people, whom they both feared and despised; they had no conception of big and fast-moving schemes of social progress and could only hamper them by their red-tape and lack of imagination. Apart from certain individuals, this applied to both British and Indian members of the higher services. It was extraordinary how unfitted they were for the new tasks that faced them.
There was, of course, a great deal of inefficiency and incompetence on the popular side. But it was counterbalanced by energy and enthusiasm, and close touch with masses, and a desire and capacity to learn from one’s own mistakes. There was vitality there, a bubbling life, a sense of tension, a desire to get things done, all of which contrasted strangely with the apathy and conservatism of the British ruling class and their supporters. India, the land of tradition, thus offered a strange picture of reversal of roles. The British, who had come here as representatives of a dynamic society, were now the chief upholders of a static, unchanging tradition; among the Indians there were many who represented the new dynamic order and were eager for change, change not only political but also social and economic. Behind those Indians there were, of course, vast new forces at work which perhaps even they hardly realized. This reversal of roles was a demonstration of the fact that whatever creative or progressive role the British might have played in the past in India, they had long ceased to play it, and were now a hindrance and an obstruction to all progress. The tempo of their official life was slow and incapable of solving any of the vital problems before India. Even their utterances, which used to have some clarity and strength, became turgid, inept, and lacking any real content. There has long been a legend, propagated by British authorities, that the British Government, through its higher services in India, was training us for the difficult and intricate art of self-government. We had managed to carry on, and with a considerable degree of success, for a few thousand years before the British came here and gave us the advantage of their training. No doubt we lack many of the good qualities that we should possess, and some misguided persons even say that this deficiency has grown under British rule. But whatever our failings might be, it seemed obvious to us that the permanent services here were totally incapable of leading India in any progressive direction. The very qualities they possessed made them unhelpful, for the qualities necessary in a police state are utterly different from those required in a progressive democratic community. Before they could presume to train others, it would be necessary for them to untrain themselves, and to bathe in the waters of Lethe so that they might forget what they had been.
The odd position of a popular provincial government with an autocratic central government over it brought out many strange contrasts. The Congress governments were anxious to preserve civil liberties and they checked the wide-flung activities of the provincial C.I.D. (Criminal Investigation Department) whose chief function had been to shadow politicians and all those who were suspected of anti-government sentiments. While these activities were checked, the Imperial C.I.D. continued to function, probably with greater energy. Not only were our letters censored, but even the ministers’ correspondence was sometimes subjected to this, though it was done quietly and not officially admitted. During the last quarter of a century or more I have not written a single letter, which has been posted in India, either to an Indian, or a foreign address, without realizing that it would be seen, and possibly copied, by some secret service censor. Nor have I spoken on the telephone without remembering that my conversation was likely to be tapped. The letters that have reached me also have had to pass some censor. This does not mean that every single letter is always censored; sometimes this has been done, at other times selected ones are examined. This has nothing to do with the war, when there is a double censorship.
Fortunately we have functioned in the open and there has been nothing to hide in our political activities. Nevertheless this feeling of being subjected to continuous censorship, to prying and tapping and overhearing, is not a pleasant one. It irritates and oppresses and even comes in the way of personal relationships. It is not easy to write as one would like to, with the censor peering over one’s shoulder.
The ministers worked hard and many of them broke down under the strain. Their health deteriorated and all the freshness faded away, leaving them haggard and utterly weary. But a sense of purpose kept them going and they made their Indian civil service secretaries and their staffs work hard also; the lights in their offices were on till late in the evening. When the Congress governments resigned early in November, 1939, there was many a sigh of relief; the government offices were henceforth closed punctually at four in the afternoon, and reverted to their previous aspect of cloistered chambers where quiet prevailed and the public was not welcomed. Life went back to its old routine and slow tempo, and the afternoons and evenings were free for polo and tennis and bridge and the amenities of club life. A bad dream had faded and business and play could now be carried on as in the old days. True, there was a war on, thus far only in Europe, and Poland had been crushed by Hitler’s legions. But all this was far away, and anyway it was a phoney war. While soldiers did their duty and fought and died, here also duty had to be performed and this duty was to bear the white man’s burden worthily and with dignity.
The brief period during which the Congress governments functioned in the provinces confirmed our belief that the major obstruction to progress in India was the political and economic structure imposed by the British. It was perfectly true that many traditional habits and social forms and practices were barriers to progress and they had to go. Yet the inherent tendency of Indian economy to expand was not restricted so much by these forms and habits as by the political and economic stranglehold of the British. But for that steel framework, expansion was inevitable, bringing in its wake many social changes and the ending of out-worn customs and ceremonial patterns. Hence attention had to be concentrated on the removal of that framework, and the energy spent on other matters bore little result and was often like ploughing the sands. That framework was itself based on and protected the semi-feudal land tenure system and many other relics of the past. Any kind of democracy in India was incompatible with the British political and economic structure, and conflict between the two was inevitable. Hence the partial democracy of 1937-39 was always on the verge of conflict. Hence also the official British view that democracy in India had not been successful, because they could only consider it in terms of maintaining the structure and values and vested interests they had built up. As the kind of tame and subservient democracy of which they could have approved was not forthcoming, and all manner of radical changes were aimed at, the only alternative left to the British power was to revert to a purely authoritarian regime and put an end to all pretensions of democracy. There is a marked similarity in the development of this outlook and the birth and growth of fascism in Europe. Even the rule of law on which the British had prided themselves in India gave place to something in the nature of a state of siege and rule by ordinance and decree.
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