The Congress Approach To War
Thus the Congress laid down and frequently repeated a dual policy in regard to war. There was, on the one hand, opposition to fascism, Nazism, and Japanese militarism, both because of their internal policies and their aggression against other countries; there was intense sympathy with the victims of that aggression; and there was a willingness to join up in any war or other attempt to stop this aggression. On the other hand, there was an emphasis on the freedom of India, not only because that was our fundamental objective for which we had continuously laboured, but also especially in relation to a possible war. For we reiterated that only a free India could take proper part in such a war; only through freedom could we overcome the bitter heritage of our past relations with Britain and arouse enthusiasm and mobilize our great resources. Without that freedom the war would be like any old war, a contest between rival imperialism, and an attempt to defend and perpetuate the British Empire as such. It seemed absurd and impossible for us to line up in defence of that very imperialism against which we had been struggling for so long. And even if a few of us, in view of larger considerations, considered that a lesser evil, it was utterly beyond our capacity to carry our people. Only freedom could release mass-energy and convert bitterness into enthusiasm for a cause. There was no other way.
The Congress specially demanded that India should not be committed to any war without the consent of her people or their representatives, and that no Indian troops be sent for service abroad without such consent. The Central Legislative Assembly, consisting of various groups and parties, had also put forward this latter claim. It had long been a grievance of the Indian people that our armed forces were sent abroad for imperialist purposes and often to conquer or suppress other peoples with whom we had no quarrel whatever, and with whose efforts to regain their freedom we sympathized. Indian troops had been used as mercenaries for this purpose in Burma, China, Iran, and the Middle East, and parts of Africa. They have become symbols of British imperialism in all these countries and antagonized their peoples against India. I remember the bitter remark of an Egyptian: ‘You have not only lost your own freedom but you help the British to enslave others.’
The two parts of this dual policy did not automatically fit into each other; there was an element of mutual contradiction in them. But that contradiction was not of our creation; it was inherent in the circumstances and was inevitably mirrored in any policy that arose from those circumstances. Repeatedly we pointed out the inconsistency of condemning fascism and Nazism and maintaining imperialist domination. It was true that the former were indulging in horrid crimes whilst imperialism in India and elsewhere had stabilized itself. The difference was one of degree and of time, not of kind. The former also were far away, some thing which we read about; the latter was always at our doorstep, surrounding all of us and pervading the entire atmosphere. We emphasized the absurdity of holding aloft the banner of democracy elsewhere and denying it to us in India.
Whatever inconsistency there might have been in our dual policy, no question of the doctrine of non-violence coming in the way of armed conflict for defence or against aggression arose.
I was in England and on the continent of Europe in the summer of 1938 and in speech, writing, and private conversation I explained this policy of ours, and pointed out the dangers of allowing matters to drift or to remain as they were. At the height of the Sudetenland crisis, anxious Czechs asked me what India was likely to do in case of war. Danger was too near and terrible for them to consider fine points and old grievances, nevertheless they appreciated what I said and agreed with the logic of it.
About the middle of 1939 it became known that Indian troops had been despatched overseas, probably to Singapore and the Middle East. Immediately there was an outcry at this having been done without any reference to the representatives of the people. It was recognized that troop movements during a period of crisis have often to be secret. Still there were many ways of taking representative leaders into confidence. There were the party leaders in the Central Assembly, and in every province there were popularly elected governments. In the normal course the Central Government had to consult and share confidence in many matters with these provincial ministers. But not even formal or nominal respect was shown to the people’s representatives and the declared wishes of the nation. Steps were also being taken, through the British Parliament, to amend the Government of India Act of 1935 under which the provincial governments were functioning, with a view to concentrating all power, in the event of a war emergency, in the Central Government. Normally, in a democratic country, this might have been a natural and reasonable step, if taken with the consent of the parties concerned. It is well-known that federating states, provinces, or autonomous units in a federation are very jealous of their rights and do not easily agree to give them up to a central administration even in a period of crisis and emergency. This tug-of-war is continuous in the U.S.A. and, as I write this, a referendum in Australia has rejected the proposal to add to the powers of the Commonwealth Government at the expense of the states even for the purposes and duration of the war. And yet both in the U.S.A. and Australia the Central Government and legislature are popularly elected and consist of representatives of those very states. In India the Central Government was, and is, wholly irresponsible and authoritarian, not elected and not in any way responsible to the people generally or to the provinces. It functioned completely as an agent of the British Government. To add to its power at the expense of the provincial governments and legislatures meant weakening still further these popular provincial governments and striking at the very basis of provincial autonomy. This was deeply resented. It was felt that this was contrary to the assurances under which Congress governments had been formed, and indicated that, as previously, war would be imposed upon India without any reference to her chosen representatives.
The Congress Executive expressed its strong dissent with this policy which it considered a deliberate flouting of the declarations both of the Congress and the Central Legislature. It declared that it must resist any imposition of this kind and could not agree to India being committed to far-reaching policies without the consent of her people. Again it stated (early in August 1939) that
In this world crisis the sympathies of the Working Committee are entirely with the people who stand for democracy and freedom and the Congress has repeatedly condemned fascist aggression in Europe, Africa, and the far east of Asia, as well as the betrayal of democracy by British imperialism in Czechoslovakia and Spain.
But, it was added,
The past policy of the British Government as well as recent developments, demonstrated abundantly that this government does not stand for freedom and democracy and may at any time betray these ideals. India cannot associate herself with such a government or be asked to give her resources for democratic freedom which is denied to her and which is likely to be betrayed.
As a first step in protest against this policy, the Congress members of the Central Legislative Assembly were asked to refrain from attending the next session of the Assembly.
This last resolution was passed three weeks before war actually broke out in Europe. It seemed that the Government of India, and the British Government behind it, were bent on ignoring completely Indian opinion, not only in regard to the major issues raised by the war crisis, but also on many minor matters. This policy was reflected in the attitudes of the Governors in the provinces and the civil service administration which became more non-co-operative with the Congress governments. The position of these Congress provincial governments was becoming increasingly difficult, and strong sections of public opinion were excited and apprehensive. They feared that the British Government would act as it had done a quarter of a century earlier in 1914, impose the war on India, ignoring the provincial governments and public opinion and everything that had happened during this period, and make the war a cloak for suppressing such limited freedom as India had obtained and exploiting her resources without check.
But much had happened during this quarter of a century and the mood of the people was very different. The idea of a great country like India being treated as a chattel and her people utterly and contemptuously ignored was bitterly resented. Was all the struggle and suffering of the past twenty years to count for nothing? Were the Indian people to shame the land from which they sprang by quietly submitting to this disgrace and humiliation? Many of them had learnt to resist what they considered evil, and not to submit when such submission was considered shameful. They had willingly accepted the consequences of such non-submission.
Then there were others, a younger generation, which had little personal experience of the nationalist struggle and what it had involved, and for whom even the civil disobedience movements of the twenties and early thirties were past history and nothing more. They had not been tested in the fire of experience and suffering and took many things for granted. They were critical of the older generation, considering it weak and compromising, and imagined that strong language was good substitute for action. They quarrelled amongst themselves over questions of personal leadership or fine points of political or economic doctrine. They discussed world affairs without knowing much about them; they were immature and lacked ballast. There was good material in them, much enthusiasm for good causes, but somehow the general effect produced by them was disappointing and discouraging. Perhaps it was a temporary phase, which they would outgrow, which they may have outgrown already after the bitter experiences which they have since had.
Whatever the other differences, all these groups within the nationalist ranks reacted in similar fashion to British policy towards India during the crisis. They were angered by it and called upon Congress to resist it. A proud and sensitive nationalism did not want to submit to this humiliation. All other considerations became secondary.
War was declared in Europe and immediately the Viceroy of India announced that India was also at war. One man, and he a foreigner and a representative of a hated system, could plunge four hundred millions of human beings into war without the slightest reference to them. There was something fundamentally wrong and rotten in a system under which the fate of these millions could be decided in this way. In the dominions the decision was taken by popular representatives after full debate and consideration of various points of view. Not so in India, and it hurt.
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