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Towards freedom, the 1938 watershed

Print edition : Apr 01, 2000



Towards Freedom: Documents on the Movement for Independence in India, 1938, Basudev Chatterji (editor), Oxford University Press, Delhi, for the Indian Council of Historical Research, 1999, pp ccxviii plus 3,600 (in three parts), Rs.8,500.

IN the teeming bustle that was subcontinental India in 1938, which are the events that merit the label "history"? Of all that transpired across this vast land, which were the episodes that had a bearing on its movement - then quite beyond the reach of hu man foresight - towards the euphoria of Independence and the trauma of Partition?

Historical perception in India often being an amalgam of various degrees of blindness, a number of reservations are likely to be expressed about this manner of posing the question. Was Partition, for instance, integrally connected to freedom? Or was Inde pendence a signal triumph of the primeval solidarity of the "Hindu" nation and the vivisection of India the regrettable bargain that had to be made to secure the eviction of alien cultural strains? Were the events leading to Independence the fulfilment o f the Congress' manifest destiny as the ruling party for India, only disturbed by the obstreperous assertion of Muslim separatism by the diabolical Mohammad Ali Jinnah? Or was Muslim separation the inevitable outcome of a massive failure by the Congress, as the principal vehicle of a "composite" Indian nationalism, to connect with the Muslim masses?

Basudev Chatterji, editorial coordinator for the ICHR's ambitious documentary history of the decade before Indian Independence, was also in charge of compiling the material for the year 1938. He launches his excavations into that year with the promise th at he would like to take the reader on a "tour of India in 1938". It is not quite a random walk through uncharted territory that he has in mind, though he abjures any intention of guiding the reader in a particular direction and commits himself to the ob jective of covering "as wide a field as possible". The purpose, in other words, is to discover the authentic element in the making of Indian history, independent of contingent political biases. The only guides that Chatterji intends to use for the purpos e would be the character of the material that his team has been able to gather and "make sense of".

Although he starts with a pledge of objective selection, by implication Chatterji soon comes around to an admission of subjective choice. Documents have a life of their own, but the message they convey can be rendered in diverse ways. In principle, the c ardinal rule for a scholar ploughing through a thicket of historical documents should be to let them speak for themselves. And yet, no document pulled out of archival confines quite lends itself to interpretation in this sanitised, bloodless fashion. A h istorian excavating the documentary record is continually called upon to make choices. Which of the many facets of a document should he bring to public notice and which should he excise? What, in short, is the historical sensibility that he will bring to bear on his subject?

The 1930s represented a decade that exerted a formative influence on liberation movements across the world. Sharpening rivalries among imperialist powers, all enervated to some degree by the global economic depression, opened up a range of possibilities for popular movements in the colonial territories. Various models of change are evident from the decade, from mass insurgency to peaceful constitutional progress. India perhaps has been identified with the moderate end of this continuum, since the story of Indian Independence is easily rendered as one of prolonged and hard-fought constitutional reform. Beginning with the Municipal Councils Act of 1892 and continuing till the Government of India Act of 1935, the imperial government vacated authority at s uccessively higher tiers in the administrative hierarchy, allowing for an assumption of power by Indians.

When "Towards Freedom" was conceived as a project of the ICHR, the first problem it confronted was where to start. The immediate context for its initiation was the publication of a British compilation entitled The Transfer of Power. With a measure of arb itrariness, the British exercise began its chronicle of Indian Independence from January 1, 1942. This was chronologically a neat choice, in that it began with the first day of a calendar year, always a manageable point of departure in any process of mec hanical cataloguing. As a point of departure for live historical processes, though, this rather indeterminate choice of dates was seriously flawed. Its intent was little else than establishing a sufficient distance in time from the Quit India uprising of August 1942, which was the climactic act in the eviction of British imperialism from the subcontinent. And its limitation was that it focussed on the Indian freedom movement in a particularly fractious phase, to the extent that it became a record of how the enlightened British had renounced authority in favour of the representatives of the quarrelsome Indians.

For the Indian counterpart to this exercise the need was to put a more authentic construction on the events that led to the denouement - part triumph and part defeat - of Independence and Partition. In 1973, though, a committee of the Union government's Education Ministry seemed to suggest a more partisan intent. Outlining a conception of the "Towards Freedom" project, the committee recorded that "from India's point of view the intensification of the National Movement leading to the Transfer of Power be gan earlier (than 1942) with the advent of the new Government of India Act of 1935 conceding provincial autonomy but without any provision for a responsible government at the Centre. The triumph of the Congress in the 1936-37 elections was decisive. Hist orically, therefore, the year 1937 is the landmark from which events built up to a climax in 1947".

Fortunately though, "Towards Freedom" as a project soon graduated from this manner of official tutelage into a realm of scholarly autonomy. As Professor S. Gopal, the General Editor of the project, puts it in his introduction to Chatterji's compilation: "... one common aim of the series has been to avoid an exclusive preoccupation with 'high politics'..." This has meant that while the editors for each year have enjoyed considerable freedom in shaping their volumes, their common endeavour has been to pre sent "... within the limits set by the sources, documents relating to the activities, attitudes and ideas of the diverse classes and sections of Indian society, all of which contributed to the attainment of Indian independence with partition."

This locution is telling: Independence and Partition are not events opposed in their basic inspiration, but integrally conjoined in the nature of the "activities, attitudes and ideas" within Indian society. This almost seems to suggest that the Partition of the subcontinent was driven by 'mass politics' rather than 'high politics'. However, reading through Chatterji's own introduction to his volume and the documents he has diligently compiled, the impression one gets is quite the contrary: that Partitio n was a consequence of the failure of 'high politics' to connect to the masses. The history of 'high politics' reminds us that India won its freedom through successive phases, in which provincial autonomy granted under the Government of India Act, 1935 w as the penultimate one. Independence in 1947 was the next stage - an inference that is strongly suggested by the numerous points of convergence and similarity between the 1935 Act and the Indian Constitution of 1950.

But this was a transition that entailed conflict at several levels. Indeed, inter-community conflict attended every stage of India's progression towards freedom, beginning with the Municipal Councils Act of 1892. The dilemma was so acute that a writer in the Aligarh Institute Gazette in 1903 was prepared to give up all the benefits of modernisation for the sake of unity among Indians: "We do not like it, we do not enjoy the existing estrangement. If local self-Government has brought it about, curse on l ocal self-Government. If education has led to it, cursed be education and all its pompous pretension".

In other words, an enlightened Indian Muslim was in a moment of despair prepared to give up representative politics rather than endanger the fragile sense of unity among communities. Representative politics is by its very nature competitive. And in a co lonial context, where citizenship rights were rather ill-defined, political competition inevitably fell into the groove of supposed primordial loyalties. With rare exceptions, political organisations followed certain strict norms of exclusion, being prem ised upon membership of some denominational grouping, caste or religious order.

Only one organisation transcended these narrow bounds - the Indian National Congress. And the Congress' unique status arose from its character as a mass organisation that with Gandhi and Nehru at the helm could claim with reasonable credibility to speak for all Indians. There is then, all its tendentious qualities apart, a point in the official assertion that the assumption of office by the Congress in 1937 was a milestone in India's progress towards freedom. But Chatterji's compilation seems to suggest that the consequences arising from the Congress' assumption of office at the provincial level were of a mixed sort.

To begin with, as Chatterji's volume records, there were deeply divided counsels within the Congress on whether it should cooperate with the constitutional scheme put in place in 1935. The left-wing led by Jawaharlal Nehru was convinced that the reforms were a vacuous exercise which held little promise for the mass of Indians. The right-wing - partly in alarm at the agenda of social and economic transformation that the left-wing was unfurling - sought an accommodation with British imperialism by working the 1935 reforms. Gandhi himself - then, as always, a singular political entity who could not be categorised with any particular faction of the Congress - purported to see little significance in the debate over constitutional reforms. Rather, his emphas is was on building solidarities within civil society through what was called a "constructive programme".

Chatterji records Nehru's deep sense of disdain towards the revered leader's ideas: "He regarded Gandhi's 'constructive' work the 'kind of safe and pious activity' which could 'well be left to old ladies', and during his brief stint out of jail between J uly 1933 and February 1934, his articles, letters and statements forcefully advocated the need for a radical change of regime involving the destruction of British imperialism, stamping out of communalism, and the extinction of princely autocracy as well as of landlords and capitalists as a class."

Gandhi shared a deep sense of empathy with Nehru's objectives, but could not bring himself to endorse his methods. His purpose, as Chatterji interprets it, was two-fold: "To discipline the rising militancy of the left-wing so as to save the country from 'impending lawless and secret crime', and to get the movement to speak with one voice which would force the British to take the Congress as the sole representative of Indian opinion."

In the context of the growing tension between left and right, Gandhi conceded ground to the constitutionalists. His decision, as Chatterji records, came as a "bombshell" to Nehru. Gandhi's entire purpose in pursuing his "constructive programme" was to di vert the attention of Congressmen away from participation in the apparatus of power. But by early 1934 he had conceded defeat: "The ambition of those with a strong desire for Council entry, Gandhi explained to Nehru, had to be satisfied; by far better, h e wrote to Patel, 'for some one who daily eats jalebis in his imagination (to) eat the real thing and know the wisdom and folly of doing so'."

Once ensconced in office, the Congress was riven by fresh conflicts, which arose, as Chatterji says, from "the need to keep alive the symbolism of opposition to British rule while functioning in office". The performance of Congress Ministries in the prov inces became an issue of acrimonious contention between the left and the right. Towards Freedom, 1938 provides much of the documentation to understand the many dimensions of this debate and the diverse characters who animated it.

The singular message that emerges from a perusal of these documents is the failure of the Congress through its interlude in provincial authority, to establish a credible idiom of mass politics. The left-wing looked at the propagation of a radical economi c agenda and the bridging of the communal divide as conjoined activities. Its advocacy of a general amnesty for political prisoners and a far-reaching programme of civil rights and land reforms ran concurrently with its effort to build bridges with the M uslim community through "mass contacts". By September 1938, though, one of Nehru's close associates in the Muslim mass contact programme was virtually throwing up his arms in despair.

"Dear Panditji," wrote Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf on September 2, 1938, "With us here (India), especially during your absence, it is one long and painful record of frustrations. Practically all the socialists of the NWFP have been arrested. The Madras Govern ment has imposed the Criminal Law Amendment Act. The Bihar Government is going on merrily with their zamindar agreements and the kisan movement is coming in for repression. In C.P. they never get over their petty intrigues. Nearer at home in AICC office, Muslim Contact work and the Pol. And Eco. Departments have been formally abolished and I have practically no work to do... The Congress President has not even cared to visit us or given us any instructions wherever. I feel everyday that I am a parasite on the AICC funds and my life is being wasted... We have yet to create a basis for the socialist wing in the Congress."

Interestingly, after the miscued internationalism of the Khilafat movement, there is a new awakening of global consciousness in the Congress in 1938, with the Haripura session strongly deprecating the report of the Royal Commission on Palestine, which wa s a virtual charter for the dispossession of the Arab population. Particularly interesting in this context is a letter from the Nizam of Hyderabad to the Viceroy, pleading his indifference - as also of his subjects - to the Palestine issue. Jinnah for hi s part is reported by one of the provincial Governors as making "great play of the fact that he is doing all he can to damp down agitation" on the Palestine question. The assessment of the Intelligence Bureau, which was sufficiently alarmed by Nehru's op en espousal of the Palestine cause, was that the intention of the Haripura resolution was solely to promote the Congress' "Muslim mass contacts".

Chatterji's compilation also comprises interesting extracts on the evolution of new mass communications media like the cinema and the radio newsreel. The revival of traditional Indian art forms again is given its due status in the evolution of the new na tionalist consciousness. The growing salience of sports in the new nationalist spirit is also dealt with, though perhaps it is conceivable that the editor could have provided a more illustrative choice of documents than a Madras provincial minister's art icle making out a case for the energetic pursuit of western sports.

Part two of this compilation deals with the autonomy experiment in various provinces. This is a theme that is carried over into part three, which then proceeds with the documentation of the situation in the Indian princely states, including the struggle for "responsible government".

Authenticity in history writing demands that the past be isolated from contingent biases and predilections of the present. Yet the simple fact is that no recorded history is ever immune to continual challenge and revision. If isolation from contemporary concerns were to be a requirement of all history writing, then the discipline itself would cease to exist.

Far from being an excavation of dead facts from the past, history is a domain of perennial political contestation. Each construction placed upon the past is in turn tied up with the assertion of a social identity, a political ideal or a material claim in very contemporary circumstances. The test for authenticity would then lie in how universal a perspective a particular version of history provides. Subjectivity is always involved in a historian's choice of material. But given a sufficiently evolved sen sibility, his subjectivity is likely to win fairly broad endorsement and acceptance. Chatterji's compilation does great credit to the historian's craft and is a valuable addition to source material on India's freedom movement. If the other volumes in pro spect in the series manage to escape the wholly unnecessary political controversy that now shrouds them, the outcome would be a new benchmark for the assessment of future scholarship on the anti-colonial struggle - not merely in India, but globally.



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