What went wrong with Indian Independence?
Chapter 3: The Character of the Freedom Movement
There were divers streams in the freedom movement. It is true that the mainstream freedom struggle took place under the leadership of Gandhi and the Congress. But there is no historical basis to say that there were no other trends in the freedom movement and that all classes and castes had stood united to fight under the flag of the Gandhian Congress. There was a consensus throughout the country only about some broad notions such as that dependence and slavery are a disgrace; that the rule of foreigners coming from far away is not good for the people; that political slavery results in economic exploitation and impoverishment. But about the goals of the freedom struggle, its methods, its programme, its timetable, there were numerous ideological trends.
The firebrand nationalists
British dominion became established throughout the country. With it, the princes who had lost their dominion, the Thugs and Pindaris unhappy at the advent of the rule of law, in short, all those who had lorded over the country before the British came and their courtiers, satraps and caste-fellows were very fiercely opposed to the British. Along with them the jahagirdars and zamindars who were enraged at getting tied to the revenue system of the new government were also unhappy. Their grievance was not due to the nature of British rule but that they had lost power. Their hope was that once the white rulers were thrown out of the country, then, with none other capable of claiming political power, they could once again become paramount rulers. Why did the country become enslaved? Why had it remained so far behind in all the fields of Civic Life, Economics, Education, Science and Technology? Such problems were irrelevant to them. "We were and are in all ways and in every respect superior, and we shall remain so for all times to come. Bad times have come to us only through a cycle of fortune, a turn of the wheel of fate; once the British left all this misfortune will end": such was the understanding of this group. They were the fomenters of the 1857 revolt. Not only did the ordinary people not support the revolt, they were not even sympathetic to it. Even this coterie of feudalists could not present a united front. One could not be sure as to who among them would accede to power once the British were thrown out? Many of them felt it easier to offer their loyalty to the alien rulers.
Naturally, the revolt was smashed. However, the British were so disturbed by the revolt that the Queen herself gave a proclamation promising non-intervention in the Indian social system. The Company Sarkar had followed the policy of encouraging dalits and backward castes and consciously lessening the domination of brahmans and ksatriyas; its officials showed considerable zeal in suppressing customs like sati. This was ended by the Queen's proclamation, and the principle of non-interference was applied. The decision not to disturb the social order, not even for helping the oppressed sections to stand up, meant that the field was left open for the old high caste Hindus and thugs. The British administration was to emerge as a carbon copy of the hierarchy of the traditional social system. It would henceforward be dominated by the high caste Hindus. It became possible through studying two or three books to gain employment in the British bureaucracy. The new commerce and textile mills in cities like Mumbai and Calcutta also absorbed some.
The heirs of the former feudalists wished for much more than the benefits of the British raj. It was from this discontented upper caste community that the cults of bombs and pistols emerged. This was the background of the Radicals who agitated only for political independence, relegating social reform to an uncertain future. Thus emerged the nationalist tradition that ignored all economic and social action and tried through nationalist patriotic cacophony to drown the voices of the masses against the injustices and exploitation they faced. The Arya Samaj, Vivekananda, Hedgewar and his RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and Jan Sangh, and today the Bharatiya Janata Party, Shiv Sena, Vishwa Hindu Parishad etc. are all offspring of this feudal extremist nationalist tradition.
Even those who benefited from the British Raj had reason to be vexed. There was a large, powerful community that spoke English, used English education, technology, the commercial system and the industrial infrastructure to build up their infuence and rose to eminence in large cities like Mumbai, Calcutta and Madras. The members of this community felt that there was little likelihood that the Raj would end in any foreseeable future or that the British would grant full independence and quit the country. They were also convinced that the immediate departure of the British would not really be in the interest of the country. They honestly felt that the British Raj was a boon that had brought a regime of peace, security, justice and prosperity. This class could get little benefit from ending British rule or spreading terrorism through the cult of bombs and pistols. The community included English-educated gentlemen whose most cherished ambition was to get an invitation to the Governor's darbar or a banquet in a Collector's house and attend the same in full English evening costume. They had modest demands: there should be more places for Indians in the ICS examinations; the age limit for the examinations should be relaxed; they should be held in India in order to make it easier for young Indians to sit for them; revenue rates and taxes should be decreased; customs duties on imports should, in contrast, be increased; expenditure on the military should be decreased; and responsible legislative assemblies should be established to ensure popular representation. In short, this was a class with high hopes of obtaining increased power under the umbrella of British rule.
Congress was born out of this class. The activities of the Congress as well as its demands reflected the Moderates' aspirations. Assembling in some large city every year during Christmas vacation, the delegates deliberated in impeccable English, dressed in equally impeccable western clothes, sending memoranda to the government, hoping that in due course of time the Congress would get the stamp of approval, formal or informal, as a representative assembly. This was the style of the Congress.
The Viceroy himself agreed that there should be a forum that would work as an opposition party in the country. The government accepted and even implemented some of the demands in the numerous memoranda, but very soon started having some serious doubts about the representative character and the utility of the Congress. The outlook and aspirations of the majority of peasants were, in a way, closer to the programme of the Moderates. During the British rule the village artisan system declined to extinction, agriculture was crushed under revenue dues and debts. The upper castes, though deprived of political power, fortified their social and economic position. But the bahujan samaj, like the Moderates, had no special interest in seeing the British leave immediately. However, they felt greater affinity for the nationalist Radicals. The Moderates only organised meetings and conferences. The Radicals were at least fearlessly speaking out and writing against the alien government. Because of this they could win a growing sympathy among the people. A high caste feudal activist could become "lokmanya" as a leader of Telis and Tambolis. In Congress itself a joust started between Radicals and Moderates. The Moderate programme was, with a few changes, acceptable to the British power. In contrast, they were determined to use all means to break the entire Extremist movement -- and even so the popularity of the Radicals was rising.
The bahujan samaj
Moderates and Radicals together represented barely 5% of the population. The majority of the society, the farmers, artisans and labourers who were former shudras and untouchables, had neither protector nor leader. This bahujan samaj that had been ground down for generations under the tyranny of the caste system saw a ray of hope in the British Raj of breaking their shackles of slavery and finding a better life with the opening of education and economic opportunities. After the revolt of 1857, the traditional caste hierarchy had won a fresh lease of life in the proclamation of the Queen. The domination of brahmanas was incorporated into the British Raj. No one came forth to champion the cause of the artisans and farmers of the villages ruined by English commerce and land revenue. What was the political position of this section?
The rule of the British would not endure for eternity. Sooner or later, they would have to leave; but, thanks to the British, the doors of education are opening up to the shudras and ati-shudras. Only if the caste system was broken and inequality ended would a nation of unified people emerge. Only then would a true national freedom movement begin. Until that time, merely calling an organisation a "National Congress" would not cause a nation in the sense of a "unified people" to come into existence. There was no reason for the bahujan samaj to have any sense of oneness with an independence movement run by the vanguard of the traditional high caste communities, whether Moderates or Radicals. These sons of the high castes are misleading shudras and ati-shudras by spreading disaffection among them about the British and putting pistols and bombs in their hands. Swaraj would not be won by such methods, and even if it were won it would only be a new incarnation of the old "Peshwai" - caste rule in which the road to development and progress would be closed to the masses. These ideas were clearly put forward by such leaders of the bahujan samaj as Jotiba Phule.
The policy of those moderates who saw the British Raj as providential was not so different. The debate between Agarkar and Tilak over "social reform versus political reform" had the same basic theme. Later, severe doubts about the true intentions of the high caste leaders of the so-called national movement were also expressed in the Ambedkarite dalit movement. Very recently Arun Shourie has criticised Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar for his pro-British policy during the independence movement. Babasaheb's followers have condemned this criticism. This itself is a clear indication of the failure of Babasaheb's movement. Up to, at least, 1936 it was the position of the bahujan samaj as a whole that to agitate for independence before the caste system was uprooted and destroyed could not constitute a true national freedom movement, but was only a gimmick of native elites to secure bits and pieces of power from the hands of the white English. There is and was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in this position. Mahatma Phule put it cleanly. It is Babasaheb's misfortune that the Ambedkarites claim the heritage of Mahatma Phule but fail to show how the tenets of Babasaheb's freedom movement were different from those of Tilak and Nehru.
The advent of Mahatma Gandhi
Lokmanya Tilak was incarcerated for six years at Mandalay. This shattered the radical nationalist movement, but the Moderates could not take advantage of the downfall of the Radicals. A new freedom movement appeared to be gathering force. The new freedom movement would represent the vast majority of the oppressed, throwing aside both Moderates and Radicals. It was then that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. He did not form any new organisation for the freedom movement; rather, he entered Congress itself to stand up in the assembly of the suited and booted Congressmen. Gandhi repeatedly affirmed his faith in the British sense of fair play and justice. He built up a movement on tenets steeped in Indian tradition -- spiritualism, truth, non-violence, simple living. This was the cult of devotion at its highest and had a nation-wide appeal irrespective of caste divisions. At the same time, he put programmes for social reform and the economic welfare of the down trodden on the agenda, thus creating a huge awakening in the country. The Radicals lost their glamour and Congress became a movement rather than a conference of speechifying, anglicized gentry.
With the coming of Gandhi, Congress rose up with determination, went forth, blossomed and expanded. Thus triumphed the right wing of the high caste movement. The Radicals subsided, the Moderates won; but all this was only a mock tussle among the high-born. Due to Gandhi's halo, the movements of the bahujan samaj lost their appeal and began to fade out.
Under the leadership of Sardar Vallabhai Patel and others, Congress created an awakening among peasants. It reached out to adivasis. Finally, it became impossible for the movement of the bahujan samaj to maintain its momentum and its leaders joined the national mainstream of the freedom movement at the Faizpur Congress (December 1936).
Gandhian spiritualisation of politics may or may not have worked with the British rulers or the Muslim leaders. It certainly silenced for half a century the voice of the subaltern Hindus. In the Gandhian mainstream of the freedom movement, the two streams, that of the bahujans and that of the high castes, never really came together. Even though many prominent leaders of the bahujan samaj joined Congress, leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar distanced themselves from the Congress mainstream and confronted the Congress and Mahatmaji himself in polemics and on the ground. Muslims, as a community, remained deeply skeptical of Gandhism. The majority of Muslims also got alienated from the freedom movement. This finally resulted in the partition of the country and the creation of Pakistan.
The transfer of power
The satyagraha of 1930 was unsuccessful. Gandhi was in a dilemma, searching for some new direction, keeping Congress activists involved here and there in the responsive satyagraha and constructive programmes, hoping to see some light in the midst of surrounding darkness. At this time, the waves of socialist ideology began to blow in India and a new leadership appeared to emerge, keen on resolving the problems of the masses on the basis of a socialist ideology and programme. As the clouds of World War II gathered and the storm broke, the socialist movement was divided and sidetracked by the need felt by some to support the British as an ally of the Soviet Union
The great war erupted. The British could win victory in it, but the British lion lay prostrate, exhausted in the effort. It became clear that the empire in India could no longer be run through the Indian elite. If the Raj were to be maintained it would be necessary to keep hundreds of thousands of British soldiers and citizens here, and even then, even at such a terrible cost, the Raj would not endure for long. The British decided to leave the country and return home.
At the time of transfer of power, Congress had, it is true, recognition as the representative of the majority of people. But Congress itself was a mixture of numerous streams of urban, commercial, industrial, landlord, peasant, Gandhian and socialist thinking. A new movement based on protecting the interests of the masses, supremely indifferent to fruitless debates on violence and nonviolence, and influenced by socialist thought, had sprouted in the 1942 campaign. The British realised that if Gandhism collapsed then very rapidly a socialist bahujan movement would proliferate, and then it would be very difficult to have a peaceful and orderly transfer of power. It was thus in the interest of the British to partition the country and give power in India to the anglicized elite of the Congress.
Gandhi - The first victim
Independence came; Pandit Nehru became prime minister. Power fell to a leadership that was English in everything but the colour of their skin, a leadership represented those that had achieved wealth, knowledge and power under British rule. Now, this urban elite no longer required the support of Mahatma Gandhi's popular movement. Godse ended Gandhiji's life; immediately after that Nehru started subverting Gandhi's economic and political thinking. Rather than giving priority to agriculture and village industries and panchayat raj institutions, the country began to move towards a system dominated by urban industries with total power concentrated in the hands of the state – a system of "brahmanic socialism." And, within fifty years, the country came to brink of calamities.
The bahujan samaj, which had been enslaved for thousands of years, had at least three opportunities during the British Raj to organise and improve their position, but each of these occasions was lost. Once the benefit of the liberal policy of the Company Sarkar began to appear, the revolt of 1857 burst into conflagration. With the retreat of the British rulers from commitment to social reform, the bahujan samaj was pushed backward. After the Extremist movement crumbled, the bahujan samaj movement could have arisen, but this opportunity was also lost when Gandhi's mixture of nationalism and social reform within the framework of a traditionalist spiritualism came to influence the country and rejuvenate the Congress. Finally, due to the eruption of World War II, the socialist bahujan movement was sidetracked and uprooted. When independence came, just as Jotiba Phule had predicted, it came as a new form of the Peshwai. The black British took the place of the white British. Though they had come to power on the basis of a Gandhian-dominated Congress, they could not digest a Gandhian village-based economic system. Consequently, once they had power in their hands, under the name of socialism, the anglicized Congress casually threw away the mask of Gandhism. After independence the new avatar of "brahmanic socialism" descended on the subcontinent and a chain of calamities ensued.
A review of the various streams and their internal contradictions in the freedom movement would give some idea how difficult inning evaluation of 50 years of Independence would be. An analysis of post-independence downfall requires a strict discipline including three precautions. The diagnosis should not be tricky-tracky and there should be some assurance that if the identified ill is taken care of the nation can get out of the present difficulties. The evaluation exercise should not be inhibited by considerations of personality cult. And finally, whenever necessary even the freedom movement should not escape close scutiny so that the causes of downfall may be better understood.