Comintern Debates And The Indian Reality

We have already surveyed the Indian scene upto February 1922, i.e., upto the withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement on the pretext of Chauri-Chaura. To the enthused fighters this came as a rude shock, but actually there was nothing sudden about it. As RP Dutt[1] showed, the retreat was being contemplated since the days of the Ahmedabad session itself (December 1921). Clearly the Congress leadership, representing first and foremost the interests of Indian landlords and capitalists, was finding it increasingly difficult to digest the broad sweep of people’s movements. That was why the Bardoli resolution calling off the movement resented not only Chauri-Chaura but also the “hooliganism” of working class in Bombay and elsewhere, emphatically and repeatedly forbade non-payment of taxes and sought to allay the fears of zamindars. After the tragic withdrawal, utter confusion and demoralisation set in within and without the Congress organisation, its membership nose-dived and the great communal amity achieved during the non-cooperation-Khilafat movement yielded place to large scale riots (Delhi, Calcutta, Dacca, Rawalpindi and many places in UP). Without a doubt, this classic case of class betrayal proved a point Roy was repeatedly emphasising, viz., the utterly compromising character of the national leadership and the great harm it had done to the movement.

But there was another side to it which Roy recognised abstractly, yet failed to draw political conclusions from. This was the aspect of continuation of struggle, though at a lower pitch, in changed forms and often at the instance of other sections of the leadership. Thus after the collapse of non-cooperation and imprisonment of Gandhi the very next month, there arose within the Congress the Swaraj Party which opted for a new form of struggle: entering the legislative assemblies to expose their limitations, block their functioning and thus wreck them from within. Since this envisaged a change of the tactic of boycotting elections and the councils so far pursued by the Congress, this new pressure-group of old Congressmen like CR Das and Motilal Nehru came to be known as “pro-changers”. Orthodox Gandhians who opposed this move — such as Vallabbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad — began to be called “no-changers”; they advocated devoting all energy to Gandhian “constructive work”. The Swarajists quickly gained prominence within the Congress despite an initial opposition from Gandhi, who then made a compromise and in 1925 handed over the organisational reins of Congress to the former, himself setting up an “All India Spinners’ Association” to concentrate on constructive work.

Both these wings of Congress carried on work in their respective fields. The Swarajists scored resounding successes in the elections, held in November 1923, to the Central Legislative Assembly (winning 42 out of 101 elected seats) and the Provincial Assemblies in Bengal, Central Provinces, UP and Bombay. Now the legislatures had, after the reforms introduced under the Government of India Act, 1919, a majority of elected members in them, but no control on the executives, which were responsible only to London. Besides, the Governors (in the provinces) and the Viceroy (at the Centre) had full power to certify and pass any bill, including a budgetary grant, even if it was rejected in the legislature. The Swarajists formed blocs with like-minded groups and individuals in the legislatures and embarrassed the government by compelling it to resort to this supposedly exceptional measure as a rule. Government proposals, particularly the demands for budgetary grant, were repeatedly voted out, and Vithalbhai Patel, the leader of the Central Assembly, curtly told the government on one such occasion : “We want you to carry on the administration of this country by veto and by certification. We want you to treat the Government of India Act as a scrap of paper which I am sure it has proved to be”.[2] Apart from this scathing exposure of dyarchy, the Swarajist legislators used their oratorial powers to propagate the causes of (i) constitutional reform towards self-government, (ii) civil liberties including release of political prisoners and (iii) development of indigenous industries.[3] Regularly reported in newspapers, these obstructionist activities and speeches kept the political atmosphere alive, at least for the educated. Before long, however, deviations like hankering after official patronage and status were to be noticed, and there emerged a “Responsivist” trend which opted for a policy shift from the original aim of obstructing government work to acceptance of executive posts. The prestige and appeal of Swarajists declined, and they fared not so well in the 1926 elections.

Notes :

1. See India Today, op. cit., pp 346-53

2. Cited in Role of Central Legislature in the Freedom Struggle by Monoranjan Jha, (New Delhi, 1972); p 82

3. This effort succeeded in securing discriminating protection for Tata Steel in 1924 and helped to further develop the links between Indian capitalists and the Congress.

The “no-changers” were in the mean time either conducting localised satyagrahas or carrying on rural constructive work. Of the former, the more important ones were : at Nagpur, against a local order banning the use of Congress flag (mid-’23); at Borsad in Gujrat, against a poll-tax imposed ostensibly to support the cost of special police measures against dacoities (1923-24); at Travancore, for allowing low-caste Ezhavas and untouchables to approach the Vaikom temple (1924-25). Of these, the Borsad satyagraha, led by Vallabbhai Patel, was the most successful. As regards constructive work, the main items were promotion of khadi and other cottage crafts, relief work during floods and famines, setting up national schools, anti-liquor campaigns, primary education and other social work among Harijans and low castes and so on. To be sure, these were ineffective in providing real solutions to the burning economic and social problems, but they greatly extended and solidified the social base of the nationalist bourgeoisie — as bourgeois reforms always and everywhere do — and this was proved later when the areas of intensive constructive work (Kheda and Borsad areas in Gujrat, for example) came up as solid Congress bases during the next wave of pitched battles (1930-34).

In this way, shortly after crying halt to the militant mass movements, the Congress through its two mutually complimentary streams of activities were preparing the ground for the next round of fight. This point Roy missed miserably. He correctly stated that the compromise between imperialism and the national bourgeoisie might turn into struggle in future (see Text II-8), but failed to realise that often struggle resided within compromise in a changed form, and hence it was necessary to render positive, albeit critical, support to the nationalist movement even during its phase of compromise and decline. Therefore, the Fifth Congress directive that the ECCI should maintain direct relations with national liberation movements as a whole appears to be quite correct in the light of Indian experience; the same is true also regarding the general thrust of the Second to Fifth Congress decisions. The Indian case was particularly prospectful because the National Congress was more a movement than a party, and in the various phases of development it had to accommodate more to less conspicuous left trend and personalities that were more amenable to radicalism or communist influence. The Bolshevik revolution had been immediately hailed in no uncertain terms by Tilak (January 1918 — in Kieyari), Bipin Chandra Pal (in a speech in 1919 where he firmly supported the policies and measures of the Soviet State) and Lajpat Rai (in the President’s speech to the first AITUC conference in October 1920). This pro-Soviet left wing within the Indian national movement would later be taken over and developed by Jawaharlal Nehru, and this would remain a long-term challenge as well as invitation to communists for united front work.

We shall return to the theme later; we shall also take up an assessment of Roy’s theory on industrialisation in colonial India at an appropriate place. For the present, let it be noted that the last of the Comintern deliberations so far discussed i.e., those of the Fifth Extended Plenum, (Text II-13) gave a fairly correct appraisal of the Indian political scene in 1925. The “big bourgeois parties” refer mainly to the “Indian Liberal Federation” set up in 1918 by breakaway “moderates” from the Congress and also to the loyalist “Independents” and those who, from within and without the Swaraj Party, advocated “responsive cooperation” with the British government by accepting offices in legislatures. As against this right extreme, the left pole of “revolutionary mass movements” was represented by communists. In between, there were the “small centre groups” into which the Swaraj Party was then “tending to decompose” after more than a year of empty speeches at legislatures — a process that was more or less completed in June 1925 with the death of CR Das. The differentiation of political forces of the bourgeoisie was, however, hi a very fluid state and therefore extremely confusing. There was no consistent group comparable to Sun Yat-Sen’s in China, and Stalin’s clear-cut division of “a revolutionary fraction and a compromising or reformist fraction” never showed up in the shape of distinct political parties or groupings. In fact, the comparatively left elements that emerged from the small and middle bourgeoisie were, for all their occasional outbursts against Gandhian compromises, successfully kept within Congress confines. This was true not only for the period upto 1925 but for the entire history of colonial India. The correct Comintern slogan of broad anti-imperialist united front, therefore, remained a particularly complicated task for the Indian communists. All the same, they addressed themselves quite seriously to this task.