Impact of World War I on the Alignment of Class Forces

The first world war, arising out of inter-imperialist conflict for redivision of world resources and territories, sharply exacerbated all the contradictions of Indian society. The principal contradiction — that between the emerging Indian nation and British imperialism — intensified as a result of a much greater drain of material wealth (a three-times increase in defence expenditure was secured by floating war loans and increasing rates of taxes) and of human resources (tens of thousands of Indians were drawn into the Army, often under coercion as in Punjab, and despatched to die in alien lands). Galloping inflation (the all-India price index, with 1873 as 100, rose from 147 in 1914 to 225 in 1918 and to 276 in 1919)[1] and acute shortage in food and other necessities of life were the two most glaring expressions of the sharpening of this contradiction, which provided an objective basis for the remarkable growth in the nationalist movement just after the war.

But the war affected different classes of Indian society in different ways and also sharpened the contradictions among them. Thus the land-owning class had to shoulder the least of the burden, for except in a few cases the land tax was not raised much, and the landlords reciprocated by assisting in the British war efforts : purchasing war bonds, helping recruit soldiers and so on. So the war further cemented the alliance between feudalism and imperialism. Diametrically opposite was the impact on the peasantry. They had to suffer from much slower rise in prices of agricultural commodities like raw jute, indigo etc. compared to manufactured items like salt, kerosene, cloth etc.; moreover, in soldier’s uniform it was mostly the poor peasant who died for an unknown cause. Landless peasants who had to buy foodgrains were worst hit, because prices of the latter — particularly of coarse grains like Bajra — rose tremendously whereas their earnings stagnated. No wonder, therefore, that the immediate post-war years saw a veritable spurt in peasant struggle both in radical forms (as exemplified by the Moplah rebellion in Malabar and the Rampa struggle led by Alluri Sitarama Raju) and in Gandhian channels as in UP.

As for the bourgeoisie, the war gave them cause for dissension as well as elation. They were aggrieved because of higher rates of income tax and the rule of filing individual returns (which brought large number of individual merchants within the scope of the tax), a super-tax imposed on companies and Hindu undivided family businesses, a temporary excess profits tax and certain other measures taken by the government during or just after the war. But the benefits far outweighed these difficulties. In the first place, the industrialists made exceptional profits owing to huge war orders, decline in foreign competition in many cases, more favourable terms of trade vis-a-vis agricultural products and some other factors. Thus the cotton textile industry based in Ahmedabad and Bombay benefited immensely from (i) slackening of competition from Lancashire products caused by a 7 percent import duty imposed in 1917 to meet the government’s financial needs (ii) massive orders for cloth needed for uniforms (iii) favourable price differential between cloth and raw cotton (export of the latter was hit by dislocation in world commerce, so prices did not rise as much as it otherwise should have) and (iv) further decline of handlooms due to prohibitive price of imported cotton yarn. Marwari merchants in and around Calcutta, who like their counterparts belonging to other areas and communities made fabulous profits out of hoarding, black-marketing etc., moved into the jute industry just after the war. The Tata Iron and Steel Company, floated in the days of swadeshi fervour (August 1907) and operative since 1911, got a boost during the war, and the Bhadrabati Iron Works came up in Mysore. The Indian advance into heavy industries was significant in that coupled with the high profits and the brief post-war boom, it installed a sense of strength and hope; and this was matched by a sense of class solidarity born of enhanced mobility of capital, the all India connections that developed amongst the bourgeoisie and common demands like reduction of tax rates. On the other hand, the British-Indian government came to recognise the strategic import of allowing a limited degree of industrialisation in India. Having crossed over from childhood to adolescence, the Indian bourgeoisie started dreaming of achieving self-rule step-by-step through pressures and bargains combined with help and understanding. Thus Gandhi and Tilak urged the Indian peasants to join the army in the hope that this loyalty will be rewarded by swaraj after the war was over. Said Tilak in 1918 : “Purchase war debentures, but look to them as title deeds of Home Rule.” (Both the leaders, like many others such as Muslim League’s Jinnah, had offered unconditional and total support to British war efforts as soon as it broke out in 1914). This was in perfect consonance with the maturing of British policy into a com­bination of accommodation of moderates (as symbolised by Montague-Chelmsford reforms of 1919[2]) and suppression of militants (the notorious Rowlatt Acts and the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre in the same year, for example).

Notes :

1. See Gandhi’s Rise to Power : Indian Politics, 1915-22 by Judith Brown, p125

2. A reform in the system of governance, whereby the electorate was enlarged and some small powers (e.g., departments of health, eduction, local bodies etc.) were given to ministries responsible to provincial legislatures while retaining effective control with the British Officialdom.

The long-term symbiosis of the British and the Indian bourgeoisie had thus begun, and this was clearly directed against the working class. The latter grew enormously in number : from a little over 21 lakhs organised workers (including those in plantations) in 1911 the figure reached near 27 lakhs a decade later, but real wages declined in most cases. In 1925 a delegation of the Dandee Jute Trade Unions calculated that over the ten years from 1915 to 1924, the Indian jute industry reaped a profit of “£300 million sterling, or 90 per cent of the wage bill. … A profit of £300 million taken from 3,00,000 workers in ten years means £1,000 per head. That means £100 a year from each worker. And as the average wage is about £12 10s. per head (per annum — Ed.), it means that the average annual profit is eight tunes the wage bill.”[3] To take another example, wages in Bombay textile mills rose only by some 15% or so as against an 80 to 100% rise in foodgrains prices between 1914-18, whereas the mill-owners made amazing profits (e.g., in 1918 the Century Mills made a profit of Rs. 22.5 lakhs on a capital investment of Rs. 20 lakhs and yet declined to concede a demand for 25% rise in wages plus a month’s salary as bonus). In the circumstances, the post-war years naturally saw both a quantitative and qualitative development in working class movement.

Such was the impact of the first world war on the major class forces and class relations in India. As for various sections of the petty bourgeoisie, they were hard hit by rising prices and other maladies. For instance, weavers were being routed by factories: production of cotton piece-goods in the handloom sector, which was slightly below that in the mill sector around 1913-14, came down to a third or a half of mill production around 1918-19. The educated urbanites saw the ravages of the war and developed greater affinities with poorer toilers. The more advanced among them, after a brief stint with patriotic terrorist activities which grew appreciably during the war but achieved little concrete results, were on the lookout for a new path of advance.

Upsurge in working class movement

The class that took most quickly to the path of struggle after the war was the industrial proletariat. Political leadership, however still belonged to the nationalists. Thus in March 1918 while the textile workers of Ahmedabad were agitating for the continuation of a plague bonus on the ground of heightened cost of living, Gandhi intervened on the request of the district collector who wished to avoid a showdown. Through a skilful combination of negotiation, strike and individual fast, Gandhi led the workers to victory : 35% rise in wages was achieved. From the last day of the same year, workers of the Century Mills in Bombay began a strike on the demand noted above. They actively mobilised more than a lakh of textile workers belonging to 83 nearby mills, who struck work from January 9, 1919 and held rallies. Next the strike spread to dock labourers, clerks of mercantile houses and Parel railway engineering workers. Tilak’s Home Rule League was then at the height of popularity, and some of his colleagues came forward to guide the workers along conciliatory lines. Ravindra Kumar in his “Bombay Textiles strike 1919” (see Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1971) has given an interesting account of how the struggling workers repeatedly ignored these gentlemen’s advice for moderation and how the strike was withdrawn on January 21 only after the Mill-owners’ Association was persuaded by the Bombay Police Commissioner to accept a 20% increase in wages as well as a special bonus.

As this struggle showed, the organised workers had started coming out of, if only partially, bourgeois and petty bourgeois domination. This process continued through the 1919-21 waves of strike. Here we may mention some of these just as specimens: the four-week strike by 17,000 odd workers of the Kanpur Woolen Mills in November-December 1919; the month-long textile strike in Bombay in early 1920 which quickly spread to almost all industries in the zone and at its height involved some 2 lakh workers; the month-long strike by approximately 40,000 workers of the Tata Iron and Steel Works in February-March 1920. Also there were strikes in Rangoon, Calcutta, Sholapur, Madras etc. In 1921 there were as many as 396 strikes in India, involving more than 6 lakh workers and leading to a loss of almost 70 lakh man-days. The sectoral reach of the strike wave was really extensive : apart from cotton textile, jute and railway workers, those in the Jharia coal-fields, Assam plantations, Calcutta tramways, Bombay Port and P & T and many others joined the battle. In most cases the strikes were on economic demands, but solidarity struggles and political strikes were not rare. Thus in the spring of 1919 the working class responded very positively to the call of hartal against the Rowlatt Acts. Then in May 1921 the East Bengal Railway workers of Chandpur struck work and in many ways supported the large group of Assam plantation workers who, while on an exodus back to their respective provinces as a protest against police reprisals at the plantations, were detained at Chandpur station and mercilessly tortured by the police. The most important political strike of the period took place on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of the Wales to India. The Prince set foot on Bombay on November 17, 1921 and the workers of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras staged a general strike in response to a Congress call of hartal. In Bombay the strike continued for six days and was accompanied by militant demonstrations which clashed repeatedly with the police and the army. Some 30 people were killed, 200 arrested and many more suffered serious injuries. Apart from strikes and street battles, workers instinctively adopted other forms too : for instance, during the anti-British upsurge following repressions in Punjab and the arrest of Gandhi, the textile city of Ahmedabad was practically “captured” by workers who wrought havoc with government properties for two days (April 11 and 12,1919) and the British troops could take the city back only after killing about 30 people and injuring hundreds.

Note : 3. Cited in India Today by R Palme Dutt, Manisha Granthalaya (Calcutta, 1970) pp 393-94

Just as the struggles of this period were incomparably more stubborn, broad-based and long-drawn than any time in the past, so the workers’ primary class organisation — the trade unions — came into their own with more or less regular subscriptions, membership rolls etc., which were absent in the earlier welfare type liberal labour organisations. Notable pioneers in the field included BP Wadia, TV Kalyanasundaram Mudalier and EL Iyer who organised the Buckingham and Carnatic Mill Workers’ Union in 1918-19; J Baptista, NM Joshi, SA Dange, RS Nimbkar, SS Mirajkar and KN Joglekar who were organising the textile and municipal workers in Bombay; Dewan Chaman Lall and MA Khan — active among railway workers in Lahore; Swami Viswananda who were organising the coal miners in Jharia and so on. The number of TUs rose quickly to more than 120 by the end of October 1920, when the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was born. Let us discuss here the major features of its formation.

First, at the grassroots real TU organisers were mostly left-leaning democrats, many of whom later became members or sympathisers of the CPI, but the political leadership from above came from the militant nationalists. Tilak was scheduled to be a vice-president but died before the inaugural conference and Lala Lajpat Rai was duly elected as the first president. Gandhi, of course, kept himself aloof. On the other hand, Mr. Shapurji Shaklatvala, a British communist leader, assisted in the work of organising the AITUC. Secondly, its base was fairly broad — representing some 5 lakh workers including 2 lakh miners. Thirdly, its inaugural session was held in Bombay — then the most advanced centre of organised working class militancy (its second conference also was held at a very important centre — Jharia of Bihar — when it was seething with strike action in November 1921). Fourthly, within the limits set by bourgeois nationalism, the leaders called upon the workers, most forcefully though not in clear-cut class terms, to fight for their rights and to organise themselves more effectively. This becomes evident from the speech made by Lajpat Rai as president and from the “Manifesto to the Workers of India” issued from the first conference and signed by Dewan Chaman Lall as general secretary — documents which contained much to enthral the worker audience and definitely marked an advance in working class movement[4].

In sum, the birth of the premier centre of trade unions in India symbolised the forceful entry of the Indian proletariat as a distinct class movement into the mainstream of broad anti-imperialist struggle; and the contradiction between its initial bourgeois-nationalist leadership and its militant proletarian base accurately reflected the objective balance of class and political forces in India in the immediate post-war period. How and to what extent this contradiction was resolved and the working class movement was integrated with scientific socialism — this we shall discuss in Part VI of the present volume.

Newwave of peasant struggles

Anti-feudal peasant struggles gained a notable momentum from the end of 1920 in different regions of India. In many cases they were more or less influenced by the non-cooperation and Khilafat movement (e.g., in the Oudh region of the United Provinces). Let us briefly mentior a few of these struggles.

The Oudh region of the United Provinces was the most important base of the Congress-sponsored Kisan Sabha movement. However, unbearable exploitation and oppression by the talukdars led the peasants to militant, often violent struggles under the leadership of Baba Ramchandra. During the first three months of 1921 houses and go-downs of talukdars and merchants were looted; there were also cases of people in their thousands fixing by force price-ceilings on essential items and other instances of popular outbursts. The authorities took fright and after arresting the Baba (who later complained of betrayal by Congress leaders), rushed through the Oudh Rent (Amendment) Act in March 1921. There was a decline in the struggle but towards the end of the year it resurfaced in certain other districts of the same region. Now it came to be known as Eka (Ekta or unity) movement. It started on the basis of tenant demands relating to rent, stoppage of eviction and forced labour, free use of tanks etc. The initial thrust came from the Congress and Khilafat leaders, but soon peasant militancy went beyond the confines of non-violence. Madari Pasi and other low caste leaders emerged, calling upon the peasants to kill British officials and drive the foreign rulers out of the land. Severe repression and finally the arrest of Madari Pasi in June 1922 brought the movement to a halt.

Note :
4. For details, see AITUC — Fifty Years, Documents, PPH, (New Delhi, 1973).

The famous Moplah rebellion in Malabar district of Kerala erupted in August 1921 as a sequel to a long series of earlier outbursts. Essentially it was a struggle of peasant-tenants against jenmis or landlords based on such grievances as high rent, no security of tenure, tenure renewal fees and other feudal exactions, but since the former were predominantly Muslims and the latter mostly Hindus, the struggle gradually took on clear communal colours. As in the UP experience just discussed, here also the beginnings were made (in mid-1920) as part of Congress-Khilafat movement, and national leaders like Gandhi and Maulana Azad had visited the region upto early 1921. But with the arrest of these and such other leaders in February, the struggle passed into the hands of local leaders who guided it along more militant lines. Some of them, like Kunhammed Hazi, who would punish any follower that unnecessarily attacked a Hindu, took care not to let the movement degenerate into anti-Hindu riots. The targets of attack were the jenmis, moneylenders, British planters, courts, police stations etc. “Khilafat Republics” were set up and existed for several months in a number of place in South Malabar. The British authorities declared martial law and intensified state terrorism, murdering more than 3000. At the same time, they instigated and coerced Hindus to act against the movement. This fanned the dormant anti-Hindu trend : forced conversions and communal killings started and grew quickly. By the end of the year 1921, the movement was crushed in a most savage manner.

The gumdwara reform movement, better known as the Akali movement, passed through various phases during the first half of the twenties, and it is difficult to describe it in a few sentences. Starting as a campaign led by the Shiromoni Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC, set up in late 1920) to take over control of Sikh shrines from corrupt, British-propped mohants who usually controlled large tracts of land, it developed into a tremendous mass upsurge of the Sikh peasantry against the feudal-imperialist alliance. More than 400 laid down their lives (some 200 of them in a single incident — the massacre at the Nankana gumdwara) and an estimated 30,000 were imprisoned for various terms. In July 1925 a legislation was passed handing over the management of all the Punjab gurudwaras to a newly elected SGPC.

Anti-British mass upsurge

Apart from the class and sectional struggles with more specific targets as discussed above, the immediate post-war years also a saw a new height of the general anti-imperialist movement. The gathering storm of 1918 burst out in March-April 1919 against that notorious license to savage repression — the Rowlatt Acts. In response to Gandhi’s call for hartal (general suspension of business) on Apri 16, “a mighty wave of mass demonstrations, strikes, unrest, in some cases rioting, and courageous resistance to violent repression in the face of heavy casualties, spread over many parts of India” — writes RP Dutt in India Today. Dutt then quotes from an official report to show the government’s worried amazement at what it called “the unprecedented fraternisation between the Hindus and the Moslems … even the lower classes agreed for once to forget the differences … Hindus publicly accepted water from the hands of Moslems and vice versa. Hindu-Moslem unity was the watchword of processions indicated both by cries and by banners. Hindu leaders had actually been allowed to preach from the pulpit of a Mosque.”

Dutt continues; “Extraordinary measure of repression followed. It was at this time that the atrocity of Amritsar occurred [the reference is to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, where 379 peaceful people were murdered and 1,200 injured by the British armed forces with a view to terrorising the people — Ed.]. … Gandhi took alarm at the situation that was developing. In view of sporadic cases of violence of the masses against their rulers which had appeared in Calcutta, Bombay, Ahmedabad and elsewhere[5], he declared that he had committed a blunder of Himalayan dimensions [in calling for a passive mass resistance against the Rowlatt Bills — Ed.]. … Accordingly, he suspended resistance in-the middle of April, within a week of the hartal, and thus called off the movement at the moment it was beginning to reach its height. …”[6]

Notes :

5. The Ahmedabad incident has already been mentioned on p 33; other incidents included – the derailing of a troops train at Nadiad and workers on strike setting fire to railway and police stations at Beeramgaon (both in Gujarat). Throughout Punjab, telegraph wires were snapped, railway lines were removed, stations and government buildings were set on fire and banks raided in an angry outburst against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

6. India Today, op. cit, pp 337-39

This characteristic Gandhian response to mass militancy, which would be repeated over and over again in the coming years, could not fully stem the tide of popular anger. In particular, workers and peasants continued their struggles, as we have seen before. Lajpat Rai, speaking in the special Calcutta session of Congress (September 1920), recognised the mood of the masses when he said: although “we are by instinct and tradition averse to revolutions”, a revolution has now become inescapable. It was under pressure of these circumstances that the Congress in its Nagpur session (December 1920) adopted a full-fledged programme of non-violent non-cooperation. The Congress organisation also was suitably strengthened for leading a mass movement. Throughout 1921 the non-cooperation movement, organically blended with the Khilafat movement[7] led by the Ali brothers, spread to the four corners of the country in a rich variety of forms. Students in their tens of thousands boycotted schools and colleges to join the “national” ones; lawyers including Congress leaders like CR Das, Motilal Nehru, Asaf Ali and others boycotted courts, bonfires were made everywhere of foreign cloth, picketing of shops selling foreign goods went on for days — in short, the swadeshi fervour was back at a more massive scale. Kfiadi and Charkha was taken up as a popular symbol of patriotism, self-reliance and national honour; Gandhi donned the famous loin-cloth and chadar to emerge as the saintly ‘Mahatma’ (meaning “great soul”). As narrated earlier, workers’, peasants’ and other popular movements grew apace largely under the impact of the non-cooperation-Khilafat movement.

The zenith was reached on the occasion of the visit of Prince of Wales, which had been arranged with an eye to reviving what the British fondly believed to be an inherent Indian ‘respect and love for the master’ and thus cooling the popular anger. But what happened was exactly the opposite. The Congress and Khilafat leaders called for boycotting the visit, and the whole country was up in arms. But this, especially the heroic struggle of the people of Bombay with workers in the frontlines, once again made Gandhi worried. Under his restraining influence, the Ahmedabad session of the Congress (December 1921) dropped the earlier reference to non-payment of taxes and dissolved without a specific plan of action, conferring all power of decision-making to Gandhi who was now declared the “dictator of Congress”. Next month Gandhi, under tremendous pressure from the Congress ranks and a number of leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose, threatened the unrelenting authorities with a mass civil disobedience campaign. The whole country was in full battle gear. But the “dictator” ruled otherwise. On the pretext of the Chauri-Chaura incident of February 5,1922, where struggling peasants burnt to death an atrocious police party, he suddenly called off the movement. Almost all Congress leaders were then in jail, from where they expressed their shock and dissent and urged reconsideration of the diktat, but in vain. The government which so far hesitated to arrest Gandhi, now felt confident to do that on March 10. The great movement slowly grounded to a halt, but not before opening up a great new era in India’s struggle for freedom. If the movement’s success lay in rousing the broadest sections of the Indian people into active politics, its failure, too, was highly significant in that it led the thinking sections to search for an alternative path. And an alternative path actually lay before them and beckoned to them — the crimson path of Bolshevik revolution, heralding a new dawn on earth.

Note :

7. This was a campaign of Indian Muslims for restoration of the full glory and authority of the Khalifa or Sultan of Turkey who was divested of his authority by the British after the war. For a communist analysis of this movement mads in early 1924, see Text VI-16.