Losing the jewel

September 1997, U.K.

Fifty years ago this month Britain relinquished control over the Indian sub-continent. It was the start of a thirty-year period in which European imperial powers progressively withdrew from direct rule of their overseas possessions.

It had been accepted as far back as 1833 that India would at some stage advance to self-government. The British practice of granting former colonies self-rule and Dominion status encouraged Indian nationalists to believe that India would follow. In the meantime various measures of “Indianisation” such as the Indian Councils Act of 1861 gave the elite some say in the running of Indian affairs.

The Indian National Congress (subsequently abbreviated to Congress), founded in 1885 by an Anglicized elite, at first campaigned for examinations for entry into the Indian Civil Service to be held in the sub-continent as well as in Britain. They also pressed to have more elected members on the legislative councils of the central and provincial governments in India. Unrest arose among those who studied but failed to gain the positions to which they aspired in government administration. But it was not until 1906 that Congress started to demand self-rule for India as a means of obtaining more control over Indian affairs, and to gain access to government employment. In common with other independence movements organised resistance to foreign domination in India originated not with the peasant masses (although they were subsequently mobilised to that end) but from classes educated in Western ways.

Westernised elite

British occupation of India, while destroying some native industry, had stimulated the rise of a new class of native industrial and commercial capitalists. The development of communications gave easier access to markets and encouraged the commercial development of cotton, jute and other non-edible cash crops produced for sale. Indians also entered professions such as the law as a means of social advancement. These groups formed the backbone of the nationalist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They advocated self-rule for India as a means of progressing their economic class interests. Unable to meet free-trade competition, Indian industrialists sought protection to exploit home market potential behind tariff barriers against British trade. This policy split them away from the landed aristocracy who had allied themselves with British rule in part as a protection against rural unrest and uprisings

The first world war brought with it far-reaching economic and social change as the European colonial powers utilised their possessions for the raw materials and manpower necessary to wage war. India provided one-and-a-half million troops to defend the interests of British capitalists and their experiences inevitably coloured their outlook. The war had an impact on the price of goods and foodstuffs which rose faster than incomes. Further hardship resulted from the increase of taxation on the peasantry.

At the end of the war the westernised elites began demanding rewards for the sacrifices made. A number of reforms were enacted which provided for direct elections to the legislatures. However the property and education qualifications restricted the electorate to some seven million voters only, i.e. three percent of the population. More importantly Britain retained absolute control over key areas such as finance and the police. This was clearly seen by the Indian nationalists as a sop by the British who hoped to buy off their more radical demands. When it came to the push the British showed how far they were prepared to go if necessary to defend their interests in India. On 13 April 1919 a meeting of protest at British occupation was fired on by British troops. The firing continued for ten minutes and only ceased when the ammunition ran out. The Amritsar massacre left 400 dead and 1,200 injured.

Richer peasants

During the 1920s the nature and composition of Congress changed. It became a mass party with a largely rural base. Membership fees were deliberately kept low to encourage recruitment which proved very successful. One police official reported that the old Congress intelligentsia had been “swamped in a mass of semi-educated persons”. In this period Congress policies proved attractive to the richer peasants. These were people who owned ten or more acres of land, and who grew cash crops and employed landless peasants as wage labour. Their interests lay in proposed measures of land reform intended to break up and redistribute the larger land holdings of the aristocracy. It was the alliance of the industrialists and this potential class of agricultural capitalists that made Congress the important force it was.

Gandhi’s economic ideas did not threaten their interests. His espousal of swadeshi–the use of things from one’s “own” country with neighbours supplying economic wants–emphasised local production. It was a “buy Indian” policy in which foreign goods were boycotted. Imports of British cotton fell by more than half while Indian production and sales were unaffected. He aimed at a revival of the traditional Indian village community–a return to an idealised pre-capitalist past which proved attractive in a society experiencing the disruptive extension of the cash economy and the contraction of previously communally owned land.

Between 1921 and 1941 grain production per head fell by more than a quarter. At the outbreak of the second world war the majority of Indians had less to eat than their forebears. An analysis which blamed British rule, rather than the economic organisation of society, for the poverty and suffering the vast majority experienced won mass support and a willingness to make sacrifices for their beliefs. Under the influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi the new-style Congress put into effect a number of campaigns of non-co-operation with the British authorities. Demonstrations, rioting and the burning of symbols of oppression such as police stations took place.

The deaths that occurred during this period of unrest caused Gandhi to call off the campaign. Congress renewed its campaign of civil disobedience in March 1930 when Gandhi deliberately invited arrest by publicly breaking the government monopoly of the production of salt. Many Congress members followed his example and in the 1930s 130,000 had served terms of imprisonment. In January 1932 the British government outlawed Congress and imprisoned its leaders following the breakdown of talks. Realising that civil disobedience was merely an annoyance to the British, and that political power could be won through the ballot box, Congress returned to contesting elections. This led to an increase in membership which rose to 4.5 million in 1939, the majority coming from the ranks of rich peasants and small and middle landlords.

Congress split over support for Britain on the outbreak of war in 1939, the supporters of Gandhi instigating a “Quit India” campaign which radicalised the independence movement and led to another banning and jailing of 60,000 members. The subsequent revolt in the countryside took 80 battalions of British troops to put down and involved beatings, torture, burning of property and collective fines.

Muslim businessmen

As a divisive measure the British had in 1905 encouraged the formation of the Muslim League made up of aspiring Muslim businessmen fearful that the majority Hindu population might swamp them and their interests. The League now offered support and co-operation to the British, as a means of advancing their interests, and furthering their particularist demands. It became clear that the main question was how to grant independence without dividing the country along religious lines. It was a question that failed to be resolved. Negotiations became deadlocked and both Hindu and Muslim factions used the hiatus in proceedings to whip up the fear and hatred which had for year simmered beneath the surface of Indian life.

Coming to power in 1945 the British Labour Party had no policy worked out regarding the Empire, a subject which had not been mentioned in their election manifesto. Indeed at their 1943 Annual Conference a resolution had been passed which declared that colonial peoples were not ready for self-government. As a result they acted pragmatically in response to circumstances. In India Wavell, the Viceroy, commented on the psychological effects of revolts in French Indo-China (Vietnam) and Indonesia which had produced a situation “more dangerous than at any time in the past ninety years”. Influential public opinion in Britain was also changing and according to The Times, London (18 September 1945) “the entire practice of the rule of one race by another” was now “discredited”.

By 1945 British economic interests in India were considerably less than they had been. In 1900 British goods represented 69 percent of Indian imports but in 1945 the figure was less than 20 percent. In 1870 India had sent 53 percent of its exports to Britain while in 1945 only 28 percent of its exports were. Although still of some importance to the British economy India did not play as important role as, for example, Malaya which was a dollar-earner useful in the support of sterling. During the inter-war depression the value of exports to India had fallen by half, foreign penetration and import substitution contributing to the decline. On balance it was no longer worth the cost of attempting to further delay the granting of independence–better to pull out as gracefully as possible and try and maintain links with a new leadership which still had some sympathy and respect for things British.

Change of exploiters

Independence solved none of the problems resulting from exploitation. Indian governments were wedded to the same set of priorities and subject to the same constraints as any other capitalist government. Poverty in the midst of a potential for plenty remains a running sore, exploitation and massive disparities of wealth continue to exist, war with Pakistan claimed the lives of those with no class interest in the outcome, environmental degradation continues virtually unabated.

Improvements in agriculture (mainly due to the “Green Revolution” which benefited the richer farmers who could finance the necessary inputs) means that India is “self-sufficient” in food production. It also means that India has suffered the “problem” of plenty since independence. In 1968 for example there was a massive pile up of wheat in Punjab and Haryana provinces where 200,000 tonnes of wheat worth Rs 180m lay rotting in the open for lack of adequate storage facilities. (Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 June 1968.) In 1974 the province of West Bengal suffered the worst famine since 1943–this time the cause was “not outright lack of food, but that the poor have no money to buy it” (Observer, London 13 October 1974). The larger farmers, hoping to profit by high prices, refused to pay landless labourers in kind. It was said that the cash wages paid to some 20 million “are so low that they cannot afford to buy rice at current prices” (The Times, London, 18 October 1974).

Great Britain’s period of rule in India can be seen as a period of arrested economic development, but the subsequent period of “Five Year Plans” for economic self-sufficiency have only been partially successful. Projected growth rates failed to materialise. Business and industry now account for one-third of national income compared to 5 percent in 1947. Of the 70 percent still engaged in agriculture, half suffer from poverty and malnutrition and many have been subjected to harassment and evictions to make way for commercial agriculture. The number of landless labourers increased from 17 percent in 1961 to 26 percent of the population (37 percent of the rural labour force) in 1971 when Mrs Gandhi was campaigning on the slogan “get rid of poverty”. Reforms intended to put a ceiling on the size of land-holdings have been subject to legal challenge and evasion by subterfuge and have proved ineffective.

It can be seen in retrospect that independence for the vast majority of the people of India has simply meant the exchange of one set of exploiters for another. As we pointed out in this journal and elsewhere in the years prior to 1947, independence would solve no peasant or working-class problems, only the establishment of Socialism could do that. In 1935 we wrote “Now is the time for those in India who really desire Socialism to strike a blow for it by preparing the way for the genuine Socialist Party of India, which has yet to be formed” (Socialist Standard, February 1935). Such a party now exists, and we welcome our comrades in India and join with them in the work that needs to be done before the system that exploits us all can be brought to an end.

Author: Gwynn Thomas

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