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Of ‘Kranti’ and Complicity

Indian elite complicity explains the longevity of British rule over India.

The Hindutvavadi nationalists in power now claim to speak for the people of India and tell them what they believe they ought to know and feel. The Congress nationalists, when in power, could and did do the same for a long time. Their history textbooks made children believe that under the leadership of M K Gandhi, the Congress party mobilised the people en masse to oust the British. But did this national movement really evict the British from India? One attempt at forcing the British to quit was made in August 1942. But 75 years later, ignoring public memory of 8 August 1942, the day Gandhi and the Congress launched the Quit India Movement, India’s biggest English-language daily, the Times of India, gave its op-ed space to a Hindutvavadi ideologue, Rakesh Sinha, on 9 August 2017. He claimed that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) “participation in Gandhian movements did not annihilate its instinct and ambition to overthrow colonial rule by armed revolution.” And, he did not forget to add the usual bit about the “treacherous role” of the communists “in the freedom movement.”

Why be bothered by what people like Sinha write or say, one might ask? We think one should, because, as far as the force of opinion on public action goes, individual reason often gets dwarfed by the influence of power, more so now with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sponsored by Indian big business, dispensing the loaves and fishes of office. An awareness of the biases of the regimes in power is a necessary condition for arriving at the truth.

One cannot possibly engage in an historical reconstruction of 1942, or the 1940s over here, more so because this would require a presentation of one’s historical perspective relevant to the events of those times. The context is of World War II, fascist occupations elsewhere, and fear of an imminent Japanese invasion of India. Expectedly, the British colonial power, in a pre-emptive swoop, arrested the Congress leaders on 9 August 1942 and put them in jail for the next three years, and in a matter of three weeks, crushed the main force of the movement in the cities. The militancy then shifted to the countryside; railway and telegraph lines were uprooted/snapped, police posts attacked, and government buildings burnt, especially in the United Provinces and Bihar, and the government deployed the army. In a few places, for instance, Midnapore in Bengal, Satara in Bombay Province, and Talchar in Orissa, the rebels set up parallel governments, and revolutionary terror tactics of resistance continued sporadically up to 1944.

Mass anger and disgust against British rule was at a peak in 1942, and so it is not surprising that the “Quit India” Movement was violent right from the very beginning, taking the karenge ya marenge (do or die) slogan earnestly. The Congress leadership was forced out of the way of the masses by the pre-emptive arrests because of which the Congress organisation could not intervene to condemn, denounce and put an end to violent rebellion. It was only when Gandhi was released from jail in May 1944 that he began to condemn the underground movement and called upon the rebels to surrender.

Indeed, complete elite control over the participating masses was a precondition in the Non-Cooperation Movement (NCM, 1921–22) and the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM, 1930–34 with breaks in between), the two other all-India mass movements against British rule that were initiated by the Congress. As is well known, when violence erupted in Chauri Chaura, the NCM was called off; and “peaceful rebellion” was a precondition of the CDM, with no-rent campaigns against the landlords—dependent allies of the colonial power—simply not permitted.

Nationalist history textbooks notwithstanding, the British were not evicted from India. But they did recognise the writing on the wall with the advent of the Quit India Movement, the (albeit, misguided) militant nationalism whipped up by Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA, taking help from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to rid India of British rule), the post-war massive strikes in the cities, the mutiny of the Indian ratings of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), the spreading disaffection in the Indian ranks of the British Indian Army and the police, and the Tebhaga and Telangana peasant movements led by the Communist Party of India (CPI).

What about the revolutionary nationalist claims made on behalf of the Hindutvavadis now in power? Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Jan Sangh and held in great reverence by the BJP, was finance minister in the Bengal government when the Quit India Movement was launched and the then particularly oppressive governor, John Herbert, ordered the provincial government to crack down on it or resign. Instead of resigning, Mookerjee tried to figure out how the government might “combat (our emphasis) this movement in Bengal.” He even remained a minister in the Bengal government while Midnapore was being brutally suppressed. As for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (designated “Veer” Savarkar), he accepted humiliating conditions without any compunction to secure his release from prison. After getting the Congress government of Bombay Province to remove these conditions, he became president of the Hindu Mahasabha. In September 1942, Savarkar issued a Mahasabha edict to all its members of the municipalities, legislatures and government services to “stick to them and continue to perform their regular duties,” this when the real militants of the Quit India Movement were urging the exact opposite.

As for the RSS, and Sinha’s claim of “its instinct and ambition to overthrow colonial rule by armed revolution,” the Bombay Province home department observed that “The Sangh has scrupulously kept itself within the law, and in particular, has refrained from taking part in the disturbances that broke out in August 1942.” In any case, during those times the RSS was overshadowed by the Hindu Mahasabha, and ego clashes between Savarkar and the RSS sarsangchalak (supreme leader), M S Golwalkar precluded the possibility of any alliance of the two. (The main reference for this and the previous paragraph is A G Noorani’s The RSS and the BJP, Chapter 3, “The Sangh Parivar and the British.”)

What of the CPI and its alleged “treacherous role”? The CPI’s opposition to the Quit India Movement was a fatal mistake, but it was based on certain principles of internationalism in the anti-fascist struggle, especially after the formation of “popular fronts.” Moreover, at the time, a fascist victory seemed likely, and there was the mortal fear of a Nazi “final solution.” The CPI also considered the timing of the Quit India Movement, not without reason, totally off the mark. Nevertheless, the internationalist principles in the anti-fascist struggle could have still been adhered to but with an adaptation of the conception of the “popular front” that took account of the colonial context. Supporting a hated colonial power that had nevertheless allied with the Soviet Union in the anti-fascist war did involve the anguish of choosing the lesser evil to fight the greater evil. Inner conflict, yes, but “treachery,” certainly not. The CPI was—we must keep in mind—severely persecuted, and even banned over longer periods during British rule than any other political party, except the revolutionary terrorist ones.

To speak the truth, the longevity of British colonialism in India owed a lot to Indian elite complicity—the support of powerful Indian politicians of various hues, at times even as junior partners in the British-controlled colonial state; the collusion of Indian big businessmen, landlords, top Indian government personnel, including Indians in the British Indian Army and the police, and the princes. Nationalist historiography, however, stresses British repression rather than Indian elite complicity. And, more lately, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has claimed, in his first speech in the Lok Sabha, on 11 June 2014: “1,200 saalo ki ghulaami ki maansikta Hindustaniyon ko pareshaan karti rahi hai” (Colonial subjugation over 1,200 years has plagued Indians). Perfectly in line with colonial historio­graphy, the “Muslim civilisation” period is depicted in terms of “despotic tyranny,” in sharp contrast to the earlier “Hindu civilisation,” portrayed as 2,000 years of a “golden age,” and there is not even a murmur of protest or argument in Parliament. The long-drawn struggle between the receding Congress brand of “secular” nationalism and the advancing Hindutvavadi nationalism seems to have moved quite decisively in favour of the latter.

Updated On : 11th Aug, 2017


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