Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
THE second session of the Indian Round Table Conference was held in London during the autumn of 1931. In bringing its proceedings to a close on December 1, the Prime Minister summed up the work done and made a declaration of policy on behalf of the National Government which had been returned to power with an immense majority at the October elections. Earlier in the year, at the conclusion of the first session of the Conference in January, Mr. MacDonald had made a statement of policy on behalf of the Labor Government of which he was then the head. The outstanding feature of the policy which he had then outlined had been his Government's acceptance of the principle that responsibility for the government of India should be transferred from Parliament at Westminster to Indian Legislatures; in other words the goal in view was a parliamentary government modeled as closely as circumstances would permit on the British system. So far as structure was concerned, the immense size of India and the existence of huge administrative units in the shape of the Provinces of British India, to say nothing of the Native States, pointed clearly to a constitution of a Federal type.
Mr. MacDonald had made it clear that the goal was not to be reached in a single stride. The new Constitution was to contain such provisions as might be found necessary to guarantee, during a period of transition, the observance of certain obligations resting upon Great Britain as the custodian of the interests of the Indian peoples, and it was to confer upon the Viceroy such powers as might be necessary to enable him to afford minorities protection for their political liberties and rights. Moreover, for an unspecified period certain portfolios were to remain outside the control of the Indian Legislature, notably those of Defense and External Affairs, while in regard to Finance such conditions were to apply as would insure fulfilment of the obligations incurred under the authority of the Secretary of State at Whitehall and the maintenance unimpaired of India's financial stability and credit. Mr. MacDonald had added that in such statutory safeguards as might be devised for meeting the needs of the transitional period, it would be the primary concern of His Majesty's Government to see that the reserved powers were so framed and exercised as not to prejudice the advance of India through the new Constitution to full responsibility for her own government.
The statement with which Mr. MacDonald brought the second session of the Conference to a close was remarkable not so much for any new contribution towards the solution of the problem, as for the emphatic reaffirmation which it contained of the policy laid down in his earlier pronouncement. In January 1931 Mr. MacDonald had spoken as the head of a minority Government which depended for its existence in the House of Commons upon the complaisance of its political opponents. And though the Conservative delegates at the Round Table Conference had given conditional support to the policy then laid down, they had done so with some hesitation, while it was notorious that a section of the Conservative Party, both in the House of Commons and in the constituencies, was definitely opposed to so rapid an advance. By December 1931 the scene had undergone a dramatic change. Mr. MacDonald now faced the Conference not as the head of a minority Government, but as the leader of a Government reflecting to a unique degree the will of the nation -- a Government supported by the whole of the Conservative Party, the greater part of the Liberal Party and that section of the Labor Party which, under the leadership of Mr. MacDonald himself, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Snowden, had to its credit put country before party and given its support to the National program. In these altered circumstances the real significance of the declaration of December 1 lay in the Prime Minister's announcement of the acceptance by the National Government of the policy laid down in his earlier pronouncement. In particular, it was explained, the Government desired to reaffirm their belief in an all-India Federation as offering the only hopeful solution of India's constitutional problem. "They intend to pursue this plan unswervingly," Mr. MacDonald asserted, "and to do their utmost to surmount the difficulties which now stand in the way of its realization;" and he added that in order to give his declaration of policy the fullest possible authority, it would be circulated as a White Paper to both Houses of Parliament, whose approval would be sought forthwith.
When early in December the matter was submitted to Parliament, a plea for caution was put forward in both Houses, and, as was to be expected in the case of a Chamber numbering among its members many persons with personal experience of administration in India, with greater force and with a larger measure of support in the Upper than in the Lower House; but at the end of a three-day debate, maintained at a high level throughout, the Government were authorized to proceed with their policy by a majority of 106 to 58. In the House of Commons approval had already been given by a majority of 369 to 43. The policy thus received in striking manner the endorsement of Parliament irrespective of party and has thus become beyond all possibility of challenge the policy of the nation.
It was not only in Great Britain that the scene had undergone a transformation; between the first and second sessions of the Conference equally striking changes had taken place in India. The leaders of the Indian National Congress, the best organized and the most powerful of the political parties in India, who had rejected the offer to attend the first session of the Round Table Conference in 1930, had found it expedient to reconsider their position in light of the results achieved at the conference table. The Viceroy, Lord Irwin, quick to seize the opportunity which had thus presented itself, had made a swift gesture by unconditionally releasing Mr. Gandhi and other leaders of the civil disobedience movement from the prisons in which their defiance of the law had landed them. His vision had been justified, for as the result of prolonged and patient negotiation between him and Mr. Gandhi a truce had been agreed to, the civil disobedience movement had been called off, and an invitation to the Congress to send representatives to the second session of the Round Table Conference had been accepted.
So much for events in India. The stage was now cleared once more at St. James's Palace in London where the management -- if the staff of the India Office on whose shoulders fell the task of making the necessary arrangements may be so described -- awaited with interest and a good deal of curiosity the arrival of the performers, with Mr. Gandhi, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Mrs. Sarojini Naidu as new and unpredictable stars in the cast. What would be the attitude of such uncompromising advocates of Indian independence at a conference table at which, as was obvious in view of the decisions already reached, a not unimportant subject of discussion would be the nature and scope of the limitations to be imposed upon the autonomy of the Indian Legislature under the Act by which Parliament was to confer self-government upon India?
The session was certainly not lacking in dramatic quality. There were at times emotional passages between delegates representing different points of view, periods of tension in an atmosphere highly charged with explosive possibilities; but on the whole those who looked for a spectacular drama on a grand scale must have been disappointed. Generally speaking the proceedings were carried through in a lower key than had been the case during the earlier session. As was inevitable, the exhilarating optimism which had been engendered by the discussion of abstract principles tended to cool down when the practical difficulties in the way of giving effect to them came under discussion. The picture conjured up in the minds of many by the conception of an all-India Federation, bringing into a single glittering edifice the democratically governed Provinces of British India and the autocratically governed territories of the Ruling Princes, had been a pleasing one. Those who had planned it had seen, in imagination, the immense and bewildering heterogeneities of the Indian continent -- those formidable and stubborn obstacles to nationhood -- vanishing under the magic dome of a political edifice which was to defy the centrifugal tendencies inherent in the circumstances and to give to India's many-tongued and many-visaged peoples a hitherto unimagined measure of cohesion. And only when the first flush of enthusiasm had died down, and the various possible methods of applying the principle began to claim attention, was it realized that there were likely to be drawbacks as well as advantages attaching to the scheme. The number of Ruling Princes present at the first session of the Conference, though representing states of various types and of the first importance, had necessarily been only a small proportion of the whole; and it was not unnatural that some, at least, of those who had not been present should view with apprehension the possible consequences to their states of so rapid and so great a change. Even in the ranks of those who had taken part in the deliberations of the Conference a difference of opinion manifested itself; thus a view departing widely from that provisionally accepted at the Conference found a spokesman in His Highness the Maharaja of Patiala, ruler of the largest of the Phulkian States, and himself a recent Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes.
But the fundamental difficulty which presented itself at the very beginning of the second session of the Conference was that of finding a bridge across the gulf dividing the Moslems and the Hindus. The Moslem delegates, fresh from contact with their coreligionists in India, made it plain that until an agreement had been reached securing to them the share in the future government of the country to which they considered themselves entitled they would not be prepared even to discuss the transfer of power to an Indian Federal Legislature. And encouraged by the attitude of the Moslem representatives, the Sikhs put forward claims affecting their own future position in the Punjab, which it was found impossible to reconcile with the claims of other interested communities. Here, then, the Conference at last came to grips with the bed-rock problem of Indian government -- a problem which has its roots deep down in history, one which has existed throughout the British occupation -- a source of danger and often of serious disturbance, yet one which has not manifested itself in more serious guise only because control has been in neutral hands determined and able to hold the scales even between the rival communities.
In an article written for the October 1930 number of FOREIGN AFFAIRS I made passing reference to the difficulties arising out of Hindu-Moslem rivalry; but unless the nature of the gulf which separates these two communities is fully understood, it is impossible to appreciate the extent to which it acts as a block on the road towards the goal which Great Britain and India alike are striving to attain. Let us try to grasp it at least in its essentials.
The difference between Moslem and Hindu is not only one of religious belief and practice, for Islam like Hinduism stands for a social system and a particular outlook upon life contrasting sharply with that of the other community. While the caste system of the Hindus is exclusive, the social organization of Islam is communistic. Under the Hindu social system men are graded minutely and segregated in an infinite number of water-tight compartments; under Islam all men are equal. Hinduism is essentially aristocratic; Islam is as emphatically democratic. An outstanding feature of the Hindu caste system is the restriction which it places on a man's freedom of choice in the matter of marriage. He may not marry a woman of his own gotra; on the other hand he must choose his wife from within his own subcaste. And if a man may not marry outside his own sub-caste still less may he marry outside the Hindu community. Hence the remarkable fact that though the Moslems have dwelt in India for something like a thousand years, and now number some 80,000,000, they remain a race apart and distinct from the Hindus who form the bulk of the population.
The clash of religious thought and practice constitutes a perennial source of trouble. The elastic polytheism of the Hindu is a perpetual challenge to the austere monotheism of the Moslem, so that when a Hindu idol procession passes a mosque with drums booming and pipes whistling it excites feelings which only too often find expression in violence and bloodshed. On the other hand, the Moslem is contemptuous of the Hindu's veneration for the cow as a sacred animal, and since his own religious observances demand the slaughter of cattle he is equally guilty with the Hindu of fanning into flame the smoldering embers of religious passion. The archives of the Governments in India are choked with records of communal strife. In February 1931 a band of Hindu villagers brutally massacred eleven Moslems in a rural district of the United Provinces. "There was nothing modern nor political in this crime," commented the members of a Commission of Inquiry appointed a few weeks later to investigate a much more serious outbreak at Cawnpore in the same province. "A Moslem zamindar (landowner) sent a haunch of venison to a tenant. Some Hindus said it was beef, not venison, and the massacre of the Moslem inhabitants was the result."
Further, when endeavoring to understand the attitude of the Moslems towards the political developments now in progress, we must remember that they have been slower than their Hindu rivals to take advantage of the facilities which have been provided under British rule for the acquisition of western education; and that quite apart, therefore, from the handicap imposed upon them by their numerical inferiority in any purely democratic system of government, they are less well equipped than their Hindu fellow citizens for achieving success in any contest in which intellectual subtlety and familiarity with the theory and practice of western democracy must necessarily play an important part. Yet they are at the same time a people with many centuries of history behind them and with race memories of the days when the overlordship of India was theirs; a people conscious of the proud part which their ancestors played upon a glittering stage when for two centuries the great northern capitals of Delhi and Agra were the seats of the resplendent courts of the famous dynasty of the Moguls. And it is impossible to escape from the conclusion that with the prospect of control passing gradually from British hands to those of a Hindu majority in the future Constitution, Moslem antagonism is being sharpened by Moslem fears. The outbreak in Cawnpore in March 1931, referred to above, was the direct outcome of the civil disobedience movement, the Moslems of Cawnpore refusing to join the Hindus in demonstrations ordered by the Congress on the occasion of the execution of Bhagat Singh, a Punjabi revolutionary convicted of the murder of a police officer and of waging war against the King-Emperor. Members of the two communities quickly came into collision and the early clashes, to quote the finding of the Commission of Inquiry, "developed into a riot of unprecedented violence and peculiar atrocity which spread with unexpected rapidity through the whole city and even beyond it. Murders, arson and looting were widespread for three days. . . . The loss of life and property was great. The number of verified deaths was 300, but the death roll is known to have been larger and was probably between 400 and 500. A large number of temples and mosques were desecrated or burnt or destroyed. . . . "
More recently still, serious trouble has been experienced in Kashmir, where the Moslem population has become restive under the oppression, real or imaginary, of Hindu rule.
Here, in a nutshell, is the explanation of the Hindu-Moslem problem, and it is obvious that with roots so deep no formula for solving it which did not carry with it the convinced assent of those concerned would be worth the paper on which it was written. From the time, therefore, when the question first obtruded itself upon the attention of the Conference, Mr. MacDonald made it plain that it was one which Indians must settle for themselves. The first of the privileges and the burdens of a self-governing people was, he was at pains to point out, to agree how the democratic principle was to be applied. Consequently, an attempt to find a solution was made, and informal negotiations proceeded daily behind closed doors during the last days of September and the first days of October. Though Mr. Gandhi was strongly opposed on principle to the demands of the Moslems for separate communal electorates and for representation in the Legislatures, both Provincial and Central, in excess of that to which they would be entitled on a purely numerical basis, it is possible that -- unwilling as he was to demonstrate to the world at large the hard reality of the communal problem, so often and so conveniently attributed by Great Britain's enemies to a Machiavellian policy on her part of "divide and rule" -- he might have persuaded himself of the expediency of agreeing to them. But at Mr. Gandhi's elbow, alert to detect and to quash any sign of weakness on the part of his less orthodox fellow countryman, stood Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha -- intellectually brilliant, soft-tongued and courteous to a degree, but in his championship of Hindu orthodoxy, adamant. A striking figure this -- slim, white-robed, of quiet demeanor, yet an orator capable of passionate flights; a man who for fifty years has maintained himself in the forefront of Indian public life; for a decade or more Vice-Chancellor of the Hindu University at holy Benares; twice President of the Indian National Congress. There was little chance, indeed, that the Moslem view would be accepted by this doughty upholder in its integrity of the ancient tradition of the caste Hindus.
A meeting of the Committee of the Conference charged with the duty of dealing with the Minorities question was called for October 8. The main item of business on the agenda paper was to receive a report by those who had been engaged in the informal negotiations for a settlement of the Minorities problem. The meeting provided one of the dramatic episodes of the session. The Committee sat in one of the smaller rooms allotted to the Conference in St. James's Palace. The whole of the seating accommodation at the table was occupied by members of the Committee; other delegates and the officials in attendance crowded the floor space along the walls. A hushed silence fell as the Prime Minister took his seat and called on Mr. Gandhi to make his report. Every eye was turned on the small figure swathed in many folds of homespun cotton cloth, seated immediately to the left of the chair. With his accustomed slow delivery and meticulous pronunciation of every syllable, Mr. Gandhi made his eagerly awaited statement. It was with feelings "of shame and of humiliation," he said, that he had to announce that they had failed to reach agreement.
Subsequent attempts to find a way out of the impasse were successful only to this extent, that the Moslems and most of the other Minorities reached agreement amongst themselves as to the nature of the protection to be afforded to them; but the main question remained unsolved, neither the Moslems nor the Sikhs nor the Hindus being able to compose their differences. This failure necessarily robbed the remaining sittings of much of their interest; for though progress was made with the consideration of the methods by which effect might be given to the decision to set up an all-India Federation, the Moslem delegates sat silent spectators of the proceedings, refusing to discuss the details of a constitution in which, in the absence of a satisfactory settlement of their claims, they declared themselves unable to take a share.
Fresh interest was aroused in the final sitting of the session by curiosity as to the nature of the statement which, in those circumstances, the Prime Minister would make on behalf of the Government. The sitting began at 10.30 on the morning of Monday, November 30, and once more a spirit of drama descended on the Conference chamber. On the left of the Prime Minister sat Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, poetess, patriot and politician, an impressive figure in the ample folds of her national costume, the gleam of her dark eyes telling of the fires that burned within. On her left was the almost huddled figure of Mr. Gandhi and beyond him again Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and other members of the various sections of the Hindu community. On the right of the Prime Minister were the members of the British delegation and beyond them again the Ruling Princes. Facing the chair, seated at the inner lap of the huge oblong table, were Dr. Ambedkar, the chief spokesman of the Depressed Classes; Mr. Joshi, the thoroughgoing champion of Indian labor and ardent advocate of adult suffrage for the three hundred and fifty millions of the Indian continent; Sir Hubert Carr, the leading spokesman of the British mercantile community; and the representatives of other minorities. Behind them again at the outer ring of the table sat the representatives of the eighty million Moslems under the leadership of His Highness the Aga Khan.
It happened to be Mr. Gandhi's weekly day of silence, and as speaker after speaker rose to deliver his final speech the Congress representative sat brooding at the table, a mute, intractable and enigmatic figure. The day wore slowly on towards its close and at length, a little after midnight, his period of silence over, Mr. Gandhi addressed the Conference. It was a mischievously pessimistic utterance shot through with bitterness and devoid of constructive suggestion of any sort; and had the Conference closed then it would have done so on a note of unrelieved, though happily wholly unjustifiable, gloom. But a complete change was wrought in the heavy atmosphere by a speech which must be accorded a high place in the great oratorical efforts of mankind. For after Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya had spoken there rose from the end of the table the long-robed figure of Mr. Srinivasa Sastri, a man who through twenty years of chequered Indian history has played with singular success the part of Elisha to the Elijah of the late Mr. G. K. Gokhale. The peculiarly appealing voice which Mr. Sastri knows so well how to employ, rang with the cadence of a silver bell through the night. His courteous but none the less emphatic rebuke of Mr. Gandhi for his bitterness, and his inspiring profession of faith in the future, dispelled as if by magic the clouds which had descended upon the closing stages of the Conference.
After an adjournment at 2 a. m. the delegates reassembled on the morning of December 1 to listen to the statement by the Prime Minister which has been described at the beginning of this article. So far as the communal deadlock was concerned, Mr. MacDonald expressed the hope that a solution might yet be found by Indians themselves; but failing that, His Majesty's Government would be compelled to apply a provisional scheme of their own. He did not attempt to disguise from them the unsatisfactory nature of any such procedure: "This would mean," he said, "that H. M. Government would have to settle for you, not only your problems of representation, but also to decide as wisely and justly as possible what checks and balances the Constitution is to contain to protect minorities from an unrestricted and tyrannical use of the democratic principle expressing itself solely through majority power."
With the close of the session, interest shifted once more from London to Delhi and Calcutta; and we must now glance at developments there. While the delegates from India had been engaged at the Conference table, the hot-blooded members of the more extreme section of the Indian National Congress had been viewing events with growing impatience. There were among them men who had always regarded with distaste the method of constitutional negotiation -- men imbued with that false pride of race which causes them to mistake hatred of other peoples for love of their own; and when the economic distress arising out of world-wide causes became acute in parts of rural India, the temptation to take advantage of it proved too great for them. Contrary both to the spirit and the letter of the truce signed by Lord Irwin and Mr. Gandhi, they threw themselves into a no-rent and no-tax campaign, concentrating upon certain districts in the United Provinces. Concurrently with these activities was to be observed an alarming recrudescence of the terrorist movement in various parts of India and notably in Bengal. The most revolting of the outrages perpetrated by members of the Bengal secret societies was the treacherous and cold-blooded murder of an English magistrate on December 14 by two Bengali girls in their 'teens, armed with pistols. But this was only the latest of a formidable series of outrages. Earlier in the year an English judge had been murdered in the broad light of day while at work in his court in Calcutta, this crime following at an interval of a week only an attempt to assassinate Sir E. Hotson, the acting Governor of Bombay. During the previous year the Inspector General of Police and the Inspector General of Prisons in Bengal had both lost their lives at the hands of the assassins and an attempt had been made on the life of Sir G. de Montmorency, the Governor of the Punjab. These are but examples of the murders, and attempted murders, which marked the months during which the Round Table Conference was at work. And while these events were taking place in the interior, the organization known as the Red Shirts, inspired by agents of the Indian National Congress, was causing serious apprehension by its seditious activities on the Northwest Frontier.
Against these various subversive movements, swelling in volume and increasing in violence as the days went by, the Government found themselves obliged to take drastic action; for no Government, unless intent on abdicating, can sit with folded hands while its agents are assassinated, its lawful dues withheld, its authority disregarded and its laws defied. Toward the end of the year 1931, therefore, the Viceroy issued various ordinances conferring upon the Executives in the Provinces the additional powers which experience had shown were necessary to enable them to cope with the particular forms of seditious activity with which they found themselves confronted.
This, then, was the situation when Mr. Gandhi and other delegates to the Indian Round Table Conference returned to India early in the present year. It may be that Mr. Gandhi on his return found the left wing of the Congress out of hand and decided that it was better to swim with the current than to admit his inability to control it. Yet those who had watched him closely during the closing stages of the second session of the Round Table Conference experienced no surprise when he crossed the Rubicon and threw down his challenge to the Government once more. Mr. MacDonald's speech when bringing the Conference to a close had been a straightforward and wholly unambiguous statement; not so Mr. Gandhi's reception of it. He would refrain from expressing any opinion upon it, he said, but would search for "the hidden meaning" underlying it; and those who were familiar with his peculiarly unstable temperament had little doubt that he was already contemplating a return to the barren wilderness of non-coöperation. At any rate, seizing as his excuse Lord Willingdon's very natural refusal to discuss with him the propriety of the measures which he had been obliged to take to safeguard the lives of his officials and the tranquillity of the realm, Mr. Gandhi denounced the truce and called for a renewal of civil disobedience.
How was such a situation to be met? I make no apology for repeating the view which I expressed when Mr. Gandhi launched his civil disobedience movement in 1930. The duty of the Government, I then urged, was to go forward steadily and firmly on the path which had been marked out, i.e., on the path of constitutional reform, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left; neither allowing themselves to be stampeded by the violence of agitation in India into making concessions which, upon a consideration of all the factors in the case, were deemed to be too great in the interests of the people of India themselves, nor, on the other hand, refusing to make such concessions as the justice of the case might demand. I added that if such a policy was to be successfully pursued, the Government must make it clear that they possessed both the will and the means to restore order and to insure respect for the law.[i] That is the policy which is, in fact, being pursued. It constitutes no departure on the part of Lord Willingdon from the policy of his predecessor. Lord Irwin has, indeed, made it known that his Government had matured their plans for meeting just such a situation as has now arisen, and he has stated that he cannot but suppose, had he still been Viceroy, that he would have acted precisely as Lord Willingdon has done.
It remains only to point out that in the pursuit of the constructive aspect of its policy the British Government have much more than mere promises to show. At the request of the Round Table Conference at its first session, two committees were set up in India, one to examine the possibility, from a financial point of view, of constituting a new province by separating Sind from Bombay, the other to draft a scheme for the establishment of a military college for the training of Indian officers in India. Both committees have completed their labors and issued their reports. In accordance with the promise of the Prime Minister at the conclusion of the second session of the Conference, the status of a Governor's Province has been conferred on the Northwest Frontier; a register of electors is being prepared and arrangements made for the election of members to the new Legislature in April. At Delhi the Viceroy has summoned a consultative committee of delegates to the Round Table Conference, while three other Committees presided over by English public men have reached India and are at work on tasks delegated to them by the Conference. These tasks are the consideration of the franchise to be adopted under the new Constitution, and the investigation of different aspects of the financial problem involved in the formation of a Federation of entities differing so widely in their political constitution as the Provinces of British India and the Native States.
Thus we see in full swing the dual policy of enforcing respect for law while at the same time taking all possible steps to expedite the solution of the many subsidiary problems which present themselves both to the architect and to the builder of so vast an edifice as an all-India Federation. Emerson found the Englishman to be him of all men who stood firmest in his shoes; "he has stamina," he wrote, "and can take the initiative in emergencies." It is a display of these two capacities that is called for in India today; and it is in the Englishman's continued possession of them that rests the best hope for the Indian peoples in the critical years that lie before them.
[i] Speech in the House of Lords, May 28, 1930.