THOSE all but insuperably difficult problems of India's future government and political status which have provided work for three successive sessions of the Round Table Conference during the past two and a half years have been thrust out of the prominent place in the world's attention which they occupied until the beginning of the great economic depression. But these problems have lost nothing of their intrinsic importance by being thus temporarily superseded, and some account of the genesis, the scope and certain possible lines of solution of the Indian problem may therefore be of interest to students of foreign affairs.

Future historians of India will undoubtedly give to November 1, 1929, importance as one of the turning points of Indian history. For it was on that date that Lord Irwin, then Viceroy of India, with the consent of the British Government of the day, issued an announcement to the Princes and peoples of India inviting them to the subsequent Round Table Conference. The significance of this invitation was twofold. First, it was addressed not only to British India but to what is now often referred to picturesquely as "Indian India." For the first time the leaders of these two portions of that immense territory were invited to confer between themselves and -- jointly or separately, just as they chose -- with representatives of Parliament and the British people regarding the political future of India. The enormous potential benefit to the country of such a political concordat between the two parts of India needs no description. But the point ought to be emphasized that the discussions preliminary to any such concordat, and the implementing of any agreements reached between the two parties, could not possibly take place except under the aegis of the British Government. Secondly, the announcement was epoch making -- in the literal sense of that much abused term -- because for the first time the accredited representatives of Indian political opinion were being invited to discuss the whole political future of their country with the representatives of the suzerain power on absolutely equal terms. It will be admitted that this was an invitation to coöperation between Britain and India in the best and truest sense of the word. India was not slow to perceive these implications, and the invitation was received cordially by all but the extreme left wing of Indian opinion. I think we may reasonably claim for these developments that they represent a revolution in policy.

The advance in the policy of His Majesty's Government with regard to India between the announcements of Mr. Montagu in 1917 and that of Lord Irwin in 1929 is very real and very great. And I think the significance of the announcement made by Lord Irwin is even heightened when we consider that the statement of 1917 itself represented a profound and vital change from previous declarations of Indian policy by the British Government. Only eight years before Mr. Montagu made his historic utterance the very important constitutional changes in the government of India known as the Morley-Minto Reforms (from the names of the Secretary of State and the Viceroy of those days respectively) were inaugurated. Nobody can accuse John Morley of having been a reactionary in politics or an imperialist of the jingo type: yet he told Parliament that the Indian reforms with which they were dealing were not meant in any way as the first instalment of, or the first steps toward, responsible self-government -- in the common phrase, "Home Rule for India." At a still earlier period, in connection with a lesser instalment of political reforms for India, a man with an even greater name than John Morley's in Liberal annals -- Mr. Gladstone himself -- had uttered the same warning. Lord Ripon, Sir Charles Wood (grandfather of Lord Irwin) and Lord Canning -- all men with a niche in English history through their connection with liberal reforms in the government of India -- were just as explicit as Gladstone and Morley in making plain the limited scope of the reforms which they were introducing.

We see, therefore, that in 1917 the British people altered their whole conception of India's political future. And in 1930 this change was carried to its ultimate conclusion by the government invitation. Out of this development a truth of surpassing importance emerges, one which throws a flood of light on the character and the future destiny of the British Empire. It is this. India, alien in race, traditions and history from the great self-governing Dominions, is nevertheless to enter with them into the British heritage of full and responsible political power and freedom as soon as her own conditions allow her to do so.

British and foreign students of affairs in India now accept as normal and inevitable the development in that country of a constitution which, with modifications to suit the special conditions, shall be of the English parliamentary type. Moreover, Indian political leaders themselves and the great mass of educated Indian opinion look at this matter in exactly the same way. Yet, critically considered, it is a most extraordinary development, for I need not point out how totally and completely English parliamentary government differs from any form of government devised in the past by Indian or any other Asiatic peoples, or from any form of government which we might reasonably imagine would be produced in India without the intervention of the British race.

It would take me too far from our main thesis to discuss possible alternatives to parliamentary government in India, and in any case such a discussion would be purely academic, since, as we have seen, the lines of development are now firmly set and have been wholeheartedly accepted by Indians themselves. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that from very early days of our rule in India experienced British administrators have argued against the advisability of copying English precedent and have suggested rival and, in their opinion, preferable lines of development. For the most part, their suggestions have centered in proposals to extend the Indian state system to cover the whole of India. Under such a system India would be completely divided into a number of states, each governed by an Indian Prince, autonomous in respect of the internal affairs of his state but guided by a British resident representing the paramount British power, which would guarantee both the internal and the external safety and tranquillity of the whole country. Indeed, such proposals are still not without their champions, for it is only about two years ago that a retired governor of an Indian Province with wide administrative experience suggested a scheme which, whilst recognizing the impossibility of now dividing India up into Princes' states, maintained that the best and most natural arrangement would be a development of the personal government which now prevails in Indian States and which was of course the rule in the Imperial Mohammedan Dynasty to which we succeeded.

Why did we never accept any of these proposals? How has it come about that the course of political development in India has been so profoundly different, and, at first sight, so unsuited to Indian conditions? The answer is simple, yet it takes us right to the heart of the past and, be it noted, the future political development of the varied communities comprising the world-wide commonwealth which for the sake of simplicity we may continue to call the British Empire. For we British are unique in this respect, that of all imperial or colonizing Powers, past or present, we alone have had the experience of seeing former dependent communities grow to full national stature. Further, we have had that experience whilst witnessing, with only one exception, the retention of those same communities inside our Empire. In the case of the one exception, our old North American colonies, we bought our experience very dearly; but we did at any rate profit by the lesson we then learnt. With only temporary and comparatively unimportant aberrations, our policy towards all our old colonies of British, or at any rate of European settlement, has been to allow and even to assist them to proceed smoothly and naturally to the exercise of the utmost degree possible of political autonomy. The belief that such a policy is right and just has become an article of faith with the British people.

Similarly with India, the first of the non-British members of the Empire to set out on the long and fateful course of political change, we could simply not do otherwise than apply to her the same ideas and principles. We knew of no other way of dealing with a developing community except that which we had learnt in the school of practice, and our own peculiar political growth, broadening from precedent to precedent, has made ad hoc constitutional invention not only abhorrent to us, but literally impossible. This, without any unnecessary embellishments, is the reason why we entered in India on that particular course of policy which has brought India to the threshold of parliamentary government within the Empire.

India's political development begins for our purpose immediately after the Indian Mutiny, when the government passed from the old East India Company to the Crown. Up to then we had been consolidating our rule, and a strong, impartial, protective, central government was the prime desideratum. But by the time the government of India passed to the Crown, the stage of consolidation had been completed and the period of development -- political, moral and material -- had begun. Within two years of the passing of the East India Company, Parliament began to discuss the bill which afterwards became the Indian Councils Act of 1861. The essence of this bill was to provide for the representation of Indian opinion in the Supreme Legislative Council of the country. The details of this and of succeeding acts of reform in India can be read in an excellent book entitled "Modern India," recently published under the editorship of Sir John Cumming,[i] and need not complicate our argument here. Suffice it to say that by this Act of 1861, the subsequent Indian Councils Act of 1892, and the Morley-Minto Reform of 1908 the democratic principles of representation and popular election were introduced into the Indian constitution. Legislative Councils with increasing numbers and powers were set up, not only at the center, but in all the provinces. In a word, during these years India was provided not only with a good deal of the machinery of modern democratic government, but with a number of excellent schools for the instruction of her people in the actual handling of political machinery and influence and, to a certain extent, even of political power. What is worth noticing in this process is that the above democratic principles were allowed to work and gather momentum and express themselves in political instruments steadily changed and modified to suit the developing circumstances of the country and people. Never once did the British Government attempt to divert or to delay this process.

Looking back over this course of events from the vantage ground of our present knowledge, we can see that the World War merely precipitated Mr. Montagu's momentous declaration. Sooner or later such a pronouncement of policy had to be made, and men like Hume, Wedderburn, Cotton and Meredith Townsend both saw and proclaimed this fact. The statements of Gladstone and the others to which I referred above were not meant as declarations that India was never to have Home Rule, but only that the conditions which alone could justify Home Rule were not in sight at the time when they were speaking.

Side by side with the purely constitutional development which I have been describing, profoundly important changes were taking place in the moral and material bases of Indian life. During the years between 1860 and 1914 all India had been firmly welded into one economic unit and had been brought into the main stream of the world's life by the modern systems of transport and communication, both internal and external, which had been developed by the British. Education, moreover, particularly education in the English language, had provided on the spiritual side conditions of Indian unity and of communion with the outside world which were analogous to the conditions provided on the material side by the growth of communications. For the first time in the long history of the Indian sub-continent, the men of different races and languages from all its parts could meet each other and talk to each other in a common language. It is not surprising, therefore, that from the middle of the eighties of the last century we begin to trace definitely the emergence of an Indian nationalist movement. The foundation of the All-Indian National Congress in 1885 may be taken as the beginning of this movement, although as we shall see in a moment the mistake must not be made of identifying Congress, as we call it for short, with the whole of Indian political opinion. Very large and important sections of organized Indian opinion, even of Hindu opinion, have always remained outside Congress, indeed some of them have been actively and consistently hostile to it. From 1885 onwards, we trace the rise of organized Mohammedan opinion in the All-India Moslem League; of that truly democratic party, the Non-Brahmin or Justice Party of Southern India, which has now got powerful offshoots in the west and center; of the All-India Liberal Federation, which represents the right center of Indian opinion; of the All-Indian Mahasabha, whose prime function is the defence of Hindu communal interests; and -- a strange and striking portent this -- the appearance of the Depressed Classes as a quasi-organized political body in their annual conference.

In other words, from the middle of the eighties onwards, we begin to get the other necessary half of the process begun when the British started developing India along the lines dictated by their experience with their American colonies and their self-governing Dominions and by their own innate ideas and rules of conduct. That other half is the conscious determination of the people of India to be no longer passive recipients of "gifts" of political reform, but to work for changes; and above all to bring into being those conditions of social and political homogeneity which alone can prove safe and permanent foundations for Indian nationality. That is a way of saying that there is a limit to what the British can do in this matter of helping India to achieve Home Rule. It appears, moreover, that the limit has now been reached, or almost reached. For years to come the British will have to perform the vitally necessary function of ensuring internal cohesion and external safety for the peoples of India. But they cannot alter the minds of Indian Princes, of Hindus, Mohammedans, Sikhs, Depressed Classes and so on until all these become in fact members of one body politic, with sufficient solidarity of sentiment to enable them in the last resort to sink all considerations of communal, sectional, religious and social interests in the common welfare. All this can be done only by the people of India themselves, working together year in and year out for common aims and with harmonious ideals.

It is from this point of view that we must examine the Government of India Act of 1919, which embodies the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms and which is the present constitution of India. The essential purpose of that Act was to make Mr. Montagu's declaration of August 1917 effective by giving to Indian legislative bodies certain autonomous powers, and thus enabling the Indian people to begin their real political education by actually handling and controlling certain parts of the machinery of administration. The circumstances of 1919 did not permit the extension of responsible powers to the Central Legislature, for in that year an attempted invasion of northwest India from Afghanistan, and serious internal disturbances, notably in the Punjab and Bombay, taken with such weighty considerations as the fundamental cleavages between the majority and minority communities, were notes of warning against taking too far a leap into the dark. It was therefore decided that actual responsibility in government should be confined to the provinces. In the provinces, by that singular device known as diarchy, some of the most important branches of administration (including all the so-called "nation building" departments, that is, education, local self-government, medicine, the development of industries, and various others) were handed over to the control of ministers chosen from among the elected members of the provincial legislature and responsible for their actions to that legislature. The central legislature was made bicameral; and the lower house (145 members, of whom only 26 were official and 14 were nominated members) was vested with wide powers of vote, interpellation and influence. A study of the 1919 Act shows that it is a typically British constitutional document, in that what is implied is almost as important as what is expressed. To those familiar with the corresponding Acts of Parliament conferring constitutions on our old colonies, now the Dominions (in which Acts, it should be noted, the expression "responsible self-government" is never mentioned), it will be at once apparent that if the Government of India Act of 1919 had been enthusiastically worked and used by Indian political leaders it could have proved an expanding framework, widened and extended continually by the growth of conventions rising naturally out of the developing political conditions. Under it, thus used, growing political education could have provided a full outlet for all legitimate aspirations, and India could have been carried a very long step further towards the full consummation of her constitutional aims.

Of late years a fierce onslaught has been made on the 1919 Act by important sections of Indian political opinion. This attack is not just. To begin with, even a cursory study of the history of India since 1921, when the Act was inaugurated, will show how immensely effective it has proved in educating the Indian people in methods of modern political action and how it has quickened and strengthened their interests in politics and in constitutional matters generally. This certainly is an important item on the credit side of the account. It is true that the invaluable possibilities of the Act which I outlined above have not been realized. This, however, is due partly to certain fundamental conditions in Indian life, and partly to the intransigence of the extreme left wing of organized Indian politics, namely, the Congress Party. Members of the Congress Party boycotted the first election held under the 1919 constitution, and then entered the legislatures of the second election with the avowed intention of wrecking them from within. The Congress Party is, of course, the strongest and best organized political party in India, in spite of the fact that it has always been almost entirely Hindu, and that, except in times of extraordinary political excitement, its main strength has been in other parts of India than the virile north. The implacable hostility of the Congress Party (which actually managed to prevent for a time the working of the constitution in Bengal and the Central Provinces) has been a heavy drag on the functioning of the 1919 Act and has prevented it from conferring on India the sum of the benefits which were hoped from it. As a writer on Indian affairs once put it, the action of the Congress Party inflicted on the great experiment of the 1919 Act a handicap as serious as would be imposed on a motor car if it had to be entered for a hill-climbing test with one of its cylinders out of action.

But of far greater potence than Congress hostility were those fundamental conditions of which I have spoken -- the ignorance and political apathy of the mass of the electorates, and above all the deep and fundamental antagonisms between the great communities of the country. The true character of these antagonisms is even now not well understood except by those who have extensive first-hand knowledge of India, and therefore I might say a few words in explanation of them. Outwardly, they express themselves in religious forms; and of course there is no doubt that in the profoundly deep religious differences between Hindus and Mohammedans, and between the latter and the Sikhs, for example, there will always be causes of potential trouble. But the antagonisms which we are discussing now find their most serious and dangerous power in their political aspect, and even to some extent in their racial aspect. Consider the position. For generations and centuries these great communities have remained sharply separated from each other in many of the most vital things of life, with differing ideals, loyalties and, in many cases, even material interests. There are age-old traditions of war between them. Nor must it be forgotten that it was from a Mohammedan dynasty that we took over the overlordship of India, and from Sikh rulers that we took the Punjab just over eighty years ago. Both Mohammedans and Sikhs, therefore, have memories of rule in India, and now that the question of Indian Home Rule has come within the scope of serious discussion these old memories naturally revive. By a natural psychological process both Sikhs and Mohammedans believe not only that they are entitled to claim certain privileges, but that unless they safeguard their position thoroughly against the majority community they will find themselves, when Home Rule comes, in the position of subject races where once they were the rulers. Thus the history of the twelve years of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms is a story of the rising surge of inter-communal rivalry, penetrating all aspects of Indian public life, expressing itself repeatedly in armed clashes and bloodshed, and causing friction and disunity where there should have been coöperation and harmony if the Act of 1919 were to have any chance of achieving those wide objectives which we have been considering.

The 1919 Act laid down that after a ten-year period there was to be an inquiry into the working of the Constitution. And when the period was drawing to its end the British Government did not hesitate to send out the Simon Commission for this purpose. The story of the Commission's work and its outcome in the Round Table Conference is too familiar to need repetition here. Also, the outlines of the proceedings of the Conference are familiar to readers of FOREIGN AFFAIRS.[ii] Here I will deal with the Conference and certain connected events only as they affect the great theme which is the subject of this article.

If we could express the results of the Conference in a graph it would look like one of the familiar graphs of a normal trade cycle. The first session would be shown as a steeply mounting line from depression to hope; then a sharp drop during the second session; and finally a well-marked rise for the third session. The declaration of the Princes at the first session in favor of an All-India Conference started the upward move. For a federal government in which they would be an important part would be a government of an immensely strengthened India, and one to which all British political parties decided that they could make concessions which they could not make to British India alone. The decision of these two great parties evoked response from all the Indian delegates who found themselves able to view the British demand for temporary safeguards with a certain understanding and even sympathy. When the Conference closed, the Prime Minister was able to assure the delegates that the view of His Majesty's Government was that responsibility for the government of India could be devolved on Indian legislatures, federal and provincial, with certain limitations designed to insure the fulfilment of certain fundamental obligations and also the protection of various community rights.

As is well known, the second session of the Conference, which ended in December 1931, was rendered unfruitful by the irreconcilable differences which developed between the majority and the minority communities, and by the desire of the Princes to study very carefully and closely all the implications of their entry into an All-India Federation. Mr. Gandhi was present at the Conference, but the trend of events, owing to these differences, made it impossible for the discussion of the subjects in which he was particularly interested to come to a head. Therefore, when he got back to India, his actions and those of his chief lieutenants in the Congress Party showed that he was determined to depart from the course of constitutional action on which he had recently entered and embark once more on the kind of agitation which had brought such disasters and sufferings on India in the past. With the events of 1930 -- when Mr. Gandhi's civil disobedience movement had plunged parts of India into anarchy -- fresh in his mind, and with the fortunes of the whole policy which is summed up in the Round Table Conference at stake, Lord Willingdon had no alternative but to order Mr. Gandhi's arrest and subsequently to guarantee, by the issue of ordinances, those conditions of internal peace and stability in which alone the policy of His Majesty's Government and the Government of India could be worked out.

This policy, it should be noted, was supported by the great majority of Indian political opinion, as is shown by the proceedings of the third session of the Round Table Conference which ended on Christmas Day. To the third session came representatives of all the schools of Indian political thought except the Congress. With reduced numbers as compared with the previous sessions, the proceedings were more businesslike, and the measure of agreement reached on the vitally important question of safeguards and certain aspects of the relations between the Indian States and British India in the new federation put His Majesty's Government in a position to draft a bill which will be submitted to a Joint Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament. Of course, many important questions are still outstanding, notably some of those concerned with inter-communal claims and relations, and there is no doubt that many of the difficulties will require further time for solution. It is still impossible to say when the Princes will be able to enter the Federation, and until they do so the full measure of concession for which the British Government is prepared cannot be given. Nevertheless, reason and good will on both sides have triumphed so far hitherto that we may hope for the same results from their exercise in the future.

One example of the extraordinarily difficult character of the tasks set to His Majesty's Government by the problems of Indian political development may be given in conclusion. It will also show something of the amazing complexity of politics in India. Last year, owing to the failure of the communities to agree among themselves, the Prime Minister announced the lines on which His Majesty's Government proposed to settle the vexed question of the proportion of seats to be allotted to each community in the provincial legislatures. Mr. Gandhi objected that by this award the Depressed Classes (which, he claimed, should be included in the Hindu fold) were given the status of a separate community apart from Hinduism. Realizing that the British Government's award was meant only to safeguard the helpless Depressed Classes who had begged for protection against possible injustice from the powerful caste Hindus, Mr. Gandhi could not quarrel with the proposed protective measures contained in the award, and his fast was therefore primarily devoted to forcing the hands of the caste Hindus so as to compel them to make certain concessions which would enable the leaders of the Depressed Classes virtually to forego the right of separate electorates which they had received, and thus, for political purposes at any rate, to be counted as Hindus. It is well known how his fast led to the multiplication almost threefold of the seats allotted to the Depressed Classes, and in return the latter will themselves choose a panel of names from amongst the Depressed Classes which will be submitted for election to the legislatures through joint constituencies of caste Hindus and Untouchables. But it is doubtful if this arrangement will stand, for it may bear hardly on the Hindus. For example, it means that in the two great provinces of Bengal and the Punjab there will be serious misgiving in the minds of the caste Hindus regarding the number of seats to be allotted to them; and there are lesser but still great anomalies in other provinces. Already Hindu opinion is mobilizing against the agreement, and there are signs of a split between the vast masses of orthodox Hindus and those Hindu political leaders who have been responsible not only for the agreement with the Depressed Classes leaders, but also for certain social and religious legislation of recent years which orthodox opinion regards as assaults on religion itself.

Thus there are signs that even Hinduism itself is now in danger of political schism, and the political outlook in India becomes correspondingly more complicated. At any rate, the British Government have played, and are playing, their proper part. It is now for India to make the contribution which I have indicated above, the contribution which only she can make.

[i] Oxford University Press, 1931.

[ii] Cf. "Self-Government for India," by the Marquess of Zetland, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1930. "India Between the Conferences," by L. F. Rushbrook Williams, July 1931. "After the Indian Conference," by the Marquess of Zetland, April 1932.

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  • THE MARQUESS OF READING, Lord Chief Justice of England, 1913-1921; Viceroy of India, 1921-26; Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1931
  • More By The Marquess of Reading