THE outbreak of war caught India already moving rapidly toward a political crisis. The scheme for an All-India Federation, after having been before the Indian public since 1930, had been formally embodied in a statute since 1935. By the summer of 1939, however, the prospects of Federation had all but vanished under the combined opposition of the Princes, the Moslems and other minority communities. Then in September an even more fateful problem -- that of India's status in the British Commonwealth of Nations -- arose. For the All-India National Congress, the most powerful political movement in the country, has declared that it can give whole-hearted support to Britain only after India has become a full-fledged democracy, taking her place in the Commonwealth on exactly the same terms as Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.

This demand is not a mere attempt to trade on Britain's present troubles. The Congress leaders of course fully appreciate the strength of their unique bargaining position; but they are in full sympathy with Great Britain's aims in this war as defined by Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax. They would rather help than embarrass Britain and it is noteworthy that they are not demanding the severance of the connection between Great Britain and India. There is no talk of fighting for independence. Put in a nutshell, what the Congress leaders are saying is this: "You are fighting for democracy and for all the spiritual and political liberty which that word implies. The Government of India is not yet a fully democratic government and, although the people of India sympathize with you in your present struggle, it is not possible for them to release their immense physical and moral power unless they feel that they are fighting to safeguard something which they themselves possess and dearly prize."

There can be no doubt that sympathy with the British and French cause and a desire to help are very widespread in India, and that this is a factor which Congress dare not ignore. Moreover, Mr. Gandhi himself is not inclined to make political capital out of Britain's present preoccupations. It is quite certain that large numbers of Indians wish to help the British Government at this crisis, and that only a small minority wants to oppose it actively. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, has been busy during the last few weeks interviewing the representative leaders of all shades of organized Indian opinion. From all that we can hear, these meetings have been cordial and frank, and there can be little doubt that Indian opinion is now more friendly towards the British Government than at any time since 1919.

What has been the British response to this demand from the All-India National Congress -- a demand, be it noted, which is not supported by any other organized political interests in India? In a White Paper published at Delhi on October 18 Lord Linlithgow stated that no major constitutional development could take place in India during the war. In taking this view he was supported by Lord Zetland, Secretary of State for India. The Viceroy did, however, promise that there would be full consultation with all sections of Indian opinion after the war, if this should be found necessary and desirable, and that in the meantime he was arranging for a consultative body representative of Indian opinion generally to be associated with him during the war.

This announcement has not satisfied Congress. Mr. Gandhi has described it as profoundly disappointing, while Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru more forcibly talks about it as spurning the hand of friendship extended by Congress to the British Government. Mr. Gandhi says that the Viceroy's statement simply shows that the old policy of divide and rule is to continue. The Working Committee of Congress followed these words by demanding that the governments in those provinces where the Congress Party was in power should resign. Accordingly, the ministries have resigned in Madras, Bombay, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, the Central Provinces, the United Provinces, and the North West Frontier Province -- some of them, it may be said, very unwillingly. No attempt is being made to form alternative governments, and the administration is being carried on by officials, as is provided by the Government of India Act of 1935. However, anxious efforts to reach an agreement are still being made on both sides; already it is clear that Mr. Gandhi does not wish to exploit the situation by calling on Congress to practice civil disobedience.

Another encouragement may be gained from the debate on India in the House of Commons on October 26. Mr. Wedgwood Benn, speaking for the Labour Party, asked for a clear answer to Mr. Gandhi's questions about British war aims and India's share in the freedom for which the British Empire was fighting. Sir Samuel Hoare, replying for the Government, stated unequivocally that full Dominion status for India was the aim of British policy, and that the Viceroy desired to take Indian political leaders fully into his confidence. The effect of this declaration in India has been definitely good, and it may be that Lord Linlithgow's suggestion for a consultative body, mentioned above, may after all prove to be the bridge for an understanding between Congress and Government.

Actually, the Viceroy's declaration is an important advance towards the Indian Congress position, particularly as regards the promise to reëxamine the whole constitutional position after the war and to form a consultative body, which might develop into a coalition government for the Federation when it is set up. These things will be perceived by Congress men when the first disappointment of their more ardent hopes has faded. Furthermore, the other important sections of Indian opinion -- the Princes, the Mohammedans, the Moderates and the depressed classes -- will actively resist any attempt to give effect to the Congress demands. The Congress Party, let it be recalled parenthetically, has no great following in any of the parts of India from which the bulk of the Indian Army is recruited.

Two problems have impeded India's progress towards full Dominion status: (1) the position of the Indian Princes; and (2) the divergent social, religious and political interests of the Hindu and Moslem communities. The transcendent importance of these problems presided over the labors of the Round Table Conference held between 1930 and 1932, as well as the subsequent decisions of the joint select committee of Parliament which examined the British Government's Draft Government of India Bill. And today the British Government must give them full weight in its search for a solution to the great question of All-India Federation. The war will inevitably introduce new conditions and loose new spiritual forces which will probably transform the basis of Indian political life. Yet, the one inescapable condition for the creation of an autonomous nation in that vast subcontinent must remain the attainment of political unity by means of an All-India Federation -- and nothing that Congress or the British Government can do or say will alter this fact.

At the outbreak of war the position regarding Federation was briefly this. The Princes had declared (June 1939) that the terms offered to induce them to enter into the proposed Federation were "fundamentally unsound:" the Mohammedans were in open revolt against the scheme, which they said would subject them to Hindu domination, while other communities, including the depressed classes, were likewise antagonistic. The opposition of the Princes and the Mohammedans seemed particularly intractable -- and for reasons readily understood.

The great Indian Princes at present enjoy full domestic sovereignty, and they naturally hesitate to surrender any material part of this. For example, they do not want their States overrun by federal agents, their law courts subordinated to British Indian courts, or their resources put at the disposal of any external authority. Above all, they do not want to have the control over constitutional reforms in their States taken from their hands or their relations with their own people influenced from outside. If they could be certain that their present privileges would always be guaranteed by the British Crown, many of their fears would vanish. But suppose the British Crown is replaced at some future date by an autonomous Indian Government. Could they then be as certain of the sanctity of their rights?

Again, as they look at British India, the Princes see the overwhelming political supremacy of the Congress Party. Of the eleven British Provinces, eight had Congress governments at the outbreak of the war. Now the antagonism between the Congress Party and the Indian Princes is bitter and of long standing. As long ago as 1922, Lord Reading had to use the extraordinary powers vested in him as Viceroy to protect the Princes from the flood of vilification constantly directed against them, both as an order and as individuals, from Left Wing quarters in British India. Since the inauguration of the 1935 Act, the Congress Party has carried on a ceaseless campaign against the Princes and has intervened directly in State politics by demanding that the Princes undertake political reforms aimed at giving public opinion in their States a decisive voice in government. Congress, of course, wants these reforms carried out under its supervision. Mr. Gandhi's personal intervention in the affairs of Rajkot State in March 1939, his threat to fast to death, and the subsequent intervention of the Viceroy, were the most dramatic and publicized events in this campaign. But in many other States the intervention of Congress agents has resulted in various forms of disorder.

The population of the Indian States constitutes only about one fifth of the population of India. Thus, even though their representation in the Federal Legislature and Government is to be weighted in their favor, they will always be in a definite minority. In the upper house of the Federal Legislature they will have 40 percent of the seats; but in the lower house, which will inevitably be the more important, they will have only 33 percent. If, therefore, the Princes believe that the Congress Party is destined to retain its predominant position in British India and to maintain its antagonistic attitude towards the princely order, they will most likely continue to look askance at Federation.

The opposition of the Mohammedans to Federation is no less formidable than that of the Princes. The Mohammedans are, of course, in a minority; but as there are nearly 90 millions of them, their position is very different from that of an ordinary minority. Since the inauguration of provincial autonomy, Mohammedan opposition to Federation has grown steadily stronger. Put quite simply, the Moslems' position is that Federation will place them in a status of hopeless inferiority in the Federal Government vis-à-vis the Hindus, since the great majority of the Indian States are Hindu. Hindu-Moslem antagonism, it must be admitted, arises primarily from political causes. Mohammedan spokesmen say that wherever there is a Congress government, Mohammedans are oppressed because the personnel of the Congress Party is almost exclusively Hindu. Their opposition to the present proposals for Federation has not stopped at words, for there have been outbreaks of rioting during the past few months.

In weighing the prospects for Federation we must examine the actual working of provincial autonomy -- that part of the 1935 Act which was brought into force in 1937. Under this Act the electoral basis of the provincial legislatures was immensely widened as compared with the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, which the present Constitution superseded -- the electorate was multiplied about fivefold, so that there are now between 35 and 40 million voters in British India. The ministries in the provinces, which are chosen on the usual parliamentary principle, now have complete control over all subjects of provincial administration, subject only to certain special powers vested in the provincial governors, which until the present crisis were practically unused. There is, in fact, a rather striking analogy between the position of a provincial ministry in India and in Canada. On the other hand, the Indian provincial ministry is more independent of its central government than is its counterpart in South Africa. In a word, parliaments and responsible governments were set up in the eleven provinces of British India.

After the general elections in 1937, at which the Congress Party was returned to power in eight provinces, there was at first some doubt as to whether they would accept the responsibility conferred upon them by the electorate, and a dangerous deadlock threatened for some time. However, these doubts were eventually dispelled and "provincial autonomy" started on its career towards the end of that year. Even so, there were still some extreme elements in the Party which announced that, although they were prepared to sit in the provincial legislature and even join provincial cabinets, they did so only in pursuance of the old Congress ideal of wrecking the reforms from within. It need hardly be said that a provincial cabinet containing a sprinkling of avowed wreckers would not constitute a particularly good administration, unless the prime minister happened to be a man of extraordinary force and skill.

There were other possible sources of trouble. Practically all the Congress election manifestoes had contained sweeping promises of social and economic amelioration, and the Congress voters, having put their men in power, naturally looked to them for an early fulfillment of these pledges. Further, the Congress Party had long engaged in active, often violent, agitation against the constituted government. It was hard for the rank and file to realize that they themselves had created the new provincial governments, and they continued to organize anti-government activities in various provinces. In some provinces the Congress governments thus had to face riots, strikes and various other outbreaks. Also, many of the Congress ministers took office suspicious of their governors and of the great imperial services, particularly the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Police, whom hitherto they had regarded as their natural enemies. Though these doubts have not entirely died away, the loyal acceptance of the new conditions by the services has reduced the ministers' suspicions to a point where they no longer form a serious feature in the political situation.

Side by side with these potential causes of danger were other factors which encouraged a more optimistic view of the future of the new Constitution. From the moment the Congress leaders began to talk about refusing to take up the power which they had won at the elections, a marked and serious cleavage of opinion arose in their ranks. Some leaders were determined, if necessary, to accept office even in defiance of the orders of Mr. Gandhi and of the Party executive. Similar cleavages took place, one in 1926, when an influential section of the Party declared openly that it would no longer participate in the policy of wrecking the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms from within, and in 1924, when the late Mr. C. R. Das defeated Mr. Gandhi on the question of entry into the Montagu-Chelmsford legislatures. In short, whenever the Congress Party has been given an opportunity for constructive work and for the exercise of effective political power, there has always been an influential section ready to undertake the work and to use the power. In provinces like Madras and Bombay these sections were particularly strong, and in certain other provinces they were strong enough to maintain ministries in opposition to the governing caucus of the Congress Party.

The outstanding fact about the working of the 1935 Act in the provinces is, then, that it has worked. It had been widely feared that in the all-important field of law and order the new ministries would come to grief. Some justification for this foreboding was found in February 1938 -- almost before the new governments had got into their stride -- when the Congress ministries in Bihar and the United Provinces arranged for the release of prisoners who had been convicted of "political" offences during the previous régime. This was certainly the sort of contingency envisaged when the provincial governors were given their special powers. Yet it can easily be seen how dangerous would have been a simple uncompromising refusal by the governors to allow their prime ministers to have their way. The Working Committee of Congress would have exploited the situation to the full, and in the passions which would have been aroused the nascent Constitution might quite conceivably have perished.

Happily, the crisis was handled with considerable skill by the Viceroy. His efforts, it must be acknowledged, were supported by the moderation and sense of realities displayed by the prime ministers in the two provinces and by many of their colleagues. The two governors were directed by the Viceroy to refuse to agree to a general and indiscriminate release of all political prisoners. Naturally this led their prime ministers to tender their resignations. But it was obvious that scope was still left for negotiations. After a short period of anxious consultations it was agreed that the governors would follow their prime ministers' advice in regard to a number of cases which had already been under examination, and that the cases of all other political prisoners should be examined individually on their merits. In Bengal, too, the ancient problem of political détenus, which had already caused as much trouble as any other single question in postwar Indian politics, was brought to an end during 1938 by the release of the men detained. A less severe crisis arose in May 1938 in Orissa, where the Congress Party successfully opposed the appointment of a senior civil servant to act as governor while the regular governor was on leave. Here again an unpleasant situation threatened for a time, but the worst was avoided by the obvious desire of all concerned to prevent a breakdown.

In the general field of maintenance of law and order, the Congress governments of Bombay and the United Provinces settled strikes at important industrial centers by direct intervention, while the governments of other provinces have not hesitated to crush violent outbreaks of lawlessness by force. Also, during the two years following the inauguration of the Act every provincial ministry was able to enact a good deal of valuable social and economic legislation. All of which is a message of good promise for the future even though it does not justify too easy an optimism. After all, two years is a short time in which to judge the success of an experiment of such importance and magnitude as this. The most anxious testing time lies ahead -- when the Indian Princes, and the governments and peoples of the British Provinces, definitely face up to the Federation issue.

The difficulties arising from the opposition of the Princes and the antagonism between the Hindus and Moslems will certainly grow no less formidable as time goes on; nor is there at present any prospect of the rise of an effective opposition to Congress in those provinces where it now holds sway. All the elements that threatened deadlock before the war still remain, and very likely will become even more effective. The present attitude of the Congress leaders widens the gulf separating them from both the Princes and the majority of the Mohammedans. There are parts of India too where Communism has already made headway, for there are many places where social and economic conditions provide good soil for the propagation of Communist ideas.

As the war continues, India will inevitably be subjected to many of the economic and social strains affecting all the belligerent countries. In India some of these strains will become exceptionally great, and the war will undoubtedly necessitate many sweeping changes in all aspects of Indian life. Yet these changes will by no means be entirely disastrous. The progress of India's internal politics may well be such as to make possible some sort of accommodation between the Congress on one hand and the Princes and Mohammedans on the other. If Mr. Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru persist in their recently proclaimed attitude, another split may quite possibly develop in the Congress Party. Throughout its career, and particularly during the last two decades, the All-India National Congress has been steadily supported by important sections of the Indian business and financial world. In other words, it is not at all a proletarian party, and there are good chances that, once its claims have been met in a way which satisfies every reasonable expectation, Congress will in fact become a conservative party.

In any case, every development of extremism in the Left Wing of Congress will only drive the more moderate elements further to the Right -- a process which will be intensified by the industrial and agrarian unrest to which the war must inevitably give rise. Above all, any appreciable extension of Communist doctrines among the Indian masses will help push the majority of Congress towards the Right. This development will obviously improve the relations of Congress with the Princes and the Mohammedans. Federation will then become less difficult.

Economically, too, the effect of the war ought -- on balance -- to be favorable. India will, of course, be put to considerable expense, but there is no doubt that with the experience of the last war before them, both the British and Indian Governments will arrive at some equitable distribution of the costs between them. For the rest, India, as an agricultural and raw-material-producing country, will naturally benefit enormously from the boom in such products as wheat, cotton, oil seeds, rubber, jute, manganese, mica, steel and iron, aluminum, lead and wool -- to name only the most obvious ones. The war will also inflict injury on India's economy in various ways. But the immense size of her population, now nearly 400 millions, ensures that the fighting forces will absorb only a very small percentage of the country's man power and that there will be no scarcity, or even disorganization, of the labor market. India's war potential on the battlefield is immense: she can raise great armies from some of the finest fighting material in Asia. A highly expert committee is now considering the question of mechanizing the Indian Army, for which purpose the British Government had set apart substantial sums even before the war. A modernized Indian Army can look after not only India, but British and Allied interests elsewhere in the Middle and Far East.

The list of several of India's leading products recited above gives an idea of the diversity of the country's resources. A few figures will show the scale on which she can produce some of them. In the year 1938-39, for example, she produced over 1½ million tons of pig iron, approximately I million tons of steel ingots, and not quite that amount of finished steel. She manufactured nearly 1¼ million tons of jute, of which she exported over 955,000 tons. In the same year she exported over 540,000 tons of cotton and over 15,000 tons of wool. In the previous year she exported over 8,500 tons of raw rubber, over half a million tons of oil seeds, and a large amount of manganese, mica and other mineral products. These figures, which merely exemplify the scale of India's output, are capable of expansion -- and of course they will be expanded.

Lastly, India will prove to be an immensely valuable industrial asset to the British Empire. Her factories are already equipped to turn out many kinds of munitions, various types of machinery, railway rolling stock, finished iron and steel goods, manufactured textiles, chemicals and other items useful in war. For twenty-years India has ranked among the eight greatest industrial countries of the world; yet her industries, mining, transport and trade employ only about 7 percent of her total population. She has thus a tremendous reserve on which she can draw to staff whatever industrial expansion may be necessitated by the war. The iron and steel industry on the Chota-Nagpur plateau is already of the highest importance, and may within the next decade or two become the second, if not actually the first, iron and steel producing region in the world.

To sum up, the Congress demand for full Dominion status does not make any fundamental change in the constitutional situation in India. Congress does not speak for all of India, and the deep divisions between the various classes and religious communities which we have noted as obstacles to Federation prevent an immediate and complete compliance with Congress demands.

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  • JOHN COATMAN, for twenty years a British official in India; member of the Indian Legislative Assembly, 1926-30; Professor of Economic Relations at the University of London, 1930-34; now an official of the British Broadcasting Company
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