FROM time to time there surges against the British Government a high tide of demand that it should "settle the Indian problem." The demand is voiced in Britain, in India, in the United States and other countries. The short answer from Mr. Churchill's Government is that the Indian problem is one which only the Indian people can settle. There is thus presented a clear conflict of belief, on an issue of vital moment to the world at large, as to where the seat of responsibility lies. In order to fix or apportion the responsibility it is not enough merely to allot the blame for past failure; that is a negative and arid satisfaction. It is also necessary to point the road to positive action in the future.

We must first be sure what the Indian problem is. The objective is not simply to complete the political independence of the Indian people. Only in a wider setting does that objective become a major interest of the world at large, or indeed become substantial for the Indian people themselves. The war in Europe is not being fought simply to restore a free Poland, for example, although it will be fought in vain unless that is part of its achievement; it is being fought to establish a free and stable Poland within a Europe relieved by a powerful system of international security from the menace of brutal national ambition, and equipped with the means of organizing its economic and social progress as part of a world complex. So too in the Indian context the true objective is to establish a free and stable India within an international system of security and economic coöperation to which India will contribute according to her potentialities.

One of the inner causes of conflict between British and Indian opinion is their difference in focus in viewing this objective. The British, habituated to an international outlook by their geographical situation and by their responsibility for a world-wide group of countries under one Crown, tend to concentrate on the wider setting and to underrate the inherent value of the national yearning for independence for its own sake. The Indians, by nature introspective and disinclined to look beyond their own regional, religious or national horizon, tend to forget that independence is unreal unless it is qualified by membership in an international society to which each member must contribute according to its ability and in which the affairs of each are the concern of all. The one, knowing that independence is an illusion, looks for international stability; the other, knowing that stability can be a cloak for stagnation, looks for national independence.

To bring these two views into a common focus is the beginning of wisdom in solving the Indian problem. Again the best approach is through an assessment of responsibilities.

Great Britain has a treble responsibility in India. In so far as she retains the control of government there, her responsibility is to govern and defend India to the best of her ability, maintaining peace and order, holding the balance between different classes, interests and communities, and promoting the welfare of the people according to her best lights. In so far as she transfers that control to Indian hands, her responsibility is to ensure that it passes to those who can and will defend the country, maintain order and promote welfare, and that in the new seat of power the different classes, interests and communities are fairly represented. She has an additional responsibility, owed to her own pledges and ideals as well as to the Indian people, to hasten that transfer of control as much as she can.

The responsibility of the Indian people is the converse of Britain's. In so far as they assume the control of government, their responsibility is to maintain order, defend the country, promote welfare, and hold the balance between high and low, majority and minority. In so far as the control has yet to pass to them, their responsibility is to devise a governmental system capable of doing those things and fully representing the different constituents of the national life.

Indian political opinion under its present leaders has not been ready to shoulder these responsibilities. Its attitude has become more and more negative and has thus thrown into relief the negative aspect of Britain's own position. For this unhappy state of affairs many causes may be blamed: the reaction of impatient nationalism to the deliberate pace of prewar British policy; the generations of subservience which have stifled the habit of responsibility in the Indian political character; the age-long shadow of the caste system, which limits both the individual and the corporate sense of responsibility; sheer despair at the difficulty of reconciling the conflicting communities and interests that make up India's life.

All these are part of the background, and each contributes some part of the explanation of Indian failure to face up to the growing responsibilities of approaching independence. But in the foreground are more immediate and tangible influences towards negation.

Indian politics, like the politics of other countries, are today in the grip of a few organized parties. Although many eminent individual politicians, whose name and fame often were made in less democratic days, stand out in the Indian political scene, their influence depends in the long run on their ability to sway mass party voters, either directly or by their influence over the actual party leaders. In a democracy of millions (and the electorate of India exceeds 30 million voters) there is nothing to stand up to the apparatus of party discipline and party organization. Here is the greatest new factor in the Indian political scene since the constitutional reforms of 1935. Hence, whatever the individual views of political leaders, they must all yield in some measure to the policy and interest of the party as such, lest they lose the support of that apparatus and become but individual publicists. Mr. Rajagopalachari, as Premier of Madras, as one of the first half-dozen leaders of the Congress Party, was an important power to be reckoned with; as a rebel who put his views of the national interest before the policy and interest of the party and was cast out, he counts for the publicity value of his utterances, and little more.

To the great misfortune of India and of the world, the short-term interest of the major parties in Indian national politics is not today in favor of that mutual compromise and adjustment which is enjoined by the responsibility to devise a fully representative governmental system, able to maintain peace and order and serve the good of all; nor in favor of working by practice and experiment towards the ability (which does not come overnight) to govern a vast and complex country equitably and well.

Three parties alone really deserve the name in the Indian national field; the Congress, the Moslem League, and the Hindu Mahasabha. Of these only the last has an obvious interest in taking and using such measure of governmental power as may be open to it now. It has that interest because the simple rule of majority government, which works on the side of the Hindu caste community as against Moslems and other minorities, is still the accepted currency of Indian political thought, although it is steadily depreciating in value. To effect a settlement now would be to arrest its depreciation. But the Mahasabha, by virtue of its communal structure and aim, is incapable of that radical compromise with the demands of Moslems and others which alone can lead to a truly representative and stable government; nor can British authority discharge its responsibilities by a settlement with one communal body and not its rival.

The Moslem League, on the other hand, has a party interest in standing aside, in putting its terms for a positive policy so high as to render it negative in effect. For the League rightly feels itself to be on an upward arc of political power. Moslem opinion, shaken by its experience of the majority system as practised with Congress leadership in the self-governing provinces of India from 1937 to 1939, is solidifying behind the League, as a chain of by-elections testify. Pakistan -- the policy of establishing the Moslem-majority areas as a separate nation-state -- which is today the great theme of the League, has changed in two or three years from a mere slogan, an extremist fad, into a policy with which both British and Indian opinion grapples as a practical possibility. From a party point of view, the League has everything to gain from staying in the wilderness where it finds the locusts and honey such a nourishing diet.

This view of the position of the Moslem League does not seek to identify the League with the Moslems as a whole; for undoubtedly many Moslems stand outside Mr. Jinnah's League, a number being supporters of the predominantly Hindu Congress. It simply looks upon the League as a party, one of the major political forces in the state, which has to be reckoned with and settled with in any major political innovations. British pledges to minorities apart, no constitutional solution would work, in the sense of discharging both British and Indian responsibilities for securing orderly and stable government in India, unless it obtained at least the passive adherence of a large portion, if not the whole, of the Moslem League. Thus the tactical limit to Mr. Jinnah's intransigence in the face of opportunities to compromise with other parties and take a hand in the present government of India is set by the danger that if pushed too far it might drive a large enough coöperative wing out of the League to form a rival party in national politics.

Mr. Jinnah pressed his non-coöperative policy to the very edge of this limit in August 1941 when he demanded the resignation of the Premiers of the two great Moslem-majority provinces of the Punjab and Bengal from the newly formed National Defence Council. The late Sir Sikander Hyat Khan and Mr. Fazl-ul-Huq put up a show of struggle but bowed their will to his. Mr. Fazl-ul-Huq eventually rebelled, broke up his Moslem League government in Bengal, and, taking a portion of his Moslem followers with him, formed a coalition with the Hindu Mahasabha and other groups. Nothing has been more significant in Indian politics on the Moslem side in the past few years than the sequence of resounding victories for Moslem League candidates in by-elections in Bengal, which led at length to Mr. Huq's resignation in March of this year. The honors of tactical victory rest entirely with Mr. Jinnah and his negative policy, with its rejection of compromise and responsibility.

In August 1942 the Congress pitched itself headlong against the government, and all its leaders were placed in confinement with the prospect of remaining there for the rest of the war. The British Government was being strongly pressed to accompany repression with conciliation. Here was a wonderful opportunity for a Moslem League leader to cash in on the fact that he now headed the most powerful party at large, and to make terms with the remaining groups for taking over the very substantial and growing measure of power which a united non-Congress front could instantly have won from the British Government. Mr. Jinnah, on the contrary, deliberately chose that moment to put up his terms to a pitch which he undoubtedly knew must be unacceptable: he demanded an immediate promise of Pakistan, not merely a guarantee that the possibility of it would not be prejudiced by any interim arrangements. There could have been no clearer proof of his determination to keep the Moslem League out of an interim government, unless driven to it by the threatened defection of a very large bloc of Moslem League supporters or by the fear that the Congress might get there ahead of him -- a fear which seemed real for a few days at the time of the Cripps Mission.

Those days were the fateful moment for the Indian National Congress, whose decision would undoubtedly have been followed by the other parties. A definite choice had to be taken. The responsibility for saying "No" would be as firmly fixed as the responsibility for saying "Yes." In fact, however, the decision of a few hours was predetermined by forces which had betrayed themselves years previously. Like a man at a moment of crisis the Congress was in thrall to its own character.

The two main forces that converged to dictate the answer "No" to the Cripps offer, and afterwards to impel the Congress into a deliberate onslaught on ordered government, were the totalitarian organization and outlook of the Congress, and the personality of Mr. Gandhi. These two factors were intimately connected; for Mr. Gandhi has at once commanded the centralized dictatorship of the Congress and by his influence made it possible. It is under his leadership that the Congress has persistently asserted its claim to be not one party among others but the representative of the whole Indian people, and in so far as this is true it is owing to the dominating sway which his name exerts over the masses of India.

How far it is true is a question which it is no more necessary to answer precisely than to decide whether or not the Moslem League represents the Moslems of India. Both statements cannot be true, yet neither is wholly untrue. What matters in the present connection is that the Congress as a party is not the only powerful party in Indian politics, nor the only one with which the British must settle if they are to discharge their responsibilities. Yet its broad attitude has been based on a contrary doctrine, and in this conflict lies much of the explanation of current Indian troubles.

The one-party system may be the ultimate solution which Indians themselves will work out for this constitutional dilemma. But at present it simply does not fit the facts in India, and the attempt to ignore or override facts that conflict with it has led the Congress into paths of frustration and danger.

It led first to the dictatorship of the party High Command over the Congress Governments in seven of the eleven provinces of India from 1937 to 1939, a dictatorship which vitiated responsible parliamentary government, deprived India of half the invaluable experience that she was gaining in the responsibilities of her own government, and convinced the Moslems and other minorities that weightages in the legislature and like safeguards were valueless, since all was subordinated to an irresponsible caucus at Wardha, Mr. Gandhi's retreat.

Secondly, the totalitarian doctrine has led to a chronic reluctance to negotiate on level terms with any other party, for to do so would be to confess the inadmissibility of the Congress' basic claim. This trait was most conspicuous at the time of the Cripps Mission, when the leaders of the Congress were meeting daily in Mr. Birla's house while the leaders of the Moslem League were meeting in Mr. Jinnah's house a couple of hundred yards away, yet on no occasion did they deliberate together or make any attempt to form a common front. The trait had an even more immediate effect on the Congress decision at that time; for acceptance of the Cripps offer would have rendered them not merely by confession one party among others to be consulted and compromised with, but in actual fact one party among others in a coalition government. If in any case that government were worthy of their support, it would eventually become more powerful than the Congress itself and would escape the orbit of High Command control, which means control by Mr. Gandhi.

There was another and probably still more powerful motive which determined Mr. Gandhi's instant and wholehearted opposition to the Cripps scheme and to its eventual rejection by the Congress. That was his doctrine of non-violence. The repudiation of violence is not a new ethical theme, but its development as a positive political technique is Mr. Gandhi's peculiar contribution to the ideas of his time; and it is safe to say that at the end of his life there is nothing that he holds more dear than this doctrine, nothing that he would hate more than its decisive abandonment by the Indian National Congress. Finally cast over by them, it would have no hope of revival in the hands of any other party in India, and if not in India, then nowhere else in the world in our time; while he himself, with his main principles rejected, would cease to be a political dictator and become but an aged prophet.

Therefore Mr. Gandhi has made no secret of his belief that for the Congress to take part in a war government would be a "disaster," a phrase he used in July 1940 when criticizing the so-called Poona offer of the Congress (for a brief interval kicking over the traces of his leadership), an offer to enter a national war government on condition of an unqualified promise of independence. Nor did he even conceal his view that if the Government of India gave way to the Congress in the struggle of August 1942, and the latter formed an independent national government, he himself would work to pull India out of the war. Nevertheless he has known better than to try to force his ideas implacably upon the Congress; for he knew well that relatively few Congressmen shared to the full his pacifist convictions and that many would be swayed against him by their sympathy with the democracies, and particularly with China, or by their patriotic impulse to help the defense of their own mother country. Therefore his policy during the war has been much more subtle. It has been to save the Congress from ever having to declare its mind, yea or nay, on the issue of fighting the war.

This policy of Mr. Gandhi's had two prongs: to fix attention on other issues, such as complete independence or the right to pacifist propaganda; and to withdraw the Congress from positions of responsibility where daily duty would oblige them either to help fight the war or to take the definite responsibility of frustrating those who were doing so.

The pursuit of these tactics goes back indeed before the war, when in August 1939 the Congress High Command issued orders from Wardha that the Congress members of the Central Legislature were to withdraw from attendance as a protest against the dispatch of Indian troops to Aden and Singapore -- an order which has been kept in force ever since, despite the persistent pleading of many practical-minded Congress members like the late Mr. Satyamurti. The danger that prominent Congress Party supporters might be forced to take a responsible decision on the war was even greater in the seven provinces where Congress Ministries were actively engaged in Indian self-government. In October 1939 the Congress Working Committee -- by way of protest against the way in which India had been brought into the war -- ordered those Ministries out of office. They never returned. The tragedy of that move lay in its bringing to an end the practical experience in responsible self-government which would have led on steadily and irresistibly to greater unity and larger freedom for India. But it was inevitable as a by-product of the deliberate evasion of responsibility, itself the necessary outcome of Mr. Gandhi's pacifist leadership of a largely non-pacifist Congress.

There is no need here to trace the detailed political history of the ensuing two and a half years. It was all of a piece with the same broad theme. But in March 1942 the position suddenly changed. In the so-called Cripps plan, the British Government for the first time unequivocally offered India complete independence, with a mapped-out road for reaching it immediately after the war, and thus satisfied the main historic demand of the Indian National Congress. Moreover, Sir Stafford Cripps came with the deliberate and unwavering plan of negotiating with the principal parties, as such, and of insisting on having from each of them a plain yea or nay. Thus the very situation which for three years Mr. Gandhi had been working to avoid had been forced on the Congress. Its eventual answer was "nay," a decision influenced if not determined by the defeatism which swept India after the Allied reverses in the Far East; but Mr. Gandhi apparently made up his mind that the danger of its either saying "yea" or of splitting in two on the rock of a clear and responsible decision on the war issue must never be allowed to recur.

His answer was the Bombay resolution, the passage of which led to the arrest of himself and all the other chief Congress leaders. Despite the defeatist view which he undoubtedly held of British military prospects, Mr. Gandhi was too shrewd to imagine that the British Government would bow to the mere threat of the resolution, and forthwith sign a deed of Indian independence in the absence of any government or constitution to which to hand over power. The execution of the threat must therefore have one of two results: success, in the shape of a breakdown of communications and ordered government, the capitulation of British power and a condition of chaos in India; or failure, in the shape of the incarceration of the Congress leaders while the country remained subdued if grumbling. Mr. Gandhi's peculiar philosophy, which amounts to a kind of nihilism, made him contemplate the first alternative with an equanimity which to our Western minds seems almost suicidal. But he may be presumed to have been well satisfied with the actual outcome, which appears to have made it quite certain that the Congress will not again be threatened with responsibility for conducting this particular war.

That, in brief, is the Indian side of the dilemma of responsibility on the issue of India's future as a self-governing nation. It is a story, unhappily, of manifest repudiation of responsibility by the two greatest parties, following their party interest and nature -- a story which is unlikely to take a radically different turn while the war continues. The blame is clearly fixed. But the guide to positive action is unhelpful, for it simply adjures the parties to pursue a course which their present accepted leaders are determined to avoid, for reasons which seem to them imperative.

But repudiation of responsibility on the Indian side does not destroy or mitigate the responsibility on the British side. It remains the duty of the British to hasten as much as they can the completion of India's self-government, and this duty is all the more pressing in that a postwar settlement in Asia without a constitutional settlement in India is a contradiction in terms, and because every day's advance towards victory brings nearer the time when British and Indian opinion alike will insist upon a decision on India's future at whatever cost.

How can that duty be discharged today, consistently with those other equally valid responsibilities for defending and governing India, and for ensuring that her defense and government are handed over only to successors capable of the task by virtue of the support that they secure from all the main communities, classes and interests in India? It is a baffling question to which few of those who criticize the inertia of British policy attempt to offer any coherent answer. But there is an answer, or part of an answer, which we see more clearly if we ask ourselves another question. When the moment for that inevitable postwar settlement arrives, what will be most needed in India, to save her from the peril that in the presence of British power and of their own communal and party intransigences the main groups in British India will reach no agreement, while in the absence of British power those same forces will bring about chaos and civil war?

The answer is simple: an Indian Government. Provided only that it was genuinely Indian in personnel and in spirit, and reasonably well balanced as between the different main communities and classes, an Indian Government could assume, though unrepresentative in terms of parties and elections, the same kind of power as the British now easily exert in India though under a like handicap. It would at once help the success of constitutional discussions after the war and by-pass their possible failure. Thus Lord Linlithgow's move of July 1941 in giving to Indian public men the majority of seats in his Executive Council (which is not unlike the Cabinet of an American President) was a notable and decisive contribution to the discharge of British responsibilities in India. It is a policy which has still a long way to go.

A seat or two in an Executive Council, an almost unnoticeable change in Rules of Business, a twist to personal relationships in New Delhi, these are not matters that seem of great moment to the public of the United Nations, even in England, let alone in America. But on these, not on some spectacular stroke of policy, depends the future progress of India towards the complete self-government which all agree should be hers. Like other problems in government, the Indian problem can be solved only in terms of practical responsibility, not in terms of faith and emotion.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • H. V. HODSON, formerly Editor of The Round Table; Reforms Commissioner with the Government of India, 1941-42; author of "Economics of a Changing World," "Slump and Recovery, 1927-37," and other works
  • More By H. V. Hodson