THROUGH the familiar outlines of the Moslem-Hindu situation in India one can discern a gradual regrouping of social forces. The political deadlock and the acute economic distress of the last two years have loosened old affiliations, and the fresh alignments which are being made seem likely to alter the fundamental features of many Indian problems.

To understand the changes which are now accelerating in pace we must look back to the final stages of World War I and the following decade. Until the last year of that war there was no organized trade union in India. At about the same time, the women's movement came into existence, primarily in order to claim the right to vote under the Montagu reforms of 1919. The abolition of untouchability did not become a definite program on a country-wide basis until two years later, when Mr. Gandhi assumed the leadership of the Congress Party. Peasant associations were not formed until the onset of the depression in the early thirties, when a sudden drop in the prices of agricultural commodities prompted Mr. Nehru and his colleagues to lead a no-rent campaign in the United Provinces.

The present mood of the Indian masses is vastly different from the docile and pathetic contentment which 27 years ago Mr. Montagu assumed was an almost permanent phenomenon. On every side there has been organizing and awakening. To assess the new social forces which are shaping the future of India we shall find it necessary to examine the problems of industrial labor, of rural workers and of the depressed classes. And it is important to note particularly the rôle of the Communists in the struggle to improve economic conditions for the Indian "have-nots."

II

The trade unions in India actually have barely half a million members -- less than 10 percent of the number of workers in large-scale industry -- but they are more influential than the size of the membership suggests. Unionization has steadily forged ahead in the main industrial centers, except in the colliery areas of Bihar and west Bengal and the tea plantations of Assam.

In the years immediately preceding the present war, Communists were increasingly successful in capturing the leadership of unions affiliated with the Trade Union Congress. The fact is significant. For more than a decade the Communists had made little headway. A sharp internal conflict between them and the trade union leaders who sought reform through the Royal Commission on Labor brought about a split in the labor movement in 1929. It was healed eight years later, but the general strikes of that period, the long "conspiracy" trial of the Communist leaders and the economic depression produced an atmosphere of disillusion. In 1937, however, when the new Constitution and the brightening prospects of industry brought fresh hope of improvement in working conditions, the Communist leadership began to make gains.

Left-wing groups in the Congress Party had at first opposed the formation of Congress Governments. When they found themselves in a minority in the Central Executive of the party and the formation of Congress Governments became inevitable, they adopted the policy of forcing the pace of labor legislation and agrarian reform. The workers were encouraged to expect energetic efforts to carry out the party's election program of the previous year: a living wage, freedom to form trade unions, sickness and unemployment benefits, free education for children, maternity and medical relief and housing reform. Faced with the necessity of doing something quickly to prove that these promises were not illusions, the Congress Governments took the obvious first step of restoring wage cuts imposed during the depression. And in a number of provinces the larger factories among those hitherto unregulated were brought under the control of the Factory Act. Maternity benefits were extended to new areas and hours of work prescribed for shops and commercial establishments.

The Congress Party adopted Mr. Gandhi's creed that conciliation must be attempted before strikes could be called, and found Communist propaganda somewhat embarrassing, particularly in Bombay and Cawnpore. The Government was pledged to labor reform; but it could not undertake such reform without a careful review of the situation and could not permit the preaching of doctrines likely to promote civil strife. Committees of inquiry produced reports of considerable value, which enabled the Congress Ministries in several provinces to formulate policies, but their measures seemed halting and half-hearted to the left-wingers of the party, who were never reconciled to the decision to take office under the new Constitution.

The Bombay Government was sorely tested in the first few months of its existence by a strike in the textile industry. There were 379 strikes in India in 1937, the first year of provincial autonomy, and in the following year there was serious trouble at Cawnpore in the United Provinces, where the workers demanded action along the lines of the inquiry committee's report. The outbreak of the war accentuated the labor unrest throughout India. The Congress Governments resigned in the fall of 1939 over the question of India's enforced participation in the war, and such restraints as had been observed during the two years of their administration disappeared with them. All through the summer of 1940 Communist leaders exhorted the Bombay textile workers, by leaflets and speeches, not to help the cause of imperialism.

The Nazi attack on Russia in the summer of 1941 of course wrought a profound change in the tactics of the Indian Communists, and since then they have exerted a steadying influence. On the whole, despite some prolonged strikes at centers like Ahmedabad, there has been less labor unrest than might have been expected. The wartime defense of India regulations, which have little regard for normal civil rights, are an effective instrument for the speedy removal of "inconvenient" leaders and the prohibition of unapproved public meetings. The unprecedented rise in prices was countered by the payment of "dearness allowances," in many cases amounting to more than 200 percent of normal wages. These allowances are intended to cover the difference between the normal cost of living and the artificial standards resulting from the war. Employers in India have preferred to maintain permanent wage rates at more or less prewar levels in the belief that later curtailment or even complete withdrawal of these allowances, in accordance with the drop in prices, would meet with less opposition from the workers than the lowering of wages which had once been raised. The allowances have been made possible by the boom in industry and by the Government ruling that they may be included under working expenses in the calculation of excess profits. The Government also granted special facilities to employers to build up large stocks of food, and they have been sold to the workers at almost cost price. The cost to the employer is also deductible from excess profits. This policy has given the industrial laborer a powerful incentive to remain at work, though it has made life even more difficult for others in the community.

The Government, profiting by past experience, has undertaken a careful study of the many reforms that must be made in the postwar period. Action on housing, sickness insurance, minimum wages, freedom of association, employment exchanges and many other matters affecting labor is either in an experimental stage or under consideration. Joint conferences of governmental, employers' and workers' representatives, recommended by the Royal Commission in 1931 but at first opposed by the Government, have at last begun and may provide a quicker method of translating principles into laws. The inclusion of representatives from the Indian states will help focus attention on the lag in labor legislation in many of them.

No one can say with certainty what is ahead for industrial labor in India, though some trends seem clear. The subsidies in the form of dearness allowances and food at reduced prices are bound sooner or later to come to an end. There will also be unemployment, since the number of workers in industry has increased by about 50 percent during the war. The labor market will no doubt also be swollen by large numbers of the demobilized Indian troops who may find village life unattractive. Development of existing industries and of new ones is certain in India, but the rate of growth will be governed by many factors, not the least of which will be the availability of machinery.

After all, what has the worker to look forward to? The vast majority of the workers are unprotected by labor laws, and the enforcement is scandalously lax even within their narrow limits. There is no minimum wage, and most workers are paid much less than is needed to provide them with an adequate diet. Milk, vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat are unobtainable, except at prohibitive prices. The workers are hopelessly in debt; they pay interest rates ranging to 150 percent and more. The phenomenal population increase in the industrial centers has caused a further deterioration in housing conditions, incredibly bad even in peacetime.

The response of Indian labor to these problems will be affected by an important new factor. During the present war, the Government has opened hundreds of technical institutions for training young men who possess secondary education as skilled workers. Tens of thousands of such men, now engaged in war work, will later be absorbed into industry. One of India's greatest industrial needs in the past has been sufficient numbers of skilled personnel. The deficiency is rapidly being made good by the opportunities created by the war, but these same men will demand far higher standards of wages and housing than employers have been accustomed to concede. They come from a class very different from the landless, superfluous villagers who have filled the entire demand for industrial labor for many decades. They will provide experienced and resolute leadership for the trade unions of the future; and they certainly will not tolerate present conditions.

III

It is not possible to be precise in analyzing the problems of the peasants and their efforts at organization. Kisân Sabhâs -- peasant associations -- came into existence in the United Provinces, Bihar, Bengal and Madras during the depression. In outlook and technique the peasant associations were radical, but at first they were not organized on a country-wide basis. Mr. Nehru's campaign for non-payment of rent in the United Provinces in 1931 was in a sense remarkably successful, but the problem was too vast and complex to yield to such a simple and localized solution. During the depression, rural indebtedness almost doubled in volume, reaching approximately 600 billion dollars (reckoned at current rates of exchange). In the course of a decade about 5,000,000 acres of cultivable land passed into the hands of the non-agricultural, money-lending classes.

Agrarian reform was inevitably the main plank of the Congress Party's program for the 1937 election, the first to be held under the new constitution. On the eve of the elections, Hindu and Moslem landlords had formed the National Agriculturists' Party -- the Moslem landlords preferring it to Mr. Jinnah's Moslem League. The electorate had been expanded from less than 9,000,000 to more than 35,000,000. The peasants' vote was one of the factors responsible for the sweeping successes of Congress candidates in the United Provinces. Congress Ministries followed a policy of reform which in some respects was bold. Rents and rates of interest on loans were appreciably scaled down; forced labor, wherever it existed, was abolished; unauthorized exactions in cash and kind -- which through long practice had acquired the sanctity of custom -- lapsed; and in some provinces, a moratorium was declared on debts contracted in the pre-depression period. These reforms, plus legislation to secure fixity of tenure for certain classes of tenants, represented more vigorous action than had ever been attempted in this field by any previous administration in India. But the net result of these measures meant to improve the status and the economic conditions of the peasant showed that the real problem lay too deep to be solved by palliatives. In some parts of the country, the customary sources of rural credit began to dry up as a result of Congress policy. Since there was no other source from which the peasants could get credit, they were left in an even worse plight than before. Nor, it must be added, did these reforms touch to any great extent the most exploited section of agricultural labor, the landless cultivator.

The economic strain of this war has made the question of the abolition of the "permanent revenue settlement" and of the landlord system an unavoidable issue. Under the former, introduced in Bengal by Lord Cornwallis in the closing years of the eighteenth century, a chain of middlemen has grown up between the landlord and the tenant. These middlemen have no direct interest in the land and are concerned only with obtaining maximum rents. The system has proved a colossal failure, depriving the state of an expanding source of income and depriving the tenant of all incentive for improving the land. The demand for abolition of the system was regarded as dangerously revolutionary, when it was raised by Mr. Nehru 15 years ago. Today he and his associates are on much stronger ground. An official committee in Bengal recommended the abolition of the permanent settlement in a remarkable document published in the early stages of this war. It would be surprising if the Bengal Famine Commission, faced with the tragic consequences of a system which deprives the peasant of a direct interest in the improvement of the land and a hope of improving his standards of life, came to any other conclusion. The British have evaded this primary issue for fear of offending the susceptibilities of the landlords. But the problem must now be solved, not only because the villager is rapidly becoming conscious of his political rights and economic interests, but because postwar reconstruction plans for India are meaningless unless the peasantry is prosperous.

IV

The other manifestations of social discontent may be more briefly mentioned. The problems of the depressed classes, who number at least 50,000,000, are largely inseparable from those of agricultural and industrial labor. So old and deep-rooted a social evil as untouchability cannot quite disappear in a quarter of a century. But all provincial governments under the new constitution -- and to a lesser extent, their predecessors -- have to their credit a series of measures which must ultimately wipe out this evil. Five of them, for example, all under the Congress Party, made education free for the depressed classes from the elementary schools to the highest grades in government institutions. Bombay and Madras, where untouchability still exists, instructed all officials to tolerate no civic disabilities on the ground of caste or religion; and special coöperative societies have been formed in these provinces for supplying credit and facilitating the acquisition of house sites for the depressed classes.

Education, the steady pressure of public opinion backed by the influence of the state, the exercise of the vote and, above all, the emphasis which class organizations like trade unions and peasants' associations place on common economic interests without regard for caste or race are substantial factors tending to remove the barriers of untouchability. The Hindu caste system is, in fact, being subjected to a many-sided attack. But for the war, the far-reaching changes embodied in the codification of Hindu law would have attracted attention outside India. The codification is not just a legal process of combing out the intricacies and the anomalies of case law built on the judicial pronouncements of British-established courts. Subject to the final sanction of the Indian legislature it seeks to embody a number of reforms, such as monogamy, divorce and women's right to inherit property. The cold language of legal provisions in the proposed code conceals a great departure from the conservative interpretation of Hindu texts by judges. It is not too much to say that when the code comes into operation a new era will begin.

V

So much for a brief résumé of some of the major social forces now at work in India. Where will they take India in the postwar world? The urge toward equality, amounting almost to a passion, is perhaps the most striking characteristic of the Indian temper today. It is both a demand for equality with the other nations and races of the world, and an urge to abolish political, economic and social discrimination at home.

India's progressive forces were split, however, when the Communists relegated independence to a secondary rôle after Russia's entry in the war. Following the breakdown of the Cripps negotiations in 1942 there was a marked change in the Indian Government's attitude toward the Communist movement. Many Communist leaders were released from prison and permitted to resume their activities, which included building up a chain of papers published in Indian languages, all of which took their policy and much of their material from an admirably conducted weekly in Bombay, The Peoples' War. The arrest of Messrs. Gandhi and Nehru and thousands of workers loyal to the Congress Party in August 1942 proved a severe test for the Communists. Had they used their recently acquired control over the trade union movement to further Mr. Gandhi's program, industrial strikes might have caused serious embarrassment to the war effort. But, as we have noted, they preferred to exercise a steadying influence on the workers. Many of the Socialist leaders, on the other hand, threw themselves into the political struggle, and those who were not arrested or detained disappeared underground. The Communists themselves paid a heavy price for the invaluable support which they gave the British when the Congress Party's challenge was formidable. Communism has been at a discount in the last two years among the young men and women in the universities because of its failure to support the Nationalist struggle in 1942. The Socialists, who made common cause with the Communists before the war, will not easily forget their defection at a critical time. And the fact that many employers in dealing with the workers have taken unfair advantage of the coöperative attitude of Communist union leaders is also held against the Communists.

The Indian Communists are now working for limited and noncontroversial objectives, waiting for the memories of 1942 to recede. The famine in Bengal and the scandals connected with the food shortage in other parts of India during the last 18 months gave them a chance to create peoples' committees for the better distribution of stocks and better control of prices. They have made full use of these opportunities. Their program calls for the release of the Congress leaders, a Gandhi-Jinnah settlement as a prelude to the formation of a National Government (which would, of course, give fullest support to the Allied cause), effective rationing of food and suppression of hoarding and black market operations. Thousands of young men and women are working with enthusiasm on such a program and cheerfully undergoing the hardships of a wartime life on eight dollars a month.

Meanwhile, the Communists are spreading out into new organizations, hoping to capture as many as possible. They have for some time been in key positions in the Trade Union Congress. They have failed to make headway in the Congress Party (especially since Mr. Gandhi's release). Communism, as such, makes little appeal to the followers of Mr. Gandhi, with their creed of non-violence. But the process of infiltration is meeting with a measure of success, notably in the Moslem League. Mr. Jinnah laid down the principle that there must be no divided loyalties for Moslem Communists, but a number of ardent Moslems who joined the League after severing their connection with the Communist Party are undeterred by this condition of membership. In the Punjab, the clash between Mr. Jinnah and the pro-landlord Unionist Ministry during the summer of 1944 compelled him to look for allies in the rural areas. Later in the year a manifesto of the Punjab Moslem League was published in Lahore, presumably in preparation for the general elections in that province. It was a remarkably progressive and indeed, in some respects, a radical document, pledging the League to the economic advancement of the cultivator and shifting the main burden of taxation to the landlord.

A similar reorientation of the Moslem League, also initiated by the Communists, seems to be under way in other parts of India where the economic strains of the last two years have been severe. Mr. Jinnah is repeatedly asked by some of his followers at party meetings whether the Moslem League represents the interests of the landlords or of the peasants. Until recently, the League was largely the mouthpiece of economic vested interests, but after all, the Moslems, far more than the Hindus, are the have-nots in India. Mr. Jinnah, bereft of his old allies, the landlords, may find it necessary to revise his policy and program.

Two factors which may play a large part in determining India's future cannot now be estimated. The first is the question of Mr. Nehru's attitude toward the Socialists and the Communists after his release; so far he has identified himself with neither. The second is the question how long the Indian Communists will continue their truce with British imperialism after the war. But even apart from changes which may or may not come from these two sources, important realignments of social forces are already discernible in India. The attention of the outside world has so long been riveted on Hindu-Moslem differences that the development of these new forces has received little attention. The significant fact for the future in India is the probability that the Hindu-Moslem question may be transformed by economic considerations, and that the have-nots -- Moslem, Hindu and Untouchable -- will take their own line. Such a development would put the question of India's future in very different terms from those outlined by the middle-class approach of today.

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
  • B. SHIVA RAO, New Delhi correspondent of the Hindu of Madras; Indian correspondent of the Manchester Guardian; author of "The Industrial Worker in India"
  • More By B. Shiva Rao