When will be India’s Tryst with Destiny?

Cover-Story.gifDid the transfer of power represent the successful culmination of India’s struggle against colonialism, asks Prakash Rao.
Tryst:  a private romantic rendezvous between lovers
Destiny: fate, events that will necessarily happen to a person in the future. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Cover-Story.gifDid the transfer of power represent the successful culmination of India’s struggle against colonialism, asks Prakash Rao.
Tryst:  a private romantic rendezvous between lovers
Destiny: fate, events that will necessarily happen to a person in the future. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech, “Tryst with Destiny”, on the midnight of August 14, 1947 in the Constituent Assembly, which thereafter constituted itself into the Indian Parliament, has been hailed as one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.

Perhaps there were attenuating circumstances that prevented an objective evaluation of the speech and the accompanying transfer of power. The massacres of Hindus and Muslims accompanied by the partition of India, the peasantry in undivided Bengal rising up in arms in the Tebhaga movement, the unprecedented mutiny of the ratings of the Royal Indian Navy, widespread peasant struggle against zamindars in Telangana, uprisings in Manipur and Nagaland, and so on.

However, when we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of independence this year, our objectivity is not clouded by any of those circumstances. The short speech by Nehru is full of flowery language, but short on facts.
Nehru’s oft-quoted speech in essence said that India has gone through a period of misfortune and was determined to overcome its condition and take its destined place among the great civilisations of the world. Moreover, that had been achieved, “not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially” through the transfer of power.

This characterisation of the history of British colonialism and Indian people’s struggle against it, has rarely been challenged and has become the official grand narrative. Was 1947 destined? Was colonialism a misfortune? Did all the anti-colonial struggles from 1757 to 1857 and 1947 culminate in their fulfillment through the transfer of power?

These are some of the questions that arise, as we celebrate this year, the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey; the 150th anniversary of the great Ghadar of 1857, the birth centenary of Bhagat Singh and the 60th anniversary of independence.

Of course, there are a whole lot of apologists of the transfer of power who will hide behind Nehru’s phrase “not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially” and ask, is life in independent India worse than under British rule? Do we want a throw back to pre-British conditions? Have we not achieved anything in the last sixty years… ad nauseum. But that is a diversion.

An overwhelming majority of our population was born after those moments of euphoria in 1947, which makes it incumbent upon us that we go back in history and recapitulate the important events and trends to make an objective assessment of what took place in 1947.

Firstly, India was a prosperous country contributing, according to some estimates, nearly 25% of the world GDP by the 1700s. Its manufactures were marveled at, and one estimate gives the figure of 60% as the contribution of India and China to world manufacture of those days. India’s metallurgy in the field of zinc, bronze and steel was pioneering and its products were coveted all over the world. It had a well-developed agriculture and a well-kept system of hydraulics for drinking water and irrigation. It had a town planning tradition of nearly five thousand years. Many of its temples and mausoleums were aesthetically pleasing and at the same time based on very sound construction engineering. Sciences like health care, mathematics, astronomy and logic were very advanced. Arab mathematicians transmitted algebra and trigonometry from India to Europe, and so on.

Moreover, there was a healthy atmosphere of coexistence of different contending philosophies, religions and sects, with none claiming the monopoly of absolute truth. Retrogressive social practices like the caste system, gender discrimination or looking down on manual labour  were being challenged and there were constant rebellions in the form of the Bhakti-Sufi movement. Clearly, there was right to conscience and right to free association and organization.

It is important to recall and record these facts, not to wallow in the past, but to be aware that European interest in India was not because it was a backward country, but because it was such an advanced country which would be a great asset to them colonized. In fact, until the early 1800s there was a severe problem for the East India Company as there was a net outflow of gold and silver from England to India. Indians simply did not find much in England worth importing.

When the Europeans came as traders, Indians had no problem with that because India had traded for several millennia with different parts of the world. But the collapse of the Mughal empire and the absence of a single unifying political power in India provided an opportunity for the adventurers and mercenaries of the East India Company to participate in the rivalries of some princes. This, combined with the treachery of some of the princes, led to the conquest of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey.

The British soon set about plundering India rather than trading, and exacting heavy taxes from the peasantry. To their surprise, British administrators like Philip Francis and Cornwallis found that there was no private ownership of land in India in the European manner.

Hence, the Permanent Settlement was conceived and developed. Under Pitt’s India Act (1784), it was specifically mentioned that land in Bengal ought to be settled with zamindars on a permanent basis.

After a prolonged debate among the policy makers, the Permanent Settlement was finally concluded in March 1793. Under the rules of the Permanent Settlement, zamindars and other landholders were declared as absolute proprietors of land. The zamindari land was made freely transferable and inheritable.  The lands of the tax defaulting zamindars were made liable to be sold in public auction for recovery of arrears.

Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement in the hope that the new system would impel zamindars to become landlords like their counterparts in England. He hoped that the operation of the Permanent Settlement would lead finally to an industrial revolution via an inevitable agricultural transformation in the country. That is, he very consciously sowed the seeds of capitalism. According to Indian custom, land was a natural resource and nobody owned it. Peasants had the right to till it and the duty to pay taxes to the king so that he can look after public works, support education, scholarship and health care, besides providing them with security from invading marauders. This system aimed at providing “sukh” and “suraksha.” The king similarly had the right to levy a certain amount of tax on land and use it for public good. If he extracted unreasonable tax, engaged in frequent wars and neglected public works, then he was considered an inefficient tyrant, not fit to be a king. Indian custom considered killing such a king permissible.

The zamindar (variously also known as jagirdar, talukdar, paleygar, deshmukh, sardeshmukh etc in different parts of the country) was part of the King’s tax collecting machinery. He had some judicial powers and also had the duty to contribute men and materials during a war. He was not the owner of land. Thus, ownership rights to the land conferred on the zamindar, which was alienable, rentable and inheritable, was until then unknown in India. Thereafter, the peasantry for the first time faced evictions, which led to destitution, famines and mass migration.

In essence, the British nationalized the land on behalf of the Crown and then privatized part of it.
This led to a series of uprisings in different parts of the country. The British took several other steps besides this fundamental change in social relations. In order to earn more and more revenue they started an aggressive annexation policy, breaking all their promises and treaties with various princes from Awadh and Jhansi to Mysore, Kittur and Satara. To bridge the deficit in the balance of payments and sell more British goods in India, they destroyed the manufacturing base in India, especially in textiles. This created mass unemployment among weavers. On top of it, they created armies of Indians to help them expand the colonies. These armies called Bengal Army, Madras Army and Bombay Army, of which the Bengal Army was the largest, were frequently used in many wars in India as well as abroad. The sepoys of these armies were fed up of being used as cannon fodder.
All these factors coalesced to ignite the conflagration of 1857. This is not the place to go into the details of this glorious chapter in India’s struggle for freedom. However, it is clear from the Great Ghadar that artisans, peasants, middle strata, intelligentsia and even democratic and patriotic elements from the ruling classes could be mobilized in India for this struggle. The aims of the uprising as expressed in various firmans of the ghadaris were: to overthrow colonialism, to preserve the Indian way of life and to open the avenues to people deciding their own future irrespective of faith, caste, language, tribe, and ideology.

The British put down this uprising with great ferocity by using Indians against Indians. Revenge killings afterwards led to genocidal figures of over ten million according to Dr Amaresh Misra. It also led to destruction of the economy of the Ganga valley with mass migrations of millions of peasants and weavers and other artisans.
Perhaps the British understood the lessons better than the Indians. The next 90 years, from 1857 to 1947, witnessed the systematic application of British statecraft to see that Indians remained divided, with one section actually deluding itself that British rule would do good to India if some excesses were removed!

The new colonial programme after Victoria’s proclamation involved the following: carry forward the creation of the social classes in whose interest it was that the British continue to rule; encourage loyal capitalists, merchants, moneylenders, intellectuals and zamindars; destroy and demonise all old forms and sources of knowledge, social organizations and economic organization, create a new intelligentsia that was full of self-hate, which would serve the colonial state and consider Europe as the source of all enlightenment; ally with the most backward and reactionary elements in the old society; physically eliminate all remnants and reminders of the Ghadar with a scorched earth policy; create institutions and political parties and administration — in other words the superstructure of a new civil society — based on the new task of defence of private property.

The Congress Party was founded in 1885 to act as a safety valve. It put forward the interests of the new loyal classes in front of the British administration and these interests would be accommodated in the colonial system. Similarly, the British created in subsequent years other parties and organisations like the Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha, Justice Party and so on as “defenders” of interests of various minorities and castes. Along with the Congress, all of them worked to split the anti-colonial struggles and were co-opted into the system as representatives of divisions in Indian society. They were also used by the British to repeatedly show that Indian society was deeply divided and that Indians would kill each other if left to themselves and that only British rule could unite India.

As for shaping the new administration and the judiciary, the mantra was: suspect every Indian as a potential rebel; and build an administrative and judicial structure based on that fundamental belief, while claiming that ‘the accused is innocent till proven guilty’…

Other elements of British rule were: take away the right of the people to bear arms, form associations, start newspapers etc. except under strictly monitored conditions; create a system of commissions of enquiry to whitewash state terrorism and genocide to pacify enraged people,  and use political leaders to demand the formation of such commissions; force upon Indians the cultivation of cash crops like indigo, cotton, opium, tea and so on, destroying the food security of the village economy; allow Indians, who had been loyal to the Crown a share in this project of “industrializing the colony”, by letting them set up jute and textile mills and so on; create adverse tariff conditions so that wealth was drained out of India through unequal trade and differential tariffs; create divisions among Indians based on communal and caste-based reservation in the electorate and organise sectarian violence; create the essence of a multi party system by encouraging “moderates” and “extremists” to fight with each other within the parameters set by colonialists; label all uncompromising fighters as terrorists and threats to civil society and law and order, and use black laws against them.

Thus was the foundation of colonial statecraft laid and consolidated. However, the Indian people did not accept this consolidation of the  colonial state. They repeatedly rose up in rebellion. There are scores of examples of these from the northeast to northwest and from the south to the north of India.

The Indian people certainly did not think that colonialism was a "misfortune" and wait for a mere transfer of power while keeping the colonial foundations intact, as Jawaharlal Nehru seems to suggest.

When the British were faced with the revolutionary upsurge and the prospect of “losing control” of India, they decided to transfer power to the loyal leadership of the Congress and Muslim League. To ensure that the Indian subcontinent remained a base for imperialism and the people were weakened and at logger heads with each other, the British organised the partition of India on communal lines, followed by a communal blood bath and mass migration of millions of people. To this day the people of this subcontinent are burdened by the partition and the inherited animosity, and have become a vast market for arms merchants of the world.

Can we then call this colonial experience a result of "misfortune" as Nehru does? Nehru himself was not a fatalist and was quite a rationalist. Then why this recourse to fatalism if not to prettify colonialism?
Hidden behind the euphoria of Independence Day, what actually happened on the night of August 14 and the events leading up to it? The independence of India, or more appropriately, transfer of power, as British themselves called it, meant that the Governor General would henceforth be responsible to the new Constituent Assembly and not to the British Crown. The whole edifice of the colonial state created for the plunder of India and defence of capitalism remained intact. The imperialist investments and assets were not confiscated or nationalized.

Before 1857, the Governor General administered India according to the dictates of London. This rule lacked any kind of legitimacy as it was established by military force. After 1857, the British moved towards legitimizing their rule and began a process of introducing “representative government” i.e. one that has some representation of Indians in it. This was later refined to “responsible government” i.e. an executive that would be responsible to an elected parliament.

In 1909 elections were introduced in the provinces and the center but at the center the Indians were in a minority. Elections were  based on religion and property. The Indian National Congress and the Muslim League made an agreement in 1916 (Lucknow Pact) on the division of communal constituencies (still based on property). The Governor General of course was only responsible to London.

The 1935 Government of India Act gave the power to legislate on some affairs to the parliament but still kept defence and foreign affairs in the hands of London. It also created a federation of British India and princely states. Provincial legislatures were elected accordingly in 1937 and in 1946. It was from these provincial assemblies (whose elections were conducted on the basis of limited franchise) that members of the Constituent Assembly were “elected”. The Indian Independence Act 1947 made the Governor General responsible to the Constituent Assembly from Aug 15, 1947. This represented the transfer of power.

In 1950, with a new constitution, a Republic came into being cutting off the umbilical tie with the British crown. The Constituent Assembly became the parliament until the first general elections held in 1952. A Constitution was proclaimed in the name of the people while creating a trustee state. This is periodically, legitimized through universal franchise and a system of representative democracy that marginalizes people and is run with the help of parties that vow to uphold the constitution.

All rights proclaimed in the Constitution were annulled elsewhere in the same Constitution in the name of threat to internal security or external security and interests of the state, while the economic and electoral system made sure that the biggest capitalists defined the interests of state and society. A union was imposed on the various nationalities, tribes and regions.

The Sukh and Raksha of people were left as desirable goals in the Directive Principles of the Constitution while the fundamental law defended private property. Other than these changes, the fundamentals of the system remain the same as those created by the British after 1858.

What kind of tryst with destiny is this? Unless we break with this past, this colonial legacy and colonisation of our minds, India cannot be free, the aim of the Great Ghadar of 1857 would be unfulfilled. The claim being made by many representatives of the government that 1857 successfully culminated in 1947, with the added Nehruvian caveat “not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially”, is facetious.      

Prakash Rao is spokesperson of Communist Ghadar Party of India and the All India Convenor of Lok Raj Sangathan

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