Documentation of the important socio-political developments during the freedom struggle in 1939
TOWARDS FREEDOM — Documents on the Movement for Independence in India, 1939 Part I: Edited by Mushirul Hasan; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 3950.
This publication on 1939 is a part of the Indian Council of Historical Research’s (ICHR) “Towards Freedom” project to correct the perception that India’s decolonisation was merely “alteration of constitutional relations.” Relying on records available in India and vernacular sources, the project proposes recapturing of Congress-led mainstream nationalism and contemporaneous protest politics — developing either around or parallel to it — which made India’s freedom inevitable. Edited by Mushirul Hasan with his remarkable historical hindsight, the volume under review eminently fulfils this mission.
Congress ministries, formed in eight of the 11 provinces following the 1937 elections, “worked purposefully.” But they also broke their public promises. Documents in the first chapter sharply demonstrate this dialectics. The anti-labour Industrial Disputes Bill in Bombay, non-introduction of land reforms in Madras, Orissa and Bihar, suppression of peasant protests in colonial style, insufficient progress in local self-government, “faltering action” on prohibition and untouchability — these betrayed popular expectations in Congress ministries. The period even coincided with communal discord. Maulana Sajjad’s letter to the Congress Working Committee is extremely revealing in understanding why “majority Muslims” developed an “aversion for the Congress.”
The second chapter addresses the Congress’s dilemma on the Second World War, best expressed by Jawaharlal Nehru: “… we … do not want a fascist victory. (But) to support British imperialism is … wrong … for the country is dominated by that imperialism.” The unilateral British declaration of Indian participation for the Allies in the Second World War, and curtailment of the powers of the provincial governments to pursue war efforts made resignation of Congress ministries unavoidable. Socialists like Lohia offered an international perspective for opposing the war: “What use will internal freedom be to the Indian people if it compels them to send their armies to defend the British Empire in Africa or Arabia or Malaya.” But Congress conservatives like Rajagopalachari remained averse to the anti-war declaration, while Savarkar implored the British to “turn to the Hindus and work their support.”
The volume presents interesting papers on the Tripuri episode. Hasan also documents the “Left consolidation” by the Forward Bloc, socialists and the communists to achieve national unity and intensify freedom struggle. P.C. Joshi’s assertion that “No amount of repression could kill our movement” found expression in anti-imperialist temper of Madras, Bihar, Sind, the Central Provinces, the Punjab, Bengal and Assam. Swathantra Bharat captured the recalcitrant mood: “Not even one man should go into the English army. Not even a pie should be given to the English Government.” Unfortunately, the Viceroy utilised the Muslim question to counteract the nationalist affront, enabling Jinnah to bounce back after his 1937 electoral debacle to “spearhead” the Pakistan movement. But there were dissenting Muslim voices aptly reflected in Jamiyat al-Ulema’s leaflet, urging the Muslims to fight British imperialism to uphold their “self-respect and dignity.” This Muslim “nationalist conscience”, however, lay untapped by mainstream nationalism.
The third chapter is concerned with the people’s movement in princely states that gained momentum due to Nehru-led Congress, Left pressure and a grass-roots, anti-feudal and anti-imperialist sentiment in these “sanctuaries.” Perhaps the prospect of a federal government having representatives from princely states also induced the Congress leadership to bring these regions within its political orbit. Evidence is cited on inter-linkage between State People’s Freedom Movement and mainstream nationalism, a theme yet to receive adequate scholarly attention. The end of princely autocracy was popularly foreseen, a feeling expressed by Vartman: “The lamp glows brighter when it is about to be extinguished.”
Utilising hardly accessible journals, Kisan Sabha organisational reports, writings of agitation leaders and rare official papers, the volume’s last part uncovers a rich “composite picture” of the surging peasant movement. Mobilising the peasantry on “nazrana”, “bedakhli”, “abwab” and colonial encroachment on the peasant world, the All India Kisan Sabha became in P.C. Joshi’s words, “the second biggest mass organisation … after the National Congress.” We have references to both a 40,000-strong-peasant gathering and secret peasant conferences. Women “thronged” Kisan conferences; they were prominent in hunger marches. Gandhiji prayed for the peasantry’s ability “to stand more fiery ordeals.” Interestingly, this peasant outburst evoked support from American observers. Not all within the Congress welcomed the peasant assertion. Sitaramayya thus accused the “Socialists of inciting the poor peasant folk to violence.” Again, alarmed by peasant restlessness, some landlords proposed a “Settlement between Congress and Zamindars.” Kisan Sabhas resented their inability to initiate satyagrahas without provincial Congress Committee’s permission. The Congress High Command even attempted marginalisation of Leftists like Jayaprakash Narayan and Sahajanand Saraswati when they crossed the Gandhian limits. This strategy fitted well with Gandhiji’s technique of “discipline and mobilise.”
Hasan’s documentation unfolds the criticality of 1939 in the trajectory of the Indian freedom movement. The British betrayal of the Indian cause in its war efforts, the immature termination of “the Congress attempt of governance” and subsequent growth of political radicalism, the state people’s uprising, and the peasant protest — these presaged a tide of anti-imperialism which culminated in the Quit India Movement.
The volume provides new insights to historians grappling with the nature of the dialectical relationship between Congress nationalism and popular protest politics, and causes of the Congress failure to provide adequate space to the anti-imperialist and democratic segment of Muslim opinion which, if ensured, might have averted the Partition.
A judicious collation of documents, careful footnoting of personalities, events and places, and a helpful index have made this collection the model of a documentary volume. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s incisive preface imparts an additional value to it. The publisher deserves credit for a neat publication.
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