The almost-split of Congress and anti-Climax of 1931

1926 General Strike

British Government was forced to use tanks in London to contain the strike

In May 1926, 1.7 million British workers went to strike. It was the only general strike in the British history. The strike lasted nine days and was ultimately a bust. Nevertheless, it made the government immensely unpopular. Fearing defeat at the hands of the Labour Party in the next election (still three year away), the Conservatives began preparations for losing power in 1929.

A part of this preparation related to India. The Government of India Act 1919, the law through which British ruled India, was set to expire in ten years and was supposed to be reviewed and renewed in 1929. That meant that the review would have been carried out by a leftist Labour Party Government which had always been favourable to Indian nationalist cause. The Conservatives feared that in a wave of idealism, the socialists may end up giving Indian nationalists too much. To pre-empt this, the Conservative Government hastened the review process and sent a Commission of British Parliamentarians under Sir John Simon to India in early 1928.

The timing of the Simon Commission put it smack in the middle of growing divisions within the Congress Party. At the time, the party was witnessing ideological struggle between its moderate and the extremist wings. On one hand were the old leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Motilal Nehru, who wanted to get autonomy while keeping India within the British Empire. On the other were young, emerging leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted much more. As we will see, the Simon Commission ended up impacting these divisions in very strange ways, and eventually resulted in the Congress Party calling for complete independence for the first time in its history.

Protests against the Simon Commission

Protests against the Simon Commission

The membership of the Commission was exclusively white, which immediately drew opposition from the Indians. As the Commission arrived in India, it was greeted by massive protests, which followed it wherever it went. Thirty-eight year old Jawaharlal Nehru became a principal agitator during these protests. Until now, he was viewed as a leader of United Provinces (a province in northern India). Now for the first time, he emerged as a national leader.

This new political weight proved useful, for by now Jawaharlal Nehru was involved with a private struggle with his father and Gandhi over the objectives of the Congress Party. In December 1927, he had pushed a resolution through Congress Session (with Gandhi and Motilal Nehru absent) calling for a complete independence for India, a first in the party’s history. Later Gandhi had pulled him up for it, stating that India was not ready for such a demand. Gandhi offered to let political differences between them become public, but Nehru balked, preferring to keep their contrasting views private. In late 1920s, Gandhi was already a political giant and Nehru just an upcoming young leader. A public split with Gandhi would have hurt him more.

But with Simon Commission’s arrival, the issue had been forced to the front. When the commission criticized Indian leadership for never giving any constructive inputs, Motilal Nehru replied by putting together a report on constitutional reforms for India in August 1928. The Nehru Report called for India being granted the Dominion Status, which would have given it de facto independence, while still remaining in the British Empire (like Canada or Australia). For Jawaharlal, this was a step back from his demand for an absolute independence. He responded by creating the Independence for India League, a movement within the Congress Party. The league never achieved much, but it was a clear indication of how wide the split had become. Jawaharlal also began talking about a formal division of the party. “[There are] two if not more groups which have nothing common between them and the sooner they break apart the better,” he wrote in September 1928.

Finally, Gandhi brokered a compromise between the two factions. Congress will demand Dominion Status for the next two years. Should the government not respond, it will begin a Civil Disobedience campaign for complete independence. For the moment, the crisis was averted.

With the news of dissension within Congress, the Viceroy Lord Irwin could not have been happier. A split in Congress would have resulted in weaker opposition and would have allowed him to cultivate other loyalist parties in India. By 1929, as predicted, Labour Party had formed the new government. It was quiet willing for India to have Dominion Status, even if Conservative Irwin was not. But the Labour Government was weak and feared that such a drastic step may end up shaking its position in London. Under the circumstances, it was willing to let the Viceroy dominate British policy.

Irwin used the Labour Government’s agreeability to try and drive the wedge deeper within Congress. He announced that the government was willing to negotiate with Indian delegates, holding out a vague promise of Dominion Status. Congress was again divided, with the moderate faction willing to negotiate, while the extremists under Jawaharlal refusing any such notion. Gandhi prevailed in persuading the younger Nehru once again. The resultant compromise was Delhi Manifesto, which put forward minor demands as the price for negotiations.

Here was Irwin’s opportunity to drive home his advantage. He could agree to the demand and force Congress to choose between Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. But with characteristic lack of imagination (something he will display again while negotiating with Hitler), Irwin refused the demands. Thereby, he ended up uniting Congress, instead of dividing it.

Congress put all its energy in organizing the Civil disobedience campaign and Gandhi’s political masterstroke – the Salt March. At first the government ignored the campaign, expecting it to fizzle out on its own. But soon it catapulted into a nation-wide movement. The law and order situation began slipping out of the government’s hands. Frustrated, Irwin joked darkly about Gandhi to his superiors in London, “[The march] must have been a very severe physical strain. I was always told that his blood pressure is dangerous and his heart is none too good, and I was also told a few days ago that his horoscope predicts that he will die this year, and that this is the explanation of this desperate throw. It would be a very happy solution.”

Lord Irwin (later Lord Halifax) stepped aside in 1940 to let Churchill become the Prime Minister during the Second World War

Lord Irwin (later Lord Halifax) stepped aside in 1940 to let Churchill become the Prime Minister during the Second World War

Meanwhile, the government was going ahead with its Round Table Conference idea, trying to negotiate with non-Congress leadership like the Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha, Liberals and the Princely State. But it was apparent that without Congress, the negotiations would have been meaningless.

Finally, in the face of mounting pressure, Irwin relented. He offered Gandhi to negotiate with him man-to-man. In March 1931, Gandhi and Irwin met several times and came up with an agreement that became Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Materially, the pact was a victory for Irwin. Congress agreed to stop the campaign and join the Round Table Conference, to negotiate a possible scheme for Dominion Status. In return the government released all the non-violent prisoners.

The pact brought little advantage for the Congress. The Round Table Conferences resulted in the Government of India 1935, which was a fry cry from Dominion Status. Jawaharlal Nehru and others believed that Gandhi had been outwitted by Irwin. Nehru even publicly stated that he was disappointed with the result. He went along with it, like everyone else, simply because Gandhi’s weight. Irwin himself boasted that the pact had bought the loyalty of leaders like Gandhi against extremists like Jawaharlal. But Gandhi didn’t consider this a loss. He made it clear that a discussion over Dominion Status was all he wanted from the beginning. The demands of independence were just negotiating tactics in the heat of the moment. “A satyagrahi never misses, can never miss, a chance of compromise on honourable terms, it being always assumed that in the event of failure he is ever ready to offer battle. He needs no previous preparation, his cards are always on the table.”

Sources: Gopal, Sarvepalli, “Drinking Tea with Treason: Halifax in India,” in Raghavan, Srinath (ed.), Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats, (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2013) pp. 77-96; Gopal, Sarvepalli, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography Vol I, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975); The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 51

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