Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Desh: an alternative history

Couple of weeks ago, we asked what if Gandhi had not called off the non-cooperation movement?

One possibility was that the movement would have degenerated into something much more violent than the Chauri Chaura incident, and yet at the end of violence, an un‑mottled dawn would have broken. This is an intriguing possibility that Amar has urged me explore further. Here is an attempt.


After a year of satyagraha and hartals sweeping the land, Gandhi's promise of swaraj within a year looked imminently achievable in the early 1920s. But alas it wasn't to be. The uprising turned violent in 1921, and British reprisal became harsher. A mortified Gandhi retired to his ashram, but this had little effect in many of Desh's towns and cities. Communists and other radicals, inspired by events in Russia and elsewhere, escalated violent attacks on police stations and government buildings. British reprisal was more brutal than at any time since 1857. By 1923, freedom looked further than ever.

But the restoration of the Raj carried huge costs — both financially and in politically. Raj lost its legitimacy to the Desi elite, whose collaboration was necessary for the British presence. A more ominous portent was the refusal of Desi troops to open fire on civilians in several places. The spectre of a second mutiny haunted the corridors of power in Delhi and London, and the government was looking for an opening for a political dialogue.

But who would the government converse with? Congress was officially outlawed, and Gandhi, the unquestioned leader of the uprising when it begun, and the only leader who could speak on behalf of Desis in their multitude, was in a self-imposed isolation in his ashram. None of the other Congress leaders carried enough weight, but CR Das of Calcutta and Motilal Nehru of Allahabad had support of Desi businesses and other urban elites in British India (the uprising had little effect on the native states, which carried on as before). While the Desi elite had lost faith on the Raj, they didn't trust the radical tone of the uprising either. They privately urged Das and Nehru to call off the uprising. But, neither Das nor Nehru wanted to be seen as sell-outs.

Gandhi's death in 1926, election of a labour-liberal coalition in Britain, and Stalin's rise to power in Soviet Union changed the political equation. Secret negotiations commenced between the British and Motilal Nehru, who assumed the role of de facto Congress supremo. The government announced an amnesty in 1927 and lifted the ban on Congress. Congress postponed the movement for 3 years. With Stalin cutting off aid to the radicals and communists, violence subsided.

Fearing a Nehruvian takeover of the party, Das invited the self-exiled MA Jinnah to rejoin politics. By 1928, Jinnah assumed the role of key negotiator with the British, with Nehru being the party's interface with business, and Das controlling the party machine. In 1929 the British-appointed Simon Commission reported that India should become free by the end of the 1930s.

On 26 January 1930, in Lahore, Congress adopted a resolution that outlined an Azad Desh. The British parliament passed the Government of India Act later that year. The Act called for an independent Indian Commonwealth, along the lines suggested by the Lahore Resolution by the end of the decade.


So, what would this Commonwealth be like? When would it have come about?