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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 35

Gandhi, Democracy, and Days of Struggle: Political Scientists Views on M N Roy

by R.M. Pal

Saturday 18 August 2007



When M.N. Roy asked Gandhi to send a message for his weekly magazine Independent India, Gandhi responded with the advice: “Render mute service.” Was this a signal to Roy not to write anything critical of Gandhi or Gandhism?

In the analysis of India’s freedom struggle, and the role of Mahatma Gandhi in that political journey, how do political strategists and thinkers—past and present—judge the Mahatma as an exemplar of democracy? M.N. Roy stands tall among the ideologues and activists of the struggle as one who engaged with the questions that Gandhi’s political actions in pursuit of his vision of independence evoked. Roy’s own views continue to generate debate.

Some political scientists find fault with M.N. Roy’s recorded insights and opinions on the times and the leader. Others have defended his objectivity in suggesting that even a ‘Mahatma’ could make mistakes—and did make mistakes. Some have questioned Roy’s own role during those heady years. One contention is that both the views and the record of this patriot call for clearer understanding. For this, it is useful to revisit what M.N. Roy said, and what has been said about him.

Gandhi faced two defeats at the All India Congress Committee in a short span of time. At the AICC’s Ahmedabad session, he lost to the Swarajists on the issue of Council entry. The second defeat came when a much younger man, Subhash Chandra Bose, defeated Gandhi’s nominee for the Congress presidentship. Roy wrote of the Council issue incident in an article— ‘Mr Gandhi’s swan song’—dealing with how Pandit Motilal Nehru and Deshbandhu C. R. Das succeeded in setting aside Gandhi’s call for compulsory spinning and boycott of law courts, legislative councils, government schools, titles and mill-made cloth.

When the Swarajists opposed Gandhi’s proposals at the Ahmedabad session, it was the first time that Gandhi’s word had been questioned on an issue of national importance. It was in his province and seat of authority that the gauntlet was thrown at Gandhi himself, as he had declared that if his programme was rejected he would retire from politics and devote himself to social reform. He said he would submit a resolution calling for all AICC members to spin for half-an-hour a day, and to observe the five-fold boycott—or to resign from AICC membership. This resolution, if carried, would have automatically excluded the Swarajists from power, and restored the leadership of the orthodox non-cooperators. The AICC continued its deliberations for three days. Gandhi submitted his famous self-denying ordinance despite the heat of opposition by the Swarajists and even some of his own followers, who had sought to reach a compromise with the Swarajists beforehand.

It was a dramatic moment: Mahatma Gandhi, the idol of the Indian people, defied by the opposition within Congress ranks. It fell to Pandit Motial Nehru to state the case for the Swarajists. “We decline to make a fetish of the spinning wheel or to subscribe to the doctrine that only through that wheel can we obtain ‘swaraj,’ ” he said. “Discipline is desirable, but it is not discipline for the majority to expel the minority. We are unable to forget our manhood and our self-respect and to say that we are willing to submit to Gandhi’s orders. The Congress is as much ourselves’ as our opponents’, and we will return with greater majority to sweep away those who stand for this resolution.” With these words, Pandit Motilal and Deshbandhu left the hall, taking with them 55 Swarajists. When the resolution was put to the vote with 110 remaining, it was carried, against 37, and with six abstentions.

This apparent victory of Gandhians was merely make-believe; had the Swarajists remained in the hall, the resolution would have been defeated by about 20 votes. However, Gandhi recognised his defeat, and held hurried consultations with his followers, and afterwards agreed to drop his resolution on compulsory spinning and the boycott, making it only advisory in nature. With this, and other concessions, the Swarajists were persuaded to rejoin the Congress. Thus the defeat of orthodox Gandhism was complete and final. The Swarajists had won the day, and Gandhi as the leader of the Indian National Congress had sung his swan song.

For the Congress presidential election, Gandhi’s nominee was Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya. He was to lose to Subhash Chandra Bose. Gandhi and his disciples brought a charge of indiscipline against Bose. One fails to understand what act of indiscipline Bose had committed, except that he contested the poll against Gandhi’s candidate. Immediately after the election, Gandhi’s tormented soul did make him acknowledge “Pattabhi’s defeat is my defeat.” Afterwards, Gandhi saw to it that Bose did not function effectively as the Congress President, and Bose was forced to resign. Gandhi himself drafted the resolution banning Bose from holding any executive office in the Congress for three years. He, however, claimed that he loved Subhash as a son, but his love which was as soft as a rose could also be harder than flint. But for the immoral political practice Gandhi and his followers adopted in throwing out Bose from the Congress, things might have been different, in that Gandhi might not have remained the absolute leader for a long time.

IN his paper on ‘Marxian Theory and Indian Politics’, Professor Sudipto Kaviraj writes that Roy’s prediction of a premature obituary of Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian National Congress went wrong. I have always felt it is dangerous to contradict political scientists when they make such statements, without oneself investing in research. This is particularly so when the view relates to Gandhi and Roy, and appears to start with the assumption that Gandhi could never make any mistake, and that Roy could never be correct in his criticism of Gandhi and Gandhism. It is very difficult to dismiss Roy on rational grounds. It would only be possible to do so through an unscientific approach, and through practices which have sought to wipe out M.N. Roy’s name from history.

Prof Kaviraj holds that Roy’s article on the swan song was actually written by his wife, Evelyn Roy. This is not true. The article is contained in the Documents of the History of the Communist Party of India (Adhikari Volume No. 2), and it is clearly stated that it was written by Roy himself.

While querying M.N. Roy’s comments on the Ahmedabad incidents, Prof Kaviraj does not refer to other political events where Roy’s predictions were correct. When Roy addressed the Radical Democratic Party in December 1972, hardly any Indian thought Hitler’s Axis powers would be defeated, and that the British would be left with no option but to leave the colonies after the war. “The right to self-determination has been promised to India, with the greater assertion of British democracy on the situation. There is no reason to believe that the right will be withheld by any external agency or political formation after the post-war period.” Roy exhorted his colleagues to prepare for the economic and political reconstruction of independent India. He brought out two documents: ‘People’s plan for reconstruction of independent India’, and ‘A draft Constitution for free India’. Then he predicted that in spite of the pact between Hitler and Soviet Russia, the latter would be drawn into the war. Most historians across the world now accept that but for Stalin joining the Allies, Hitler might not have been defeated.

Roy’s most important prediction was that the parliamentary form of democracy would breed corruption. His lecture to the University Institute in Calcutta on February 5, 1950 warned of this. “The future of Indian democracy is not very bright, and that is not due to the evil intentions on the part of politicians, but rather the system of party politics. Perhaps in another 10 years, demagogy will vitiate political practice. The scramble for power will continue, breeding corruption and inefficiency. People engaged in politics cannot take a long view. Laying foundations is a long process for them; they want a short-cut. The short-cut to power is always to make greater promises than others, to promise things without the competence or even the intention to implement them.” This is perhaps the reason why there was not even a polite reference to Gandhi’s political ideas of decentralisation and village republics in the Constituent Assembly, when the Constitution was first being framed. This was in spite of the fact that there were a large number of Gandhian members in the Constituent Assembly. Referring to this, Roy said the future of democracy in our country would depend on people who were either outside politics, or who had the courage and vision to step out of the indecent scramble for power.

In another lecture on January 30, 1947, also at Calcutta, Roy had said: “When political power is concentrated in the hands of a small community, you may have a façade of parliamentary democracy, but for all political purposes it will be a dictatorship, even if it may be paternal and benevolent.”

To make democracy effective power must always remain invested in the people—not periodically, but from day to day. Atomised individuals are powerless for all practical purposes. Roy advanced the idea of a new social order based on direct participation of the people through people’s committees and gram sabhas. Its culture would be based on universal dissemination of knowledge and have minimum control and maximum scope for scientific and creative activities. Being founded on reason and science, the new society will necessarily be planned. But it will be planning with the freedom of the individual as its crux. The new society will be democratic, political, economic, as well as cultural. These ideas remind one of Gandhi’s ideas.

It is therefore important for political scientists to do a little research to find out why even Gandhians did not make any reference to them, and why our leaders to whom power was handed over by the British decided to go on the beaten track of a parliamentary form of government. Why was it that Gandhi was totally ignored by his followers?

PROFESSOR BHIKU PARIKH has written three books on Gandhi. The most important of these is on colonialisation and reform, analysing Gandhi’s political discourse. In the context of Gandhi, this should include important political events which shaped the destiny of the country. Prof Parikh does not take these into account and analyse them. He does not refer to the Subhash Chandra Bose incident, or to Gandhi’s ban resolution against Bose. What would have been the position of the Congress if Bose had been allowed to form the Working Committee and function as the President? Prof Parikh does not refer to the Swarajists’ defiance at the Ahmedabad AICC session. He does not analyse a number of other incidents of national importance.

Among these is the Cripps offer during World War II. This was acceptable to people like Aurobindo Ghosh and M.N Roy. Why did the Congress and its supermen reject it? Perhaps Prof Parikh’s analysis would lead one to conclude that if the Cripps offer had been accepted, India would not have been partitioned, and the post-partition holocaust view would have been avoided. What of negotiations with Mohammad Ali Jinnah? What was it in Jinnah’s demands that the Congress found difficult to accept? How would independent India have suffered if these had been accepted? If they had been accepted, India would not have been partitioned. I refer to these in the hope that Prof Parikh may deal with them in a future edition of his popular book.

In one of his books, Prof Parikh expresses surprise that although Gandhi succeeded in bringing critics like Subhash Bose and M.N. Roy to his side, he failed to win over Dr B. R. Ambedkar. In fact, he himself gives the reasons when calling Gandhi a hypocrite in the context of analysing his movement for eradication of untouchability and separate electorate. How does Prof Parikh expect a man of Ambedkar’s stature to follow and support a hypocrite? Insofar as Subhash Bose and Roy are concerned, Bose never became a supporter of Gandhi.

Roy wrote an editorial in his weekly by way of paying homage to Gandhi. In this he said that communal harmony is not possible in the mediaeval atmosphere of religious orthodoxy and fanaticism. With the view that nationalism is totalitarian and precludes the idea of individual liberty, he felt it was idle to pledge loyalty to the Mahatma’s message unless it meant realisation of its contradictions, and positioning of the moral and humanistic core of its teachings above the cult of nationalism and power politics. Otherwise, the Mahatma wore the crown of martyrdom in vain. Prof Parikh does not analyse this aspect of Gandhi’s assassination. Nor does he refer to the incident where Gandhi asked Roy not to write anything critical of him or of Gandhism. Possibly an analysis would indicate that Gandhi was actually intolerant of criticism.

Prof Parikh does not analyse why Gandhi found it difficult to democratise the Congress, or why he was opposed to younger men coming up in the Congress hierarchy. Also missing is an examination of how Gandhi responded to the political jockeying for power which followed the 1937 Provincial Assembly elections. There is no evidence that Gandhi denounced such practices in emerging in national life.

In one incident, the Opposition gave notice of a no-confidence resolution against the Congress Government. What did the Congress leaders do? With a view to rescuing the Congress from certain defeat, they made the Speaker adjourn the Assembly. Dr Rajendra Prasad was deeply disturbed and wrote to the Chairman of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, saying that the Congress party should not adopt such immoral means to capture power. Patel replied that these things happened in the parliamentary form of government. This must have been front-page news in the national Press. It is inconceivable that Gandhi did not know about it. But we have no evidence that he intervened in the matter. Could it be that he would not go against the ‘Sardar?’ I mention this only to refer to the very difficult task arising from Gandhi’s insistence on morality in politics.

IN the context of Roy’s prophesy, Philip Spratt, a British Communist leader sent to India by Communist International to help the communist movement, became Roy’s colleague and friend. In his foreword to Roy’s book New Orientation, published in 1946, he commented that he knew of no one who had been “a more consistently correct prophet than M.N. Roy”. He wrote:
On hardly any major issue have his analyses and predictions been disproved by events ….

He has always written as a political strategist, concerned to know what is happening so that he can act appropriately. It is functional writing, consistent and responsible. That it should prove to be so unvaryingly right must be almost unique, and is certainly noteworthy. It is strange therefore that in a country so given to hero-worship, Roy should not have become a popular idol.

Spratt went on to say:

Not that his merits as a political thinker are entirely unrecognised. They are admitted even by those who disliked him—people who would not be found dead with a copy of Independent India, yet like to know what Roy was thinking about things. It is rather that the truth hurts, and hurts in particular all those who control public opinion in India.

Spratt felt that Roy wrote for a limited circle who understood his style of thought and his background of ideas, and did not seem concerned about communicating more widely. Spratt argued that following the Great Depression in the West, people now knew that poverty and inequality were no longer inevitable, and that trouble lay ahead of they were not abolished. A remedy for the instability of capitalism might be the freezing of economic progress; Spratt wrote that the Nazis, if they had conquered the world, would have preserved stability by forcibly suppressing discontent. The Gandhian school, he said, also aimed at stability, and proposed to achieve it by ideological means, that is, by persuading people not to desire a higher standard of life. Spratt felt that this could not succeed, and thus in seeking a way forward in the world revolution under way, Gandhism in its pure form “must be ruled out as a theoretically possible solution”.

Spratt held that it was clear from “Indian conditions” that India was part of the world and involved in this revolution. Yet he felt Roy’s mindfulness of this annoyed “the nationalists, who at bottom, do not think of India as part of the world, but think India is unique, that foreign or western ideas do not apply to the country and presumably, therefore, that it happens to be having a private revolution of its own”. This, he felt, was the nationalists’ way of saying that they preferred to confine the revolution to its nationalist aspect—“whereas Roy says that it is merely a small beginning, hardly worth calling a revolution at all”. Spratt drew attention to the fact that Roy had been saying this for more than 20 years. He had pointed out in 1924 that after the 1914-1918 War, the export of British capital to India fell, and had dropped to zero by 1923. This and other facts led Roy to infer that in due course a peaceful transfer of political power to Indian hands would take place—not through the magic of ‘soul force’, nor out of the democratic convictions of the British ruling class, but by virtue of a shift of economic power. And it followed that as regards the real problems of the revolution, that the transfer of power would mean nothing. The old order would remain; only the personnel at the top would change.

Spratt records that Roy came to this view after serious thought. He discussed it with Lenin, who disagreed, finally decided it was true and stuck to it when probably nobody else in the world accepted it. It became an essential part of his diagnosis of India’s condition, and helped to shape his attitude to all subsequent problems. In particular, it determined his stance during World War II, when after Churchill became Prime Minister and Roy saw that the consummation he had prophesied could take place at any time if the Indian National Congress adopted a “responsible attitude to the War”. Roy felt that the Congress opposition to the war was not principled opposition but more what betting men call ‘hedging’, a provision against the eventuality of an Axis victory. Roy argued that in view of the unacceptability of fascism, it was obligatory for a sincere opponent of fascism to support the Allied side in the war. Roy himself did so. Spratt was to remark:

Now that everything he predicted has taken place, and the erstwhile incorruptible revolutionaries are cooperating to the limit, it would be only decent if those who condemned his cooperation would admit their error. But perhaps that is too much to expect.

In urging rejection of fascism, Spratt still drew attention to the need to discuss how the fascist argument stood in contradiction to the three desired conditions—peace, collectivism and material well-being—posited as a stable outcome of the world revolution. He pointed to Roy’s assertion that in our time all nationalism is potential fascism, and fascism’s nationalist character contradicts the first condition. The Congress was already working for a fully nationalist policy. “Yet in plain contradiction to all this, it professes Gandhism, and Mahatma Gandhi is still its active leader”. Gandhi had only belatedly “ceased explicitly to defend landlordism and castem” Spratt said.

ROY, highly critical of Gandhism from the start, had never altered his opinion. He had said many penetrating things about it. But Spratt noted that Roy’s approach to Gandhism “seems that of an outsider, an unsympathetic foreigner”. He had failed to make his criticism intelligible to the Indian reader. “He has never tried to get under the skin of the Mahatma or his admirers, to see where that extraordinary power comes from,” Spratt said. Spratt himself admitted that in his own search for elements in Gandhism which could be used for democratic and socialistic purposes, he had made the mistake of overlooking the gulf between the theory and practice of Gandhism. It was extraordinary, beyond almost any other movement in this respect, “more often than not achieving the opposite of what it professes”. But he noted that Roy did not accept this view, considering the dilemma to be intolerable. Between fascism and communism, the latter was clearly the better choice, but its success was unlikely. On the basis that any solution to the world’s problems had to be socialist or collectivist, Spratt argued for the socialist course, but said it must get away from the lifeless, uninspiring formalism of the social democrats, and move in the direction of bringing the rank-and-file voter into “intimate and permanent contact with the administration”. more or less as the original Soviets had done in Russia. Roy’s draft Constitution for India suggested how this could be done. Roy’s proposition rejected the illiberal doctrines and practices which had caused the Communists to be so strongly opposed, and called for a really liberal but dynamic socialism which could appeal confidently all classes except the few remaining rich.

Roy’s draft Constitution implied one addition to the three necessary factors for the desired world solution. This was freedom.

Max Eastman distinguished three impulses behind the socialist movement: freedom, fraternity and order. Roy pointed out a fourth: the moral motive, the demand for a better order. This was conspicuous in all the socialist movements and their thinkers.

Returning to Gandhi and his critics, several questions remain. Why is it that he did not like to consult people outside his circle, and even when intellectuals including his friends advised him, to summarily reject such advice? Gandhi was used to being attacked by both conservatives and radicals. Both ‘sanatanists’ and Dr Ambedkar attacked him on untouchability. His systematic campaign against it deeply alarmed the ‘sanatanists’, who feared his powerful hold over the Hindu masses. Initially, they tried to convince him that untouchability was integral to the Hindu religious and social order and denounced him for subversion. When this failed, they mounted a campaign of leaflets and articles to impugn his integrity and cast doubts on his private life. Black flag protests, a bomb attack and an axe attack, and slogans challenged his all-India anti-untouchability tour in 1934. On his part, Ambedkar accused Gandhi of propping up the Hindu social order, with only token concessions to untouchables.

Ambedkar’s ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to the untouchables?’ asked: “Do the untouchables regard Mr Gandhi as being in earnest? The answer is in the negative” He charged Gandhi with indifference to the anti-untouchability part of the 1921 Bardoli programme, with practicing satyagraha for everything except against the Hindus for casteism, with doing nothing more than to indulge in giving sermons, with telling untouchables they could find salvation in the Hindu fold, with failing to protest when in 1921 only a paltry sum from the Tilak Swaraj Fund was allotted to untouchables and when the committee to plan their uplift was uncere-moniously wound up. Gandhi won praise from Hindus for his fast against the MacDonald Award of 1931, which granted the untouchables a separate electorate. Ambedkar declared there was nothing noble in the fast; “it was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people, to give up the constitutional safeguards of which they had become possessed … and to agree to live on the mercy of Hindus.” When Gandhi signed the Poona Pact, Ambedkar held that it did not differ from the Communal Award, and Gandhi had only signed it when he found his opposition would not succeed. Kanshi Ram, who pioneered the Bahujan Samaj Party, was the most recent ‘Harijan’ leader to echo Ambedkar’s views.

In studying the internal logic of Gandhi’s campaign against untouchability, it is necessary to examine the reasons why his conservative and radical critics reached contradictory conclusions. The way he formulated his critique, and planned his campaign was a source of both his success and failure. It enabled him to undermine the moral basis of untouchability, but prevented him from dealing with its economic and political roots.

Was Gandhi fallible? And how are Roy and others who questioned him to be judged? On February 5, 1950, at a seminar held during the M.N Roy Centenary Year in 1987, Roy’s war thesis was being discussed. A senior professor of political science stood up and claimed that Gandhi was “more correct” and Roy “less correct.” The great Gandhian ideologue Professor Amlan Datta was presiding over the session. Many of us present were surprised that even he did not ask the speaker to explain what he meant.

The author is a former editor of The Radical Humanist and erstwhile President, PUCL-Delhi; he edits the PUCL Bulletin.

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