Back | Next
STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 15
Meanwhile, there were developments in the field of constitutional reform. The Simon Commission which had been appointed to review the Act of 1919 had submitted its report. But no action had been taken. In 1935 the British Parliament passed a new Constitution for India, and it came into force in 1937. Nationalist India was totally disappointed. There was no real transfer of power even in the States, (then called Provinces) not to speak of the Centre. Some powers in the States were transferred to a Council of Ministers. But even these were subject to the veto of the British Governor. Important subjects were reserved for the Governor. Franchise was limited. All the same, the State Assemblies were to be elected. It gave the Congress an opportunity to prove its public support. If the Congress kept away from the polls the Assemblies and Governments would be formed by elements that were keeping away from the national struggle.
The Congress was in a dilemma. Though Gandhi was not a member or office bearer of the Congress, his advice was important for the Congress. He was the one who had his finger on the pulse of the masses. He alone could lead the country if the experiment failed, and it came to a struggle again. Gandhi was not against participation in the Assemblies if the Congress could use them to solve the crying problems of the people, like drinking water, sanitation, welfare of the Harijans and tribals, primary and secondary education, alcoholism and so on. The Congress decided to contest the elections. It won massive majorities in many States, and was in a position to form Governments in seven out of the eleven States. But it would form Governments only if the Governor gave an assurance that they would not intervene or use his overriding powers to thwart the policies and decisions of the people's representatives. After long discussions, the Congress felt assured that the Governors would act as constitutional heads. Congress Ministries were formed in most States, with leaders like Rajagopalachari, Govind Ballabh Pant, B. G. Kher, Srikrishna Sinha, Gopinath Bordoloi, Dr. Khan Saheb and others becoming "Prime Ministers" in the States (Chief Ministers were called Prime Ministers at that time). The Governments set examples in probity, accountability, austerity and concern for the problems of the people.
But the Governments could not remain in office for long. On the 3rd of September 1939, the Second World War broke out. As soon as Britain declared war on Germany, the Viceroy too declared that India was at war with Germany. There was not even the semblance of consultation with the Prime Ministers in the States or the representatives of the people. The Congress Ministries resigned declaring that the hollowness of the claims of the new Constitution had been exposed.
What was the Congress to do during the war? Were they to help actively in the war effort? Prominent leaders of the Congress like Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Rajagopalachari and others were supporters of the Allies. They were totally against Hitler and Mussolini, against Nazism and Fascism. They supported Britain and the Allies because they were fighting for democracy— against dictatorship. They wanted India to take full part in the fight for democracy. But how could India do so, how could the leaders enthuse the people of India to cooperate in the war, if democracy was meant only for Britain, and not meant for India as well. They wanted the Congress to tell the Viceroy that the Congress would support Indian participation in the War effort if the British Government would declare that at the end of the war, India would attain full freedom. They would participate in a national Government if it was set up on these terms.
Gandhi himself supported the Allied cause. He met the Viceroy. He could not help shedding tears when he thought of the destruction of the historic city of London or of the woes of the people. But he was against all wars. The British attitude to India had disillusioned him. Yet his sympathy for the Allied cause and people who had to suffer the terrible consequences of the war came from his heart. However he was a votary of non-violence. He believed that all wars were ruinous. They would cause suffering, but would not solve any issue. He wanted to work for a world without wars. Only non-violence could save humanity and secure justice. He could act as an advisor of the Government and of the Congress if they wanted him to lead them to a world without war.
The Congress was not willing to accept this position. It had not accepted 'pacifism'. It had never accepted the view that Independent India would have no army, and would not use arms in self-defence. It, therefore, reluctantly and respectfully decided to differ from Gandhi and offer co-operation to the Government in its war effort if a provisional Government was set up.
The Government did not care to accept the offer of the Congress. It made a statement which was a virtual incitement to communal and obstructive elements to persist in obstruction. It virtually assured them that the progress towards self-government would depend on their consent.
Congress felt insulted and humiliated. The country too felt that its hand of friendship and co-operation had been rejected. Some kind of protest was called for, even to protect national honour. They did not want to disrupt the war effort. Nor did Gandhi want to embarrass the Government when it was fighting for the survival of Britain and the Allies. Congress turned or returned to Gandhi and asked him to resume leadership.
Gandhi hit upon a new form of Civil Disobedience, — Individual Civil Disobedience. Individuals chosen or approved by Gandhi would defy the orders of the Government by notifying the Government of their intention to do so. They would address the public and declare that India had not been consulted before the Government proclaimed that India was at war.
Vinoba Bhave was chosen as the first Satyagrahi. In phases, members of the Working Committee, Legislators, Office bearers of the party and others offered Satyagraha in this manner. Tens of thousands were lodged in prison.
Meanwhile, the war was going against the Allies. Country after country had been overrun in Europe. The soldiers of the Axis powers — Germany and Italy — were on the shores of the Mediterranean. Britain was fighting a heroic battle for survival. Japan had entered the war, and had made spectacular gains, sweeping down the Asian coast. America had rallied to the defence of the Allies. President Roosevelt of America felt that some move should be made to solve the "Indian problem" and induct the Indian leaders into the struggle against the Axis powers. The pressure of circumstances was too much even for Churchill, the war time Prime Minister of Britain, who was a known opponent of Indian independence. The British War Cabinet drafted its proposals for future constitutional change in India, and sent Sir Stafford Cripps, a well-known friend of India, to persuade Indian leaders to accept the proposals.
The proposals were in two parts. The long-term proposals visualized that after the war, India would acquire the right to be a full Dominion (with the right to opt out of the Empire). But the States or provinces and the Rulers would be free to remain out of the new Dominion and retain direct relationship with the British Crown. In the immediate present, there would be a new Executive Council to assist the Viceroy, but it will not have the rights of a cabinet of the type that ruled in England.
Gandhi who was summoned by Sir Stafford looked at the proposals and advised Sir Staffard to take the next plane home as the proposals were not acceptable to India. He returned to his Ashram at Wardha.
The Congress leaders had long discussions with Sir Stafford, and finally rejected the proposal because it would pave the way for a fragmentation of India. In the immediate present, it would only enable the Government to put up a facade that Indians were part of the Government.
Sir Stafford's mission was a failure. He returned to England, and blamed Gandhi, although Gandhi had taken no part in the negotiations between the Congress and the British Government.
India felt frustrated. There was a mood of indignation and anxiety. The war was no longer distant for India. The Japanese had overrun the entire Asian coast and Singapore. They had occupied Burma and were knocking at the door of India at Manipur. It looked as though British invincibility was a myth. The British Army was being forced to withdraw from country after country. It was withdrawing after destroying crops and other materials to ensure that the Japanese did not have access to them. What was to happen to the people of these countries? They could not run away. Even their food was being destroyed. How would they survive? Who would defend them? Britain had surrendered its responsibility.
Who would defend India? What would happen if people lost the will to defend? The situation called for a drastic remedy. Britain might leave India and go as it had left other countries, leaving people defenseless and hopeless.
India had to be taken out of this morass of helplessness and fear. No people can become free or remain free without the will to resist. India should discover its will to resist. Who can help the country to do this, without losing time? The Congress and the country turned to Gandhi.