Constitutional Framework and Structures of Governance in India:

A Historical Perspective


Series of Weekly Lectures by Sri Devendra Swarup


Lecture XVI, Saturday, October 20, 2012



In the sixteenth talk of this series, Shri Devendra Swarup deliberated upon the paradox that while Gandhiji’s consistently stood by his vision of Hind Swaraj throughout his life, yet the political movement he led ended up in the establishment of the British kind of parliamentary system in India. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhiji rejects not only the western political systems but also the western civilisation in its entirety. Hind Swaraj is an extraordinarily intense statement of the superiority and permanence of Indian civilisation and falsity and fickleness of the Western. And in this text, Gandhiji goes to the extent of calling the British Parliament a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘sterile woman’. He calls the parliament a prostitute because it remains under the control of ministers who change from time to time; and, he calls it sterile because in its entire history, it has never done anything on its own, it always does the bidding of the party who controls it. Gandhiji was convinced that India would be ruined if she adopted the parliamentary system of British. Gandhiji consistently held this position; he kept insisting that he stood by every word of what he had written in Hind Swaraj.

Gandhiji’s concept of the Indian model of democracy was based in the grama, the village. In his vision, grama was to be the self-contained unit of political organisation; the basic polity was to function at this level. Representative of the villages were to constitute the higher levels of political organisation, which would then elect still higher levels, and so on up to the national level. Such a polity looks like a pyramid with the village at the base. Gandhiji, however, envisaged not a pyramid but an oceanic circle, in which the waves emanating from the grama at the centre keep spreading towards the periphery, thus enclosing larger and larger parts of the polity within them. Gandhiji did not elaborate on this concept of oceanic circles, but mentioned it several times including at the Second Round Table Conference in 1930 and again in 1946.

Ideologically, Gandhiji remained always opposed to parliamentary democracy, but in practice we find him granting acceptance to it repeatedly. As we have said in the earlier talks, in December 1919, at the Amritsar Congress, Gandhiji virtually forced the Congress to accept the Government of India Act of 1919. That early deviation from the principles of Hind Swaraj seems difficult to understand. And what is more, Gandhiji soon repudiated his stand of the Amritsar Congress and gave a call for boycott of the assemblies in his non-cooperation movement of 1920. What explains these contradictory decisions? R. C. Majumdar considers this incident and says that two reasons are given for the change in Gandhiiji’s position; one, that he was disturbed by the Jallianwala massacre of April 1919 and two, that Indian Muslims were alienated from the British by the terms they offered to Turkey after her defeat in May 1919 and had started the Khilafat movement. But both these events had occurred much before December 1919 when Gandhiji made the Congress accept the Act of 1919; the change in his position came even later in 1920.

At the Gaya Session held in December 1922, C. R. Das, then President of the Congress, made a vigorous plea in favour of Council entry, and he proposed a resolution to this effect. Gandhiji was in jail at that time; but the motion was defeated by Gandhiji’s followers in the Congress led by Sri Rajagopalachari. C. R. Das chose to resign from the Presidency of the Congress. He soon formed a new party, the Swaraj Party, within the Congress, along with Motilal Nehru and others. This happened when Gandhiji was in jail; after his release, he gave his consent to the Swaraj Party. And thus a group within the Congress became free to enter the Councils.

In 1945, Gandhiji issued a clarification saying that he was opposed to Council entry from the beginning, but C. R. Das and Motilal Nehru kept on trying to convince him that parliamentary activity should be seen as an activity supportive of the Independence movement. He claimed that he never agreed with them on this issue, but at that stage in 1945, he felt that the parliamentary activity had to be accommodated. He further said that the demand for Constituent Assembly was an extension of the parliamentary activity. Incidentally, the demand for a constituent assembly was raised for the first time in 1934 by K. M. Munshi at the instance of Gandhiji. Gandhiji instructed Munshi to write an article raising the demand; Munshi made the draft. It was corrected by Gandhiji in his own hand and then sent to Munshi with the advice that if he felt it proper he could incorporate the changes suggested and send the article for publication. The corrected article was published in newspapers like the Hindu and Hindustan Times, etc.

Gandhiji, it seems, kept pushing the Congress on the path of the “constitutional reform” process. At the same time, he kept insisting that this process did not reflect his own conception of swaraj. In his swaraj, he said, there was no place for the assemblies that were being introduced through the constitutional reform process. 

How is it that Gandhiji, with all his conviction and the wide support of the Indian people, was unable to carry the Congress on the path that he felt was right? Already in the 1921 edition of Hind Swaraj, Gandhiji puts a note saying that at that stage he was working not for Hind Swaraj but only for parliamentary swaraj because that is what the people wanted: 

I would warn the reader against thinking that I am today aiming at the Swaraj described therein. I know that India is not ripe for it …I am individually working for the self-rule pictured therein. But today my corporate activity is undoubtedly devoted to the attainment of Parliamentary Swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people of India.
There are many instances where we find him working at two separate levels at the same time. How do we understand these contradictory ways? How should we look upon Gandhiji? Should we look upon him as a saintly practitioner of satya, ahimsa, aparigriha and brahmacharya; or, as a national leader, a rasthra-purusha, who discovered a new path to swaraj.

In any realistic assessment of Gandhiji, his political role as the greatest leader of his time cannot be ignored. If he had not performed a decisive role in the Independence struggle, he would not have got the place he has got in history. There are always many saintly persons who spend their lives practicing and perfecting the great values that Gandhiji tried to implement in his life; but we do not hear about them, history does not record their efforts. Gandhiji tried to impart to the society at large the picture of civilisation that he cherished and the values that he found indispensable for the development of man. He repeatedly writes that his life is anchored in dharma, but politics is part of dharma and that is the only reason for his participation in politics. He did not find politics important in itself; what was important for him was dharma, and politics mattered because it was essential for performing his dharma at that stage. He practiced politics while standing on the ground of dharma. Politics was the medium for obtaining swarajya, which for him was the same as liberation. He came to India to achieve such liberation. He repeatedly writes that he was not interested in personal liberation, personal moksha; he was in search of moksha, he was a mumukshu, but he wanted to achieve moksha not for himself alone. He wanted moksha for the whole of India, and through India for the whole world.

But he was not working in a vacuum. When he began working for swaraj, he encountered obstacles. The first of these was the British government. Since the failure of the revolution of 1857, public agenda in India was being set by the British. And, their agenda had been adopted by the educated classes of India. The initiative was entirely in the hands of the British. Almost immediately after entering politics in India, Gandhiji snatched the initiative from them. He was an enigma for the British; Gandhiji’s terminology, his language, his intuitive process of decision-making and his ways of working were all beyond their comprehension. Gandhiji worked on a spiritual plane; the British with their political calculations could not fathom the next step that Gandhiji, led by his antaratma, his conscience, would take. The language that Gandhiji spoke was not the language of politics. But it was that language of his and his austere life that made the Hindu society stand behind him. For the first time, India had a leader who touched the hearts of the people all over India, who awakened the consciousness of all Indians. Never before had India seen such a vast and wide-spread awakening of the entire nation.

He posed a great problem for the British; a diplomatic-political war began between Gandhiji and the British immediately after his arrival in India. In this tussle Gandhiji held the upper hand till 1930. Gandhiji’s strength lay in the sentiments of the people. To counter him, the British were looking for ways to divide Indian society. In their search they had identified Muslims and the princely ruling families as the two groups that could be used for dividing the nationalist sentiment. In 1919, they had also offered separate electorate to Sikhs, thus setting them on the path of separatism. Anglo-Indians were another group, whom they were using for their imperialist purposes. The British were thus encouraging several narrow interest groups and strengthening them by making them arbiters in the so-called constitutional reform process. Gandhiji, on the other hand, was trying to unite the Indian society through his spiritual strength and message. In this battle, Gandhiji was ahead up to 1930. He was then at the peak of his popularity and strength.

The British, it seems, set up a trap through the Round Table Conference; in this Conference, they proposed to give importance and recognition to the representatives of various narrow interests that they had raised in the Indian society. The Congress was aware of British designs. In the Lahore session of 1929, the Congress had passed four crucial resolutions. These included the demand for complete independence, boycott of the legislative councils, resignations by the Congressmen who were already in the councils, and refusal to join the Round Table Conference. All these resolutions were drafted by Gandhiji himself. 

British strategy was to involve Congress in the Round Table Conference without which the Conference would be devoid of any validity. Even during the first Round Table Conference, the then Viceroy, Lord Irwin, had sent M. R. Jaykar and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru to meet Gandhiji in Yarvada Jail. They had several rounds of discussions. Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru were also taken to Yarvada to join the talks. At the end, Gandhiji made it clear that the Congress would not attend the Round Table Conference and the decision was endorsed by six prominent leaders of the Congress. The first conference ended in January 19, 1931, without Congress participation.

From then onwards, the British became even more anxious to trap Gandhiji into this process. Lord Irwin, through Srinivas Shastri and Tej Bahadur Sapru, etc., convinced Gandhiiji to write a letter to him seeking an appointment and he readily accepted the request. Before beginning the dialogue with Irwin, Gandhiji sent a charter of 11 demands. In Gandhi-Irwin Pact that was signed at the end of the dialogue, none of these 11 demands had been conceded. Gandhiji, on the other hand, had agreed to the three main demands of the Viceroy. These included suspension of the Civil Disobedience Movement, participation of the Congress in the Round Table Congress, and acceptance by the Congress of the announcements made by the British prime minister at the end of the first round table conference. It remains a puzzle as to why did Gandhiji accept these demands of Irwin? And, why did he give up on all the four resolutions of the Lahore Congress?

There was much criticism of Gandhi-Irwin dialogue. Pandit Nehru and Subhash Bose were both vocal in their criticism. Nehru later reconciled to Gandhiji’s decision. The British knew that Bose would not reconcile to it; he was arrested when the dialogue was still on and was released only after Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The Pact was signed on March 5; Bose was released on March 15. Immediately after his release, Bose rushed to Bombay to meet Gandhiji. From Bombay, Bose accompanied Gandhiji to Delhi; this gave him an opportunity to spend a long time with Gandhiji. Bose describes the experience in his autobiography The Indian Struggle. He says that the Pact that they had found shameful was seen by the people of India as a great victory. Massive crowds had gathered on stations on the way, even at mid-night, to greet Gandhiji on this victory. He writes that such a phenomenon could not have been seen anywhere in the world. Bose was forced to reflect on the difference between the perception of the Congress leaders like him and the people of India and also on the secret of Gandhiji’s hold on the latter. Gandhi received a tumultuous welcome when he arrived at Karachi for the Congress session of 1931. Gandhiji reached Karachi a couple of days in advance. The Sindh Congress Committee made use of the opportunity to hold a public lecture by Gandhiji; there was an entry fee of 4 annas for the lecture and Rs.10,000/- was collected as entry fee. As many as 40,000 people had thus paid to attend the lecture. Such was the influence Gandhiji had on the people of India.

Gandhiji chose to go alone the Second Round Table Conference. Irwin had offered to allow a Congress delegation of 15 to 20 leaders. If Gandhiji had taken a larger delegation including Muslim, Sikh and Depressed Caste representatives, then probably the Congress could have presented itself as an organisation representing all interests. But Gandhiji insisted on going alone; he said that Nehru should stay in India and Patel was needed in Gujarat. So Gandhiji went alone, and after due consideration decided to go there in his usual attire. But as we have discussed in the previous lecture, Gandhiji’s attire of an austere Hindu only reinforced the image of Congress as a party of caste-Hindus which the British had assiduously created and the Muslim and Depressed Caste leaders had been spreading. 
The British were able to put narrow sectional representatives like those of the depressed castes, Sikhs, Muslims and the ruling families of the princely states against Gandhiji. Obviously, in the Second Round Table Conference, Gandhiji lost the initiative to the British. V. S. Srinivas Shastri reporting from London repeatedly says that the speeches of Gandhiji had a negative impact on the British media and British public. Gandhiji himself accepted that in that Conference, he lost something rather than gaining. In his speeches at the Conference also he regretted that the Congress, which represented the entirety of the nation, had been reduced to the level of the representatives of narrow interests. But this was precisely the policy of the British; they wanted Indian nationalism to be lost in the maze of narrow sectional interests. Had Gandhiji not participated in the Conference, the British game of diplomacy would have misfired.

The British particularly tried to break the depressed castes from the Hindu fold. For this purpose they carefully chose Ambedkar and Srinivasan of Madras as the representatives of these castes, while keeping M. C. Raja out. Raja had been nominated to the Madras assembly in 1922 and to the Central Legislative Assembly in 1927. But the British did not take him to the Conference; they were not sure of his views. They were more confident of Dr. Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar had unusual command over English language. In the conference, he presented stirring accounts of the atrocities of caste Hindus on the depressed castes; these were widely reported in the British media. Gandhiji tried to put things in perspective. But, Ambedkar marshalled all his eloquence and intelligence to demolish Gandhiji.

Gandhiji had by then come to terms with the separatism of not only Muslims but also Sikhs. Therefore, at the Conference he accepted separate electorates for these two communities. But he was not prepared to accept the division of Hindu society into the depressed castes and others. He kept trying to convince the Muslims and the Sikhs to avoid raising the issue of depressed castes. Dr. Ambedkar exploited this; he presented Gandhiji as opposed to the interests of depressed-castes. It was not a question of the intentions of Gandhiji; but of the way he was presented in the Conference. And in this, Gandhiji indeed lost. Gandhiji returned from London a defeated man. This is accepted by all historians of the freedom movement including Tarachand, Sushila Nayar and R.C. Majumdar. Gandhiji’s biographers also accept this fact.

Gandhiji was of the firm view that the problem of the depressed-castes was an internal problem of the Hindu society; for him, it was not a political but a social problem. Its solution was only in a change of heart of caste Hindus. And he promised that on his return to India he would create a powerful social movement that would cleanse the Hindu society of this problem for ever. The movement would make the caste Hindus change their hearts and their ways.

The British, of course, did not want any such movement for reform of Hindu society to take off and succeed. They wanted to make the problem a part of the constitutional reform process. That is why, after his return, Gandhiji was given no occasion to launch the movement he had promised. He was put in jail within four days of his return to India. On March 11, 1932, from the jail, Gandhiji wrote the secretary of state, Samuel Hoare, that he wanted to begin his social movement, but the British were obstructing his effort by putting him in jail.

Incidentally, the then Viceroy, Willingdon, was also keen to divert Gandhiji’s energies from the political to the social movement. He wanted Gandhiji to give up Civil Disobedience Movement and concentrate on the problem of the depressed castes. In British view, a movement for the uplift of the depressed castes would have created fissures in the Hindu society, which formed the support-base of the national movement for Independence. He sought the help of Srinivas Shastri to persuade Gandhiji on these lines. Srinivas Shastri promptly agreed, only asking to be provided some channel of direct access to the Viceroy so that he might keep in continuous touch. The letter that Shastri wrote to the Viceroy raised some doubts in my mind about the great man. There cannot be any doubt about the patriotism and cultural commitment of Srinivas Shastri. Yet he agreed to be an instrument of the Viceroy! Perhaps this needs further research. 

This was the time, when Willingdon had adopted a policy of oppression against the Congress and Gandhiji. Gandhiji several times sought time for an interview with the Viceroy. But Willingdon refused curtly. Samuel Hoare was in agreement with the policy of oppression; he gave a statement in England that the government had decided on a direction and would move as per their plan; they would not be distracted by any barking dogs. At that stage, Gandhiji asked V. S. Srinivas Shastri to intercede on his behalf and arrange a meeting with the Viceroy. Mr. Shastri wrote to Samuel Hoare and Irwin; but even he was not able to change the attitude of Willingdon on this issue. Willingdon argued that if Gandhiji were allowed to meet the Viceroy, it would raise his stature, and he had no intention of contributing to the raising of Gandhiji’s stature.

In pursuance of the policy of oppression, the Congress organisation was banned and important leaders like Nehru and Patel were put behind bars. Willingdon analysed the support base of the Congress and targeted three classes: the peasantry, traders and government servants. Anyone who showed any sympathy for the Congress among these three groups was persecuted. Lands were auctioned and people were thrown out of jobs. This caused demoralisation in the Congress ranks. Gandhiji felt that at that stage it was difficult to make the Congress stand on its feet again.

In July 1933, Gandhiji called a meeting of the Congress leaders who were still outside the jail. And to his great distress, he found that the Congressmen were neither willing to go to jail nor take part in constructive work. They only wanted to enter the Councils. Many important leaders, including K. Santhanam and Asaf Ali, urged Gandhiji in this direction. 

V. S. Srinivas Shastri, though not a Congressman was invited to that meeting along with N. C. Kelkar. After the meeting, Shastri wrote a long letter to Gandhiji on August 11, 1933. In this letter, Shastri told Gandhiji that the Congress was his own creation, but even after 14 years of intense effort he had failed in moulding the Congress in his own image. He himself had reached at too high a pedestal for any Congressman to approach him. Therefore, it would be appropriate for him to set the Congress free and let it find its own way. Gandhiji replied that he would keep the advice of Mr. Shastri in mind and take a decision at the appropriate time. He also promised to Shastri that while taking the decision, he would not consult his own interest but only that of the country. A year later, in 1934, Gandhiji resigned from the primary membership of the Congress.

In his letters of that period, Gandhiji says that the Congress was in a state of stupor; and his first task was to revive it. He also felt that if Council entry could rejuvenate the Congress then let it be so. He advised Asaf Ali and Santhanam to create conducive environment for a decision in favour of Council entry. A meeting was held at Dr. M. A. Ansari’s house in Delhi; many congressmen were opposed to Council entry, but when they realised that Gandhiji had blessed the effort, they went along. With Gandhiji’s blessings, a convention of the Swaraj Party was also called by Bhulabhai Desai at Ranchi on May 1, 1934; it was in this convention that the demand for a Constituent Assembly was raised for the first time. The article of K. M. Munshi that we have mentioned earlier was written soon after this. And then Gandhiji decided that there was no need for a separate Swaraj Party, Congress itself could contest elections. Accordingly, the Congress Parliamentary Board was constituted and the Congress decided to enter the election arena. 

Thus the British succeeded in forcing Gandhiji and his Congress on the path of parliamentary politics against his own wishes and convictions. We need to consider why the Indian leadership that was ideologically opposed to the parliamentary politics of the British kind came to accept it. It was not only Gandhiji who found this politics to be morally repugnant. Earlier even Lala Lajpat Rai had repeatedly written that if swaraj meant the British kind of parliamentary system, then he did not want such a swaraj. But later, the same Lala Lajpat Rai formed a political party and contested elections. C. R. Das had in 1922 drafted a constitution based on gramas. Dr. Bhagwan Das published that constitution in a volume of his “Science of Social Organisation”. He also became an advocate of Council entry, though with the idea that the Congress would enter the councils to wreck the constitution from within. But in time, the process of wrecking from within turned into cooperation from within. That is why the constitution that was framed under the leadership of Motilal Nehru in 1928 was not very different from the British constitutional framework.

There was only one leader who remained consistently opposed to the British constitutional process; he was Subhash Chandra Bose. In his book “Indian Struggle”, published in 1934, he says that to transcend the diversities and stagnancies of India, we would have to adopt some kind of dictatorship for at least 20 years. We may or may not agree with that assessment, but he, for one, did not support the British parliamentary framework for India. He repeated this in an interview he gave to Hindustan Times in 1940 before leaving India. And again he repeated it forcefully in 1945 in a lecture at the Tokyo University. Subhash Chandra Bose played no role in the constitutional developments; but Nehru and Lala Lajpat Rai were active participants.

Thus we find that Gandhiji had an integral civilisational comprehension of India and had already worked out an outline of a political organisation in consonance with Indian civilisational genius and commitments. He had presented a detailed picture of his civilisational commitments and his vision of an appropriate political system in Hind Swaraj. He was also the tallest leader of the struggle for freedom. Yet in pursuing his mission of Independence for India, he had to compromise with his vision, and had to allow the Congress to follow the path of British parliamentary democracy. We need to seriously deliberate on this contradiction.
Download PDF                    Read Previous                   Read Next