Visalakshi Menon has given us a fascinating story of a political party at the crossroads. Having spearheaded an anti-imperialist movement and had its cadres languish in colonial jails, it debates whether to assume office and eventually forms governments in eight provinces of British India. Some significant questions arise. What impact will this new role have on the old one? Will the party give up mobilizing for movements and concentrate on administration? The British Government was sure the Congress would “study moderation” and forsake movements in the future. That, after all, had been the premise behind the Government of India Act of 1935 – to divert the energy of the Congress from revolution to constitutionalism and reduce its influence by bringing in the princes as a countervailing force in the Federation. The Congress was equally emphatic that far from becoming a constitutional party it had accepted office with the objective of wrecking the constitution from within! Who would be proved right?
The period covered in the book is the years 1937 to 1942 and the region is the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, now Uttar Pradesh. The choice of the region itself makes this book important as serious political analyses of this province seem to be in inverse proportion to its political importance! The theme is provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act of 1935 which is generally ignored by historians. The curtain rises with the acceptance of office by the Congress under Govind Vallabh Pant’s premiership, as chief ministership was then known. Jawaharlal Nehru had played an important role in the election campaign. S. Gopal described this as “the first of his national campaigns, covering the Indian village network by train, plane, car, bicycle, cart and steamer, on horse, elephant and camel, and on foot”.
Provincial autonomy comes across in the literature on late colonial India as a period of compromises with vested interests. Menon refutes the view put forward by Reginald Coupland [The Constitutional Problem in India, Part II] that the popular provincial ministries wished to cling to office in 1939 whereas the central leadership was in favour of their quitting office and resuming struggle against a Raj which had brazenly declared that India was at war without consulting the Indian people. She shows how they were willing to quit office whenever necessary and even did so over the issue of release of political prisoners. Neither does Menon buy into Damodaran [Broken Promises: Popular Protest, Indian Nationalism and the Congress Ministry in Bihar, 1935-46] and Shankardass’s argument [The First Congress Raj: Provincial Autonomy in Bombay] that the Congress rule hardly differed from the Raj; it merely reproduced the structures of imperial authority. She shows how the popular ministries challenged imperial authority as never before and gave people a sense of what freedom would be. The Congress was at pains to demonstrate that its rule was the complete antithesis of imperial rule and it largely succeeded in this.
Menon also criticizes the assessment of Som [Differences within Consensus: the Left-Right Divide in the Congress,1929-39,], that the right wing had consolidated its influence by 1939 – in fact she shows that Congress Socialists such as Acharya Narendra Deva and Jayaprakash Narayan were increasingly extremely influential. Her study of U.P. does not suggest that 1939 was a watershed year; rather, different strategies continued to contend with each other. Menon is also critical of the condescending view advanced by Gyanendra Pandey [The Ascendancy of the Congress in U.P.] and Sumit Sarkar [Modern India, 1885-1947]that the differences between socialist and non-socialist groups were more factional than ideological.
There is an interesting chapter on the Tenancy Act, which Menon considers the most important achievement of the ministry. This was an extremely radical piece of legislation compared to other provinces, which paved the ground for abolition of zamindari and the passing of a feudal way of life soon after independence. There is little doubt that the alienation of the Muslims from the Congress was rooted in the hostility of the Muslim zamindars to the Tenancy Bill. The Congress was perceived as an anti-zamindar party and given that the taluqdars and zamindars were coincidentally largely Muslim, Congress policies came to be seen as anti-Muslim. This was one more instance of communal sentiment having an economic rather than a religious basis.
The ministries placed the bureaucrats in a major dilemma. Congressmen who had been law breakers and seditionists now became ministers and hence masters of the bureaucrats. In many cases patwaris, municipal board members, mukhias and government servants had campaigned for the Congress. The Government was naturally anxious that should the Congress launch a mass movement during the War, would bureaucrats remain loyal to the sarkar or would they not take action because of possible repercussions should the same Congressmen return to power? There were instances during the Individual Civil Disobedience movement of 1940-1941 when officials were embarrassed to take action against ex-ministers. Twenty eight months of Congress in office had created a new ethos: its prestige had skyrocketed and the changed attitude of the bureaucracy was a barometer.
Does one detect a pattern in the style of the Sage Series in Modern Indian History, in which this book is the fourth volume, to take up crucial and contentious issues and examine them in historical detail rather than theoretical abstraction? For instance, Visalakshi Menon’s book examines the complex relationship between different forms of politics practised by the same political party by taking up the concrete experience of the Congress in U.P. Thus the import of the book transcends that of a historical work on U.P. to constitute essential reading for all those interested in contemporary politics. Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres would do well to read it to make sense of their experience in West Bengal, where, it would seem, they permanently form the government and yet curiously continue to be a party of revolution. So would the BJP cadres who seem to slip effortlessly from one role to another, from responsible ministers in the Government to rabble-rousing (rubble-razing?) karsevaks for a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya.
Sucheta Mahajan teaches history at Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. Her publications include Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India and India’s Struggle for Independence (with Bipan Chandra et al)