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
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
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
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.