People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 29, 2006
Struggle To Consolidate The Republic's Gains
Harkishan Singh Surjeet
AFTER refusing to accept the objective of complete independence for years, the Congress finally came around to it in its Lahore session in December 1929 and fixed January 26 for celebration of "Independence Day" every year. But the masses clearly realised that mere severance of ties from British imperialism was not enough; what was still more important was the emancipation of India's humanity from the age-old shackles of hunger, exploitation and oppression. And this realisation was getting reflected through the length and breadth of the country in a myriad of ways. For example, in his last letter from the death cell, which was posthumously published under the title "To Young Political Workers," Bhagat Singh clearly posed the question as to what difference it would make to the life of India's masses if only an Irwin was replaced by a Purushottamdas Thakurdas!
It was the same date --- January 26 --- that later came to be designated as Republic Day. The reason is known to one and all.
IT was therefore not surprising that this understanding got reflected in the Congress circles as well. In about one year and a quarter of adopting the resolution on complete independence, the Karachi session of Indian National Congress (March 29-31, 1931) adopted a resolution on fundamental rights, which came to serve as a blueprint for constitution making after India's independence in 1947. The resolution was only slightly amended by the All India Congress Committee meeting later in the same year, from August 6 to 8, 1931.
One among the many significant observations this resolution made was this: "In order to end the exploitation of the masses, political freedom must include real economic freedom of the starving millions" (emphasis added). Nay, the resolution gave a list of the things that any future "constitution... agreed to on its behalf should provide or enable the Swaraj government to provide."
There is no doubt that this list did not include many important tasks that came to be included later on. For example, it did not have any specific pledge for the sections who later came to be known as the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Similarly, while promising to ease the burdens of Indian peasantry, it talked of the necessity of land reforms in a roundabout way: "The system of land tenure and revenue and rent shall be reformed and an equitable adjustment made of the burden on agricultural land...." The abolition of landlordism, of the feudal and semi-feudal land relations was thus not yet a part of the Congress agenda, and "an equitable adjustment of the burden on agricultural land" could mean hundreds of things. Yet there is no doubt that even this much was a big advance in the political and ideological atmosphere prevailing in 1931. And it was certainly a big progress in comparison to 1922 when Gandhi had flatly refused to touch the landlords' property and asked the peasants not to stop the payment of rents they owed to their landlord masters.
In sum, whatever might have been the Karachi document's limitations, the pledge the Congress made to the mass of India's toilers was indeed a significant one. On their part, in turn, the masses too did not disappoint the Congress. They extended it their full support as became evident, for example, from the 1937 election results.
The reason of this mass support to the Congress may be comprehended from the reverse angle too. If the Muslim League lost in 1937 in Muslim majority provinces as well, one of the significant reasons was that it did not have a programme of the kind the Congress had. A case in point was the Punjab. Here the Muslims constituted some 55 per cent of the population, but yet the League lost here. Instead, the gainer was the Unionist Party with a perceived pro-peasant attitude.
HOWEVER, despite all the significant advances that came in numerous walks of our national life after independence, the fact remains that the Congress party reneged on many of the promises it had made to the mass of Indians before 1947.
Take the same case of land reforms, of which we are talking. If the Congress talked of land reforms in a roundabout way in 1931 and avoided the issue of abolition of landlordism, the circumstances forced it soon to adopt a more radical programme. The formation of All India Kisan Sabha in 1936 brought the issue of abolition of landlordism to the fore, and the impending elections to provincial legislatures made the Congress take a more forthright stand on it. As Congress president, Jawaharlal Nehru made specific promises about it while on an election campaign trail through the United Provinces. The Congress thought, and correctly, that it could not hope to win over the mass of peasantry without such a promise.
No doubt the abolition of zamindari was one of the steps the Congress took after it became the ruling party; some ceiling was also imposed on landholdings. That too under the pressure of Telangana and other peasant struggles. But beyond these rudimentary steps, the Congress regime did precious little to emancipate the peasants from their shackles. Despite the formal abolition of zamindari, the bane of unequal distribution of land continued in a big part of the country and huge landholdings still exist in many areas. The way the land ceiling legislation was reduced to a joke, with loopholes deliberately left in it, needs no reiteration. And all this because landlords shared the state power after 1947.
EVILS STILL CONTINUE
THIS virtually total absence of land reforms has several undesirable consequences for the weaker sections of society and for the country as a whole. For example, the Karachi resolution's pledge to "secure a decent standard of living" for all still remains unfulfilled, and is bound to remain unfulfilled till the time radical land reforms are effected. As some 65 per cent of our people are still dependent on agriculture, it is simply ridiculous to think that they will be able to make both ends meet without land --- the most important asset in rural areas.
If labour is still not "freed from serfdom or conditions bordering on serfdom" in some areas, as the Karachi resolution promised to make it, this too is a consequence of the non-implementation of radical land reforms. And if you think of it, the absence of land reforms is responsible to a large extent for the continuation of three of the most serious evils plaguing our society --- child labour, beggary and prostitution.
We may note here that the Kisan Sabha and Left parties had had to wage long battles to get a modicum of land reforms effected in states and to ensure that the West Bengal and Kerala land legislations are not overturned by the judiciary.
But the saddest part of the story is that today the state power is seeking to reverse whatever rudimentary land reforms have taken place in various states. And this time it is not the landlords alone; big industrial houses and foreign capital too are trying to bring pressure for the purpose.
PLIGHT OF SC/ST GROUPS
THE absence of redistributive land reforms has had yet another repercussion. The Karachi resolution did say that no disability would attach to any citizen in independent India on the basis of caste. Moreover, "all citizens (will) have equal rights in regard to wells, tanks, roads, schools and places of public resort." Yet it did not have anything specific about the sections today called scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. For these sections, the idea of reservation in educational institutions and employment, as protective discrimination, emerged only after the Gandhi-Ambedkar Pact more than a year later. In fact, through this pact, the Congress gave its solemn pledge to the most downtrodden sections of our society that they would be treated as equal citizens in independent India.
It is another thing that the economic dimension of social oppression of Dalit population was not paid enough attention either by the Congress or by Dr B R Ambedkar. At that time, it was only the communists who were raising this issue; it was for example an important point raised by the Platform of Action of 1930. Yet, the issue could not be ignored for long. For instance, while addressing a rally of Dalit people soon after signing the draft of Indian constitution, Dr Ambedkar said that now this section of society was going to usher into an era when it would have civil and political equality with others but no social and economic equality.
This was no doubt a highly significant observation. But while reservations in jobs and education were (and still are) absolutely necessary to protect to an extent the Dalits and Adivasis from discrimination, we are witness to the sad reality that such measures have failed to ameliorate the lot of these sections to any significant extent. And the reason of it was the "caste-class correspondence," in which those at the bottom of economic ladder are, by and large, also at the bottom of social ladder. Even today, a sizeable chunk of our agricultural labourers belongs to the SC/ST categories, and land reforms could go a long way to give these sections both physical assets and social dignity. This is what the West Bengal example glaringly brings out. But this was precisely what was avoided in the country as a whole.
AS for the promises of a living wage, healthy work conditions, limited hours of work, protection of women workers, prohibition on employment of children in mines and factories, relief from rural indebtedness and control of usury (see our peasants committing suicide in droves) and so on, the less said the better. After independence, the new ruling classes very cunningly pushed some of these promises into the category called the Directive Principles of State Policy, where they remain non-justiciable and are therefore not much other than pious wishes.
The mockery of all this is evident from just one example, a telltale one. The Karachi resolution pledged that "The state shall provide for free and compulsory primary education" (emphasis added). But while the word "primary" was replaced by "elementary" after independence, the new constitution only said the state would strive to provide free and compulsory elementary education to all children within 10 years. Secondly, while the issue was included in the list of directive principles after independence, the Karachi resolution had it as Article 1 (xi) under the heading "Fundamental Rights and Duties."
Is there any wonder that, what to talk of 10 years, this important directive remains unimplemented even after 56 long years of the promulgation of our constitution?
The fact is that India's ruling classes have always treated the expenditure on health, education and other social sectors as something like waste of money, instead of taking it as an investment in the country's future. The central government had agreed to spend 6 per cent of the GDP way back in 1968, two years after the Kothari commission had recommended it. Yet successive governments at the centre did not make any move to implement this recommendation for 36 long years. It was only after the pressure brought by Left parties that the UPA government agreed to allocate this much amount to education.
SECULARISM & FEDERALISM
YET another important objective to which the Karachi resolution attached much importance was that of a secular polity. It said, among other things, that "the state shall observe neutrality in regard to all religions." Now, there is no doubt that our ruling class politicians have been dithering on the issue of defence of secularism, or making compromises with or capitulating before communal forces. Even the well meaning among them do not take secularism as "neutrality in regard to all religions" but as equal pandering of all religions. Yet, the mass of Indians has remained true to the ideal of secularism in their own ways. In fact, if our secular polity is by and large intact today, the credit goes to the mass of our people, many of whom are illiterate, underfed and underclad but do understand the need of preserving our national unity and also the threats it faces.
As for the second basic characteristic of our polity, i e federalism, the Karachi document did not have anything about it. This is surprising in view of two facts. First, only 3 years ago, the Motilal Nehru report had specifically recommended a federal system for future India. Secondly, the necessity of a federal structure for India and the features desirable for it were going to be one of the central themes of discussion during the second round table conference that the same Karachi session authorised the Congress to attend. As we know, the Congress had boycotted the first round table conference and launched the civil disobedience movement in 1930, but then the Gandhi-Irwin Pact paved the way for Congress participation in the process and the Karachi session endorsed the pact. In passing, the Congress rejected the federal part of the Government of India Act of 1935, saying that it was defective, and only agreed to contest the provincial polls to be held under this act in 1937.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the Congress committed to federalism as far back as 1921 when it ignored the British system of presidencies and provinces for organisational purposes. In its stead, the Congress under Gandhi reorganised its branches along linguistic lines, and the idea of linguistic states was clearly formulated in the Nehru committee report of 1928. It is another thing that, after independence, the people of this country had had to wage sustained struggles and make sacrifices for their aspiration of having linguistic states; several of these struggles were led by the Communist Party.
Today, both these basic features of Indian polity, i e federalism and secularism, are under attack from communal forces and their allies, and the necessity for us today is not only to defend these features but to further deepen and strengthen them.
There were several other promises too made by the Indian National Congress before independence, which were reflecting the aspirations of our people in their struggle against imperialism, and these have acquired added significance and urgency in the context of today. For example, as against the promise of giving the peasants and workers "the right to form unions to protect their interests," today the attempt is to snatch this right even from those who have got it through struggle. The parliament is yet to nullify the Supreme Court verdict declaring the strikes as illegal. The regime is still to "largely reduce" the expenditure on governance, reduce military expenditure and enhance the welfare budget. The promise was that the state "shall own or control key industries and services, mineral resources, railways, waterways, shipping and other means of public transport." But in fact even where the state owns or controls such basic industries and services, they are being handed over to the bourgeoisie on a platter and for a song. The promise was that the state shall protect textile and other "indigenous industries, when necessary, against foreign competition." But the reality is that our indigenous industries are being thrown to imperialist vultures called MNCs and even being denied a level playing field. As for currency and exchange, the promise was that "they shall be regulated in the national interest," but the fact is that in most cases devaluation of the rupee has taken place at the secret or not so secret behest of imperialist powers.
In sum, it is clear that the ruling classes of our country are not sincere about implementing the promises they made to the fighting people of this country during our struggle for national liberation. Though the mighty struggles of our people led to the creation of a federal and secular democratic republic in this country, the bourgeoisie and imperialist powers are seeking to undermine the very foundations of our republic in order to bring the people in permanent thraldom. But this means that the people need to talk to them in the only language they understand --- the language of struggle. In this regard, the Left and democratic forces too have to make utmost efforts to ensure that these promises no longer remain on paper but get translated into reality. Having thrown out the British colonial power, the people have to further deepen their liberation struggle and strengthen their republic so as to protect their gains and make new ones. May the Republic Day this year serve as a day of renewal of resolve for this purpose!