The First Stage Debate

The First Stage Debate

Congress' Position

Following the withdrawal of the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1934, there was a two-stage debate on the future strategy of the nationalists- firstly, what course the national movement should take in the immediate future, that is, during the period of non-mass struggle in the years 1934-35, and secondly in 1937 over the question of office acceptance in the context of provincial elections held under the Government of India Act, 1935. This article discusses the first stage debate.

Only Civil Disobedience had been discontinued, the war continued!

British's position

Even though the Government had successfully suppressed the mass movement during 1932-33, it was aware that suppression could only be a short-term tactic.

To permanently weaken the movement, and this could be achieved by internally dividing the Congress and large segments of it co-opted or integrated into the colonial constitutional and administrative structure.

Three perspectives were put forward:

  • One group of the Congress suggested that there should be constructive work on Gandhian lines.
  • The second line of thought suggested that there should be a constitutional struggle and Congress should participate in elections to the Central Legislative, which were due in 1934. This was advocated by M.A. Ansari, Asaf Ali, Bhulabhai Desai, S. Satyamurthy and B.C. Roy among others. They pointed out that:
  1. In a period when Congressmen are impassive, participation in elections and work in the council could be utilised to keep up the political interest and morale of the people.
  2. The propounders of this suggestion claimed that participation in elections and work in council did not amount to faith in constitutional politics.
  3. They also thought that an another political front would help build up Congress and prepare the masses for the next phase of struggle.
  4. The propounder of this suggestion also claimed that this approach would give the Congress a certain amount of prestige and confidence, and a strong presence in councils would serve as an equivalent to the movement.
  • The third perspective was represented by a strong leftist trend within the Congress, which was represented by Nehru and was critical of both constructive work and council entry in place of the suspended Civil Disobedience Movement. The propounders of this perspective suggested that participation in elections and work in council would sidetrack political mass action and divert attention from the main issue of struggle against British colonialism. Instead, this section favoured redemption and continuation of non-constitutionalist mass struggle because the situation was still revolutionary owing to continued economic crisis and the readiness of the masses to fight.

Nehru's Vision

Nehru said, " The basic goal before Indian people as before people of the world is abolition of capitalism and establishment of socialism." He considered the withdrawal of the Civil Disobedience Movement and council entry "a spiritual defeat", "a surrender of ideals" and "a retreat from revolutionary to reformist mentality."

Nehru suggested that the vested interests be revised in favour of the masses by taking up economic and class demands of peasants and worked, and landlords and capitalists, organising masses in their class organisations- Kisan Sabhas and Trade Unions. He argued that these class organisations should be allowed to affiliate with the Congress, thus influencing its policies and activities. There could be no genuine anti-imperialistic struggle without incorporating the class struggle of the masses.

Nehru's Opposition to Struggle-Truce-Struggle Strategy

A large number of Congressmen led by Gandhiji believed that a mass phase of movement(struggle phase) had to be followed by a phase of reprieve(truce phase) before the next stage of mass struggle could be taken up. The truce period, it was argued, would enable the masses to recoup their strength to fight and also give the Government a chance to respond to the demands of the nationalists. The masses could not go on sacrificing indefinitely. If the Government did not respond positively, the movement could be resumed again with the participation of the masses. This was the Struggle-Truce-Struggle or S-T-S strategy.

Criticising the S-T-S strategy, Nehru argued that the Indian National Movement had reached a stage, after the Lahore Congress call for Purna Swaraj programme, in which there should be a continuous confrontation and conflict with imperialism till it was overthrown. He advocated maintenance of a "continuous direct action" policy by the Congress and without the interposition of a constitutionalist phase. Real power, he said, cannot be won by two annas and four annas. Nehru suggested a Struggle-Victory strategy.

Final decision: Council Entry

Nationalists with apprehension and British officials with hope expected a split in the Congress on Surat lines sooner or later, but Gandhiji conciliated the proponents of council entry by acceding to their basic demand of permission to enter the legislatures. He said, "Parliamentary politics cannot lead to freedom but those Congressmen who could not, for some reason, offer Satyagraha or devote themselves to constructive work should not remain unoccupied and could express their patriotic energies through council work provided they are not sacked into constitutionalism or self serving". Assuring the leftists, Gandhiji said that the withdrawal of the civil disobedience movement did not mean bowing down before opportunists or compromising with imperialism.

In May 1934, the All India Congress Committee met at Patna to set up a Parliamentary Board to fight elections under the aegis of the Congress itself.

Gandhi resigned from the Congress

Gandhi was aware of that he was out of tune with powerful trends in the Congress. A large section of the intelligentsia favoured parliamentary politics with which he was in fundamental disagreement. Another section was estranged from the Congress because of Gandhi's emphasis on the spinning wheel as the "second lung of the nation". The socialists led by Nehru also had differences with Gandhi. In October, 1934, Gandhi announced his resignation from the Congress to serve it better in thought, word and deed.

Nehru's changed stance

Nehru and the socialists thought that the British must first be expelled before the struggle for socialism could be waged, and in an anti-imperialistic struggle unity around the Congress, still the only anti-imperialist mass organisation, was indispensable. Thus it was better, they felt, to gradually radicalise the Congress then to get isolated from the masses.

In the elections to the Central Legislative Assembly held in November 1934, the Congress captured 45 out of 75 seats reserved for Indians.

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