Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Gokhale and the Liberals

B. Shiva Rao

Einstein was asked in the closing months of his life if his philosophy of life included belief in God. ‘Call it God, provi­dence or Nature”, he mused in reply, “I have a faith within me, which is deeper than reason, in the Law of Righteousness that governs this universe.”

It may be said of Gopal Krishna Gokhale that a similar faith sustained him throughout life. He was among the early satlwarts of the Congress which, for a decade and more after its birth, was content to ask for modest reforms in the system of admini­stration. He owed his training and inspiration for political work to Ranade whose “marvellous personality and profound patriotism” made a lasting impression on him. Only two men in India, in his judgment, “were utterly absorbed day and night in thought of their country and her welfare – Ranade and Dadabhal Naoroji.” About the former, with whom his association was more intimate, he declared:

His one aspiration through life was that India should be roused from the lethargy of centuries, so that she might become a great and living nation, responsive to truth and justice and self-respect, responsive to all the claims of our higher nature, animated by lofty ideals, and undertaking great national tasks.

In 1901 Ranade’s death, as he confessed in a letter to a friend, came to him as though a sudden darkness had fallen upon his life. He recognised that it was his duty to struggle on “Cherishing with love and reverence the ideals to which Ranade had given his matchless life.”

After eighteen years of devoted service to the cause of edu­cation, rendered on a pittance, first as a teacher and later as the Principal of Fergusson College in Poona, Gokhale decided that the time was ripe for entering active politics in a bigway in 1902. For two years, even before finally giving up his educational work in Poona, Gokhale had distinguished himself as an elected member of the Bombay Legislative Council. From 1902, when he entered all-India politics as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council in succession to another great Liberal, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, until 1915, when he died at the early age of 49, it was a record of unceasing activity.

Education at all levels, from the primary stage to the uni­versity, was one of Gokhale’s passionate interests. At no time did he concern himself exclusively with political problems for instance, in one of his earliest speeches after entering public life, he made a moving plea at a social conference for the uplift of the “present degraded conditions of the low castes”, drawing a parallel between the problems of the Depressed Classes and the racial segregation measures against Indian settlers in South Africa which Gandhiji had vividly brought to the notice of the Indian public.

Almost at the threshold of his career, when he was making a mark in the Congress as one of the most promising of the coming men, came a traumatic experience in 1896 which nearly blasted his future prospects. Moved by harrowing reports he had received in private letters of the harshness of the measures adopted by some British officials in stamping out plague in Poona, Gokhale, who was then on a political mission in England, made a bitter attack on the officials responsible for such a policy in a letter to the Manchester Guardian. It created a sensation in India and Gokhale was challenged, on his return, to substantiate his accusations. Unable to find corroborating evidence, he tendered an unqualified apology to the Governor, to the members of the Plague Committee and to the soldiers engaged in relief operations. The apology cost him a great deal, and for some years thereafter he could not even speak from the platform of the Congress.

The years that Gokhale thus spent in the political wilderness were utilised for a study in depth of current problems. He gave evidence before a Royal Commission on Indian expenditure, in London, commonly known as the Welby Commission. The warm encomiums he received on his evidence were a source of much encouragement; Sir William Wedderburn’s remark, “your evidence will be much the best on our side”, greatly revived his spirits.

Gokhale ventured on the formation of the Servants of India Society in 1905 to attract young men who could dedicate their lives to the country’s service in a missionary spirit. This project had been in his mind for some years. He outlined the objects of the Society in a statement:

Its members frankly accept the British connection, as ordained, in the inscrutable dispensation of Providence, for India’s good. Self-government on the lines of English colonies is their goal. Their goal, they recognise, cannot be attained without years of earnest and patient work and sacrifices worthy of the cause.

It is well to remember, in assessing the value of Gokhale’s contribution to the freedom movement, that he belonged to a generation which laboured hard, often in vain, and had to be content at the best of times with results which may seem to us today to be petty. Relevant too is it to capture something of the atmosphere of those early years as India was working up to the potentialities of her destiny. It was after prolonged parleys in the India office in the early years of this century that Gokhale succeeded in getting Lord Morley, the Secretary of State, to consider with sympathy the appointment of Indians to the Viceroy’s Executive Council though the original proposal of two members got reduced to one.

Defeat and disappointment did not deter Gokhale from the path he had set for himself. Almost at the end of his career, in his speech in the Imperial Legislative Council on the Elementary Education Bill, Gokhale remarked before the final vote:

I know that my Bill will be thrown out before the day closes. I make no complaint. I shall not even feel depressed...I have always felt and have often said that we of the present generation in India can only hope to serve our country by our failures. The men and women who will be privileged to serve her by their successes will come later. We must be content to accept cheerfully the place that has been allotted to us in our onward march...Whatever fate awaits our labours, one thing is clear. We shall be entitled to feel that we have done our duty, and where the call of duty is clear, it is better even to labour and fail than not to labour at all.

Gokhale and many of his contemporaries were realists, sustained by a firm faith in the justice of their cause and the high destiny that would one day be India’s after the achievement of freedom. Their generation did not have to wait long for the release of the forces that bore India along the course of a progressive movement. In 1910 India had been considered fit, as a measure of gracious patronage, for a single seat in the Viceroy’s Executive Council. In 1921 the number was increased to three, and the Royal proclamation conceded that the Morley Scheme was “the beginning of Swaraj within my Empire.” At the end of the First World War India was made a member of the League of Nations, thus in external status becoming an equal to the self-governing Dominions.

Pandit Motilal Nehru and C. R. Das were influenced in the formation and tactics of the Swaraj party in 1924 by the creditable performances of the Liberal Ministries in the provinces and the record of the first Central Legislative Assembly. They agreed with Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru who first sounded the warning in the early ‘Twenties that even full provincial autonomy without an element of responsibility at the Centre, would prove illusory. The appointment of the Muddiman Reforms Committee in 1924 was hastened by the evidence of the abundant constructive talent in the ranks of the Liberals. In the previous year the Central Legislative Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution with the acquiescence of the Government of India commending the constructive work of the Ministries in the various provinces under the Montagu Scheme and supportiug the plea for hastening the pace of reforms both in. the provinces and in the Centre. The minority report of the Muddiman Committee was the handiwork of the Liberals, Sir Tej Bahadnr Sapru, Sir Sivaswamy Aiyar, Mr. Jinnah and Dr. Paranjpye (Mr. Jinnah was really a Liberal in his outlook, though technically not a member of the party). It was a radical document produced by men who had worked on the Montagu Scheme of Reforms and believed in constitutional methods in all circumstances.

In fact, Pandit Motital would have been a member of theMuddiman Committee (and for a brief period a little later was actually a member of the Army Indianisation Committee) but for the pressure of his son Jawaharlal to which he yielded against his better judgement. All through the ’Twenties, his policy was moulded and directed by the principles of the Liberals. “Non­-co-operators as we are”, he told the British Government in the Legislative Assembly on a famous occasion in 1926, “we offer you our full co-operation”, on the condition that they “con­vened a Round Table Conference of representative Indians to evolve a Constitution for India”, citing the precedent of Australia. He quoted with approval Joseph Chamberlain’s remarks in the House of Commons in introducing the Commonwealth of Australia Bill in 1900 that there should be no alteration, not even of a word or a comma, in a measure carefully drafted by the leading Australian statesmen of the period.

The Nehru (all-Parties) Report claimed full Dominion Status for India as embodying the greatest possible measure of agreement among the various political parties. To some extent, Pandit Motilal Nehru was influenced (as was C. R. Das in his famous Faridpur speech in 1926 giving Dominion Status greater significance than complete independence) by the new concept of autonomous nations in the Commonwealth which was outlined in the resolu­tions of the Imperial Conference held in the same year. In evolving the basic principles of the Nehru Report, there was valuable guidance in the Commonwealth of India Bill prepared under the sponsorship of Mrs. Besant and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. After the completion of the Report, Pandit Motilal Nehru sought her advice on securing competent legal draftsmen in London to give the scheme a shape that would be in accord with the procedural formalities of the House of Commons.

Pandit Motilal Nehru died at a moment which was critical for India’s destiny. Having met him at Allahabad on the eve of the First Round Table Conference, I have no doubt that Ramsay MacDonald’s far-reaching statement at the end of the Conference would have brought him into the later sessions, and there might have been a final settlement of the Indian problem by mutual consent in the early ’Thirties. Death denied India the services of a great statesman when she needed them most. All through his life, and even after becoming the leader of the Swaraj Party, Pandit Motilal Nehru was a Liberal in Congress garb.

The States People’s Conference under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, Balwant Rai Mehta, Sheikh Abdullah and others did much in the formative stages of the Round Table Conferences, to underline the importance of the elective principle in the representation of the princely States at the Federal Centre. But the pioneer in this field was Sir Sivaswamy Aiyar. In a series of lectures at the Madras University in 1928, he referred in a masterly survey to the establishment of proper relations between Indian provinces and the princely States as an essential preliminary to the creation of an all-India federation. Included in the list of conditions to be fulfilled by the princely States to qualify themselves for accession was the observance of the elective principle. In many respects Sir Sivaswamy Aiyar was a radical, in his thinking and outlook.

Another figure who deserves greater recognition for his work in the ’Twenties than he has received is V. S. Srinivasa Sastri. In his own sphere–the exposition of India’s claim to equality of status with the Dominions of the Commonwealth – he was unri­valled. Through his superb utterances in all the Dominions and at the sessions of the Imperial Conference and of the League of Nations, he established beyond challenge in a subtle but definite manner India’s right to equality with the free nations of the world. ill-health crippled his activities after the Round Table Conferences; though he influenced the course of events in the ground for at least a decade thereafter, and was for Gandhiji a voice to be listened to with respect even if it did not often compel acquiescence.

In fact, all through Gandhiji’s career, the two men who, in his view, could give him disinterested and independent advice in complex situations were Sapru and Sastri. The popular belief that Gandhiji was a revolutionary whose aims were concealed in a creed of non-violence is a one-sided interpretation that ignores the fact that, after the first non-co-operation movement and its setat Chauri Chaura, he was in his own way greatly influenced by the Gokhale tradition. At the second Round Table Conference his passionate plea for a partnership between Britain and India on a basis of equality might have opened the door to immediate freedom but for Churchill’s unwise and blind opposition. Even after the inauguration of the 1935 Constitution, Gandhiji did not endorse the ‘wrecking the Constitution from within’ slogan evolved by Jawaharlal Nehru and the Socialists. He preferred the policy of working the Constitution, with all its limitations, to implement more effectively the constructive programme of the Congress.

Between Gokhale and Gandhiji there was a bond of mutual affection and deep respect which endured to the end of their lives. I recall an incident in Bhangi colony in New Delhi in 1946 where Gandhiji was residing at the time of the British Cabinet Mission’s visit. On the eve of the elections of members of the Constituent Assembly, I asked for an interview with the Mahatma which he granted late that evening. I told him I was approaching him with a strange request: he had taught Congressmen to break laws and go to prison, but did they not need the help of others to frame a Constitution? This somewhat irreverent remark evoked a ready response from him: “Yes, I have not succeeded in persuading Congressmen to follow Gokhale’s example of making a deep study of public problems before speaking on them.” This brief conversation led to his blessing a list of 16 eminent non-Congress leaders (most of them Liberals, like Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru ) for election to the Constituent Assembly.

A re-evaluation of the forces that resulted in India’s freedom is necessary today because our public life after Independence is the poorer for the disappearance of the Liberal creed and all it stood for. Respect for constitutional methods of agitation, which Gandhiji sometimes rejected in favour of civil disobedience of the authority of an alien ruler, deserves today not only, the highest priority but an unreserved loyalty. Many current forms of agitation ­gheraos, mass demonstrations, hunger-strikes, etc., are seriously undermining the foundations of the Constitution which are secure only in a widespread respect for the rule of law.

Of equal importance in a democracy based on adult suffrage are the high standards of personal integrity set by Liberal leaders. Sapru, Sivaswamy Aiyar, Sastri and a number of other Liberal statesmen earned credit for themselves and gave a healthy tone to our public life through records of personal purity and uncompromis­ing adherence to convictions which have become all too rare in the years of our independence.

–From India’s Freedom Movement
(COURTESY: Messrs. Orient Longman Ltd.)

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