The Round Table Conference Prolegomena : What Is And What
BY DR. EDWARD THOMPSON.
[This is the first of a series of articles in which Dr. Thompson will comment week by week on the Round Table Conference.] Tux Indian problem has been created not by ourselves so much as by the whole world and by- inexorable laws' of change. We have held India outwardly static during seventy years in which organic decay has gone deep in every depart- ment, in Indian thought and social practice no less than in the Administration. The financial system is inadequate and out of date. The Provinces, haphazard and illogical agglomerations, are being fissured by new growths of national consciousness emerging along the lines of the vernaculars. Commissions will save us no longer ; nothing less than drastic reconstruction will serve. Hapsburg and German and Russian Empires have vanished, Turkey has been regenerated, China is in chaos, Britain has seen Colonies become Dominions and Dominions become Allies. Why should nothing happen in India ? A great deal has happened ; but it has been internal decay, which there has been no means of removing, whether by war or revolution or free political action.
The four conceivable courses before us may be summarized thus : (1) The " strong hand " ; (2) that things be allowed to simmer on in the discontent and ill-temper of the past two decades ; (3) that Britain " walk out of India " ; (4) a handing over of India's destiny in essentials to her own sons —Dominion Status, with safeguards for a period of transition.
The " strong hand " is impossible. You cannot, in 1930 or 1931, shoot down women and children, which is what a policy of repression would involve doing. Nor would the British people tolerate such action. Jallianwalabagh hap- pened in 1919, the year of bad temper travelling round the world like the post-War influenza epidemic—when Germany, Hungary, Poland, had revolutionary movements and shootings down ; when Ireland was in savage civil war ; when our own industrial troubles showed their fiercest mood ; when America had her record lynching year and her worst political intoler- ance. Also, to be cynical and meet our critics on a level where even they admit that we are amenable to argument, Britain cannot afford- repression financially. The day is past when we could crush out revolt and charge it on Indian revenues. Those revenues (shrinking fast in the present confusion) are wretchedly inadequate for 330 million people. For the luxury of reducing India to silence, is the taxpayer prepared to pay another two shillings in the pound ? It would cost him not a penny less.
That things should simmer on in the hell-broth to which Indian affairs are coming is almost the most intolerable prospect of all. We may as well dismiss the comforting delusion that only a handful of intellectuals are' troubled. These intellectuals have shown that they can excite the masses and lead them. Even the aboriginals are passing resolutions to pay no taxes (not that they ever paid very many—still, to get rid of any tax is an enticing programme) until the Nehrus and Mr. Gandhi are released and tell them to pay. College principals find their buildings invaded by mobs of children from the bazaar, who demand that work be shut down in protest against some arrest in another Province. College hostels are entered by respectable women, who offer their bangles to students who propose to attend lectures, just as young women in this country used to offer white feathers to men not in khaki. Ihiropean shops, or Indian shops that sell British goods, are effectually picketed by women for weeks at a time; the assistants take their Places behind the counters, but there is no one to serve. There is bad blood between. the European community of Calcutta and that. of :Bombay; the former _consider the latter (whose trade is 'in cotton, not in jute and tea) pusil- lanimous in their desire to come to terms with the National Congress.' There is bad blood between the Indian com- munity of Calcutta and that of Bombay ; the former are
face to face with the return of the angry days of the Partition —anyone who can raise the somewhat fancy price can buy a revolver, for Bengal is full of revolvers smuggled in by sailors of the numerous foreign ships that come up the Hugli—and they know that anarchy will mean civil war, in a Province whose Hindus and Muslims are practically equal in numbers. The Bengal Congressmen for the most part would have liked to attend the Conference, if they could have saved face, which is why they are pressing for an adjournment now and a new Conference next June ; but Bombay, with the cotton millionaires providing Nationalism with such funds as it never dreamed of having, is thinking of an India sur- rounded by lofty tariff walls, and is not bothering about Bengal's fears.
India's political quarrel with Britain, though the most pressing and immediate of her problems, is almost trivial in comparison with the problems looming through the future's cloud. That is why its settlement is so imperative—to make way for the coming to grips with the dangers that are gathering, and the problems that have been shelved so long. Since the Mutiny India has doubled her population ; part of this increase has been by annexations, but most has been natural. Another seventy years should make her population over 600 millions. Her fecundity and the poverty of her masses— a poverty which oppresses every foreigner when he first sees it, and in many induces an unreasoning fury against Britain— make the breaking-up of law and social order a prospect terrifying to all who know how close it is. The Indians who have come for the Round Table Conference are here, it has been pointed out, at great political risk. As they themselves know, they have come at risk that is more than political. We have got to help them. Their country is threatened with social disintegration. We do not gather from our newspapers the extent to which lawlessness and the lawless mind have infected India. We hear much of non-violence. Very few in the Nationalist movement believe in non-violence, unless as a necessity imposed by physical weakness. Why should they believe in it ? No other people in revolution has believed in it. The man that Young India, of both sexes, admires is not Mr. Gandhi ; it is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Mr. Gandhi is revered, and his value as impressing the outside world is realized. But Young India knows that when he says independence he does not really mean independence. But when Pandi Jawaharlal says independence, he means that and nothing other. He means also a reconstruction of society on lines which no country outside Russia and China is yet prepared to accept. It is not India's struggle with England that is depressing thinking Indians ; they regard this as a " hang-over," an obsolete but vexing fuss, that must be got out of the way that their civilization may be saved before too late.
The only way of hope lies in a settlement so generous that the genuinely Moderate elements in the Congress, those who know that India's civilizations are falling to pieces and dis- integration is setting in, will unite with the men who have come to London, to form a strong Centre Party. The Extremists, who refuse everything but war and a free hand in destruction, must be left to their own countrymen, as they were left in Ireland. The Princes in their present unity are still a bulwark against anarchy. For ourselves, we must take this opportunity (for every subsequent opportunity will 'be a dwindled one) to enter upon the rebuilding of India— providing her with a protection while she creates an Indian Army and everywhere overhauls her institutions and her thoughts and ways of 'living—guarding her against outside complications—and in Co-operation with Indians themselves making strong this bridge between East and West and receiving one more nation into-our Empire, as a guarantee that it exists for the world's peace and as a preparation' for the federation of all peoples.