Gandhiji and Indian business

It is untrue that his decisions to launch, suspend or withdraw movements against the British were done under capitalist pressure

Gandhiji and Indian business

Aditya Mukherjee

Gandhiji has been accused by some of being a “mascot” of the bourgeoisie, operating on their ‘behalf’ if not at their ‘behest’; of arousing the masses and then keeping them under control so that they did not transgress bourgeois interests. The once popular Subaltern School went a step further and excluded him altogether from the domain of the ‘people’, consigning him to the ‘elite’, ‘official’ domain. This, about a man whom even Lenin recognised as a ‘revolutionary’, because he brought masses of the Indian people into political action against imperialism. A man who, more than anyone else in this country, turned the face of the Indian people towards the poor and the socially oppressed. He was the pre-eminent leader of the popular, multi-class movement against British colonialism cutting across the barriers of class, caste, gender, language or religion. Social and religious reformers, poets, writers, musicians, philosophers, traders, industrialists, political thinkers, statesmen and above all ordinary workers and peasants all joined hands under his leadership to create a mass movement unparalleled in world history. Yet, he ensured that the ‘class adjustment’ that necessarily had to happen in a multi-class movement, as it could not be all out war among each constituent of the movement, increasingly happened in favour of the poor and the oppressed.

The argument, however, goes that Gandhiji and the Indian National Congress were ‘manipulated’, pressured by Indian business (the “Gandhian moneybags” in British Viceroy Linlithgow’s description) using essentially the funds at their disposal to endorse an economic and political strategy suitable to them. At a more pedestrian level, Gandhiji staying in Birla’s house too was seen as his proximity to business. No mention here of his long stays in Dalit colonies and ashrams where he would participate in cleaning the latrines. It has even been argued that “business pressures played a crucial role in bringing about a change in Gandhi’s political stance” leading to the suspension of the Civil Disobedience Movement and the announcement of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact in 1931. The evidence cited for this is essentially a telegram from a business leader to Gandhiji and reports of business leaders meeting him to put pressure on him. This kind of argument denies the relative autonomy of the Indian national movement and its tallest leaders from any one class, however powerful, which supported them. However, Gandhiji himself understood very well the delicate balancing act involved in ensuring that a multi-class social movement, while seeking the support of each class or group, must yet be independent of them. In 1918, at the early stages of his political activity in India, he declared that for Satyagraha, money was the least important input. During the Non-Cooperation Movement of the 1920s, while welcoming and even appealing for support from merchants and mill owners, Gandhiji maintained: “Whether they do so or not, the country’s march to freedom cannot be made to depend on any corporation or groups of men. This is a mass manifestation. The masses are moving rapidly towards deliverance and they must move whether with the aid of organised capital or without. This must therefore be a movement independent of capital and yet not antagonistic to it. Only if capital came to the aid of the masses, it would rebound to the credit of the capitalists and hasten the advent of the happy day.” (writer’s emphasis) Thus, Gandhiji theorised in his typically simple language the relative autonomy of a movement from any one class.

It is unhistorical to argue that Gandhiji’s decisions to launch, suspend or withdraw movements against the British were done under capitalist pressure. In fact, on most occasions, he launched a movement when a substantial section of the business class actually argued and even campaigned against it, e.g. in 1920-22, 1930, 1932 and 1942. The reasons for suspension or withdrawal were also strategic and tactical, keeping the long-term objectives of the struggle in mind and not a result of telegrams and messages sent to him by capitalists. Interestingly, Gandhiji felt the need to comment on the pressures put on him and their impact on the decision to go in for the Gandhi-Irwin Pact in mid-February 1931. At a meeting in Bombay on March 1931, he said: “You may be sure that whilst I was being inundated with telegrams to make peace at any price, I was absolutely unmoved by them. I am inured to such things and I was absolutely firm that I must not allow any of these telegrams to make me flinch from whatever decision my inner voice gave me.” Significantly, the colonial authorities, too, starting with the assumption of a deep link between big business and the national movement, came to the opposite conclusion after a detailed inquiry by the British Intelligence Bureau (IB) ordered by Viceroy Linlithgow. In reply to the Viceroy’s question “whether Congress can for long continue an existence divorced from the Gandhian money bags?”, the IB reported: “Both for normal Congress activities and for election purposes, the money bags are less important than the Gandhian superstition (read nationalist ideology)…” Another IB report after a detailed countrywide investigation during the Quit India Movement concluded: “As to the relationship between big business and Congress, the available evidence does not appear to justify any assumption that ‘Big Business’ has secretly been using the Congress as an unsuspecting instrument towards the achievement of its own ends, or vice-versa, but rather the two have been working together in a partnership of convenience with no illusion on either side.” The IB went ahead and made a far-sighted comparison (which is of some relevance today as we will see below) stating: “The support given by Indian ‘Big Business’ to the Congress movement may be compared to that given by Russian big business to the Mensheviks before the Russian Revolution and that given by German big business to the Nazis… In both instances, ‘Big Business’ failed conspicuously in the end to dominate the government which it helped to create and there is no reason to suppose that Indian ‘Big Business’ will prove any more successful in realising any ambition that it may have in this direction.”

Significantly, the leaders of Indian business were never under the illusion that the Gandhi-led Congress was their class party or even a party susceptible to only their influence. On the contrary, they had a correct understanding of the Congress as an open-ended organisation heading a popular movement, and in the words of J.K. Mehta, Secretary, Indian Merchants’ Chamber, with “room in it for all shades of political opinion and economic views”, and therefore, open to be transformed in the Left or Right direction. Far from believing that they controlled Gandhi and the Congress, they were deeply aware of the increasing shift of the Congress in the direction of the Left, particularly since the late 1920s, and were busy strategising how the business class was to adjust to this situation. It is only in recent years that Indian big business seem to have lost their sense of history and their ability to correctly read the subtle relationship between business and politics. Indian business today suffers from an illusion that they would be able to control the communal fascist forces they have been actively promoting in recent years, forces that could lead to their own destruction along with that of the Idea of India as it existed since Independence. The lessons from Germany and from their own history appear to have had no impact on them.

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