60th anniversary of independence: India, Pakistan and the permanent revolution

How was India liberated? Which forces came to power after the withdrawal of British troops in 1947? 

The Indian bourgeoisie under the leadership of Indian National Congress, M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru never lived up to its own claims. Its role as a brake, and its betrayals during the struggle against colonialism have since independence been followed by a totally submissive role within world capitalism. The price has been paid by hundreds of millions of workers and poor, the social forces who played the main part in the struggle against the colonial power.
Year 2004, more than 400 million people in India live on less than a dollar a day. That’s a third of the worlds ”extremely poor”. Children die of diseases for which a cure has existed for over 50 years. In the state of Bihar only one family in ten has access to electricity. One child in five gets no education.

Capitalist globalisation, however, demands yet harsher measures against workers and the poor. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank want even more privatisations, the abolitions of trade union rights and huge cuts to reduce the state budget deficit. How did India end up in the straight jacket of global capital? Where are the explanations and a way out?

The Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, formulated already in 1904-05 the Theory of the Permanent Revolution. Its basis was an analysis of Russia, with its lately developed capitalism combined with feudalism, and the Russian Revolution itself confirmed the theory. In the pioneer capitalist countries, the new ruling class – the bourgeoisie or capitalist class – came to power after popular revolutions. This happened in England in the 1600s and in the French revolution 1789-1810. This bourgeois class had for a long period built up its economic, and lesser, political power in the cities, in contradiction to the feudal power, which was based among the big landowners on the countryside. The bourgeoisie took power and carried through the tasks of the bourgeois revolution: industrialisation, land reform, and the unification of the nation under a bourgeois state. Subsequently, in their search for raw materials, cheap labour and new markets, they went on by force of arms to conquer other parts of the globe.

The working class

Only by the working class and majority of the population taking power can the crisis and contradictions of capitalism be overcome. Society would develop from feudalism via capitalism to socialism. Trotsky explained how this schema did not hold in underdeveloped parts of the world. In Russia, the bourgeoisie was subordinate to international capitalism (English, French, Belgian and Swedish capitalists owned factories in Russia). Further more, the Russian bourgeoisie was, through family relations, closely linked to the land-owning class. Thirdly, the Russian bourgeoisie more than anything else feared the power of the emerging working class. Trotsky’s conclusion was that the Russian bourgeoisie would not be able to lead a revolution to complete the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. While they were frustrated with their subordinate position, in the last analysis they would rather stick to the tsar than lead a popular revolution.

The task to force land reform, liberate the oppressed nationalities and modernise production therefore resided with the working class. The land reform could only be carried through if the workers took power, with the support of peasants and the landless rural proletariat. The socialist tasks of the working class – to abolish capitalist exploitation and profits – had to be connected to tasks formally belonging to the bourgeois revolution. Trotsky’s theory was confirmed in the Russian revolution, the short-lived bourgeois provisional governments after the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 continued his policies. It was only when the workers took power in October 1917 that tens of millions through a land reform were given land to cultivate and the oppressed nationalities won the right to form their own states.

Stalin and his regime, which in the 1920s and 30s crushed the workers’ movement in Russia, never understood the lessons of the Russian Revolution. Stalin’s position was that the workers’ movement should aim for cooperation with the national bourgeoisie in the struggle against imperialism and feudalism. Later on, this position degenerated into open betrayal, because Stalin feared the effects of the workers in any country taking power.

The development of Stalinism confirmed yet another key part of the theory of the permanent revolution, that the struggle for socialism is international. In isolated and underdeveloped Russia the workers were able to take power, but without the support from victorious revolutions in more developed capitalist countries, it could not hold power and complete the transition to socialism.
Just as the Russian revolution confirmed the theory of the permanent revolution, the development in India during the 1900s does as well. The Indian bourgeois class has been incapable of developing the country, which has continued to be a gigantic loser within the world capitalist system. From the outset, in the liberation struggle leading up to independence in 1947, Congress led by Gandhi the bourgeoisie played the role of a brake on the mass movement at every stage. Their aim was for some kind of compromise with the English colonial regime. The Communist Party of India, CPI, acted on directive from Stalin in Moscow and ceded the leading role in the liberation struggle to the local bourgeoisie. During World War II the priority of the CPI was to defend the alliance between the Soviet Union and Britain, which meant accepting colonial rule.

How India was conquered

The English East India Company established itself in India about the same time as the famous Taj Mahal was built (1630-52), but it took another hundred year until the Company started to annex land areas. At the end of the 1700s the Company, with its military troops, had established a monopoly over key export commodities as saltpetre, indigo and opium.

In 1774, at the same time as a great famine, the Company appointed a General Governor based in Calcutta. In England, the bourgeoisie saw this as the beginning of a new empire. Up to the First World War, there were almost constant wars going on between the Company’s army and local rulers, for example with Marathas in the west and Mysore in the south. Local rulers were most often forced to make deals with the Company, i.e. England, who gained land areas, raw material as well as soldiers. In contrast to Europe, seas or Alps do not divide India, geography and conditions are similar over the whole subcontinent. However, the climate – tropical temperatures and limited rain – as well as the huge land mass and the big population at that stage made economic development and the unifying of India more difficult. For these reasons India was divided into many different princely states and empires.

When colonial rule was established trade was no longer England’s most important source of income. Instead it was taxes and fees. In the end of the 1800s, a quarter of the incomes of the Indian government went to London, while the biggest part of the rest financed the military. British armies, with a majority of Indian soldiers, were in constant war in and around India, for example in Afghanistan. The bloodiest conquests took place in Punjab and Sindh in the 1840s. In 1843 the British occupied Kashmir, and sold it to Gulab Singh, whose successors ruled up to 1948.
The British bourgeoisie regarded themselves as morally superior, but had no intention to develop India. They conducted mass scale deforestation, introduced a landlord system, for example in Bengal and consciously avoided industrialisation. Instead the raw material was developed in factories in England. India was plundered and English capitalists built enormous fortunes.

The Great Rebellion in 1857 was the first generalized expression for the resistance against the colonial power. It started with mutinies in the army, which was mainly composed by Indian soldiers, and continued with guerrilla struggle. For example, Delhi was under siege for two months. After militarily defeating the rebellion, the English response was to tune down the role of the Company by making queen Victoria Empress of India. As was the case a century earlier, the crowning of a ”new regime” was simultaneous with a great famine in which this time 5.5 million people died.
When slavery was formally abolished, Indian workers started to become guest workers in Africa, Burma, the Malaya peninsula and other British-dominated regions. In the period 1880-1930 12.5 million Indians worked abroad, most of them for five years. Among them were both M.K. Gandhi and the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In 1885 the Indian National Congress met for the first time. The meeting was led by British members of parliament and some Indians with higher education, and mainly demanded tasks and work for those educated Indians.

Divide and rule 

The basis of English colonialism was divide and rule, to create or encourage tensions and contradictions on ethnic, religious, caste, language or regional lines. That meant pitting Protestants against Catholics in Ireland, Tamils versus Sinhalese on Ceylon, Greeks against Turks on Cyprus etc.

In India the colonial power for all its time exploited local and regional contradictions. A new qualitative step was however taken in 1905, when Bengal was divided into two parts. The population of Bengal was twice England’s, and no Bengalis had been consulted before the decision. Despite the population being religiously split between Muslims and Hindus there were many uniting factors, as common language, history and literature. With the division, the agricultural areas in the East became Muslim dominated, while the biggest city, Calcutta, had a Hindu majority.

The reason for the decision was that the viceroy, Lord Curzon, ”viewed the Bengalis as particularly problematic, realised that the rest of India all the time looked at Bengal to get political guidance and notified that the inhabitants in this region were inclined to view themselves as moral, intellectual and cultural equals of the British, if not their superiors”, writes Tariq Ali in his biography about the Nehru family, ”A Indian Dynasty”. ”Curzon played on the fears of the downtrodden Muslim peasants and openly exposed his hostility against the Bengalis as a people”.

The partition of Bengal led to the first all-Indian protest movement with strikes and mass demonstrations in Calcutta in West Bengal and Dacca in East Bengal (today Bangladesh). This movement was strengthened by the Japanese victory in the war against Russia the same year, which was seen as an Asian breakthrough against European imperialism. The idea of boycott of English goods received gets great response. The powerful Indian capitalist family Tatra established itself as a leading Indian brand, for example in the steel industry.

Two years later, 1907, big workers’ protests, for example strikes in Bombay, shock the country when left leaders of Congress were sentenced to six years imprisonment. The same year the All India Muslim League was founded. Its main demand was positions in the administration for Muslims. Congress leaders wanted cooperation with the English. They supported a reform so that Indians could be nominated for consultative committees in Delhi and for regional assemblies. During World War I, M.K. Gandhi, who was back in the country after 20 years as a lawyer in South Africa, supported England. Two million Indian soldiers served as cannon fodder for the Crown, with Gandhi as a recruiter. During the war, the English viceroy in India introduced harsh ”anti-terror laws” with long imprisonments without trials or even accusations.

As a reward the colonial power promised reforms. This ended up in a proposal for a slightly more ’independent’ government, still ruled by the empire. From the end of World War I London’s new proposals for changes offered too little to satisfy an Indian population which became more and more political. National consciousness was growing, fuelled by the strengthening of a working class increasingly involved in struggle. Congress openly behaved as a mediator between the mass struggle and London.

As in many parts of the world, 1919, following World War I and the Russian Revolution, became a year of massive struggle. India was shaken by a national hartal (general strike combined with uprisings) on 6 April. An English brigadier general, Dyer, ordered fire into a crowd close to Amritsar on 13 April. Between 379 and 530 people were killed (different figures in different reports) and 1,200 were wounded. Congress now had to act to gain leadership over the movement. Gandhi marched to Bombay and was met by mass meetings on his way. Motilal Nehru, the father of the future leader of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, left his pro-British position in favour of Indian nationalism. Congress opened its ranks for mass membership.

Round table talks

The strikes and the mass protests continued in 1920-21. When the Prince of Wales arrived to India in 1921, tens of thousands were arrested. But strikes and workers’ struggle were not the methods of struggle of Congress, which was looking for support from Indian capitalists and elite. Gandhi advocated swaraj, meaning self control and self rule, both for individuals and nations. Satyagraha stood for non-violence, the method Gandhi advocated to put pressure and achieve negotiations. His actions were often quickly announced and then withdrawn, as was the case with a tax boycott in 1922. He was sentenced to prison, but declared at the time ”India was not ready for home rule”.
”A the same time as Gandhi represented the striving of the poor peasants, he kept them in check. He regarded himself as an invaluable mediator on every possible front”, writes Tariq Ali. Ali concludes that Gandhi wanted to use ”warning shots” to force through negotiations.

Despite his limited position, Gandhi in the 1920s and 30s became world famous as a liberation leader. When capitalism stood at its low point, after the Wall Street crash in 1929, Congress changed to demand independence and declared India independent on the 6th of January 1930. This was of course a symbolic manifestation, but the hope increased when England the same year gave up their fortress in north China, the first British withdrawal since the American Revolution in the 1770s.
Gandhi still appealed to the viceroy with a list of specific demands. With no reply, he launched the Salt struggle, against taxes collected by colonial power from even the poorest in society. This movement went much further than Gandhi’s civil disobedience. Salt factories were put under siege by the masses, followed by rent strikes, local general strikes, boycott of land fees and actions against deforestation. 92,000 people were arrested, among them Gandhi and Nehru, whose prestige increased.

The campaign was then called off and Congress agreed to round table discussions with the colonial power. This was a result of secret talks and correspondence between Gandhi and the viceroy.
Muslims participated fully in the struggle in 1920-21, but ten years later they were often on the sideline. In the beginning of the 1920s, Muslims were supported by Congress in their struggle to prevent a the dissolving of the Caliphate as a result of the defeat of the Turkish empire in the First World War. In the 1930s, however, Congress developed more in Hindu direction, while the Muslim League tried to win its own positions of power.

As with all weakened colonial powers the British rulers presented an endless number of variants of ”transitional authorities”. The proposal to establish some kind of Indian federation, still inside the Empire, was among the plans never realised. The colonial power most often referred to the fact that about a third of India formally was ruled by local princes, with many different agreements with the British.

In 1935, the right to vote for regional assemblies was extended to one adult of six, about 35 million people. Congress then won the elections overwhelmingly, with 70 per cent of the votes. Seven out of eleven provinces got Congress governments. Congress refused to give minority positions to the Muslim League, which increased the split between the two organisations. The leader of the League, Jinnah, established closer contact with London.

In 1939, the viceroy declared that India was a participant in World War II, and introduced a number of war laws. Congress left the provincial governments, but both Gandhi and Nehru hoped for an English victory in the war. Yet, because of the mood among the masses, the official position of Congress was non-cooperation with the war efforts. Even very limited protests led to Congress leaders being arrested, among them Nehru. In 1942 Gandhi demanded that the British left India, as a condition for an efficient military defence against Japan.

The Quit India movement became the signal for the most widespread and developed resistance ever. Strikes, boycotts and armed attacks on police stations and authorities were shaking big parts of India. 

The League, on their side, struggled to increase its loyalty to London. In 1940 the League launched the possibility of autonomous Muslim parts of India, without saying which areas they had in mind. The idea of a ”Pakistan” had developed among certain Indian Muslims in England around 1930. Pakistan was an abbreviation of P(unjab), A(fghania, northwest India), K(ashmir), I(ran), S(indh), T(urkharistan), A(fghanistan) and (Baluchista)N.

After the war, the new Labour government in London promised new elections in India, but without increasing the franchise. This was an attempt to live up to their promises during the war in order to increase the Indian war effort. The leaderships of both Congress and the League now started to elbow themselves for positions in the new India. Nehru held intimate negotiations with the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. The leader of the League, Jinnah, conducted parallel talks to get his part of the power.


It was Mountbatten who launched the partition of India. In June 1947 he declared that both Congress and the League supported the proposal that two separate states should follow the colonial rule two months later, August 15. One of them, Pakistan, would further be divided into two units, West and East Pakistan, separated by one thousand miles. To the end, the English ex-great power used its divide and rule device. The war effort had again created famine in the Bengal. Two to four million people starved to death. Out of this was born strong communalist currents, extreme religiously coloured chauvinist groupings. The lack of leadership, particularly from the Communist party, combined with the conciliation position of Congress and the League towards Britain, gave room for extreme right wing agitation.

The split, however, was not inevitable. In November 1945, the British authority charged three members of an armed resistance organization – INA, which had cooperated with Japan in the war. The charged were one Sikh, one Muslim and one Hindu. The mass movement against the trial gathered participants from all religious camps. Red flags were prominent, alongside the green Islamic and three-coloured Congress flags, when sailors from the Royal Navy mutinied and the working class went on strikes, occupations and mass protests.

The historian, John Keay, writes in, India, A History ”Congress leaders, although strident in their support of the INA men, had been taken by surprise and were severely embarrassed. As the prospect of a negotiated settlement neared, militant protest was no longer welcome. It undermined the authority of the negotiators and destabilised the institutions of the state to which they expected to succeed.”

The partition of India became a historic tragedy. Millions of Muslims and Hindus were killed in pogroms (religious massacres) and tens of millions were forced to become refugees. Even regions were tensions had been relatively limited were thorn by the bloody partition. In Punjab, which was cut into two by India and Pakistan, religious splits for a long time had been overshadowed by contradictions between rich landowners and the landless. With partition, however, right wing demagogues on both sides played on the fear and the shortage of land and food, and urged for pogroms. The responsibility for this rested on the English imperialism, as well as on the bourgeois leaders on both sides. Gandhi and Congress all the time feared that the struggle of the workers, the only real counter weapon against communalism, would go ‘too far’.

Gandhi in his writings warned for ”utter lawlessness bordering on Bolshevism”, ”class war” and ”red ruin” (quoted by Roger Silverman in Militant International Review no 29). He ensured both the Indian ruling class and the English rulers that he would defend private property. Towards the masses, he of course used a different language. Mass movements can put push even bourgeois leaders to adopt seemingly irreconcilable positions.

Trotsky commented on the role of the Indian bourgeois class in an article in 1939, when the war had started ”The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent on British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with British imperialism no matter what price, and lull the Indian masses from above.”

In a similar way, the Muslim League was rooted among the Muslim landowners and the extremely weak Muslim bourgeoisie.

The Stalinist betrayal

The Communist party, CPI, betrayed the struggle from another point of departure. Its defence of Stalin’s regime meant that from 1941, when England became a war ally of the Soviet Union, the CPI supported the English war efforts. CPI condemned the Quit India movement and wrote a letter to the viceroy explaining that its newspaper would become ”the most effective war propaganda newspaper that has yet been introduced in India”. Efforts to build ”fraternal relations” between the masses and the soldiers were also promised, as well as an end of strikes.

But when the workers and the poor acted with revolutionary mass struggle, Congress, the Muslim League or the CPI could not hold them back. The mutiny in the Royal navy in 1946 was quickly followed by mutinies in the air force and general strikes in many cities. ”Within three days the British colonial authorities has lost power in the Royal Indian Navy”, describes Tariq Ali.

”The two highest ranking officers in the Navy reported of ’revolution in the air’. On some ships the red flag with the inscription Iquilab Zindabad (Long live the revolution) was hailed. A general strike in Bombay in solidarity with the sailors was to large extent successful” (from 
An Indian Dynasty, Tariq Ali).

Workers in the post service, railways and in industry went out in mass strikes. Even policemen participated and organised mutinies and hunger strikes. The leadership of Congress condemned these strikes. It was the workers’ struggle in India, combined by the new world situation that forced the English colonial power to give in. At the end of World War II, workers and oppressed around the globe arose in struggle. Capitalism and imperialism were forced to give up China, where Mao’s peasant army could take power. In Europe, the workers in Italy and France could also have taken power, but they were betrayed the Stalinist ‘communist’ parties. Also England itself was shaken by a mass radicalisation within the working class that made it impossible to motivate new military efforts in India.

The assassination of Gandhi

The role played by the Communist Party made it possible for the Indian bourgeoisie, in the shape of Congress, to take power in the new India. When a Hindu chauvinist assassinated Gandhi in 1948, Nehru became unquestioned leader and Prime Minister up to his death in 1964. In the West, not least among social democrats, Nehru was praised as a leader of the ’non-aligned movement’ (supporting neither the US nor the Soviet Union), but in India all promises to develop the country failed. On a capitalist basis – Nehru never aimed to abolish capitalism – India remains a raw material producer offering cheap labour.

More than 50 years after independence no real land reform has been implemented. Mass poverty holds the grip over the majority in the rural areas. Despite the huge population, capitalism has failed develop a real mass market. Poverty and enormous shortcomings produces latent communalist violence. The Indian bourgeoisie have completely failed in eradicating the barbaric feudal relic of caste society. In fact the urban bourgeoisie as well as the rural landlords have a vested interest in keeping the caste system intact. The job reservation system on a caste basis is in reality a trap preserving the caste system and attempting to keep workers disunited.

The national questions are unsolved. The unification of India has over the last decades meant the creation of new national questions, which are impossible to solve on a capitalist basis. The Hindu chauvinist BJP, in government until the spring of 2004, was actually following the tracks of Congress. Clearer than ever the Indian bourgeoisie today are on the side of imperialism, supporting the neo-liberal economic programme of the IMF and World Bank. Politically, India has for a half century been dominated by the Nehru dynasty, living on the role as ”liberators” they were given by the CPI. Nehru was followed by his daughter Indira Gandhi, later her son Rajiv, and today by the latter’s widow Sonia and their children.

The way forward for India is again to be found in the working class and its struggle. The communist parties, the CPI and the CPI(M), have both gone sharply to the right since the collapse of Stalinism. In contrast, the struggle against privatisation and neo-liberalism has increased the last few years. 50 million workers participated in on general strikes both in 2003 and in 2004. In widening layers of workers and youth there is a discussion on the alternatives to neo-liberalism and capitalism. Many more will search for socialist answers as a result of their own experiences of struggle. More than ever is it clear that the struggle is international. Indian workers must fight against capitalism and imperialism, and find allies among struggling workers in the neighbouring countries, in China and in the West. The 1900s offers a rich history of struggle, but a derailed and betrayed struggle. The solution lies in a socialist India in socialist confederation in South Asia and a socialist world.

This article, written by Per-Åke Westerlund in 2004, on India’s history up to independence.