The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

India:
50 Years Later

May 4, 1997

On August 15, 1997, the world's second most populous country celebrates 50 years of independence. On the eve of independence, India s new prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed on August 14, 1947, At the stroke of the midnight hour India will awake to life and freedom ." He pledged "dedication to the service of India and her people [which] means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. India was to become a new type of socialist state on the non-aligned path, a model for the many poor countries struggling to undo their colonial pasts after World War II.

The Ending of Poverty?

The situation has certainly changed considerably in the two generations since independence, although the vast majority, over 70% of India s 950 million people, still live in rural villages where most are tenants or landless agricultural workers. (On the eve of independence, the percentage living in the villages was about 90%.) Two thirds of India s employment is in agriculture and just over 10% in industry. When the landless poor and unemployed go to the cities to seek work, they find that jobs are lacking for all, even for the educated. Neither agriculture, nor industry, nor commerce can generate enough work in a land currently increasing by 18 million per year.

Yet every measurable statistic shows progress in India over the last 50 years. Before World War II, India s infant mortality rate was estimated at 161 per 1,000. Today it is has fallen to 76 deaths per 1,000 for infants in their first year of life. By 1955, life expectancy had risen from 32 years to 42 years; today it stands at 59 years. The per capita Gross National Product of India is about $350 per year right now, up from less than an estimated $100 per year at independence.

Of course, the same is true for almost every part of the world, with infant mortality rates declining, life expectancy rising, literacy growing, GNP larger than in the past. But this may have as much to do with the scientific progress made in eradicating diseases worldwide than in any actions taken by a national government.

So it is not India's progress that is striking; it is the lack of progress. Compared to India's few hundred dollars per person, the GNP in the United States was over $25,000 per person in 1994 and the infant mortality rate was 7 per 1,000, with a life expectancy of 76 years. Some of the Western European countries have even better figures. For India, and for most of the world, the contrast between the richer and poorer countries is greater, and better known, than ever before.

The number of countries, for instance, which still use rivers as open sewers for human and industrial waste has been declining. The enclosure of water systems, which began in Europe by the eighteenth century, has finally reached most of the world by the end of the twentieth century. But India today has only eight cities with completed water and sewage systems. For another example, with a population four times that of the United States, India generates one-tenth the electricity.

If many millions in India now make up a middle class market for television sets, computers or condos, this class cannot isolate itself from the India of the majority, a land of unpaved roads and raw sewage, where the wealthy buy their own generators to add to the few hours per day when electricity is available.

A construction worker in India in 1994 might earn a dollar a day, according to a U.S. government study. The sidewalks of Calcutta and Bombay are the beds of the homeless, people forced to use open sewers or river banks for their toilets. The dead bodies of those who starve to death or those with no money for hospitals will litter the streets at daylight.

When the British left, the literacy rate was perhaps 10%. It is true that today's 64% of males and 39% of females considered literate show great improvement. But that means one third of men and two thirds of women remain illiterate. Less than half the children of India are estimated to attend even elementary school. Millions of children must work.

The position of women has certainly changed since 1947. At that time, women existed only as dependents of their husbands or fathers. They could not own property, get a divorce, leave their home or obtain education except with male permission. (The new government actually faced a nasty outcry when it changed the laws concerning divorce and education for women after independence.) Still by some estimates, thousands of female fetuses are aborted each year solely to avoid having a female child, and women with small marriage dowries continue to have deadly accidents . The vast majority of marriages are arranged; polygamy is still practiced in some places. In the villages, both Hindu and Muslim women not so poor that they must work in the fields are often kept hidden in the homes, not going out even to shop.

After fifty years of independence, must India stay the land of poverty and starvation? What caused this enormous destitution which India cannot shake off?

The Weight of the Past

As the Indian politicians themselves like to emphasize, fifty years of independence is not much time in comparison with three hundred years of colonial domination. First and foremost, there is the responsibility of Britain's colonial system for the condition in which this vast country finds itself today. The British plundered the country by taking products made or grown by low-paid labor and turning them into huge fortunes back in Europe. Britain's long colonial administration made use of "divide and rule" whenever it worked to their advantage. But Britain left intact any part of a system going back thousands of years which did not disturb British profit-making. Thus the legacy of British domination was a country drained of its riches while maintained in feudal conditions and as divided as it had been four or five centuries ago.

Much of India still reflects a pre-colonial, indeed, a pre-capitalist past throughout the huge equatorial sub-continent below the Himalayas. The British found innumerable isolated villages, where peasants farmed and turned their produce over to a tax collector. The head man in the village, the largest or only landowner, regulated their lives, dispensed whatever justice he chose, approved marriages and occasionally protected them from periodic famines. No matter which ruler in which palace demanded which taxes, this was the unchanging life of the majority on the Indian plains and hills.

In addition to these obvious social divisions similar to feudalism everywhere, the Hindu majority also developed an elaborate system of divisions called castes. A typical village might have had 20 castes, generally referring to occupation. The highest caste is called brahmin, a word meaning priests and scholars, and these remain the educated class in India today. Next came kshatriya, warriors; vaisyas were merchants and traders; sudras were agricultural people.

Below all these castes were the untouchables. These people picked up waste matter, cleaned dirt in the streets, handled dead bodies, and performed other tasks considered unclean. Untouchables could not own property, get other jobs, enter restaurants or temples, touch other castes or have any education or training. A person of a higher caste who followed the Hindu religion had to undergo ritual purification if he touched or accepted food from an Untouchable.

The caste system was a particular form which institutionalized class divisions: the wealthiest person of the village tended to be the highest caste person, the poorest were in the lowest castes. As cities grew, class status varied somewhat from caste because, for example, merchants could become enormously wealthy if they had the right connections to the European traders. Likewise, in crowded cities, it was harder to avoid the supposed contamination from a lower caste or an untouchable person, so caste decreased in importance among the urban poor.

But British policy was not to interfere with village structures, unless a dispute imperiled the stability so beneficial to their trading enterprises. The land changes they instituted kept the status quo for the landowner, the tax collector and the poor peasant. This was the predicament the British handed over to India at its independence.

The British Raj

The early Dutch, Portuguese, English and French traders came east for indigo, salt, pepper, cotton, gold and silk – all worth vast fortunes back in Europe. The British East India Company's first voyage which set out in 1601 realized more than a million pounds sterling on its first cargoes of pepper.

The company by the eighteenth century was described by one of her governor-generals as follows: "such a scene of anarchy, confusion, bribery, corruption and extortion was never seen nor heard of in any country but Bengal, nor such and so many fortunes acquired in so unjust and rapacious a manner." India became the source not only of "nabob" fortunes, but the place of not very arduous employment for younger sons of the aristocracy, in the officer corps of the Indian army, judiciary or government.

In 1851, Indian sweat yielded over 19 million pounds sterling to the British treasury; less than one percent of that was paid out in public works for India. If the British fixed roads, canals and ports and built factories, residences and railroads, it was to improve their arrangements to ship goods back to Europe.

By that point, Britain had disrupted an enormous portion of the Indian economy. Whole villages of weavers were already ruined, and the city of cotton, Dacca, emptied out, because the English cloth manufacturers had flooded India with their cotton cloth: "they inundated the very mother country of cotton with cotton" to give themselves a market. Salt taken from the Indian land or rivers passed through so many middlemen that it was sold to Indians at 30 times the price demanded of customers back in England.

"Divide and Rule" Policy

After the East India Company became so corrupt that the Parliament disbanded it, direct British rule was imposed through warfare and repression by English and Indian troops from "... Sind to Cooch Behar, moving from place to place, when they came face to face with a different breed of fellow, whose skin was black or yellow, they quick as winking chopped him into beefsteak tartare," (as Kurt Weill's song put it.) But quelling the natives was not Britain's only weapon of domination. Their game of playing upon divisions was equally important.

There actually was no India as a single nation before the British arrived. There were numerous states with varied histories of conquest and submission, warriors imposing on their neighbors and extracting tribute. There were hundreds of principalities ruled by princes rich and poor in their little or large kingdoms. If the majority has always been Hindu, there were sizeable minorities, especially Muslims but also Buddhists, Sikhs, Tamils, Parsees, Christians and so on.

Sometimes, however, it suited the contemptuous rulers from England to ignore the regional eruptions such as those between Muslims and Hindus in the north. At other times the British loaded some prince with debt and then tossed him out of his hereditary area when he couldn't pay up. Then again, it suited British policy to offer pensions to other princes. By the time of Queen Victoria, India was costing her treasury a deficit, thanks to fat pensions, expanding warfare and a fatter bureaucracy, and certainly not due to the wages of those few Indians employed by the empire.

British rule had faced many uprisings as it consolidated its jurisdiction over more and more of the subcontinent, provoking an educated middle class minority to propose some form of self-rule, from which the Congress Party was formed in 1885. But such rumblings were ignored by the British administrators, who worked to keep alive and use the divisions, now against the national sentiment developing in response to British oppression. In 1905, Governor General Lord Curzon partitioned a seething Bengal, making West Bengal predominantly Hindu and East Bengal predominantly Muslim. Curzon allotted six seats especially for the Muslim electorate in a legislative council which had no real power. Curzon's actions evoked such a hostile response and so increased agitation for self-rule that the partition was revoked in 1911.

Congress Party Proposals

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Congress leaders hoped their support of Britain in World War I with six million troops, money and material, would lead Britain to grant India its national independence.

The most famous of India's agitators, Gandhi aimed to lead a non-violent campaign to dislodge the British through civil disobedience rather than with guns. And, he said, I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel it is their country there shall be no high class and low class . There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability . Women will enjoy the same rights as men. He was actually proposing a kind of paternal trusteeship of the rich over the poor. Instead of modernization, Gandhi wanted a return to some mythical village past in which the villagers were economically self-sufficient because they spun their own cloth, grew their own food, and ignored the modern world.

If Gandhi inspired thousands to join the Congress to work for independence, he also called the caste system "the natural order of society." And while Gandhi proclaimed India would be divided over his dead body, his religious movement encouraged Hindus to reject those of other backgrounds, and his own emphasis on traditional Hinduism made it difficult for Muslims to believe they could have an equitable place in post-colonial India.

Nehru, the principal leader of the Congress Party, called himself a socialist and an agnostic, proclaiming that independent India would be for all Indians. But what could that mean concretely to impoverished peasants? Neither Nehru nor Subash Chandra Bose, the Stalinist leader from Bengal, ever proposed that millions of poor Indians had every reason to join together against their colonial oppressors and against their local landlord and bourgeois ruling classes, of every religion or nationality. Since the Congress proposed nothing to solve their problems, why should they not listen to religious leaders who insisted that Hindu lives would be better without Muslims or to Muslim mullahs who insisted that the only way to lead lives of Muslim purity was in a separate state based on Islam? In a kind of response, the Muslim League, which had been agitating for a separate Muslim nation in the north of India for decades, helped to raise anxieties on the part of Muslims in the Punjab and Bengal where they were an under-represented majority, so much that violence did break out.

Even when Nehru, on the eve of Britain's departure, offered Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the best known of the Muslims who quit the Congress Party, a place on the executive committee of the new government, it was too little, too late, to stop the momentum toward partition which British and Congress policies had helped to foster.

At no time did Congress leaders talk of the kind of economic and social reforms which could have united all the poor of India, whatever their religious differences. Such reforms could have been won only by a revolutionary outbreak of the vast agricultural poor and the small but growing industrial proletariat. Congress leaders feared an upsurge of the poor even more than they feared the continuation of British rule. Likewise, the Communist Parties of that period, dominated by Stalin, never proposed for the colonial oppressed to take their future into their own hands.

Civil War and Separatism

After World War II, it was neither Gandhi's moral persuasions nor the thousands of jailed Congress Party members that led the British to set the date for their withdrawal. The lion of empire was tired, broke, unsure its troops could police an angry sub-continent. The British, like the French, were a bit leery of what was erupting across Africa, and worse, from their viewpoint, in the countries from which the imperialists had wrested millions in the past – China, Viet Nam, Indonesia, as well as India.

Within two months of independence, civil war began in the north, a vicious blood-letting, mostly pitting Hindu against Muslim. Hundreds of villages and neighborhoods were destroyed by pillage, rape, and murder. Entire trainloads were massacred. As many millions as make up whole countries became refugees, Muslims fleeing Hindus into Pakistan, Hindus fleeing Muslims into India.

At the ceasefire, about half the Muslims from former India had their own country with boundaries making no sense on any map. West Pakistan was detached from any land in East Pakistan by a thousand miles of the Punjab, Bengal and the states of Jannu and Kashmir. Part of India, a few states including Assam, were connected by a tiny land bridge from the far side of East Pakistan to the rest of India.

Separation became a policy of the new Indian government, though official rhetoric denied it. And it would be over Gandhi's dead body. An enraged Hindu murdered him less than six months after independence. The man was supposed to have been distraught over Muslim atrocities.

Nehru's government did not trust that the Muslim majority in Kashmir was loyal to India. He accused Kashmir of conspiring with its neighbor Pakistan and jailed its leader in 1953, but the problem was hardly resolved. Forty years later, several thousand Kashmiris were killed in repression by the Indian Army, which has stayed as occupiers, a bulwark against the nationalist sentiment supposedly existing there. In Assam also, nationalist sentiment has led to thousands of deaths in the last few years.

Another war in 1971 pitted the Indian Army and East Pakistan nationalists against the West Pakistan Army. The new state of Bangladesh was born from this struggle. This new land, the size of Wisconsin and crammed with 120 million people, was a monsoon-swept piece of east Bengal with a Muslim majority angry at government repression coming from Karachi and Islamabad in the west, and fearful of a once-dominant Hindu leadership in Bengal. These two states created in war have resulted in even worse living conditions for the Pakistan and Bangladesh population than those in India.

Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi (married to a cousin of Gandhi's), was the prime minister who rewarded the Sikh minority in the Punjab for their loyalty during the second war India fought with Pakistan in 1965. She granted them a separate state within the federal republic where they could be the majority. Tamils in the south of India had already been given the separate state they had demanded. In 1987, Indian troops went to Sri Lanka to help combat a Tamil nationalist movement which had led to years of instability, terror, and murder.

Thus, from before independence up to today, the Congress continued the game played by their British rulers: inciting one region or religion against another. It allowed them to maintain their domination of the country, but not to overcome its divisions. This policy came back to haunt them with a vengeance. Indira Gandhi was murdered in 1984 by a Sikh nationalist. Nehru's grandson Rajiv, Indira's younger son who was appointed prime minister upon her death, was murdered in 1991 by a Tamil nationalist. Congress policies brought the country nothing but disruption and death, all the way to the top of the government itself.

Changes Enacted as Laws

To address the poverty of the primarily agrarian country, the Congress Party promised to limit the number of acres that could be held by an individual. A new law was supposed to free up land which the government intended to buy and then offer for sale to the peasants. But millions of illiterate peasants scarcely knew such a law existed, and few, except those who were already landowners or tax collectors, had money to purchase land. The rich were not slow to figure out mechanisms to cheat the law by turning over property to other family members.

At the time of independence it was fairly normal for a peasant tenant or landless worker to pay half his crop to the landlord. New laws changed almost nothing in this respect. A study done in 1975 showed that half the crops of tenants still went to landlords. And the landless still faced many months of hunger, if not starvation, every year through lack of work.

The Untouchables were renamed the "dalits", meaning oppressed, in post-1947 India, with laws guaranteeing them certain government positions and funds for education and training. But an estimated one in six Indians remain the lowest strata of society, doing their traditional "dirty" jobs. If they are not quite treated as badly as before independence in the giant urban areas, the case is quite different in the villages. In the 1980s, three young people were hanged because a couple from two different castes refused to stop seeing each other. And a rape case of a lower caste woman by a higher caste youth is a cause celèbre in India today, with the court ruling against the victim. These are heavy remnants of a feudal past.

Third Road ... or Dead End?

Nehru proclaimed India had its own route to socialism. He proclaimed himself an admirer of the Soviet Union and their five-year plans for development. Of course, every poor country must have a government which plans its "development" for its own few wealthy merchants or capitalists cannot accumulate enough capital in a world dominated by imperialism that would allow them to transform their nations.

But Congress policies never attempted to make of India anything but part of the capitalist world. India's "third path to socialism" simply allowed Nehru to play off for a certain period the two superpowers against each other. This maneuver only gained India U.S. loans for tons of grain to feed the country for two decades after independence and Soviet loans on favorable terms for large development projects. That is, they obtained grains to keep the Indian poor alive and undertakings to make the Indian rich richer.

Indeed, India's native capitalists knew Nehru was their man from the start. G. D. Birla, the most important capitalist in India, said, "The salvation of the capitalist does not lie in joining hands with the reactionary element ... but in cooperating with those who through constitutional means want to change the government for a national one." The Birlas, Tatas, Burns and Dalmia-Jains dominated the cotton industry. The Tatas had begun the largest steel works in the world in 1907. These four families also controlled most Indian mining, chemicals, cement, tea (when not owned by the British) and banking. Birla and Tata were invited by Nehru to the new government's National Industrial Planning Committee. Birla later said he liked Nehru's socialism. As well he might, for by 1958 these four bourgeois families controlled companies worth one quarter of India's stock market.

The Congress Party has more or less controlled the Indian government for 46 of its 50 years. It got to distribute whatever money was available to its supporters, supplying millions of jobs. (Twice as many people work in government as work in cotton, India's primary industry.)

This is the most charitable definition of India's "socialism", which like that proclaimed in so many poor countries after World War II, has never yet resolved poverty and underdevelopment. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, when "socialism" even in name was out of fashion, government policies were designed to make the country even more hospitable to capitalist investment than they had been during their "non- aligned" decades. Concretely, this meant the closing of money-losing industries owned by the Indian government, laying off thousands in a country where pensions, unemployment and social security are non-existent.

Capitalism allows the "Third World" a place in the world economy: its wealthy classes providing a market; its poor semi-employed millions, huddling in slums around every major city in the underdeveloped world, providing cheap labor for extracting raw materials or for manufacturing. India now exports the most cotton cloth of any country in the world, earning its bourgeoisie four billion dollars in 1990. India makes some money off sugar, tea and tobacco in the world market. But, as everywhere in the world, prosperity remains confined to a small layer at the top; misery is the lot of the majority.

This April, the coalition government of India fell for the third time in the past ten months. The crisis, in fact, mainly consists of shuffling top ministerial positions and of temporarily interrupting a deal between Tata industries and the Singapore airlines. Congress Party, which can no longer gain a majority itself, cynically criticized the coalition for its "failure to address India's economic problems".

But in fact, what has prevented the complete unity of the country, kept the majority in abject poverty, and maintained India in a state of underdevelopment and dependence on imperialism is fifty years of nationalist policy.