The Karachi Resolution 1931: Interview with Prof. Kama Maclean
Watch historian Kama Maclean in conversation with Vineeth Krishna from the ConstitutionofIndia.net team, as they discuss the background and events leading up to the historic 1931 Karachi Resolution.
VK: My name is Vineeth Krishna (VK), and I’m with the ConstitutionofIndia.net initiative here at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bangalore. CLPR is a not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to making the Constitution work for everyone through law and policy research, social and governance interventions, strategic impact litigation, and constitutional education.
ConstitutionofIndia.net is a website that aims to make the Constitution accessible by archiving primary materials on the Constitution and its history, which can be accessed through a free, user-friendly, tagged and searchable database. This not only includes the transcripts of the Constituent Assembly debates, but also constitutional antecedent documents like the Nehru report, 1928.
We also work to sustain this engagement in two ways. Firstly, by developing content which relies on these materials with a peg to contemporary events, and secondly by developing constitutional educational material customized for different grade levels and tied to existing curriculum. These are then disseminated online, and through our workshops.
I welcome you today to the first in a series of ConstitutionofIndia.net podcast interviews, where we speak to scholars who’ve made key contributions to our understanding of Indian constitutional and political history, and introduce cutting-edge scholarship to the general public.
In this inaugural episode, we will engage with an important moment in India’s constitutional development — the passing of the Resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic and Social change, by the Indian National Congress, at its 1931 Karachi session. The Resolution contained a charter of rights including socio-economic rights, that would eventually make its way into the Directive Principles of State Policy.
To help us understand the political context that surrounded this landmark document, we have with us today Prof. Kama Maclean (KM). Prof. Kama Maclean is the head of department, Modern South Asian history at the South Asia Institute, at the University of Heidelberg. She was previously Associate Professor of South Asian and World history at the University of New South Wales. She is the author of the books titled ‘A Revolutionary History of Inter-war India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text’, published in 2015, and ‘Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad’, published in 2008. Her third book, ‘British India, White Australia’ took a look into coloniality and the Empire, was published by the UNSW press. It was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Australian History Prize. Prof. Maclean is also editor of South Asia Journal of South Asian studies, and also a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and the Australia India Institute.
We’ve carefully read Prof. Maclean’s book, ‘A Revolutionary History of Inter-war India’, and today’s podcast will mostly revolve around the sections that engage with the 1931 Karachi Congress. Prof. Maclean, welcome to the ConstitutionofIndia.net podcast.
KM: Thank you so much Vineeth and thank you so much for your kind introduction.
VK: Thank you for being with us today. Before we go into the Karachi Congress 1931 itself, I wanted to touch upon the larger argument that you make in your book. Now as we know a couple of days back marked the 90th anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s execution, an event that repelled him into Indian folklore. And ever since Bhagat Singh and his revolutionaries have occupied a significant place in the psyche of Indians for a very long time including in film and music. Now most Indians view the Indian freedom movement as comprising of two distinct strands- the first represented by the Indian National Congress and the second the revolutionary movement represented by Bhagat Singh. While the Indian National Congress was involved in satyagraha, civil disobedience and constitutional negotiations with the British, the revolutionaries on the other hand engaged in underground activities and were often not shy of violence. So, the popular understanding is that these two strands never really talk to each other and never really influenced each other. In your book you claim that this was not the case. Can you tell us why and also how you got interested in writing a history of the revolutionary movement in the first place?
KM: So I mean the second question is actually the harder one. This is the most fascinating period of history and I think it’s absolutely pivotal to laying down the groundwork for so much of what comes after, including obviously the Indian Constitution in the ground that is laid for the Fundamental Rights Resolution in 1931. The understanding we’ve always had of Indian nationalism or Indian anti-colonialism is that it has been conducted in a predominantly Gandhian vein and that was along the lines of non-violence.
Now it’s true that Gandhi repeatedly attempted to steer the nationalist movement along a non-violent vein but he wasn’t always in complete control of the movement. There were often very sharp moments of political violence, not least by the revolutionaries of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association who I focus on, but also by Bengali revolutionaries and others as well. So, in fact, if we actually look at the picture of Indian nationalism over a long duration, it is interwoven actually with sharp moments of political violence. Now the British, of course, called this terrorism. I prefer the term political violence. I think it’s a better way to understand also that the violence itself was seen as something that was actually instigated by the British themselves. They introduced violence into India as a means of colonisation. And every now and again that violence is returned in the form of political violence. So, I think that’s an important thing to understand that actually there’s fairly consistent episodes of violence throughout the nationalist movement.
Now in the 1930s, there is actually a particularly sharp rise in moments of violence for a number of reasons. The Simon Commission coming to India, an all-white commission of British parliamentarians who were there to decide about India’s constitutional future, was seen by many as an insult and many peaceful protests were actually met with police violence. Of course, this is how the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association decides to return that violence by assassinating British policemen in the end of 1928 in December.
Now what I have tried to argue in my book is that, in fact, there are if we look very closely, very close connections between Congress members and Indian revolutionaries. Gandhi is actually the exception in this. The two people I focus on in my book are the Nehrus- Jawaharlal and also Motilal Nehru, which I subsequently wrote as well after the book once I found more evidence of this. In fact there are two camps, if we can call them, that were often in communication and talking to each other. Chandrashekhar Azad, for example, went to the Nehru family home in Allahabad. Jawaharlal Nehru gave him funds. Motilal Nehru gave them legal advice. There were very close interactions, and again that’s not surprising because a lot of where the revolutionaries began with the nationalist thought was with Congress. You know, Bhagat Singh’s father was an old Congress worker and many of his friends were Congress workers. So there’s actually very close relationships between the revolutionaries and the Congress during this period.
VK: Yes and it seems like this relationship between Congress members and the revolutionaries is quite highlighted by what happens in the Karachi Resolution or rather the Karachi Congress in 1931. As we know, the 1931 Karachi Congress passes a resolution on fundamental rights which gives a range of rights to Indians. But what was different in this case was there were also soci0-economic rights that were given in strong measure, and also it proposed the nationalisation of certain key industries.
Now in your book you suggest that the hanging of Bhagat Singh partly shaped the form of the Resolution on Fundamental Rights. Could you take us through the political background of the Karachi Congress 1931, including the execution of Bhagat Singh and how these came together, and partly or in however measure impacted the resolution?
KM: Yeah, sure. To do that, I need to step back a year perhaps or two and maybe consider the Lahore Congress where there is a real escalation, during the Lahore Congress at the end of 1929. And in the months preceding that Bhagat Singh and his comrades are in jail on hunger strike. During this period they become extremely famous really, all around India in nationalist circles for their standing up to the British government, to their protests in the court, to their protests in the prison. And I think by the end of 1929 there is a real sense that Gandhi is actually very much aware of that, revolutionaries who are being accused and trialled for their role in political violence, are becoming popular in India. And his anxiety around that is actually quite concerted. Now in that context, he installs and puts a lot of support behind Jawaharlal Nehru. I think not realising how much support the younger Nehru himself is actually giving the revolutionaries. So, there is a very close tension there, between Congress and revolutionary, and almost a melding actually of the two groups with one side talking to the other often in secret. Even the intelligence records don’t often pick this up. It comes out in a lot of oral history interviews after independence, at a time, when it’s safe to talk about these kinds of connections.
Now by the time we get to 1931, Bhagat Singh has been on death row with his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev for 18 months. They’ve been extending the trial and becoming more and more infamous actually in India but also elsewhere as well. The left globally and including in Britain were also lobbying to have the sentences commuted and it’s in this sort of larger context, you know of course Gandhi missed out, Gandhi calls for civil disobedience in early 1930. There’s the salt march, one of Gandhi’s most famous campaigns of course. And again many revolutionaries take part in this as well. There are negotiations in February with Lord Irwin and the viceroy with Gandhi to call civil disobedience to a halt. And Gandhi does agree to do that and Jawaharlal Nehru in particular and many other congressmen as well as congresswomen in fact are really annoyed at what they see as a real escalation of the independence movement. And Gandhi calling it, you know, calling this truce with Lord Irwin and negotiating. So there’s an enormous amount of disappointment among, what we would now understand as a left, that is actually forming within the Congress. It subsequently becomes the Congress Socialist Party, just maybe one or two years down the line. So we start to see, I mean the Congress is not a party actually speaking at this moment. It’s a very, very broad movement with an enormous amount of political opinion within it and Gandhi is really struggling to maintain coherence and control of the movement, and to try to keep the narrative on this sort of non-violent mode which is very hard to do as long as Bhagat Singh and his comrades and the revolutionaries are not only alive but hold enormous amounts of popularity. Now, it’s at this moment as well that there are debates within particularly the left of the Congress that where we’re calling here for independence, but we don’t know what an independent India will look like and how do we imagine an independent India. And up until this point actually Gandhi himself would just talk about Ram Raj, which was not a, you know, which is an extremely, you know, it wasn’t particularly precise and it certainly wasn’t any kind of clear blueprint for what an independent India would be.
Now in fact, this is where MN Roy comes into the picture and the left. MN Roy is back in India during this period. He’s been ousted from the Comintern. He’s estranged from mainstream Comintern politics. And he’s rethinking and reformulating how a socialist blueprint might best be applied to the economy of India, the you know the colonised situation. And he writes, he’s actually in the habit of writing manifestos and giving them, feeding them, through Congress lines hoping that they will get put up in congress meetings and accepted. Now in fact a lot of them don’t get accepted. But in 1931 he actually manages to get quite a bit of traction and he does this through a very complicated series of, what we would now understand as the Congress left connections, who put forward a 15-point plan that he, MN Roy, initially frames, which actually explains some of the very progressive and if not socialist elements of the Fundamental Rights Resolution.
VK: And how would Bhagat Singh’s execution here come along, would that be just another something to add pressure on the Congress establishment from the left aspects of the Congress?
KM: Yes, absolutely. By this stage there is a widespread presumption that, as a result of the Gandhi-Irwin pact which is finalised in March, the beginning of March in 1931, that Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru will be commuted, you know, the sentence will be commuted. Now as we know that doesn’t actually happen and so when the news of the executions spreads out on, and the executions themselves are on the 23rd in the evening which is again actually against prison regulations. The news spreads out fairly widely by the 24th of March and it’s the 25th of March when the Congress session begins to come together. So Gandhi arrives in Karachi on the 25th of march. And he arrives to mass protests from youth movements and elements of the left but also, you know, the the young of the Congress, as well as many Congress leaders as well including Subhash Chandra Bose, for example. And it’s this enormous amount of anger within the Congress itself that Gandhi has to try to mollify and he does that through Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru himself is, you know, also in a, I argue, a pivotal time of his political life actually or his political adulthood, even one could say. His own father has died just two months back not even actually I think it’s more like six weeks and I think that really shakes Jawaharlal. It leaves him, I think until this point you know, Motilal Nehru had been always able to keep Gandhi on a, I think he was an effective counter to Gandhi. With him gone, Gandhi comes into a much stronger position within the Congress and his relationship with Nehru in particular actually also starts to change. I think it brings Nehru under some more control actually I think, is not too strong a word.
And effectively what happens is Gandhi realizes that, you know, the whole point of the Karachi Congress is to put up the Gandhi-Irwin pact, which he realizes that most people are extremely unhappy with, especially because of the hangings of the revolutionaries. And in order to try to, I think, shift that dynamic to try and mollify the anger within the Congress movement at the time, he asks Jawaharlal to put the Resolution to the vote and to back it effectively. And the Fundamental Rights Resolution is the quid pro quo in that tension. It’s really hard to summarise in half an hour, I’ve written about it more more closely elsewhere but it’s a very, very interesting time in which it’s very interesting to see the various, you know, the complexity actually of the political spectrum. And the ways in which Gandhi is trying to mobilize and to maintain control actually of the Congress debate and the way in which Congress moves forward.
VK: You mentioned MN Roy, and I think we are quite fascinated by MN Roy when we first started to to collect materials that we could sort of term as constitutional antecedent documents to the Indian Constitution. We of course looked at the Nehru Report, the Government of India Acts and of course the Karachi Resolution. But what we found and we weren’t expecting to find was a document called Constitution of Free India, a draft in 1944 which MN Roy wrote. And not many people know of this document and he really takes his socialist framework very, very seriously in that document and it has a high level of decentralisation. And it’s a very interesting document. Also MN Roy is supposed to be the person who moves the idea for a Constituent Assembly in the first place. I’ve been trying to track exactly the moment in which the Congress picks this up, but going by what you’ve written in your book of MN Roy’s influence on many of the members and how he got some of his ideas accepted, and some of his draft constitutional provisions accepted by the Congress party, it might very well be the case that MN Roy is the person who actually starts the idea for a Constituent Sssembly and sells it to the Congress, which the Congress then picks up and then runs with it for the next 15 or so years.
I now want to just change track a little bit. You mentioned Nehru, in your book of course the category of violence is quite central. Now in this story violence is relevant because that was the key way in which people thought of the different political strategies of the revolutionaries and the mainstream Indian National Congress. So while the revolutionaries used violence, the India National Congress in a sense abhorred it. Now, in the concluding chapter of your book you suggest that during the Karachi Congress 1931, and I will just quote from your book, you say- “Nehru’s earlier pragmatic attitude towards non-violence seems to have given way to a more ideological commitment.” And I was quite interested in that line. Could you just take us through and unpack that? Was this something that occurred for other congressmen also during the time, in which they seem to drop the revolutionaries in a way?
KM: So this is again such a fascinating period and I think Nehru is the pivotal person here because he is emerging as the outgoing Congress President in 1929. He’s stepping into the shoes of his departed father by this stage as well. Now what I think is particularly interesting here, again, more recent theorists have talked about how there’s two kinds of non-violence. There’s a belief in non-violence because it’s a practical, you know, it makes practical sense. To raise up arms against the British was usually a very short-sighted policy because they tended to be very well resourced, they could catch you and hang you, as we see with Bhagat Singh and his comrades. The deeper element, so therefore nonviolence makes sense right? It’s a longer kind of anti-colonial strategy. The deepest sense of commitment to non-violence is one that comes more from Gandhi himself and is more, ethically, it’s coming from an ethical frame point that if we deploy violence as an anti-colonial tactic then this will actually create a policy that we do not want to inherit. That’s Gandhi’s effective program and he’s conflictual actually, Gandhi’s approach to violence. Which I won’t go into now, but he for most part is actually quite determined on this point that if we use violence to get the British out of India then after independence we will be using violence against each other, it will become a political dynamic that we cannot get rid of. And I think that is a valid concern.
Now Nehru was the Congress President in 1929, he speaks on the dais of the presidential platform that if we need to use political violence we will do so. I mean, that’s paraphrased but he says more or less along these lines. Now this is something that alarms the CID but I think it also alarms Gandhi as well. And I think what happens over the next 18 months by the time Bhagat Singh is eventually executed, I think he and Gandhi in particular have ongoing discussions about the role of political violence in the nationalist movement.
Now, the other thing that happens, at Karachi is that, Bhagat Singh is hanged on the 23rd, and on the 24th, when the news spreads out in Kanpur and elsewhere as well, the Congress Party actually enjoins a hartal and in Kanpur where there’s a history of communal violence, Congress workers who are predominantly Hindu try to force Muslim shopkeepers to close their stores in protest. The Muslim shopkeepers refuse and violence breaks out and the the rights in Kanpur at the time, actually, it’s the worst modern outbreak of communal violence that India has seen until that point. And for the Congress it’s particularly shocking because one of their leaders Ganesh Shankar Vidhyarthi is killed in the middle of the violence. He goes to try to calm things down and he’s stabbed and this creates a real shock actually. The news of Ganesh Vidyarthi’s death is delivered at the Karachi Congress and it forces all of the congressmen to think about how the anti-colonial violence of Bhagat Singh has led to what Gandhi calls a cult of deification of political violence. This ultimately has turned into protests after Bhagat Singh’s hanging communal violence. So it’s kind of one form of violence, anti-colonial violence, becomes morphed into communal violence and this is precisely what Gandhi is concerned about. And I think at this point where Nehru has to face the death of someone who he is actually quite close to, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s a friend, he considers him a friend. I think it creates a real shock actually, and i think at that point Nehru admits that yes we need to remove political violence as a dynamic against the British. And that’s where his discourse on violence starts to shift.
VK: So I’d like to end by just invoking the Indian left. A lot of what your book shows us is that the Indian left, diverse be its formation back then and complex, definitely contributed to the constitutional development of India, directly or indirectly. But this contribution is rarely spoken about or acknowledged. When we speak about the Indian Constitution’s history, why do you think this is the case? And do you have any other thoughts on this?
KM: Well, it’s interesting actually Nehru himself almost disavows MN Roy’s influence. He actually says, he complains, when he hears about people thrusting the Resolution upon him at Karachi. And in fact, what I’ve found through oral history interviews is it’s slightly more subtle than that. But in fact you know MN Roy’s hand in this is actually quite clear. I pulled out earlier today and I’m happy to send you copies of MN Roy’s earlier statement, a 15-point Fundamental Rights Resolution and it undergoes development. But it’s actually published in a communist, ‘Roy’ group, it’s not really a communist ‘Roy’ group, publication called the ‘Masses’ in February of 1931. Ultimately, the Fundamental Rights Resolution is different. There’s a couple of extra things that are pulled in there. We can see for example Gandhi’s, some of his favorite points, we can see some classic old school nationalist demands that the Indian Army should not be used in imperial military adventures and enormous amounts of money wasted on it. We also see the bones of MN Roy’s ideas and not even the bones actually we can see quite clearly in some of the statements of the Fundamental Rights Resolution. The original versions, I’ve got two versions of the document that MN Roy wrote. I think we don’t talk about it because it was in a way covered over. It was put to Nehru by a number of other Congress workers, perhaps to obscure its origins although it’s, I mean you read it, it’s fairly clear that it’s a socialist program that’s in the work there.
VK: And part of what we try to do at the project is to bring these materials out there into the public so I’m certainly going to take you up on the offer of sharing those materials and we can put up on our site so that students and professors across the world can access them. I think we’re out of time Professor Maclean. I’m sure our readers and listeners have a deeper understanding of the role of the revolutionaries in India’s freedom movement and the constitutional movement. I urge our listeners and viewers to read professor Maclean’s book. Incidentally, Professor Maclean has a new book out now, I think it’s titled ‘British India, White Australia: Overseas Indians, Intercolonial Relations and the Empire’. And we urge you all the viewers and listeners to read it, we certainly will. Thank you professor Maclean for taking out the time and speaking with us.
KM: Thank you so much for your interest with me.
VK: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with professor Maclean. All relevant historical materials and secondary literature mentioned in this conversation will be put in the show notes and we urge you to check them out. We encourage you to visit constitutionofindia.net to explore the origins of our constitutional republic. We plan to have more conversations with scholars on India’s constitutional and political history. Do check out our twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages for regular updates. Thank you, and see you next time.