THE BRITISH Empire is engaged in a duel, in which no compromise seems possible, with the noblest and most influential personal force in the world. It has flung into its prisons the sons of Mahatma Gandhi, many of his lieutenants, hundreds of his followers. These are all good men, idealists of a spirituality very rare in our modern world, filled with a devoted spirit of self-sacrifice and service, perhaps the finest citizens that India has bred. They have infringed no moral law: they have harmed no fellow man. Their offense is technical. Theirs is a symbolical rebellion. 

The government which has thrown these people into prison itself professes an idealism of its own. It is a Labor government, and its leaders call themselves Socialists. Out of office, they combated imperialism and stood for freedom in India. Since they took office they have made promises to India which showed both vision and courage. How have they become involved in this duel? “How,” asks one American reader, ’disposed to venerate the saint in Mr. Gandhi, and to respect the pacific democrat in Mr. MacDonald, “how, pray, do you explain this clash, how excuse the illiberal conduct which these arrests display?”

One deplores this clash; one dreads its consequences; one feels in it a violation of all one’s instincts. But to call this a merely symbolical rebellion is surely to be simple-minded. One smiles at the innocence of these Indians, whose whole offense is that they have boiled sea water to obtain salt. But the salt monopoly is an important source of revenue; if it disappears there will be a deficit, and some alternative tax. But for that Mr. Gandhi is preparing. Has he not already induced hundreds of the village “headmen,” responsible for the collection of the main revenue from land, to resign their offices? Saints are sometimes shrewd tacticians, and Mr. Gandhi makes no secret of his intention, gradually and by a crescendo of calculated acts, to disorganize the whole mechanism of British rule in India. It was clever to begin by challenging the salt monopoly. Taxes on salt are always detested by peasants: was it not a salt monopoly which brought down the monarchy in France? The picketing of toddy shops makes an even more direct moral appeal. But can any government allow its revenues to be sapped, its agents to be seduced from their allegiance, its authority to be defied, without an answer?

“A symbolical rebellion,” did you say? It began with a frank and open declaration of independence. The temperature of the masses rose. It required only a few weeks to demonstrate that the lofty spirituality of Mr. Gandhi is as far above that of the average man in an Indian crowd as it is above the moral level of Wall Street or the London Stock Exchange. The mob of an Indian city is as far below the Tolstoyan heights of non-resistance as the average Anglo-Saxon. Soon there were bloody riots in Karachi and Calcutta, and in the latter town the crowd improvised its barricades of blazing trolley cars across the streets. The police (doubtless under instructions) showed astonishing self-control, and yet there was bloodshed—chiefly among the Europeans and the police. Hard on these events came an open act of war—an attack, skillfully planned and boldly executed, by armed insurgents upon the arsenal of the port of Chittagong. That, at least, was no symbolical rebellion. There happened what the Viceroy predicted in his letter of warning to Mr. Gandhi. He lit the thin spiritual flame on the altars of faith. Others spread the ravaging conflagration. He called to heaven for independence. Others will plunge through hell to win it. He made the moral atmosphere of rebellion. Others will supply the stores and the barricades, the revolvers and the Lewis guns.

What in the face of such a situation is a British government, even a Labor government, to do? It must seek a political solution, promptly and with generosity. It must keep its cool ability to think, even when guns go off and blood flows. It must never forget, even if it should, in the end, imprison him, that Mr. Gandhi stands for the unflinching application of its own principles. It might be wise to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear on verbal and symbolical defiance. It must be a courteous host to its prisoners. It must require its police and its troops to endure provocation and even physical injury before, in the last resort, to avert bloody anarchy, they fire. But when all this is said, it has the ordinary duty of every administration. It must preserve order. It must maintain the usual services of civilization, which, in their turn, demand revenue. In short, it must govern.

“You do not see the necessity? You suggest that there is an alternative?” It may walk out, “bag and baggage,” as Mr. Gladstone used to say to the Turks in Europe. It may capitulate to Mr. Gandhi’s demand for instant and unqualified independence. Let us examine this demand. From whom does it come? It comes from the National Congress, a loosely organized, loosely elected party convention. The vote was of 114 committeemen against 77. Outside this Congress are the Moslems (one-third of the whole population), the people of the Native States (one-fourth), the influential Liberal party, the organized, depressed castes, and, in some sense, the Sikhs. All have their discontents; all call for an advance to self-government, but not for independence. It is impossible that Mr. Gandhi, speaking for three-fifths of the Hindu Congress party, can be voicing the will of the majority of the Indian population.

That might be answer enough, but again, on its side, the Labor government, even were it in its heart convinced of the rightness of this demand, could not grant it. It would be instantly disavowed by the majority of the British Parliament. Finally, to complete the answer, there is no sane or responsible member of the British Labor party who believes that in the interests of mankind as a whole immediate independence would be either possible or desirable. If the world had first been disarmed, India might survive without a navy or a modern army. If the League of Nations were a federal world republic, she might find aid and peace within it. If she possessed an experienced native civil service, an army trained to obey native commanders, religions which had learned to tolerate each other, and finally, if the mass of her population had passed through the common school, she might escape the chaos into which the Chinese Republic has fallen. Today, common sense rejects this claim, which a minority has addressed to a minority.

If, then, the Labor government cannot yield to Mr. Gandhi’s demand, and must, even against him, maintain order, the test of its conduct is narrowed. What has it done to find a political solution for this clash of idealism against order? For India’s self respect will not, and ought not to, endure direct alien rule much longer.

The Labor government inherited a nearly hopeless situation. Lord Birkenhead, with incredible tactlessness, had appointed, under Sir John Simon, a purely English commission to report on India’s fitness for self-government, and to draft the reforms which all admitted to be necessary. Inevitably, Indians, including the moderate Liberals, resented the insult: invariably they boycotted the commission. From this sullen and silent India it returned, searching for some fresh start. Labor, meanwhile, had taken office. With the help of Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, a Tory, but a Tory of the Left, a new departure was found, in consultation with the new Secretary for India, Mr. Benn. A proclamation was issued which repeated that Dominion status was the goal of British policy, and the offer at last was made of a round-table conference, representing British Indians, the Native States and the British government, to make recommendations for the future. It would have the Simon report before it, and any report which responsible Indians might submit. It wanted some courage to inaugurate this new departure.. It was made under the threat of passive resistance from the Congress. It involved an open confession of Lord Birkenhead’s error. It was, in fact, assailed by that nobleman, by Lord Reading (the last Liberal Viceroy), by a part of the Tory press, and even by Mr. Lloyd George, as a weak concession, liable to misconstruction.

For a moment it seemed that all India was impressed by the generosity of this gesture. The Congress leaders, including Mr. Gandhi, welcomed it, though not without some reservations, in a manifesto. Their second thoughts were less friendly. The promise, after all, was not dated. The Dominion status might content them if it were to be granted at once, hut even in the Labor party there was talk of a transition period. Outside it, did Tories and Liberals mean more than a vague promise for a distant future? Pondering on these things, Mr. Gandhi was obliged to scrutinize his own party also. The most gifted of its younger leaders, Mr. Nehru, Jr., would not flinch from the uncompromising demand for independence. The League of Youth, strong in Bengal, with a brilliant firebrand of the Bose clan at its head, stood equally for independence, and meant to win it by violence. If he accepted the promise of Dominion status, would he not split the National party, and would not the Left, emancipated from his control, fling itself into violent courses? Let the Moderates attend the round-table conference; that is their metier. Should they get Dominion status at once all might still be well. Their chances would be brighter if the pressure of his agitation were behind them. So Mr. Gandhi may have reasoned. Congress met, and he proclaimed independence by nonviolence. If these were Mr. Gandhi’s tactics they failed. The violent party of youth walked out and slammed the door of the Congress behind it. It has since taken car for Chittagong. United Indians may be in discontent; in aim and in method they are divided. Some boil sea water; others seize arms. Others, again, will go to London to talk.

Hope centers, then, on these coming conferences in London. How much India may hope from them we shall be better able to judge when the findings of the Simon commission are published. What, you will ask, would content sober Indian opinion? I think that the provinces, more important in the future structure of India than are the states in the American Union, must have responsible government without qualification or delay. Some immediate advance there must be at the center or future federation, but it is inevitable that for period certain services, chiefly police and defense, must remain under British control. How could it be otherwise? The civil service is still in its higher ranks mainly British. The higher command of the army is wholly, and the more scientific arms mainly, British. Even the civilian police is under British officers. However rapidly Indians are trained, some years must pass before these vital services can be Indianized. Till that is done, one talk of full Dominion status. But an act should provide for its grant by stages, within a fixed term, and without the humiliation of further inquiries. This status confers, be it remembered, the standing sovereign state, the control of its armed of absolute fiscal independence, including the levying of tariffs against the United Kingdom, nay, even (as Canada, South Africa and Ireland maintain) the right to be neutral when the Empire is at war. This is independence, qualified only by a rarely used right of appeal on points of law to the Privy Council, and by a nominal recognition of the vague headship of the King-Emperor. In practice it involves consultation on external policy as an equal and unfettered member of a loose federation of allies. So much, left to itself, the Labor party would concede, and that within a brief period—perhaps ten, perhaps fifteen, years. With this moderate Indians would be content. But not the younger Nehru, nor the League of Youth. Would it satisfy Mr. Gandhi? That is doubtful.

A minority sues for justice to a minority. There lies one peril. Some months will pass before these talks can begin, and they may drag more slowly than the naval conference. What, in the interval, will happen in India ? And how far will the other parties permit the Labor government to travel on the road which it would wish to follow? There must be limits to the readiness of an honest party to assume the odious tasks of the policeman unless it has the assurance that it can, in the end, offer in an acceptable form its own political solution. The future is as perilous as it is unpredictable, and the test of the quality of the Labor government is yet to come. It has done nothing yet to earn the frowns of Liberals in other lands. May its record stand equally clean when this testing year is over!

This article appeared in the May 14, 1930 issue of the magazine.