The communal award was given by British PM Ramsey McDonald. Under this, the Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and even depressed classes would get separate electorates. Although Congress was against separate electorates as they divided the community it decided to remain neutral on the question of separate electorates for Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims.
But all nationalists were completely opposed to separate electorates for depressed classes. The award was seen by Gandhiji as against Indian unity and nationalism. It would be harmful to both Hinduism and depressed classes and would halt the work of Hindu social reform. Gandhiji was for giving them reservations in seats.
He went on a fast for this question. Finally, BR Ambedkar and other leaders worked on a solution where separate electorates were abandoned and reservations were given instead.
Post Civil Disobedience 1935-1937
Once the civil disobedience movement was withdrawn a new question emerged as to the activity during the future course. Gandhiji advocated constructive activity whereas another line of thought wanted the revival of the constitutional method of struggle and participation. The argument was that constitutional participation would extend the influence of the congress and prepare it for the next phase of the struggle. However, it shall not amount to having faith in constitutional politics. A new line of thought emerged due to the strong left trend in the country. The leftists wanted another mass struggle instead of constitutional work and constructive programs.
Nehru represented their thoughts. He believed that the withdrawal of civil disobedience and return to constructive programs has become like a retreat. His alienation from Gandhiji too was highest at this point. He wanted to focus on the class struggle of workers and peasants. He believed in organizing them into unions and affiliating these into the congress would integrate them with the freedom struggle. He also was opposed to the Gandhian plan of Struggle -Truce-Struggle and wanted Struggle-Victory i.e. fights till victory was won.
With this strong conflict between Nehru and leftists on one side and proponents of council entry on the other that a split was foreseen. Gandhiji emerged as the peacemaker here and decided to allow the congressmen to fight elections. He laid a condition that they would not get sucked into constitutionalism or become self-serving. He told the leftists that withdrawal from the movement didn’t come due to pressure from the bourgeois but the reality of the political situation. He further appeased the left-wing by supporting Nehru as president of the congress.
In the legislative assembly elections, Congress won a majority thus a victory for Gandhiji.
Government of India Act, 1935
The British knew that civil disobedience was crushed but this situation couldn’t be kept for a long time. So with a view to integrating the congress with administrative structures and internally dividing it. Another phase of constitutional reforms was planned.
The British parliament approved the government of India act, of 1935. Under this, an all-India federation would be created of provinces and princely states. The representatives of princely states would come from nomination by the princes and direct elections from the provinces. However, the franchise was limited and defense and foreign affairs were kept outside of it. The Viceroy and the governors were given special executive powers.
The colonial strategy was to back the constitutionalists and moderates of the congress by the lure of constitutional powers. The British hoped that this would dissuade them from the politics of sacrifice. On the other hand, the repressive measures against those who opted for extra-legal means would further discourage the protestors. This would then lead to a split in the congress.
Part of this complex strategy was measured to promote division between left and right wings. And also constitutionalists and Gandhian. The government wanted to lure the rightwing and the constitutionalists with the promise of reforms. The British hoped that the leftist would see this as a betrayal and would split from the congress or be removed.
Provincial autonomy was a part of this strategy. It would create big provincial leaders that would undermine the all-India leadership of the congress.
The act however was unanimously rejected by all leaders of the congress.
British however immediately put into practice the provincial features of the act and declared elections to the provincial legislative assembly. The matter of elections again created a split in the opinion. There was full agreement that Congress should fight the elections. But whether or not to form a government was the question. Here the leftwing led by Nehru, Bose, congress socialists and communists were totally opposed. Office acceptance would mean that Congress would become part of the repressive apparatus. They wanted the swarajist alternative i.e. to join the government to obstruct it at every step.
On the right-wing Rajendra Prasad explained that none believed that constitutional work would get freedom or was anyone going to be lured by the power of the office but it was necessary for the interest of the people. They believed that administrative offices shouldn’t be left to pro-government parties. They wanted provincial ministries to be used for constructive work.
Gandhiji though against office acceptance believed that another mass movement couldn’t be launched due to the short span of time available. So he decided that a chance could be given to the congress. Also, the mood in the congress was for this.
Congress won a massive mandate in the elections.
“We are provided with a car, all brakes and no engine – Jawaharlal Nehru’s opinion of the Government of India Act, 1935.
Nationalists’ Response to The 1935 Act
- The 1935 Act was condemned by nearly all sections and unanimously rejected by Congress. The Congress demanded, instead, the convening of a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult franchise to frame a Constitution for independent India.
- Everyone agreed that the 1935 Act was to be opposed root and branch but it was not clear how it was to be done in a period when a mass movement was not yet possible.
- There was full agreement that Congress should fight these elections on the basis of a detailed political and economic program, thus deepening, the anti-imperialist consciousness of the people. But what to do after the elections was not yet clear.
- J Nehru, Subhash Bose, Congress socialists, and communists were opposed to office acceptance and thereby in the working of the 1935 Act because they argued that it would negate the rejection of the Act by the nationalists. It would be like assuming responsibility without power. Also, it would take away the revolutionary character of the movement as constitutional work would sidetrack the main issues of freedom, economic and social justice, and removal of poverty.
- As a counter-strategy, the leftists proposed entry into the councils With an aim to create deadlocks, thus making the working of the Act impossible (older Swarajist strategy). And, as a long-term strategy, they advocated an increased reliance on workers and peasants, integration of their class organizations into the Congress, thus imparting a socialist direction to the Congress and preparing for the resumption of a mass movement.
- The proponents of office acceptance argued that they were equally committed to combating the 1935 Act, but work in legislatures was to be only a short-term tactic since the option of a mass movement was not available at the time, and mass struggle alone was capable of winning independence.
- Capture or rejection of office was not a matter of socialism but of strategy. They agreed that there was a danger of being sucked in by wrong tendencies, but the answer was to fight these tendencies and not abandon offices. The administrative field should not be left open to pro-government reactionary forces. Despite limited powers, provincial ministries could be used to promote constructive work.
- Gandhi opposed office acceptance in the CWC meetings but by the beginning of 1936, he was willing to give a trial to the formation of Congress ministries.