In a parallel universe
At the stroke of the midnight hour, as the clock hands met in respectful greetings, India awoke to a mottled dawn, with its wings clipped off to form a moth nibbled shameless beast — yes, yes, I’m chutneyfying Nehru, Jinnah, Rushdie and Manto. Okay, enough of that. For the last couple of years, I dabbled in quackery of alternate history to mark partition (here and here). They say once is happenstance, twice coincidence, but three times and we have a trend, a tradition.
Very well then, let’s have a tradition. In a previous life, I explored the possibility of an unpartitioned India. I am going to explore that idea in an upcoming series. First installment, previously posted in A-A-A, is over the fold.
The starting point of this alternate history is the non-cooperation movement of the early 1920s. After months of satyagraha and hartals sweeping the land, Gandhi’s promise of swaraj within a year looked imminently achievable in the early 1920s. But alas it wasn’t to be. The uprising turned violent in 1921, and British reprisal became harsher. A mortified Gandhi retired to his ashram, but this had little effect in most towns and cities. Communists and other radicals, inspired by events in Russia and elsewhere, escalated violent attacks on police stations and government buildings. British reprisal was more brutal than at any time since 1857.
By 1923, freedom looked further than ever.
But the restoration of the Raj carried huge costs — both financially and in politically. The British rule lost its legitimacy to the Desi elite, whose collaboration was necessary for the British presence. A more ominous portent was the refusal of Desi troops to open fire on civilians in several places. The spectre of a second mutiny haunted the corridors of power in Delhi and London, and the government started looking for an opening for a political dialogue.
But who would the government converse with?
Congress was officially outlawed, and Gandhi, the unquestioned leader of the uprising when it begun, and the only leader who could speak on behalf of Desis in their multitude, was in a self-imposed isolation in his ashram. None of the other Congress leaders carried enough weight, but CR Das of Calcutta and Motilal Nehru of Allahabad had support of Desi businesses and other urban elites. While the local elite had lost faith on the Raj, they didn’t trust the radical tone of the uprising either. They privately urged Das and Nehru to call off the uprising. But, neither Das nor Nehru wanted to be seen as sell-outs.
Gandhi’s death in 1926, election of a labour-liberal coalition in Britain, and Stalin’s rise to power in the Soviet Union changed the political equation. Secret negotiations commenced between the British and Motilal Nehru, who assumed the role of de facto Congress supremo. The government announced an amnesty in 1927 and lifted the ban on Congress. Congress postponed the movement for 3 years. With Stalin cutting off aid to the radicals and communists, violence subsided.
Fearing a Nehruvian takeover of the party, Das invited the self-exiled MA Jinnah to rejoin politics. By 1928, Jinnah assumed the role of key negotiator with the British, with Nehru being the party’s interface with business, and Das controlling the party machine. In 1929 the British-appointed Simon Commission reported that India should become free by the end of the 1930s.
On 26 January 1930, in Lahore, Congress adopted a resolution that outlined an Azad Desh. The British parliament passed the Government of India Act later that year. The Act called for an independent Indian Commonwealth, along the lines suggested by the Lahore Resolution, by the end of the decade.
A constitution was drafted for the new country to be formally named the Commonwealth of India, though somewhere along the way, Desh had become the popularly used term. The constitution was drafted by Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, or CR. Head of the Congress party in the southern province of Madras (now Tamil Nadu), CR was known for his conservative leanings, and these were apparent in the constitution.
There were two major issues that the constitution needed to tackle. First of these, the relationship between the Commonwealth and Britain, is no longer an issue. But the second — how Desh’s mosaic of religious, ethnic, caste and class of peoples coexist — still very much is.
The British were concerned that the new Commonwealth would ally itself with hostile powers, and appropriate substantial British economic interests. To assuage such fears, the constitution included a 25 year Indo-British friendship and defence pact.
The constitution was modelled on that of the United States, with a very weak centre and strong states. The centre had power over nothing more than defence, foreign affairs including trade, and monetary policy. Unlike any other federation in the modern world (including the present day Commonwealth), the centre had no fiscal power except for tariff and customs duty. The states made constitutionally guaranteed contribution (based on the size of the economy, revised once every decade) for defence and the functioning of the central government. Only in the time of national emergency, such as a state of war, could the centre raise taxes.
No independent source of revenue meant that the central government could not intrude on the states’ affairs — or so the framers of the constitution thought (oh how wrong they were). Only effective constraints on the state’s rights were that: there were to be no economic barriers between the states — common currency and market; and states had no powers to deal with foreign countries — war and peace were the domain of the centre.
And there was a bill of rights, but only for those eligible to vote (see below). Everything else, from roads and railways, to health and education, to police and courts (except the federal court), to land regulations, to the thorny issues surrounding Hindu-Muslim relations and untouchability, belonged to the states.
Why were the states given so much power? CR, with the blessing of the founding trinity of Jinnah-Nehru-Das, thought that this was the best way to maintain political stability and territorial integrity of the new Commonwealth.
While silent on untouchability, the constitution guaranteed property rights — Desi business and land owning elites would not have it any other way. In fact, voting rights for the centre was tied to property ownership (states could widen suffrage, but none did so voluntarily), and only about 10 per cent of the population, overwhelmingly men, had suffrage.
But Congress insisted on, and the British conceded, a republic. Desis, or those Desis who owned property, would vote their own president. There were to be a bi-cameral legislature, with a 500‑member House of Representatives, each elected by an equal number of voters (boundaries to be drawn once every decade) through the first-past-the-post system, and a Senate with 5 members from each state regardless of the state’s size. States would decide how their senators would be selected (these days of course senators are popularly elected, but this wouldn’t happen until much later). There would also be an independent judiciary, with ample checks and balances.
Ten provinces of British India — Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Central Province, Frontier Province, Madras, Orissa, the Punjab and the United Provinces — were to be the first 10 states of the Commonwealth. Each state of course had their own constitution.
Between 1932 and 1935, states held their elections according to their constitutions. In 1935, a central legislature was elected. In 1936 the states ratified the Commonwealth constitution. In January 1937, the Congress nominee Mohammed Ali Jinnah was elected to the office of the president unopposed.
On 23 march 1937, Jinnah was inaugurated as the first president of the Commonwealth of India, and the Raj had ended.