A brief history of India — the Das presidency
In previous instalments of the series, we saw the birth of the Commonwealth of India, and the era of its first president MA Jinnah. This post continues with the brief rule of Chitta Ranjan Das, India’s second president.
The Das presidency is widely considered to be one of transition, a link between the Jinnah era and the reforms of the 1950s. It’s also considered to be an era of turbulence, and much has been said about what could have been done differently, for better or worse. And it’s often said that more happened under Das than under Jinnah, even though the first president ruled over a far longer period.
But that’s a simplistic view. To appreciate the Das years, we need to return to things that did and didn’t happen in the Jinnah years.
Recall that much of the Jinnah era were war years. The war was a great boon to the Indian industry –– tanks, cannons, fighter planes were produced by thousands. For a while in the early 1940s, India had the second highest industrial production in the world. The war also created a precedence for the central government when the economy minister Gholam Mohammed, GM, introduced a wartime national sales tax. Meanwhile, the close connection that developed between politicians and big business in New Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay serve as a model even today.
The economic boom resulted in massive urbanisation. Population of Calcutta and Bombay (and smaller cities across the country) doubled in the first decade of freedom. And this urbanisation brought social changes. The caste system that survived Muslim and British rule suddenly came under stress in the factory slums.
The urbanisation also frequently exacerbated the often tenuous Hindu-Muslim relation. Remittances to villages in the Hindustani states resulted in lower castes (the untouchables had to wait for a lot longer) demanding a realignment of political power at the local level.
Meanwhile, as noted earlier, Indianisation during the Jinnah years saw some communities getting ahead of others, creating ethnic and communal tension.
All these tensions were masked in the first half of the 1940s as the war resulted in double-digit growth in incomes. But the boom ended with the surrender of Japan.
In Punjab, the end of the war meant a million demobilised young men with nothing to do. Elsewhere, there were hundreds of thousands of urban poor for whom returning to the village life often wasn’t an option.
The founding fathers thought the resulting social and political issues would be best dealt with by the states. But most state Congress leaders were simply not up to the task. And President Das found the urban discontent fuelling radical left and demagogic right.
Nowhere was this more visible than in the president’s home state of Bengal. Here the Congress split along the communal line. Shyama Mookherjee led the caste Hindu dominated Bengal congress, demanding that the state be partitioned. HS Suhrawardy, Das’s protégé from the 1920s, headed the Muslim dominated National Congress, which opposed partition and demanded universal suffrage in the state. Veteran premiere Fazlul Huq (who moved the Lahore Resolution in 1930) found himself sandwiched between the two wings, and the state government became dysfunctional just as the war ended.
Communists emerged as a significant political force during the war, when the Soviet Union was a formal ally. Communists took full advantage of the post war economic slump. They were particularly strong in Bombay, where labour unrest brought several strikes in 1946. Communist inspired peasant movements, demanding land redistribution, sprang up across the country, with several violent incidences in the state of Madras.
So this was the state of affairs halfway through Das’s term and the tenth anniversary of independence in March 1947. Jinnah, making a rare post-retirement public comment, warned that India risked becoming a moth-eaten truncated land. While he didn’t give any precise prescriptions, his warnings have become a cliché, used by every man and his dog across the political spectrum in the past six decades.
How did the Das administration respond to the challenges? Das was not ideologically different from Jinnah, and this reflected in the cabinet.
GM was chosen as the vice president, while Patel became the new home minister. Together, GM and Patel achieved the most important legacy of the Das administration — the integration of princely states into the Commonwealth.
At independence, the Raj retained its paramountcy over the princely states for a decade, with the Commonwealth guaranteeing the status quo pending negotiations thereafter. At the end of the war, the new British government expressed its desire end the paramountcy immediately. President Das told the princes that their existence is an anachronism. GM and Patel cajoled and coerced all to accede to the Commonwealth by 1948.
However, use of force was required against Hyderabad, where the Nizam declared independence in October 1947, and Indian force invaded, capturing the capital in a number of days. The swift military operation had turned Subhas Bose, who replaced Patel in the national security ministry.
The president was uncomfortable with Nehru’s rhetoric about liberating Asia from colonialism. Accordingly, conservative C Rajagopalachari took over foreign ministry, and Indian army handed over Burma, Malaya, Indochina, and the East Indies to the Europeans.
Nehru was indignant of course, but as the new economy minister, he had other battles to fight. He opposed the withdrawal of the national sales tax, as this provided the central government fiscal independence. While he lost this battle, he developed the conviction that the government could become a positive force for change. His frequent talks of land reforms, his support for adult suffrage and his call for social reforms like declaring untouchability illegal and reforming civil codes made Nehru the doyen of young intellectuals. But this also alienated him from powers that be in the nation’s capitals.
It is said that Nehru was in the middle of writing his resignation letter when India’s history changed abruptly. President das was shot dead by an unknown assassin in front of his office on 30 Jan 1948. The official White Paper pointed to a radical faction of the Communist Party of India, even though the alleged leaders of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy (Bhagat Singh and Maj Gen Akbar Khan) were acquitted in the 1950s.