Round Table Conferences And After

First Round Table Conference

(Nov. 12, 1930 to Jan. 19, 1931)

In the wake of the ruthless suppression of the snowballing Civil Disobedience Movement, the British Government summoned in London, on November 12, 1930, the First Round Table Conference of Indian leaders and the spokesmen of the British Government to discuss the Simon Commission Report. The Simon Commission report published in June 1930 had, among other things, recommended a Federal Constitution for India, provincial autonomy, subject to overriding powers vested in the Governor, but it did not concede that which was most pressed for—Responsible Government at the Centre. The Congress had rejected the  report in August 1930, because it did not guarantee  a national government and the Muslim leaders rejected it just because they feared that the Commission report did not take cognisance of the rights of minorities. So when the Conference met in London, the Congress boycotted it. It was attended only by the representatives of the Indian princes, Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, Indian Liberal Federation and Depressed Castes represented by B.R. Ambedkar. The vital Conference unrepresented by the Congress was fore-doomed to failure.

It was the tough posture taken by the Congress before and after the Round Table Conference that made the British yield a little and made Viceroy Lord Irwin negotiate a settlement with Gandhi in March 1931 which later came to be known as the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The Viceroy had preceded this seemingly conciliatory gesture by releasing many of the jailed Congress leaders including Gandhiji on January 2, 1931. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact, signed on March 5, 1931, provided for the immediate release of all political prisoners not convicted for violence and conceded the right to make salt for consumption as also the right to peaceful picketing of liquor and foreign cloth shops. Many of the Congress leaders, particularly, the younger and Left-wing groups were opposed to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact since the Government had turned down one of the nationalists’ major demands, namely, commuting of the death sentence pronounced on the three freedom fighters—Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru to life imprisonment. The three were hanged on March 23, 1931.

Karachi Session

The Congress session at Karachi was held on March 29, 1931, with the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his two comrades dominating the minds of all delegates to the session; the trio had been executed just six days earlier. Despite criticism of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, the Karachi session was epoch-making in many respects: the Congress reiterated the objective of Complete Independence or Purna Swaraj; its resolution on Fundamental Rights and National Economic Programme was hailed by all. The session laid down the policy of the nationalist movement on social and economic problems facing the country and advocated the nationalisation of certain industries, promotion of Indian industries and schemes for the welfare of workers and peasants.

The Karachi session, presided over by Vallabhbhai Patel, approved the Gandhi-Irwin Pact and upheld the participation of the Congress in the Second Round Table Conference, choosing Gandhiji as the sole representative of the Congress.

Second Round Table Conference

(Sept. 7, 1931 to Dec. 2, 1931)

The Second Round Table Conference took place from September 7 to December 2, 1931 in London. Meanwhile, the Labour Government had gone out of office and the national government of Conservatives and Liberals had been formed with James Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. Sir Samuel Hoare became the Secretary of State. Viceroy Lord Irwin had been replaced by Lord Willingdon. The attitude of the government had changed. It adopted a tough stance on Indian nationalism. The Indian side at the Round Table Conference was represented by, besides Gandhi, the Indian princes and Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communal leaders who played into the hands of the British. The princes were  merely interested in preserving their spheres of influence while the different communal leaders were more interested in their communal politics rather than on the common good of the country.

According to Zacharias, the Conference presented a “pitiful” spectacle. On the one hand was the “prophet” Gandhi proclaiming his lofty ideals; on the other was a “crowd of cynic self-seekers who, whether princes or communalists, clamoured each for his own order or community, his own vested interests, his own ascendancy over others, his own selfish and immediate gains.”

R.P. Dutt remarks that the Conference was a “motley array of government puppets brought like captives to imperial Rome to display their confusion and divisions for the amusement of Westminster legislators.” Gandhiji was made helpless by these puppets. He returned bare-handed. The communal question dominated the Conference. All efforts to resolve it by mutual agreement proved futile.

Maulana Azad had said on the failure of the All Parties Conference of 1928 that “the Muslims were fools to ask for safeguards and the Hindus were greater fools to refuse them.” This was no less true of the Second Round Table Conference. The British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald gave his “Communal Award”.

Second Civil Disobedience Movement

Gandhiji returned to India disappointed and landed in Bombay on December 28, 1931. The Civil Disobedience Movement started even though Gandhiji did not like it. But before Gandhiji arrived in Bombay, the UP Congress had given a call for struggle. It asked the peasantry not to pay land revenue. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sherwani were arrested. Dr. Khan Saheb and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the Frontier Gandhi) were also arrested. Terrorism raised its head in Bengal. Gandhiji sought an interview with the Governor-General but it was refused. Imperialism was on the offensive. Repressive ordinances had been promulgated in Bengal, UP and the NWFP. The Working Committee of the Congress gave a call to resume Civil Disobedience Movement. Gandhiji and Sardar Patel were arrested on January 4, 1932. The arrest of other leaders followed soon. Satyagrahis filled the jails in thousands. In the first four months, 80,000 arrests were made. By April 1933, their number reached 1,20,000.

Wholesale violence, physical outrages, shooting and beating up, punitive expeditions, collective fines on villages and seizure of land and property accompanied the arrests. The Congress was banned.

Communal Award—Policy of Divide and Rule

When the Civil Disobedience Movement was at its peak, the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, announced his “Communal Award” in August 1932 giving weight and separate electorate not only to various minorities but also to Harijans. It infuriated the people and the Hindu community, in particular. It was deemed as an attempt to disrupt not only the national unity but also the unity of Hindu community more. Gandhiji went on a fast of self-purification resulting in the signing of “Poona Pact” with B.R. Ambedkar. Reservation in place of separate electorates was agreed upon. The British Government accepted it. A great disaster was averted. The unity of the Hindu community was saved. Gandhiji was released on May 8, 1933. During this period, the Civil Disobedience Movement slackened. Gandhiji diverted his attention to anti-untouchability programme.

The All-India Anti-Untouchability League and the Harijan Seva Sangh were organised. Gandhiji issued a statement suspending mass civil disobedience and only individual civil disobedience was retained. The Movement was withdrawn in 1934. Subhash Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel described it as “confession of failure” and gave a call for radical organisation of the Congress on a new principle and with a new method. Nariman said, “How can we induce Gandhiji to rid himself of this almost incorrigible habit… this perpetual blundering, blending of religion and politics.” However, the struggle gave a new confidence, showed the determination of the people to fight to the finish and proved that the repression could not meet the challenge.

Third Round Table Conference

(Nov. 17, 1932 to Dec. 24, 1932)

The Third Round Table Conference  was held without the Congress representation, and was attended by a far smaller number of representatives than that of the first two. In this session, the delegates agreed on almost all the issues.

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