On the stroke of the 11th hour of the 11th cold, grey day of the 11th month in 1918, silence descended on the Western front. On 4 December, Britain’s new Prime Minister David Lloyd George told his Cabinet that he wanted to add India to the list of dominions that would attend the peace talks in Paris in 1919. India had raised more than a million men for the war, he said, and she deserved to be represented.
This was a sentiment that Indian delegates heartily agreed with. They justifiably felt that India was entitled to receive bigger privileges. She was facing difficult economic times, with her currency almost depleted. As for the Montagu-Chelmsford Report, it had not received quite the welcome Montagu had fought for.
Through the summer of 1918, the Congress met twice to discuss the finished Report. Both meetings ended in disaster – the upshot of which was a split within the party. The moderates, welcoming the reforms, met separately. They would eventually be known as the “liberals”. The rest, led by Congress stalwarts Tilak and CR Das termed the reforms “disappointing and unsatisfactory.”
Toiling in his offices in New Delhi, boxing up drafts of the Report, VP wasn’t surprised. He had personally witnessed the dissensions the Report had created. VP was no fan of diarchy himself. He was aware of Curtis’ attempts to put in methods such as racial fingerprinting to prevent coloured migration to South African colonies. He had also heard of the work of the Round Table and its more eminent members. “I had spent enough time working on this to know that diarchy upheld the principle of democracy for white dominions but it was hesitant about granting that principle to the coloured dominions.”
As he told Harry Hodson years later, diarchy was nothing but “an enlightened brand of Imperialism.” By now in his early twenties, VP was no stranger to unspoken racism, whether of the kind that resulted in his being praised for typing a letter without a mistake, or by being barred by convention from all but the most rudimentary social contact with the English. However, it was the first time he had seen racism being used as a political tool – disguised as reform.
Meanwhile, VP found himself holding a letter of promotion. He had been confirmed as a clerk in the Home Department, together with Messrs Wilkins, Gaynor, David, Teeling, Keymer, Varma, Sircar and Singh. These were all men who had worked under William Marris throughout that strenuous tour. These were provisional confirmations, based on individual merit, but for VP the letter was worth every headache and sleepless night.
With the sword of temporary employment no longer hanging over his head, VP had the space to try and evaluate the answers to some of the questions that had been buzzing in his brain since he had been introduced to the volatile combination of Marris and Montagu. The most pressing one was a question of where exactly he stood with regard to his feelings of patriotism and being employed by an administration that was, quite obviously, seeking to tighten the reins of Empire even as it promised self-government.
Until now, his emotions on the subject had been mixed, more so because of the strange limbo of the world he inhabited, where on the one hand, he recognised the need for India to be free and on the other hand, that he was, after all, a servant of the Raj, there to do its bidding.
It was an invidious position, embarrassing and painfully difficult, but it was not an emotion unique to VP. Many of his contemporaries felt the same way. HVR Iyengar, who later went on to serve as Home Secretary in newly independent India’s government, would recall feeling much the same way. “Our emotions were all tied up with the nationalist movement...but at the same time, we were servants of British authority. We were torn by conflicting emotions that we were dealing with people, whom we knew were patriotic, and who were committing technical offences for the purpose of achieving independence for the country...We thought about it all the time...”
The Rowlatt Act of 1919 would shortly change these thoughts. The Act gave the Government the authority to imprison a person for up to two years without trial if he was suspected of revolutionary activities against the British Raj, and to suspend civil and judicial liberties for no reason whatsoever.
In the aftermath of war, crops had failed and prices were soaring. Indian soldiers had finally dragged themselves home, weary and broken, bringing with them the dreaded Spanish influenza. The people were restless, tired and hungry, with many families still mourning their dead and nursing their injured.
There was no doubt that India, now that the war was over, would want her dues too. Instead, it was rewarded by the Rowlatt Act, passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in London on 17 March 1919, and approved by the Viceroy shortly thereafter.
The Government lost no time in utilising the clauses of the Act, the better to consolidate what it saw as a weakened position in its largest colony. Hundreds were arrested and clapped into jail, without a clue as to the charges against them. The press was gagged and public meetings were banned.
The events that followed have still not been forgotten. The horror of Jallianwala Bagh is still seared across the pages of Indian history. When he first read about what had unfolded in Amritsar on that sunny day in April, VP was so livid that his fingers shook as he turned the pages of the newspaper bearing the story. “These were the people whose service I had always longed to join. These were the people who called themselves our masters. I never wanted anything so badly at that moment as for my country to be free of these men.” These were also people who had shown him immense kindness.
Yet for VP, this latter part does not appear to have posed too much of a moral dilemma. “There is a saying in Hindi, which now I forget,” VP remarked to Harry Hodson, many years later, “but I remember the English version of it. When you start crossing a narrow bridge, across a wide gulf, you start reciting the name of god. But once you have crossed that bridge, you forget the name of god. That was the attitude of the British Government, during 1919.”
It was the first time since he had joined government service, in 1914, that VP was filled with overwhelming rage, both at the Englishmen who ruled India and at himself, for joining a service which was helping to retain the Empire’s grip on his country. It would not be the last time he felt this emotion but over the years, it would be tempered by the conviction he would, one day, be counted among the people who helped deliver his country freedom from the Raj. Jallianwala Bagh was the year that VP realised that, in his case, government service would be the means he used to serve the best interests of his country. It would be this desire that motivated his work from that day onwards.
In December 1919, the Government of India Bill was passed into law with little opposition – an enactment of a liberal measure by a Conservative Government, and largely the result of Montagu’s undoubted tenacity. The rationale behind this Act was, in effect, an attempt to give Indian ministers experience in the art of self-governance.
It did not alter the general structure of the central executive. The Government of India continued to be a purely official government responsible to the Secretary of State and to the Parliament. But what was important was that there was now a definite Indian legislative with an elected majority. In one of his erudite treatises written on Indian constitutional history, VP wrote, “Despite its grave limitations, the Government of India Act of 1919 marked a very definite advance. It greatly enlarged the electorate and began the process of transferring power to ministers responsible for elected legislatures.”
In themselves, the provisions of safeguards for an experimental and safe transition to power, as well as the aim of allowing Indian leaders experience in matters of governance were sound ideas. “Under happier circumstances, the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms may well have worked for the country,” VP remarked later. As it was, the Reforms and their passage into law was a political milestone for India. In VP’s view, it set the country on a path from which there was no turning back.
Excerpted with permission from VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India, Narayani Basu, Simon and Schuster.