The founders’ foresight illuminates our history

Credit must be given to our nation’s founders for their plans of what they would for India’s reform

August 15, 2021 02:09 am | Updated 02:09 am IST

The vision for a free India was laid out at the 1931 Karachi session of the Congress. Picture shows the Mahatma and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

The vision for a free India was laid out at the 1931 Karachi session of the Congress. Picture shows the Mahatma and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

Sixteen years before Independence, during a temporary respite from Civil Disobedience, the nation’s leaders decided to make public their dream — of what they would do for the country’s good, when at last it was free. This was laid out in the Fundamental Rights Resolution, which was drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru and moved by Mahatma Gandhi at the Karachi session of the Indian National Congress from March 26 to 29 in 1931. It promised universal suffrage, civil liberty, the abolition of caste disabilities in the public sphere, state’s ‘neutrality” in respect of religion, protection of labour rights, including special rights for women, reduction of land tax and rent on peasants, relief for the poor from indebtedness, and finally, the state’s “ownership and control of key industries and services”. These pledges were repeated in the Congress’s manifestos for the 1936-37 and 1945-46 elections. By 1945-46, the abolition of zamindari had also now been placed on the agenda. As early as 1938, the Congress had committed itself to economic planning, having established a Planning Committee, with Nehru as its Chairman.


Another important aspect which was brought to the fore in the National Movement was social reform. Gandhiji had always been firm in his opposition to untouchability. As for women, his views ultimately changed entirely from the position he had taken in Hind Swaraj , 1909, about women remaining “queens” of their homes. By 1945 he had come to believe in total equality between women and men.

Courage and heroism

When India became independent on August 15, 1947, the mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing that now occurred brought out the sheer courage and heroism that both Gandhiji and Nehru commanded; and Gandhiji died on January 30, 1948 at the hands of a murderer. Yet, Gandhiji’s fast earlier in the same month had at last brought violence to a close, so that now India could move towards reforming itself. It is often suggested that Nehru imposed his concept of a “socialist pattern” without any sanction derived from pledges made during the National Movement. As may be seen from the contents of the Karachi Resolution, referred to above, this is a total misconception: only the term “socialist” officially used for that vision was a novelty. As we have noted, even steps towards an economic plan had also been attempted earlier.

In two major areas, land reforms and construction of the public sector in industry, Free India in the first three decades had considerable achievements to its credit. The legislation for abolition of zamindari passed by individual provinces or States in the early years of Independence varied in detail, but the effect was that the bulk of the peasants became owners of the land they tilled throughout the country. Perhaps, the most radical measures were adopted in Jammu and Kashmir in 1950, where the actual cultivating tenants became owners of the land without paying even nominal compensation to the land-owners, this made possible because it had its own Constitution. In 1959, the Congress adopted a resolution in favour of ceilings on the size of land-holdings, and this initiated a process of land redistribution by which landless labourers, mostly Dalits, could also receive land to till.

One can see the result of the land-reforms in the increase in food supply per capita that now took place. From 152.72 kg per head in 1950-55, the per-capita supply rose to 168.44 kg in 1961-65, whereafter a plateau ensued (figures as calculated by Professor Utsa Patnaik).

As far as industry was concerned, it was the Second Five-Year Plan (1956–61), which created a large public sector, especially in heavy industry. Even capitalists like G.D. Birla supported this measure because they well knew that only the state with its large resources could create an industrial sector on the required scale in India.

There was also considerable effort to expand literacy and improve higher education. Nor to be forgotten is the large state investment in science and technology, especially the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology and lower-level training institutes which provided expertise for India’s industrial sector, mainly from the 1960s onward.

True, the annual rates of growth of GDP remained moderate, often dismissed by economists as “Hindu rates of growth”. But substantial growth over longer periods was yet achieved, as Sivasubramanian’s authoritative figures show fairly well.

Credit must be given to our nation’s founders also for their effort in the cause of women’s empowerment. Not only were restrictions on women’s recruitment to government service removed after Independence, but radical legislation also followed. Over this issue, the newly formed alliance of Jan Sangh (promoted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the Hindu Mahasabha and the Ram Rajya Parishad was soundly defeated in the 1952 elections.

Today, one tends to forget the radicality of the changes in personal law that now ensued: the Special Marriage Act, 1954, that applied to all communities, and, then, the changes in the ‘Hindu Code’ through the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956), Hindu Marriage Act (1955), Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956) and Hindu Succession Act (1956), followed by the Dowry Prohibition Act (1961). The long-term effect of these laws on Indian society has naturally been very great, though limitations obviously remain.

I have something more to add here: the remarkably high level of personal conduct of the political leadership in the earlier days of Independence. After Independence, local authorities throughout the country began removing Englishmen’s names from gates and parks and replacing them with Nehru’s name. Nehru issued a firm prohibition of anything to be named after him — a ban that remained firmly in place during his lifetime.

I also have a story of my own about him to tell. In 1955, then a junior lecturer, I wrote a letter to him as Prime Minister about a personal grievance of mine. Within days came a message that I was to see him at his office on a specified day at 9 a.m. When I caught an early train and entered North Block, there were few people around and practically none around the PM’s office. In the outer office there was only his Secretary (M.O. Mathai, I believe). When Nehru had done the talking with the Pope’s envoy, I was called in. He began by telling me how wrong it was for the Pope to defend Portuguese behaviour in India, shifting thereafter to Russian and Chinese Communists, finding the latter more flexible. He then came to my case, referring to my Communist activities for four years or so, but without censure. He, however, told me that proper constitutional practice prevented him from intervening in the matter. He did so, I think, merely to avoid my thanks, for only a few days later I got the passport (up till now withheld) enabling me to benefit from a Government of India scholarship for studies abroad.

Nehru, indeed, stood apart. But in his time, even politicians with controversial personal reputations seemed quite different in their personal conduct from their recent counterparts. Travelling to Delhi, I once got into a small railway compartment with two berths. There was already a gentleman sleeping on the upper berth. As the train approached Delhi, he carefully came down, and, as he did so, I realised I was in the company of Chandra Bhan Gupta, then Chief Minister, Uttar Pradesh, a veteran Congressman since the 1920s, with many critics. Here he was — with no security, no flaunting of dignity, just a first-class passenger. No picture of his came to us through paid advertisements or on government bill-boards. It was only when he got down at the Delhi railway station that his staff appeared — a secretary and an orderly.

Irfan Habib is Professor Emeritus, CAS, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh

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