Origins of India’s Constitutional Politics: Bengal 1913

This is a 1913 photograph of the Indian members of the  first Bengal Legislative Council elected (in 1912)  after the 1909 Morley-Minto reforms; the members apparently were being greeted by gentlemen of the sub-urban areas south of Calcutta.  The Englishman sitting at the centre  seems to be Sir Henry Cotton (1845-1915), the 1904 President of the Indian National Congress and a  great political friend of India.   To his right sits Surendranath Roy, who may have been the Council’s first President.

 

Academic studies include notably those by JH Broomfield, “The Vote and the Transfer of Power: A Study of the Bengal Election 1912-1913” Journal of Asian Studies, Feb 1962, his book Elite Conflict in a   Plural Society: 20th Century Bengal (Berkeley 1968); and Rajat Kanta Ray, Social Conflict and Political Unrest in Bengal 1875-1927 (Oxford 1984).  Professor Ray writes about the 1912 election: “Only  a few candidates of the “Popular Party” — Surendranath Banerjea, Abul Kasim, Byomkesh Chakravarti and Surendranath Ray — scraped through…. (A) sympathetic moderate wrote in 1919: ‘The Popular Party is a bundle of disjoined units which cannot resist the slightest pressure from without.’  This charge was eventually disproved by the stand taken by (the Popular Party) in the Bengal Legislative Council.  It showed no sign of wilting under the pressure exerted by the European group…”

 

Other studies of the period include John R McLane, Indian Nationalism and the Early Congress (Princeton 1977), Anil Seal, The Emergence of Indian Nationalism (Cambridge 1971),  Gordon Johnson, Provincial Politics and Indian Nationalism (Cambridge 1973) etc.

By way of incidental reference, the young Jawaharlal Nehru had returned from his studies in England in 1912; MK Gandhi was still in South Africa and would not be returning until 1915.  The Tilak-Gokhale clash though had been in full swing since 1907.

 

 

Subroto Roy

Nota Bene: The text and photograph in this post may be considered in the public domain and may be freely used for purposes of a Wikipedia article or any other publication in the common interest.

Surendranath Roy (1860-1929)


Surendranath Roy was my paternal great grandfather. He was an eminent statesman of his time, sometime President of the Bengal Legislative Council, and close political friend of CR Das who led the Indian National Congress before MK Gandhi.  SN Roy helped pioneer Indian constitutionalism under several British governments: Carmichael, Ronaldshay, Lytton, the Simon Commission too.

Lytton’s letter dated 1 May 1922  denied SN Roy appointment as President of the Bengal Legislative Council; instead, Lytton imported HEA (Evan) Cotton (1868-1939) from England in a classic case of British imperial racism in Indian governance.

SN Roy was a pioneer of primary education, and a legislative expert on local and general public finance as well as the federal politics of his time, authoring books on the “Princely” States of Gwalior and Kashmir, and proposing the origins of what became the Rajya Sabha. He also protested the Salt Tax as early as 1918. SN Roy Road in Kolkata is named after him.  The first photograph is of him as a newly graduated advocate-at-law, the second may have been after his book on Gwalior was published in 1888.   He also gave the Tagore Law Lectures in 1905, on the subject of customary law; these are available at India’s National Library.  His friends included the academician Ashutosh Mukherjee and the scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose. His role in the development of the legislative process in Bengal after the Morley-Minto reforms will be described further here in due course, as will be his role as a pioneer of primary education.

.

Postscript: We did not know until recently he was present and badly injured, along with Ardeshir Dalal, by Bhagat Singh’s bomb thrown in the Central Legislative Assembly on 8 April 1929 during the Simon Commission deliberations. He died seven months later.

1538863_10151885443752285_1531841034_n

see also

S N Roy hears from Lytton: A 1922 case of British imperial racism in Indian governance (with lessons for today) [Draft text 10 Feb 2018]

 

Origins of India’s Constitutional Politics: Bengal 1913

Carmichael visits Surendranath, 1916

MK Gandhi, SN Roy, MA Jinnah in March 1919: Primary education legislation in a time of protest

Bengal Legislative Council 1921

Jaladhar Sen writes to Manindranath at Surendranath’s death, c. Nov-Dec 1929

Sarat Chandra visits Surendranath Roy 1927

The Roys of Behala 1928

Manindranath Roy 1891-1958

Two scientific Boses who should have but never won Nobels

Pre-Partition Indian Secularism Case-Study: Fuzlul Huq and Manindranath Roy

Life of my father, 1915-2012

“I’m on my way out”: Siddhartha Shankar Ray (1920-2010)

Hypocrisy of the CPI-M

Hypocrisy of the CPI-M

Political Collapse In Bengal: A Mid-Term Election/Referendum Is Necessary

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, January 9 2007,

By Subroto Roy

For the 1991 Assembly elections, I happened to draft the West Bengal Congress’s election manifesto although I was not then or ever a member of that or any other party. There was no Trinamul but its future leader had made her jibe of there being watermelons who were red inside and green outside, aptly in case of a few senior leaders. The manifesto quoted George Orwell’s denunciation of communist ruling classes, and was so hard-hitting that the CPI-M’s Sailen Dasgupta came out with a statement he had never read a Congress manifesto that had been so harsh on them; privately, I took that to be a compliment though the Congress of course lost the election. There is no one in Bengal who does not want to see Bengal prosper, and the most candid vigorous political conversation is necessary to discover what in fact is true and what ought or not to be done.

Democratic norms

The functioning of the Basu-Bhattacharjee CPI-M is quite utterly amazing. It deserves to be called such because of the seamless transfer of power that occurred between the two men in November 2000. The Chief Minister in a parliamentary democracy is supposed to have the confidence of the House, yet when Jyoti Basu stopped being CM and anointed Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to succeed him, not even a perfunctory vote of confidence was asked for in the House ~ a fact I brought to the attention of the-then editor of The Statesman who agreed with me it signified the CPI-M’s contempt for the parliamentary institution they have been ruling over for decades. By contrast, there is already talk in Britain of an early general election as soon as Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair.

It is the same contempt for democratic parliamentary norms that Mr Bhattacharjee and company reveal today in pushing through their diabolical plan to acquire farmers’ lands on behalf of their businessmen friends.

All of 37% of those voting in the 2006 Assembly Elections voted for the CPI-M. By contrast, 41.2% voted for Trinamul and Congress together. Add also the 11.4% of those who voted for the Forward Bloc, RSP and CPI all of whom though part of the Left Front have been opposing the CPI-M on this cardinal issue. That constitutes prima facie evidence that a majority of 52.6% vs. 37% of voters may oppose the CPI-M’s present course of action. Mr Bhattacharjee heads a Government that is supposed to act not merely in the interest of members or groups of his own party or those who have flattered or financed it, but everyone in West Bengal including those who voted against the CPI-M as well as those who did not vote at all.

Gerhard Schröder dissolved the German Bundestag in 2005 though his own party held a majority there. He did so merely because his party lost a provincial election and he felt that indicated loss of confidence in it at the federal level also. Such is how genuine modern democracies work. In India to the contrary, we have had notorious misuse of the Constitution when State Governments were dissolved merely because they were ruled by parties opposed to that which had won a Union-level General Election. Even so, India remains a Parliamentary democracy at Union and State levels, and the Government of the day may advise the Head of State to dissolve the House and call for new elections to be held. It may do so even when there is no legal necessity to do so, i.e., even when it is secure with a majority of seats. It may do so because a political necessity has arisen for doing so.

If Mr Bhattacharjee is a genuine democrat, as he wishes to convey an impression of being, he should advise the Governor to dissolve the Assembly because the CPI-M wishes to go to the people to seek a mandate for its plans for the State’s industrialisation and forced acquisition of farm lands towards that end. The Trinamul, Congress, SUCI, Maoists and others including perhaps the CPI, FB, RSP and others will state their opposition, while he, Mr Nirupam Sen and their party will be able to articulate for West Bengal’s voters exactly what they propose to do and why. The CPI-M is adamant its cause is right while the Opposition have been agitating in the streets for months, and miniature civil war conditions now prevail in parts of rural Bengal; worse may be yet to come. There is only one way in a supposedly democratic society like ours to discover what should be done, and that is to dissolve the Assembly and call an election. Both sides will have a chance to articulate their positions to the public, and a vote will be held. There the matter would end. It is the one constructive way forward for the State, and indeed for the nation as a whole. (Alternatively, the Governor could be advised to request the Election Commission to administer India’s first referendum on a single agreed-upon question like “The West Bengal Government’s industrialisation and land-acquisition plan deserves citizens’ support: Yes/No”.)

If an Assembly election comes to be called and the CPI-M falls below a pre-set target of the vote-share, say 33%, or the Left Front below, say, 45%, then Mr Bhattacharjee, even if he commands a majority of seats again, will know he has no mandate and that he must stop and reconsider what he is doing. As I have said in these columns, West Bengal’s main economic problems are financial, having to do with Rs. 92 billion (Rs 9,200 crore) being paid as annual interest on the State Public Debt in 2004, and this may reach Rs 200 billion shortly. Economic development of the State has precious little to do with private businessmen making small cars or motorcycles or putting up buildings for information technology institutes, as Mr Bhattacharjee and his Government have deluded themselves into believing.

CPI-M 2003 statement
Besides its lack of democratic mandate, what surprises most about the modern CPI-M is its sheer hypocrisy. This is a party whose “Central Committee” in June 2003 in Kolkata condemned “non-Left State Governments” for allegedly “giving away thousands of hectares of land either on sale or on lease at throw-away prices to multinational companies and domestic monopolists”, and the Union Government for allegedly issuing “a circular calling for forcible eviction of lakhs of adivasis from the land”. The Basu-Bhattacharjee CPI-M is now clearly hoist with its own petard. Tilak said that what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow. It was not for nothing that he said it. If the CPI-M refers the land-acquisition question to the people in a free and fair election or referendum today, it will set a positive precedent for other States and parties in the country. If instead it pushes forward its current diabolical plans, the example it will have set will be one of initiating a class war in reverse, where the poor shall become poorer and the rich richer. India’s poorest consist of those rural inhabitants without land, and Government would have deliberately contributed to their numbers swelling.

(Author’s Note March 2007: The original article in its first paragraph referred mistakenly to Promode Dasgupta when Sailen Dasgupta had been meant, an error corrected in the next day’s paper.)

Bengal Legislative Council 1923


Bengal Legislative Council 1923

SN Roy, then President of the Bengal Legislative Council 1923, is seated to the left of the Governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton, who has the Chief Justice on his right.  At Surendranath Roy’s left sits his friend and colleague, Surendranath Banerjee.