It was the talk of the town. From afternoon teas at Buckingham Palace to lunches, dinners and drinks provided by London’s political hostesses. Between 1930 and 1932, India’s social and political leaders headed to London to negotiate the constitutional future of India in the British empire.
The Round Table Conference is mostly remembered for Gandhi’s unsuccessful participation in the second session – where he failed to reconcile competing Hindu and Muslim demands. But this was only one small part of a conference of over 100 delegates.
Its three long sessions (two months, then three, then one) were captured by the world’s news media. UK prime minister Ramsay MacDonald’s concluding address from St James’s Palace
was filmed and broadcast in cinemas worldwide, as was the positive reaction of Indian delegates.
This was part of the retaliation against Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement of nonviolence and noncooperation against the British government.
Indian nationalists had been growing increasingly impatient for greater self-government in the 1920s. Divisions were rising between religious groups and politicians across the Indian empire.
To break the deadlock the British Labour government agreed to host an experiment in the new art of modern, international conferencing – turned to imperial ends.
In 2019, India will embark upon a uniquely postcolonial set of centenaries. During the Great War the Defence of India Act (1915) had given the Government of India exceptional powers to silence dissent and crush any nascent “terrorist” or “revolutionary” movement. So effective had the powers proven, against both radical and moderate nationalists, that there were many within the colonial state who sought their extension into peace time. The “Rowlatt” (Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes) Act of 1919 attempted this, and the resistance against the act was led by the ex-lawyer and future-Mahatma, Mr MK Gandhi. The centenary of the Rowlatt “Satyagraha” (the name for Gandhi’s non-violent, political “truth-force”, protest movement) will doubtless by commemorated by the Congress party and many others in India.
Yet both these commemorations may well be overshadowed in 2019 by the centenary of the “Jallianwala Bagh” massacre, in which the colonial state displayed the violence inherent in the Rowlatt regulations in Amritsar; the shooting of unarmed civilians that sparked a global outcry. While India was enduring violence at home it was plotting peace abroad. The year 1919 will also mark the centenary of India’s contribution to the Peace Treaty of Versailles. Few anticipated that India’s attendance at the conference would automatically make it a founder of the League of Nations, the only non-self-governing state to ever become a member. 1919 will be a busy year for centenaries; all of the above, in some way, are legacies of the First World War.