March to freedom

Print edition : December 17, 2010

A.G. Noorani's account of the freedom struggle has made a major contribution to our understanding of our own history.

THE book Jinnah and Tilak: Comrades in the Freedom Struggle by A.G. Noorani, eminent scholar, well-known writer, and an acknowledged authority on India's freedom movement and Partition, is a lucid study of Muhammad Ali Jinnah's role in the turn of events. It was published in Pakistan and, naturally, has attracted much attention and debate in the subcontinent.

Noorani's thesis, argued with formidable persuasive power and compelling documentary support, is that Jinnah started as a secular nationalist and remained one for decades. The British colonial rulers considered him one of their most formidable opponents. Gandhi did not treat Jinnah too courteously or deal with him tactfully. Jinnah disagreed with Gandhi's political philosophy and importation of religion into politics.

Yet, Jinnah showed remarkable tact, patience and accommodation and did his utmost to work with the Congress until Hindu fundamentalists in that party made it impossible for him to remain there with dignity. Even after leaving the Congress, Jinnah did his best to prevent the country's partition. After the Congress declined to share power with the All India Muslim League in the United Provinces (U.P.) in 1937, Jinnah accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan in order to keep India undivided, but the Congress did not want to share power with him at the Centre. This, in brief, is the historically true account of the partition of India in 1947. It is Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who were much more responsible for dividing India than Jinnah. Jinnah asked for Pakistan only for bargaining purposes and would have settled for much less, says Noorani.

The Preface starts with a quotation from Goethe: The century gave birth to a great epoch; but the great moment found a petty generation.' A definitive account of India's march towards freedom has yet to be written. For over six decades court historians' have dominated academia in both India and Pakistan. State control of institutions of learning, barring a few honourable exceptions, and misdirected patriotism account for such domination. Partition is one of the ten greatest tragedies in the history of man'.

In the first chapter, aptly titled A Forgotten Comradeship, the author traces Jinnah's participation in the Congress starting from the 1906 Calcutta session where he opposed a resolution urging reservation for the backwardly educated class, meaning Muslims. The reader might note with interest that the word used is class and not community and that the Muslim League was yet to be born. Jinnah defended Bal Gangadhar Tilak when he was charged with sedition in 1916 for some speeches he had made in Marathi. Tilak and Jinnah worked together for the rapprochement between the moderates and the extremists in the Congress. Jinnah, who refused to join the League when it was founded in 1906, joined it only in 1913. He joined the Home Rule League and was president of the League for Bombay. In a speech at a meeting of the Home Rule League in Allahabad in October 1917, attended by over 10,000 people, he made it clear that he was for mass politics. The belief that Jinnah was opposed to the participation of common people in politics is wrong. The main architects of the 1916 Lucknow Pact were Tilak and Jinnah.

When the First World War broke out and the Governor of Bombay convened a meeting of the notables, Jinnah demanded that Indians who join the army should receive equal treatment. When the war ended, there was a plan to erect a war memorial in honour of Governor Willingdon, who was leaving the country. Jinnah was opposed to it. A meeting was convened in the Town Hall to gather support for the war memorial project. Jinnah took the lead in foiling the plan by flooding the Town Hall with his supporters. Jinnah and his followers were evicted from the hall by the police. But it was a great victory for Jinnah. Another meeting was held a few days later, and an amount of Rs.65,000 was collected, with each participant contributing Re.1, to erect a People's Jinnah Memorial Hall. The author draws attention to the interesting fact that during the Emergency, the Bombay Committee of Lawyers for Civil Liberties was prevented from holding a meeting there.

When the 34th Congress met in Amritsar in December 1919, Tilak and Gandhi differed on the response to the Montford Report; Jinnah then sided with Gandhi. In 1920, Gandhi captured the Congress and the Home Rule League and bent both to his will. Jinnah resigned from the Congress, but contrary to conventional wisdom his relations with Gandhi survived the differences; survived even Gandhi's takeover of the Congress. They came under strain two decades later in the late 1930s. Tilak died on August 1, 1920, the day Gandhi began his non-cooperation movement.

The title of the book becomes slightly misleading as one goes to the second chapter After Tilak: Jinnah and Gandhi's Congress. It makes one wonder if the title could have been Jinnah, Tilak, and Gandhi. The index shows that there are 43 references to Tilak as compared to 102 to Gandhi. But Tilak is brought out in the narration leading up to the Partition as a counterpoint to Gandhi from time to time. The author contrasts the arrogant and autocratic Gandhi with the humble and open-to-discussion Tilak. Even after leaving the Congress, Jinnah continued to advocate Hindu-Muslim unity against the British. In 1936, Jinnah was really more Congress than the Congress for Viceroy Willingdon.

After giving a detailed account of Jinnah's political activities following his resignation from the Congress, the author concludes that the record explodes the myths commonly trotted out to explain the radical change in the policy Jinnah adopted in the late Thirties the disagreement at the Nagpur session of the Congress in December 1920, aversion to mass politics, marginalisation, and his wife Ruttie's death on 20 February 1929. He continued to speak of Gandhi with respect long after Nagpur. The breach with Gandhi and the Congress did not occur at the Round Table Conference in London in 1930-31 either. It occurred in 1937-38 when the Congress, having formed ministries in several provinces, after the first general election under the Government of India Act, 1935, refused to share power with the Muslim League. Worse still, it denied that a minority problem existed or that the Muslim League was an ally to parley on an equal footing.

Cabinet Mission Plan

In a chapter titled Wrecking India's Unity, the author explains that the Cabinet Mission of May 16, 1946, came up with two plans: Plan A, a unitary India with a loose federation at the Centre charged primarily with control of Defence and Foreign Affairs, and Plan B, a divided India, with Pakistan getting exactly what it eventually got in 1947. While the Congress rejected Plan A, Jinnah accepted it. He was now prepared to accept Plan A which provided for a three-tier Federal Union. Though the Congress rejected both Plan A and Plan B, the Cabinet Mission went on refining Plan A.

Finally, the Cabinet Mission published its final version to be accepted or rejected, without further negotiations. The Centre was to have Communications, in addition to Defence and Foreign Affairs. There was to be three groups of provinces Group B consisting of Punjab, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Baluchistan, and Sind; Group C of Bengal and Assam; and Group A of the rest of the provinces. Only after the first general election could a province change its group. Any province could reconsider the terms of its association with the Union after an initial period of ten years and at ten yearly intervals thereafter(emphasis added.)

In the view of the Congress, the plan risked Balkanisation; it took the line that the Cabinet Mission proposals were of a recommendatory nature and that once the Constituent Assembly was opened, it would be untrammelled by those proposals. Gandhi put it bluntly: It was the best document the British Government could have produced in the circumstances. It is an appeal and advice. It has no compulsion in it. In other words, the Congress accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan with considerable reservations, which were openly expressed. Jinnah took the position that moved by higher and greater considerations than any other party , it (the League) had sacrificed the full sovereignty of Pakistan at the altar of Congress for securing the whole of India.

It is painfully clear that if the Congress and the Muslim League had engaged in discussions on the modalities of Partition early enough, it might have been possible to prevent or significantly reduce the horrors that came to pass. Soon after Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced on February 20, 1947, that power would be transferred not later than June 1948, the Congress called for the partition of Punjab and Bengal and asked for consultations with the League. Despite reminders, the League refused to consult directly with the Congress and preferred to do it indirectly through Viceroy Lord Mountbatten.

The author is not certain that the Congress was sincere in its offer to consult. Its preference from 1942 onwards was to negotiate with the British. However, he concludes: History, assuredly, would have taken a different course if he (Jinnah) had risen to the occasion and held direct talks with Nehru and [Vallabhbhai] Patel since the principle of partition had been accepted in March 1947.

The nationalist Muslims found themselves in a difficult position. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote to Gandhi towards the end of 1945 that the Congress should reassure the Muslims if it wanted their votes in the approaching election. Partition was against the interests of the Muslims. The future constitution, Azad wrote, should be federal with fully autonomous units that had the freedom to secede and the Centre should deal only with all-India subjects and there must be parity between Hindus and Muslims in the Central legislature and Central executive. This correspondence between Azad and Gandhi is not in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. V.P. Menon refers to it in The Transfer of Power in India (Princeton University Press, 1957) and he got it from the British intelligence who had intercepted it. Subsequently, Gandhi opposed Azad's nomination to the Cabinet and in January 1948 Patel questioned Azad's patriotism.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He and Jinnah worked together for the rapprochement between moderates and extremists in the Congress.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The chapter titled The United Bengal Episode deals with a matter not well known. In April 1947, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, premier of Bengal, proposed an independent Bengal. Jinnah confirmed to Mountbatten that he would agree to an independent Bengal. Nehru opposed an independent Bengal. Sarat Chandra Bose too wanted an independent Bengal. Bose met Gandhi along with Abul Hasim but failed to get Gandhi's support. Mountbatten was prepared to support an independent Bengal. The author blames the Congress and Gandhi, in particular, for foiling the plans for an independent Bengal.

In the final chapter, Assessing Jinnah, the author quotes from the British historian Edward Gibbon's assessment of the Roman general Belisarius to say that the same verdict will apply to Jinnah: His imperfections followed from the contagion of the time; his virtues were his own, the free gift of nature or reflection. He raised himself without a master or rival and so inadequate were the arms committed to his hand, that his sole advantage was derived from the pride and presumption of his adversaries.

The author has provided texts of 27 significant documents running into 180 pages. This is indeed commendable. Jinnah's famous 14 points (1929) make it clear that he wanted a weak Centre and hence a balkanisable India.

Not entirely convincing

Has the lawyer in Noorani argued his case convincingly before the readers' court? Yes and no. He has proved the case that if Gandhi, Nehru, and Patel had agreed to a weak Centre with parity between the League and the Congress at the Centre, the partition of 1947 might have been avoided. But the partition might have occurred later. The Cabinet Mission Plan contained the seed of Pakistan.

A discerning reader might feel Noorani depends too much on Jinnah's public statements. Politicians do not always mean what they say in public; what they say in private is more useful for the historian. Let us take a conversation not mentioned by the author. In January 1946, Jinnah told Woodrow Wyatt, a Labour Member of Parliament, that he will not take part in any Interim Government without a prior declaration accepting the principle of Pakistan, though he would not ask at that stage for any discussion or commitment on details. Wyatt in an article ( Spectator, August 13, 1997) recounts how he convinced a sceptical Jinnah that the Cabinet Mission Plan was the first step to Pakistan. When I finished his face lit up. He hit the table with his hand: That's it. You've got it.' Obviously, they were referring to the clause that permitted Groups B and C to walk out of the Centre and form a bigger Pakistan including undivided Punjab and undivided Bengal.

The reader cannot help raising a question: What is Noorani's idea of India? If the Cabinet Mission Plan had been adopted, there would have been a weak Centre, no integration of the States effected by Patel, and India might have been balkanised in due course. Noorani's argument is based on the assumption that there were only two choices before India: Partition and a weak Centre. He misses the point that the acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan might have led to partition later. His plea for an independent Bengal makes it evident that Noorani wanted an easily balkanisable India. If Bengal was given independence, other States would have made similar claims. He fails to note that there was a third choice: Partition and a strong Centre for a un-balkanisable India. The Congress wisely chose the third option. Noorani's contention that a weak Centre would have been better than Partition does not carry much conviction.

Noorani has missed out on the role played by Perfidious Albion (England). Without dwelling on the role played by Britain, it is not possible to understand the genesis of partition. Let us start from the foundation of the All India Muslim League in December 1906. The Viceroy, Lord Minto, was behind it. His private secretary Dunlop Smith, along with W.J. Archbold, Principal of the Aligarh College, which was founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, wrote down the memorandum to be submitted by Muslim notables to Minto. It was decided that the Agha Khan should lead the delegation. But he was not in India at that time. The Imperial Navy traced him to Aden and made arrangements for him to return.

Much before the Lahore resolution of March 1940 calling for the division of India, Jinnah had through his deputy Khaliq-uz-Zaman consulted the British in London and told them that India should be divided and that the Muslim nation that would emerge would be in alliance with Britain. Lord Zetland reacted positively to the idea of dividing India. Responding to pressure from Jinnah, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, L.S. Amery, stated in the Commons on August 14, 1940: It goes without saying that they (His Majesty's Government) could not contemplate transfer of their present responsibilities for the peace and welfare of India to any system of Government whose authority is directly denied by large and powerful elements in India's national life. Nor could they be parties to the coercion of such elements into submission to such a Government.

In plain English, it meant that as far as Britain was concerned, if Jinnah insisted, he would have his Pakistan. And Jinnah insisted. The Cripps Mission (March 1942), the Simla Talks (July 1945) and the Cabinet Mission (May 1946) were theatrical pieces staged by Britain, whether under Churchill or Atlee, to project to the rest of the world that it had no option but to divide India as the Indian parties were unable to come to a settlement on power-sharing in a single state despite the best efforts of the colonial power. Jinnah knew it much better than the Congress. Jinnah and Britain demonstrated a singular consistency of purpose and determination until the end. They collaborated to a degree that the third side in the triangle did not know in full. As Euclid has demonstrated, two sides of a triangle together are longer than the third. It was not that the Congress accepted Partition, it was forced to concede it.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah with Mahatma Gandhi. Noorani argues that Gandhi did not treat Jinnah too courteously or deal with him tactfully.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Noorani's narration of events leading to Partition is not balanced. He omits to tell the reader that Jinnah's call for Direct Action (July 27, 1946) led to the Great Calcutta Killing that began on August 16, 1946 5,000 were killed and 20,000 were injured in the incident. Wavell's report to London exonerated Jinnah from any blame. Jinnah signalled that he would set fire to India if he did not get what he wanted.

Curiously enough, the index has an entry Direct Action but the reference is to the use of that phrase by Jinnah in a speech made in March 1924. Obviously, an author is not responsible for the index.

Notwithstanding the observations made, the fact remains that the author has made a major contribution to our understanding of our own history. The complicated negotiations that marked the Cabinet Mission Plan have been narrated with remarkable lucidity and precision. Noorani is quite right in saying that a definitive account of India's march towards freedom is yet to be written. He is no court historian. He has made a valuable contribution to the goal of providing a definitive account of India's march to freedom.

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