Partition retrospect

Print edition : September 25, 2009

TWO provinces of British India sealed the fate of Indias unity. One was the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh. The other was Assam. Both were ruled by the Congress. In both, the party rejected partnership with the Muslim League. In U.P. it re fused to enter into a coalition in 1937, after the first general election held under the Government of India Act, 1935, which conferred autonomy and responsible government on the provinces. In Assam, the Congress refused to participate in Group C with Bengal on the pretext that it would not accept Bengal, rather the Leagues domination. The League had a mere 36 members in the group in a House of 70. The Cabinet Missions Plan of May 16, 1946 envisaged three groups in a Centre confined to defence, foreign affairs and communications.

A province could secede from a group after the first general election, but not from the Union. The League would have been in a pitiable minority in the entire Constituent Assembly. Group A, comprising the India of today, could have set up a strong Centre for itself for other subjects. In Group B, the League would have had to reckon with economically powerful and educationally advanced non-Muslim minorities; especially in a United Punjab and in a United Bengal. The Congress rejected the very idea of grouping the only concession to the League which had accepted the Plan and wrecked it. Partition followed inevitably. That was the stand of the entire Congress. It was Gandhi who gave the lead. Others, Vallabhbhai Patel included, followed. Nehru alone cannot be blamed.

These four volumes are collections of revealing documents. Lionel Carter is former Librarian, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge. He has produced five volumes comprising the Punjab Governors reports from 1936 to 1947, besides a volume containing Mountbattens report on his Viceroyalty March 22-August 12, 1947. All were published by the same publishers, Manohar. Carters editorial annotations are as erudite and thorough as those of the editors of the volumes on the Transfer of Power in India 1942-47, if not, indeed, better.

He has, fortunately, turned his attention to the United Provinces and rendered a service. For Governor Harry Haigs reports to the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow provide an authoritative and disinterested account of the Congress arrogant folly in 1937. It is all the more damning for the fact that his own comments were sparse. The reports were not for publication. Linlithgow disliked Haig because he was not anti-Congress unlike the Viceroy. On one point the British have not received the praise that is their due. They did not rig elections as we have done in Kashmir consistently since 1951.

Haigs pen portrait of Nehru written on October 29, 1936, is a cameo: The return of Jawaharlal Nehru, however, and the holding of the Congress session at Lucknow last April started a new phase. The Congress had found a leader with a name and personality that appealed to the masses, and possessing unusual initiative, determination and authority. The first reactions of his presidential speech were to alarm seriously all the vested interests, not only landlords, but businessmen and professional men, and to intensify the resolution on the part of these powerful interests to oppose the Congress. But gradually his doctrines, by rather milder repetition, seemed to lose their first alarming quality and to pass into the category of political phrases, which by long practice can be consumed innocuously on the largest scale. Meantime the Congress tried to concentrate attention more on their traditional appeal representing the national revolt against foreign domination. While economic doctrines are still being preached, which are as repugnant to a large section of Congress as they are to the more conservative elements in the country, this does not seem to prevent the bourgeois Congressmen from working with enthusiasm for the Congress cause. There are the most profound differences amongst Congressmen as to future policy. They emerged after Independence.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The breach between the two modern-minded secularists was a cruel irony.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Haig realistically noted who its opponents were. The main non-Congress of [or?] conservative force in this Province is bound to be the great body of landlords... a privileged class which has always been in the closest and most friendly relations with the government and which regards its existence as dependent on the support of the government. It was evident that in the new constitution the struggle would be between the Congress and the landlords. At the same time their organisation hardly extended beyond the paper it was written on, and they had none of the characteristics of a life [live?] and vigorous political party. Many of the landlords frankly disbelieved in the necessity of organisation. Their view was that they could by their personal influence control the votes of their tenants and that the ordinary methods of propaganda were superfluous, while their political horizon was limited to their own personal success at the election.

Mark what he had to say of the Muslim League which Mohammed Ali Jinnah invigorated after his return from London: The All India Muslim League was merely to be the means whereby Mr. Jinnah was to utilise the Muslim vote for the purpose of his own advanced nationalist policy (emphasis added, throughout).

He had only a few years earlier broken with the Aga Khan. Jinnah did not attend the conference that the Aga Khan convened in Delhi after the Congress intransigence on the Nehru Report. The League was split. Jinnahs nationalism alienated him from the reactionary Muslims while his espousal of safeguards for Muslims alienated him from the communal elements in the Congress. A true nationalist Muslim, Jinnah was a mediator between Indian nationalism and, to put it crudely, Muslim separatism. He needed for his success support from the secular elements in the Congress, especially its prime secularist the greatest of all time Jawaharlal Nehru. But the nationalism Nehru then espoused had no room for any such nuances. It was simplistic and proved destructive. A cruel irony it was the breach between two modern-minded secularists.

In a speech in the Central Assembly on February 7, 1936, Jinnah asserted: Religion should not be allowed to come into politics religion is merely a matter between men and God. But the safeguards were not a religious issue. This is a question of minorities and it is a political issue. Whatever drove him to advocate the two-nation theory only four years later and demand the partition of India?

It is little realised that in fact Nehru differed fundamentally from the approach of the Congress leaders to the communal question in the decades since the issue cropped up. Men such as Motilal Nehru, M.A. Ansari and Tej Bahadur Sapru differed over the terms of Jinnahs 14 points. Nehru objected to the very idea of a Congress-League pact on safeguards for the minorities. He wrote to Gandhi on September 27, 1931: I wonder if any purgatory would be more dreadful for me than to carry on in this way. If I had to listen to my dear friend Mohammed Ali Jinnah talking the most unmitigated nonsense about his 14 points for any length of time, I would consider the desirability of retiring to the South Sea Islands where there would be some hope of meeting with some people who were intelligent enough or ignorant enough not to talk of the 14 points (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 5, page 46).

Jinnah was then an acclaimed nationalist. The two shared a common platform as late as on August 12, 1936, at the All India Students Conference in Allahabad over which Jinnah presided and introduced Nehru in warm words which Nehru reciprocated (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 7, page 335). They had first met about a quarter of a century ago when I [Nehru] was a student in Cambridge.

The next year in 1937, their paths diverged, tragically. As President of the Congress, Nehru gave free, uninhibited expression to his subjective views on the communal question in terms which not only questioned the locus standi of the Muslim League but diverged fundamentally from the very basis of the Congress-League discourse since 1916.

Viceroy Lord Linlithgow with Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, a March 1939 picture.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

He had no use for the pacts of old, such as the Lucknow Pact of 1916. His was a secularism which refused to accept a religious community as a political group. But it was secularism. For, he was astute to discern and just to denounce communalism of the majority when it masqueraded as nationalism. On this he never faltered. It is another matter that his concept of secularism in excelsis rendered a Congress-League Pact impossible and played into the hands of communalists within the Congress.

To Nehru the socialist, the fundamental divide was economic, not religious. Or, if you like, a class division. During the First World War many socialists thought that the working class would unite to oppose the war. The working classes proved to be as chauvinistic as any other. So it was in the 1930s. The working class was no less conscious of its identity as a religious group. That reality had to be faced. Nehru did not.

His pronouncements during this crucial phase reveal the inarticulate major premise which shaped his politics. He said at Ambala on January 16, 1937: All those people who talk in terms of Hindu rights and Muslim interests are job hunters, pure and simple, and fight for the loaves and fishes of office. How long are you going to tolerate this nonsense, this absurdity? ... Indias problem is linked up with the problem of the world and the election business is important inasmuch as it helps us to grasp this problem. But I warn you to beware of minor issues.

There are only two forces in the country, the Congress and the government. Those who are standing midway shall have to choose between the two. (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 8, page 7). Gandhi fully agreed: If a fight is to be avoided, Governors must recognise the Congress as the one national organisation that is bound one day or the other to replace the British Government (Harijan, August 6, 1938; Carter, page 259). It was this claim to monopoly on power that wrecked Indias unity.

In a statement to the press on January 10, 1937, Nehru said: Religion is both a personal matter and a bond of faith, but to stress religion in matters political and economic is obscurantism and leads to the avoidance of real issues. In what way are the interests of the Muslim peasant different from those of the Hindu peasant? (ibid., page 12).

The Muslim League represents a group of Muslims, no doubt highly estimable person, but functioning in the higher regions of the upper middle classes and having no contacts with the Muslim masses and few even with the Muslim lower middle class. May I suggest to Mr. Jinnah that I come into greater touch with the Muslim masses than most of the members of the Muslim League? the masses, Hindu and Muslim, care little for communal questions (ibid., pages 121-122).

At the Congress Working Committee meeting in Wardha on February 27-28, 1937, Nehru took the initiative to discuss a plan of Muslim mass contacts and a strategy of political mobilisation in India on an unprecedented scale. On March 31, 1937, he urged the provincial Congress Committee to make a special effort to enrol Muslim Congress members, so that our struggle for freedom may become even more broad-based than it is, and the Muslim masses should take the prominent part in it which is their due (ibid., page 123). The failure of this programme has been ably analysed by Lt. Col. James E. Dillard (The Failure of Nehrus Mass Contacts Campaign and the Rise of Muslim Separation, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies; Volume XXXI, No. 2, Winter 2008, pages 43-65).

Dillard mentions the flaws. One critical failing was that the idea for the campaign was Nehrus, and he alone, along with a handful of trusted comrades, pressed it relentlessly until it formed part of the Congress platform. Relatively few Congress members shared Nehrus enthusiasm (ibid., page 63) for the programme as well as for secularism.

Govind Ballabh Pant, who became the Premier of the United Provinces after the 1937 election under the Government of India Act, 1935.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The success of the Muslim Mass Contacts campaign depended on the active support of provincial and district Congress Committees. That this support was often not present can be attributed to a couple of factors. One reason was that these bodies were often controlled by men with anti-Muslim proclivities who had close links with the Hindu Mahasabha and other overtly communal organisations (ibid., pages 65-66).

He added: Those who talk of the Congress entering into a pact or alliance with Muslims or others, fail to understand the Congress or the new forces that are moving our people. We have already made a great pact among our people, a great pact among ourselves, among all who desire national and economic freedom, to work together to this common end. The Muslims are in this pact just as the Hindus and Sikhs and so many Christians (ibid., page 143). This implied one national organisation representing all. Differences could be sorted out within it. Pacts with others were ruled out.

The Leagues leader Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman was told off sharply in a letter on July 1, 1937: Is the League a democratic organisation or is it not just a close preserve of certain individuals? Why should I accept it as the representation of the Muslim of India when I know it represents the handful of Muslims at the top who deliberately seek refuge in the name of religion to avoid discussing mass problem? I have a certain measure of intelligence and I have studied political, economic and allied problems. Am I to insult my intelligence by talking baby-talk of an age gone by? Given the state of the Congress itself Nehrus recipe was unrealistic. By denying from a secular standpoint the need for a pact on safeguards for Muslims, he played into the hands of communalists who denied that Muslims were a political minority.

Nehru himself, uniquely, was even-handed. He noted in his Autobiography (1936): Many a Congressman was a communalist under his national cloak (Oxford University Press, page 136). The Hindu Mahasabhas communalism masquerades under a nationalistic cloak (ibid., page 467) as does the BJPs nationalism.

The Congress won 133 seats in the 1937 election. The League won 28, the National Agriculturist Party 25, the Independents 41 and the Liberals 1. Initially, the reactionary elements formed a minority government. Liaquat Ali Khan made a strong speech in the meeting today against it, the Governor reported on April 1, 1937. The League wanted the Congress to form a Ministry, but share power with it. It condemned its member, the Nawab of Salempur, for joining the minority government. The Congress and the League had fought the elections on a nationalistic plank and the expectation, if not, indeed, a tacit understanding, was that a coalition would be formed.

The Governor reported on April 5, 1937: The Muslim League are at present buoyed up with the hope that the Congress will take office and with the assurance that, if so, it will make an alliance with them. It is interesting to observe that up to the time when [Govind Ballabh] Pant first saw me, i.e., the period when the Congress themselves seemed to contemplate office, they appeared to be taking a very stiff attitude towards the Muslim League and refused to make any kind of agreement with them. Immediately after Pants first interview with me, when he must have known that office acceptance was out of the question, the Congress made overtures to the Muslim League and practically offered them two posts in the cabinet. These negotiations have, I understand, since been continued and the assurances reiterated. It is possible to suppose that the Congress are pursuing a deliberately dishonest policy, and having no intention to take office, are holding out hopes to the Muslim League in order to prevent them joining the alternative government.

Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman was close to the Congress. On April 10 the Governor reported: Khaliq, who is at the moment President of the Muslim League Parliamentary Board, has begun almost openly to identify himself with the Congress. He had an interview with Jawaharlal Nehru with a view to settling the terms on which the Muslims could join the Congress, and as Chairman of the Municipal Board, Lucknow, he invited Govind Ballabh Pant to perform with due ceremonial the hoisting of the Congress flag over the Municipal office. These activities, combined with the avowed policy of the Congress to capture the Muslim masses, have seriously alarmed the non-Congress Muslims. Jinnah has made clear his strong opposition to the Muslim joining the Congress. He wanted a coalition. The Congress demanded merger.

Jinnah met Khaliquzzaman on May 7. It was made quite plain that the League would not stand for any policy of merging the Muslims in the Congress or allowing the Muslim League to become a mere appendage of the Congress. They decided also that the Muslim League would not as a party attend the meeting of M.L.As, convened by the Congress.

Contrary to later versions, Maulana Azad did not disagree with Nehru. He said on July 14: If any party wanted to join the Congress, it must give up its separate identity and identify itself with the Congress. The next day Azad and Pant, the Premier-in-waiting met Khaliquzzaman in a Lucknow hotel when Azad handed him a two-page document. Its very first paragraph read: The Muslim League group in the United Provinces shall cease to function as a separate group. Its members would join the Congress as full members, Azad added in a note of his own. (The Pioneer of July 30, 1937, published the full text. Vide R. Coupland, The Constitutional Problem in India; Volume 2, page 111).

Nehrus letter to Rajendra Prasad on July 21, 1937, rightly denied an electoral pact but admitted that a kind of convention developed. He endorsed Azads line. I am tired of writing this long letter. By the time you reach the end of it you will appreciate the humour of my saying at the beginning that I would give you a brief account (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 8, pages 165-171).

Jinnah convened the annual session of the League in October 1937, in Lucknow, significantly. His presidential address sharply criticised the Congress but held out hints of an accord. But he was rebuffed. Little did the Congress realise that its policies augmented the Leagues strength. Time ran in favour of the League. Its electoral debacle in 1937 was a passing phase as the Governor reported only a few months later on March 23, 1938, ending with a prophecy that came true: As I have mentioned more than once, a position in which practically the whole of the important minority community of Muslims is ranged in the legislature in opposition to the Government is bound to lead to serious communal friction. The minority cannot get their own way in the legislature, and as a permanent communal minority have no prospect of ever getting it, and they are tempted inevitably to redress the weakness of their parliamentary position by rousing religious feelings and emphasising the importance of the community outside the legislature, even at the risk of communal outbreaks. This is the Muslim contribution to the trouble. But the Muslims are not solely responsible for all the ill-feeling. There is also a reverse side to the picture. The Hindus have been undoubtedly elated by the establishment of what is in effect a Hindu Government. There is a good deal of popular feeling that this is Hindu raj, and several officers have told me that they think the Hindu attitude towards communal questions has been aggressive lately.

In July 1938, partition was proposed by the Nawab of Chhatari who had an ambiguous relationship with the League. The League, he contended, would only be content with some form of Federation of the Muslim Provinces which might later be united with a Federation of Hindu India. Even if this was not possible, they would press for one-third or at least one-fourth of the total number of seats in each of the Houses of the Federal Legislature.

Some bad precedents were set then which were followed even after Independence, most notably on the office of the Speaker. The Governor reported on August 6, 1937. The election of Speaker of the Assembly and President of the Council took place on the 31st July. Babu Purshottam Das Tandon was elected without opposition as Speaker, but he caused a great deal of comment and criticism by announcing that he did not believe in the British practice of the Speaker cutting himself off entirely from politics, and that while he would conduct the business of the Assembly with complete impartiality, he intended to remain an active member of the Congress party. This was probably part of the understanding in accordance with which Babu Purshottam Das Tandon was put up as Speaker instead of being included in the Cabinet. He was in fact at one time regarded as a possible rival to Pant for the Premiership, and doubtless he was not prepared to accept the Speakership if it meant abandoning his position in the party. Parliamentary democracy suffered a big blow.

The volume on 1940 in the excellent series Towards Freedom is edited by Prof. K.N. Panikkar. The second part will be devoted to the princely states. Part I has some revealing documents on Jinnahs transformation, the Congress and other parties response to the Second World War and the Congress march towards civil disobedience, eventually to the Quit India movement. Panikkars Introduction knits them together.

On March 23, 1940, the League passed its famous Resolution demanding partition of India. While the Congress was set on a pact with the British, bypassing the League, the League dreaded transfer of power to the Congress alone. The Viceroy Lord Linlithgows assessment on April 4, 1940, is noteworthy. I feel, I must make this debate the occasion for pouring much cold water on the Muslim idea of partition formally advocated in the Lahore Resolution, though not necessarily at this stage conclusively rejecting it. I should emphasise that this would be a counsel of despair and wholly at variance with the policy of a united India which British rule has achieved and which it is our aim to perpetuate after British rule ceases. There is much that could be said in criticism of Jinnahs partition ideas and we clearly could not accept or endorse them. But quite apart from the fact that we have left the whole scheme and policy of the Act open for discussion after the war, and that Jinnahs scheme itself has, I suspect, largely been provoked by the unreasonable demands of Congress, any condemnation of Jinnahs scheme will at once irritate Muslim feeling and will be seized on by Congress.

Sadly, Dr Z.H. Zaidi died shortly after the publication of this volume. It has interesting documents, including a warm letter to Jinnah by Jaipal Singh, the Adivasi leader. Jinnah revealed unsuspected skills as an Organisation Man, along with the general secretary Liaquat Ali Khan. Even when he came for a long holiday in the Nandi Hills in Mysore, after his health had broken down, he received and replied to a volley of letters seeking his help in the partys problems.

The volume has important documents on doubts about the impact of the Pakistan resolution on the Muslims outside the Pakistan areas. They were aired by the Nawab of Chhatari and by Sir Abdullah Haroon who lived in Karachi. The Haroon Report, commissioned by the League, is reproduced in this volume. Jinnah, true to form, repudiated it with disastrous consequences.

The Haroon Report had a precious nugget in paragraph 16 which read: The Lahore Resolution of the League does not look forward to the proposed regional states assuming immediately as they are formed, powers of defence, external affairs, customs, etc. This argues that there should be a transitional stage during which these powers should be exercised by some agency common to them all. Such a common coordinating agency would be necessary even independent of the above consideration, for under the third principle of the resolution, it will be impossible to implement effectively the provision of safeguards for minorities without some organic relationship subsisting between the states under the Hindu influence.

On relations between the two parts of India, the Report said that the subjects to be assigned to this central machinery shall be (a) External relation, (b) Defence, (c) Communications, (d) Customs, (e) Safeguards for minorities and voluntary intermigration etc., subject to the following provision in respect of defence and intermigration. This is what the Cabinet Missions Plan envisaged in 1946.

Jinnah had another formidable sceptic to deal with. The Nawab of Chhatari wrote to Jinnah on October 16, 1940, that even the Lahore Resolution will not solve the problem because the Muslims in the minority provinces will suffer in any case. Jinnah assured him on October 22 that the resolution made it quite clear that we cannot leave the Muslims in the Hindu provinces to their fate and asked him to come out with a definite scheme of his own, which he promised to consider before making a final decision in this regard. Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman was also restive despite his support to the Lahore Resolution.

Jinnah smothered doubt and dissent. He thought that he would pull off a loose union without conceding anything in advance before the negotiations. When he reached the negotiating table in 1946, the Congress rejected such a federation and left him with the partition he had dreaded all along.

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