The significance of the year 1937 as a major milestone in the colonial history of India is often either brushed aside or missed altogether. The British parliament had, a couple of years ago, passed the new Government of India Act promising Indians limited self-governance and suggesting a federal structure of administration for the Indian empire. Provincial elections were ordered in 1937 all over ‘British India’ so that people’s representatives, though elected on the basis of restricted franchise, could still wield some power. The Indian National Congress, despite its reservations over the provision of the act, participated in the polls and, as was only to be expected, had a cakewalk victory in most of the ‘general’ constituencies everywhere; it also succeeded in electing its candidates from an impressive number of constituencies reserved for the scheduled castes and tribes. The All India Muslim League, presided over by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, did much below its expectations. Even in the provinces where Muslims constituted a clear majority of the electorate, its performance was none too impressive. In Punjab, it was defeated by the Unionist Party put together by Sikander Hyat Khan, representing the landowning interests, who became the prime minister (this was the nomenclature used in the 1935 Act) of the province. In Bengal, A.K. Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Praja Party prevailed over the League in a majority of the constituencies reserved for the Muslim community. His party lacked an overall majority in the provincial assembly; it nonetheless emerged as the largest single party. The Indian National Congress claimed the second place, the Muslim League was a not too impressive third. In Sind, it was a rag-bag coalition of regional parties which formed the provincial government, the Muslim League was isolated. In the North-West Frontier Province, given the popularity of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and his brother, Khan Sahib, the Congress did tremendously well; it won seats which fell short of a majority by just one; the Muslim League failed in its mission to capture the province. It was only the Indian National Congress in the rest of the country, including the United Provinces, the Central Provinces, Bihar, Assam, Orissa, as well as the Madras and Bombay Presidencies.
Jawaharlal Nehru was the Congress’s president that year. At his direction, the Congress set down two conditions for joining a coalition with others for forming a government in a province where it would be unable to form a ministry on its own: (a) the Congress would not enter into alliance with any ‘communal party’ and (b) even where it chose to form a coalition with another party to form the government in any province, the prime minister must be only from the Congress; it would supposedly be demeaning for the great national party to take orders from a prime minister who belonged to a nondescript political formation.
What was ironical was that in its anxiety to keep the Muslim League out of power in the NWFP, the Congress did not hesitate to breach immediately the first of these conditions and agreed to accommodate the sole Hindu Mahasabha legislator in the state assembly, Mehr Chand Khanna, in the ministry it formed. When it came to Bengal, the party’s high command, so-called, was adamant in sticking to principles. Fazlul Huq, having successfully snubbed the Muslim League in the just-held polls, was most reluctant to have any truck with the League and was keen to have the Congress as his partner. He sent a formal proposal to the Congress authorities inviting the party to form a coalition with the KPP and join the ministry he would form as the province’s prime minister. Sarat Chandra Bose, elected leader of the Congress in the Bengal assembly, was eager to respond affirmatively to Fazlul Huq’s invitation. His request to do so was contemptuously turned down by the high command. Poor Fazlul Huq had no alternative but to approach his erstwhile sworn enemy, the League, to join his ministry. The League responded with great alacrity; the KPP-Muslim League coalition regime took charge of the provincial administration in Bengal. The course of history changed in Bengal from that point onwards.
Fazlul Huq’s KPP had a clear-cut programme to protect the interests of the rural masses. Once installed in office, Fazlul Huq wasted no time in implementing the pledged promises to relieve the peasantry of the burden of unbridled exploitation by big landlords and loan sharks. A legislation imposed ceilings on land cess charged by intermediaries. Of far greater relevance was the introduction of a separate legislation concerning rural indebtedness. It either considerably reduced or even squashed altogether the burden of land cess charged by intermediaries in the recovery of past loans. Fazlul Huq did not quite stop here. He decided to set up a commission — the Floud Commission — to introduce major land reform all over the province. A further measure, perhaps of equal, if not greater, significance, was an order which, taking into account the denominational distribution of the province’s population, reserved 54 per cent of job opportunities in the provincial government henceforth for members of the Muslim community.
This series of measures had a tremendous impact on all sections of the Muslims in Bengal whose support for Fazlul Huq soared. The reaction of Hindus and the Indian National Congress was, perhaps not totally surprisingly, to the contrary. The prospect of losing the opportunity of making easy money by increasing exploitation of the rural poor disturbed the thinking process of the Hindu gentry and middle-class Hindus; the additional, very real, possibility of shrinkage in opportunities to enter government service further alienated them from Fazlul Huq and his administration.
Ignoring advice for restraint, the Congress launched a virulent campaign depicting Huq as an arch communalist. It was conveniently forgotten that, barely a couple of years ago, the same Fazlul Huq had made the Congress happy by taming the League in the polls. The news media in Calcutta, both English and Bengali, owned by Hindu fat cats, were full of reports, often concocted, of how much sections of the Hindu community were suffering in different parts of the province under the tyranny unleashed by the coalition government. Fazlul Huq withstood the calamity for a while. He was a man of emotions though. At one point he decided that enough was enough, if he was dubbed communal for being a friend of the poor, he would rather turn into a full-fledged communalist. He liquidated his own party and joined the Muslim League, along with the bulk of the KPP legislators. He, so to say, handed on a platter the crucial province of Bengal, with its huge density of Muslim population, to Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
The rest of the story is well known. Huq was persuaded to move at the League’s annual session in 1940 the resolution demanding the creation of Pakistan. The League reaped what Huq’s KPP had sown in Bengal. Muslim masses all over the country were bowled over by reports of what the League had supposedly done for poverty-stricken Muslims in the eastern province. Their loyalties got swiftly transferred to the League. Jinnah begun to roar like a real lion. Pressure was unbearable on Muslim politicians who till then had kept their distance from the League. Sikander Hyat Khan could read the signs, and capitulated in Punjab and joined the League too. It was the same story in the rest of the country. Only Abdul Gaffar Khan’s NWFP refused to bend all the way.
Since at heart Fazlul Huq, besides abhorring Jinnah’s overwhelming ways, could not reconcile himself to the League’s exceedingly aggressive communal stances, he soon fell out with the League leadership. He tried to form an alternative government in Bengal by parting with the League. Most of his former supporters were, however, no longer with him. Even so, Huq succeeded in scraping together a majority in the provincial assembly with the help of Sarat Chandra Bose, who too had now broken with the Congress following Subhas Chandra Bose’s expulsion. What raised a furore was Huq’s seeking and receiving support from the Hindu Mahasabha leader, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee. This latest move by Fazlul Huq unnerved the British rulers. They had been happy when he merged his party with the Muslim League, which kept the Congress out of power in Bengal. The Congress was turning increasingly hostile. Mahatma Gandhi was threatening to launch the Quit India Movement, and the spreading influence of the League was considered a good antidote by the foreign masters. That apart, the Second World War was reaching a critical stage. Subhas Chandra Bose had disappeared from the country and had surfaced in Berlin. And now his elder brother, Sarat Bose, was Fazlul Huq’s choice for the post of home minister in the new ministry he was proposing to form. This could not be allowed to happen, for the home department handled many sensitive and confidential matters. Sarat Bose was arrested under the Defence of India Act before he could be sworn in. A shaky new ministry anyway took office with Huq as prime minister. It did not last long because of more desertions by his past followers who did not like his associating with Mookherjee. Huq’s self-styled Progressive Coalition government soon collapsed and the Muslim League got back to power. Huq was by now a totally isolated figure; his soliciting the support of the Hindu Mahasabha leader added grist to the anti-Huq propaganda by the League, which succeeded in establishing absolute control over the Muslims in Bengal. It was equally true elsewhere in the country. In the provincial elections held in 1946 after the war was over, barring the NWFP, it was the Muslim League, and only the Muslim League, triumphing in nearly all the constituencies reserved for Muslims. The country got partitioned barely a year later. The League was almost a non-entity in 1937; it could divide the country exactly a decade later.
The Congress could infringe its principles in the NWFP in 1937, but would not do so in Bengal; it instead, made a gift of Fazlul Huq to the Muslim League. This individual, Huq, in that sense played the most important role in settling the destiny of the sub-continent. He is nevertheless a forgotten person as much in India as in Pakistan. What is even more astonishing, his name is barely mentioned these days in Bangladesh too. What remains under layers of oblivion is the fact that the Bangladeshi national ethos was created by the emergence of a self-assured Muslim middle class in Bengal, which in turn was the direct consequence of the measures introduced by Fazlul Huq on assumption of office in 1937. The reforms initiated by Huq emancipated an impressive percentage of the rural as well as urban Muslim masses, offering them opportunities to get educated, provided them with jobs, and thereby created a substantive middle class full of pride and self-confidence. It is this class which, in spite of its mistrust of the Bengali Hindu exploiters, had a deep attachment for their mother tongue, Bengali, in spite of its Hindu roots. The constituents of this class had been shapers of mass opinion in East Pakistan, and have continued in that role in Bangladesh. The national consciousness built around pride for their own language would not accept their mother tongue to be treated with contempt in Pakistan, where they — Bangladeshis — made up the nation’s majority. Resistance grew and grew and was compounded by rising resentment against the oppressive domination of their land and people by West Pakistanis both in civil as well as military administration. The parentage of this Bangladeshi national ethos belongs to Fazlul Huq. History however is habituated to bypass those who create history.