OWN GOAL - Partition became inevitable once the Congress resigned in 1939

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 18.09.05

The Quit India movement launched by the Congress in 1942 was an act of political desperation, the delayed sequel to an act of political folly. The resolution that formally inaugurated the rebellion was passed in August, nearly three years after His Majesty?s government made India a party to the war against Germany, a decision that provoked the Congress to resign from all the provincial governments it controlled. The cost of that quixotic gesture can be reckoned from the fact that the Indian National Congress, a party that had owned India?s political stage from the time it was founded in 1885, spent the first half of World War II skulking in the wings. Its sole moment in the limelight was the Quit India movement, which resulted in this great repertory company being kicked off stage for the duration of the war. The end game of empire, the final act, was played out with the Congress either muttering in the wings or gagged in the green room.

Both the raj and the Muslim League, for different reasons, saw the Congress?s decision to resign office as a priceless political bonus. The war had simplified the raj?s priorities: it needed Indian men, money and material to win. The Congress?s demand that the raj commit itself to complete independence immediately was easily deflected. Linlithgow declared that constitutional advance depended on a political settlement between the Congress and Muslim leaders, making it clear that there was no national consensus about the shape of the constitution of a self-governing India. Jinnah used his increasing control over provincial Muslim leaders to set in place a strategy of conditional cooperation. In return for a tacit acceptance of the Muslim League?s claim to be the sole spokesman of India?s Muslims, he allowed Muslim League politicians to ally themselves with the war effort.

The war brought the Muslim League?s interest and the colonial state?s objectives into perfect sync. The Muslim League made it clear that the Congress was not to be allowed back into the provincial ministries unless it agreed to mandatory power-sharing and a Muslim League veto on any constitutional advance. The League also wanted the 1935 constitution to be scrapped and denounced the Congress proposal for a constituent assembly based on universal adult franchise. There was no way in which the Congress could concede all this, so the way back to office was barred. But worse was to come.

The Viceroy realized that the League?s objections to the Congress were essentially negative. This was unsatisfactory from Linlithgow?s point of view because he had to demonstrate to parliament and public in Britain that the Indian tangle couldn?t be sorted out by satisfying the Congress because there were other parties to be kept in mind. This would be much easier if the League had an alternative to the political programme it was opposing. So Linlithgow took it upon himself to nudge the Muslim League in the direction of Pakistan, an idea that was already doing the rounds. ?I am quite sure?? he wrote to Hallett, the governor of UP, ?that until the Muslim League gives people something to think about, they will get far less publicity, and far worse publicity than their case deserves.? He advised Jinnah not to take a League deputation to London until he had put together a ?constructive? policy. On March 23, 1940, the League passed its so-called ?Pakistan? resolution, asking for independent Muslim homelands.

While the Muslim League flourished, and raised the political stakes by laying claim to a Muslim state for a Muslim Nation, the Congress looked on helplessly. It?s claim to represent India?s Muslims, never very robust, had been further eroded by its failure to ally with provincial Muslim parties during its stint in government between 1937 and 1939. Having resigned office, it had had no power to offer that might lure Muslim politicians. To confront the British it needed a united front with the Muslim League, but the political price was too high: if the Congress recognized the League as the mouthpiece of India?s Muslims it would amount to admitting that the Congress did not represent the nation in its fullness.

There was, of course, the nuclear option. The Congress could resort to mass civil disobedience. It could avoid the thickets of constitutional negotiation by making India ungovernable. But for three long years it stayed its hand, because Gandhi repeatedly reminded Congressmen that ?mass action at this stage without communal unity is an invitation to civil war. If civil war is to be our lot, it will come. But if I know the Congress mind, it will never come at the wish or invitation of the Congress?.

Till April 1942, Gandhi resisted every proposal for mass civil disobedience. But by August, his tone was so belligerent it was very nearly martial. ?You (Jinnah) may take it from me that whatever in your demand for Pakistan accords with considerations of justice and equity is lying in your pocket; whatever in the demands is contrary to justice and equity, you can take only by the sword and in no other manner.? And then Gandhi invites the British to leave Indians to fight it out among themselves, because in the absence of a foreign power a civil war conducted by a disarmed people would last no more than a fortnight. Why did Gandhi change his mind? Less than a month before the Quit India movement, he wrote in Harijan: ??How can you think of a mass movement for liberation without first closing with Muslims?? ask Muslim correspondents whose letters fill my file. But I see that for the moment I cannot reach the Muslim mind. The Muslim League blocks my way.?

Gandhi and the Congress did a volte face on mass civil disobedience because they were stampeded into panic by the Cripps Mission. At the end of March, the Cripps Mission spelt out its constitutional vision. Contained in this was a section pertaining to self-determination. Paraphrased, it said that if any province at the time of de-colonization, chose not to join the union, a two-third vote in the electoral college or assembly would allow it to opt out of the Indian Union. If any minority within a legislature or electoral college objected to the decision, a plebiscite would be held in the province or state, and the matter settled on the basis of a simple majority.

This was interpreted by the League and the Congress as representing the British acceptance of the Pakistan principle. This apparent acknowledgment of the principle of separatism changed the terms of political discourse for the Congress. The possibility of a negotiated settlement with the League became non-existent, because after the tacit acceptance of the Pakistan idea by the British, the League would scarcely settle for less in negotiations with the Congress.

A majority of Muslim Congressmen felt that the best course was for the Congress to acknowledge the principle of self-determination and to work a national government with the Muslim League in the hope that the experience of cooperation would persuade Muslims that Hindus and Muslims could live together in a united India. Rajagopalachari was the most eloquent champion of this view. But for most Congressmen, including Gandhi and Nehru, this was too high a price to pay. By August, the Congress, far from looking for a political bargain with the League as a preamble to a mass movement, had begun to look to the mass movement to pre-empt the need for such a bargain.

From the standpoint of Indian unity, the Quit India movement was an unmitigated disaster. It alienated large numbers of Muslims who saw the movement as an attempt by the Congress to replace the give and take of a negotiated communal settlement with mobilizational muscle and main force. The uprising took place in the militarized context of World War II, which meant that the raj had more troops at its disposal than ever before. The movement was crushed, the Congress banned and its leadership jailed for nearly three years. This meant that in the run-up to Partition, the Muslim League had the run of Indian politics and colonial patronage. This allowed it time to consolidate its position among Indian Muslims. In the absence of the most important secular party in the country, politics and political discourse were reduced to the simple and dangerous oppositions of sectarians.

By the time the Congress was let out of jail, the die was cast. In the provincial elections called by the Labour government to determine who spoke for India, the Muslim League won an overwhelming majority of the Muslim seats. It wasn?t an accident that the Congress share of Muslim votes was lowest in the districts where the 1942 uprising was most intense. Once the results came in, Partition, in one form or another, became inevitable.