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PARTITION?S HINGE - How separatist Muslim politics took root between 1937 and 1942

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 7.08.05

In the decade before de-colonization, it was the first five years, from the provincial elections of 1937 to the Quit India movement of 1942, that saw the creation and consolidation of a separatist Muslim politics at an all-India level. At the end of these five years, the Congress could no longer seek political consolation in the thought that if the Congress didn?t represent the Muslims no Muslim party could plausibly claim to represent them either. A re-invented, populist All-India Muslim League, ruthlessly stewarded by Jinnah, stood centre-stage in Indian politics, its claim to represent India?s Muslims increasingly seconded by the raj.

How did this come to pass? How did a party, nearly defunct in 1935, made up in equal parts of clueless rentiers and retired and current Congressmen, with no organization to speak of and no base in the great Muslim provinces of Punjab and Bengal, manage to register a credible claim to being the sole spokesman of India?s Muslims by 1942?

Two factors/reasons explain this turnabout in the Congress?s fortunes. The first is connected to the Congress?s unwillingness to commit itself to any consistent policy designed to win Muslim support for the party. In 1937, the Congress broke with its longstanding policy of boycotting elections to colonial councils and legislatures. It did so because the Government of India Act of 1935 held out, for the first time, the prospect of full responsible government at the provincial level, based on a limited but substantial franchise. When the Congress decided to contest the elections, it didn?t know if it would actually go on to work the provincial legislatures, or whether it would treat the elections merely as a show of strength. It was also unsure of how many General (i.e. non-Muslim) seats it would win. It was, however, certain that it wouldn?t win many Muslim seats. So in informal talks with the leaders of the UP Muslim League, the Congress suggested that if the party went on to form a government after the elections, it would do so in coalition with the Muslim League

At this point the Congress was unsure it would win a majority of the seats on its own. Its offer to the League, therefore, was both a way of making up the numbers and a strategy for incorporating legislators who represented the Muslim vote. Much as it had expected, the Congress did very badly in the Muslim seats. It contested only nine Muslim seats out of a total of more than sixty in UP and won none. But in the General seats it did better than its wildest dreams. It won so many that it had a comfortable legislative majority on its own. Tempted by this to go it alone, the Congress informed the leaders of the UP Muslim League that they would be incorporated into a Congress government if they agreed to dissolve the Muslim League in UP and merge themselves into the Congress. Having just fought the election on the Muslim League?s platform, Ismail Khan and Khaliquzzaman were disinclined to commit political suicide and refused. The Congress, history tells us, went on to form a government on its own

This had important consequences. One of them was that the Congress governments in UP and in other Muslim minority provinces such as Bihar and Bombay and Madras and the Central Provinces, took office with nearly all the Muslim legislators sitting in the opposition. In the United Provinces, for example, the Congress had just two Muslim legislators out of more than sixty on the treasury benches: Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and a defector from the Muslim League, Hafeez Ibrahim. This hurt the Congress in two ways.

One, the near absence of Muslim MLAs made it easy for the Muslim League to describe Congress raj as Hindu raj, to attribute the rising communal violence during the two years the Congress governments were in office to the Congress?s ?Hindu? nature and to tar every policy initiative of the Congress with a Hindu brush.

Two, Muslim politicians in Muslim minority provinces learnt a lesson from the Congress refusal to form coalition governments in 1937. The lesson was this: the ?safeguards? designed to protect the interests of Muslim minorities, such as reserved seats, separate electorates and weightage (more seats than their percentage of the population) did not guarantee Muslim parties or politicians a share of political power. If the Congress won enough non-Muslim seats, it could shut them out of office and rule as if they didn?t exist.

At this point, provincial Muslim organizations such as the UP Muslim League Parliamentary Board, began to look to Jinnah (who had taken over the All India Muslim League in 1935) for answers. Unwittingly, the Congress made hitherto recalcitrant provincial Muslim parties loyal allies of Jinnah. Their reasoning was that perhaps the only way of extracting political concessions from an all-India party like the Congress was through the agency of another all-India party, such as Jinnah?s Muslim League. This also explains the strategic enthusiasm of Muslim politicians in Muslim minority provinces for the Pakistan resolution and the two nation theory: while a minority could only ask for safeguards, a nation could ask for parity and a guaranteed share of political power. Pakistan, for Muslim politicians like Khaliquzzaman, was a crowbar that would help them break out of powerlessness.

Terminally complacent, the Congress leadership came to believe that its size, its commitment to pluralism and its ability to mobilize, would, in the long term, be enough to bring the Muslims round. And who knows, given time, this strategy might have worked. But political parties don?t, or shouldn?t, bank on the luxury of the long dur?e. The Congress was not given time. Around the corner, just past 1939, History was waiting, cosh in hand.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, it telescoped Indian history. Once it became apparent that Britain and its allies were fighting for their lives, it also became obvious that if the Allies won, some form of de-colonization would become inevitable.

This perception galvanized Muslim political leaders in Muslim majority provinces like Punjab and Bengal. Secure in their majorities, men like Sikander Hayat Khan and Fazlul Haq had thus far been lukewarm to Jinnah?s wish to enfold them in the Muslim League?s embrace. Now, with the prospect of de-colonization in the foreseeable future, the thought of an India where the Centre was held by the Congress, as opposed to the British, terrified them. Gradually, they came to realize that de-colonization would be a process for which they would need an all-India negotiator and as the realization dawned on them, Mr Jinnah, and his newly invigorated All India Muslim League, stood patiently waiting.

The outbreak of war in 1939 really is a turning point in Indian politics. War strengthened Jinnah?s hand. He already had the allegiance of most Muslim politicians in Muslim minority provinces, thanks to critical misjudgments made by the Congress; now he had, in the face of an accelerating history and a common enemy, the grudging support of the Muslim leaders of Punjab and Bengal. For Congress politics, though, the war was a disorienting event. When the Congress resigned from provincial government in protest against the way in which Linlithgow made India a party to the war without as much as a by-your-leave from the leaders of Indian public opinion, it acted out of genuine feeling, but it also made a terrible mistake. The colonial state was happy to administer erstwhile Congress provinces in an authoritarian way for the greater good of the war, whereas the Congress forsook the leverage of office for no tangible gain or alternative.

Even as Jinnah provided tacit support for the war through his restive allies in the Punjab and extracted colonial quid pro quos in return, the Congress marked time for nearly three years, going through the motions of individual civil disobedience till Congressmen were demoralized and desperate. The Congress had marginalized itself for the sake of a gesture; but it was a gesture designed to shame a peacetime empire, not a country fighting for its life. There is a clumsiness, an incommensurateness about the Congress?s moves from 1939 to 1942 which tell us that this was a party used to peace that used out of habit the wrong set of gambits in a time of war. When Gandhi rolled the dice one last time in 1942, the war had changed everything. Gandhi resisted civil disobedience as long as he could through 1942. When he did call for mass civil disobedience on the 8th of August, it was because he and the Congress had been overtaken by events.