Britain and the Pakistan Demand

Written By: Prof. Sharif al Mujahid

The publication and accessibility to researchers of documents concerning the last decade of the British Raj call for a fresh look at the events and developments during the decade, and for a revision of the historiography of the period. They have shown several assumptions taken for granted during the period to be false, and several myths unfounded.

One of the myths so consistently and so vehemently propagated by the Congress’ leaders, polemicists and propagandists during the epochal 1937-47 decade was the “collusion” between the Muslim League and the British government. And when the Pakistan demand was raised in 1940, it was immediately put down as being British-inspired – as a “stumbling block” on the road to freedom. Indo-Muslim journalism, so far as the English-language press was concerned, was nebulous and exceedingly weak at the time, so that it could not really join the issue.
In so characterizing the Pakistan demand, the Hindu leaders and publicists conveniently brushed aside the cardinal fact that the Pakistan demand was anti-British, both abinito and ipso facto. After all, it was pax Britannica that had swung the pendulum towards centrepetalism, systematically and institutionally, the most for the first time in all the annals of Indian history, and that had made the nebulous concept of Indian unity a “reality” during the ninety-year (1858-1947) British imperial rule. Britain had given the subcontinent not only a unified political structure, but also a unified system of administration, justice, and education, and had turned the vast country into a “geographical entity” through a comprehensive and well-knit communication network. And for almost a hundred years, almost every British statesman had alluded to this “achievement”, which they had proudly and rightly considered as the greatest “gift” of British imperial rule in India.


In order to nail the Congress’ myth(s) to the counter, it would be interesting to see how Jinnah took on the British after he had tackled the “haughty” Congress and after it had taken to political wilderness in late 1939. This calls for a brief review and reappraisal of events and developments during the 1937-47 decade.

Such being the case, how could any British statesman be expected to have a soft corner for the Pakistan demand which portended the undoing of their greatest “contribution” to India in history? And, indeed, none had, as revealed in the documents and in the memoirs published since 1947. As Prime Minister Clement Attlee (and others) have since confessed, they were forced into partitioning India because, all said and done, there was really no way out, the harsh ground reality.

Even otherwise, the unity of India and an indivisible, single polity were concepts that were never at the centre of Indo-British tussle, nor at the centre of the disputations between the Indian National Congress and the imperial power. What, however, were in dispute were the pace of reforms and the quantum of self-government.

However, because the Muslim League and Jinnah were arrayed against the Congress since 1937, the Congress charge sounded plausible for a short while. More surprising, it was repeated ad nauseum even at the academic level (e.g., Ashok Mehta and Achyut Patwardhan The Communal Triangle in India, and Uma Kaura Emergence of the Demand for Pakistan), and that not in the heat of the acrimonious debate during 1940-47, but long after.

In order to nail the Congress’ myth(s) to the counter, it would be interesting to see how Jinnah took on the British after he had tackled the “haughty” Congress and after it had taken to political wilderness in late 1939. This calls for a brief review and reappraisal of events and developments during the 1937-47 decade.

Of the three main parties – the British, the Congress and the Muslim League – on the Indian political scene during 1930s and 1940s, the League represented the weakest side in the Indian political triangle. Such being the case, the League could not be expected to take on both the foes at the same time. It tried very hard to come to terms with the Congress initially, but its offer was spurned with high disdain, after the latter had become “heady” with its unexpected but spectacular success in the 1937 elections. The Muslims were kept out of the portals of power as a community; Pandit Nehru laid down a “two-forces” dictum, ruling them out as a religio-political entity; he also launched a mass contact programme to wean Muslims away from their accredited leader and organization on the basis of “bread and freedom”.

This was the background to Jinnah’s marathon campaign against the Congress which he had launched at Lucknow in October 1937. Its central theme was the exclusion of Muslims from the portals of power in the Hindu majority provinces and the Congress’ designs in the Muslim majority provinces, and a promise to restitute power to Muslims. This telling theme explains the rather astonishing response to Jinnah’s clarion call from both the Muslim political literati and the masses. Jinnah’s greatest problem at that juncture was two fold: (i) to get the Congress to recognize the pan-Indian Muslim constituency that the Muslim League claimed to represent, and (ii) to guard that constituency from getting evaporated, eroded or from being splintered into easily digestable or manageable micro-constituencies, from the Congress viewpoint.


If the Pakistan demand was inspired by anything, it was by the concept of the Muslim religio-political identity, which may be traced back to Shah Waliullah. If Jinnah and the Muslim League had worked in collusion with any one, it was only with the Muslim nation. That explains why the Muslims voted for the Muslim League and for Pakistan so overwhelmingly in the 1945-46 general elections.

Fortunately, for Muslim India, Jinnah’s blitzkrieg against the Congress worked incrementally. Fortunately the Muslim constituency, instead of getting eroded or splintered, became increasingly consolidated. Fortunately, for both Jinnah and Muslim India, the Congress blundered into resigning in the late 1939, upon the outbreak of the war; that it did with a view to blackmailing the British into conceding all of its demands. Fortunately, again, the British, though disturbed by Congress’ moves and motives, still stood firm, and refused to surrender to Congress blackmailing.

Against the background of this rupture with the Congress, the British needed Muslim support in the war effort all the more; they tried to make amends for ignoring the League in the past and conciliate Jinnah and the League. Thus, for the time being, there was a congruence of interest between the League and the British government. Jinnah, the strategist and master tactician that he was, knew well what permutations and combinations would pay him dividends, and he tried, as any shrewd politician in his position would have surely done, to exploit the war situation – to strike a hard bargain. The League’s resolutions during 1939-40, and his pronouncements, and his correspondence with the Viceroy during the period provide a clear indication of the aims he was pursuing at the time, and the ultimate goals that were at stake. And by his tactical moves and shifts, he was thus able to secure for the Muslims virtually the power of veto over the shape of India’s future constitutional framework. This he did in the Viceroy’s declaration of August 8, 1940.

Actually, by a fortuitous configuration of forces and events, both the British and the League needed each other at that critical juncture – to help advance their respective interests. And this is amply clear from both the utterance of Jinnah and the correspondence of Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy. In the course of his speech at the League’s Patna Session (December 1938), Jinnah had strongly refuted the allegation that the League was an ally of British imperialism, probably the most telling but hackneyed charge preferred by the Congress. He said that there could be no “greater falsehood”, adding:

I say the Muslim League is not going to be an ally of anyone, but would be the ally of even the devil if need be in the interest of Muslims. It is not because we are in love with imperialism; but in politics one has to play one’s game as on the chess-board. I say the Muslims and the Muslim League have only one ally and that ally is the Muslim nation, and one and only one to whom they look for help is God!
Nor was the Viceroy under any illusion about the League’s or Jinnah’s ultimate course of action, despite their sympathy and conditional support for British war effort at the time. In his letter to Lord Zetland on October 23, 1939, Lord Linlithgow had this to say:

The Muslim League resolution, so far as it goes, is very satisfactory. I hope we shall be able to cover Jinnah’s points... in the (House of Commons’) debate and I trust that when the time comes for me to see him I shall not find him too intransigent. I do not at the same time regard the Muslim League as necessarily something which we can hope to depend on in all circumstances. I feel pretty certain that the nationalist leaven will begin to work in that body also, at any rate among its younger members before too long and that is a factor of which count must be taken.”

And, for sure, Linlithgow was hundred per cent correct. Once the Congress had been, ‘tackled’ and had, moreover, gone into political wilderness – that is, once the Congress’ “threat” had receded – Jinnah took on the other side – viz., the British – step by step. Although the Punjab and Bengal Leagues stood for unequivocal support to the war effort, Jinnah had made the League’s support contingent on certain conditions. When those conditions were not met, he got the League to call upon Muslims not to serve on provincial or district War Committees, in June 1940.

Later, in August 1941, when the Viceroy nominated Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, Fazlul Haq, and Sir Mohammad Sadullah, the Premiers of the Punjab, Bengal and Assam respectively, on the National Defence Council, Jinnah moved swiftly, and called upon the Premiers (and other Leaguers) to resign from the National Defence Council or face disciplinary action, Sikandar and Sadullah gave in immediately, and Fazlul Haq, who tried to put up a defiant posture initially, also resigned two months later. Such Leaguers as did not heed the call (e.g., Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz and Sir Sultan Ahmad) were expelled from the League.

In the middle of 1936, when Jinnah had begun preparing the League for the 1937 provincial elections, it was moribund, coming to life only when an all-India issue loomed large, and existed on paper for all practical purposes. He sought support wherever it was forthcoming, enlisted candidates with little discretion and devised a political machine of a sort to fight the elections. The League Parliamentary Board was weighed in favour of the pro-Congress Khilafatists, Ahrars and the Muslim Unity Board, and he himself was pledged to create a progressive “nationalist bloc” which would cooperate with the Congress and like-minded groups in the legislature. At that juncture, he represented the “radical” wing in the League; he brought the League close to the Congress and went along developing, something like a “concordat” developed between them in the U.P. and Bombay. And till after the elections he also offered the olive branch. But after elections, when the Congress spurned his offer with high dislain, offered terms to the U.P. League which amounted to “absorption” instead of “partnership”, and initiated measures for the dissolution of Muslims as a political entity, he reacted sharply. He wielded his influence with the U.P. League leadership to isolate the pro-Congress elements, bringing them in line with new League’s posture to withstand Congress’ diktat, or getting them purged. This occurred during June-September 1937, when the League went in for a confrontation with the Congress.

In the late 1941, the National Defence Council issue provided Jinnah an opportunity to show his hand in respect of the British, expose and isolate the pro-British elements, and establish his authority over them, once and for all. By then, the League was no more even a nominal ally of this or that interest or party; it was the professed ally of only one interest – that is, the Muslim nation. By the same token, the charge that Jinnah or the League was in “collusion” with the British should have sounded too hollow by then. But the Congress’ publicists indulged in them till the end, and the Congress-oriented scholars long after.

By early 1943, Jinnah felt that the League had developed sufficient muscle power to throw off its cover and come into “the open”. This is attested to, among others, by the ‘Note’ of the proceedings of the Delhi League Session (April 1943), prepared by the Intelligence Department and sent to Secretary State (MSS EUR F. 125/38; reproduced in The Transfer of Power, volume III, pp. 918-23).

Since this Note (marked “strictly secret”) represents the official British interpretation of Jinnah’s developing posture of confrontation, it is extremely instructive and relevant in interpreting and assessing the vicissitudes in his attitude and the galvanizing of Muslims under its banner.

This Note finally clinches the issue posed by the Congress’ charges of the Pakistan demand having been inspired by the British, and of Jinnah and the Muslim League working in collusion with the imperialist power. If the Pakistan demand was inspired by anything, it was by the concept of the Muslim religio-political identity, which may be traced back to Shah Waliullah. If Jinnah and the Muslim League had worked in collusion with any one, it was only with the Muslim nation. That explains why the Muslims voted for the Muslim League and for Pakistan so overwhelmingly in the 1945-46 general elections.

The writer is HEC Distinguished National Professor, who has recently co-edited UNESCO’s History of Humanity, vol. VI, and The Jinnah Anthology (2010) and edited In Quest of Jinnah (2007); the only oral history on Pakistan’s Founding Father.
Read 902 times

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.

Follow Us On Twitter