An Election for a Nation

Published in Hilal English

Written By: Nadeem F. Paracha

Till the 1930s, the All India Muslim League (AIML) was a moderate Muslim party which was to an extent pro-goverment and also an advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity, as long as the region’s Muslim community was treated as a separate polity requiring certain special legislative concessions, and maybe even a distinct state of its own within the larger Indian federation.


Jinnah’s re-entry into politics in 1936 and his elevation as the League’s leading man saw him pulling the party staunchly towards a more centrist position. From here on he began to define India’s Muslim community more emphatically as a distinct cultural and political entity. At the end of the Second World War, Britain’s hold over its colonial territories was weakening and it was finally decided by the colonial regime that an election should be held so that a government of Indian political parties be formed.

 

anelection.jpgThe federal and provincial elections of 1945-46 became vital for the League. Its stature and membership had grown after Jinnah’s re-entry, but it was still not sure whether it was being taken as the only major political mouthpiece of Indian Muslims. Apart from the Indian National Congress (INC), which refused to accept the League as a major Muslim party, various radical Muslim outfits and mainstream Islamic parties too disputed the League’s claim of being the only serious representative of the Muslims of India.


But exactly what was the League now asking for? What gets entirely missed today is the fact that the League was envisioning a separate country which, though, having a Muslim majority, would also become home to India’s other minorities.


A number of lower-caste Hindus (especially in the Bengal) had joined the League. It was in Bengal where the League’s leaders talked the most about forming a separate country in which there will be no discrepancies made on the basis of caste and creed and where those communities which were in a minority in India and (including those Hindu groups who were being ‘exploited and oppressed by the higher-caste Hindus’) would be treated fairly and granted every opportunity to follow their cultural and economic aspirations.


The League in this respect was responding to INC’s accusations of it (the League) being a Muslim communal party. The INC had positioned itself as an Indian nationalist outfit. Though it was largely popular among the Hindus of the region, it also had in its fold many prominent Muslim leaders. Many of these INC Muslims had been active as pan-Islamists during the Khilafat Movement (1919-24). The INC also had the backing of mainstream Islamic parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Hind (JUIH) and the more radical Islamic groups such as the Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam (Ahrar). These groups dismissed the League’s call for a separate Muslim-majority state because they (the Islamic groups) considered the League to be made up of ‘fake Muslims’ (even ‘apostates’) hell-bent on trying to disperse the unity of the Muslims of India.


Even till the early 1940s the leadership of the League wasn’t quite sure exactly what its status was among the sizeable Muslim minority of India. In 1944, Jinnah, while talking to reporters in Bombay, was lamenting that even though his opponents in INC were doing much to undermine the League’s influence among the region’s Muslims, more damage in this context was being done by certain Muslim politicians and outfits.


Confessional religious parties such as the JUIH and radical outfits such as the Ahrar were staunchly opposed to the creation of a separate Muslim homeland. These groups believed that the Muslims of India were a significant minority (approximately 30 per cent at the time) and (thus) would be in a position (after independence from the British) to carve out a more powerful role for themselves in India. They also claimed that the League’s Muslim Nationalism was a construct based on the European idea of the nation-state and that Islam cannot be confined within the boundaries of geo-political nationalism.


Till the early 1940s the League had performed poorly in most elections held in India’s Muslim-majority provinces. Bengal and the Punjab had the largest Muslim populations. The party had been routed in the Punjab in the elections held there in the 1930s. During the 1945-46 election, the INC’s aim was to win a majority in most provinces that could press its claim to form a government at the centre. The League’s goal was to win the polls in Muslim-majority provinces so as to claim to be the largest Muslim party and thus assert its demand of carving out a separate state from areas where the Muslims were in a majority.


The situation in the Punjab was tricky. Even though 57 percent of the Punjab’s population was Muslim, the League had badly lost the previous elections in this province. Another defeat in the Punjab was guaranteed to deliver a decisive blow to Jinnah and his party. The INC understood this well and went all out to defeat it in the Punjab. The province was under the electoral dominance of the Unionist Party – a large outfit mostly headed by Muslims belonging to the landed elite and influential pirs. The party also had some wealthy Hindu leaders in its fold.


In the last major election in the province (in 1937), the Unionists had won 95 seats (out of a total of 175). The Congress had bagged 18 whereas the League had managed to win just one seat. To guarantee another thrashing of the League in the Punjab, INC’s ace strategist, Sardar Patel, and the party’s foremost Muslim leader, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, immediately went about constructing a solid anti-League arrangement.


The INC, apart from contesting the election from its own platform (of Indian Nationalism), was also backing the Unionists in areas where the latter was expecting a tough fight from the League. Patel dispatched a check of Rs. 50, 000 (a hefty sum in those days) to Azad whose job it was to coordinate with anti-League groups such as the JUIH and the Ahrar. The Ahrar enjoyed support among the Punjab’s Muslim petty-bourgeoisie. It, along with JUIH, provided the INC with fiery clerics (mullahs) who went around denouncing the League as a party of ‘British agents’, and ‘fake Muslims’. The Unionist Party on the other hand claimed that it alone was the true representative of Punjab’s Muslim majority. Jinnah, who had till then been repulsed by populist political tactics, met with the Punjab League’s President, Khan of Mamdot, to chalk out a strategy to counter the ruckus being raised by the INC with the help of the Unionists, the Ahrar and the JUIH.


Mamdot’s men first brought in hundreds of members of the League’s student-wing, the All India Muslim Students Federation (AIMSF) from various parts of India. These also included members of the AIMSF’s women’s wing. College and university students (both male and female) belonging to the AIMSF were dispatched across the Punjab in groups and asked to hold small rallies in the cities, villages and towns of the province.

 

The voter turnout was high on the day of the polls. The Unionists were expected to win the bulk of the seats, followed by the INC. But the results shocked the INC and the Unionists. The League managed to win 73 seats (out of 175). The Unionists could only bag 20. The INC won 51 and the Sikh Akali Dal, 22. The Ahrar failed to win even a single seat. The League bagged the largest share of the total Muslim vote (65%). Just 19% of the Muslim votes went to the Islamic parties. However, INC, the Unionists and the Akali Dal managed to form a wobbly coalition government in the Punjab, the League finally managed to augment itself as India’s largest Muslim party.

They were to explain the League’s manifesto as a fight against economic exploitation and a struggle to create a separate Muslim nation-state where there will be economic benefits for all and religious harmony. To counter the fiery denouncements being issued by members of the Ahrar and the JUIH, the League managed to win the support of a breakaway group of JUIH leaders who had disagreed with their party’s policy of siding with the INC. Led by Islamic scholar, Allama Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, this batch of JUIH renegades successfully began to counter the theological arguments (against a separate Muslim nation-state) being leveled by the anti-League clerics and ulema.


The League was also armed with a rather radical manifesto, penned by a member of the Indian Communist Party, Danial Latifi. A vivid Marxist ideologue, Latifi (and some other Muslim members of the communist party) had joined the AIML in the Punjab. In the manifesto which he authored for the League, Latifi undermined claims made by the INC and the anti-League Islamic parties. Latifi wedded ideas of Muslim economic advancement (through meritocracy) to Mohammad Iqbal’s idea of ‘spiritual democracy.’ According to the manifesto, the League would promote policies that would benefit and encourage the enterprising economic spirit of the Muslim middle-classes, and at the same time protect the Muslim masses from the oppression of the Hindu, Muslim and British Colonial elites. Latifi also expressed the League’s idea of a Muslim state as an organ that would eventually transcend and resolve religious differences in the region because (according to the manifesto) a Muslim-majority state (or a state constructed by a minority community in India) was inherently more equipped to appreciate religious plurality and diversity than a state dominated by a large Hindu majority.


Another last minute attainment that Jinnah and his party managed to achieve was the support of the influential pirs of the province. Punjab’s pirs had been associated with the Unionist Party, but just as the elections drew near, many of them were convinced by the League’s leadership to switch sides.


The voter turnout was high on the day of the polls. The Unionists were expected to win the bulk of the seats, followed by the INC. But the results shocked the INC and the Unionists. The League managed to win 73 seats (out of 175). The Unionists could only bag 20. The INC won 51 and the Sikh Akali Dal, 22. The Ahrar failed to win even a single seat. The League bagged the largest share of the total Muslim vote (65%). Just 19% of the Muslim votes went to the Islamic parties. However, INC, the Unionists and the Akali Dal managed to form a wobbly coalition government in the Punjab, the League finally managed to augment itself as India’s largest Muslim party. The League also did well in two other Muslim-majority provinces. It won 113 (out of 230) seats in the Bengal, and 27 (out of 60) in Sindh. The results fast-tracked the party’s demand for a separate state. And after winning the provincial election in another Muslim-majority region, the NWFP (in early/mid-1947), the party finally managed to carve out Pakistan from the rest of India (August 1947).

 

The writer is a Pakistani journalist, cultural critic and satirist. He is the author of a detailed book on Pakistan’s ideological, political & social history, called ‘End of the Past.’

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