Written By: Prof. Sharif al Mujahid
Of all the Congress leaders, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) stood out against partition till the end. “Even if the whole of India burns we shall not concede Pakistan, even if the Muslims demanded it at the point of the sword,” he told his prayer meeting on May 31, 1947. This was long after the Congress had “accepted” partition and barely thirty hours before the Partition Plan to be placed at the Conference of Indian leaders for acceptance by Lord Mountbatten on June 2.
It was not a last-minute desperate reaction on Gandhi’s part, though. Indeed, a bellicose strain and jingoistic strand had characterized his pronouncements ever since the passage of the Lahore (Pakistan) Resolution on March 23, 1940. He had characterized Pakistan as a “patent untruth”, and the partition demand as “vivisection”, cutting Mother India into two, bringing “ruin to India”. To him, “if it (Pakistan) means an utterly independent sovereignty so that there is nothing in common between the two, I hold it is an impossible proposition. That means war to the knife.” During his talks with Lord Wavell on August 27, 1946 on the compulsory grouping clause of the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946), Gandhi thumped the table and said, “If India wants her bloodbath she shall have it” – in spite of non-violence claims. At times he even talked of a civil war – between Hindus and Muslims. He also dismissed with high disdain the Muslim claim to separate nationhood, saying, “I find no parallel in history for a body of converts and their descendents claiming themselves to be a nation apart from the parent stock. If India was one nation before the advent of Islam,” he contended, “it must remain one in spite of the change of faith of a very large body of her children.”
Gandhi’s tirade set the tone and tenor of the Congress leadership’s response to the Pakistan demand – characterizing it “mediaeval”, “meaningless and absurd”, “a foolish idea”, anti-national, imperialist-inspired and what not. In tandem, they, hurled threats of all sorts and darkly predicted dire consequences. After elections to the Central Assembly in which the Muslim League had won all the thirty Muslim seats on the Pakistan plank, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950), the “Iron Dictator”, brazenfacedly warned in January 1946: “The Muslim League has captured all the Muslim seats…. But Pakistan cannot be achieved in this manner. If Pakistan is to be achieved, Hindus and Muslims will have to fight. There will be civil war.”
Surprisingly, and in the event, tragically though, the Congress leadership, except for Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (1878-1972), former leader of Indian National Congress, Premier of the Madras Presidency (1937-39), confined themselves to the jingoistic side of Gandhi’s public pronouncements till the end, without looking at the constructive side of a segment of his political discourse on the Pakistan demand. While Gandhi was, of course, aggressive, emotional, even irrational in a good many of his utterances, trotting out arguments that may at best be termed bizarre, he also had his sober moments, his moments of truth, when rationality, sophistry inextricably mixed up with subtlety and ingenuity ruled the roost.
During such moments, he had the knack of talking sense and putting forward extremely constructive suggestions. Consider, for instance, what he wrote in his Harijan on April 13, 1942: “If the vast majority of Muslims regard themselves as a separate nation having nothing in common with the Hindus and others, no power on earth can compel them to think otherwise. And if they want to partition India on that basis, they must have the partition, unless Hindus want to fight against such a division. So far as I can see, such a preparation is silently going on, on behalf of both parties. That way lies suicide.”
Interestingly, of all the Congress’ responses to the Pakistan Resolution, Gandhi’s was the first, the most significant, and also, the most weighty. Equally important, in its essentials, it forestalled the official Congress’ response for some two years.
Within two weeks of the passage of the Lahore Resolution, Gandhi wrote on April 6, 1940, “Unless the rest of India wishes to engage in internal fratricide, the others will have to submit to Muslim dictation, if the Muslims will resort to it. I know no non-violent method of compelling the obedience of eight crores of Muslims to the will of the rest of India, however powerful a majority the rest may represent. The Muslims must have the same right of self-determination that the rest of India has. We are at present a joint family. Any member may claim a division.”
He returned to the subject a week later, in his reply to Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan’s statement of April 4, 1940, saying, “Partition means a patent untruth.... I must rebel against the idea that millions of Indians who were Hindus the other day changed their nationality on adopting Islam as their religion. But that is my belief. I cannot thrust it down the throats of the Muslims who think they are a different nation. I refuse, however, to believe that the eight crores of Muslims will say that they have nothing in common with their Hindu and other brethren. Their mind can only be known by a referendum made to them duly on that clear issue. The contemplated constituent assembly can easily decide the question.... It is purely a matter of self-determination. I know of no other conclusive method of ascertaining the mind of the eight crores of Muslims.”
The first official reference to the Pakistan demand came in the Congress Working Committee’s resolution on the Cripps’ proposals on April 11, 1942. Inter alia, it said, “The acceptance beforehand of the novel principle of non-accession for a Province is also a severe blow to the conception of Indian unity and an apple of discord likely to generate growing trouble in the Provinces, and which may well lead to further difficulties in the way of the Indian States merging themselves into an Indian Union. Congress has been wedded to Indian freedom and unity and any break of that unity, especially in the modern world when people’s minds inevitably think in terms of ever larger federations, would be injurious to all concerned and exceedingly painful to contemplate. Nevertheless the Committee cannot think in terms of compelling the people of any territorial unit to remain in an Indian Union against their declared and established will. While recognizing this principle, the Committee feel that every effort should be made to create a common and cooperative national life. Acceptance of this principle inevitably involves that no changes should be made which would result in fresh problems being created and compulsion being exercised on other substantial groups within that area. Each territorial unit should have the fullest possible autonomy within the Union consistently with a strong national state. The proposal now made [in the Cripps’ offer]... encourages and will lead to attempts at separation at the very inception of the Union...”.
Surprisingly though, C. Rajagopalachari’s resolution on Pakistan in the All Indian Congress Committee (AICC) on May 1, 1942, which in essence rephrased the above resolution, was rejected by 120 to 15 votes. The operative part of C. R’s resolution read as follows: “... in as much as the Muslim League has insisted on the recognition of the right of separation of certain areas from united India upon the ascertainment of the wishes of the people of such areas, as a condition precedent for united national action at this moment of grave national danger, the AICC is of opinion that to sacrifice the chances of the formation of a National Government at this grave crisis for the doubtful advantage of maintaining a controversy over the unity of India is a most unwise policy and that it has become necessary to choose the lesser evil and acknowledge the Muslim League’s claim for separation, should the same be persisted in when the time comes for framing a constitution for India, and thereby remove all doubts and fears in this regard, and to invite the Muslim League for a consultation for the purpose of arriving at an agreement and securing the installation of a National Government to meet the present emergency.”
On the same day the AICC passed by 92 to 17 votes a counter resolution, since known after Jagat Narayan Lal, the mover. It said, “The All-India Congress Committee is of opinion that any proposal to disintegrate India by giving liberty to any component state or territorial unit to secede from the Indian Union or Federation will be highly detrimental to the best interests of the people of the different states and provinces and the country as a whole and the Congress, therefore, cannot agree to any such proposal.”
Clearly, this resolution was at variance with the Working Committee’s earlier resolution of April 11. This variance was noted by Rajagopalachari in his August 16, 1942 statement: “I have tried hard to get from the Congress an explicit settlement of this question and admit that I have failed so far. But what has been denied in the terms, I wanted, is practically conceded in other terms. I do not want now to discuss the relative merits of explicit concession and indirect admission. It is enough for me to say that what is there and no one can deny it.”
In any case, the Congress’ resolutions of April 11 and May 2, 1942 (Jagat Narayan Lal resolution) formed the base for all its subsequent pronouncements on the Pakistan demand. Thus, a combination of the two, somewhat divergent, viewpoints was presented in the Working Committee’s resolution of September 12-18, 1945 and its election manifesto of December 7-11, 1945. In essence, these two documents represented studied Congress response to the three Muslim League’s demands embodied in the Lahore Resolution and Quaid-i-Azam’s 1940 address. These demands were: (i) the recognition of Muslims as a nation by themselves, separate and distinct from the Hindus, or the rest of the population; (ii) the grouping together of six existing provinces, almost in their entirety, in the proposed Muslim state; and (iii) the creation of two completely independent sovereign states.
In contrast, the Congress’ stance was that they would consider conceding the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, provided (i) a common centre was maintained, (ii) the territorial unit or part thereof expressed itself for secession through its “declared and established will”; and (iii) the non-Muslim majority areas in Assam, Bengal and the Punjab were not to be compelled to join Pakistan.
The Rajaji formula (1944) put forward similar conditions for a settlement between the Congress and Muslim League. It stipulated, among others, the following: (i) “a plebiscite of all the inhabitants held on the basis of adult franchise or other practicable franchise” in “contiguous districts in the north-west and east of India wherein the Muslim population is in absolute majority… shall ultimately decide the issue of separation from Hindustan”; (ii) border districts to be given “the right… to choose to join either state”; (iii) “mutual agreements… for safeguarding defence, and commerce and communications and for other essential purposes”; and (iv) these terms would be binding after complete transfer of power to Indian hands.
The formula which had the blessing of Gandhi became the basis of his marathon Gandhi-Jinnah talks in September 1944. Jinnah’s counter-proposals were:
(i) Plebiscite of only the Muslims in the Pakistan areas since they demanded Pakistan on the premise that they constituted a nation by themselves, and were entitled to the right of self-determination; (ii) the six existing provinces, with minor alternations, to form the new state; (iii) it should be sovereign; and (iv) the division must precede, and not follow, the transfer of power to Indian hands.
The most basic condition stipulated in Gandhi’s pronouncements, the Congress resolutions and the C.R. formula was that the “declared and established will” of the predominantly Muslim regions claimed for Pakistan should express itself in favour of separation. The Congress strategy from April 1940 onwards was, therefore, designed to thwart the “declared and established will” of these regions against separation with the assistance of its client parties.
Initially Gandhi had talked of “ascertaining the mind of the eight crores of Muslims” by “a referendum made to them duly on that clear issue” of Pakistan. By 1944, it was clear to the Congress leadership, as to all observers of the Indian scene, how far afield had Jinnah’s influence extended. Between January 1, 1938 and September 12, 1942, the League had won 46 (82%) out of 56 Muslim seats, Congress three (about 5%) and independents seven (about 13%). This in part, explains the shift from a plebiscite of Muslims to a plebiscite of all inhabitants in the Rajaji Formula and Gandhi-Jinnah talks.
In view of this new stance, the Congress devised a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it should denounce the Pakistan scheme as being “anti-national”, “imperialist-inspired”, a stumbling block on the nation’s march to freedom, and, moreover, as holding out the grim prospects of balkanization of India. Appeals couched in such terms were directed towards non-Muslims, and the Congress leaders, publicists and organs, besides the Hindu Mahasabha, the various Sikh bodies, the All-India Liberal Federation and other organizations, mounted and carried on an unrelenting campaign against the Pakistan scheme. An Akhand Hindustan Front was launched by K. M. Munshi, former Congress minister in Bombay, after a two-day consultation with Gandhi in 1941, specifically to mobilize public opinion in favour of a united India. This Front held conferences periodically more particularly in north-west India, and provided ballast to anti-partition forces. On the other hand, the Congress should also mobilize public opinion among Muslims, which it tried to through its client parties among Muslims – the Jamiatul Ulema-i-Hind, the Ahrars and the Khudai Khidmatgars.
Of the three conditions set by Gandhi and the Congress for the acceptance of Pakistan demand, the most basic one – viz., the “declared and established will” of the predominantly Muslim regions claimed for Pakistan – was met in 1946 when the Muslims overwhelmingly voted for Pakistan in the General Elections of 1945-46. This came as a rude shock to the entire Congress leadership which left them angered, numb, desolate and paralyzed for a time, provoking them into an incredibly bellicose, aggressive and fire-eating posture, leaving sanity and sobriety far behind. Sardar Patel’s dark threat, cited above, represents a capital instance of this posture; so was Gandhi’s May 31, 1947 “declaration” of war, referred to above.
Once the Congress leadership failed to thwart the “declared and established will” of Muslims to Pakistan, it tried to sabotage conceding Muslims the “substance” of Pakistan in the Cabinet Mission Plan. This it did by misinterpreting and diluting the compulsory Grouping and limited-centre provisions, so as to establish a strong centre to override the predominantly Muslim regions. If only because of Jinnah’s astute leadership and strategic moves, these attempts became counter-productive, and the Cabinet Mission Plan became dead as a door nail, even before the first steps towards its implementation took effect. This controversy along with the bitter Interim Government (1946-47) experience sounded the death knell of even a loose centre and of confederal arrangements. And the Congress itself came to abandon it in favour of unfettered power in residual India.
The third condition of the exclusion of non-Muslim areas was, however, met in the Mountbatten Plan, leading to the bifurcation of the most populous Muslim provinces of Bengal and the Punjab, and the exclusion of Assam, except for Sylhet, from Pakistan.
Since the terms of the partition plan were more or less settled between the three parties – the Congress, Muslim League and the British – before the Viceroy left for London for HMG’s approval in mid-May, Gandhi’s rather bellicose posture at his prayer meetings prior to the announcement of the June 3 Plan must obviously be put down to his frustration at being forced, by a fortuitous turn of events, to concede Muslims their demand for Pakistan.
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.