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Why Muslims under the British Raj chose Pakistan and not 'Akhand' Bharat? Why Muslims under the British Raj chose Pakistan and not 'Akhand' Bharat?
by Dr. Habib Siddiqui
2023-03-06 07:16:45
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The idea of ‘Akhand’ (Undivided) Bharat (India) originated with Chanakya who is credited for writing the masterpiece Arthashastra, an ancient IndianSanskrit treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy. At the time, the 3rd century BCE, the Indian subcontinent, which covered what are now the modern-day nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, (parts of) Burma (Myanmar), Tibet (now part of China), Bhutan and Bangladesh, was divided into many independent kingdoms. Chanakya articulated the idea of an Akhand Bharat or an undivided India under one authority, rule and administration. To a great extent, he was successful. He discovered Chandragupta Maurya, powered him to throne and then through war, wit and alliances was able to integrate large portions of India under a single rule. Although the southern India and many inner localities could not all be brought under a single suzerain, what he was able to is close to giving the shape to that idea of an Akhand Bharat in the ancient world. Fractures, however, appeared after the fall of Chandragupta Maurya. These were temporarily plastered over by Ashoka as king, and much later by the Mughals (1526-1757) and the Brits (1857-1947).

The idea of Akhand Bharat is an absurd idea in our time. Nonetheless, this silly idea has had some proponents since the third quarter of the 19th century who injected that the basis of Indian nationalism should be the Hindu religion. It was an alien idea to the minority Muslims of the British Raj.

The Aligarh Movement played a great role in the growth of Muslim national consciousness, which witnessed and understood the utter falsity and absurdity of the Hindu nationalistic claim of Akhand Bharat orone Indian nation.

This national consciousness was bolstered by hostile and chauvinistic activities of Hindu leaders, which exasperated the region’s Muslims who had already suffered decades of oppression at the hands of Hindu Baboos. For instance, Hindu leaders had started an anti-Urdu language movement in Benares in 1867 to Indianize the Urdu language by replacing the Perso-Arabic script and expressions to Deva Nagri script and Sanskritic expressions; a similar movement had started much earlier in Bengal to Sanskritize the Bengali literature. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, a Bengali Hindu writer, had infused “mother cult” in his novel Anandamath (1882), and spread lies, venom and bigotry against the Nyarhe  (or circumcised) Muslims in the last quarter of the 19th century. The fanaticism of the Hindutvadi revivalist movements like the Arya Samaj and Shivaji cult that sponsored the Gau-raksha (cow-protection) and Shuddhi (purification aimed at conversion of Muslims to Hinduism) campaigns had also alarmed the Muslims. Many Muslims were killed in a number of communal riots that were triggered by Hindu extremists since 1893.

The Hindu leaders had also opposed the partition of Bengal (1905) tooth and nail even though it was immensely popular with the Bengali Muslims, who saw it as an opportunity for their economic and social emancipation. It is worth noting here that the partition was seen as a threat to the interests of the Hindu Baboos who had been controlling most of Bengal’s rural and commercial life. They had been draining the agricultural wealth and holding a privileged lifestyle in Calcutta without contributing anything to the agrarian economy of East Bengal; the domination of those Baboos had, in fact, stifled progress and impoverished the teeming millions of inhabitants living in East Bengal and Assam. They made the partition an all-India issue and launched an intense agitation (commonly known as the Swadeshi movement), encouraging terrorism by Hindu extremists, for the reunification of Bengal. In 1911, the British government ultimately caved into the Hindu demand and reversed the partition of Bengal. King George V also announced the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi.

The vehemence of the Hindu opposition and agitation against the partition of Bengal sent a shockwave and convinced the educated Muslims that they needed their own political platform and could not rely upon the Indian National Congress (INC) for their deliverance and redemption. It was this consciousness, linked up with the despairing socio-economic-religious conditions that was prevalent in the post-1857 era, which led to the foundation of the Muslim League.

On December 30, 1906, the All-India Muslim League was formed in Dhaka to protect and advance the political rights of the Muslims of the sub-continent and to represent their needs and aspirations to the British Government. It took another 33 years before the Lahore Resolution–demanding two separate autonomous and sovereign states for the Muslims of the sub-continent–would be passed in the annual general session of the League. The resolution was moved by A. K. Fazlul Huq, the chief minister of (undivided) Bengal, and was adopted unanimously by the League on the 23 March 1940.

The Lahore Session of the Muslim League was presided by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a well-known barrister from Bombay (today’s Mumbai) whose sharp intellect, and sheer courage and impudence had already won him fame in the law courts. (Note: In 1895, at age 19, Mr. Jinnah became the youngest Indian to be called to the bar in England. He joined the Congress in 1896 after returning from England to start his law career. He was an active trade unionist who pleaded for the rights of the working class.)

Mr. Jinnah was a secular and highly non-communal individual who had worked all his life, hoping against hope, for Hindu-Muslim unity. He was the architect behind the historic Lucknow Pact (1916), reached between the Congress and the League, which called for, inter alia, the self-rule in India and separate electorates for Muslims in electing representatives to the Imperial and Provincial Legislative Councils. This pact stipulated both the Hindus and Muslims were to enjoy weightage where they constituted minority; the Muslims had to agree to forgo their majority in the Punjab and Bengal.  Mr. Jinnah’s ability to bring about reconciliation between dissenting voices both within and between religious communities had earned him the title of “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity”.

It is worth noting here that Hindu-Muslim unity, envisaged in the Lucknow Pact (1916), suffered a major blow when in 1922 Congress leader Mr. M. K. Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement against the British Raj. This decision also weakened the Khilafat movement, which ultimately disappeared after the abolishment of the institution of Khilafat in Turkey. The Indian National Congress also demanded the abolition of the separate Muslim representation, dashing any hope for Hindu-Muslim unity. This attitude of the Congress strengthened the support for the League amongst the Muslims.

The Muslim leaders of Bengal expressed their disappointment in strong terms. The Muslim League held a session at Delhi under the presidency of Mr. Jinnah on March 1929. In his address to the delegates, Jinnah consolidated Muslim viewpoints under the historic “Fourteen Points”, which were formulated to settling the Indian constitutional question and safeguarding the political rights of Muslims in a self-governing India. Again, these proposals were totally ignored by the Congress whose leaders pressed for the acceptance of the Nehru report in its entirety.

Even as late as 1937 Mr. Jinnah was hesitant to decide between federalism and separate state(s) for the Muslims. But the haughtiness of the Congress and its persistent and uncompromising demand for a Unitary form of Government with a strong Center, as opposed to the League’s demand for a Federal form of Government with full Provincial Autonomy, convinced him that changing the “Hindu mentality” was impossible.

Mr. Jinnah was not alone in his assessment of the “Hindu mentality”. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a social reformer and Dalit leader, had also opposed the Congress Party of Gandhi and famously said, The Congress cannot expect any sane person who knows anything about conditions in India to agree to the government of the country being placed in the hands of the Hindu majority, simply because it is a majority. The Congress chooses to forget that Hinduism is a political ideology of the same character as the fascist or Nazi ideology and is thoroughly anti-democratic. If Hinduism is let loose—which is what Hindu majority means—it will prove a menace to the growth of others who are outside Hinduism and are opposed to Hinduism. This is not the point of view of Muslims alone. It is also the point of view of the Depressed Classes and also of the non-Brahmins.” [Writings & Speeches, Volume 17, Part One, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution—Struggle for Human Rights; Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India.]

Mr. Jinnah realized that the idea of integrating the Hindus and the Muslims into one Indian nationhood was a fanciful dream, and a “pure intellectual and mental luxury”. [Some Recent Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah, collected and edited by Jamil-ud-Din Ahmad, vol. 1, Sheikh Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore (1952), p. 190.

 This idea was utterly unrealistic for a plethora of reasons: they belong to two distinct and often conflicting socio-cultural-religious philosophies whose mode of life, customs, attitude and outlook towards life and death are different; they neither inter-dine nor inter-marry; they are attached to different civilizations and have different sources of history; one’s hero is a foe of the other.

The late 1930s also witnessed the ugly face of Hindutva–often presented as Hindu nationalism. The Hindu nationalists brought forth idolatrous concepts that were combined with political ideology and depicted Muslims as aliens. The Shivaji festival, popularized by Maratha leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and the anti-cow killing agitation, led by Arya Samaj, added to further estrangement between the two communities. In Hindu-majority provinces where Congress formed Ministry, the Congress leadership behaved more like the “Nazi regime in Europe than to any form of democracy”. Muslims faced abuse and tyranny. Muslim students were forced to bow down before the portrait of Gandhi, Muslim shops were boycotted, Muslim villagers were prevented from using community wells, efforts were made to stop cow-slaughter, and Muslims were disturbed during their prayer services. Such provocations led to numerous communal riots in which many Muslims were victimized. 

A report, prepared by A. K. Fazlul Huq of Bengal, which was entitled the “Muslim Sufferings under Congress Rule” (Calcutta, 1939), published in December 1939, brought to light 72 incidents of the persecution of the Muslims in Bihar, 33 in U.P. (United Provinces), and quite as many in C.P. (Central Provinces). These experiences contributed to the disillusionment of the Muslims towards the Congress. Not lost in their collective memories was also the attacks of the marauding Hindu Marathas (commonly known as the Bargis) against the hapless Bengalis in the 1740s.

Jan Kersseboom, chief of the Dutch East India Company factory in Bengal, estimated that perhaps around 400,000 people were killed by the Bargis in the decade-long (1741-1751) attacks. They also plundered and looted the villages, took away their crops and burnt houses. So great was the terror inflicted by the Bargis that lullabies were composed, which mothers used to sing to make their babies fall asleep. These poems are popular still today. The Bargi raids stopped in 1751 when the Nawab of Bengal agreed to pay the Marathas 1.2 million rupees annually as a tribute (Chauth).

Thus, when the Lahore Resolution was adopted by the Muslim League in its annual session in 1940, the Bengali Muslims became its biggest supporters. They rejected the “Hindu narratives” of “Indian nationalism” that were based on not only ignorance of history but also experiential realities. To them, the arguments put forth by astute Hindu politicians like M. K. Gandhi for a united and undivided India where the rights of the Muslims–comprising nearly thirty percent of the total Indian population–would be safeguarded sounded too hollow and disingenuous. And, as we have noted earlier, they had plenty of reasons to be suspicious of such calls for unity.

According to historian Dr. Muin-ud-Din Ahmad Khan,

“The concept of the Muslim nationalism or the two-nation theory was not so much an invention as it was a rediscovery of the innermost yearnings of the Muslim community in relation to the changed socio-political circumstances.”

The Lahore Resolution was a landmark in the history of the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent providing them a goal to attain with all their energy. It envisioned two nations and three states. However, the plurality of Muslim “states” was quickly dropped in favor of one unified state (i.e., Pakistan, in the north-western and eastern zones of British India in which Muslims formed a strong majority) for coping with the heavy pressure of the militant Hindu nationalism.

The Pakistan movement was essentially a constitutional movement for a Muslim homeland based on the need for political safety, social security and economic necessity, let alone the need to preserve their religious and cultural values without any hindrance. It was an uphill battle then in the face of repressive British imperialism and aggressive Hindu nationalism. Up till 1944, the Congress and its leaders M. K. Gandhi and Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru did not want to recognize either the Muslim League or its leader Jinnah as the sole representative of Indian Muslims, and not all Muslims accepted the League either. Notably, the Jamiyat-ul-Ulama, the purveyor of the Deoband tradition, wanted a united and free India in which all the communities would live in mutual toleration of each other.

The Pakistan movement could not have succeeded without the overwhelming support it enjoyed in Bengal. The Bengali Muslims became the vanguard of this movement. They rallied behind Mr. Jinnah (who had come to be known as the “great leader” or Qaid-i-Azam) and the Muslim League with the slogan of “Pakistan Zindabad” (meaning: long live Pakistan). Their channelized enthusiasm was testified by the results of the 1946 general elections in which the League won all but five Muslim seats out 0f 119 in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. The League also performed exceptionally well in Muslim minority provinces such as the U.P. and Bihar, compared to the Muslim majority province of NWFP (North-west Frontier Province).

Under the able leadership of Jinnah, the Muslim League turned the 1945-1946 elections into a plebiscite for Pakistan and won all the 30 Muslim seats in the Central Legislative Assembly, and 429 out of 492 Muslim seats in the Provincial Assemblies. After these elections, the Congress, and the Labour Government of Lord Attlee (who had become the new prime minister) had no alternative except to recognize Mr. Jinnah as the sole spokesperson for India’s Muslims. Nor could they ignore the firm expression of the support for Pakistan amongst Muslims.

The post-war situation in the mid-1940s also demanded fresh ideas from the British government, let alone redeeming its war-time pledge to quit India. “Labour was moved by internal considerations: the British economy was in dire straits and the India represented a drain on scarce and precious resources,” writes Jim Masselos. Sustaining an empire seemed no longer a viable option for most Brits; the international pressure urging Britain to leave India was also strong. Although the Labor government was ideologically inclined to grant independence, it did not desire India to be partitioned. And in one last effort to avoid it, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the British Secretary of State for India, announced the formation of the Cabinet Mission to solve the Indian political tangle.

The Cabinet Mission Plan was announced on May 16, 1946. It recommended a short-term scheme for the formation of an Interim National Government, and a long-term scheme for a decentralized but united India comprising of three zones along communal lines. The Plan, which had the virtue of satisfying neither party, was initially accepted by the Muslim League but rejected by the Congress whose leader, Pundit Nehru, the new Congress President, declared that once members entered the Constituent Assembly, they were no longer bound to accept the Cabinet Plan. Such a maneuvering by Nehru was deemed opportunistic and objectionable to the Muslim League.

The League sanctioned “Direct Action”, a peaceful general strike (hartal), shutting down all but essential services, to press the cause of Pakistan. Friday, August 16, 1946, was chosen as the day for the displaying of black flags and the holding of public meetings to explain the reasons why the earlier acceptance of the Plan was withdrawn by the League.

Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the chief minister of Bengal (1946-1947), declared that his province would not pay revenue to the central government if the British government transferred power to the Congress by-passing the Muslim League. Hindu leaders were opposed to the general strike, and prepared their supporters to undo the hartal, called by the League. Hindu public opinion was mobilized around the slogans of Akhand Hindustan (Undivided India) and Bande Mataram, stoking a strong sense of Hindu identity and perceived threat of getting marginalized into minority should the Pakistan movement succeed.

As a result, a tense atmosphere prevailed all over Calcutta on that day. The peaceful Muslim marchers were attacked with deadly weapons by Hindu extremists, and riots broke out in various parts of Calcutta (and later in parts of Bihar, U.P., and East Punjab) in which thousands of people (mostly Muslims) lost their lives.

My father who was then a student in Calcutta was barely able to save his life. He and some of his Muslim dorm mates at Baker Hostel took refuge inside empty water tanks, located on the roof of the hostel.

These riots left a lasting impression on all that the partition of India (including the partition of the provinces Bengal and Punjab) was the only option left open for the British Government.

While the communal frenzy was still at its fever pitch, an Interim Government was formed at the center in September 1946 with Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress President, as the Vice President of Viceroy’s Executive Council with the powers of a prime minister. The senior Congress leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel held the second-most powerful position in the Council, heading the Department of Home Affairs, and the Department of Information and Broadcasting. Later, the Muslim League was also persuaded to join the Government. However, there was no coordination between the two parties, which rendered the political situation extremely critical.

On February 20, 1947, the British Prime Minister Lord Clement Attlee announced his government’s decision to “transfer power to responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June 1948”. He appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten as the new Viceroy of India to settle the Indian independence dispute as expeditiously as possible.

In early 1947, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the leader of the Hindu Mahasabah, demanded the partition of Bengal. The Congress also put forward its demand for partition of the Punjab and Bengal, which was not what the Muslim League favored.

Mr. Attlee’s announcement was followed by a series of pogroms in many Muslim-minority territories; the entire northern India was aflame; the eastern part of Punjab had been virtually cleared of Muslims before the partition of India took place. The All-India Muslim League agreed, rather grudgingly, to a truncated Pakistan with the division of Bengal and Punjab to avoid further bloodshed of innocent people.

Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, leader of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League (BPML), was opposed to the idea of partition of Bengal and wanted it to be an independent state on the basis of its linguistic identity that would neither join Pakistan nor India and would remain unpartitioned. His idea was presented in a press statement in New Delhi on April 27, 1947. Two days later, Abul Hashim, Secretary of the BPML, in a statement supported the move. They met with Congress leaders like Sarat Bose and Kiran Sankar Roy of Bengal and prepared an outline of the United Bengal in May of 1947 that was forwarded to Gandhi and Jinnah. Despite the heavy criticism from other leaders within the Muslim League, Jinnah agreed to Suhrawardy’s argument and gave his tacit support to the idea of an independent Bengal. However, the Indian National Congress and its prominent leaders (e.g., M. K. Gandhi, Pundit Nehru and Sardar Patel) vehemently opposed the plan and decided for the partition of Bengal.

Lord Mountbatten had arrived in India on March 22, 1947. After preliminary discussions with Indian leaders, it became clear to him that partition of the country was the only viable solution. On June 3, 1947, he announced his plan for the speedy transfer of power. The important points of the Mountbatten Plan included adequate arrangements of Punjab and Bengal assemblies if they favor partition of these provinces, and referendums in NWFP and Sylhet (in the district of Assam) for deciding their fate to join India or Pakistan.

When Mountbatten’s plan was accepted by both the League and the Congress, the fate of Bengal was left with the elected legislators of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. On June 20, 1947, the Assembly met to decide on the partition of Bengal. At the preliminary joint meeting, it was decided by 120 votes to 90 that the province, if it remained united, should join the "new Constituent Assembly" (Pakistan). At a separate meeting of legislators from West Bengal, it was decided by 58 votes to 21 that the province should be partitioned, and that West Bengal should join the "existing Constituent Assembly" (India). At a separate meeting of legislators from East Bengal, it was decided by 106 votes to 35 that the province should not be partitioned and 107 votes to 34 that East Bengal should join the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in the event of partition. On July 6, 1947, the people of the district of Sylhet in Assam voted in a referendum to join Pakistan.

On July 18, 1947, the British Parliament approved the Indian Independence Act. The Act’s most important provisions were: division of British India into the two new dominions of India and Pakistan, with effect from 15 August 1947; partition of the provinces of Bengal and Punjab between the two new countries; establishment of the office of Governor-General in each of the two new countries, as representatives of the Crown; conferral of complete legislative authority upon the respective Constituent Assemblies of the two new countries; termination of British suzerainty over the princely states, with effect from 15 August 1947, these states could decide to join either India or Pakistan; abolition of the use of the title "Emperor of India" by the British monarch. The Act also made provision for the division of joint property, etc. between the two new countries, including the division of the armed forces

A commission headed by Cyril Radcliffe–a British lawyer with little prior knowledge of India and its map–was formed with the task of demarcating the contiguous Muslim and non-Muslim majority areas of the Punjab and Bengal. Using out-of-date maps and census data, the Radcliffe Commission completed its work hurriedly and reported to Mountbatten on August 12, 1947. Mountbatten held the maps until August 17, although Pakistan celebrated its independence on 14 August and India on 15 August 1947. East Bengal with addition of the Sylhet district (of Assam) constituted the eastern province of Pakistan. West Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and NWFP (which had earlier decided to join Pakistan by a referendum) constituted the western province of Pakistan.

The award of the Radcliffe Commission (also called the Boundary Commission) was unfair and unjust; it sowed innumerable problems for the entire region to face afterwards. The Muslim majority areas of Gurdaspur, Jullundur, Firozpur, Zira and Ambala, inter alia, were handed over to India due to the clandestine efforts of Congress, in general and V.P. Menon, in particular. The latter was the personal secretary to the last three Viceroys. He was the only Indian in Mountbatten’s inner team and was his constitutional adviser. He drafted the plan for the partition of India into two Dominions.  It was Menon who realized the need to get the Princely States to accede to India before the date of independence and that Mountbatten was the ideal person to facilitate this. Mountbatten himself was lured into supporting the Congress-position with the promise of becoming independent India’s first Governor-General, a position he soon held from August 15, 1947 until June 21, 1948.

And the rest is history!


[Excerpted from the author’s book- Bangladesh: a polarized and divided nation? – available from the Amazon.com.]

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