Even till the early and mid-1940s, the leadership of the All India Muslim League (AIML) wasn’t quite sure exactly what its status was among the sizeable Muslim minority of India.
In 1944, AIML’s leading man and strategist, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, while talking to reporters in Bombay (present-day Mumbai), was lamenting that even though his opponents in the Indian National Congress (INC) were doing much to undermine AIML’s influence among the region’s Muslims, more damage in this respect was being done by certain Muslim politicians and outfits.
Confessional religious parties like the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Hind (JUH), and radical right-wing outfits such as the Majlis-i-Ahrar and the Khaksar Movement were staunchly against the concept of ‘Muslim Nationalism’ being propagated by Jinnah and his party.
AIML’s Muslim Nationalism was derived from the thoughts of various Muslim intellectuals. Most of them had been inspired by the writings of 19th Century Muslim scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Syed Ameer Ali.
Khan and Ali had pleaded to build a rational and modern Muslim middle-class in South Asia that would lead an intellectual and political movement to construct a distinct political and cultural identity for the Muslim minority of India.
But why were the AIML’s ideas in this regard being opposed by certain powerful Muslim groups?
JUH and radical groups like the Ahrar and the Khaksar believed that every Indian’s first goal should be independence from the British. They believed that Muslims of India were a significant minority (approximately 30per cent at the time) and (thus) would be in a position (after independence) to carve out a more powerful political, economic and cultural role for themselves in India.
They also claimed that AIML’s Muslim Nationalism was a construct based on the European idea of a nation-state and that Islam cannot be confined within the boundaries of nationalism.
AIML had performed poorly in most elections held in India’s Muslim-majority provinces. Bengal and Punjab contained the largest Muslim populations in undivided India. Though by the 1940s AIML had managed to make important inroads in Bengal, the party had been routed in Punjab in the elections held there in the 1930s.
In 1945 the British colonial government in India called for elections for the national and legislative assemblies. The election in the Punjab was to be held in February 1946.
The Congress’ aim was to win a majority in most provinces so it could press its claim to form a government of united (post-colonial) India. AIML’s goal was to win the polls in Muslim majority provinces so it could not only claim to be the largest Muslim party, but also assert its demand of carving out a separate Muslim nation-state from areas where the Muslims were in a majority.
The situation in the Punjab was tricky. Even though 57pc of Punjab’s population was Muslim, the AIML had badly lost the previous elections in the province.
Another defeat in the Punjab was guaranteed to deal a decisive blow to Jinnah and his party’s claims and demands.
The Congress understood this well and went all out to defeat the AIML in the Punjab.
The province was under the electoral dominance of the Unionists — a large outfit headed by Muslims belonging to the landed gentry and influential pirs (Muslim spiritual leaders). The party also had some Hindu and Sikh leaders.
In the last major election in the province (1937), the Unionists had won 95 seats (out of a total of 175). Congress had bagged 18 whereas the AIML had managed to win just one.
To guarantee another AIML thrashing in the Punjab, the Congress Party’s ace strategist, Sardar Patel, and the party’s leading Muslim leader, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, immediately went about constructing an airtight anti-AIML scenario.
The Congress, 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 AIML.
Apart from this, Patel dispatched a check of Rs50,000 (a hefty sum in those days) to Azad whose job it was to fund and co-ordinate anti-AIML Muslim groups such as the JUH, the Majlis-i-Ahrar and the Khaksar.
The Ahrar and the Khaksar enjoyed support among Punjab’s Muslim petty-bourgeoisies. These two parties (along with JUH), provided the Congress with fiery clerics who went about denouncing the AIML as being a party of ‘British agents,’ and ‘fake Muslims’.
The powerful 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, got together with Punjab’s AIML President, Khan of Mamdot, to chalk out a strategy to counter the ruckus being raised by the Congress with the help of the Unionists, the Ahrar, the Khaskar, the JUH and the Sikh nationalist outfit, the Akali dal.
Jinnah and Mamdot first brought in hundreds of members of AIML’s student-wing, the All India Muslim Students Federation (AIMSF), from various parts of India. Also brought in were 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.
They were to explain AIML’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 aired by members of the Ahrar, the Khaksar and the JUH, the AIML managed to win the support of a group of JUH leaders who had disagreed with their party’s policy of siding with the Congress and the Unionists.
Led by Islamic scholar, Alama Shabir Ahmad Usmani, this batch of JUH renegades successfully began to counter the theological arguments (against a separate Muslim nation-state) being leveled by the anti-AIML clerics and ulema.
The anti-AIML clerics had accused the AIML of ‘misguiding the Muslims of India’ and working to keep the Muslims under the influence of the forces of exploitation. The pro-AIML clerics counter-attacked by accusing the Ahrar and other such outfits of being Congress agents who were working to keep the Muslims ‘under the thumb of India’s Hindu majority.’
AIML was also armed with a rather radical manifesto. Largely authored by one of the leading members of the AIML’s leftist lobby — Danial Latifi (a committed Socialist) — the manifesto promised sweeping land reforms, religious harmony and an end to economic exploitation.
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 for long been associated with the Unionist Party, but just as the elections drew near, many of them were convinced by the AIML leadership to switch sides and become part of the AIML.
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 Congress.
But the results shocked the Congress and the Unionists. The AIML managed to win 73 seats (out of 175). The Unionists could only bag 20. The Congress won 51 and the Sikh Akali dal 22.
The Ahrar and the Khaksars failed to win even a single seat. The AIML bagged the largest share of the total Muslim vote (65pc). Just 19pc of the Muslim votes went to Ahrar and the Khaksars.
Though the Congress, the Unionists and the Akali dal managed to form a wobbly and short-lived coalition government in the Punjab, AIML finally managed to augment itself as India’s largest Muslim party.
It 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 greatly accelerated the party’s demand for a separate Muslim nation-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).