Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

At the end of World War II, Britain’s hold over its colonial territories was weakening. It was finally decided by the colonial regime that an election should be held in India so that a government of Indian political parties could be formed to work with the British towards providing India self-governance.

Till the early 1930s, the All-India Muslim League was a moderate party which was an advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity as long as the region’s Muslim community was treated as a separate polity that required certain special legislative concessions.

Jinnah’s re-entry into politics in 1936 — after he had quit the League in the late 1920s — saw him pulling the party staunchly towards a more centrist position. From here he gradually and more strongly began to define India’s Muslim community as a distinct cultural and political entity.

The federal and provincial elections of 1945-46 in India became vital for the League. Its stature and membership had grown after Jinnah’s return but the party was still not sure whether it was being perceived as the only major political mouthpiece for India’s Muslims or not. Apart from the Indian National Congress (INC), various radical Muslim outfits and mainstream Islamic parties too disputed the League’s claim of being the sole representative of Indian Muslims.

How the All-India Muslim League fast-tracked its demand for a separate state

But what was the League asking for? What gets overlooked today is the fact that the League was envisioning a separate country which had a Muslim majority, but would also become a home to India’s other minorities (such as Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, etc) as well as certain ‘oppressed groups’ (such as lower-caste Hindus).

A number of lower-caste Hindus (especially in the Bengal) had joined the League. It was in Bengal during the 1946 election that the League’s leaders talked the most about a separate country where no distinctions would be made on the basis of caste and creed, and where minorities in India and Hindu groups that were ‘exploited and oppressed by higher-caste Hindus’ would be treated fairly and granted every opportunity to follow their cultural and economic aspirations without discrimination.

In this respect, the League was responding to INC’s accusations of being a Muslim communal party. Though the INC was largely popular among the Hindus of the region, it also had in its fold many prominent Muslim leaders. The INC enjoyed the support of mainstream Islamic parties such as the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i-Islam Hind (JUIH) and the more radical Islamic groups such as the Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam (Ahrar), who considered the League to be made up of ‘fake Muslims’ hell-bent on trying to disperse the unity of the Muslims of India.

In 1944, while talking to reporters in Bombay, Jinnah lamented that although the INC was doing much to undermine the League’s influence among the region’s Muslims, more damage in this context was being done by certain anti-League Muslim politicians and outfits.

What gets overlooked today is the fact that the League was envisioning a separate country which had a Muslim majority, but would also become a home to India’s other minorities (such as Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, etc) as well as certain ‘oppressed groups’ (such as lower-caste Hindus).

Confessional religious parties such as the JUIH and Ahrar believed that the League’s Muslim nationalism was based on the European idea of the nation-state and that Islam could not be confined within the boundaries of geo-political nationalism.

The League had performed poorly in most elections held in India’s Muslim-majority provinces whereas the INC’s aim was to win a majority in most provinces so that it could push its claim of forming a government at the centre. On the other hand, the League’s goal was to win the polls in Muslim-majority provinces so that it could not only claim to be the largest Muslim party, but also assert its demand to carve out a separate state from Muslim-majority areas.

The situation in the Punjab was tricky despite 57 per cent of the population being Muslim. The League had badly lost the previous elections here and another defeat in the province was guaranteed to deal a decisive blow to Jinnah. The INC understood this well and went all out to defeat the League in Punjab which was under the electoral dominance of the Unionist Party — a large outfit mostly headed by Muslims belonging to the landed gentry and influential pirs — the party also had some wealthy Hindu leaders in its fold.

In the 1937 election in Punjab, the Unionists had won 95 seats (out of a total of 175). 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 an airtight anti-League arrangement.

In a 1972 book Azad to Patel, Durga Das writes that Patel dispatched a check of 50,000 rupees (a hefty sum in those days) to Azad whose job was to fund and co-ordinate with anti-League groups such as the JUIH and the Ahrar. The two parties provided to the INC fiery clerics who went around denouncing the League as a party of ‘British agents’, and ‘fake Muslims.’ Jinnah, who had till then been repulsed by populist tactics met with the Khan of Mamdot, the Punjab League’s President 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 brought in hundreds of members of the League’s student-wing, the AIMSF from various parts of India. 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 the League’s manifesto as a fight against economic exploitation and a struggle to create a separate Muslim nation-state that would have religious harmony and economic benefits for all. 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. The JUIH renegades successfully began to counter the theological arguments (against a separate Muslim nation-state) by anti-League clerics and ulema.

The League was also armed with a rather radical manifesto authored by a Marxist Danial Latifi. 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 and Muslim landed elite.

Latifi also expressed the League’s idea of a Muslim state as one that would eventually transcend and resolve religious differences in the region because (according to the manifesto) a state constructed by a minority community in India was inherently more equipped to appreciate religious plurality, harmony and diversity than a state dominated by a large Hindu majority.

Another (last minute) achievement for Jinnah and his party was the support of 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 results of the elections shocked the INC. The League managed to win 73 seats (out of 175). The Unionists could bag only 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 per cent). 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, hence fast-tracking the party’s demand for a separate state.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 6th, 2016