By Ahmed Kamran
Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists
(1933-1951) – (Continued)
Muslim Question & Pakistan
As the subject matter of this book is primarily an inquiry into the genesis and development of the communist movement in Pakistan it may not permit us to fully explore and discuss in equal detail the genesis and development of the Pakistan movement as well. But, as some of its cardinal aspects and contesting issues involved in the question were to have a direct impact and bearing on the course of future political developments in Pakistan and the positioning and the part initially played by the CPI and subsequently by the Communist Party of Pakistan in it, we will discuss some of its key aspects as we go along. At this stage, a brief backdrop of the Muslim question is warranted. More of it will be discussed in chapters Four and Five.
The idea of an independent homeland for the Indian Muslims separate from the rest of India evolved much later than what is usually presented in Pakistan’s history text books. The Muslim Question initially started as a fight of Muslim landlords and privileged aristocracy for protecting their unraveling privileges and economic interests against the rising influence of Hindu majority middle class intelligentsia and big business in local governments lately introduced by British in India, in government jobs, and commerce and industry. While an acute sense of their loss of empire and their dominant position in the Indian society after the failed mutiny of 1857 clearly existed among sections of Muslim landlords and Ashrafia—the privileged aristocracy, the Muslim Question first appeared as a political issue with the founding of All India Muslim League in Dec 1906 in Dacca. The immediate cause of this political action occurred in Bengal— it was the strong protest movement of Bengali Hindu landlords, middle classes and bourgeoisie against partition of Bengal in 1905. The partition had made the eastern Bengal and Assam a separate province, dethatching it from West Bengal. The united British Bengal province was a vast territory, which at that time also included today’s Indian provinces of Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, and a part of Chhattisgarh. It was the largest province in India with a total population of about 78.5 million (nearly as populous as then France and Great Britain combined) (23). Of its 25 million Muslim population, 18 million (72%) lived in East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) whereas the West Bengal had a Hindu majority. The East Bengal was less developed compared to the western part. Hindu landlords, big business, and the middle classes dominated its economy and politics from Calcutta. The principal cash crop of East Bengal was jute whereas all Jute Mills processing their produce were in West Bengal in Calcutta and owned by non-Muslims. The Muslim East Bengal aspired to free itself from the economic and political domination of the West Bengal, which happened to be majority Hindu. That gave it yet another twist. But, conversely because of their overall Hindu majority, a united Bengal—and on the same lines, a powerful centrally controlled united India—best suited the economic interests of the rising Indian bourgeoisie while aiming for eventual independence from British rule. Therefore, the Indian National Congress, Hindu elite and their middle classes violently opposed making East Bengal with a Muslim majority a separate province. It was essentially a Muslim East Bengal’s fight for economic and political autonomy which manifested itself in the religious garb. On a cultural plane, Bengali Muslims had much in common with Hindu Bengalis than with the Muslims of UP, CP, Madras or Bombay. They loved Bengali language, literature, and cuisine as much as any Hindu Bengali and were perfectly at ease with them culturally. Nevertheless, it was the strong urge for taking their economic and political matters in their own hands that was propelling them in their fight for autonomy. Herein, lies the key driver of modern Indian politics around which political parties representing various ambitious classes and economic interest groups fiercely contested with each other leading up to partition of India into two separate states in 1947, and eventually into three independent states in 1971. The political undercurrent of this centrifugal force of Muslim majority peripheral regions (on the eastern and western borders of India) was at play in their contest with the opposite force of Congress’ uncompromising pull toward a strong centre in future independent India. Ironically, in its turn, the Muslim League also faced similar predicament in Pakistan after achieving independence in trying to hold control in a strong centre under Punjabi domination against independent aspirations of East Bengal and smaller provinces in the West Pakistan. The only difference was that this time around both sides of divide were Muslim. The continuity of the strand of this centrifugal force aspiring for autonomy of East Bengal and other smaller provinces against a strong centre in Punjab in post-independence Pakistan is a further testimony supporting the fact that the underlying current in the Muslim’s early demand for autonomy in a united India was essentially political and economic in nature taking religious identity.
Gaining a separate Muslim majority province of East Bengal & Assam with Dacca as its new capital providing some administrative autonomy from Hindu domination was a prized victory for relatively poorer sections of Muslim Bengal. But, because of the strong and violent movement of Hindu middle classes fully supported by Indian National Congress and financed by Hindu bourgeoisie against it, the partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911, depriving the Muslim landed aristocracy of a short-lived privilege. It left a strong sense of injustice among Muslim middle classes in other Hindu majority areas as well. Thereafter, for three decades seeking more autonomy and space for themselves in new businesses and jobs, the nascent Muslim bourgeoisie and the middle classes gradually woke up to the idea of creating a separate state that they could govern as an exclusive market for themselves. Initially, the idea emerged as envisaging autonomous Muslim states or provinces enjoying greater freedom within a united Indian union and not as completely independent sovereign states. But, in the face of constant and strong opposition to any move toward regional and communal autonomy the idea of separate sovereign ‘states’ gradually developed and took root among Muslims. The idea also suited to the ambitious Muslim members of the Civil Services and British Army who could see prospects of their swift rise after freeing from Hindu domination. However, initially the landed aristocracy from Muslim-majority areas who had much less to fear from Hindus because of their larger share in political set up in their respective provinces showed little interest toward Muslim minority rights movement.
The 1936-1937 provincial elections and the formation of Congress-led ‘provincial governments’ in eight provinces in 1937 had marked a decisive breach between the two major religious communities in India—Hindus and Muslims. It is quite evident that till the announcement of election results, Congress did not expect its majority or a significant victory in the elections. Hence, a general spirit of ‘cooperation’ and ‘tactical alliance’ between the two leading parties, the Congress and Muslim League before and during the elections was in order. They even accommodated each other on certain seats. But the election results turned the tables on both sides and only confirmed the significant breach between the two communities. The Congress emerged with 714 out of 1,585 seats in the provincial assemblies, mainly ‘general’ seats with predominantly Hindu population. It obtained absolute majority in Madras, C.P., U.P., Bihar, and Orissa, and a near majority in Bombay. But among Muslim electorates it was almost routed. It contested only 58 seats out of total 485 Muslim seats, leaving others for Muslim League and Muslim parties to walk over. Even on 58 contested seats, its performance was poor. It won, at best, 26 seats, of which about 17 were taken by Bacha (Abdul Ghaffar) Khan’s Red Shirt movement in NWFP who sided with Congress. In fact, Congress had won only 9 Muslim seats out of whole of India outside NWFP. It did not win a single Muslim seat in eight out of eleven provinces of India. But, on the other hand, Muslim League did not fare well either. It won only 108 Muslim seats, about 22% of the total Muslim seats. Remaining Muslim seats were taken by other Muslim groups. Because of its electoral success in eight Hindu-majority provinces, the Congress ministries took over the reins of provincial governments in July 1937 in Madras, U.P, Bihar, C.P, Orissa, and Bombay and as part of coalition in the NWFP, Sindh, and Assam. Emboldened by their major victory on ‘general’ seats, but, at the same time, totally ignoring their all-round defeat among Muslims, the Congress leadership spurned the ‘friendly & cooperative’ overtures from the Muslim League for forming coalitions and ‘sharing’ power in U.P and Bombay, the least that was expected of it by the Muslim League leadership for a ‘compromise’ between the two political forces before a run up to the independence of India.
At this point, another event marked a major turn in the course of Muslim politics in India. It was the by-election contest that was held in Jhansi-Hamirpur in C.P in June 1937 for a seat that was vacated because of a Muslim League member’s death. The Indian National Congress fielded a Muslim candidate Nisar Sherwani and backed him by a vigorous campaign to wrest the seat from an already beleaguered Muslim League. Syed Wazir Hassan, (father of the communist leader Sajjad Zaheer) and president of the last Muslim League session in April 1936, appealed to the Muslims for joining struggle led by the Congress. On the eve of by-election, two Vice Presidents of Jhansi Muslim League were made to cross over to Congress, resigning their posts and advising Muslims not to support Rafiuddin, the Muslim League’s candidate. Muslim League fought a last-ditch battle with its back on the wall. At this turning point, Maulana Shaukat Ali raised the famous cry of ‘Islam in danger’ for the first time in Indian politics. Muhammad Ali Jinnah issued his first openly communal statement, published on 30 June 1937 in Urdu paper Khilafat, appealing Muslims to ‘unite in the name of God and his prophet’ for saving the ‘Shariat Islami, special rights of Mussalmans and their culture and their language’. For the first time, a hitherto ‘secular’ Jinnah changed his logic of appeal from ‘political’ to ‘religious’ as a ‘counter-weight’ to Congress’ clear tilt towards effectively exclusively Hindu perspective. Though, Jinnah later denied the authorship of the statement but, he never condemned the clever exploitation of religious sentiments for political ends to keep the pressure on Congress. The Muslim League candidate Rafiuddin emerged victorious by a big margin. After about 16 years, M. A. Jinnah had come diametrically opposite to his old position. In early 1920s, Jinnah had passionately opposed Gandhi’s use of religious idiom in politics as a dangerous element in the independence movement. Disappointed and frustrated over Gandhi’s persistence, Jinnah, the ‘ambassador of unity’ among Hindus and Muslims, had resigned from politics and had withdrawn from active politics to live in hibernation in England for over a decade.
Rather arrogant and somewhat high-handed attitude of Congress ministries, particularly in U.P, Bihar, C.P, and Madras, toward the Muslim League, hurting the general sensibilities of Muslim minority interests gave the Muslim leaders, in a way, a foretaste of what was to be expected in future from the leaders of Hindu majority after independence of India. The breach further widened and the growing chasm between the two religious communities led the Muslim League to demand in Lahore in March 1940 ‘separate states’ for the Indian Muslims comprising of the Muslim-majority areas of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and NWFP in the west, and of Muslim-majority Bengal in the east. The idea of independent Pakistan comprising of the majority Muslim areas for the Muslims of India gained rapid acceptance among Muslims. The political mood in the Muslim majority areas was undergoing a major shift from earlier ‘disinterest’ from protectionist politics of their co-religionists from minority Muslim areas to the whole-hearted support of the ‘Pakistan movement’.
On 19 September 1942, the Enlarged Plenum of the Central Committee of CPI decided to give support to the idea and the demand of Pakistan for the Muslims. Recognizing “Western Punjabis (dominantly Muslims) and Sikhs, besides the Muslims of East and North Bengal, as separate nationalities”, G. Adhikari said in his report to the Enlarged Plenum of the Central Committee, “The demand for Pakistan, if we look at its progressive essence, is in reality the demand for the self-determination and separation of the areas of Muslim Nationalities of the Punjab, Pathan, Sind, Balochistan and of eastern provinces of Bengal” (24). During this phase, the CPI, for a change, held the view that Muslim League was a freedom-loving, anti-imperialist organization. The Muslim communists were encouraged to join the Muslim League. Syed Sajjad Zaheer, by now a member of the central committee of CPI and destined to be soon appointed as the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan, said, “It is a good and fine thing, a happy augury, for Indian Muslims and for India as a whole that the Muslim League continues to grow and gather around it millions of our freedom-loving people…in the increasing strength and capacity of the league to move the Muslim masses on the path of progress and democracy lies the salvation of millions of our Muslim countrymen and the possibility of Congress-League unity” (25). In 1945, CPI’s Election Manifesto said that ‘we will ceaselessly work for Congress-League unity as also for Congress-Communist unity and create the basis for Congress-League-Communist unity inside one joint front for Indian freedom” (26).
But, for a beleaguered CPI conflicting political pressures from all sides were not easy to handle. In the mammoth cauldron of Indian politics, too many political and economic interests laced with the poison and bitter tastes of history were colliding and coming at cross-purpose with each other. Perhaps, under pressure from Hindu and Sikh sentiments towards the end of 1945 when CPI drafted its election manifesto for the upcoming elections in 1946, the reference to ‘Muslim nationalities’ or to ‘Pakistan’ was quietly dropped. Instead, somewhat on the model of ‘Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics’, the CPI manifesto proposed ’17 sovereign National Constituent Assemblies based on the natural homelands of various Indian peoples.’ ‘These 17 constituent assemblies should elect delegates to the All India Constituent Assembly and should enjoy the unfettered right to negotiate, formulate and finally to decide their mutual relations within an Independent India, on the basis of complete equality.’ But, significantly, the Muslims of eastern Bengal were no longer regarded as a separate nation. Clearly, under pressure from its influential Bengal party organization, the manifesto explicitly said that CPI ‘stands for a United and Free Bengal in a free India. Bengal as the common homeland of the Bengali Muslims and Hindus should be free to exercise its right of self-determination through a sovereign Constituent Assembly based on adult franchise and to define its relation with the rest of India.’ It was hard to explain why the principle applied west to Punjab or Sindh was not equally applied to Bengal? The CPI, however, favored a voluntary Union of sovereign national states of India. By mid-1946, there was another shift and dilution in the policy. In its Memorandum submitted to the British Cabinet Mission in April 1946, CPI proposed that ‘All India Constituent Assembly should be directly elected (not by the delegates of 17 constituent assemblies) based on adult franchise, that ‘linguistically and culturally homogenous national units’ should be constituted after re-demarcating the boundaries of the provinces and dissolution of the native states’. CPI now stood for ‘a free, voluntary democratic Indian union of sovereign units’, essentially the identical policy that Indian National Congress leadership was promoting and, later, implemented in post-Independence India after 1947.
There was a short-lived ‘consensus’ among two major contesting parties and the British government on the Cabinet Mission Plan – an in-principle agreement on the framework for grant of independence with mutual assurances to minorities within a ‘United India’ in the summer of 1946. But, after Nehru’s abrupt announcement of Congress’ right to revisit and revise the plan in the future constituent assembly (with a Hindu majority) the possibility of a united India was closed for all practical purposes. On the announcement of ‘Mountbatten Plan’ of communal partition of India and transfer of power to two independent states of India and Pakistan, the CPI, together with CPGB leaders, welcomed the partition plan in its resolution in June 1947 declaring it as “an opening of new opportunities for national advance.’ But, meanwhile, a policy statement of the newly formed Cominform then based in Belgrade (27) issued in September 1947, strongly criticised Nehru, calling acceptance of the Mountbatten’s partition plan as the ‘greatest treachery’ of the Congress. The CPI also dutifully reversed its stand by December 1947, now terming the Mountbatten plan as “an abject surrender and a final capitulation on the part of the Indian bourgeoisie…” By the time CPI went into the Second Party Congress held in Calcutta during 28 Feb-6 Mar, 1948, it was poised for another major ultra-left swing presented in the ‘Calcutta Thesis’. CPI’s position was, in fact, what Ghalib had poetically described,
Chalta hooN thori door har ek Tezro ke saath
Pehchanta nahiN hooN abhi Rahbar ko maiN!
23. With the partition of Bengal in 1905, Bihar, Orissa, and Jharkhand regions remained part of West Bengal province. These were separated as independent province of Bihar & Orissa in Apr 1912. Orissa was separated from Bihar in 1963, and Jharkhand was further spun off and made a separate province in 2000.
24. ‘Pakistan and National Unity’, by G. Adhikari, People’s Publishing House, Bombay, p. 36. 25. As quoted by Suniti Kumar Ghosh, op cited, p. 74.
26. K.N. Ramachandran, op cited, p. 19.
27. The headquarter was moved to Bucharest in 1948 after the expulsion of Yugoslavia in June 1948.
Chapter 3 to be continued…