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1930-47: Two Nations Theory

The political tumult in India during the late 1920s and the 1930s produced the first articulations of a separate state as an expression of Muslim consciousness. Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1873-1938), an Islamic revivalist poet and philosopher, discussed contemporary problems in his presidential address to the Muslim League conference at Allahabad in 1930. He saw India as Asia in miniature, in which a unitary form of government was inconceivable and community rather than territory was the basis for identification. To Iqbal, communalism in its highest sense was the key to the formation of a harmonious whole in India. Therefore, he demanded the creation of a confederated India that would include a Muslim state consisting of Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Sind, and Baluchistan. In subsequent speeches and writings, Iqbal reiterated the claims of Muslims to be considered a nation “based on unity of language, race, history, religion, and identity of economic interests.”

Iqbal gave no name to his projected state; that was done by Chaudhari Rahmat Ali and a group of students at Cambridge University who issued a pamphlet in 1933 entitled “Now or Never.” They opposed the idea of federation, denied that India was a single country, and demanded partition into regions, the northwest receiving national status as “Pakistan.” They made up the name Pakistan by taking the P from Punjab, A from Afghania (Rahmat’s name for the North-West Frontier Province), K from Kashmir, S from Sind, and Tan from Baluchistan. (When written in Urdu, the word Pakistan has no letter i between the k and the s.) The name means “the land of the Paks, the spiritually pure and clean.” There was a proliferation of articles on the theme of Pakistan expressing the subjective conviction of nationhood, but there was no coordination of political effort to achieve it. There was no reference to Bengal.

In 1934 Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) took over the leadership of the Muslim League, which was without a sense of mission and unable to replace the Khilafat Movement, which had combined religion, nationalism, and political adventure. Jinnah set about restoring a sense of purpose to Muslims. He emphasized the “Two Nations” theory based on the conflicting ideas and conceptions of Hinduism and Islam.

By the late 1930s, Jinnah was convinced of the need for a unifying issue among Muslims, and the proposed state of Pakistan was the obvious answer. In its convention on March 23, 1940, in Lahore, the Muslim League resolved that the areas of Muslim majority in the northwest and the northeast of India should be grouped in “constituent states to be autonomous and sovereign” and that no independence plan without this provision would be acceptable to the Muslims. Federation was rejected and, though confederation on common interests with the rest of India was envisaged, partition was predicated as the final goal. The Pakistan issue brought a positive goal to the Muslims and simplified the task of political agitation. It was no longer necessary to remain “yoked” to Hindus, and the amended wording of the Lahore Resolution issued in 1940 called for a “unified Pakistan.” It would, however, be challenged by eastern Bengalis in later years.

After 1940 reconciliation between Congress and the Muslim League became increasingly difficult. Muslim enthusiasm for Pakistan grew in direct proportion to Hindu condemnation of it; the concept took on a life of its own and became a reality in 1947.

During World War II, the Muslim League and Congress adopted different attitudes toward the British government. When in 1939 the British declared India at war without first consulting Indian politicians, Muslim League politicians followed a course of limited cooperation with the British. Officials who were members of Congress, however, resigned from their offices. When in August 1942 Gandhi launched the revolutionary “Quit India” movement against the British Raj, Jinnah condemned it. The British government retaliated by arresting about 60,000 individuals and outlawing Congress. Meanwhile, the Muslim League stepped up its political activity. Communal passions rose, as did the incidence of communal violence. Talks between Jinnah and Gandhi in 1944 proved as futile as did the negotiations between Gandhi and the viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell.

In July 1945 the Labour Party came to power in Britain with a vast majority. Its choices in India were limited by the decline of British power and the spread of Indian unrest, even to the armed services. Some form of independence was the only alternative to forcible retention of control over an unwilling dependency. The viceroy held discussions with Indian leaders in Simla in 1945 in an attempt to decide what form an interim government might take, but no agreement emerged.

New elections to provincial and central legislatures were ordered, and a three-man British cabinet mission arrived to discuss plans for India’s self-government. Although the mission did not directly accept plans for self-government, concessions were made by severely limiting the power of the central government. An interim government composed of the parties returned by the election was to start functioning immediately, as was the newly elected Constituent Assembly.

Congress and the Muslim League emerged from the 1946 election as the two dominant parties. The Muslim League’s success in the election could be gauged from its sweep of 90 percent of all Muslim seats in British India–compared with a mere 4.5 percent in 1937 elections. The Muslim League, like Congress, initially accepted the British cabinet mission plan, despite grave reservations. Subsequent disputes between the leaders of the two parties, however, led to mistrust and bitterness. Jinnah demanded parity for the Muslim League in the interim government and temporarily boycotted it when the demand was not met. Nehru indiscreetly made statements that cast doubts on the sincerity of Congress in accepting the cabinet mission plan. Each party disputed the right of the other to appoint Muslim ministers.

When the viceroy proceeded to form an interim government without the Muslim League, Jinnah called for demonstrations, or “direct action,” on August 16, 1946. Communal rioting on an unprecedented scale broke out, especially in Bengal and Bihar; the massacre of Muslims in Calcutta brought Gandhi to the scene. His efforts calmed fears in Bengal, but the rioting spread to other provinces and continued into the following year. Jinnah took the Muslim League into the government in an attempt to prevent additional communal violence, but disagreement among the ministers rendered the interim government ineffective. Over all loomed the shadow of civil war.

In February 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten was appointed viceroy and was given instructions to arrange for the transfer of power. After a quick assessment of the Indian scene, Mountbatten said that “India was a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in her hold.” Mountbatten was convinced that Congress would be willing to accept partition as the price for stopping bloodshed and that Jinnah was willing to accept a smaller Pakistan. Mountbatten obtained sanction from London for the drastic action he proposed and then persuaded Indian leaders to acquiesce in a general way to his plan.

On July 14, 1947, the British House of Commons passed the India Independence Act, by which two independent dominions were created on the subcontinent and the princely states were left to accede to either. Throughout the summer of 1947, as communal violence mounted and drought and floods racked the land, preparations for partition proceeded in Delhi. The preparations were inadequate. A restructuring of the military into two forces took place, as law and order broke down in different parts of the country. Jinnah and Nehru tried unsuccessfully to quell the passions that neither fully understood. Jinnah flew from Delhi to Karachi on August 7 and took office seven days later as the first governor general of the new Dominion of Pakistan.

Courtesy: Bangla Gallery

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