The emergence of the Muslim League on the political horizon and the open patronage that the British extended to it came as a challenge to the Congress. Hitherto the Congress had projected itself as the collective voice of all the Indians. The earlier efforts to create a rift between Hindus and Muslims and distance Muslims from the freedom struggle did not succeed much. After the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 a big section of the elite Muslims too joined it and started working with Hindu leaders.
In fact, the first war of Independence in 1857 was fought against the British by Hindus and Muslims together. After the war, the British had come down heavily on the leadership of both the communities. The failure of the 1857 war and the subsequent brutality of the British had a different impact on some of the eminent Muslims, including the renowned Urdu poet Ghalib and the distinguished Muslim educationist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Both had firmly believed that it was a mistake on the part of the Muslims to join hands with the Hindus against the British.
Syed Ahmed, who had once proclaimed that everyone living in India, irrespective of his religion, was a Hindu, became a staunch critic of the 1857 war. He was in Bijnour at the time of the insurrection. While the Nawab of Bijnour participated in the war against the British, Syed Ahmed was busy arranging for the security of the British in Bijnour. He told the Nawab that “nobody can challenge British sovereignty over India”. After the war, Syed Ahmed took it upon himself to mobilise Muslim support for the British. He started an organization by the name ‘Loyal Muhammadans of India’ and published stories of those Muslims who had helped protect the British officers and their families during the war. Syed Ahmed was one of the earliest Muslim leaders to propagate the thesis that Muslims were a separate community and they should be careful in protecting their separate identity from the Hindus. He also branded the Congress as a Hindu Bengali Party. Syed Ahmed had founded Aligarh Muslim University and focused on educating the Muslims. Hector Bolitho, the author of a book ‘Jinnah – Creator of Pakistan’ described Syed Ahmed as the first bold Indian Muslim to talk about partition.
Badruddin Tyabji, a renowned Muslim lawyer from Bombay (Mumbai) and his elder brother Camruddin Tyabji became active members of the Congress in the initial years. Badruddin even became the president of the Congress in 1887-88. Responding to the skepticism induced both by the British and leaders like Syed Ahmed among the Muslims about participation in Congress activity, Tyabji would categorically declare, “I, at least, not merely in my individual capacity but as representing the Anjuman-i-Islam of Bombay, do not consider that there is anything whatever in the position or the relations of the different communities of India — be they Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis, or Christians — which should induce the leaders of any one community to stand aloof from the others in their efforts to obtain those great general reforms, those great general rights, which are for the common benefit of us all.”
The Congress continued to attract people from all communities. But the rise of the Muslim League as a political entity in 1906 had altered that situation. With the blessings of the British, the League had begun an aggressive campaign with serious communal overtones. A pamphlet called ‘Lal Ishtar’ – Red Pamphlet – was distributed at its Dhaka session in 1906. It called for a complete boycott of the Hindus. Communal tensions began to rise. Bengal witnessed widespread rioting and violence in 1907. The emergence of the Muslim League led to the deterioration of relations between Hindus and Muslims.
Minto-Morley Reforms (separate electorates for Muslims):
The British saw in it an opportunity to exacerbate communal divisions and perpetuate their rule. With a view to placate the rising nationalist fervour in India, the British Government had agreed to introduce electoral reforms to the legislatures. The Muslim League immediately swung in and demanded separate electorates for the Muslims. Muslims used to be nominated by the Congress to several seats. But the League insisted that the Muslims would no longer be at the mercy of the Hindu electorate. Despite the Secretary of State for India John Morley’s reservations, the British Viceroy Lord Minto and Home Secretary H H Risley agreed to grant separate electorates for Muslims under the amended Indian Councils Act 1909. Known in history as Minto-Morley Reforms, these provisions went beyond the electoral arena into administrative and governance issues also. Their discriminatory character had put off a moderate like Gopal Krishna Gokhale who called the reforms as ‘discouraging to all communities except the Muslims’.
The Minto-Morley Reforms came as a shock to the Congress leadership. They realised that the British were luring away the Muslims through concessions like separate electorates and something should be done to keep the Muslims with Congress. The moderate Congress leaders like Gokhale started making the moves. As a first step, the communal electorates which the Congress had opposed initially, were almost accepted in 1912 at the AICC session at Bankipore in Bengal.
Efforts began to cultivate the Muslim League leadership:
Gokhale used Mohammad Ali Jinnah as the midwife in his overtures to the League. The Aga Khan was approached in London with a shockingly strange request to become the President of the Congress in 1911. He did not agree. But Jinnah’s midwifing did not stop and efforts continued to somehow pull the League closer to the Congress. The Congress session was to take place at Mumbai in 1915. The Muslim League too had announced that it would hold its sessions there. The Congress had constituted a committee to persuade the League for a joint session. The League leadership did not agree. Surendranath Banerjee, the Congress President that year, had sent a message of ‘affectionate greetings’ to the League leadership on the day of their session. No reciprocal message came back.
Jinnah’s midwifing finally succeeded next year. The Muslim League agreed to join the Congress session at Lucknow in December 1916 on the condition that the Congress would not oppose separate Muslim electorates to the provincial legislatures. The famous Lucknow Pact of 1916, that had paved the way for the Congress and the League to come together, was thus a bargain struck between the two sides.
In their eagerness to win over the League from the British, the Congress leadership had missed the point that they were converting the independence movement into a bargaining chip with the League. They also missed the point that the correct way to deal with the League was by attracting more Muslims into the Congress rather than pandering to the whims of a handful of elite Leaguers. The Congress leadership was in such a trance that a leader of the stature of Lokmanya Tilak was overcome by exuberance and declared the League’s joining the Congress at Lucknow as “Luck Now at Lucknow”.
Thus began the story of appeasement, bargain and outright surrender before the communal forces by the country’s greatest hope for independence, the Congress, that wouldn’t stop for the next thirty years until we reach that point of no return, the Partition of India.
(Read Next: “Partitioned Freedom – 4” from this link – 4)
(Courtesy: The article was originally published in Chintan, India Foundation on August 15, 2020)