“India,” said Jawaharlal Nehru recently, “is on the brink of a mighty revolution.” The mutiny and rioting in Bombay haye underscored his warning. The showdown is coming.
From January 7 to April 12, 1946, the Indian provinces are voting in the last elections to be held under the Constitution of 1935. When the results are known, the lower houses of the Provincial Legislatures will elect from their members a constitution-making body to frame the Constitution of Independent India. India will then take her place on an equal footing with the other self-governing Dominions of the Empire. That is Britain’s offer. It all sounds so simple. Then why the revolution?
The most powerful figure in Indian politics today is not the Viceroy, nor Mahatma Gandhi, nor Jawaharlal Nehru. It is a lean, gray-haired, impeccably dressed Karachi lawyer, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Moslem League. Upon his attitude depends the success or failure of the present attempt to solve the Indian problem.
Ten or twelve years ago, Jinnah was an obscure but wealthy lawyer. He is a former member of the All-India Congress, which he now vehemently attacks. By astute political maneuvering, he has made himself the leader of a political party which commands the support of the majority of Indian Moslems, and can block any move by the British government to confer self-government on India.
Britain has often been taunted with employing “divide and rule” tactics in India, but the cleverest attempt at dividing and ruling is that of Jinnah. Moslems number only 94.5 millions according to the census of 1941. Compared with the 255 million Hindus, they will always be in a minority in any system of democratically elected bodies.
To counter this disability the Moslems, as long ago as 1909, pressed for and secured the electoral device of separate Hindu and Moslem electorates, with seats “reserved” in the legislature on a communal basis. This procedure ensured to Moslems a political representation in excess of their numerical proportions. But it did not satisfy them for long.
When Congress ministries took office in seven out of eleven provinces in 1937, Moslem Leaguers (who had polled only 4.6 per cent of the total Moslem vote) were denied any share in the spoils of office. Moslem League propagandists have represented this situation as a denial of their legitimate rights, and as proof of a Hindu determination to dominate India. Tactically, it may have been unwise of Congress, but under a party system of government it is difficult to see how it could have done otherwise. Congress did not refuse office to Moslems as such, but to Moslems who were not members of Congress.
For Congress is not, as League followers claim, a Hindu organization. The Hindu Mahasabha is the party of orthodox Hindus. Congress is, and always has been, open to Moslems, and has a notable Moslem president, the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Mr. Asaf Ali is another Moslem member of the Working Committee. To expect Congress to present ministerial offices to its political rivals is as if the British Labor Party, after its recent overwhelming victory, should be invited to give Cabinet posts to members of the insignificant Independent Labor Party, which had opposed it at the polls.
How many nations in India?
The experience of one election convinced Jinnah that his party could never hope to enjoy a ruling majority. In 1940 he accordingly resurrected the theory of Pakistan, claiming that Hindus and Moslems are two separate nations.
Before 1940 no one outside the Moslems, and few among them, took Pakistan seriously, but by persistent advocation in season and out, Jinnah has made of it the central issue before India today. He has made of the League a real political party, and in the recent elections to the Central Legislative Assembly it won all the Mohammedan seats (30), polling 86.6 per cent of the total Moslem votes. These elections were based on the extremely restricted franchise of the 1919 Act, and the total number of votes cast was only 586,647, representing almost exclusively the propertied classes.
In the provincial elections now taking place, with an electorate of over 30 millions, the League is unlikely to repeat its 100 per cent success, but there is little doubt that it will gain a decisive majority of Moslem votes for a policy of Pakistan.
The real problem starts from this point the League is pledged not to make the new Constitution work unless it starts from the basic assumption of Pakistan. There must be not one but two constitution-making bodies, says Jinnah -one for Hindustan and one for Pakistan. Hindus naturally are not willing to submit, in advance of the elections, to the dictation of a minority.
Allegations of corrupt practices and official interference have been made by the League and Congress in the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province. Doubtless many are true. The greatest curse of Indian political and administrative life is corruption running like a putrefying streak from top to bottom. Election returns from the North-West Frontier Province show, however, that the majority of Moslems in their traditional home are opposed to the vivisection of India.
Jinnah wrecked the Simla Conference – called by the Viceroy, Lord Wavell -in July, 1945. He can wreck the elections. All he has to do is to stall, and the longer he stalls, the stronger he grows.
The British government, which most Indians are now convinced is genuinely anxious to hand over power, is thus faced with a quandary. Britain’s offer of August, 1940, guaranteed minorities against forcible inclusion in any future Indian Union or Federation; the undertaking was reiterated in the Cripps offer of March-April, 1942, and at the Simla Conference.
Jinnah asks the British government to guarantee his Pakistan scheme; he does not ask the people of India, and is quite oblivious to the 30 millions who would be a Hindu minority in the six provinces which he claims: Sind, Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier Province, the Punjab, Bengal, and Assam. Of these, only the first three have a decisively Moslem population. In the Punjab, Moslems number 57
per cent; in Bengal 54 per cent; while in Assam they are actually in a minority. Even under this plan, about one fifth of the Indian Moslems would remain outside Pakistan.
Theory versus fact
Nevertheless Jinnah insists on acceptance of the present boundaries of those provinces for the hypothetical state of Pakistan. Exchange of populations and frontier adjustments, he says, could follow. No one with the least knowledge of India could suppose that these provincial boundaries correspond to any national, ethnic, or linguistic delineation. The principle of self-determination, which is of the essence of democracy, applies to nations, not to the fortuitous divisions of a subcontinent conquered by an alien power.
The Pathan of the North-West Frontier Province and the Bengali Moslem are both, according to Jinnah, potential members of Pakistan. What have they in common? They have the same religion, but racially they are totally different; they cannot understand each other’s language; they dress differently, eat differently, and by reason of great differences in climate and geography are engaged in different occupations and forms of agriculture.
The rice-eating Moslem mopla of Malabar has far more in common with his Hindu neighbors than he has with the wheat-eating Punjabi Moslem. Only the most confused thinking could produce a two-nation theory in India, where there are dozens of distinct races and languages.
Jinnah, who is far from being confused in his thinking, knows all this. It is plain, therefore, that the Hindu-Moslem conflict should be seen, not as a religious one, but as a straightforward political and economic struggle for power, with the spoils of office as prizes.
Moslem intransigence has perfectly comprehensible historical roots. For centuries before the British came, Moslems were the conquerors and rulers of India. Mahmud of Ghazni, Tamerlane, Baber, each in turn swept through the passes of the North-West, to sack and pillage the fertile plains of India, leaving behind them great pyramids of Indian skulls to bear witness to their military prowess. The lost splendors of the Mogul courts are not forgotten by Moslems. Although the Emperor Akbar, one of the ablest India ever had, was an eclectic ,in religion, it was in the main a Moslem administration that ruled the greater part of India for nearly 800 years.
Up to a century ago, Persian was the official language, and Moslems filled most of the minor official posts. Then, in 1835, Lord Macaulay’s proposal to make English the official language was adopted. Moslems resented this choice, and withdrew from competition for public positions and the professions. Not until 1875, when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded the Aligarh College for Moslems, was their attitude of boycott reversed; but by that time they had lost ground irretrievably to the Hindus.
Moslems to this day are the weaker community financially and educationally. Of male Hindus, 14.7 per cent are literate, compared with 10.7 per cent of the Moslems; for women the percentages are 2.1 and 1.5 (1931 census). Separate electorates have merely accentuated communal differences.
Deadlock in Congress
Congress, and many of. the influential moderate leaders outside it (such as Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru and C. R. Rajagopalachariar) have for long endeavored to secure Congress-League agreement. Congress leaders realize that to obtain the unity of India which they desire, they will have to make considerable concessions to the Moslems. They point out that the federal form of government envisaged would afford opportunities for local autonomy in predominantly Moslem areas; but they refuse to hand over the Hindu minorities in those areas to the unfettered control of Jinnah and his followers.
Jinnah’s growing power and prestige have only made him more obdurate. Would he have dared to go so far if he had not felt assured of outside backing – that is, from Britain? At all events, his attitude has caused Jawarhalal Nehru, the most modern and internationally-minded Congress leader, to declare that Congress will negotiate no further with the League under its present leadership.
Deadlock is complete; and if history repeats itself, the appropriate gesture for the British government would be to say that without agreement among the Indian communities, power cannot be handed over. But Britain cannot afford to repeat that time-worn bit of history now. Not only is the prestige of the Labor Government committed to the solution of the Indian dilemma, but the Indians themselves are in no mood to brook further delay.
The troubles in Indonesia (where the use of Indian troops to restore Dutch rule has greatly incensed Indian opinion) have lit a spark which Pandit Nehru has forecast will inflame the revolt of millions of colonial peoples against imperial domination.
The mutinies in the Royal Indian Navy and Royal Indian Air Force are no mere protests against pay or conditions but are political mutinies directed against foreign rule. It is significant that they started in the two junior services drawn from politically conscious sections. Unlike the Army, which is recruited largely from illiterate peasants of the so-called martial races, volunteers for the Navy and the Air Force have to be literate in English, a rare accomplishment limited to a mere one per cent of the population. The youths are mainly townsmen and acutely conscious nationalists. Whatever the attitude of her political leaders, the people of India are united as never before in vehement opposition to foreign rule.
What will Britain do?
If Britain backs Jinnah in his intransigence, she will be accused once more of utilizing the communal divisions to delay a settlement and final handing over of power. The conservative Pioneer of Lucknow says that if freedom for India is withheld for long, a revolution is inevitable. But what if Britain calls Jinnah’s bluff? What if he is bluntly told that the question of Pakistan is not for Britain or Moslems alone to decide, but must be settled by the whole Indian people through their elected assemblies?
Britain’s Labor Party, which championed India’s freedom, has, since it came to power, gone little further than the Tories. Current pronouncements, while undoubtedly sincere, have been confined to the old formulas, with emphasis on the necessity for prior agreement among Indians, and warnings against attempts to secure results by violence. They have not dealt with the fundamental question of what the British government will do to break the stalemate.
Failure to grasp this nettle firmly has already led to suspicions that the leopard has not changed its spots, and that despite the change of government, Britain is still more interested in word-spinning than in action. Even the moderate and liberal sections of the Indian press speak of an “Anglo-Moslem conspiracy to keep India in perpetual subjection.”
This unhealthy atmosphere could be dispelled at one stroke by an announcement that on a specified date all power would be handed over to those representatives of all parties who were willing to accept it. The prospect of a fait accompli of this nature would compel Jinnah to choose between ineffectual isolation and finding a compromise of some sort. It might not be lasting, but at least the subsequent squabbles could not be laid at Britain’s door.
It is true that, in the long run, agreement between Indians themselves is the only guarantee of peaceful government and development. Under the new Constitution, India will be as free as Canada, and it will be for Indians to settle differences between themselves. But so long as there is doubt about Britain’s intentions, communal differences will be accentuated, simply because each community wants to secure the best possible terms far itself before Britain “quits India.”