SPLITTING INDIA: A Corrective of Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Inaccuracies


This article is in response to the so called “myth busting” series on partition by Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, published in The Friday Times.  Tragically the so called “myth busting series” is fraught with errors, concealment and special pleading. In this first rebuttal I will only address the factual inaccuracies so far. I do intend to write more rebuttals as the good dr continues his “myth busting” reinforcement of nationalist narratives of India and Pakistan.  

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

I have read with interest the various parts of Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s “Splitting India” published in the print edition of the Friday Times. There are some glaring historical errors that need to be corrected at the outset before one considers the thrust and the merits of Dr. Ahmed’s argument, of which I submit there are none.

Muslim League and Adult Franchise:

In the third part Ishtiaq Ahmed makes this extraordinary claim:

But if instead universal adult franchise had been adopted, as the Congress proposed – I have not seen any Muslim League document supporting universal adult franchise – the Muslim majorities in north-western and north-eastern India would have been permanent and irrevocable and thus the advantage the Hindus enjoyed in these areas because of greater ownership of property would have become redundant and obsolete. Scholars have not looked into this aspect of the conflict between Mr Jinnah and the Congress leadership. – See more at: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/splitting-india-iii/#sthash.5Hu76F4d.dpuf

It is tragic that Ishtiaq Ahmed has not seen “any document” of the Muslim League asking for universal adult franchise. It reflects badly on him as a researcher because Muslim League had been committed constitutionally to adult franchise since 1934.

In the Bombay Session in March 1936, the following four points formed part of the resolution that Muslim League passed:

  1. A democratic responsible government with adult franchise to take the place of the present system.
  2. Repeal of all exceptionally repressive laws and the granting of the right of free speech, freedom of the press and organization.
  3. Immediate economic relief to the peasantry, State provision for educated and uneducated employment with fixed minimum wage for workers
  4. Introduction of free compulsory primary education.

(For reference See Page 140 of Jinnah of Pakistan by Stanley Wolpert)

Bengal Muslim League had asked for Universal Adult Franchise as early as 1929. In 1931, Muslim League first passed an all India level the resolution to consider Adult Franchise, which was then considered and approved in 1932 session. Universal Adult Franchise was also part of the Punjab Muslim League manifesto in 1944. (For reference see page 108 of Radical Politics in Colonial Punjab: Governance and Sedition by Shalini Sharma).

So it is clear that Ishtiaq Ahmed either hasn’t researched the issue properly or has chosen to conceal these facts to fit in with his narrative.

Zafrullah Khan

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s sinister implication that Sir Zafrulla Khan (because ZK was Ahmadi and therefore is a perfect target – as he was of Majlis-e-Ahrar in his lifetime) was “secretly” asked by Lord Linlithgow to ask the Muslim League to demand a separate Muslim state is a gross oversimplification at best and completely inaccurate at worst.  First of all Zafrulla’s advice was sought not secretly and but very publicly.

To understand how Zafrulla’s memorandum that forms the basis of League’s Lahore Resolution came about one has to understand the various exigencies that had played a part in the temporary British and Muslim alignment in the aftermath of hostilities in Europe. Let us first the Muslim League. Muslim League had contested the 1937 election as an ally of the Congress Party. Indeed it was funded in the election by Hindu financiers who hoped, as did Jinnah, that the elections would throw up a Congress-League alliance. This is a very significant part of history that is overlooked by those who seek to paint the Muslim League in reactionary colours and at worse want to make Muslim League look like the handmaiden of British Imperialism. Contrary to the oft repeated claim that Muslim League badly lost the 1937 elections, Muslim League fared rather well in UP and Bombay where its main constituency lay. It was in Punjab and Bengal that it did rather poorly. It was not trounced by the Congress there but by the Unionists in Punjab and regional parties in Bengal, which then joined the big tent of the Muslim League through Sikandar Jinnah Pact in 1937. A similar arrangement was reached with A K Fazlul Haq the premier of Bengal. In UP however the Muslim League managed to get a majority of Muslim seats. Congress did poorly on the Muslim seats, winning only one seat in UP.  It did however win an overwhelming majority of the general seats. After winning a clear majority, Congress went back on its promise to share power with the Muslim League, choosing instead to collaborate with Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind and Majlis-e-Ahrar.

In 1939 the war in Europe broke out and the world was faced with the prospect of Nazi aggression. The Congress chose that point to blackmail the British by suggesting that it would like to keep India neutral. This was an untenable position as the Indian troops formed the mainstay of British military strategy in Asia. It was also untenable because the legal position was that India was part of the British Empire. For Muslim League, Congress’ position was untenable because it claimed to represent all of India which was just not true. The Unionists in Punjab and AK Fazlul Haq in Bengal had thrown their lot with the Muslim League. The Lahore Resolution itself was a counter-proposal born out of the need for the Muslim League to present a united Muslim front. The British sought to use this need to counter Congress’ illogical claim that power should be transferred to its representatives without any safeguards (such as a provincial governor’s right to interfere on behalf of minorities in a province).

Zafrulla’s memorandum was an extraordinary feat of bringing divergent interests on one platform. Neither the memorandum nor the Lahore Resolution called for partition. Indeed it was a document that left much room for bargaining. It did however lend credence to the British claim that Congress did not speak for all of India, which the plain truth was that it did not.

Now coming to Ishtiaq Ahmed’s claim that the demand for a separate Muslim state was born in the Viceroy’s office in 1940; it is patently untrue. Rahmat Ali had come up with his Pakistan proposal in 1933.  Mian Kifayet Ali’s scheme for a Muslim India under the name “A Punjabi” had been sponsored by Mamdot in 1938.  Sindh Assembly had also passed a resolution for Pakistan in 1938.  Mian Kifayet Ali’s scheme requires the attention of historians. Originally the scheme was called Pakistan. When presented to Jinnah in 1939, Jinnah telegrammed Mamdot to have the name changed to Confederacy of India. The late K K Aziz whose essays were published by Vanguard Books has written an illuminating piece on Mian Kifayet Ali’s scheme which proves that the sentiment for a separate Muslim majority state had existed long before 1940. Indeed he counts upto 88 such schemes. For reference see See KK Aziz’s papers on “A 1939 Scheme for Confederacy of India Part I and Part II” published in “Studies in History and Politics” – published by Vanguard – pages 100-142 and pages 143-187. Therefore there is no merit in Dr. Ahmed’s claim.

Gandhi and Religion

Much has been written about this. Suffice to say I will quote Congress Leader A Patwardhan when he wrote:

‘It is, however, useful to recognise our share of this error of misdirection. To begin with, I am convinced that looking back upon the course of development of the freedom movement, THE ‘HIMALAYAN ERROR’ of Gandhiji’s leadership was the support he extended on behalf of the Congress and the Indian people to the Khilafat Movement at the end of the World War I. This has proved to be a disastrous error which has brought in its wake a series of harmful consequences. On merits, it was a thoroughly reactionary step. The Khilafat was totally unworthy of support of the Progressive Muslims. Kemel Pasha established this solid fact by abolition of the Khilafat. The abolition of the Khilafat was widely welcomed by enlightened Muslim opinion the world over and Kemel was an undoubted hero of all young Muslims straining against Imperialist domination. But apart from the fact that Khilafat was an unworthy reactionary cause, Mahatma Gandhi had to align himself with a sectarian revivalist Muslim Leadership of clerics and maulvis. He was thus unwittingly responsible for jettisoning sane, secular, modernist leadership among the Muslims of India and foisting upon the Indian Muslims a theocratic orthodoxy of the Maulvis. Maulana Mohammed Ali’s speeches read today appear strangely incoherent and out of tune with the spirit of secular political freedom. The Congress Movement which released the forces of religious liberalism and reform among the Hindus, and evoked a rational scientific outlook, placed the Muslims of India under the spell of orthodoxy and religious superstition by their support to the Khilafat leadership. Rationalist leaders like Jinnah were rebuffed by this attitude of Congress and Gandhi. This is the background of the psychological rift between Congress and the Muslim League’


Partition of India or Partition of Punjab and Bengal?

There is no question that partition of Punjab and Bengal did not serve anyone’s interests, least of all the Muslim League.  It is also an undeniable fact of history that partition of Punjab and Bengal was sought by the Congress. Within the Congress, Maulana Azad was a vociferous supporter of the Cabinet Mission Plan which he said preserved the best elements of Muslim League’s Pakistan scheme without the inherent flaws.  It is also a fact of history that Jinnah had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan. One needs only read Maulana Azad’s “India Wins Freedom” in its uncensored form to see who was to blame for the partition of Punjab and Bengal. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s own book on Punjab’s partition confirms, perhaps unwittingly, that it was the Congress which incited the Sikhs to call for a partition of Punjab.

To this Ishtiaq Ahmed springs up the defence that if India had been partitioned but Punjab and Bengal hadn’t Sikhs and Hindus would retain their properties and that would not have resolved the issue of Muslim poverty. First of all partition of Punjab and Bengal (which Jinnah had opposed by saying that a Bengali and a Punjabi is a Bengali or a Punjabi before he is a Hindu or a Muslim) was the consequence of Congress’ de facto rejection of Cabinet Mission Plan. Second if India had been divided without Bengal and Punjab being partitioned, it would have solved the Muslim poverty problem faster, not by confiscation of Hindu and Sikh properties, but because Hindus and Sikhs formed the mainstay of the capitalist class. What division would have done was to create a mutually symbiotic relationship between the backward Muslim classes and the capitalist Hindus. A Muslim majority Pakistan with a strong Hindu business base would have to be a secular state where real economic basis for Hindu-Muslim unity would have preserved the state. So here too Dr. Ahmed’s logic falls flat.

Hindu-Muslim Dichotomy? Or Consociationalism?

H V Hodson wrote in clear terms very soon after the Lahore Resolution that every Muslim Leaguer from Jinnah down to the last one interpreted the Pakistan idea as consistent with the idea of a confederation of India. Hodson believed that “Pakistan” was a “revolt against minority status” and a call for power sharing and not just defining rules of conduct how a majority (in this case Hindu) would govern India. He spoke of an acute realisation that the minority status with all the safeguards could only amount to a “Cinderella with trade union rights and radio in the kitchen but still below the stairs.” Jinnah’s comment was that Hodson had finally understood what the League was after, but that he could not publicly come out with these fundamental truths, as these were likely to be misunderstood at the time.

1. The assumption that the much misunderstood Two Nation Theory suggested that Muslims and Hindus could not live together is patently false and historically naïve. Two nation theory was a consociationalist theory which argued that Muslims were a nation and not a community. The Lahore Resolution itself referred to and spoke about minorities and did not suggest that Hindus and Muslims could not live together. It spoke of two federations – one consisting of Muslim majority provinces and the other of Hindu majority provinces. Neither federations were envisaged by the Two Nation Theory as being exclusively Hindu or Muslim. It was at a very conscious level an attempt to bridge the differences between Muslim majority provinces (which had wanted a loose federation) and Hindu majority provinces (which wanted a more centralized federation). A critical reading of the Lahore Resolution also shows that the door was not closed on an all India union. Therefore the assumption that Lahore Resolution or the Two Nation Theory envisaged a completely separate and antagonistic Muslim state in the subcontinent is false, frivolous and denied in toto.

2. Just as the idea of Pakistan did not necessarily envisage a partition of India, the Two Nation Theory did not envisage – necessarily – a partition of Punjab or Bengal. Both those partitions were imposed on Punjab and Bengal by the Congress Party. For all its long winded arguments against the Two Nation Theory, Congress Party practiced a more insidious and cynical version of the said theory to divide constituent units. It was not done fairly even then. After all if partition was to be reduced to a partition of districts, then surely many districts in India, with Muslim majority, not contiguous to Muslim majority provinces should have also fallen in with the Muslim majority provinces.

3. The Two Nation Theory did not state that Muslims were Muslims and nothing else. The Two Nation Theory forwarded the multiple identities thesis. The locus of Muslim identity was the middle tier, of regional, all India identities and atop all of that an Indian identity. This is why Jinnah said famously – in the aftermath of the Lahore Resolution- that Muslims were proud to be Indians and their demands were made on the principle of India for Indians. Therefore the idea that a Punjabi or a Bengali was a Punjabi or a Bengali before he was a Hindu or a Muslim was not in contradiction to the Two Nation Theory. Jinnah was and remained as proudly an Indian as he had been in the first thirty years of his political career.

4. By letting the Muslim majority provinces go their own way separately, Congress sought to make Muslim numbers more manageable. Instead of agreeing to the three tier federation that was devised to keep India united, the Congress party bosses, including Nehru and Gandhi, decided that a smaller more manageable Muslim population was in India’s best interest. Hence they let go of the Muslim majority provinces who were willing to come in the federation provided that they had a certain degree of provincial autonomy with residuary powers resting with the provinces (as opposed to the centre where Gandhi and Nehru wanted them). Was it so horrible an idea? The residuary of legislation in United States of America and Australia lie with the constituent units i.e. states, provinces, territories etc. In Canada Pierre Trudeau had worked out a compromise with Rene Levesque because Trudeau wanted Quebec to stay on.

That said let us not wage a war against history.  The latter day supporters of a United India (which ironically was a British creation) should come to terms with the fact that Pakistan exists, just as Pakistan’s enthusiastic supporters need to accept that partition of Punjab and Bengal was an inevitable consequence of the division of India, regardless of the logic against it.  Pakistan is an accident of history just like India is an accident of history. This idea that India was some sort of divine unity revealed by God which should not have been broken may appeal to some but is counterproductive both for Pakistan’s future and for the future of a peaceful Indo-Pakistan conciliation on matters that continue to divide us.

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