1930-1939 Congress Decline in Bengal, John Gallagher
These excerpts are quoted from a 57-page journal paper by John Gallagher which provides a neat precis of Congress decline in Bengal in the 1920's and 1930's. The Congress was largely a party of upper crust Hindu interests in Bengal. The author discusses the causes of loss of political power of educated, wealthy and propertied Hindus over the Muslim-majority province; the effect on disparate constituencies, of broader franchise and greater self-government under the 1919 constitutional reforms; the two phases of the civil disobedience campaign in Bengal; the effect of the Communal Award 1932 on Bengali Hindus; an attempt by Congress to reach an all-India communal settlement with Jinnah in early 1935; and the backlash of national level politics on the fate of the Bengal provincial wing of the party in 1937.
Rise of power of Muslim and Hindu tenantry under the 1919 Constitutional reforms
John Gallagher writes:
Since the days of the Nawab, the administration of Bengal had been strikingly decentralized, particularly in its eastern districts. The Permanent Settlement in 1793 had ratified this state of affairs. It was a system of transferring many of the functions of government to those men in rural society who were ready to assume the tasks of collecting the land revenue and shouldering much of the administration of their neighbourhoods. To some extent the British had leased out franchises of this sort in many other parts of India, but elsewhere they had avoided the error of giving away as much as they had in Bengal.
By the later nineteenth century government was coming to intervene with more determination in the affairs of the localities. But this bureaucratic counter-attack was bound to be less successful in Bengal than in other provinces. Consequently, the districts of Bengal, and especially those in the east, went on enjoying a good deal of immunity from the interference which was becoming normal elsewhere. Even when they were equipped with elective institutions of local self-government, some of this immunity survived, and so, district politicians lacked the incentive to link locality with province. Conversely, politicians at the centre of Bengali affairs could afford to leave the districts pretty much on their own. The politicians' base was Calcutta; by comparison with the power of the metropolis, the mofussil seemed to matter little. Moreover, in the eastern hinterland, combinations between one district and another were almost out of the question. The lay of the land and the water was enough to make this so.
This helps to explain why Bengali politicians concentrated upon their city and ignored the districts. During the nineteen-twenties, when they could still feel insulated from hinterland opinion, they enjoyed the luxury of quarrelling among themselves over the spoils of the city. But even if they had wanted stronger links with the localities, there were other reasons why these would have been hard to forge.
The reversal of partition in 1911 had been the one resounding success of political Bengal. But in that success lay desperate complications for the future. Undivided Bengal kept together regions and peoples whose interests were hard to reconcile. In the east, Muslims were a majority, in the west, Hindus. In both regions, the socially dominant, Hindu in the main, had lines into the political leadership of Calcutta. But in both regions their local dominance was being challenged by other interests which did not possess links of that sort.
Congress in Bengal was thus based on the great city. It was also the spokesman of interests which were now on the defensive. Therefore vigorous agitation in the districts was the last thing it wanted, since this might spill over into a demand for social levelling. In other provinces, Congress might become a champion of underlying forces and a coordinator of agitation. It would find it much harder to be so in Bengal. As the defender of interests vulnerable to social change and a wider franchise, the Bengal Congress needed to make a quick bargain with the British. But this neither the British nor the Congress outside Bengal was ready to permit.
The difficulties which the Bengali politicians faced in the nineteen- twenties are more apparent to the historian than they were to Chittaranjan Das and his successors. Since Bengal had been less affected by the reforms of 1919 than most other provinces, its politicians still enjoyed many of the luxuries and freedoms of the past. But by 1929 further constitutional reform was on its way. It was to turn these freedoms into servitudes. Government had no intention of picking and choosing between regions; the new reforms would have to operate throughout the Indian empire in a uniform way.
In their search for new collaborators the British chose to leap in the dark by extending the franchise to thirty-five million voters, of whom eight millions were to be in Bengal. A self-governing Bengal shaped by these voters might well lead to the ruin of the Bengal Congress. The Communal Award of 1932 turned these fears into near certainties. Consequently, the Bengal Congressmen needed the support of the all-India Congress as never before. For all their scorn of Gandhism and for the simplicities of Hindustan, they were now beggars and could not be choosers.
But there lay further dilemmas. The all-India purposes of the Congress centre did not match the interests of the Bengal Congress. Pre-occupied with the struggle against the British, with the desire to hold Muslim support, with the need to satisfy other provinces where the party worked with securer social bases and better electoral prospects than it had in Bengal, the centre took decision after decision which further weakened the Congress in Bengal.
Gandhi forced civil disobedience upon the province and reactivated its districts. The high command prevented the Bengal Congress from campaigning against the Communal Award and made matters even worse by forcing it to accept the Poona Pact. One by one, these external directives stripped away the prestige and sapped the strength of the Bengal Congress. It had need of outside support, either from the British or from the Congress centre; but as matters turned out, neither of these had need of the Bengal Congress. . . . These new trends were in the end to prove deadly for the political leaders in Bengal and for the unity of the province itself. In retrospect it might seem that the nineteen-twenties were their decade of lost opportunities; but it is hard to see how they could have staved off the troubles to come. . . .
At the height of its influence, non-cooperation had apparently galvanized the politics of Bengal. . .The hartals in Cal- cutta, the agitations among the railway-workers and tea-coolies, the peasant demands in east Bengal, the campaigns against union boards in Midnapore, were a series of local discontents combined into what looked like a unified political aim. At the same time, the movement was strengthened by the growth of agitation among the Muslims; indeed, in Bengal as elsewhere in India, the Khilafat issue acted as supercharger to the whole non-cooperation campaign. . . .
When non- cooperation failed, Das and his faction judged that the best way of bringing the British to terms was by entering the Legislative Council. From their conservative point of view, these were sensible tactics. The reforms had enfranchised about 1,330,000 voters in Bengal, many of them Muslims and the richer Hindu peasants of east and west. When the logic of these changes came to work its way into electoral results, it would harm the interests of the Hindu leadership which viewed itself as the political nation of Bengal. Its best course lay in exploiting what was left of its electoral advantage while the going was good. The Bengal Congress was still a powerful body. While the policy of organizing the Congress into linguistic provinces had divided Madras and Bombay into three and five Provincial Congresses respectively, the Bengal Congress had retained all thirty-two of its districts. . . .
At first Das's tactics seemed correct for Bengal. In 1923 his Swarajists did so well in the elections that they could dominate the Legislative Council. Das also won the first election to the new Calcutta Corporation, with its greatly extended powers. . . But Das's success in swinging the party towards electoral politics, and his growing preoccupation with the affairs of Calcutta, drained the militant spirit out of the districts. When the issue was no longer how to challenge the state, but how to enter its councils, few of the party workers in the districts thought this cause was worth a broken head. For those veterans in the wars of non-violence, it was a matter of once non-cooperative, twice shy. The price of bidding for collaboration was local torpor. Except for electoral purposes, the leadership now neglected the dis- tricts in east and in west Bengal alike.
During non-cooperation, local enthusiasm had set up some 170 National Schools throughout Bengal, as a way of evading British control over education. By 1924 there were only seventy of them, and they were scraping along with meagre support. But it was the fate of Das's Village Reconstruction Fund which showed where his priorities lay. The Fund was to bring tidings of great joy to the peasants, announcing to Muslims and Hindus alike that the Swarajya Party was their friend. Nearly two and a half lakhs of rupees were collected. But one and a half lakhs of the Fund were spent in buying the Indian Daily News and turning it into the Forward, a Calcutta daily, committed to the policies of Das. As the Government of Bengal reported with mordant pleasure, no more than Rs. 2,000 of the Fund seem to have been used on work in the villages. . .
Das's very success in guiding the Bengal Congress into a policy of potential collaboration made it hard to reconcile the interests of the party as a legislative group with its interests as spokesman for the districts. In order to dominate the Legislative Council, the party had to attract some Muslim support; but its local members in the east Bengal districts detested any concession to Muslim pressures, especially over tenancy legislation. In order to placate its supporters in the districts, the party in council had to oppose tenancy legislation; and this endangered its Muslim alliance. Thus there was always the risk that the legislative wing of the party in Calcutta would fly apart from its membership in the mofussil. As a way of preventing this, Das himself held the offices of president of the PCC and Swarajist leader in the Legislative Council, roles which even he found hard to combine. On 6 June 1925, the death of Das removed the most brilliant opportunist in Indian politics, virtuoso of agitation, broker between irreconcilables, gambler for glittering stakes. Das was the last chance of the old system.
The end of his political adventure left his successor, J. M. Sen Gupta, with an impossible inheritance. Sen Gupta had talent and charm; he had the support of Gandhi; he controlled the PCC. But he simply could not bend Das's bow, and in 1927 he was dislodged by the group led by Subhas Bose, who had been another of Das's would-be Dauphins. From then, until the outbreak of civil disobedience, the Bengal Congress was distracted by the efforts of rival bands of Calcutta politicians to dish each other. . .
The political importance which the districts had won during the agitation of 1919-22 had itself been encouraged by the city politicians for their own ends. Now that they were preoccupied with electoral politics and the patronage of Calcutta, they had little time to waste on the affairs of the districts. In their thinking, they had no need to do so. The Bengal Congress was Hindu nationalism. Therefore Hindus of east and west Bengal would vote for it. The purpose of district branches was to bring out the votes which would give it control of the Provincial Council. There the city politicians could settle the future of the province before a widening of the franchise brought millions of fractious Muslims within the pale of the constitution. Local politicians then, might sigh, but they had to obey. . .
In Bengal, it still seemed rational to run politics from the metropolis. No other Indian city dominated its hinterland as completely as Calcutta dominated Bengal. More than one million and a quarter persons lived in Calcutta during the nineteen-twenties; outside it, only 4 per cent of the population of Bengal were urban-dwellers, and indeed twelve and a half million Bengalis lived in hamlets with fewer than 500 inhabitants apiece. The metropolis was the centre of almost all the higher education in Bengal; and so its cultural style was stamped upon the professional classes in all the districts. Equally, the city's economic predominance was manifest. Nearly 80 per cent of Bengal's income tax in 1918-19 was paid by Calcutta. The city was a strong- hold of the bhadralok; in 1921, half the Bengali Hindus in the city were Brahmins, Kayasths or Baidyas. Calcutta was pre-eminently their city. Just as they dominated its social life, so too they dominated its politics, and they had no intention of making Calcutta politics a career open to the talents of rustics without the right connections. When B. N. Sasmal became secretary of the PCC in 1927, the combined efforts of the four Calcutta DCCs quickly pushed him out of office not only was he an up-country man from Midnapore, he was also a Mahisya. The true heirs of Das were more presentable men, such as Subhas Bose, J. M. Sen Gupta, K. S. Roy (all three educated at Oxford or Cambridge), Anil Baran Ray and P. C. Guha Roy. . .
The most notorious result of the party's preoccupation with Calcutta was its shady role in the affairs of the Corporation. Once the Calcutta Municipal Act had been passed by Surendranath Banerjea in 1923, most of the workings of the city government came under the control of eighty-five councillors, five aldermen and the mayor they elected. When Congress candidates won the first election in 1924, they took command of an institution with an annual revenue of two crores of rupees and with large patronage to spread among businessmen, contractors, shop- keepers, municipal employees and ratepayers. . . . So obsessed were the politicians of Calcutta with their intrigues over the Corporation that in March 1930 they seemed oblivious of the larger events which were unfolding in India. On the eve of Gandhi's campaign, Jawaharlal Nehru was writing:
When everyone is thinking and talking of civil disobedience, in Calcutta people quarrel over the Municipal election.
. . . But the province was slowly coming under the influence of forces that were to change politics beyond the calculations of the Bengal Congress. In west and east Bengal alike, rural tranquillity had long depended on a smooth relationship between landlords and rich peasants or jotedars. In west Bengal many of these rich peasants were Mahisyas, a low caste which had been actively organizing since the late nineteenth century into caste sabhas, whose leaders deeply distrusted Calcutta. In east Bengal the most conspicuous of the rich peasants were Namasudras, Hindu tenants who had more and more moved into opposition against their Hindu landlords, and who were to use the new political rules after 1920 to make common cause with their Muslim fellow tenants. These new forces, more portentous for the future of Bengal than the log- rolling of the PCC, arose from the social changes which were slowly transforming the province.
By the beginning of the twentieth century many of the districts of west and central Bengal were in agricultural decay, growing markedly less jute and fine grain than the districts of the east. There the vitality of agriculture helped to raise the aspirations of the more substantial peasants, who pressed for firmer tenurial rights. By the Bengal Tenancy Amendment Act of 1928 these 'occupancy raiyats' were given full rights of transferring land; while many of the under- raiyats who in some districts were already exercising many of the rights of occupancy raiyats, now formally obtained all the rights of their superiors except the right to transfer land.
The 1928 Act is a striking illustration of the constraints under which the Bengal Congress was labouring by this time. In the eastern districts its supporters were the class of rent-receivers. To them tenant-right was landlord-wrong, and the party was therefore bound to oppose the legislation; but in doing so it furnished unanswerable proof to the have- nots that it was the party of the haves. The grievances of the upper tenants ensured that there was no dearth of discontent in east Bengal. In 1923 tenants were restive in Tippera, in 1924 in Mymensingh and Dacca, in 1926 in Tippera, Mymensingh, Pabna and Jessore.
But both the Muslims and the less well-to-do Hindus had other grievances as well. Educational spending in Bengal was notoriously concentrated on the higher levels-only Assam had a smaller proportion of its boys proceeding upwards from Class IV; only the Punjab spent a smaller proportion of its educational expenditure on primary education; of the scandalously small sums spent on primary education in Bengal, more than one-third came from fees. The politics of education in Bengal had a very seamy side. If the cost of higher education was out of all proportion to that of primary education, this was because of the selfishness of upper-class opinion and the ineffectiveness of the new voters enfranchised by the Reforms. Government raised the bulk of its revenue from the agriculturists but spent only one-third upon them. Part of the reason for this lay in 'a certain fear among the upper classes in this country of the lower classes being educated'.
There was nothing new about these grievances. But the progress of the eastern districts during the twentieth century gradually turned old complaints into political counters. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms gave the aggrieved the chance to defend themselves. Before 1919 there had been five Muslims among the twenty-eight elected members of the Legislative Council, and they had been chosen by 6,346 Muslim voters. The Act of 1919 gave the Muslims thirty-nine out of eighty-five territorial constituencies; thirty-three of these Muslim seats were for rural areas, mainly in the Dacca, Chittagong and Rajshahi divisions of east Bengal. Of the million and a quarter new voters in the province, more than four hundred thousand were in the Muslim rural constituencies.
With their 45 per cent of the territorial constituencies in the Legislative Council, the Muslims had the means to defend the community's interests in the districts. But they failed to make the most of this opportunity. Clumsy, naive and self-seeking, the Muslim members of the Council were easily split by Das and Sen Gupta. Faction was as rife among them as it was among Congressmen, and the passing of the Tenancy Act of 1928 owed more to the British than to the members whose constituents it was intended to protect.
In the Council the aggrieved got little protection. But they got rather more at lower levels where the union boards, local boards and district boards formed an ascending hierarchy of local government. The Bengal Village Self-Government Act of 1919 had confirmed union boards as village authorities and allowed them an elected chairman. By 1926, 2,419 of these boards had been set up, and they were elected by 881,773 voters. Above these boards were the local boards, concerned with the affairs of a sub-division, and elected by the same franchise. In 1926 there were eighty-two of them, elected by 1,691,333 voters. At the top of the system were the district boards, most of whose members were elected by the local boards. By 1926, twenty-six district boards had been set up.
The powers of district boards were quite extensive. They appointed almost all the petty officials of their districts, controlled road-building and water-supply and had some powers in the administration of vernacular education. District boards had the power to levy a cess in their districts, and together with their subordinate bodies they were responsible for substantial sums of money: in 1925-26 they spent Rs 10,237,988.28 This position they intended to expand. Their powers over education in the districts were less than those in some other provinces, but by the later nineteen-twenties they were working to establish district education boards.
This was a situation full of hopeful possibilities for the enemies of privilege in the eastern districts, Hindu and Muslim alike. The number of voters for these bodies of rural self-government was much the same as the number who could vote in the rural constituencies for the Legislative Council. But there was a vital difference between the two systems of representation. Voting for the Council was done by separate electorates, but the members of the rural boards were chosen by joint electorates. By taking to organization in the eastern districts, and by winning the support of lower-caste Hindu voters there, the Muslims now had the opportunity of winning control of the local boards, and so of most of the district boards. Here at last was their chance to wrest the control of local patronage and perhaps of local education from the zemindars and their clients. . .
The course of elections to the local bodies, with their active electorate of more than one and a half millions, reveals the history of the voters' choice. In twelve of the fifteen districts of Rajshahi, Dacca and Chittagong divisions, the Muslims were a majority of the population. In 1920- 21 they controlled more than half the local boards in six of these districts. By 1934-35, they controlled that many in twelve of these districts. Apart from Jessore district in the Presidency division, the electoral swing was greatest in Dacca district, where the Muslim share of local boards increased from 29.7 per cent to 60.3 per cent. This result is all the more striking because of the concentration of bhadralok in Dacca and the importance of their connections with education and politics in Calcutta. . . The Hindus' local influence and the importance of their interests worked in their favour. It is noticeable that throughout the period they kept control of the Dacca district board. Nevertheless, the Muslim upsurge was remarkable. In 1920-2 Muslims controlled two of the district boards in the Rajshahi, Dacca and Chittagong divisions; by 1934-35 they controlled nine.
In the short run, these changes had little immediate effect. Just as the incompetence and faction of Muslim members let their case go by default in the Legislative Council, so too the Muslim members of rural boards were often at sixes and sevens. After the local elections in Mymensingh in 1927, the District Magistrate reported:
Not a Hindu has been elected. Yet . . never was intrigue and faction more alive in the District and Local Boards than at present.
. . . The longer-term implications of these changes were more important. Since elections to local boards were by joint electorates, their results allowed both Hindus and Muslims to measure the likely consequences of abandoning the separate electorates which had been in force in conciliar elections since 1909. It was now clear that in east Bengal the Muslims had nothing to fear from joint electorates; in west Bengal on the other hand, where they were generally in small minorities, separate electorates would be their only hope of winning any representation at all. For the Hindus, it was the other way round. In west Bengal they would gain from joint electorates, but in the east they would lose badly and might find their social dominance in ruins. Consequently, any demand for joint electorates would accurately divide the interests of Hindus and Muslims in the eastern and western districts alike.
Civil Disobedience 1930-32
Thus did the Bengal Congress, obsessed with Calcutta, neglectful of the localities, weakening in the eastern districts, devoid of mass support, enter the nineteen-thirties. At the start of that decade the civil disobedience movement was to drag into the open the internal constraints which were to cripple the Congress in Bengal. . .
Civil disobedience was forced upon Gandhi (who had his own constraints) by a rising militancy in some of the provinces and by his failure to bring Irwin to terms in 1929. The strategy to which he had to turn in 1930 was meant to exert an increasing pressure on the British by unifying a series of regional resistances against them. To the Bengal politicians (and some others) this was a distasteful prospect, only too likely to upset their provincial applecarts. When Gandhi opened the campaign on 12 March 1930 they had to fall in line; but with one of their finer touches they did so by forming two rival civil disobedience councils.
In the event, none of the Calcutta factions had much influence on the course of the movement. The Bengal PCC, controlled by Subhas Bose, claimed to have organized eleven centres of civil disobedience; but ten of them were in the district of Twenty-Four Parganas, only next door to Calcutta. In the districts it soon turned out that civil disobedience could succeed only where there were local grievances which the agitators could exploit.
Its disasters in east Bengal showed how impotent the movement was when local grievances were of the wrong sort. There the Gandhians had been working among the people for a decade. Now the time had come to collect the political dividend. . . But instead of attracting mass support, the campaign provoked wide opposition. In Dacca, Faridpur, Bakarganj and Mymensingh, the Muslims asserted themselves against civil disobedience; while the vast majority of the Namasudras either remained aloof from the movement or, as they did in Faridpur and Bakarganj, actively worked in Government's favour. . . . [T]he Government of Bengal could report with relief that:
The movement is generally confined to volunteers of the bhadralok class, and generally speaking, few of the villagers have so far taken part in it.
Some of the western districts showed what could be done by exploiting local grievances. The Mahisbathar sub-division of Twenty-Four Parganas was successfully aroused-but less by the Congress volunteers than by the lucky chance that a local zemindar was at odds with Government; the Arambagh sub-division of Hooghly also responded well-but once again because of local circumstances. Arambagh had large numbers of discontented Mahisya jotedars; in any case it was contiguous to Midnapore. There the movement was so effective that when he contemplated civil disobedience over the whole of India, the Secretary of the Home Department in Simla concluded:
. . .I would put Midnapore as the district where the prestige of Government has fallen more than in any other. . .
Gandhi's negotiations with Irwin ended the first phase of civil disobedience in March 1931. The campaign had much increased the prestige of the Congress centre. Gandhi had decided when the movement was to begin. Twelve months later it was Gandhi who brought it to an end. Admittedly, while the campaign was being fought, with the Working Committee in gaol and the provincial movements harried by the police, there was no chance of day-to-day control from the centre. Nevertheless the trend was there. Not even the Bengal PCC could stand aloof from civil disobedience, however much they disliked its leadership and tactics. Moreover, in regaining the initiative he had possessed in 1921, Gandhi now enjoyed once more the great political advantage which it brought. Civil disobedience had mobilized Indians into politics on a scale which had been unknown for nearly a decade. It was to the centre, to the Mahatma, that they looked, not to their local leadership. . .
A further result of civil disobedience was that political life was reviving in the districts. The campaign had shown that the leaders were lagging behind their followers. As the Bengal Council of Civil Dis-obedience had found:
'The people as also the workers... wanted a more forward programme.'
In Bengal that meant that they had to construct it for themselves. During the campaign, unhampered by leadership from Calcutta, they were bound to go their own ways; and this unusual experience of freedom left them very touchy about metropolitan control once the campaign was over. By June 1931, Sen Gupta and his municipal purifiers had been able to persuade twenty-two of the thirty-two DCCs to rebel against the dominant faction on the PCC; by July, twenty-six had come out in opposition. Once the Congress centre had restored the Sen Gupta faction to power, Subhas could now play tit-for-tat by poking the fires in the districts. This proved easy to do.
After Gandhi had failed at the Second Round Table negotiations, a Bengal Political Conference was held at Berhampore in December 1931. Its members resolved 'that Government has practically ended the Gandhi-Irwin Pact', and 'that the time has arrived for resumption of the Satyagraha campaign for attainment of independence'. Until it was resumed, not only British goods, but also those banks, insurance companies, steamships and newspapers controlled by the British, should be boycotted.
This sounded so much like fighting talk that Nirmal Chandra Chunder resigned as president of the PCC. Admittedly, tempers at Berhampore had been inflamed by fresh Government ordinances against terrorism, but the violence of district representatives at the conference is plain. When Bankim Mukherjee (later to become a Communist leader in Bengal) called for a 'country- wide no-rent and no-tax campaign', his motion was narrowly beaten by 189 votes against 143. But the best evidence about district opinion is that even the PCC, now dominated by the centre's men, did not risk rebutting it. They held back as long as they dared, hoping that 'Bengal will not precipitate matters until she has heard what Mahatmaji has to say'.
But Mahatmaji was still at sea, too far away to save them from the pressure of local opinion; and on 19 December they surrendered to it by accepting the boycott resolution. Bengal's slide into militancy, together with a similar development in the UP, were among the chief reasons why the Government of India suddenly struck at the Congress in the first week of January 1932 and thus precipitated the second campaign of civil disobedience. In its second phase, civil disobedience worked under much greater difficulties than in the first. This time authority was well prepared, and the Bengal Government immediately locked up the entire Congress leadership in the province. At once the connection between the Congress and the districts was snapped; while the districts themselves, bereft of the local men who had led them in the first campaign, had now to depend on their ability to generate mass movements.
Nearly everywhere, that was an impossibility, for it took more than dire threats against British banks and insurance to bring the peasants out of the fields. Once again everything depended upon the presence or absence of local grievances for which the British could be blamed. The slump in crop prices might have seemed a promising issue. But this did no good in east Bengal. Here the economic crisis caused agitation in the districts, but it was against the Congress, since the troubles of the tenants were blamed on the landlords and their party. In these districts the cry could now be heard that the peasants would never prosper until '... the control over the Government was transferred to the people', when money lenders and landlords (often the same persons) would get their deserts. But it was not only among the Muslims that the Hindu gentry was running out of credit. At its meeting on 20 December 1931, the Bengal Backward Classes Association, voicing the opposition of the Namasudras, noted a '. .. want of faith in Congress professions of sympathy for the Backward classes and... signs of revolt against the Congress. . .' Consequently, civil disobedience in the eastern districts was easily snuffed out; deprived of mass support, the young bhadralok had to console themselves with terrorism, the second to last throw of a privileged class near the end of its tether. . .
In some areas of west Bengal a mass resistance was successfully organized. In April 1932 Government identified Bishnapur in Bankura, Arambagh in Hooghly, and the entire Midnapore district as the most recalcitrant areas of Bengal; and Arambagh and Midnapore were to persist in civil disobedience almost until the end of 1933, long after it had petered out in the rest of the province. . .
Civil disobedience had exposed the underlying trend of politics : in the east, local power was dribbling through the fingers of the landed supporters of the Congress; in the west, the rich peasants resisted the British and Calcutta alike. Both in the eastern districts, where its allies were being knocked off their perches, and in the western districts, where its nominal supporters kept it at bay, the internal constraints upon the Calcutta clique were growing apace. Sapped by these weaknesses, it had now to face a tightening of external constraints from British political initiatives and the responses to these initiatives from the all-India centre of nationalist politics.
The Communal Award 1932[Also see Extra(5)]
The Communal Award, announced by the British Government in August 1932, was a new sign of its determination to warp the Indian question towards electoral politics.
During the late nineteen-twenties there had been many discussions about revising the Montagu-Chelmsford Act so as to put provincial government into Indian hands. All of them had smashed against the question how the communities were to be represented in the new provincial legislatures. Should they be represented by separate electorates as Muslims had been since 1909? In what proportions? And by what franchise? When he went to London for the second session of the Round Table Conference in 1931 Gandhi had hoped to cut through these controversies by insisting that Indian control of the central government must precede communal settlements in the provinces.
At the conference, the Minorities Committee would not hear of this. A self-governing India would mean a central government dominated by Hindus. But once the issue of provincial self-government was compounded by a demand for purna swaraj, everyone wanted to see where he stood. Before coming to that point, minorities meant to entrench their own positions. This brought about a deadlock, and towards the end of the conference, MacDonald, the British Prime Minister, announced that since there could be no constitutional progress without settling the issue of communal repre- sentation, he would decide between the competing claims.
It was in Bengal and the Punjab that the most vexing problems lay. In most of the provinces of British India the Hindus stood in unchallengeable majorities, and there the only task was to get the best possible terms for the minorities. The North-West Frontier Province was a special case: while possessing a Muslim majority of more than 90 per cent, it was still without a council. Sind was not yet a province. But Bengal and the Punjab were provinces of the first importance, and in both of them the Muslims were a majority, in Bengal of nearly 55 per cent, in the Punjab of nearly 57 per cent. Unless the new constitution ensured their hold on these provinces, the Muslim politicians could not afford to accept it. On the other hand, a British acceptance of their claims would bring bitter protests from the most vociferous Hindu poli- ticians of Bengal and the Punjab, not to mention Sikhs who were 13 per cent of the population of the latter. . .
When Hoare first set his mind to drafting the terms of the Award, he was clear that British interests would be served by bettering the existing Muslim position in Bengal and the Punjab; but he believed that in each province, Hindus and Muslims ought to get seats in proportion to their shares of the population. In principle, the Governors of the two provinces agreed with this view. From Calcutta, Anderson advised that out of a Council of 250 for Bengal, the Muslims should have 111 seats or 44.4 per cent of the whole, and the Hindus 107 or 42.8 per cent; the rest were to go to special interests, especially those of the Europeans. But the Government of India felt scant concern for holding a communal balance in Bengal; they proposed to give 121 seats to the Muslims, or 48.4 per cent of the total, and to the Hindus ninety-six, or 39.2 per cent of the total. Hoare thought that New Delhi was being unfair to the Bengal Hindus.
But when he pressed the Government of India to reconsider, the Viceroy came out with his political reasons for turning down Anderson's plan:
Governor naturally has approached problem solely in its provincial aspect in the light exclusively of Bengal conditions. Our own responsibilities compel us to take a wider view. We cannot afford to ignore reactions outside Bengal. ... Governor's proposals... will alienate from us Moslem support not merely in Bengal but throughout India.... No words that I can use ... can overstate the importance which I and my colleagues ... attach to a decision by His Majesty's Government accepting our proposals in preference to Governor's...
With some reluctance, Hoare accepted the Viceroy's case, and the Cabinet settled the matter on 4 August. Previously, the Hindus had forty-six seats to the Muslims' thirty-nine in the Bengal Council; the Award gave them eighty General seats to the Muslims' 119. This was a stunning blow to the Hindu politicians and their patrons. But when they struck it, the British did so for reasons that in the main were not connected with the province at all, but with averting 'reactions outside Bengal', or in other words to satisfy the Muslim politicians of the UP and the Punjab.
Having been smitten by the British, the Bengal Hindus were now squeezed by the Congress. The Award had prolonged the system of separate electorates for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, and it had extended the system to those whom the draftsmen ambiguously described as the Depressed Classes. . . When Gandhi's fast led to the Poona Pact, this meant that the Congress centre bought up the separate electorates awarded to the Depressed Classes; the price it had to pay was to reserve for them a share of the Hindu seats in every province. Generosity on this scale was all very well for the Congress leaders in provinces where, on any assumptions, there would be a copper-bottomed Hindu majority. But in Bengal the caste Hindus had nothing to spare. Matters were all the worse for them because of the obscurity of the term 'Depressed Classes' in the province. In the event it was defined so widely that almost all the non-bhadralok castes were able to get themselves included in the category. At first, Government had intended that the Depressed Classes in Bengal should obtain ten seats. The intervention by the Congress centre raised this number to thirty, and these came from the seventy-eight in the Hindu quota, shrinking it still further.
. . . The Congress centre had become a victim of the Ordinance Raj and was closed down; the Muslim League and the Muslim Conference were neither of them credible spokesmen for the all-India interests of the community. The first reaction among politically minded Hindus was one of united commination. Over this issue, at least, there was no disagreement between the factions of the PCC. Liberty, which was still writing in the Subhas interest, denounced the terms of the Award as:
... insulting and positively mischievous.... The Hindus are rendered politically impotent, and the reactions of this process on the cultural, economic and political life of the province will be disastrous. . . .
Advance, which spoke for Sen Gupta, repeated these indictments:
... the award has sacrificed the province to the Moslem and European communities and has left no real autonomy to the children of the soil.
When Government ruled that eighty-seven Bengal castes were to be included in the Depressed Classes, both newspapers protested again. Liberty wrote that this was tantamount to saying that
'... the Bhadra- logs of Bengal are the only undepressed class',
whereas they had merely acted for the good of all the rest:
The political interests of socially inferior classes never suffered for reasons of their social inferiority.
Advance took the same line, blaming the Namasudras and Rajbansis for allowing themselves to be classed as Depressed. In any case:
... there does not exist in Bengal any caste or castes which may perpetually come under the definition of 'depressed'. . .
Even in the short run the Award was managing to divide the Bengal Muslims as well. When news of its terms first reached Calcutta, the Bengal Government telegraphed its impression that
'Muslims are satisfied but are determined to continue demand for statutory majority, more as offset to Hindu demands than as demand in itself sustainable.'
All the Muslim political groups complained that their 48 per cent of representation in the council would leave any Muslim ministry dependent on the good will of others. Their demand for the elusive 51 per cent was voiced by Fazl-Huq, the Bengal Muslim League and the Bengal section of the Muslim Conference; but it was also expressed by the few Muslims who belonged to the Congress. With the whole community jubilant at the prospect of becoming the masters, no Muslim party could flout that mood by not pressing for an absolute majority. But in every other respect, the Award divided these parties. Predictably, the Congress Muslims, following the party's line, attacked separate elec- torates. So too did the Bengal wing of the Muslim League, whose members were close enough to the populist roots of east Bengal to realize that they had nothing to fear from joint electorates. On the other hand, the old-fashioned Central National Muhammadan Association, which derived its strength from Calcutta and the western districts, where the community was weaker, held strongly to separate electorates. . .
This was also the view of the Bengal section of the Muslim Conference which was dominated by wealthy men such as Sir A. K. Ghaznavi and Nazimuddin, who had no wish to see Muslim radicalism encouraged by campaigns fought in joint electorates. [Note below: Ghaznavi and Nazimuddin told the Governor of Bengal that the Muslims should be given an absolute majority of seats for otherwise 'the strong section which has always favoured joint electorates without reservation of seats would again assert itself...']. All these preliminary divisions among Hindus and Muslims in Bengal were to be widened once the issue of the Award came to be examined on the stage of all-India politics. . .
[Regarding all-India level reactions to the Communal Award]The rub came in Bengal and the Punjab, where the composition of the new legislature was likely to strip the Hindus of much of their previous political importance. Here was an apple of discord for the Congress. Its claim to be spokesman for the entire Indian nation rested on its carrying a Muslim wing of its own. For these Congress Muslims there was no choice but to accept the Award in Bengal and the Punjab. Opposing it would have meant their political extinction. This would also have extinguished the credibility of Congress claims to represent Indians of all communities. On the other hand, for the Congress to acquiesce in the Award would enrage its Hindu members in Bengal and the Punjab. . .
At first, civil disobedience postponed the dilemma for the Congress centre. Gandhi and the other leaders were in gaol; the police broke up the annual sessions; and anyway, with nothing precisely known about the new constitution, there was nothing immediately to decide. From his prison, Gandhi advised his followers to keep mum; and for seven months after his release in August 1933, he was able to bottle up discussion of the awkward issue. But it was bound to spill out.
Early in 1933 a White Paper outlined the British Government's suggestions about the shape of the reforms. Here was a powerful stimulus to electoral politics, for now it was reasonably plain that under the new constitution the provinces would practically govern themselves. For many Congressmen this was a much more glowing prospect than sticking in the dead end of civil disobedience. . .Men of that sort, ready to rush for nomination, did not share Gandhi's anxiety about snapping the unity of the movement. There was no gainsaying them; and at a meeting of the All-India Congress Committee at Patna, between 18 and 20 May 1934, the bargain was struck. On his side, Gandhi agreed to abandon civil disobedience and to sanction a programme of fighting the elections to the Assembly. For their part, the new Swarajists swallowed the argument that since Congress was totally opposed to the reforms which were taking shape in London, the question of its attitude to the Award simply did not arise. Therefore, Congress, it was announced, neither accepted nor rejected the Award. So sybilline a statement warded off trouble, but the trouble was bound to return.
To fight the elections meant setting up a Parliamentary Board to supervise nominations and expound the party's views, including its views on the most vexed issue in Indian politics-the Award. What were these views ? Gandhi still hoped he would not have to say. But when the Working Committee met members of the Parliamentary Board in June, the clash of interests showed that the cat could not be kept in the bag. Malaviya and Aney, with their Mahasabha connec- tions, thought it scandalous that Congress should not candidly denounce the Award, and they threatened to resign unless it was rejected. On their side, the Congress Muslims, Khaliquzzaman, Asaf Ali and Dr Syed Mahmud, protested that such a rejection would finish their influence with their own supporters. If the Award was denounced, they too threatened to resign, and their leader, Dr Ansari, would go with them. Harassed by both sides, Gandhi improvised a new resolution.
Congress rejected the White Paper. Only a constituent assembly could settle the communal problem. 'The White Paper lapsing', he continued in a daring petitio principii, 'the Communal Award lapses automatically'. Nevertheless,
Since, however, the different communities in the country are sharply divided on the question of the Communal Award, it is necessary to define the Congress attitude on it. The Congress claims to represent equally all the communities composing the Indian nation and therefore, in view of the division of opinion, can neither accept nor reject the Communal Award as long as the division of opinion lasts.... Judged by the national standard the Communal Award is wholly unsatisfactory, besides being open to serious objections on other grounds.
So it had come to this. On one of the most crucial of issues before the country, the divisions inside Indian society forced Congress to move from one tongue-tied position to another. First, the self-styled spokesmen for India could not speak. Then, when they were driven into speaking, they had nothing to say. This was good enough for the Congress Muslims, who were too beggared of support to be choosers; but for the Mahasabha wing of the Congress, who were not short of other options, it was merely a word game.
Gandhi did his best:
The more I think about it, the clearer I become that the Working Committee .. resolution is faultless.... Non-committal is the only position the Congress can take up. We must not tease the communal boil. The more we tease it, the worse it becomes. In my opinion it is a fatal blunder to turn our opinion from the White Paper. If the reforms are not killed, the Award will stand in spite of agitation. The reforms can be killed by sustained effort.
By July 1934, this was a sanguine statement. It did not convince Malaviya and Aney. They quit the Parliamentary Board and went on to organize a new Congress Nationalist Party, designed to cripple the Swarajists at the elections by dilating on the wrongs of Bengali and Punjabi Hindus. When they began marshalling their forces at the All- India Communal Award Conference held on 25 October, most of the old faces from the Mahasabha breakaway of 1926 were to be seen. . .
These complex events were now enlivened by another round of quarrelling inside the Bengal PCC. By now the old paladins were no longer there, for Subhas had gone to Europe and Sen Gupta had died, and their factions had passed into the hands of B. C. Roy and J. C. Gupta respectively. The latter group had been alarmed that the new Swarajist machine for fighting elections in Bengal would fall under the control of their rivals; after this quarrel had been patched up, there was another struggle for control of the Corporation, and for a while Calcutta was graced by the presence of two rival mayors.
It was not that the factions differed in their attitude to the Award; all that separated them over this issue was that B. C. Roy, now leader of the majority in the PCC, had tacked so close to Gandhi that he had to accept the Working Party's ambiguous statements about the Award; J. C. Gupta, on the other hand, with the freedom of leading the outs, kept on demanding that the Congress centre should permit open agitation in Bengal against it. But these were no more than tactical differences. . .
The communalism of Bengal Hindus, which seemed so deplorable to the Congress centre, seemed indispensable to the PCC in Calcutta, if they were to make headway against the Nationalists in the forthcoming elections. B. C. Roy pleaded with Gandhi to permit the Bengal Congress to come out against the Award. Would he allow them to announce that their candidates for the Assembly would vote against any move to support the Award there? Gandhi would not. Nor would he allow these candidates to be dispensed on conscientious grounds from obeying the Working Committee resolution: 'Those . . . who want dispensation have simply to belong to the Nationalist Party.'[Note below:In fact, Gandhi had offered a version of the conscience clause to Malaviya. He proposed to apply it in individual cases. Malaviya demanded that it must apply to all candidates.] At the same time, the all- India interests, for whose sake he was hobbling the Bengal Congress, were driving him to try for an electoral pact with the Nationalists. But Malaviya and Aney pitched their price too high. Their party persisted with its campaign against the Congress, and when the Assembly elections took place in Bengal, they carried all seven seats in the General constituencies: Congress won none. The new policy of strictly subordinating Bengal to the centre had produced another ominous result.
M.A. Jinnah - Rajendra Prasad Talks 1935
When the [British Government's]Joint Select Committee reported in October 1934, the lines of the imminent Government of India Act became clear. In the long term, India was to be federated, although the shape of the federation was still up in the air. In the short term, the provinces were to receive self-government, although the imperial safeguards were somewhat fussier than they had been in the White Paper.
In its decadence, British imperialism was swinging between the concessions of 1933 and the safeguards of 1934. But the Congress leaders could now be sure that they were dealing with a power which knew it must give way in the provinces. For the right-wing men who dominated the Congress leadership, men such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Rajagopalachari, this initiative in British policy underwrote their own choice in favour of electoral politics.
During the nineteen-twenties they had argued for no-change against the Swarajists of those days. Das and Motilal Nehru, those frustrated collaborators, had entered the Councils. But they had never controlled the ministries. Now the survivors could do so. Provincial power was in sight for the Congress right wing. They had waited long for it. They meant to take it. Better still, the British were on the run; so the independence of all-India might be within grasp, especially if the Muslims could be brought into a nationalist coalition. How then were the Muslims to be paid? Obviously by tactical concessions in Bengal and the Punjab. In Wardha and Ahmedabad and Madras this seemed a fair price to pay.
But which Muslims were to be squared? The Award, it is true, dealt the community high cards to play against Congress, if the latter needed a joint opposition against the British. One obvious way of playing the hand would be by a long, slow game, cashing its immediate winnings from the Award, and ultimately settling for an independent India with a weak centre and strong provinces-a United States of India where the Muslims would be entrenched in their own majority regions. The argument for the waiting game was well expressed by the Aga Khan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Conference:
The Conf[erence], the League or any other body, if it is to meet & discuss, will open the door to the other elements to counter-attack the Com[munal] Award, and by making, thanks to the Hindu press, all powerful, such a noise as to frighten the B[ritish] Gov[ernment] to go back & say 'as important Muslims are opposed to it, they are not prepared to push it through Parliament'.... By all means let us have ... our Unity conferences ... but only after the Com[munal] award is law of the land & Act of Parliament a reality.
The community should stand pat. It should eschew negotiation. It should be wary of schemes of self-government at the centre. As for the Muslim League, it was in disarray until Jinnah returned to take the lead, but it was clear that Muslims must hold on to 'those rights which have already been conceded to them'. . . .
Without an effective centre, with the Muslim Conference a network of notables and the Muslim League a cockpit of rivals, the position of the community was chaotic. Some Muslims wanted the Award and wanted the reforms as a way of buttressing it. Others wanted the Award but would not hear of the reforms. Some worked for joint electorates, others worked against them. Some glimpsed provincial power moving into their grasp; others saw it vanishing for ever. But after March 1934, when Jinnah was back in power in the Muslim League, the position became a little simpler. His rivals, Fazl-i-Husain and the Aga Khan, had placed the Muslim Conference firmly behind the Award, but many Muslims from east Bengal were ready to bargain about it.
This gave Jinnah an alternative way of playing the hand which the British had dealt: he could offer the Congress the League's co- operation over joint electorates if in return the Congress would accept Muslim majorities in Bengal and the Punjab. Jinnah had sound reasons for seeking agreement with Congress. If he was to beat the Conference, then he had to broaden the basis of the League. An agreement with Congress would be helpful and might be possible, since he was as opposed to safeguards as they were, and his Bengal followers would accept joint electorates. This would mean trouble in the Punjab, where Muslim politics were controlled by Fazl-i-Husain, but he had little to lose there.[Note below:In any case, Jinnah still saw himself less as a party leader than as a go-between whose role lay in the central Assembly (to which he had been re-elected in October 1934). There the support of the Congress members would strengthen his claim to be a national leader.]
Twelve months earlier, the Congress high command had been aware that they might buy Jinnah's support against the British, at the cost of selling out the Hindus in Bengal and the Punjab.[Note below: In January 1934 Jinnah had suggested a combined attack against the proposals of the White Paper, if Congressmen would accept the Communal Award; Munshi to Gandhi, 27 January 1934, in Munshi, Indian Constitutional Documents]
Now in January 1935, when the Joint Select Committee's report gave them a solid incentive to do so, Jinnah made his offer in plain terms:
I have nothing in common with the Aga Khan. He is a British agent. I am devoted to my old policy and programme.... If the Congress can support the Muslims on the question of the Communal Award, I would be able to get all the Muslim members except 7 or 8. I... take the view that the J.P.C. [Joint Select Committee] Provincial constitution would be acceptable if the powers of the Governor and the legislative independence of the police department were removed... I am for the complete rejection of the proposals relating to Central Government.... As things stand, the practical way would be for just a few leaders of political thought to combine for the purpose of preparing a formula which both the communities might accept. The Congress I admit would have to change its attitude in some respects, but looking to the great interests at stake Congress leaders should not flinch. I think that the future is with the Congress Party and not with me or the Aga Khan.[Vallabhbhai Patel Papers]
On 23 January 1935, Rajendra Prasad, now president of the Congress, opened negotiations. He soon found that Jinnah was ready to bargain about the Award; for a price he would agree to joint electorates. The Congress right wing had now to settle how much they were ready to pay. On the evening of 30 January, the Congress president, together with Vallabhbhai, Malaviya and Bhulabhai Desai agreed on the price: they would give the Muslims 51 per cent of the seats in Bengal and in the Punjab-more than the British had awarded them. [Note below:This meeting ratified the agreement reached earlier that day between Prasad and Jinnah, that in all provinces other than Bengal, the Punjab and Assam, the weightage given to minorities under the communal decision should stand; and that in Bengal both Hindus and Muslims should try to persuade the Europeans to surrender some of their seats. These were then to be divided between the two communities.]
When this was put to Jinnah on the following day, he asked for more, observing 'that he was unable just yet to see any way to induce the Punjab although he felt that he had good grounds for recommending joint electorates to Bengal'; the Muslims would be more readily persuaded, if they were granted a differential franchise as well. [Note below: If a given percentage of seats was to be reserved for either Hindus or Muslims under a system of separate electorates, this could be contrived by allotting to each community that percentage of constituencies which were bound to elect Hindu or Muslim members. In the Punjab the Sikhs possessed separate constituencies as well. This system had existed under the Montagu-Chelmsford constitution. But if separate electorates were to be replaced by joint electorates, then seats might still effectively be reserved by altering the terms of the franchise. Such schemes for a differential franchise implied altering British proposals by readjusting the franchise so that the electoral rolls reflected the proportion of population formed by Hindus and Muslims in Bengal and the proportion of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the Punjab.]
At that point the talks were adjourned for twelve days, so that both sides might sound their followers. It says much for the anxiety of the Congress leadership to clinch the agreement that they made no immediate difficulties over Jinnah's higher terms; and still more, that they deliberately let the bulk of Bengal Congress opinion go by default, even when their province was coming up for auction. The only Bengal politician consulted by the Congress centre seems to have been B. C. Roy, who could speak convincingly for the rich men of Calcutta but not for the opinion of the districts.
On 13-14 February, Prasad and Jinnah finally nerved themselves to agree on a formula 'as a basis for further discussion'. Joint electorates were to replace separate electorates in the voting for the central and provincial legislatures. Bengal and the Punjab apart, in all the other provinces of British India the number of seats reserved to the Muslims under the Communal Award was to stand. In Bengal and the Punjab, the franchise was to be adjusted on a differential basis. In Bengal, 'the seats allotted to the Muslims under the award are to remain reserved for them', and if the Europeans surrendered any of their seats, these were to be divided between Hindus and Muslims in proportion to their population in the province-which would give the Muslims an absolute majority.[Note below:The Muslims were also to keep the one-third share of seats in the new central legislature which Hoare had allotted them.]
The drafting of this 'basis for further discussion' was very cautious; its inwardness lay in generally accepting, although not in so many words, the Communal Award. Congress had bought out the Muslim asset of separate electorates at the cost of acquiescing in the certainty of Muslim control of the Punjab and the likelihood of Muslim control of Bengal. From his all-India point of view, Rajendra Prasad was satisfied with the bargain. The loss of Bengal and the Punjab was regrettable, but there was the compensation, as he reminded Vallabhbhai Patel, that:
Joint electorates are in themselves important as opening a way for joint action which has great possibilities for the future. Hindus have always attached great value to them and if they can be had they should be prepared to pay some price.
From the summit of the Congress high command (as of the Govern ment of India) it was easy to assume the existence of some solid mass defined as 'Hindus'; but that assumption slid over the awkward local facts. It was not the Hindus as a whole who would have to pay the price, but some Hindus in some districts of some provinces. In the Ambala division of Punjab, and the Presidency and Burdwan divisions of Bengal, the Hindu majorities had nothing to fear from joint elec- torates; just as on the other side of the hill, the Muslim majorities in west Punjab and east Bengal stood to gain from them. But where the shoe pinched was in areas where socially powerful minorities of Muslims and Hindus would be trapped in constituencies which they could never hope to capture. The Jinnah-Prasad proposals could expect no support from the urban Muslims of the Lahore division or from the upper-caste Hindus of the Dacca, Rajshahi and Chittagong divisions. As for the Sikhs, they had already blocked an earlier scheme of differential franchise for the Punjab, and it was hard to see how any variant could secure them their 18 per cent of seats under the Award.
These were not hopeful signs. The combined efforts of Bhulabhai Desai, Patel and Prasad gradually won over the Hindus of the Punjab, but this was to be their only success. At first, the Congress president hoped to carry Hindu opinion in Bengal; apparently B. C. Roy and his coterie in Calcutta persuaded him that the formula 'may be accepted by other influential Bengalis also'. But the time had gone when influential Bengalis could credibly speak for the Hindus of their province. So far as the Congress politicians in the districts were concerned, the issue cut too near the bone for them to leave their case in the hands of a few Congress notables. Other troubles were mounting as well. The Sikhs would not hear of the Punjab formula. The Hindu Mahasabha denounced the Bengal formula.[Note below:The Mahasabha were demanding that no seats should be reserved for either community in Bengal] So did Malaviya, the voice of Hindu orthodoxy. [Note below: Malaviya also opposed the scheme for giving the Muslims too much in the new central legislature.]
But Jinnah was now stipulating that Sikhs, Mahasabha and Malaviya must all agree before he would risk trying to push the scheme through the Muslim League. Sceptics were coming to wonder whether the negotiations were more than a charade, a view expressed by Sir N. N. Sarcar, the Law Member of the Government of India:
'I feel ... that the peace talk is pure moonshine. Jinnah is humbugging the Congress and the latter know that they are being humbugged'.
Whatever Jinnah's motives may have been, his conditions gave the Bengal Congress a way out of its isolation. Now it could band together with the disgruntled from other provinces against the Congress centre. With Malaviya and the spokesmen for the Sikhs and the Mahasabha milling around him in Delhi, Prasad had enough difficulties. His troubles were compounded by the arrival of emissaries from the Bengal Congress, those pastmasters of faction. They brought their own splits with them.
The division between Hindu interests in east and in west Bengal had been dragged into the open by the Prasad-Jinnah plan. East Bengalis were prominent among the root and branch group who wanted to knock the Bengal formula to pieces by scrapping the differential franchise, limiting the reservation of seats to ten years, pulling down the Muslim share of seats from 119 to 11o, and pushing up the Hindu share to about ninety. Pitted against them was a more moderate view, expressed by the west Bengal leaders, P. N. Bannerji and Amarendranath Chatterji, who supported the first two demands but who were prepared to leave the distribution of seats alone.
When Prasad confronted the Bengalis and the all-India leaders of the Mahasabha on 25 February, he was both perplexed and irritated by the demands of the Bengal opposition. Expounded by Sarkendranath Roy, Indra Narayan Sen, Dinesh Chakravarty and Makhen Lall Sen, these had a pronounced flavour both of the Hindu Sabha and of east Bengal. The Congress president's own notes describe the clash:
I told the gentlemen present that so far as I could see there was no chance of these proposals being accepted by Mr. Jinnah and I took it that their instruction was that I should break off negotiations.... Some Bengal friends said that sooner the negotiations were broken off the better, but Dr. Bannerji [West Bengal] said that there was a sharp difference of opinion and I should not take that as the Bengal opinion.... Dr. Bannerji asked Malaviyajee to take the question in his hand, accept anything he considered fair and reasonable and they would all accept it. Mr Anney [Mahasabha] said that he would not give that authority to Malviyajee alone. Dr. Moonjey [Mahasabha] said that they should all assist Malaviyajee in finding a formula. Pandit Malaviyajee said that seeing that there was such sharp difference of opinion he would not take any such responsibility on himself.... I said ... I would show their demands to Mr. Jinnah but I had no hopes of their being accepted. I pointed out that we were losing a great opportunity of getting Joint Electorates about which we had been speaking so much.
Clearly there was no hope of meeting Jinnah's conditions. But so anxious were Prasad and Vallabhbhai Patel to save their bargain that when the Congress president met Jinnah on 27 February he suggested confining the agreement to the Congress and the League, leaving aside the more intransigent bodies. Jinnah refused. That was the end of the affair. Another all-India leader of the Congress, a man eager for electoral victory in his own province, commiserated with Prasad: 'It is very tragic'.[Rajagopalachari to Rajendra Prasad]
Perhaps the odds had always been against success; but the history of the negotiations is revealing. Prasad's account shows that in his view it was the Bengal Hindus who used Jinnah's conditions to upset the bargain. Ever since 1932, they had been alarmed by the new electoral arithmetic. From the British India Association to the University, from the zemindars to the literary men, from chairmen of district boards to members of the Legislative Council, they had shouted their hatred of the Communal Award from the housetops.
It had been in the interest of Hindu politicians in all districts to do so. But their general solidarity was dividing into regional interests of east and west. At one time they had rightly seen that from one end of Bengal to another, their advantage lay in pressing for joint electorates; even where they were outnumbered by Muslims, as in the districts of east Bengal, their local influence could win seats for them. But these calculations dated from the golden days of Hindu predominance.
By the nineteen-thirties they had everything to lose in the eastern districts by joint electorates. In west Bengal, where joint electorates were in the interest of the political oligarchy, the Jinnah-Prasad formula would rescue something from the Award. But in east Bengal, where their last hope now lay in preserving separate electorates, the formula would ruin them completely.
Rajendra Prasad had been misled by his Calcutta advisers, for as he ruefully admitted:
When we came to discuss the merits of the proposed formula it appeared that there was difference of opinion as regards the value of joint electorates some friends saying that separate electorates would suit Hindus in Eastern Bengal better.
Birla put the point more bitingly when he reported to Gandhi that
Among the Bengal Hindus those who come from West Bengal are favourably disposed towards joint electorates. On the other hand, East Bengal is simply frightened of it.
This glaring division of interests put a further strain upon the Bengal Congress. The all-India leadership had already brought it to heel. Every fresh act of control by the centre added to the difficulties under which the Bengal Congress had to work. The centre had unleashed civil disobedience and unsettled the preponderance of Calcutta. It had de- molished the power of the majority faction. It had surrendered thirty seats to the lower castes. Now it had clearly shown that in the pursuit of its wider interests it meant to abandon Bengal to the Muslims. . .
By their strategy of concentrating on the greatest good of the greatest number of Hindus in other provinces, Prasad and Patel had shown how little value they placed on Bengal. When the Congress president visited Calcutta in March 1935, he found Congressmen still full of resentment about the negotiations with Jinnah and fearful of new encroachments from the centre. Central agencies such as the All-India Village Industrial[sic?] Association which Gandhi had recently set up, were regarded with suspicion, in case the high command intended them to supplant the PCC. . . .
[District-wise membership numbers from 1936] show how few were the districts where Congress possessed any influence whatever among the new electors. This isolation from the people was most marked in the east Bengal districts, where the new electors were mostly Muslims or lower-caste Hindus.
Consequently, for many of the new voters there would be little charm in the appeals of the Bengal Congress. But if they would not vote for a caucus in Calcutta, they might vote for a Mahatma in Wardha. The prestige of the Congress centre, the impact of its all-India agencies, its new financial strength, its apparent denial of caste distinctions, all worked to make the centre a greater electoral asset than the PCC. Here was the surety which bound the Bengal Congress to the high command. But in the meantime the Bengal Congress was hampered by the demands of its own constituents. After all, the new electors were birds in the bush; the old supporters were birds in the hand. On the one side, the Congress centre forbade them to denounce the Award; on the other, their old supporters insisted that they should do so. The final period before the elections left the Bengal Congress hopelessly caught in the nut-crackers. . .
Provincial Elections 1937
When the Government of India Act reached the statute book in 1935, the Communal Award became law. By 1936, with the elections drawing near, the beleaguered Hindu notables of Bengal made one last effort to press London into amending it by Order in Council. To this end they drew up a memorial, signed by all Hindu members of the Legislative Council, by twenty-three chairmen of municipalities, by eight chairmen of district boards, and by thirty-six 'representative Hindu leaders'. Here is the roll-call of Hindu eminence in Bengal, for they included members of the Council of State, great zemindars, the mayor of Calcutta, the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Sarat Chandra Chatterji, the novelist, Sir P. C. Ray, the chemist, Ramanand Chatterji, editor of the Modern Review, Sir Nilratan Sircar, the eminent doctor, Rabindranath Tagore and Sir Brajendranath Seal. Out of this memorial came a last campaign in which the thwarted collaborators of Bengal repeated their grievances in Calcutta, Dacca, Barisal, Howrah and elsewhere. The Indian Association was active in the movement; so was the Hindu Sabha.
By July, the political implications of the campaign were brought into the open by the Mahasabha who now threatened to contest the Bengal elections as Congress Nationalists; the following month they gave Congress their terms for standing down. The terms were simple: unqualified rejection of the Communal Award.
Majumdar and Sarat Bose did their best to make the Congress Working Committee relent. Once the Lucknow session of Congress had gone through the motions of rejecting the new constitution and had installed as president Jawaharlal Nehru, still regarded as the hammer of the Congress Right, they begged for a harder line against the Award, '... with a view... to bring about the much needed United front in the Congress ranks in Bengal ... so far as this province is concerned, the only difference between the two groups centres round the issue of non- rejection by the Congress of the Award'. But Nehru replied that: '... the question has to be tackled on an all-India basis', it was an answer that might have been written by Prasad or Patel. . .
During the confrontation with Bengal in September and October it was they, and not the Congress president, who shaped the tactics of the centre. What moved Patel and Prasad were not ideological niceties but electoral needs, and these demanded a hard line against Bengal. They needed to cow the province. Now they had the ideal weapon at hand.
One of the first tasks of the newly united PCC had been to appoint a Provincial Parliamentary Committee, to scrutinize candidates nominated by the DCCs for the forthcoming elections. Once they had approved the list, the Bengal Committee wanted to publish it quickly, partly so that it might appear before 20 October, when the Puja holidays would bring politics to a standstill, and partly, perhaps, because half the candidates they had approved were members of the Congress Nationalist Party. But the list had also to be approved by the All-India Parliamentary Committee. With India standing on the brink of the elections, this body was one of the most powerful organizations in the entire Congress. Its president was Vallabhbhai Patel and its secretary was Rajendra Prasad. . .
Sarat Bose appealed to Nehru as one advanced thinker to another:
. . . pro-ministry wallahs like Patel... & others will sidetrack the main issue but Bengal will always stand by you in the fight for independence.
But there was nothing to be gained by declaiming long-term slogans to a Congress president who was trapped in a Working Committee obsessed with a short-term aim. Nehru could not help. . .
When Bose's list of candidates came before the All-India Parliamentary Committee, a number of them were rejected. He resigned from the task, leaving it to an apprehensive B. C. Roy,137 who then received this encouragement from Nehru:
I do not know what you expect from me in the way of inspiration and guidance, but if I may venture to offer a suggestion-why not arrange for some of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas to be shown in Calcutta for the free entertainment and instruction of our over-worked and over-worried colleagues. Of course there is that other sovereign remedy of standing on one's head which the Bengal Parliamentary Board and the B.P.C.C. might indulge in with advantage. I can commend this method from personal experience...
Roy found no pleasure in this advice. Next the All-India Parliamentary Committee began to reject his nominees as well. It was now his turn to resign. When the Bengal Congress fought the elections in January 1937, it was as the captive of the centre. . .
These low affairs have to be placed in a larger setting. All over India the provincial Congress parties were now squarely facing the demands of electoral politics; and most of them saw the need for integrating themselves into local centres of power. This they did, in the United Provinces, the Central Provinces and Bihar; after some difficulty they did so in Berar and Maharashtra; and most conspicuously of all, they did so in Madras. In that province Congress won 74 per cent of seats in the elections to the new provincial Assemblies under the new franchise; in Bihar it won 65 per cent, in the Central Provinces 62.5 per cent, in the United Provinces 59 per cent, and in Bombay 49 per cent. In the elections in Bengal, Congress won 21.6 per cent. This was a feeble result.
The best that could be said of it was that no party did well in Bengal. Hence for a while, members of all the factions, such as J. C. Gupta, B. C. Roy, K. S. Roy, Sarat Bose and T. C. Goswami, could hope to take office in alliance with the Muslim- Namasudra party of Fazl-Huq. But the Working Committee would not hear of it. Reluctantly Bengal Congressmen had to watch port- folios floating away from them:
The Proja party members headed by Moulvi Fazul Huq begged of the Congress members to form a coalition with them.... Due to Congress decision we were unable to accede to their request. . .
As it turned out, there was never to be a Congress ministry in an undivided Bengal. But its disappointed Hindu politicians had one last fling. In provinces with Congress ministries there were other disappointed politicians. They might be recruited into a foray against those in possession.
In 1937 Subhas Bose had returned to India, and he became president of the all-India Congress the following year. He was soon at odds with the right wing at the centre, because of his dislike of the Congress ministries and his outright opposition to federation. Stands of that sort were meat and drink to his supporters in Bengal, and they also won over the aggrieved factions in other provinces. This coalition forced through his re-election in January, 1939. Not that it mattered. The opposition of the right wing, led by Gandhi himself, forced Subhas to resign in April, I939. He retaliated by founding the Forward Bloc and the Left-Consolidation Committee, efforts to give organized form to his inter-provincial alliance of the aggrieved.
These picked up little support except from men who had been tossed and gored by Vallabhbhai. In August the Working Committee removed Subhas from all his positions in the Congress. The coalition-vanished. Deserted by the M. N. Roy group, by the Trade Unionists, by the Congress Socialists and by the National Front[Note below: This was the Communist Party of India in sheep's clothing.]Subhas was now a general without an army, reduced to demonstrating in front of British statues on the Calcutta maidan. In January 1941, he fled from India, disguised as a Muslim insurance agent.
It was the misfortune of Bengal that the history and social structure of the province made a jigsaw which no longer could be teased into a solution. Perhaps the best friend of the old politicians had been the pro- consul whose partition of Bengal would have cut away their troubles in the eastern districts. But they had rejected the surgery of George Nathaniel Curzon. By the nineteen-twenties their options inside undivided Bengal were closing. By the time of the Communal Award and the wider franchise, self-government for Bengal could only mean the rule of others. No one would permit Bengal to contract out of the empire on Burmese lines; and in any case the province lacked the internal solidarity to pull the Bengali peoples out of India. Inside the province the balance had tilted against the Hindu politicians, so radical in style, so conservative in practice. Inside India as a whole, it had tilted against Bengal. Only a new partition could salvage something from the wreck.
The modern history of Bengal has often been taken as the exemplar of Indian nationalism. In fact, Bengal more and more deviated from it. In the nineteenth century the province had done much to establish the trends in the national movement; by the nineteen-thirties it was struggling against them. By their failure to link province with locality, its politicians were bound to lose in the great game of the last days of the Raj. No province had done as much to develop theories and programmes for the national movement. Yet this narrative should have shown how irrelevant ideology turned out to be in this most ideologically minded of Indian provinces.
It also demonstrates the need to reintegrate the study of Indian history. Bengal's fate had been largely determined by national and imperial considerations which were outside its control. Locality and province cannot be studied in isolation from the nation and the empire to which they belonged. There was a tragic sense to the struggles of the Bengal Congress as it tried to hold its own against the unsentimental calculations of the British and the Congress centre. Those Bengalis who once had gained so much by their enthusiastic acceptance of British rule and culture, were finally cast aside by the Raj. The province which had inspired Indian nationalism was sacrificed for its sake. Imperialism devours its own children. Nationalism destroys its own parents.
CMP(1) - From Ayesha Jalal's 'The Sole Spokesman'
CMP(2) - Congress and Muslim League positions on 12 May 1946
CMP(3) - The Cabinet Mission Plan 16 May 1946
CMP(4) - Jinnah and ML responses to the CMP 22 May and June 6 1946
CMP(5) - Jinnah's meeting with Mission Delegation on 4 April 1946
CMP(6) - Jinnah's meeting with Missiion Delegation on 16 April 1946
CMP(7A) - Maulana Azad's meeting with Mission Delegation on 17 April 1946
CMP(7) - The Congress unease with parity 8-9 May 1946
CMP(7B) - Jinnah and Azad responses to preliminary proposals 8-9 May 1946
CMP(8A) - Simla Conference meetings on 5 May 1946 on the powers of the Union
CMP(8) - More exchanges on parity, Simla Conference meeting 11 May 1946
CMP(9) - Jinnah and Wyatt(1) on Pakistan and CMP, 8 Jan. and 25 May 1946
CMP(10) - Jinnah and Wyatt(2) on the interim government, 11 June 1946
CMP(11) - Congress opposition to grouping. Gandhi, Patel and Azad, May 1946
CMP(12) - Congress Working Committee resolutions, May-June 1946
CMP(12A) - Arguments over inclusion of a Congress Muslim, June 1946
CMP(12B) - Behind the scenes-Gandhi, June-July 1946
CMP(12C) - Behind the scenes-Jinnah, June-July 1946
CMP(13) - Jawaharlal Nehru's press conference on the Plan, 10 July 1946
CMP(14) - League rejected Plan, called Direct Action, July-August 1946
CMP(15) - Viceroy strong-arming Nehru, Gandhi on compulsory grouping, Pethick-Lawrence to Attlee, Aug -Sept 1946
CMP(16) - Intelligence assessment on Jinnah's options and threat of civil war, Sept. 1946
CMP(17) - League Boycott of the Constituent Assembly Dec. 1946
CMP(17A) - Congress "climbdown" on grouping and Jinnah's rejection, January 1947
CMP (A1) - Plain speaking from Sir Khizr Hayat, Abell on the Breakdown plan, Wavell
CMP(A2) - North West Frontier Province, Oct-Nov 1946 and Feb-March 1947
CMP(A3) - Bengal and Bihar, August - November 1946
CMP(A4) - Punjab, February - March 1947
CMP (18) - My take
CMP (19) - What did parity and communal veto mean in numbers?
CMP(20) - Another take -with links to reference material
CMP(21) - Mountbatten discussing CMP with Patel and Jinnah, 24-26 Apr 1947
CMP(22) - A reply on the Cabinet Mission Plan
Extra(1) - Jinnah's speech in March 1941 on independent sovereign Pakistan
Extra(1A) - Jinnah's Speeches and Statements from 1941-1942
Extra(1B) - Jinnah's Speeches and Statements from 1938-1940
Extra(1C) - Jinnah's speeches and Statements from 1943-45
Extra(2) - Gandhi-Jinnah talks in 1944 on defining Pakistan
Extra(3) - BR Ambedkar quoted from his book 'Pakistan or the Partition of India'
Extra(4) - Congress and Muslim parties' on the Communal question 1927-1931
Extra(4A) - Excerpts of Motilal Nehru Committee Report 1928
Extra(4B) - Nehru, Bose, Jinnah Correspondence 1937-38
Extra(5) - BR Ambedkar on Communal Representation 1909-1947
Extra(6) - Gandhiji's scheme of offering the Prime Ministership to Jinnah in 1947
Extra(6A) - Jinnah on Congress's offers of Prime Ministership 1940-43
Extra (6B) - Apr-Jul 1947 Negotiations on Pakistan between Mountbatten and Jinnah
Extra(7) - M.A.Jinnah and Maulana Azad on two nation theory
Extra(8) - On Separate electorates, Joint electorates and Reserved constituencies
Extra(9) - Links to cartoons on Indian constitutional parleys from the Daily Mail, UK, 1942 and 1946-1947, by L.G. Illingworth
Extra(10) -Nehru Report 1928 (10 MB pdf)
Extra(11) -Iqbal's letters to Jinnah, May-June 1937
Extra(12) -Jinnah, Linlithgow, Sikander Hayat, Pakistan rumblings 1942-43
Durga Das (1) 1919-1931, Jallianwala Bagh to Bhagat Singh
Durga Das (2) 1931-1936, Crescent Card: Jinnah in London to Fazli Husain in Punjab
Durga Das(3) 1937-1940, Provincial Autonomy to Jinnah gets the veto
Durga Das(4) 1940-1945, The War Years: India's War Effort-Pakistan on a platter
Durga Das(5) 1945-1947, The Cabinet Mission to Divide and Quit
1937-1940(2) Congress and Jinnah fall out in U.P., Jinnah's anti-Congress campaign and the Viceroy gives Jinnah a Veto: Ayesha Jalal, Sarvepalli Gopal and Stanley Wolpert
1937: Congress-Jinnah tussle over coalition government in U. P., M.J. Akbar
1937: Nehru, Jinnah and Coalition Governments, Bimal Prasad
1939-1940: India and the War, Anita Inder Singh
1945-1946: The Elections of 1945-46, Anita Inder Singh
1857-1938 Glimpses of British policy in Punjab: Ian Talbot and David Page
1930-1939 Congress Decline in Bengal, John Gallagher
Glendevon (1) 1937: Congress's Office Acceptance Saga over Governor's Powers
Glendevon (2) 1937-1940: Federation, Jinnah, Congress activism in Princely States
Glendevon (3) 1939-1942: Linlithgow, Congress, Jinnah,War-time Realignments
1939-1947: Jinnah and the Anglo-Muslim League Alliance, Narendra Singh Sarila
1944: Gandhi-Jinnah talks, Jaswant Singh
1899-1947: British Forward Policy(2)