Nationality vs. Partition
— Suniti Kumar Ghosh
The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming publication of R.U.P.E., India’s Nationality Question and Ruling Classes, by Suniti Kumar Ghosh. (This is a revised version of an earlier edition published by the author himself, Kolkata, 1996.)
We would like to discuss briefly the question raised by C.H. Philips – the question why the Muslims could found a state in the Indian subcontinent and why the nationalities like the Bengalis could not.
Many hold the Muslim League led by M.A. Jinnah responsible for the partition of India. Facts lead to a different conclusion. Michael Brecher, Nehru’s biographer, writes that the consensus among the people, including Nehru, whom he met, was that “a united India was within the realm of possibility as late as 1946”. He adds that “one must assume” that the partition of India “was a voluntary choice of Nehru, Patel and their colleagues”.3 Abul Kalam Azad also held that “Patel was the founder of India’s partition”. He said: “I was surprised that Patel was now an even greater supporter of the two-nation theory than Jinnah. Jinnah may have raised the flag of partition but now the real flag-bearer was Patel.”4 He also blamed Nehru for the partition. In fact, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and their close associates shared the responsibility. To quote Frank Moraes, “Reflecting on my many conversations and discussions with Jinnah I am convinced that he did not really want Pakistan but was driven by the logic of events and the intransigence of the Congress leaders into finally embracing it.”5
To be brief, when during the negotiations between British imperialism, the Congress and the League, there was no agreement between the leaders of the Congress and of the League as regards the future political set-up in India, the Cabinet delegation which came to India in 1946 and Viceroy Wavell produced their own plan, known as the Cabinet Mission Plan, on 16 May. It rejected the League demand for a separate Pakistan and argued that “a radical partition of the Punjab and Bengal, as this would do, would be contrary to the wishes and interests of a very large proportion of the inhabitants of these Provinces”. It said: “Bengal and the Punjab each has its own common language and a long history and tradition.” Besides, the partition of the Punjab would be harmful to the interests of the Sikhs who were spread over the whole of the province.
The Cabinet Mission Plan outlined a scheme for a united India. The plan, recommended for India comprising both ‘British India’ and the native states, was a three-tier one – a Union Centre dealing with foreign affairs, defence and communications and with powers to raise the necessary finances and equipped with an Executive and a Legislature; three groups of provinces (or sub-federations) with their own executives and legislatures – one including all Hindu majority provinces, another comprising the Punjab, Sind, the NWFP and Baluchistan; and the third one consisting of Bengal and Assam. The provinces would be vested with all subjects other than the Union subjects and with residuary powers. British paramountcy over the native states would lapse and there should be negotiations between them and the rest of India for their inclusion in the Indian Union.
The three groups of provinces would frame constitutions for the provinces included in them and decide whether to have group constitutions. A province would be free to opt out of a particular group after the first general election under the new constitution.
The Muslim League agreed to a united India with its grouping of provinces.6 The Congress Working Committee resolution of 24 May insisted that “India must necessarily have a strong central authority.” The Nehrus were violently opposed to the grouping system, which, according to the British government, was an essential feature of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Talking glibly of provincial autonomy, of which the Nehrus were sworn enemies, they torpedoed the plan which envisaged a United India.
The Congress leaders’ real objection was not to the denial of provincial autonomy to Assam and the NWFP – the NWFP, which they soon threw to the wolves, as Abdul Ghaffar Khan accused the Congress leaders of doing. What they really objected to was the emergence of groups or sub-federations, which would render the Centre weak. Their policy was basically opposed to the essence of the Cabinet Mission Plan – decentralization of powers and a weak Centre. As they had chosen the royal road of negotiations to attain the goal of self-government, they were prepared to settle for an India minus certain parts in the north-west and the east. But they were not willing to make any compromise on the issue of a strong Centre – a strong Centre which would not be restricted to the exercise of merely three subjects. That is why on the pleas of upholding the sacred principle of provincial autonomy and Sikh interests, they buried the Cabinet Mission Plan, which would have preserved the unity of India.
As noted before, the Congress (and the people) were offered another chance for having a United India. After assuming office on 23 March 1947 as Viceroy, Mountbatten realized that the Cabinet Mission Plan could not be revived as the difference between the Congress and the League over the grouping system could not be reconciled. The Viceroy and his British staff drafted a plan which gave to the representatives of the provinces (the NWFP after a fresh election) and the Muslim-majority and non-Muslim-majority areas of the Punjab and Bengal the right to decide whether they would join the existing constituent assembly (dominated by the Congress) or group together in one or more constituent assemblies or stand out independently and act as their own constituent assembly. Among the main features of the plan were: compulsory grouping was avoided to meet the objections of the Congress to this feature of the Cabinet Mission Plan; the right of the provinces to decide their own fate was recognized; Bengal and the Punjab would be free to decide whether they would remain undivided with their integrity intact and free to decide their relations with the rest of India.
The plan also envisaged that “the constituent assemblies, if more than one, should also create machinery for joint consultation among themselves on matters of common concern, particularly Defence, and for the negotiation of agreements in respect of these matters.”
If either of the two plans was accepted by the Congress leaders, the holocausts throughout India in 1947 and after would have been averted. But the lives of tens of millions of ordinary Indians were dirt cheap to the Congress leaders who have been falsely acclaimed as leaders of India’s freedom struggle.
The Congress Working Committee, which met early in May for several days with Gandhi attending, took a completely different stand. In an interview to the Associated Press of America, Patel proposed two alternatives. All power should be transferred to the Central Government “as it now stands” (“the interim Government”, formed by Congress representatives on 2 September 1946 and joined by Muslim League representatives later, in which the Congress had majority support), which should function as a dominion government with “the Viceroy standing out”. “If there were conflicts in the Cabinet on any question, the majority would rule.” The other alternative was that power should be transferred to the two constituent assemblies – the existing one [boycotted by League members] and the other composed of Muslim League members already elected. Patel affirmed: “Congress would like to have a strong centre.” So the alternatives were either Congress rule or partition on communal lines.
This plan drawn up by Mountbatten and his British staff fully satisfied Nehru’s craving (more hypocritical than genuine) for provincial autonomy. So Nehru had to raise another bogey: the plan, if implemented, would lead to the balkanization of India.
To obtain a monopoly of power (of course, under the British umbrella), the Congress leaders opposed the plan that the provinces should initially be successor states and the central authority or authorities should emerge on the voluntary coming together of the provinces – their voluntary agreement to part with some powers in favour of some central authority – the essence of genuine federalism. Every province (or national region like Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Maharashtra etc.) was large enough to constitute an independent state – many of them far larger and more populous than most of the states of Europe. Instead of accepting the federal principle to which the Congress leaders often paid lip service, they killed the provincial choice and insisted on having an undivided India with a centralized, authoritarian state run by them; or, if that was not possible, they were prepared for the partition of India on artificial, religious lines with the national regions or parts of them coerced to join either Hindustan or Pakistan. That this would cause countless millions mourn did not matter to the political representatives of the Indian big bourgeoisie. Millions of lives of the common people were nothing compared to profits earned by this class. Quite sometime before the Muslim League demanded the partition of India on a religious basis, G.D. Birla had pleaded for it. On 11 January 1938, he wrote to Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary:
“I wonder why it should not be possible to have two Federations, one of Muslims and another of Hindus. The Muslim Federation may be composed of all the provinces or portions of the provinces which contain more than two-thirds Muslim population and the Indian states like Kashmir … if anything is going to check our progress, it is the Hindu-Muslim question – not the Englishman, but our own internal quarrels.”7
Not only did Birla try to persuade Gandhi to agree to the partition of India on communal lines as early as January 1938 but he also approached Viceroy Linlithgow with the same proposal in the same month.8
Even after the partition of India became a settled fact, there arose the possibility of Bengal remaining undivided outside Hindustan and Pakistan. A memorandum of the Secretary of State, dated 4 March 1947, envisaged the possibility of the emergence of three states: Pakistan, Hindustan and Bengal.9
On 15 May, Lord Ismay informed Mountbatten that the British Cabinet’s India and Burma Committee “were pledged to give the Provinces the option of remaining independent of either Hindustan or Pakistan, if they so desired. This was particularly applicable to the case of Bengal.”10
In a memorandum, dated 17 May, the Secretary of State, Listowel, said that “there are strong practical arguments for giving the third option of remaining united and framing its own constitution certainly to Bengal and probably also to the Punjab.” He refuted Nehru’s charge of balkanization and said that it would be consistent with the right of self-determination.11 At the Cabinet meeting on 23 May, Prime Minister Attlee said: “In the North-East there were good hopes that Bengal might decide to remain united on the basis of a coalition Government elected on a joint electorate.”12 On the same day Attlee mentioned in his messages to the prime ministers of the British dominions the emergence of “two or possibly three independent states” in the Indian sub-continent.13
Curiously, in his letter of 9 March 1947 to Wavell, Nehru demanded that Bengal and the Punjab should be partitioned even if India was not partitioned. The demand had already been raised by Birla’s Hindustan Times. On 1May Nehru again conveyed to Mountbatten the same demand. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha, who had become a special favourite of the Patels, went on echoing it.14
The leaders of Bengal, both Hindu and Muslim, who had a mass base, started a move to prevent the dismemberment of Bengal and keep her undivided outside both Hindustan and Pakistan. Earlier, in April 1946, when rumours were afloat in Delhi about the possible partition of Bengal, Sarat Chandra Bose, then leader of the Congress party in the Central Legislative Assembly, arranged a meeting of Congress representatives of Bengal. They expressed their unanimous view that “partitioning of Bengal would ruin the national life of the Bengalis for all time. They are reported to have stated that, although in the minority, the Hindus of Bengal would prefer to remain as they were at present and work with the majority community in the political sphere rather than accept any scheme of partitioning Bengal.” According to the report, “ They also contended that the scheme for partitioning Bengal was absolutely uncalled for.”15
The destinies of Bengal, the Punjab, the NWFP, etc, were being traded between the big compradors of the Hindu (and Parsi) and Muslim communities. The representatives of these provinces whose fate was being decided were excluded from the negotiations. It is the minuscule coteries of Congress and League leaders, especially Nehru, Patel, Gandhi and Jinnah, and the British rulers, who were seeking to make the best bargain for those whom they represented – the decisions that would have the most profound impact on the lives of hundreds of millions and of their descendants.
Sarat Chandra Bose resigned from the Congress Working Committee in January 1947. In the same month he, Abul Hashim (the secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League) and several other leaders started discussions about how to settle communal differences, form a new representative ministry, prepare an outline of the future Constitution of Bengal and prevent her dismemberment. They believed neither in India being one nation nor in the two-nation theory. They held that India was a subcontinent, the home of many nationalities.16
At the invitation of Akhil Chandra Datta, former Vice-President of the Central Legislative Assembly, a representative conference of prominent persons was held on 23 March in Calcutta. The conference regarded partition as a “ retrograde and reactionary move”. It stated: “Communalism is only a passing phase in our national life. The destiny of our country will inevitably be shaped by socio-economic and political forces which have already begun to work. The partition of Bengal will create a permanent cleavage between the two communities and perpetuate an evil which is bound to die out even earlier than some people find it difficult to believe.”17 The All-Bengal Anti-Pakistan and Anti-Partition Committee was set up in April with Sarat Bose as President and Kamini Kumar Dutta, M.L.C., as Secretary.
Bengal’s Muslim politicians of different political hues were unanimous in their demand for a united Bengal outside Hindustan and Pakistan. H.S. Suhrawardy, then Prime Minister of Bengal, made every effort to build a “united, undivided, sovereign Bengal”. Khwaja Nazimuddin, a former Bengal Premier and then deputy leader of the Muslim League Party in the Central Legislative Assembly, and Mohammad Ali, then Bengal’s finance minister, too were opposed to Bengal’s dismemberment. (All three later became at different times Prime Ministers of Pakistan.) So were Fazlul Huq, Professor Humayun Kabir, then general secretary of the Krishak Praja Party, and others.
Jogendra Nath Mondal, a leader of the Scheduled Castes Federation and Law Member of the Interim Government of India, declared in a statement to the press on 21 April that the majority of non-Muslims were not behind the demand for the partition of Bengal and that this could be proved by a referendum. He also said that it was not in the interests of the Hindus to divide the province, and the scheduled castes, who together with the backward castes formed a majority of the population of proposed West Bengal, were definitely opposed to partition.18
On 25 April, at the Viceroy’s eighth miscellaneous meeting, Mountbatten “said that he had got the impression that Bengal, for economic reasons, wanted to remain as an entity…. Sardar Patel said he believed that the feeling in Bengal among non-Muslims was that, whether there was Pakistan or not, they could not remain united unless joint electorates were introduced.”19
The fact is, the joint committee which was set up at a meeting of Congress and League leaders in the last week of April and which included Sarat Bose, Kiran Shankar Roy (leader of the Congress party in the Bengal Legislative Assembly), Suhrawardy, Nazimuddin, Abul Hashim, Mohammad Ali , etc, drew up a draft constitution of united Bengal by 19 May. To be brief, while envisaging future Bengal as a Free State, it provided for election to the Bengal Legislature on the basis of joint electorate and adult franchise with reservation of seats proportionate to the population amongst the Hindus and Muslims.20
Parties like the Forward Bloc and Communist Party of India supported the cause of a united Bengal outside Hindustan and Pakistan.
The British government, as Mountbatten said, “had declared themselves willing to agree to an independent Bengal – in fact willing to agree to any solution for Bengal with which the leaders of the principal parties [ the Congress and the League] agreed.”21
Besides the British government, the leaders of one of the two “principal parties” – the Muslim League – declared several times their agreement to Bengal remaining united and ‘independent’. When, on 26 April, Mountbatten spoke to Jinnah of Suhrawardy’s proposal for a United Bengal outside Hindustan and Pakistan, Jinnah “said without any hesitation: ‘I should be delighted, they had much better remain united and independent.’”22 Liaquat Ali Khan, the League’s General Secretary, told Mountbatten’s principal secretary, Mieville, on 28 April that “he was in no way worried about Bengal as he was convinced in his mind that the province would never divide. He thought that it would remain a separate state, joining neither Hindustan nor Pakistan.23 The same view was expressed by Jinnah and Liaquat Ali several times afterwards24
It was the leaders of the other ‘principal’ party – the Nehrus – who were firm and inflexible in their opposition to any such possibility. It is they who alone insisted on breaking up Bengal on communal lines. No plebiscite or fresh election on the issue of Bengal’s partition was held though it was demanded by Jinnah, Jogendranath Mondal, Humayun Kabir , CPI and others. There arose the possibility of Bengal emerging with her integrity intact and with joint electorates and a Constituent Assembly of her own, based on adult suffrage, which would decide her relations with the rest of India. In such a Bengal communal strife would yield to the united struggle for the overthrow of the indirect rule of imperialism and of its Indian lackeys and new vistas of progress and development would open up. This possibility was killed by the Nehrus, which inflicted an endless series of tragedies the like of which few countries have experienced.
It is the interests of the big Indian compradors like the Birlas that decided the fate of Bengal. The Nehrus were willing to have an undivided Bengal within Hindustan but not outside it. At that time Calcutta was the seat of big Marwari capital. So they would not allow West Bengal to escape from their clutches.
Replying to Patel, B.M. Birla wrote on 5 June: “I am so glad … that things have turned out according to your desire…. I am very happy that the Bengal question has also been settled by you.”25 When the prospect of being uprooted from their homes and terrors of an unknown future haunted tens of millions of Bengalis the big compradors were elated, for their long-held objective was fulfilled.
Later, G.D. Birla, who had been putting pressure on Gandhi at least since January 1938 to agree to partition of India on a religious basis and consequent dismemberment of Bengal and the Punjab, wrote in a self-congratulatory vein:
10. Ibid, X, 834 – emphasis added.
23. Ibid, 479.