Revisiting The Communal Question

From Congress to Bharatiya Janata Party

Badruddin Umar

It is a great tragedy of Indian history that India was partitioned in 1947 as a solution of the communal question, but communalism survived in India and became worse during the rule of the Congress. The situation gradually deteriorated and communalism took new form as Hindutva. Thus India has now come under the rule of the Hindutvabadi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and communalism has assumed the form of a monster. To understand the cause of this development it is necessary to look at the history of British colonial rule in India.

James Mill was a man of great erudition and the first British historian of India. In his book, ‘The History of British India’, he divided Indian history into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods. The first two periods were divided on the basis of religion. But the third period was called British, instead of Christian. It was a deliberate mischief and done with a view to introduce religious communalism among Indians.

The division on the basis of religion was also done wrongly. The entire pre-Sultaniperiod of Indian history was distorted and characterised as Hindu. It was a deliberate falsehood. For in that period India was ruled also by great Buddhist kings and emperors like Ashoke, Kanishka, Harshabardhan, and the Pals, who ruled Eastern India for four hundred years. There were also other minor Buddhist kings. All kings and emperors of the Sultani and Mughal periods were portrayed as oppressors of the Hindus and enemies of Hinduism. His special target was the Mughals.James Mills died in 1836 but his historical writings influenced later historians. Indian historians like R C Dutt, R C Majumdar, Jadunath Sarkar and others wrote history following the line indicated by James Mill and communalised it. These communal historians largely shaped the politics of late nineteenth and first-half of twentieth century India.

The British government particularly targeted the Mughals and tried to show that the British rule was beneficial to the Hindus. In 1857 both Hindus and Muslims fought unitedly against the British and declared the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah as their emperor. Bhahdur Shah had no active role in the uprising, but he and the Muslims became the principal targets of the British. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerstone ordered the demolition of all Mughal buildings in Delhi. William Dalrymple, describing the situation at that time, wrote in his book, ‘The City of Djinns’, ‘‘The recapture of Delhi by the British on 14 September 1857 led to the wholesale destruction of great areas of the city. The Red Fort was plundered and much of it razed to the ground; what remained of one of the most beautiful palaces became a gray British barracks. It was only by a hair‘s-breadth that the great Mughal Jama Masjid was saved from similar destruction....Three thousand Delhi-wallahs were tried and executed—either hanged, shot or blown from the mouths of cannons… . The last Emperor was sent off to exile in Rangoon in a bullock cart; the princes, his children, were all shot. The inhabitants of the city were turned out of the gates to starve in the countryside outside; and even after the city’s Hindus were allowed to return, Muslims remained banned for two whole years. The finest mosques were sold off to Hindu bankers for use as bakeries and stables.’’

During the pre-British period the Muslims were employed in the army and the administration of the Mughals. There were few landlords among the Muslims. Some Hindus were also employed in the army and administration, but land and zamindaries were owned mostly by them. With the Mughal empire gone, the Muslims lost their jobs in the army and administration and they had no alternative employment. They were hostile to British rule and did not take part in the activities of the British-owned business and financial houses. On the other hand, the Hindus welcomed and took the opportunities opened before them. They were employed in the British business houses and also worked as Mutsuddis, Banians, money-lenders and in other capacities.

The colonial administration introduced a new system of education and built schools and colleges where English was taught. The Hindus took full advantage of this and advanced in learning. It helped them to get employment in government departments and also in private business organisations. The Muslims generally deprived themselves of this opportunity and very few of them took English education. As a consequence of all this, the Muslims lagged behind the Hindus in the sphere of education and economic life. They remained poor and uneducated. A gap was thus created between the economically solvent and educationally advanced Hindus and the poor and backward Muslims. The gap widened in the nineteenth century and became the most important and determining factor in the political developments of British India.

In the sphere of land ownership and zamindaris also Muslims faced a difficult situation. According to the provisions of the Permanent Settlement of 1793, the zamindars had to pay nine-tenth of the collected revenues to the government within a stipulated time, most zamindars began to fail to deposit the fixed rent and thus zamindaris were sold in auction. The auctioned zamindaris were bought by the Calcutta-based Mutsuddis, Banians, merchants and usurers, who possessed liquid money. The Muslims had no money and except a few, all zamindaris went to a new class of Hindus. This disparity enhanced the gap between the Hindus and Muslims in the nineteenth century and reached a critical stage by the turn of the century.

Reducing this gap between the Hindus and Muslims became the greatest concern of Muslims in the whole of India. But in Bengal it took the form of a movement. Some influential leaders and a section of the middleclass Muslims in East Bengal demanded a separate province by partitioning Bengal. This actually coincided with the British government decision to partition Bengal apparently for administrative reasons.

Bengal was partitioned in 1905, thirty-five years before the Lahore Resolution. The Hindus of Bengal, the zamindars and landowners, business communities, men employed in government and commercial organisations, writers and cultural workers and political leaders, all belonging to the upper castes, unitedly opposed the arrangement and demanded the annulment of partition. The resistance movement became very powerful and at the same time it heightened communal tension between the Hindus and Muslims. In the face of this resistance and after successfully achieving their political objectives, the British government annulled the partition of Bengal in 1911.

What is interesting to note in this context is that in spite of the question of Hindu-Muslim disparity becoming a live political issue, the Congress remained stubbornly opposed to any concession to the Muslims for reducing the gap between the two communities. This was in spite of Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat movement.

The Khilafat movement against the British government was a pseudo-religious movement and it had no real anti-imperialist character. It had nothing to do with the plight of the Indian Muslims and it didn’t hurt the interest of Hindus. Gandhi supported the movement. Bal Gangadhar Tilak also lent his support. Gandhi gave a call to 230 million Indian Hindus to cooperate with the Khilafat movement. At the same time, he also started his non-cooperation movement. The Hindu-Muslim relation deteriorated following the end of the Khilafat movement.

Jinnah was a secular politician. He opposed the Khilafat movement and tried to prevent Muslim League joining it. But Muslim League decided to join the movement. Jinnah left the Muslim League and went to England, where he joined the legal profession.

In Bengal disparity became a very important political issue and Chittaranjan Das of the Bengal Congress, in collaboration with Fazlul Huq and other Muslim leaders, prepared a formula for reducing Hindu-Muslim disparity. In 1925, they signed an agreement called the ‘Bengal Pact’ in which, among other things, there was provision for equal (50:50) share of jobs for the two communities. At the same time Chittaranjan declared that in the event of formation of a Congress government in Bengal it would reserve sixty per cent jobs for the Muslims till such time as the Hindus and Muslims reach the same level in this area. With the same end in view he suggested reservation of eighty per cent seats for Muslims in the Calcutta Corporation. There was a big row against Chittaranjan by some Hindu members of the Congress and Gandhi rejected it. Chittaranjan died soon afterwards.

On November 8, 1927, the British government announced a seven-member Parliamentary Commission under the leadership of Sir John Simon.No Indian was included in the Commission. Both the Congress and the Muslim League boycotted the Commission. After the declaration of the formation of the Simon Commission, the Congress Working Committee sponsored an All-Party Conference on February 12, 1928. In that Conference a committee was formed under the presidency of Motilal Nehru, taking leaders from different parties with a view to deciding the main aspects of the future constitution of India. On December 20, 1928, in the joint convention of the Congress and the Muslim League and in the All-Party Conference held in Calcutta the report of the Nehru Committee was submitted.

The report recommended dominion status for India, selection of the members in the centre and provincial councils by joint electorate, reservation of seats for the minorities in the centre and provincial councils, no reservation of seats for the Muslims of the Punjab and Bengal, reservation of seats on the basis of population for a particular period of time, etc.

After holding discussions on this report, Jinnah proposed amendments which included reservation of one-third seats in the Central Council for the Muslims, reservation of seats for the Muslims of the Punjab and Bengal on the basis of population till an election system on the basis of adult franchise is introduced, transferring residuary powers to the provinces, etc.Tej Bahadur Sapru appealed for accepting Jinnah’s proposals with a view to maintaining communal balance. But it was opposed by Hindu Mahasava representative Jayakar and Motilal Nehru. Gandhi did not take part in this controversy and remained silent all along. When Jinnah’s amendments were given to the vote, they were rejected. Jinnah was very much shaken by this defeat. To him this was ‘parting of the ways between the Hindus and Muslims.’ Henceforward he gave up all efforts for Hindu-Muslim unity and understanding and sought to preserve and secure Muslim interest within the framework of communal politics. That was the normal and easiest way for securing and preserving the rights of religious minorities within the structure of bourgeois politics.

This All-Party Conference was a vastly important landmark in the history of India’s politics. It saw the parting of the ways between the Hindus and Muslims as Jinnah’s secularism broke down. Jinnah’s breakdown symbolised the breakdown of secularism in the constitutional politics of India.

After being convinced that the Muslims had nothing to get from the Congress, Jinnah took the communal path. To him the Muslims were the only minority who mattered and they had to be organised in order to confront the Congress. He had his bourgeois class orientation, had no broad political vision and lacked far sight. Otherwise he would have realised that a much more effective way of confronting Hindu communalism of the Congress was to establish good and fraternal relations with other political forces and national minorities like the Scheduled Caste Hindus, Sikhs, nationalities of North-East India, etc. That kind of national unity would have been able to curb the power of big Hindu capital and pave the way for a democratic solution of the minority question in India.

The British government convened a Round Table Conference for holding discussions between the British government and leaders of various political parties of India. The first session was held in 1930 and two others followed. B R Ambedkar, leader of the oppressed and marginalised Scheduled Caste Hindus, argued for a separate electorate for the untouchables. But claiming himself as the leader and real representative of the untouchables, Gandhi rejected Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorate because that would largely affect the majority status of the Hindus. Being afraid of such developments, he later appeared as the saviour of Scheduled Caste Hindus and re-named them as ‘Harijans’ or the People of God. He also brought out a newspaper called ‘Harijan’. This undoubtedly was a deceitful posture. Because Gandhi was wholly dedicated to the interest of the upper caste Hindus.

After the Round Table Conference, Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister, announced that the untouchables would be awarded separate electorate for a period of twenty years. At the time Gandhi was detained in Yerawada Central Jail in Poona. From there he announced that unless the provision for separate electorate for untouchables was revoked, he would fast until death.

A month later he actually began his fast. It was immediately followed by mounting frenzy. Ambedkar was held responsible for the fast and was accused for trying to kill Gandhi. He was in a difficult situation. That was not the time for logic and reason. Ambedkar did not want to be held responsible for Gandhi’s death. He withdrew his demand for a separate electorate for the untouchables and agreed to have reservation. After four days of the fast on 24 September 1932 Ambedkar visited Gandhi in the prison and signed a pact, the Poona Pact, as it came to be known. Among the other signatories were the Marwari industrialist and Gandhi’s patron G D Birla and V D Savarkar, the President of Hindu Mahasava.Thus Gandhi finally ‘settled’ the Scheduled Caste issue. He was able to keep the Scheduled Caste within the fold of Hinduism and use them politically, and at the same time preserve the prison house of the caste system in the interest of the upper caste. The Scheduled Castes renamed as Dalit, are still languishing in the same prison house, which Gandhi protected and preserved in the 1930s.

Later, when the situation calmed down Ambedkar wrote, ‘‘There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. … It was a vile and wicked act. How can the untouchables regard such a man as honest and sincere.’’ (Quoted by Arundhati Roy. The Doctor and the Saint. From Babashaeb Ambedkar : Writings and Speeches. BAWS).

Ambedkar was so deeply aggrieved and embittered by the actions of Gandhi that afterwards in 1937, in the preface to the second edition of his famous book ‘Annihilation of Caste’, he wrote, ‘‘I shall be satisfied if I make the Hindus realise that they are the sick men of India, and their sickness is causing danger to the health and happiness of other Indians.’’

The British colonial government was fully cognizant of the political situation in India. They were playing their own game of stoking political animosity between the Hindu Muslim communal forces. Inspite of all claptrap of national freedom movement, the Congress and the Muslim League had little steam of their own. In the language of Maulana Mohammad Ali they were pursuing a ‘begging and praying’ politics.

Gandhi was renowned as the greatest national leader of India. But his nationalism was a politics of compromise. He wanted to extract concessions from the British colonial government, but never opposed it beyond a limit. Whenever the possibility of such limit-crossing arose, Gandhi intervened and stopped the movement. He launched non-cooperation movement, but always showed a curious unwillingness to let them develop into violent confrontation with the government. In order to justify this, he propounded his theory of Ahimsa or non-violence. But Ahimsa of that vintage was a misnomer. What is interesting to note is that his non-violence was meant only for Indians. He always opposed any form of violence by Indians. His opposition to the violence at Chowri Chowra was famous. But he was never found to oppose and denounce violence by the British colonial government. He refused to condemn the massacre of thousands of innocent Indians by the British Indian army in Jalianwalabag in 1919. He refused to condemn the hanging of Bhagat Singh in 1931. When soldiers of the Garhwal Regiment refused to open fire on innocent people in Kissakhani Bazaar of Peshwar in 1931, being inspired by his ideal of Ahimsa he openly disapproved it, saying that a soldier must obey the orders of superiors, otherwise there would be no discipline in the army! When they would be in power they would need a disciplined army! By supporting the soldiers of the Garhwal Regiment he did not want to encourage indiscipline!

Gandhi actually never practised what he preached. This was true not only in the above-mentioned cases, but also in what he did in his dealings with the Muslims and the lower caste Hindus. His secularism and his love for the ‘Harijans’ was nothing but a sham. His opposition to British colonialism had the same character. He loved freedom but did not demand India’s independence till the late twenties. In fact, the Indian bourgeois leaders like Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel, etc. were all spineless. They could not think of India’s independence without the cooperation of the British government! And indeed, finally they got it with the unmistakable ‘cooperation’ of the British government.

The relation of the Congress leaders with G D Birla was very close. Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan’s son Sarvapalli Gopal has said in his biography of Jawharlal Nehru that Gandhi, Patel, Rajendra Prasad and others used to take money from Birla regularly. Nehru declined to take it directly from Birla. So he gave it to Gandhi and Nehru took it from him! Though Birla was Gandhi’s patron and looked after him, yet he always tried to give the impression that he lived a poor man’s life. He travelled in the third class, but his third class was not the third class of ordinary passengers. Once Sarojini Naidu wittily said, ‘‘we have to spend a great lot of money to keep Bapu in poverty.’’

After Gandhi’s death, Birla published some documents in two volumes called, ‘Bapu’. It was Gandhi’s practice to send a copy of everything to Birla—letters written to various political leaders and representatives of the British government, political documents, even private letters. These letters, including letters written to Birla are all included in these two volumes. A close look at these clearly reveals who was whose Bapu.

The character of the Indian National Congress was undergoing a transformation in the thirties. It was a broad platform of various interests. Progressive elements like the Communist Party, M N Roy and liberals were associated with it. As the influence and control of Hindu landowners, upper class Hindu businessmen and industrialist Marwaris like G D Birla and the house of Tata grew in the Congress, progressive elements began to leave it in the late thirties. Large number of people known as nationalist Muslims, who were loyal members of the Congress, deserted it and most of them joined the Muslim League. Even it was not possible for Subhas Bose to stay in the Congress. He had to leave it. The communal and reactionary character of the Congress became quite evident.

The Pakistan Resolution of the Muslim League in 1940, also known as the Lahore Resolution, was based on the two nation theory. The Congress and other organisations denounced it as communal. The two nation theory was communal, but not new.

In the 1860s, Nabagopal Mitra established the ‘Hindu Mela’ and the ‘Jatiya Sava’ or the National Association, an organisation for propagating nationalism. By nationalism they meant Hindu nationalism. In the Hindu Mela in 1867, they declared that Hindus were a distinct nation. But why did the need arise to declare themselves as a separate nation? Against whom was this declaration directed? There was little doubt that it was the Muslims who were considered opponents in the field of opportunities which were opened before them at the time.

The Hindu Mela was an important event. Rajnarayan Basu, a prominent leader of the Brahmo Samaj, claimed in his autobiography that he inspired Nabagopal Mitra to convene the Hindu Mela. Though a Brahmo, he also designated the Hindus as a distinct nation. But he was not the only Brahmo to subscribe to this idea. There were others. What is apparently astonishing is that the Brahmos who renounced Hinduism and formed a different religious group did not desist at times from identifying themselves with the Hindus. In 1871, Rajnarayan Basu gave his famous lecture on the superiority of Hindu religion in a meeting organised by Jatiya Sava of Nabagopal Mitra and presided over by the most important Brahmo leader Debendra-nath Tagore, father of Rabindranath. Thus umbilical chord of the Brahmo Dharma was not severed from Hinduism.

Shankaracharya set his religious movement to counter and oppose the tide of Buddhism in the eighth century. Shree Chaitanya preached his version of Hinduism in response to the advances of Islam in the sixteenth century. The Brahmo Dharma appeared in Bengal in the nineteenth century at a time when educated middle class young people inclined towards Christianity. Because of this the Brahmo Dharma also had a distinct class character. There were no peasant, worker or poor people in the Brahmo Samaj. It was a religion of the upper and the middle classes.

The Brahmo Dharma had no definite ideological foundation. It was, in fact, a weak reaction against a weak trend of Christianity. It had no scripture of its own. They adhered to the Vedanta and the Upanishads. They came out of Hinduism, but most of them regarded themselves as Hindus in a broad sense of the term and had a sense of belonging to the ‘Hindu nation’. This was because the Brahmo Dharma was, in reality, a sect of Hinduism. They had considerable influence on the educated middle class Hindus and for that, along with the Hindus, their adherence to the idea of a distinct Hindu national identity was an important factor in the nineteenth century.

Bankimchandra Chatterjee famously propagated the idea of a Hindu Raj in India and was the greatest representative of social and political reaction in the nineteenth century and was the chief theoretician of Hindu communalism. Two nation theory was implicit in his teachings. Rabindranath greatly influenced the Bengalis and shaped their language and culture. But Bankimchandra’s religious influence was a driving force in the second-half of the nineteenth century and afterwards. The terrorist organizations sought inspiration from his writings and did not recruit Muslims.

No one in the Congress and other parties criticised religious revivalism and communalism of Bankimchandra. On the contrary, the Congress adopted his revivalist ‘Bande Mataram’ song as a national song of India. Even Rabindranath was enamoured of ‘Bande Mataram’. It is surprising that even the Naxalites did not criticise Bankimchandra.They felled statues of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath, but the statues of Bankimchandra remained untouched. This is an aspect of the political situation which cannot be underestimated or ignored.

During the awakening of Hindu nationalism, the Hindu Mela was an aggressive stance of the Hindus. The seed of communalism as a political line was sown on the eve of the rise of Hindu nationalism. The two nation theory of Nabagopal Mitra and Rajnarayan Basu of the Brahmo Samaj was offensive in character. The two nation theory of Jinnah, as embodied in the Pakistan Resolution, was formulated to face the advancement of the Hindu bourgeoisie and protect and promote the interest of the backward Muslims. It was defensive in character.

The way India was partitioned favoured the Congress. In the language of Jinnah the Muslim League got a truncated and moth-eaten Pakistan. The last Viceroy of Imperial Britain, Lord Mountbatten became a darling of the Congress. They made him the first Head of State of independent India. It was a big political scandal. Nehru as Prime Minister formed his cabinet. It was not a coalition ministry. But in it he included Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, President of Hindu Mahashava.

The partition of India, and consequently Bengal and the Panjab, in 1947 instead of solving the religious minority problem, which was its ostensible objective, consolidated firmly the rule of religious majorities in what previously constituted the British India. There was nothing surprising in this, because the 1940 Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League proposed to create separate states in the Muslim majority areas of East and West India. Thus, in real terms, there was no question of solving the religious minority problems in India either for the Muslims or for the Hindus or other peoples in the declared objectives of either the Indian National Congress or the Muslim League. What became quite clear during the Indian independence movement in the 1940s was that both the Congress and the Muslim League were trying to consolidate the interest of the Indian feudal-bourgeois classes belonging to the Hindu and the Muslim majority respectively.

The rule of big Hindu and Marwari capital was inaugurated in independent India. Congress leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Patel worked for it. They stood for a united India because in united India Hindus would be the majority and the rule of the majority would protect and promote the interest of Hindu landlords, industrial and business classes belonging to the upper caste at the expense of the other minorities and the lower caste Hindus. Independent India was smaller in size than united India, but it provided the above-mentioned interests with all the opportunities which they wanted to have in a united India.

On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by an RSS man. The government banned the RSS. But a little later, Sardar Patel, the Interior Minister, lifted the ban on RSS.

The limited opportunities which were available to the Muslims in the pre-independence period, began to be reduced in independent India. In the field of education and jobs they began to lag behind. The possibility of reducing the gap between the Hindus and the Muslimsdisappeared. Communal riots continued to happen in different areas in India, particularly, in North India. The central and state governments failed to stop occurrences of riots and it created a sense of insecurity in the minds of Muslims. Still the Muslims generally voted for the Congress who remained in power at a stretch for thirty years till 1977. In 1977 a non-Congress government came to power. Then in 1982 the Congress won the election and Indira Gandhi returned as Prime Minister. Following her death in 1984, her son Rajib Gandhi succeeded her as Prime Minister. After Rajib Gandhi a Congress government was formed by Narsimha Rao.

Since 1980s communal forces began to gain strength and get organised. The BJP emerged as the most powerful communal organisation. Other RSS gharana parties like Viswa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Shib Sena, etc. also began to get organised. Communalism, instead of weakening, began to gather unprecedented strength.

The government of Narsimha Rao did not take any step to stop the karshevaks. They could have easily stopped them by surrounding the mosque by the army. But nothing at all was done. What was extremely surprising was that instead of sitting in his office at that critical time and handling the situation Prime Minister Narsimha Rao spent the day at his home in the puja ghar (prayer room). Who can doubt the complicity of the Congress government of Narsimha Rao with the RSS in demolishing the Babri mosque in such circumstances?

In 2001 the BJP came to power in Gujarat and Narendra Modi, a former RSS pracharak and BJP member, became the Chief Minister. Soon after assuming power Narendra Modi engineered a communal conflagration in Gujarat in 2002 in which thousands of innocent Muslims were killed and driven out from their homes. He remained Gujarat’s Chief Minister till 2014, when he became Prime Minister of India. The BJP also formed governments in a number of other states and consolidated its power as the biggest political party in India.

The Mondol Commission report revealed what the successive Congress governments did or did not do for the Dalit or Scheduled castes. The Sachar Commission Report revealed what the successive Congress governments did or did not do for the Muslims. The conditions of the Dalits and Muslims continued to be miserable.

Muslims constituted fifteen per cent of the population in India, but their employment is not more that two per cent. In West Bengal the population of Muslims is more than thirty per cent, but their employment is less than two per cent. Educationally they lag far behind the Hindus. A leftist government led by the CPM was in power in West Bengal for thirty-four years. But the condition of Muslims remained unchanged!

In 2014 BJP won the election and Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. With that India came under the rule of fascists by shedding all pretentions to democracy. They openly declared that the Muslims were invaders and outsiders and were not to be considered as Indians. They would make India a Hindu state, a Ram Rajjya, and govern the country according to the laws of Hindutva.

The BJP has presented a new version of Hinduism called Hindutva, a kind of religious fundamentalism. But in reality there cannot be any fundamentalism in Hinduism. Fundamentalism requires a religious book, a scripture, unqualified allegiance to which is absolutely binding. Or in other words, without textual reference there cannot be any religious fundamentalism. The Tripitak, the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, the Grantha Shahib are such text of the Buddhists, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims and the Sikhs respectively. But Hinduism has no such scripture. One can remain a Hindu even without any faith in the Vedas, the Upanishads, Ramayan, Mahabharata and the Gita. Even an atheist like Charvak is considered a Hindu.

The core of Hinduism is the caste system. Communalism is not integrally related to religion, but the caste system is. For this, after some years communalism will disappear in the wake of economic and social developments. The caste system will gradually weaken but remain, for how long is anybody’s guess.

From Congress to BJP is not a long jump. It is a transition.

August 10, 2021

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021