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India: History Repeating Itself? Post-2014 India’s eerie resemblance with India of 1938-46

Tuesday 12 December 2017, by siawi3


History Repeating Itself? Post-2014 India’s eerie resemblance with India of 1938-46

by Mohammed Sajjad

Published on: December 12, 2017

History rarely repeats itself. Nevertheless, if we are to understand what is happening in the Indian polity today, it is useful to look into its pasts, when its democracy appears to be liquidating itself.

​​​Looking into the popular phase of our national movement, it clearly emerges that as the Muslims began to register their rising representation in the local bodies, Hindu-Muslim tussle in the domain of emerging power- structures started becoming prominent. This is what had happened more clearly in Bihar, post 1924. The tallest builders of the Congress-Muslims-began to be marginalised. Mazharul Haq, Shafi Daudi, etc., were systematically pushed out of the District Boards, in late 1920s, leaving them disillusioned. It was however only after 1938 that this trend started taking an ominous shape. The Muslim League accused the Congress ministries of various provinces in 1937-39 to have resorted to persecution of Muslims, and letting off the rioters. Not less than three catalogues were prepared by the Muslim League, in 1938, viz., Pirpur Report, Sharif Report, and Fazlul Haq Report. With this, the League progressed leaps and bounds during 1938-46.
​​Isn’t it puzzling that we do not hear of a similar list of grievances of Hindus in the Muslim ‘majority’ provinces, catalogued by the Hindu communal forces, accusing the ‘Muslim’ ministries of those provinces, such as Bengal’s Krishak Praja Party, Punjab’s Unionist Party, and Assam’s Saadullah’s ministry? This was unlike the Suhrawardy ministry of 1946 when his culpability for the orgy of violence and killing in Bengal was unambiguously there, creating lot of anger among the Hindus, so much so that it had its retaliatory implications in Bihar.

​​The question therefore is: Were those catalogues of 1938 actually as much unreal (or exaggerated) as we have thus far been given to believe, even by our liberal-leftist historians. Their dismissiveness, popularized much through their popular textbooks, is buttressed by the argument that the offer of an enquiry into those grievances by Justice Gwyer was rejected by the League, hence fictionality of those grievances stood testified? Or, is it a case like that of today when the ‘nationalist’ forces want us to believe that instances of frequent lynching, and other such persecutions are just isolated incidents; that they should not be exaggerated to discredit the incumbent BJP regime; and that the BJP should not be accused of being complicit in creating an atmosphere of fear among the minorities, even though it is controlled by profoundly undemocratic organizations like RSS, VHP, BD, HYV, etc.?

​​​Let us recall that the Muslim League was routed in the 1937 elections, despite the fact that the seats were reserved for the Muslims under the arrangement of separate electorates. Yet, soon after the formation of the Congress ministries there emerged lot of fear among the minorities, and the barely existing Muslim League, could register a rise only after 1938. There are evidences that quite a lot of the Congress Hindus demonstrated that a ‘Hindu Raj’ had now been restored in 1937, seven centuries after Prithvi Raj Chauhan was unseated in 12th century.

​​Historians have paid less attention to the rapid growth and proliferation of the RSS-Hindu Mahasabha after 1938 in nooks and crannies of India. There have been relatively lesser studies on the Congress-Mahasabha overlap at the provincial and district levels. Joya Chatterjee’s Bengal Divided (1995), William Gould’s study (2005) of UP, and Papiya Ghosh’s study (2008) of Bihar, are among exceptions. India’s liberal-left historians received Venkat Dhulipala’s, Creating A New Medina (2015) on UP very warmly. It underlines Muslim separatism, just as Francis Robinson (Separatism Among Indian Muslims, 1974) had demonstrated four decades ago. Whereas, William Gould’s book, Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India, was largely ignored, for it exposed the majoritarian tilts of the tallest Congress leaders of UP, viz., P. D. Tandon (1882-1962), Sampurnand (1891-1969), and G. B. Pant (18871-961). Though, it is surprising that Jinnah did not harp as much on these UP leaders, while attempting to wean the Muslims away from the Congress and pushing up the League. Joya Chatterjee has demonstrated that in the 1930s, when Bengal’s share-cropper peasantry turned into middle and rich peasantry, they gained franchise, and this is how Muslim proportion began to increase in legislative and other arenas. This is what alarmed the bhadralok who in order to avert the ignominy of being politically dominated by the Muslim peasantry slipped towards partitioning Bengal during 1932-47. Similarly, T. C. A. Raghavan (EPW, April, 9, 1983) for western India, and Vinita Damodaran (Broken Promises, 1992) for Bihar, 1935-46, have demonstrated how Hindus, both within and outside the Congress, moved towards majoritarianism. The peasant discontent was sought to be channelized into religious strife by the landlords. Justice Reuben (1893-1976) was not allowed to conduct enquiries into the 1946 riots of Bihar.

​​Overall, both colonial and post-independent Indian states have been palpably soft on the rioters. There have been wilful failures of criminal justice system in this regard.

​​With this experience from history, let us now have a look on the developments immediately before 2014, when the BJP came to power with unprecedented mandate.

​​​In 2012 too, the Muslim representation had gone up in the assembly and municipal bodies in Uttar Pradesh. Muslim representation in the legislative assembly was around 17%, close to the Muslim population (18.5%). At the district level, it was seen as a “Muslim upsurge”. In 13 out of 70 districts, the share of Muslim MLAs was 10-25%; in 21 districts, it was 25-50%; and in five districts (Moradabad, Rampur, Amroha, Balrampur and Shrawasti), there were 50-70% Muslim MLAs. In municipal bodies, there were 3,681 Muslims elected out of a total of 11,816 members, pushing their representation to 31.5%. In the urban local bodies of Ruhelkhand in UP, Muslim representation was as high as 55%, in 2012.

​​​​In Bihar too, Muslim representation among the Panchayat Chiefs was 16%,in 2001, and almost around that, in the subsequent elections for the local bodies. Muslims are around 16.5% of Bihar population.

​​​In fact, the rise of the saffron forces, since 1980s, has much to do with rising Muslim affluence because of the Gulf remittances, and benefits going to the Pasmanda after the implementation of the Mandal reservations in public employment, and subsequently into the local bodies elections as well.

​In West Bengal, the bhadraloks through the communist rule resisted their temptation to join the saffron forces by keeping most of the Muslim communities out of the OBC list, till 2011. Almost 25% of the population comprises of Muslims in this province.

​​An increasingly bigger segment of Hindu population is now easily persuaded to be scared of the “minority upsurge” by misleading them with the argument that after all, for centuries, the Muslims and then Christians (British) ruled over the Hindus despite numerically being minority. This oversimplification of a complex historical issue by the communal forces starts making sense to these segments. This is how hate-mongering politics thrives. Quite a lot of those, now vocal for the BJP on social media, belong to those segments who feel that because of the Mandal reservations they have not been able to hold on to their preeminent positions in education, trading and employment. Post-liberalization economy, rising youth unemployment and agrarian distress, have also affected them adversely. This discontent is sought to be channelled against a demonised Muslims.

​​​There is a growing grudge, scorn and disdain against rising Muslim presence in all such spheres. This is now degenerating increasingly into hatred and violence against them. From urban confines, this has percolated down to rural hinterlands because in rural areas too, the trading rivalries are sharpening because of the kith and kin of the Gulf-based Muslim professionals have erected their trades in rural markets. The lower class Muslims too have acquired affluence and education. Their presence is increasingly becoming more prominent through lofty masjids and lavish public demonstrations of festivities. Even though, in most cases, such competitive public rituals and festivities are more to do with a statement of their coming of age, vis a vis the historically dominant groups, within their own community, and also to outdo the other/rival sub-sects (maslak; more specifically, the Barelvi vs the Deobandi/Tablighi Jamaat & Ahl-e-Hadis). These are often mistaken as Muslim assertion against Hindus.

​​​​This explains growing insecurity of the traditionally predominant groups of the religious majority, who are trying to counterpoise it through a communal mobilization around religious solidarities, by demonising and by othering the minority (second largest majority). This is how the harmonious social fabric has been coming under tatters, reflected in the rise of aggressive Hindutva. Its resurrection began in the 1980s, and its claws remained little less deadly in the 1990s and 2000s, in better parts of India, when the subordinated groups were coming of their age, dislodging the upper castes from power. The Congress kept compromising with its core principles resulting into losing its support-base and eventually getting discredited by almost every segment. It had given up on Muslims in 1946 to the extent that despite repeated requisitions, the Congress did not even field its candidates from the Muslim seats. Its lack of sincerity was evident even in its Muslim Mass Contact Campaign of 1938, which exacerbated the situation by alarming both the majority and minority communal forces—the Mahasabha and the League.
It is said that, in times of crisis, the political parties tend to get back to its core ideologies, to resurge back. The Congress today appears to be disproving it vehemently. Rather than holding onto its core principles, it seeks to outsmart its enemy on their strongest wicket.

​​​However, unlike the 1938-1946, now, in post-2014, no Jinnah can emerge with the promise of a separate homeland, as there is no limited franchise now, nor is there a colonial state. We now have universal adult franchise, with all its heterogeneities and stratifications. Jinnah could outsmart the then regional, peasant-based, political formations, such as Bengal’s Krishak Praja Party (KPP), Punjab’s Unionist, and other smaller anti-separatist formations such as Bihar’s Muslim Independent Party (MIP), etc., only because, less than 11% people of a particular class had franchise then. Managing and consolidating them may have been easier for Jinnah, exacerbated by the prodding and encouragement from the colonial power. Even though, one may not deny today the power-play of the native and global capitalism of imperial powers, in widening the rich-poor gap, which breed and perpetuate identity-based hatred and violence and polarizations.

​​Two historical moments may or may not find a close comparison. Yet, post-1938 colonial India, and post-2014 republican India, does have very disturbing resemblances. No Owaisi or Azam can really become Jinnah. But simultaneously, this is also an alarming question that India’s Muslims cannot remain “disenfranchised”, pitiably subdued and persecuted. So, the desperate question is: what would come out of this situation when Muslims are being pushed against the wall? Shall they remain electorally/politically invisibilised, irrelevant, silenced, subdued and subjugated, yet, demonised by the ruling party; and liability for the ‘secular’ parties, as they are in today’s Gujarat? Is it a case where only a silenced and subdued minority will satiate and please the communalised majority? Indian nationhood is indeed at the cusp of alarming redefinition: hate-filled, and exclusionary. It will validate all the ideas that were behind the vivisection of our country in 1947. Nations are not build this way, instead, these are the ways of liquidating nations. We must preempt it. Can we?

The author is Professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.