Patel and the Muslim Question
Continued from “Reading the Writings on the Wall”
Oscar Wilde said in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who would call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one.” Indeed. And most of the time its use does yield desired results which aren’t always forthcoming by deploying more sophisticated appliances. However, the common usage of the phrase is more concerned with physical description.
Indeed, Vallabhbhai Patel didn’t have, like Jawaharlal Nehru, the cultivated mannerism and sophistication to call a spade a spatulas device for abrading the surface of the soil. He could either call it a spade or, when really necessary, by a more forceful variant— a bloody shovel. More importantly, he was adept in its use. One of the charges leveled against Patel by his detractors wallowing in the world of sophisticated word play, is his hard, matter-of–fact stand on what’s euphemistically called the Muslim Question, i.e., the policy towards the Muslim minority after the Partition of India, which is in direct contrast to Nehru’s molly-coddling of the Muslims, which earned him — ironically enough, from Sardar Patel - the endearing title of being the only nationalist Muslim in India.
One of the formidable problems that Patel faced as Independent India’s first Home Minister was to tackle the fears and misgivings of the Muslims who stayed back in India after the Partition. British imperialism and its dye-hard exponents had a knack of conjuring into existence divisive problems to divide the people they ruled. Till the firm establishment of British rule, India never had something called the problem of Muslim minority or Hindu majority. As a matter of fact, the notions of majority and minority in religions are direct imports from the West with its bloody history of ethnic divisions and, bewilderingly intra-religious divisions like Catholic minority in a mainly Protestant country and even sub-sects like the Presbyterians not fitting within a largely Protestant country.
The Muslim Problem
Take the problem of Indian Muslims in its broad perspective. India Muslims are largely the forced converts from Hinduism during the Muslim rule of Delhi Sultans and the Mughal rulers with a very small minority directly descending from the invaders hailing from Central Asian region.
We’ve, today, a population of 1.27 billion comprising of over 4,635 communities, 78 percent of whom are not only linguistic and cultural but social categories. Religious minorities constitute 19.4 percent of the population; of these, Muslims account for 13.4 percent amounting in absolute terms to around 160 million.
The best course of action was the total exchange of population which in fact was at one stage stipulated in the Partition Plan. However Muslims had cold feet when it came to leaving their hearths and homes where they had lived for centuries with Hindus as neighbors. However, almost all non-Muslims in the two wings of Pakistan were largely forced to migrate to India. In case of West Pakistan circumstances so developed that there was a virtual exchange of population from NWFP and West Punjab to India and Muslims from East Punjab to West Punjab. There was no similar exchange in case of the two Bengals and that was largely because of Gandhi who was present then in Calcutta at the time of Partition.
Muslims of India were before Independence almost universally in favor of the Division of India on basis of religion. But after August 1947, they refused to leave for the new homeland of the faithful. After the formation of Pakistan in 1947, the question was: what happens to the Muslims left in India?
Before Jinnah's departure from New Delhi on August 7, 1947, a delegation of Muslim League leaders called on him. It included U.P. Muslim leaders who had marched in the vanguard of the partition movement. Their dilemma was: what do they do? Do they stay back or migrate to Pakistan? Frankly, the latter was the right option.
On his part, Jinnah took a couldn’t-care-less stance. His undeclared attitude amounted to: “I’ve got what I wanted. I couldn’t care less about you and your future.” He had sold his 10, Aurangzeb Road bungalow in New Delhi to RK Dalmia for Rs 300,000 and was negotiating the sale of his bungalow on Mt Pleasant Road in Bombay for another Rs 20 lakhs. (That he couldn’t find a customer, is another story.) Above all, he had got what he had been seeking as his life’s mission, namely, the Governor-Generalship of the new Islamic State of Pakistan. He diplomatically, took a more reasonable public stand by advising Indian Muslims to stay back and behave – mark the clever lawyer’s language - like responsible citizens. Indeed! If that’s what they had to do, why, one may ask, all the blood-soaked struggle to create Pakistan for those who were least interested in it — i.e., the Muslims of West Punjab, NWFP, Sind and Baluchistan.
Immediately after the creation of Pakistan, the rabble-rousing speeches (particularly, by Sayed Mehmood of Bihar) in a conference of UP Muslims in Lucknow, became for the Government of India a matter of deep concern. The conference was in fact a new edition of the Muslim League. And to nip the evil in the bud, Patel intervened by visiting Lucknow. In a hard-hitting speech he said:
I am a true friend of the Muslims, although I have been described as their greatest enemy. I believe in plain-speaking. I do not know how to mince matters. I want to tell you frankly that mere declarations of loyalty to the Indian Union will not help you at this critical juncture. You must give practical proof of your declarations. I ask you why you do not unequivocally denounce Pakistan for attacking Indian Territory (in Kashmir) with the connivance of Frontier tribesmen. Is it not your duty to condemn all acts of aggression against India? ... In the recent All-India Muslim Conference, why did you not open your mouth on Kashmir? ... In the Constituent Assembly, one of the Lucknow Muslim Leaguers pleaded for separate electorates and reservation of seats. I had to open my mouth and say that he could not have it both ways. Now he is in Pakistan. (Italics added)
And if you want a proof of the loyalty of Muslim left behind, take two case: Choudhry Khaliquzzaman and that wily fox Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy - after whom a full-fledged avenue is still named in Kolkata - who could put a chameleon to embarrassment in the speed with which he could change political colors.
On the August 14-15 night in 1947 Nehru who had been living only to see the day, stood to move the resolution to usher in the independence of India. Choudhry Khaliquzzaman of the Muslim League seconded it and took, with all others, the oath of allegiance to the Union of India. The next day on the stealth, Choudhry took the first flight he could manage to book a ticket to fly to Pakistan. Now what name do you assign to this brand of loyalty to motherland?
Take H S Suhrawardy. Leonard Mosley, in his book The Last Days of the British Raj writes [on page 26]:
Mr. Suhrawardy was a party ‘boss’ of the type who believes that no politician need ever be out of office once his strong-arm squads have gained control of the polling booths; that no minister should ever suffer financially by being in public life; that no relative or political cohort should ever go unrewarded. He loved money, champagne, Polish blondes and dancing the tango in nightclubs, and he was reputed to have made a fortune during the war. He loved Calcutta, including its filthy, festering slums, and it was from the noisome alleyways of Howrah that he picked the goondas who accompanied him everywhere as bodyguards.
Mosley, let me assure you, was not a right-wing Hindu reactionary but a respectable British chronicler of the goings-on of the Raj.
Suhrawardy is perceived as responsible for unleashing, at Jinnah’s behest, the Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946 which killed thousands of Hindus. The intention was to prove that if the Congress Party did not agree to partition, all of British India would be engulfed in civil war. This action turned Hindus and Muslim neighbors into enemies and caused a cycle of death, revenge and further destruction.
His notorious role in the Great Calcutta Killing is well-documented. He stayed on in India after August 15. Ironically, he joined Gandhi in the fast to stem the tide of retaliatory communal violence in Calcutta. Soon he was off to where his hidden loyalty always lay. And you know what role he played in Pakistan.
Suhrawardy has left a controversial legacy in post-partition India. In Pakistan he emerged as a notorious wheeler-dealer till he was forced to resign on October 10, 1957, under threat of dismissal by President Iskandar Mirza. To everyone’s relief, he was banned from public life by the military junta of General Ayub Khan. Suhrawardy died in 1963 in Beirut from a massive heart attack.
And let’s not forget, it was Patel who, as the Chairman of the Minorities Sub-Committees of the Constituent Assembly pulled his personal weight to ensure the protection of the linguistic and cultural rights of the minorities.
The question that the Indian polity has faced since 1947 is: how to integrate the Muslim minority in the Indian Union. The approaches of Nehru and Patel about this most crucial issue were different. Nehru was sensitive to the dilemma of Muslims who chose to stay back in India after partition. He criticized the Hindu leaders’ proclivity to question Muslim loyalty. In a letter to the Chief Ministers of States on February 3, 1949 he wrote:
But I think it is wrong to lay stress always on the loyalty ... of the Muslims of India. Loyalty is not produced to order or by fear. It comes as a natural growth from circumstances which make loyalty not only a sentiment which appeals to one but also profitable in the long run. We have to produce conditions which lead to this sentiment being produced. In any event, criticism and caviling at minorities does not help.(Italics added)
Most unquestioningly, Nehru too readily subscribed to the British myth that India’s minorities were fearfully apprehensive of Hindu majority after independence. They had looked up to the mai-baap British sarkar for protection through promulgation of certain provisions of patronage and now they turned to Nehru to do the same.
Patel on the other hand believed that the Muslims in India have, on their own, to integrate themselves with the Indian nation. His advice to the Muslims was as Dr. Rafiq Zakaria said years later, echoing Patel:
“The Indian Muslims must cultivate the Hindus ... remove the cobwebs of religious prejudices and historical distortions which have bedeviled their relations with the Hindus.”
In the last 50 years, Muslims have largely ignored Patel’s sound prescription of integrating themselves with the Indian society. The result is that the specter of the Muslim minorityism still continues to haunt the Indian polity even after paying the formidable price of partition of the country. Each political party in India bends over backwards to woo the Muslim minority by playing upon its separatist instinct to treat it as a vote bank. In the bargain Muslims continue to wallow in social and economic backwaters, alienated from the main stream of national life. Had we opted for the Patel line of thinking we should have made it unequivocally plain to the Muslim minority in 1947 itself that they did no favor — none whatsoever — to India to choose to stay back. And once they are here, they are Indians first and Muslims afterwards. Instead of expecting to be treated as a pampered minority they have to learn to stand on their own feet and contribute to the well-being and development of the motherland. Patel was telling us that in the Indian democracy all are equal and we can’t afford the luxury of the Orwellian animal farm of some being more equal than others. We have, perhaps, yet to make the choice. The more we delay it, the more difficult we make for the Indian society to mature into a modern polity.
If you join a Club, it is incumbent on you to abide by its rules and regulations even if you personally don’t like some of them. I’m, for instance, a member of Calcutta Club where it is a rule that during the winter months of December and January you must wear a lounge suit and tie to dine in the main dining room. You must also wear black shoes with laces. Personally, I find the rule galling but I must abide by it if I want to have access to the dining hall. I must also pay my subscription and my bills as they fall due.
If the above isn’t acceptable to me, I’ve the choice to relinquish my membership. But should I not use this option, I must abide by the rules to retain my membership.
Let me apply this simple homespun analogy to citizenship.
As a citizen of a county I’ve to abide by its laws some of which might not be to my liking. Now take our Muslim brethren. There was nothing whatsoever that compelled them other than plain, simple self-interest and many cases to use the luxurious option of eating the cake and having it too, to stay back in India in the wake of Partition. But they cannot be citizens without accepting the duties and obligations of citizenship. That there should be a separate set of rules and laws for them which apply to them alone is a proposition too absurd to claim acceptance. And this is precisely what obtains in our society.
The much-talked-about Sachar report highlighted the backwardness of the Muslim community and that too despite the so-called reservationist provisions for their uplift. A recent study by an American think-tank, the US-India Policy Institute, assessed of late the progress since the Sachar report. Its conclusion is disheartening. Muslims have “not shown any measurable improvement”. Even in education, Muslims’ gains are typically more modest than other groups’. First, the efforts have been half-hearted and worse, implemented very casually to serve political purposes.
Real leadership among Muslims has to reckon with obscurantism which hinders the Muslims joining the mainstream of national life which visionaries like Patel were keen on but subsequent Congress leadership hypocritically further promoted.
Continued to “One Who Forged India’s Steel Frame”
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