Events That Changed Destiny of Nation: I

The Presidential Election of Congress in 1946

There has been a paradigm shift in ethical and moral behaviour of the politicians in India over the past decades since independence largely on account of their selfish interests and greed for power and money. The majority of the leaders associated with the struggle for independence had joined politics more out of a commitment and sense of duty towards the nation rather than the hunger of the position, power and money as is happening now. Although we blame today’s selfish and spineless leaders but it’s not that all was well in the pre-independence era; in fact, the ethical norms and merit was compromised on many occasions by some leaders in furtherance of the individual aspirations. Consequently, the nation had suffered then and it’s still suffering with such legacies. In fact, some blunders of the key national leaders was of such dimension that the nation is still suffering with its negative impact.

Having a natural interest in the Indian modern history, freedom struggle and the life and works of our national heroes, I had opportunity to read several biographies, essays and illustrated works of past and contemporary authors, historians and leaders, including those of Maulana* Abul Kalam Azad’s “India Wins Freedom”, KM Munshi’s “Pilgtrimage to Freedom”, NV Gadgil’s “Government From Inside” and some of Sardar Patel’s Correspondence edited by Durga Das in several volumes. Some of these writings present an illustrated and vivid account of the status of High Command culture and internal party democracy in the Indian National Congress (INC), including greedy and eccentric behaviour of certain key Congress leaders.

Only recently, I had opportunity to read Maulana Azad’s India Wins Freedom again including its withheld portions. Many people may not be aware that Maulana had expressed his desire to publish some withheld text only after thirty years of his death in 1958, possibly because it contained some critical account and remarks which were not very soliciting to some of his erstwhile comrades and friends, particularly Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. One such event with a long term implications was the election of the Congress President in 1946 and role of the key Congress leaders in the process when it was almost clear that the independence of the country was not too far, and also that the incumbent Congress President will lead the first interim government as the Prime Minister of India.

According to official records, Maulana Azad was Congress President from 1940 – 1946. There appears to be a discrepancy in the year as Maulana Azad in his autobiographical book wrote that he was elected President of the Congress in 1939. In fact the year 1939 was a tumultuous year in the Congress presidential history because Subhash Chandra Bose had fought and won election against Gandhi’s official nominee Pattabhi Sitaramayya in that year. However, due to serious ideological differences with Gandhi, he resigned from the presidentship and Congress and pursued his course separately. The vacuum thus created was filled by Rajendra Prasad in that year.

Mahatma or Tactician

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aka Mahatma Gandhi is among one of the most revered and well-documented leaders of the modern age with numerous biographies, essays and commentaries in credit. The official record of his own sayings and writings has been compiled in numerous volumes. In the independent India, the most of Indians know him as the ‘Father of the Nation’ or ‘Bapu’ and the world at large as a smiling saint (Mahatma) who wore a white loincloth and John Lennon spectacles, ate simple and little and brought down the greatest and most powerful empire of the world during his time through non-violent civil disobedience.

Gandhi is undoubtedly an anchor and architect of the modern India and the grateful nation always remembers him in that capacity. Yet like many great people, he too had his weaknesses and faults. Though underplayed by the pro-Congress historians and intellectuals, yet much has been written about his eccentric tendencies in sleeping habits and controversial sexuality linked with the alleged experiments of celibacy. So much so that even Jawaharlal Nehru, his closest ally and independent India’s first prime minister, is known to have formally expressed his concerns about Mahatma’s said routine and obsessions.

Barring an exception of 1924 (Belgaon session), Gandhiji never accepted the coveted cap of the Congress President yet on most of the occasion it would be his choice candidate who presided the affairs of the INC. One may find instances where a person had ideologically different views but, in all cases, either the person had to leave the Congress or was effectively side-lined. Several events of his time vouch that though Gandhiji may have looked like a Mahatma but he was above all a shrewd politician and tactician.

With his long experience in South Africa and Britain, he knew well the system that he was pitted against. So he also knew well when to press an advantage and when to withdraw from a situation, against adversaries be it a British or native system or colleague. Here the author would like to discuss only two events and both had their far reaching implications on the future Indian polity. One such event was Gandhi-Bose strife in 1939 and the other elevation of Jawaharlal Nehru as Congress President in 1946.

The Congress President used to have tenure of one year in pre-independence period and key Congress leaders were usually keeping the post by turn. In 1939, Subhash Chandra Bose opted for re-election but Gandhi didn’t want him due to ideological differences. Reportedly, Nehru was on a long holiday in Europe; on his return Gandhi asked him to announce his candidature for the post but Nehru was not inclined so he suggested Maulana Azad’s name instead but the latter too was not keen for the contest. Finally, Pattabhi Sitaramayya was persuaded to put up the fight against Bose but despite Gandhi’s weight he could not match Bose’s popularity and lost it in the Congress Tripuri Session 1939.

But the defeat was taken by Gandhi as a personal loss and he reportedly remarked -

“… I am glad of his (Bose) victory… and since I was instrumental in inducing Dr Pattabhi not to withdraw his name after Maulana Azad Sahib done so, the defeat is more mine than his… In his (Bose) opinion, his is the most forward and boldest policy and programme…the minority can only wish him all the best.”

Quite obviously, it was Gandhi’s characteristic way of declaring a war against Subhash Chandra Bose. The latter had won presidentship but the Congress Working Committee was controlled by Gandhi’s followers. Needless to mention, the level of distrust and division between Subhash and Gandhi and his followers was such that Subhash had to resign from the Congress and follow his own path in the same year.

The other event of Gandhi’s tenacity in the pre-independence India had for more reaching political consequences that has been dealt with in the following section of this article. Though post-independence history of India has been very kind with Gandhiji for the obvious reasons but the fact is that it was not just a case of few Hindu outfits being against him but a whole lot of people like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Aurobindo, Dr BR Ambedkar, KM Munshi and Annie Besant had serious ideological differences and issues with him and his ways. A tragic yet true part is that nearing independence, he was increasing got side-lined by the very politicians and power-brokers of the INC who were close to him and negotiated the terms of India’s freedom.

Election of Congress President

As per the constitution of Congress, the tenure of the party President was for one year in the normal circumstances. Maulana Azad’s term was coincided with the Second World War. That was the time when Gandhiji started Satyagraha Movement, key leaders were arrested and the Congress declared an illegal organisation by the British government. Thus fresh elections could not be held till the end of the World War and following that in early 1946 the British came out with the Cabinet Mission Plan for the transfer of power to an interim Indian government.

In Chapter 12, Prelude to Partition of India Wins Freedom, Maulana wrote that there was a general demand for his re-election as the Congress President as he had been in-charge of negotiations with Cripps, with Lord Wavell and with the Cabinet Mission in early 1946. But as he had been President for almost last seven years so he decided to retire. He was keen that the next President should be one who agreed with his point of view to carry the same policy forward. In that context he had a feeling that the election of Sardar Patel would not be desirable in the given circumstances, so he proposed, of course with Gandhi’s backing, the name of Jawaharlal Nehru on 26 April 1946 for the Party President with an appeal to party men to elect him unanimously.

In the same requence, he wrote in his own words,

“*I acted according to my best judgement but the way things have shaped since then has made me realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. I have regretted no action of mine so much as the decision to withdraw from the Presidentship of the Congress at this critical juncture. It was a mistake which I can describe in Gandhiji’s words as one of Himalayan dimension.*”

In the following paragraph, he acknowledged –

“*My second mistake was that when I decided not to stand myself I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he had suceeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was sucessfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Mr Jinnah the opportunity of sabotaging the plan. I can never forgive myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.*”

Mutual fondness and close cameraderie between Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is a well known fact. Hence anyone should have no reasons to doubt the factual accuracy of the averments made by Maulana in his book.

After incurring heavy defeat in 1937 general elections, the Muslim League had become more hostile and virtually on a war-path against the Congress in particular and Hindus in general in their endeavour to polarize the population on religious lines. In these circumstances, it was Gandhi’s tactical move indeed to choose Maulana Azad as the Congress President in 1940, just a couple of months before the Muslim League’s Lahore resolution for the creation of Pakistan. Thereafter regular elections could not be held for the party president due to events like the World War II, Quit India Movement and most of the Congress leaders being in various jails; hence Azad continued as the Congress President representing in various negotiations with the British Government and the visiting Missions. Towards the end of War, there were clear indications that the India’s dream of freedom was nearing fructification. Also it was apparent that in such an eventuality the Congress President shall be invited to form the Interim Government at the Centre.

In the above background, the position of the Party President had suddenly become very crucial among the aspirants and power brokers in Congress. Maulana himself has conceded the fact about his interest in the Party President post in his autobiographical book and that this was bound to frustrate aspirations of his close friend and colleague Nehru. Gandhiji was, however, known to have made his choice in favour of Jawaharlal again in April 1946 even before the process was set in motion pre-empting many others’ aspiration and thought process. Reportedly, Gandhiji wrote to Maulana on 20 April 1946 as under in response to the news item published in some newspapers:

“Please go through the enclosed cuttings… I have not spoken to anyone of my opinion. When one or two Working Committee members asked me, I said that it would not be right for the same President to continue… If you are of the same opinion, it may be proper for you to issue a statement about the cuttings [the news item Gandhiji had sent him] and say that you have no intention to become the President again… In today’s circumstances I would, if asked, prefer Jawaharlal. I have many reasons for this. Why go into them?”

Despite Gandhi’s open mandate in favour of Jawaharlal Nehru, the majority in Congress wanted to see Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the Congress President (and also an obvious choice as the first Prime Minister of free India) because of his seniority, executive skills, organizing ability and effective leadership. Despite Gandhi’s choice known to the majority Congress men across the country, the 12 out of 15 Provincial Congress Committees, the only legitimate bodies to nominate and elect the Party President, had nominated Sardar Patel. There are different versions about the remaining three Committees but it is pretty clear that none of them favoured the election of Jawaharlal Nehru. Thus Nehru remained without the support of any of the 15 Provincial Congress Committees till the last day of filing the nominations for the President i.e. April 29, 1946.

As it appears, Gandhiji tasked JB Kripalani in finding the proposers and seconders in Delhi for Nehru’s candidacy which Kriplani did dutifully by mobilising necessary numbers. Once Nehru’s candidature was formally proposed, efforts began to persuade Sardar Patel to withdraw his nomination in the former’s favour. Available record and account of the crucial CWC meeting suggest that before advising Patel to withdraw his nomination, Gandhi gave a hint to Jawaharlal that none of the provincial committees had favoured his candidature except a few CWC members, to which he (Nehru) maintained a stoic and embarrassing silence. The message was clear that Nehru was not willing to accept second place (subordination) to any Congress leader. Thus Gandhi sacrificed his most trusted and faithful colleague (Parel) in favour of the glamorous and westernised Nehru.

Incidentally, then Sardar Patel was about 71 and Nehru 57 years of age. The former was not only senior in age and experience but also had established himself as superior in administrative skills and organiser among the existing lot. For him it was the last opportunity while Nehru still had age in his favour. It is understood, even many other senior leaders, including Rajendra Prasad who later became first President of India, were not happy with Gandhi’s choice but then for the sake of unity and in reverence to Gandhiji everyone endorsed it.

An icon of ethics and morality, Sardar Patel gracefully accepted to take a second position to Nehru for two reasons: firstly, for him service of the motherland was more important than any post or position; and secondly, he did not want any split at the top leadership at that crucial juncture due to Nehru’s adamant attitude that he would either take number one spot or stay away from the government formation. Maulana Azad’s revelations in his autobiographical book cited in the foregoing paragraphs speak of the insight of the unethical and compromising game that followed.

Cabinet Mission Plan

The plan was a crucial step taken by the British government in 1946 in the post-second World War scenario to concede India’s sovereignty and devise a scheme for the interim government formation. The Mission was comprised of Sir Pethick Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade and Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty. The Mission arrived on 24 March 1946 with the objectives to devise a mechanism for the constitution of the Independent India and make arrangements for the interim government as a prelude for declaration of India’s independence.

The mission spent several days to consult the leaders of various political parties, mainly the Congress and Muslim League, but could not arrive at any agreed formula. So they announced own recommendations on May 16, 1946. The salient features of the Plan were as under:

  • India shall be granted independence as a united Dominion. The Muslim League’s demand for a separate Pakistan didn’t find a place in the Mission.
  • The Muslim-majority provinces of Sind, Punjab, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province shall form one group, and Bengal and Assam another; while the Hindu-majority provinces in central and southern India shall form yet another group.
  • The central government in Delhi shall handle subjects like defence, communications, currency and foreign affairs, and the remaining powers and responsibility shall rest with the provinces.
  • An interim Government at the Centre shall be formed by the representatives on the basis of parity in representation of the Hindus and the Muslims.
  • Interim cabinet shall be comprised of only Indians with minimum interference from the Viceroy and the Constituent Assembly will be set up on democratic principles with representation from the Provincial Assemblies and Princely states.

Aftermath of the Cabinet Mission Plan

Reportedly, the Muslim League had initially accepted the plan. The Congress too had accepted the proposal with certain reservations as they were uncomfortable with the groupings of states on communal basis and disproportionate representation of Muslim League in the Constituent Assembly. The Viceroy initiated the process of the transfer of power to a Congress-League coalition. But soon on 10 July 1946, Jawaharlal made a statement in the press in Bombay,

"…We are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided to go into the Constituent Assembly".

Many past and present analysts besides the other major stakeholder Muslim League considered it as a "provocative speech" that derailed the entire process giving enough leverage to Jinnah to start yet another campaign for the division of India and creation of Pakistan for Muslims. Independent analysts feel that by this statement Nehru had effectively "torpedoed" any chance for a united India; in response Jinnah withdrew the Muslim League's acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan on 17 July 1946.

Maulana Azad has narrated how in the AICC after inviting Jawaharlal to take over as President, he moved the resolution on the Cabinet Mission Plan informing the members that the Mission had accepted all essential points from the Congress’s point of view and guaranteed the unity of India with necessary assurances to the minorities. The resolution was passed with an overwhelming majority and the seal of AICC was put. Thereafter, Maulana cites an unfortunate event which according to him changed the course of the Indian history.

“… On 10 July, Jawaharlal held a conference in Bombay in which he made an astonishing statement. Some press representatives asked him whether, with the passing of the resolution by the AICC, the Congress had accepted the Plan in toto, including the composition of the Interim Government.

Jawaharlal in reply stated that Congress would enter the Constituent Assembly ‘completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise’.

Press representatives further asked if this meant that the Cabinet Mission plan could be modified.

Jawaharlal replied emphatically that the Congress had agreed only to participate in the Constituent assembly and regarded itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best.”

Maulana Azad further wrote that as such Mr Jinnah was not at all happy about the outcome of the negotiations with the Cabinet Mission. Jawaharlal’s statement came to him as a bombshell and he immediately issued a statement that this declaration by the Congress President demanded a review of the whole situation. As a damage control exercise, Maulana suggested that a statement be issued that the points made by the Congress President in the Bombay press conference were his personal opinion and that this did not conform to the decision of the Congress but Nehtu was not inclined. A clarification later issued by the Congress, without making a reference to Nehru's press statement, didn’t satisfy Muslim League and Jinnah who held that the statement made by Nehru earlier represented real motive of the Congress.

Muslim League ultimately rejected the Mission Plan on July 29, and made an appeal to Muslims to resort to “Direct Action” on 16 August 1946 to achieve their dream homeland “Pakistan”. On the appointed date, disorderly events including arson, loot and violence were unleashed in Punjab and Bengal, including the cities like Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, the latter remained as an epicentre. On the Muslim League sponsored Direct Action Day, over 5,000 people were killed across India. Maulana lamented that 16 August 1946 was a black day not only for Calcutta but for the whole of India. He thus wrote –

“*This was one of the greatest tragedies of Indian history and I have to say with the deepest of regret that a large part of the responsibility for this development rests with Jawaharlal. His unfortunate statement that the Congress would be free to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan reopened the whole question of political and communal settlement. Mr Jinnah took full advantage of his (Nehru) mistake and withdrew from the League’s early acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan.*”

There is no doubt that Muslim League was constantly posing difficult situations and grouping of the states by the Mission on communal lines was certainly not a very amicable solution. But both the major stakeholders had to concede some grounds to move forward and avoid partition of the country. Once a decision was taken in the AICC endorsing the Mission Plan, it was undoubtedly unbecoming on the part of the party president to deviate and put forth own agenda with such disastrous outcomes. Nehru’s close friend and comrade Maulana Azad regretted not favouring Sardar Patel and his citing the entire episode of the election of the Congress President in 1946 as a blunder of Himalayan dimension speaks volumes of what was done and what should have not been done. It’s so ironical and unfortunate that a nation had to suffer so miserably for the greed and follies of a handful men.


Following the partition and independence, Jawaharlal Nehru ruled the country as Prime Minister till his death in May 1964. In the post-independence history, the contribution of the leaders like Sardar Patel was almost forgotten for long. As Home Minister of the Independent India, Patel had the task of negotiating over 500 princely states for the merger and integration in the Dominion of India. Needless to mention the task of the merger and integration was executed with absolute success and meticulous accuracy by him, including difficult states like Junagarh and Hyderabad. On the other hand, Prime Minister Nehru retained the settlement of Jammu & Kashmir under his sleeve and the cancerous issue still bothers and bleeds whole of India in spite of four costly wars with Pakistan.

Maulana Azad himself admitted in his book that he had reservations about the elevation of Sardar Patel despite his seniority and administrative acumen. This reservation was apparently on account that he may not be fair and favourable to minorities (Muslims) though later Azad himself admitted that it was his mistake not to propose Patel at the crucial juncture. Consequent to partition, the country experienced worst ever communal riots, bloodbath, arson and other crimes against humanity with estimated loss of human life to around two million. While Pakistan opted to pursue future course as an Islamic state but India with a Hindu majority remained a secular state. The Indian Constitution assured fundamental rights and equal treatment to all citizens without any discrimination on caste, creed, religion or region.

Nehru is lauded by many historians, political analysts and intellectuals as true secularist, humanist and statesman yet under his premiership, the Personal Laws of only Hindu community were framed and Hindu Code bill passed by the Parliament and he avoided taking similar action for the Muslim community as if only Hindus needed reforms and Muslims didn’t. Under his regime, the legislation was brought for the administration and acquiring the immovable properties of the Hindu temples and Mutts but similar action was avoided for the minority communities. He was instrumental in Haj subsidy for the minority community; while he often criticised several Hindu practices and rituals citing it as superstitions of a backward community but he didn’t consider necessary to raise his voice against many social evil practices of the minority Muslim community such as the multiple marriage, triple talaq, practice of Halala and radicalisation of education in Madarssas. All along it has been like putting the majority community on defensive and predicating the Indian secularism on certification by the minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians.

Officially, India has seven religions namely Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism (Parsees). While first four religions are indigenous to the Indian sub-continent, Parsees were welcomed from the erstwhile Persia (Iran) under persecution from the Arab invaders. The other two religions largely came in India with the Arab and Turkish invaders and European colonizers. Demographic data indicate that Hindus population of 84.1% in 1951 has come down to 79.8% in 2011 while in the corresponding period Muslim population has grown from 9.8% to 14.23%. Similarly in the north-eastern states, the Christian population has shown phenomenal growth during the last hundred years from almost ‘negligible’ to a majority in most states, with states like Nagaland, Mizorum and Meghalaya having a Christian population than 90 per cent.

This speaks in volume as to which community has grown or shunken over a period. Notwithstanding these facts, time and again there is a vicious propaganda within the country and abroad that minorities are not safe in India. The recent formal notifications and utterances from the Archbishops in the major cities like Delhi and Mumbai underlining the need for saving India from the ‘turbulent political atmosphere’ threatening democracy and secularism is a case in point. It's an ironic and paradox of the Indian politics that if a party or person talks about the inclusive growth and welfare of all (including majority community), they are branded as communal and threat to the democracy and secularism. On the other hand, those who resort to appeasement of the select few minorities avoiding a reference to the majority community are considered secular and democratic. So unfortunate and ironical is the fact that the individual commits blunders at a time and the entire population and nation suffers in the course of the history.

Continued to Part II : Annexation of Tibet by China in 1950

*Not many people know that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was Firoz Bakht by birth (born in Mecca) and his real name was Muhiyuddin Ahmad. Later he adopted the pseudonym of ‘Abul Kalam Azad’ and is remembered as such with Maulana as prefix in reverence. A zealot patriot and strong proponent of United India and Hindu-Muslim unity, he was against the Aligarh line of remaining aloof from the freedom movement. After independence, he served as the Minister of Education in Nehru government until his death in February 1958.


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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