7. Sinkandar Hayat Khan and the Unionists of Punjab: The Last Gasp of Hindu-Muslim Unity

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Punjab under martial law during the Non-Cooperation Movement

On 5 October 1920, Mian Fazl-i-Husain, a rising star of Punjab politics and member of both Muslim League and Congress, called an urgent meeting of his political colleagues to his Lahore house. His objective was to convince them to reject Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement and the League’s Khilafat Movement, both of which were reaching fever-pitch at the time. Such unconstitutional agitation would only lead to lawlessness, he argued. Common masses were incapable of sticking to the idea of non-violence; eventually, blood will be spilled. But even before the meeting started, he knew that he was in a minority. Gandhi’s appeal of populist politics was simply too irresistible for Punjabi politicians to ignore. Defeated, Fazl-i-Husain tendered his resignation from both Congress and the League. In Rohtak, a similar story was playing out at the time. Chaudhary Chhotu Ram, a Jat peasant leader, thought Non-Cooperation Movement was dangerous and futile. Gandhi’s call for not paying taxes would only lead to confiscation of land from poor farmers, driving them further into the hole of poverty. Chhotu Ram’s arguments were shouted down, leading him to leave Congress as well.

As it turned out, loss of these two men was more than Congress could afford. Together, they went on to form the formidable Unionist Party, which dominated Punjab politics for the next two decades. Neither Congress nor Muslim League were be able to gain a foothold in the province when faced against the power of the Unionists. By late 1930s, the Unionists emerged as the most powerful political party in India which was truly built on a united Hindu-Muslim constituency. Yet, in the end, the Unionists, unable to adapt to the increasingly polarized political landscape of India, went the way of the dinosaurs. Forces of communalism, which had engulfed the nation by mid-1940s, swallowed the party whole, until it became a footnote in history. Continue reading

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6. 1937 Elections: The Indian Democratic Experiment Begins

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A cartoon depicting Willingdon and Gandhi

At the end of his term in 1936, Lord Willingdon, the departing Viceroy of India, could look back in satisfaction. Five years ago, when he had arrived, the country was in disarray. In the throes of the Great Depression, discontent amongst the public was widespread. Congress’s Civil Disobedience campaign was proving to be successful, having paralyzed the British administration. Worse, Willingdon’s predecessor, Lord Irwin, had tried to buy off the movement by negotiating one-on-one with Mahatma Gandhi, leading to the famous Gandhi-Irwin Pact. In Willingdon’s book, this was a grave mistake, which elevated Congress to a level equivalent to the British government.

 

During his tenure, Willingdon tried to put things back on track. He crushed the Civil Disobedience campaign, rounding up thousands of Congressmen and outlawing most of Congress organizations. By 1933, the campaign had to be suspended due to lack of enthusiasm. Willingdon never granted Gandhi a one-on-one audience and insisted that Congress was just one of many political voices in India. Over Congress’ vehement protests, he introduced a new constitution to govern India in 1935. All in all, by the time of his departure, things were looking up. Congress seemed to be in disarray and British officials felt confident that the party will soon split because of the infighting between the Gandhians and the Socialists. The upcoming elections of 1937, in which they expected Congress to perform poorly, would prove for once and for all that the party could not claim to speak for the entire country. Willingdon could have scarcely believed that only months after his departure, Congress would emerge united and stronger than ever before. And it would do this by using the instrument he had left behind – the 1937 elections. Continue reading

5. Businessmen and Nationalists: Rise of Money in Congress Politics

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Gandhi and Sir Stafford Cripps at the steps of Birla House after a crucial meeting in 1942

From the late 1920s onwards, whenever Mahatma Gandhi visited New Delhi, he was usually found at the house of business tycoon Ghanshyam Das Birla. Some of the most important political decisions of this period were taken in this house. On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was gunned down in its garden. Today, this building is known as Gandhi Smriti, a memorial dedicated to Bapu. On the surface, the image of world’s most famous “half-naked fakir” living under the same roof as one of India’s richest men appears strange, if not an outright contradiction. In fact, the friendship between Birla and Gandhi symbolized the powerful alliance between big Indian businesses and the Congress party, which was forged in the mid-1930s. From this point onwards, India’s industrial magnates began to play an important role in the country’s Independence Movement, and eventually ended up influencing the course of history. Continue reading

4. Patel vs. Congress Socialist Party: The Insurgency

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 Propaganda poster showing the German Socialist Party crushing Nazis (before Hitler came to power)

By the early 1930s, the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism had been enveloping the entire globe. Rise of Hitler in Germany, Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union, victory of Social Democrats in Sweden, collapse of the Liberal party in Great Britain, the Spanish Civil War, the Infamous Decade of Argentina, the 1931 Communist revolt in Indo-China, the 1935 rebellion in Iran, the Long March in China and birth of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – in their own ways, all of these were various fronts of the ongoing global war between ideas of the Left and the Right. Two factors – success of the Soviet Union and the failure of capitalism during the Great Depression – had thrown the world into an existential crisis. Confused, the humanity was struggling to figure out whether its salvation lay in the promised socialist utopia or the capitalist jungle.

 

Inevitably, the war came to India as well. By 1934, Congress was facing a brewing insurgency which threatened to split the party into two. On one side stood Congress’s Right Wing led by the party boss Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. On the other were the young radicals like Jayaprakash Narain and PD Tandon, who sought to carry out a coup within the party and establish hegemony of the socialists. On one side was decades of experience in political infighting, and on the other, firebrand radicalism of the youth. Many feared that an open civil war might break out within the party at the time when it was at its weakest and the British government was looking for any way to break it into pieces. But they were underestimating one man who was watching all of this from afar. Mahatma Gandhi was about to give everyone a master class in political maneuvering. Without stepping in himself, he was about to defuse this ticking bomb. Continue reading

3. India in the Great Depression: Forged in Fire

434793462On Tuesday, 29 October 1929, the New York Stock Exchange opened under a cloud of fear. The market had been plummeting for the last five days and the brokers sensed that the worst was yet to come. They were not wrong. As the story goes, the opening bell of the exchange was never heard because the shouts of “Sell! Sell! Sell!” drowned it out. Within first thirty minutes, US$ 2 million evaporated into thin air and the slide continued. Phone lines were clogged and telegram service exhausted. By the end of the day, the market had lost US$ 14 billion – about 180 billion in today’s dollars. The ticker tape that recorded transactions ran for 15,000 miles! This was “Black Tuesday”, the beginning of the Great Depression, the longest, the deepest and the most widespread economic depression of the 20th Century. It would take the world twelve years to recover from it.

The news of “Black Tuesday” reached India only two days later. Even then, it wasn’t taken too seriously. The Times of India printed the story on its page 10. After all, how much effect could the Wall Street have on streets of Agra or Madras? As it turns out, a lot. The Great Depression ended up plunging Indian peasantry into years of misery and indebtedness. The economic distress was further exacerbated by sheer greed and mismanagement of the colonial government. Ironically, the same governmental greed also ended up unwittingly helping the nascent Indian industry, which emerged from the depression stronger than ever before. Continue reading

2. The Rise, the Fall and the Return of Jinnah

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Jinnah, even as a young man, was famous for never wearing a silk tie twice

On 4 October 1930, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was aboard a ship called Viceroy of India, setting sail from Bombay to London, ostensibly to participate in a political conference being called by King George V. However, unbeknownst to even the ones closest to him, Jinnah did not plan on returning to India for a long time, possibly forever. There simply seemed nothing to come back to in India. His wife Ruttie Jinnah, the love of his life, had died last year. The same could be said for his political career. While fifteen years ago, Jinnah was one of the fastest rising politicians in the country, now he was a marginalized figure with little political power or following. Despite all his brilliance and talent, the political climate of India seemed to have become too petty and self-destructive for him to succeed. So, instead, he had decided to embark on a new chapter of his life at the age of fifty-three by moving his practice to London and seeking a seat in the British Parliament. By the next year, his passport would list England rather than India as his place of residence. For the most part, Jinnah and India seemed finished with each other.

 

The idea that Jinnah would not only return to India but be at the helm of its second biggest political party by the end of the decade would have sounded farfetched at the time. The prediction that this barrister would singlehandedly altered the course of South Asian and world history by the end of the next decade, would have sounded down right impossible. It would be one of the greatest stories of comebacks in Indian politics. Aboard Viceroy of India, even Jinnah couldn’t foresee what the future held in store for him. Continue reading

1. Bose v. Gandhi: Playing for Keeps

Gandhiji with Subhas Chandra Bose at Haripura Congress in 1938.

Gandhi and Bose in 1938

On 29 January 1939, as Subhas Chandra Bose sipped tea at a party in Calcutta celebrating the wedding of his eldest nephew, his mind was elsewhere. As the Bose family engaged in festivities, votes were being counted across the country for the election of Congress Party’s Presidency. For Bose, it was a make or break moment. He had positioned himself as a challenger to the party establishment and gone against some very powerful people. The electoral contest had been bitter, with dirty tricks and harsh invectives being hurled by both sides. By the day of the election, it had become a nail-biter. As early trends poured in, Bose allowed himself to relax. Province after province began to turn his way – Bengal, United Provinces, Assam and a sweep of the South. To those who called in to congratulate, he happily declared, “we are winning”.

Two thousand kilometers away, on the other coast of India, Mahatma Gandhi was meeting with peasants of Bardoli, Gujarat, as election results trickled in. This frail-looking man dressed only in loin cloth was the most powerful politician in India. For the last two decades, he had single-handedly picked men to run the Congress Party. Although his modesty would have never allowed him to admit it, often a mere nod from Gandhi had been enough for leaders to become Party Presidents unopposed. Now, however, it seemed that the unchallenged hegemony of Bapu was coming to an end. His name did not appear on the ballot, but everyone had known that this election was between Bose and him. And the people wanted Bose. By the end of the day, Bose had won the election with 1,580 votes against his opponent’s 1,375. There are no records of this, but one can easily imagine Gandhi going about his daily chores after hearing the news, not showing any signs of distress. Yet it is likely that he knew that this battle was far from over. In fact, it was just beginning. Continue reading