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.
It was the peculiar demographics of colonial Punjab which allowed the Unionist Party to exist. In 1921, Muslims were a majority in the province at 51%, followed by 35% Hindus and 12% Sikhs. But regardless of religion, the business of Punjabis was farming. One-third of all wheat in India came from Punjab, so did one-tenth of cotton. 90% of the populations was rural and engaged in some form of agriculture. Only one city – Lahore – had population of more than a 100,000. (The other big city, Amritsar, actually saw a decline in its population in the first twenty years of the century as people migrated to rural areas.)
With farming came debt. By some statistics, 98% of Punjabi peasantry had some level of indebtedness. In urban commercial centers, moneylending became a booming business worth hundreds of crores of rupees. Over 20% of all moneylenders could be found in Punjab. Agricultural loans were a solid bet: either the farmer had to pay out the onerous interest rates or his land would be seized in case of a default. By 1930s, just the interest paid by Punjabi farmers was four to five times the total amount of taxes they paid. While the British had introduced some laws to protect the peasantry from seizure of their land, there were plenty of loopholes for the moneylenders to exploit. The Punjabi farmer remained under perpetual threat of his land being seized.
It was this fear that Fazl-i-Husain and Chhotu Ram capitalized to build foundations of the Unionist Party. The party emerged as a lobby group for landholders, protecting them from threat of dispossession from the moneylenders and ensuring that greater portion of the province’s budget went into agricultural projects like canal irrigation. The idea of the famous Bhakra-Nangal Dams which were built in the 1960s was originally mooted by the Unionists.
Chhotu Ram’s base were the Hindu Jats of eastern Punjab (modern-day Haryana), who were predominantly a landholding class. Rejecting the communal Hindu identity, Chhotu Ram argued that what his people really needed was protection from moneylenders and education (given the abysmal rate of illiteracy amongst the Haryana peasantry), same as the Muslim Jats of the region. Fazl-i-Husain, although a city lawyer himself, led the landholders of western Punjab (modern-day Punjab in Pakistan), where his major constituencies were the landlord Muslim Rajputs. In addition, he also managed to bring in the Sufi pirs (godmen) of the region who controlled the shrines which were endowed with massive tracts of land since the Mughal era. Collectively, Unionists became a coalition of feudal landlords and the rural peasantry.
What was missing from this coalition were the Sikhs, which made up about one-tenth of the province’s population. The Sikh constituency had long been under the control of Shiromani Akali Dal, which had emerged as a political party over the dispute of managing gurudwaras of the province in the 1920s. From the beginning it had assumed a religious character, labeled by many as outright communal. Despite their best attempts the Unionists had failed to make any inroads into Akali Dal’s vote bank.
To be sure, the Unionists were a Muslim party with support from certain Hindu communities. It was similar to the Samajwadi Party of today’s Uttar Pradesh, which is primarily a Yadav party, but relies on Muslim support. Thus, Chhotu Ram, the perennial Number 2 man in the party, could never hope to be at its helm. For all intents and purposes, the top leader of the party was Fazl-i-Husain.
In fact, Fazl-i-Husain had bigger ambitions than merely Punjab. In the late 1920s, with Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s political star dipping, he had emerged as one of the most prominent Muslim politician in the country. He had used this stature to emerge as a vocal proponent of provincial autonomy and federalism. Unlike Congress and Muslim League, both of which argued for a strong center in independent India, Fazl-i-Husain called for stronger state rights and powerful provincial political parties. He also encouraged many politicians in other provinces to form province-level Hindu-Muslim “agriculturalist” alliances following the Unionist model.
It is unsurprising then that neither Congress nor Muslim League were ever able to form an alliance with the Unionists. Throughout their existence, the Unionists continued to work with the British Government (by participating in the local elections and the provincial government), which earned them labels like “anti-national” and “collaborators” from Congress nationalists. However, it mattered little since Congress remained largely an urban presence in a province which had only a handful of cities. In fact, the more Punjab Congress had to rely on the cities, the more it was wedded with the moneylending interests of the commercial centers, thus pushing the rural population even further into Unionists’ arms. As for the League, it remained a non-entity in the province for most of 1920s and 1930s, unable to wean the Muslims away from the Unionists.
Nevertheless, the Unionists existed in a political landscape which was increasingly communal. From the very beginning, Fazl-i-Husain and Chhotu Ram had to constantly fend off charges of being communal as every move they made was seen from the lens of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. When the Unionists presented a bill to protect indebted farmers, critics argued that since most of moneylending business was controlled by banias, the bill was anti-Hindu. When Fazl-i-Husain sought to reform the education system by introducing a quota system, opponents argued that since illiteracy was more prevalent in Muslim communities, the bill was religiously-biased. Even when Unionist politicians called for Hindu-Muslim unity, they became suspect. One local newspaper stated sarcastically, “Muslim leaders propose to administer the cup of poison with sweet mantras of unity, unity and again unity”.
The attacks reached their fever-pitch in mid-1930s as the country prepared for the 1937 provincial elections. Despite its weakness on the ground, Congress showed little interest in allying with the Unionists, which it saw as a Muslim-dominated party. Instead, Congress formed alliance with Akali Dal, thus, earning a tinge of communalism in the minds of Punjabi electorate. Meanwhile, Jinnah had recently returned to take over Muslim League, which he was trying to reconstitute as a pan-India Muslim force. He understood that without Punjab, it would be difficult for the League to claim to be the sole voice for the Muslims of India. For two years, Jinnah chased Fazl-i-Husain, trying to get him into an alliance, but the Unionist leader managed to dodge Jinnah’s charm offensive. Finally, frustrated Jinnah is reported to have said “Fazli thinks he carries Punjab in his pocket… I am going to smash Fazli”.
Fazl-i-Husain was unconcerned, knowing that the League had no political currency in Punjab. “The Central Parliamentary Board [of Muslim League], so far as the Punjab is concerned, does not exist,” he said. The election results proved him right. The Unionists swept the province with 95 seats out of 175. The League managed to scrape by with just one. Congress-Akali Dal alliance fared little better with a combined 28. Unfortunately, Fazl-i-Husain did not live to see the day, having died a few months before the elections. In his absence, the leadership was taken over by Sikandar Hayat Khan, a former Indian Army officer who had just returned from a stint as the Deputy Director of the Reserve Bank of India. Khan became the Prime Minister of Punjab after the elections.
Khan was an able administrator, had a keen sense of politics and supported the major Muslim landlord clans. He also had better “secular” credentials than Fazl-i-Husain within Hindu community. Nevertheless, he arrived at the helm at a time when the irresistible force of communalism was swallowing the entire country. Within months of his coming to power, he could already sense that the balance of power was tilting away from secular politics. Muslim League had managed to gain enough seats in the 1937 elections nation-wide to earn it credibility within the Muslim community. Khan found Muslim leaders of his own party nudging him towards the League.
The result was the famous Sikandar-Jinnah Pact of October 1937, between the Unionist Party and the Muslim League, at least on paper. In retrospect, the pact is remembered as a momentous event which “made Pakistan possible”. However, at the time, it did not seem such a significant development. Khan believed that he was trading away bragging rights for real power. Jinnah could claim a larger Muslim support for himself at the national stage, where it was meaningless, while in Punjab it was Khan’s writ that ran. Khan even managed to dismantle the League machinery in Punjab and absorb it within his own political infrastructure. As for Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, Khan remained ambiguous, supporting it one day and denouncing it the next. Perhaps the greatest evidence that the pact did not make much difference in the immediate years after its signing was the fact that Khan’s Hindu supporters, including Chhotu Ram, did not abandon him over this issue.
In fact, soon Unionists took a more “secular” turn to woo Akali Dal. The catalyst was the British involvement in Second World War, which Congress had decided to oppose. The party called for the Indian people to refuse any kind of support to the British war effort including military service. For Sikhs, who had a tradition of joining the Army by truckloads, this idea was an anathema. The result was a breakdown of Congress-Akali Dal alliance. Khan was quick to swoop in, pulling in Akali Dal as a coalition partner. The price of the alliance was an unequivocal rejection of the Pakistan proposal. By 1941, Khan became a vocal opponent of the idea. Jinnah could do little but fume.
Yet, by early 1940s, the Unionist castle began to crumble. Part of the reason was circumstances beyond Khan’s control. During Second World War, the British Government introduced several draconian measures, like mandatory requisitioning of grain, for which the Unionist government had to take the blame. However, more significant was the rising tide of communalism. The more Hindus and Muslims drifted apart from each other, the more Unionists became unviable as a political model.
An example of this was Shahidgunj Shrine in Lahore. It was an old mosque which had been converted into a Gurudwara in early nineteenth century under the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In early twentieth century, Muslims had filed several civil suits to get it back. In 1935 the court decided in favour of the Sikhs. The result was widespread Muslim agitation and violence which continued for many years. The Unionists chose to uphold the law, dissuade Muslims from agitation and choose to move on. Before his death, Fazl-i-Husain wrote: “If Muslims had not made utter fools of themselves and committed blunder after blunder in handling this matter, and if pirs and politicians had not for the sake of popularity and very temporary and ephemeral applause acted in a manner most prejudicial to Muslim interests this matter would have been closed long ago”. Unfortunately, in the polarized environment of the time, people had little interest in hearing out sensible and practical political positions. Instead, the Shahidgunj affair ended up costing the Unionists politically and steadily chipped away their Muslim support.
An even bigger blow came in December 1942 when Khan died unexpectedly. Chhotu Ram passed away two years later. The vacuum left by these two main leaders of Unionists could not be filled easily. Instead, the party became rife with infighting. The victor was Jinnah, who could now play Kingmaker within the Unionists. The more they fought, the more power Jinnah gained. Soon Muslim leaders of the party were jumping ship to the League, while Hindu leaders moved to Congress. Within four years, only a skeleton of the Unionist Party remained.
In 1946, elections came around once again. Unionists managed to gain only 20 seats. They still remained in power, but only because of Congress support which had bagged 51 seats. The real force in Punjab was now the League, which had 73 seats, more than any other. For all intents and purposes, the Unionists party was a dead letter. Even in Punjab, it no longer mattered whether you were a peasant or a moneylender, whether you lived in a village or in a city, whether you were a graduate or an illiterate. All that mattered was your religion.
Historical significance of things is judged by the context within which they existed. In another context, the Unionist party could be accused of exploiting the urban-rural divide, kowtowing to the landed interests or opposing the banking industry, and thereby modernity. However, in the context of 1930s India, it was a unique political force, which successfully managed to face off the power of communalism, at least for a while. Unfortunately, in the end, communalism proved too strong a force. By the time of independence, the Unionist Party had ceased to exist.
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Bal, Sarjit Singh. Political Parties and Growth of Communalism in Punjab, 1920-47. Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, 1989; Gajrani, SD. Agrarian Unrest in Punjab (1920-1947). Madaan Publishers, 1988; Gandhi, Rajmohan. Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten. Aleph Book Company, 2013; Heeger, Gerald A. “The Growth of the Congress Movement in Punjab, 1920–1940.” The Journal of Asian Studies 32.1 (1972): 39-51; Husain, Azim and Rajagopalachariar, C, Fazl-i-Husain: A political Biography. Longmans, Green, Bombay ; New York, 1946; Krishan, Gopal. “Demography of the Punjab (1849-1947).” JPS 11.1 (2004): 78; Oren, Stephen. “The Sikhs, congress, and the unionists in British Punjab, 1937–1945.” Modern Asian Studies 8.3 (1974): 397-418; Singh, Parduman, “Rise of Sir Chhotu Ram a study of socio economic conditions of peasantry in Punjab”, PhD Thesis, Maharshi Dayanand University, 2002; Talbot, Ian. “The Unionist Party and Punjabi Politics, 1937–1947.” The Political Inheritance of Pakistan. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1991. 86-105; Tanwar, Raghuvendra. Politics of Sharing Power: The Punjab Unionist Party, 1923-1947. Manohar Publications, 1999.
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