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