The Telegraph, May 31, 2013
- Nationalism in a time of separate electorates
In a recent column, I discussed the intellectual ingenuity of the early Congress in inventing a nationalism based on the conceit of representing diversity rather than embodying sameness. This invocation of pluralism pushed the Congress into acknowledging religious communities as political actors, a departure from the liberal democratic insistence on the individual as the basic unit of representative politics.
So when the colonial State began to consider political innovations such as legislative councils with elected members, the Congress had to reckon with the question of community representation. Not only did its own commitment to India’s diversity require this, but also Muslim leaders of the political tendency established by Sir Saiyad Ahmad Khan began petitioning the raj for political ‘safeguards’ such as reserved seats and separate electorates. This column will examine the impact that separate electorates had on the theory and practice of the Congress’s pluralist nationalism.
Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the most cerebral of Moderate Congressmen, admired by both Gandhi and Jinnah, didn’t think separate electorates were an abomination. Gokhale suggested that electoral constituencies ought to be, as a rule, territorial and open to all communities, but if an election did not return as many representatives as the population of a community warranted, the shortfall could be made good by supplementary elections based on separate electorates. In this way, Gokhale hoped to reconcile a liberal commitment to non-sectarian politics with the pluralist need to ensure the representation of India’s diversity.
Gokhale’s prescription illustrated the Moderate willingness to accept and follow up on the logic of a pluralist nationalism. Equally, the introduction of separate electorates as early as 1909 illustrated the raj’s keenness to give institutional form to the colonial view of India as a collection of inherently antagonistic communities.
Morley accepted Aligarh’s claim that Muslims could only be represented by Muslims elected by other Muslims because it was consistent with colonial sociology and offered a political rebuff to the Congress’s impertinent claim to contain within itself a subcontinent’s peoples. The Congress, ideologically committed to finding common cause across the plurality of India’s peoples, would find it nigh impossible to outbid parties seeking the votes of a single religious community. This was the unequal contest that separate electorates set up for the Congress in Muslim constituencies.
Reserved seats for Muslims and joint electorates might have guaranteed community representation without sealing British India’s Muslim subjects into a separate electoral compartment. Instead a purely sectarian arrangement was given constitutional sanction without experimenting with less radical alternatives. Since communal electorates were part of the first constitutional scheme that incorporated elected Indian legislators at the provincial and imperial level, democratic politics in colonial India had separateness built into its foundations.
This confronted early Congress nationalists with a challenge that they couldn’t resolve as colonial subjects. Regardless of what the Congress offered by way of reassurance or concession to a religious community, it could not match the concessions that were in the raj’s gift because those concessions became political facts with tangible benefits, as opposed to the Congress’s high-minded but notional promises. During World War II, Jinnah used to advise Muslim politicians to ignore the Congress because the political concessions the Muslim League wanted could only be granted by the colonial State: this hard political fact had, in fact, thwarted the Congress’s attempt to persuade Muslims of its inclusive credentials from the first decade of the century.
Thus the Congress might offer Muslims, as Badruddin Tyabji did, a veto on Congress resolutions or even, as in Gokhale’s case, separate electorates as a secondary, compensatory mechanism, but all these offers were undercut by the raj’s willingness to concede to Muslim politicians an immediate and unqualified right to separate electorates.
The Congress’s position on separate electorates was hard to explain in a pithy or attractive way. For the Congress, diversity had to be politically represented and performed so that no community felt left out: people of every sort — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian — had to be seen to deliberate on the public good. So reserved seats were acceptable. But separate electorates were bad because the idea that only Muslim electorates could produce authentic Muslim representatives was a dangerous idea. If Muslim legislators were to deliberate on the public good, they had to be elected by the general public: being ‘authentically’ Muslim was beside the point. For the supporters of separate electorates, though, the virtue of the arrangement was that the legislators it threw up would represent the Muslim will undiluted by the interests or desires of non-Muslim voters.
Confronted by a constitutional fait accompli in 1909, the Congress began to treat separate electorates as an obstacle to be tolerated in the present and circumvented or overcome at some future date. The problem with this position was that once the Indian Councils Act had conceded separate electorates, the Congress’s opposition to them began to be seen as an anti-Muslim position, an attempt to undo a settled political fact.
After 1909, the Congress’s strategy became one of recruiting Muslims at one remove, through Muslim partners like the Muslim League or the Khilafatists. It was an opportunistic strategy which did nothing to fill the hole in the Congress’s theory of nationalism left by absent Muslims. By looking to other political organizations to deliver Muslims, the Congress was contravening its founding principle: that it was possible for one political organization to represent the variousness of India.
The best way of resolving this contradiction would have been to first make a pact with a Muslim political organization and then to effect a merger, rather like a giant company acquiring a smaller one because it didn’t have the right personnel within itself. There was a window of opportunity a decade long between the late Twenties and the late Thirties when the incoherence and organizational shallowness of Muslim politics made such an acquisition possible. For many reasons (which ranged from political hubris, to excessive ideological purity, to absent personal chemistry, to the malevolence of the colonial State), the negotiations with Jinnah at the national level during the All Parties Conference in 1928 and later with the U.P. Muslim League Parliamentary Board at the provincial level in 1937 broke down.
Behind the Congress’s rejection of Jinnah and the U.P. Muslim League lay the unsurprising, if politically disastrous, contempt of a political Gulliver for Lilliputians. Not Gulliver as a Hindu Leviathan (though Muslim political parties could have been forgiven for missing the distinction), but Gulliver as an all-India political party of the standing and size of the Congress in the late Twenties as compared to the runtish Muslim League and other political pygmies. The Gandhian Congress’s newly found ability to organize mass-movements made it sceptical of the credentials of parties made up of random collections of Muslim notables.
The weakness and fragmentation of Muslim political parties seemed an invitation not to negotiate with them because it was reasonable to ask if these organizations did, in fact, speak for Muslims or whether they could deliver their end of the bargain if an agreement was achieved.
Thus, when Jinnah led his faction of the Muslim League to the All Parties Conference and offered to rethink separate electorates if Sind was separated from Bombay and made into a state, if one-third of the seats of the Central Legislative Assembly were reserved for Muslims and political representation on the basis of population were guaranteed in the Muslim majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal, the Congress led by the Nehrus, father and son, brusquely rejected this remarkably generous offer. Jinnah was seen as a politician without a popular base who represented, at best, a fraction of the League and didn’t have the backing of the Muslim leaders of the great Muslim majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab.
When the merger-and-acquisition route didn’t work, the Congress’s conception of a pluralist nationalism changed subtly, but significantly. Whereas previously the Congress’s nationalism had been aggregative (the subcontinental nation as the sum of its resident communities) and its claim to represent India premised on the idea of the Congress being a nationalist Ark, it now backed away from the sociological literalism of this position because the absence of Muslims made it politically vulnerable.
Congress nationalism now mutated into a reified pluralism. In the Thirties, the Congress began to argue that because the Congress was pluralist in principle, it was objectively representative of all-India regardless of the sparseness of Muslims in its ranks.
The word through which this ideological sleight of hand was achieved was the ‘masses’, a progressive synonym for that nationalist standby, the People, a term that the Moderates had avoided because of its majoritarian implications. In Nehru’s hands, the ‘masses’ represented by the Congress became the nation. These masses, usefully, also became a mantra, a way of magicking away the elephant in the room: millions of unimpressed Muslims.
The Congress’s successful adventures in mass mobilization (Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience) led faux Marxists like Nehru into the temptation of a progressive Hegelianism. This idealist tendency became dogma in Nehru’s address to the Faizpur Congress in 1936 where he made his famous assertion that there were only two forces in the country, the Congress representing nationalism and the British representing imperialism. Some months later, when Jinnah argued that the Muslim League as the party of the Muslims was the third force, Nehru wrote that third parties were unimportant because the Congress was charged with a historic destiny. The ideal of pluralism had become more important than its realization; by 1939, the Congress’s pluralist nationalism had, in effect, become a virtuous substitute for actual Muslim support.
In the thirty years between 1909 and 1939, an original and novel nationalism founded on the remarkable claim of representing diversity fought a losing rearguard action against a constitutional provision that ring-fenced Muslims. Separate electorates aren’t a sufficient explanation of the Congress’s failure to draw in Muslims — its own hubris played a strong supporting role — but they were central to an institutionalization of communal politics which made the pluralist ambition of speaking for a subcontinent hard, if not impossible.
Thwarted, the Congress’s pluralism calcified into a piety, a fetishization of secularism instead of an active commitment to incorporating Muslims. The Congress’s pluralism survived Partition — if it hadn’t, the constituent assembly wouldn’t have written the founding document that it did — but it survived as chivalry, as a set of good intentions, as minority protection, not as the ambitious re-imagining of nationalism that the early Congress had seen as the necessary foundation for a civilized subcontinental state.