May 02, 2016

Review of Shamsul Islam's book 'Muslims Against Partition: Revisiting the Legacy of Allah Bakhsh and Other Patriotic Muslims' by Professor Anand Teltumbde

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 18, 30 Apr, 2016
Book Reviews
Sinners of the Partition
Anand Teltumbde

Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj[at]gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

Muslims against Partition: Revisiting the Legacy of Allah Bakhsh and Other Patriotic Muslims by Shamsul Islam; Pharos Media, 2015; pp 216, ₹250.

Think of the darkness and the great coldIn this valley, which resounds with misery.

— Brecht, The Threepenny Opera

Those who have somehow reconciled with the mythologised history of ancient India will surely be surprised by the continuing trend of myth-making even in modern times. Partition of India has largely been covered by thick layers of deliberate untruths to construct communal narratives demonising Muslims. Not many people know that a majority of Muslims did not approve of the idea and large numbers of them actually opposed it. These facts, however, remain largely unexplored except in a few scholarly treatises. The present book by a noted scholar and a progressive activist-thinker Shamsul Islam, devoted to exposing these truths to the larger public, is not only a welcome contribution but also a timely one, given that Hindutva forces are falsifying our history with a fascist zeal.

False Two-nation Theory

Pakistan is a product of the infamous “two-nation theory” that urged Hindus and Muslims to constitute two nations, instead of a single unified nation. It is based on the cultural, political, religious, economic and social dissimilarities between them. In spite of living together for centuries, they could not forget their individual cultures and civilisation.

The question is not about the invalidity of the two-nation theory, it is about who originated it. India’s right-wing establishment projects Muslims, who have been its biggest victims, as the originators of this idea. The truth is that it was actively propagated ideologically and organisationally by Hindu nationalist leaders much before any organisation of the Muslims was born and was more vigorously pursued during later years, culminating into partition.

It is clear that the upper caste/class Hindu elites could not stomach a history of Muslim rulers for nearly half a millennium (from the 12th to the 17th century) and dreamt of re-establishing their supremacy when the British left India. While they wanted to see India re-emerge as an economic power and adopt capitalism, they were equally nostalgic about their status in the bygone era. There was thus a reform movement to tinker with customs and traditions without affecting the basic structure of the classical Hindu society. In this schema, they perceived the presence of the Muslims as an obstacle. This anti-Muslim sentiment existed even before the emergence of the Hindu Mahasabha, the extremist torchbearer of Hindu interests. The book provides details of how the Hindu nationalists had propounded the idea of the two-nation theory much before the Muslim League practitioners came to emulate them.

Islam projects Raj Narain Basu (1826–99), the maternal grandfather of Aurobindo Ghosh, and his close associate Naba Gopal Mitra (1840–94) as the co-fathers of the two-nation theory and Hindu nationalism in India (p 55). Basu, as he observes, not only propagated the superiority of Hinduism over other religions but also justified casteism. He was the first person to conceive of the idea of Maha Hindu Samiti (All India Hindu Association) and helped in the formation of Bharat Dharma Mahamandal, a precursor of Hindu Mahasabha. Naba Gopal had organised Hindu melas from 1867 to 1880 and propagated the idea of national unity on the basis of Hindu religion. He believed that through this organisation Hindus would be able to establish an Aryan nation in India (Singh 2000). The noted historian R C Majumdar rightly called him the progenitor of the two-nation theory, half a century before Jinnah came out with his. These activities inspired many Bengali intellectuals like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (father of neo-Hinduism) and Aurobindo Ghosh to reinforce the ideas of the Hindu nation.

Before any Muslims claimed division on religious grounds, the Hindu nationalists had several movements during colonial times to segregate people according to their religion. The most prominent of them was the Arya Samaj founded in April 1875 whose dominant mission was shuddhi (purification), which was reconversion of Muslims and Christians into Hinduism (Berglund 2004). The prejudice was evident in the term shuddhi as though Islam and Christianity were impure.

Many a people who were associated with the Arya Samaj began mobilising the Hindu masses. In Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai, a prominent Arya Samaj leader, who would emerge as a leader of one of the militant factions of the Congress, known by the triumvirate—Lal-Bal-Pal (Lal for Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal for Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Pal for Bipin Chandra Pal), was actively involved in organising Hindu sabhas in Punjab and later the Hindu Mahasabha. Lokmanya Tilak, the other leader of the triumvirate, belonged to the Chitpawan lineage in Maharashtra which revolted against the British to regain its lost kingdom in Peshwai (rule of Peshawas). Tilak is credited as the fountainhead of the idea of Hindutva, developed later formally by V D Savarkar. He had constructed the “Aryan theory of race,” claiming a white racial stock for upper caste Indians and accepted Vedas as their core literature. Tilak was also the first to try and unite a large section of the masses around Brahminical leadership around the celebration of Ganesh festival to win back the popular participation of lower caste people who participated in Muharram festival, under the influence of Sufi saints (Morey and Tickell 2005). Later Tilak went on to launch the celebration of the birth anniversary (jayanti) of Shivaji, not as a national hero but as one who broke the Mughal hold on Western India and opened the way for rampage of Maratha armies through much of India. Tilakites’ projection of Swami Ramdas, a Brahmin, as Shivaji’s guru, reflected the re-establishment of Brahminical hegemony. Tilak’s nationalism thus had strong undercurrents of Brahmanical supremacy and dislike of Muslims. Similar anti-Muslim prejudice, albeit not so blatant, has been highlighted by scholars in Bipin Chandra Pal. Even other so-called moderate leaders of the Congress were imbued with a Hindu bias, thus gradually alienating the Muslims. Madan Mohan Malaviya and B S Munje, for instance, lent support in creating a communal divide in India.

Organisations for the Divide

It is generally recorded that the foundation of Hindu Mahasabha in 1915 was in response to the founding of the Muslim League in 1906 in Dhaka and the subsequent Morley–Minto reforms of 1909 that granted communal representation to the Muslims. But this is completely erroneous as seen before. A brief history of the Hindu Mahasabha is that its precursors, Hindu sabhas, had sprung up in Bengal since 1867 and in Lahore since 1882, even before the birth of the Indian National Congress. In Punjab, these sabhas were established in almost every district by 1906. On the foundation of these Hindu sabhas, Lala Lajpat Rai, Lal Chand and Shadi Lal founded the Punjab Hindu Sabha in 1909 (Bapu 2013). The Hindu Mahasabha was founded much later in 1914 in Amritsar with its headquarters in Haridwar, where it held its first session in 1915. V D Savarkar, after his release from the Cellular Jail in 1921 as per the terms of his clemency that he would not participate in any revolutionary activities, seemingly devoted himself to help the colonial regime by promoting Hindu communalism. He wrote a treatise, Hindutva, espousing Hindu nationalism. As is well known, the Hindu Mahasabha catalysed the birth of another organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925, on the pattern of the fascist organisation in Italy to execute the project.

The Muslim League was born from a literary movement begun at the Aligarh Muslim University, called the Muhammadan Educational Conference. It was founded by Syed Ahmad Khan in 1886, with a self-imposed ban on discussing politics. At its December 1906 conference in Dhaka, the conference removed this ban and adopted a resolution to form an All India Muslim League as a political party, with the objective of defining and advancing the civil rights of Indian Muslims. Pakistan figured much later in its agenda when in its 1940 conference at Lahore, Mohammad Ali Jinnah justified the two-nation theory and creation of Pakistan, as the homeland for the Muslims. The Lahore Resolution adopted on 23 March 1940 in this conference formed the foundation for Pakistan’s first constitution. However, even this did not go unchallenged. The Muslim League split on the issue opposing Jinnah’s speech. The All-India Jamhur Muslim League (AIJML) was formed to oppose the idea of Pakistan, which was later merged with the Congress. Most people on the Muslim side still talked of autonomy and not physical partition. Even Jinnah had the same conception and met Gandhi in 1944 in Bombay but failed to achieve agreement on an autonomous region within a single-state solution.

Vested interests still attribute Pakistan to the intransigence of Jinnah. It may be noted that the partition was actually announced openly for the first time by Lala Lajpat Rai, who was then the president of the Hindu Mahasabha in his newspaper Tribune in 1925. It was a full eight years before Chaudhry Rehmat Ali who is credited with the idea of Pakistan wrote the “Now or Never” pamphlet proposing a separate homeland for the Muslims; five years before Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s first exposition of the two-nation theory in his presidential address in the conference of Muslim League on 29 December 1930; and 10 years before Jinnah would articulate his justification for Pakistan. Except for Rehmat Ali, both Iqbal as well as Jinnah, while justifying the two-nation theory, did not mean separate state of Pakistan. The Hindu leaders always meant physical separation.

Contributions of the Book

Beyond the Muslim League the two-nation theory as well as the idea of Pakistan was vehemently opposed by many Muslims. As its name suggests this has been the core theme of the book. Islam devotes full four chapters of his book—Chapters 5 to 8—to these details. Three of them are focused on the main hero of this opposition movement, Allah Bakhsh, a prominent politician of Sindh. Within a month of the Lahore Declaration, he had organised a massive conference, Azad Muslim Conference, at Delhi from 27–30 April 1940, which, judged by the number of delegates and popular enthusiasm, appeared much more representative of Muslim opinion in the country than the Muslim League (p 81). While refuting the argument for Pakistan Allah Bakhsh made many profound points such as common nationality and composite culture shared by Hindus and Muslims (pp 89, 91); and that communalism was the creation of ruling castes and classes among Muslims and Hindus (p 90). Bakhsh was murdered after three years by three professional assailants. In Chapter 8, Islam provides salient details of many Muslim organisations and individuals which fought against the “divisive” politics of the Muslim League in order to build an all-inclusive India (p 117).

In order to prove that mass sentiments were not in favour of partition and that many Muslims emoted in favour of a united India, Islam marshals instances in Urdu poetry. In the next chapter he discusses the reasons for the failure of the “patriotic” Muslims to thwart partition and indicates Muslim League’s reign of terror, Hindutva politics of polarisation, and Congress vacillation and betrayal to be the reasons. He surprisingly misses out the role of the colonial rulers in engineering communal divide, skilfully accentuating it in its own strategic interests and the later role of imperialism in shaping the Indian subcontinent in a manner which would serve its long-term interests. Of course, it would not have been possible if there had not been comprador classes of elites with ambitions that resonated with the imperialist plan. Another point that may disturb a discerning reader is that the book despite possessing all requisite facts makes it out as though the Muslim League was the culprit for partition. It might serve the purpose of highlighting patriotism of the Muslims who opposed the partition but it reinforces the popular notion that the Muslim League was the main culprit which, in view of the above facts, is grossly erroneous. The real sinners of the partition have to be located among the Hindu elites, who wanted to revive their supremacist rule once the British left the country. Muslim League came much later, in reaction to their demand for separation.

In the present context of extremist overtures of the Hindutva outfits against Muslims backed by the massive Gobblesque propaganda, this book will definitely prove to be a valuable contribution to the small band of secularists in the country. Although the fascist machine does not run on truths, it is certainly scared of them. And in that this book will surely prove to be a weapon in the arsenal of people who are resisting the Hindutva juggernaut, which is fast creating conditions in the country which might threaten its unity.


Bapu, Prabhu (2013): Hindu Mahasabha in Colonial North India, 1915–1930: Constructing Nation and History, New York: Routledge, p 17.

Berglund, Henrik (2004): “Religion and Nationalism: Politics of BJP,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 39, No 10, 6 March, pp 1064–70, http://www.epw.in/journal/2004/10/special-articles/religion-and-nationalism.html, accessed on 16 March 2016.

Morey, Peter and Alex Tickell (eds) (2005): “Introduction,” Alternative Indias: Writing, Nation and Communalism, Amsterdam: Rodopi, p xiii.

Singh, Nagendra K (2000): Encyclopaedia of the Indian Biography, Delhi: APH Publications, pp 588–90