Adrija Roychowdhuri: Why a majority of Muslims opposed Partition and stayed on in India

A standard narrative exists about the role of Muslims during the Partition in India, which talks about how the Muslim community, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League, stood for the two-nation theory and demanded the Partition of India. Historical documents, however, suggest that a majority of the Muslims opposed the Partition and stayed in India.

The historic speech made by the first education minister of India, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, from the the ramparts of the Jama Masjid in 1947 is oft cited as the perfect example of a Muslim politician standing firm against the Partition of India. Urging his Muslim brethren to stay put in India, Azad famously said, “The minarets of Jama Masjid want to ask you a question. Where have you lost the glorious pages from your chronicles? Wasn’t it only yesterday that on the banks of the Jamuna, your caravans performed wazu? Today, you are afraid of living here. Remember, Delhi has been nurtured with your blood. Brothers, create a basic change in yourselves. Today, your fear is misplaced as your jubilation was yesterday.”

“My aunt would often say it was this speech, delivered by the Maulana, that convinced many families from Old Delhi, UP and Bihar, who were there to take the train to Lahore, to open their bistarband (luggage) and remain in India,” recollects Firoz Bakht Ahmed, grand nephew of Maulana Azad and the former chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.

Ahmed narrates how his aunt, Quaiser Jahan, was offered a lucrative job as director of Radio Pakistan in Karachi and four Dakota plane tickets for her and her family, to relocate soon after the Partition. “But she refused,” says Ahmed. “She didn’t want to take a chance in a newly created nation leaving the cozy warmth and safety of her home town in Delhi. In her opinion, the newly created Pakistan was sure to bring nothing but turmoil.”

A standard narrative exists about the role of Muslims during the Partition in India, which talks about how the Muslim community, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League, stood for the two-nation theory and demanded the Partition of India. “Historical documents prove that the majority of Indian Muslims opposed the concept of Pakistan and stayed back in India, as much as the Hindu population did,” says political scientist Shamsul Islam who has authored the book, Muslims against Partition: Revisiting the legacy of Allah Baksh and other patriotic Muslims (2015). “Further, there were elements within the Hindu leadership, those who propagated Hindutva, who stood for and were in fact the original makers of the two-nation theory,” he argues.

The birth of the two-nation theory

Islam in his book suggests that long before the advent of Muslim advocates of the two-nation theory, it was in fact the Hindu nationalists who had propounded the idea. “In fact they borrowed heavily from the Hindutva school of thought,” he writes.

The origins of the two-nation theory can be traced to 19th century Bengal and upper caste Hindus such as Raj Narain Basu, the maternal grandfather of Aurobindo Ghosh, and his close associate Nabha Gopal Mitra. Basu was a fervent believer in the superiority of Hinduism and was the first person to conceive the idea of a Maha Hindu Society and helped in the formation of Bharat Dharma Mahamandal (a precursor of Hindu Mahasabha), through which he hoped he would be able to establish an Aryan nation in India.
Mitra on the other hand started a Hindu mela and founded a nationalist paper in which he argued that “the basis of national unity in India is the Hindu religion. Hindu nationality embraces all the Hindus of India irrespective of their locality or language.”

The Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati played a key role in propagating the idea that Hindus and Muslims were in fact two separate nations. As early as 1908-09, Bhai Parmanand, one of the leaders of the movement, in his autobiography called for the geographical division of Hindu and Muslim areas. “The territory beyond Sind should be united with Afghanistan and the North West Frontier provinces into a great Mussalman kingdom. The Hindus of the region should come away, while at the same time the Mussalman in the rest of India should go and settle in this territory,” he wrote, as quoted by Islam in his book.

The Congress leader, Lala Lajpat Rai, was yet another early proponent of the religious division of parts of the Indian subcontinent. By the early 20th century, he proposed the division of Punjab stating, “I would suggest a remedy should be sought by which Muslims might get a decisive majority without trampling on the sensitiveness of the Hindus and Sikhs.”

These early ideas of two separate nations for Hindus and Muslims were crystallised by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his theory of ‘Hindutva’ and carried forward by M S Golwalkar.

The first time a Muslim spoke about a separate nation for the community was at the 1930 All India Muslim League session at Allahabad, where the poet and philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal argued, “We are 70 million and far more homogenous than any other people in India… Indeed the Muslims of India are the only Indian people who can fitly be described as a nation in the modern sense of the word.”

Later in 1933, Rahmat Ali, a Punjabi Muslim studying in Cambridge, proposed the idea that Punjab, the North West Frontier Province, Sind, Kashmir and Baluchistan, should be formed into a separate Muslim state called Pakistan. He published his appeal in a pamphlet, ‘Now or Never’. According to Islam, Rahmat Ali’s appeal was largely ignored by most Muslim organisations of the time who thought it to be impractical and “only a student’s scheme’.

 It was only in the late 1930s that Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s idea of a separate homeland for Muslims took shape. At the historic 1940 Lahore session of the Muslim League, he argued that Hinduism and Islam were “different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality; and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits and is the cause of more of our troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time.”

The Muslim opposition to the Partition

Just about a month after the passage of the famous March resolution asking for separate Muslim states, a huge gathering of Muslim organisations opposed to the Muslim League was organised. The All India Azad Muslim Conference, as it was called, was held in Delhi between April 27 and April 30, 1940 and was attended by delegates from Jamiat e Ulama-i-Hind, Majlis-i-Ahrar, the All India Momin Conference, the All India Shia Political Conference, Khudai Khidmatgars, the Bengal Krishak Praja Party, Anjuman-i-watan Baluchistan, the All India Muslim Majlis and the Jamiat Ahl-i-Hadis. Writing about the meeting, the Bombay Chronicle had noted that its attendance was about “five times than the attendance at the League meeting”.

“Those fighting the idea of Pakistan raised some basic issues. Firstly, if Muslims were a nation then why are there numerous different Arabic countries and not one Islamic country. Why is that the Prophet never called for the unification of all Muslims,” says Islam. “They were stressing that Muslims, like Hindus, are not a homogenous society. A Punjabi upper caste Muslim has more in common with a Punjabi upper caste Hindu. The landless Muslim peasant has shares no similarity with him.”

The participants of the conference comprised of mainly the Muslim working class, as opposed to the League and their supporters, most of whom were upper caste landed elite among the Muslims.

Allah Baksh Soomru from Sind, who led the conference, was ferocious in his opposition to the demand for Pakistan. In his address at the conference, he stated: “Whatever our faiths we must live together in our country in an atmosphere of perfect amity and our relations should be the relations of the several brothers of a joint family, various members of which are free to profess their faith as they like without any let or hindrance and of whom enjoy equal benefits of their joint property.”

Three years later, on May 14, 1943, Allah Baksh was murdered on the outskirts of the Shikarpur town in Sind province. While there is no confirmation on who carried out the assassination, press reports of the time linked it to the Muslim League. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, a Congress leader and a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, was another Muslim leader who was vocal in his opposition to the two-nation theory. “The destiny of the Indian Muslim was inextricably linked with their fellow countrymen with whom they had everything in common except religion,” he wrote.

Syed Abdullah Barelvi, editor of the English daily The Bombay Chronicle, launched the Congress Muslim Party to induce more Muslims to join the Congress Party. Under his leadership the Bombay Chronicle became the most prominent organ of Muslims against Partition.

Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who founded the Khudai Khidmatgar in the NWFP, was vehement in his protest against the Congress when the latter agreed to the Partition of the country. He told Gandhi in June 1947, “We Pakhtuns stood by you and had undergone great sacrifices for attaining freedom. But you have now deserted us and thrown us to the wolves.”

The opposition to the Muslim League came at a cost for many leading Muslim personalities. “So many leading Muslim clerics who challenged the League’s position were murdered by the Muslim guards,” says Islam. In his book he notes how in 1945 they tried to kill Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani at Saidpur and Maulana Azad in Aligarh.

The choice to stay back in a ‘secular’ India

Ultimately the League was successful in attaining its demand for Pakistan and about 35 million Muslims had to come to terms with this reality. These included the Muslims from South India where communal tensions were largely dormant and those from western India where the trading communities had no role to play in the separatist concerns of the League.

“But then there were areas in UP, Bihar and Bengal which were the League strongholds and where large segments of the Muslim population had spearheaded the Pakistan movement. Ironically, however, these were the groups that were left in the midstream by the Quaid, for the new nation simply provided a homeland for Muslims living in majority areas but not elsewhere,” writes historian Mushirul Hasan in his article, “Adjustment and accommodation: Indian Muslims after Partition” (1990). He adds, “UP Muslims, in particular, were quick to realise that Partition proved positively injurious to the Muslims in India, and on a long view basis for Muslims everywhere.”

Writing about the choice for the Muslims who stayed back, Hasan notes that “their decision was prompted by other considerations, as well- property, business and family ties.” He adds: “But this was not all. There were still others who were committed to a secular and democratic polity. They were the people who were neither swept by appeals in the name of Islam nor lured by the prospect of improving their material fortunes in the promised land of plenty,”

Hasan gives the examples of Mohammad Ismail Khan and the Nawab of Chhatari, friends of the Nehru and Sapru families, decided to stay put in India, “For Jinnah’s Pakistan, more than anything else, threatened to destroy their cross cultural networks and age-old inter-communal linkages.”

Ananya Jahanara Kabir (52), who is professor of English Literature at King’s College London, talks about her grandfather, Jahangir Kabir and grand uncle, former education minister Humayun Kabir, and their ideological commitment to stay on in India, despite their ancestral home being located in East Bengal’s Faridpur which would go to Pakistan. “It was definitely political orientation that led to the choice. They were vehemently against the Muslim League and had no interest in their politics. It was an ideological and philosophical position he took to be in a secular country,” says Kabir, who has also authored the book, ‘Partition’s post-amnesias: 1947, 1971 and Modern South Asia’.

Amaal Akhtar (31), a Phd scholar in University of Washington, narrates the story of her paternal grandfather Hussain Ahmed Qaiser Naqvi and maternal grand uncle Shamsur Rehman Mohsini both of whom were from Western UP. They, as young men were volunteers helping Muslim families afflicted by Partition related violence in Delhi. “At the same time, they were also trying to convince people to not leave,” says Akhtar.

Akhtar says her paternal grandfather was a staunch Congress supporter with strong commitment to Nehruvian philosophy of secularism. In the case of her maternal grand uncle who was the founder of the department of social work in Jamia, it was also of ideological commitment to the institution that had been created with a distinct nationalist stand. “There was never a question in their minds about where they should be after the Partition,” she says.

 “These were issues of much debate and dialogue within families,” explains Kabir. “Very rarely would you find entire families who would decide to go together to either side.” In the case of her family for instance, four of her grandfather’s brothers decided to move to Pakistan, while he and Humayun Kabir decided to stay in India. Speaking about whether the choice to stay or move ever created animosity within families, she says, “We never really wanted to talk about it, because if we did, it would possibly rake up very painful wounds.”

“When my grandfather and grand uncles were making these choices they were young adults who had fought in the freedom struggle and now suddenly found themselves at different sides. I am sure there must have been a lot of discussion about these things, but later the family unconsciously chose not to discuss them. Rather we emphasise that all of the brothers were anti-colonial freedom fighters,” she says.

Kabir narrates an incident when as a young adult she visited her ancestral home in Faridpur. She had asked her grand uncle why he did not choose India. “There was a rock between us and he said only, I wanted to be where my parents and land was. Did he feel I was accusing him for his decision?” she recalls. “But there is nothing to say. How can one go back to a time and change choices that were made?”

Akhtar says from her maternal side two of her grand uncles and three grand aunts had moved to Pakistan. “However, we stay in touch through phone and social media and over time the divide has been normalised,” she says. “But when discussions about worsening political conditions in both the countries come up, then both sides also reiterate the commitment to their choices.”

Even when the choice to move to the other side was made, the desire to be close to their homeland remained alive in many. Mohammad Shakeel Qureshi (77) recalls that his father, a staunch Congress supporter, had chosen to stay in India while his aunt had moved to the other side of the border. In a rather emotional encounter with his aunt just before his visit to Karachi in 1967, he asked her what she would like him to bring from India. “At first she was rather embarrassed that I might be amused at her request. Later, she told me that she wanted me to get her some sweets from Old Delhi where she lived, and a handful of soil from here,” says Shakeel. He narrates that his aunt had kept with her that packet of soil for the next three decades like a prized possession, and on her prior instructions it was spread upon her coffin after her death.