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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 36, New Delhi, August 22, 2020

Congress, Hindutva and Indian Nationalism | Barun Das Gupta

Friday 21 August 2020, by Barun Das Gupta

August was an important month for India in the twentieth century. It was on August 9, 1942, that the Congress passed the momentous Quit India resolution. It was on August 15, 1947, that India attained independence. And again it was on August 16, 1946, that the Muslim League started the Great Calcutta Killing that culminated a year later in the partition of India. We blame the Muslim League and its leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, for unleashing communal violence and for the partition of India.

However, there is no denying the fact that at present there is a surge of militant Hindu nationalism which is not only anti-Muslim but also anti-science, anti-history and against the very idea of India being a plural polity with diverse language, culture, costume, food habit, etc. It is unity in diversity that is the essence of Indian civilization. The emphasis is on unity, not uniformity. So strong have the Hindutva forces become that even the Indian National Congress which fought for India’s freedom and supposedly championed Indian nationalism, is being forced to adopt a “soft Hindutva” line, particularly during election time when Hindutva forces pose a strong challenge to India’s Grand Old Party.

But there is no denying the other fact either that in the pre-independence days, with the exception of Mahamta Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, most other Congress leaders also cherished a strong Hindu identity and had a strong sympathy for Hinduism (whatever that may mean). Name any prominent Congress leader of those days — Pandit Motilal Nehru, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Pandit Bhulabhai Desai, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Babu Rajendra Prasad, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak — and you will find a strong Hindu identity characterizing them all.

Both Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, two of the three famous Lal-Bal-Pal trio, had a strong Hindu sentiment. Though Lajpat Rai once said that “To require India to coalesce into a nation with one religion and one tongue . . . would revive the medieval idea of one empire, one people, one church”, he joined the Hindu Mahasabha. Babu Rajendra Prasad’s India Divided brings out both his Hindu identity and his anti-Muslim sentiments.

As A. G. Noorani has pointed out in his book The RSS: A Menace to India (p. 18):

“He [Lajpat Rai] was the first to propound the two-nation theory and also the first to suggest partition of India, . . . In 1899, he wrote: “Hindus are a nation in themselves, because they represent a civilization of their own.” So, it was Lajpat Rai who first propounded the Two-Nation Theory. He also suggested the partition of India.

M. R. Jayakar, a prominent Congress leader and a member of the Constituent Assembly, was also a member of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Sardar Patel, who ordered the RSS to be banned after Gandhi murder, wrote a letter to the then RSS chief M. S. Golwalkar, on September 11. 1948. In that letter he addressed Golwalkar as “Brother Sri Golwalkar”. While strongly criticizing the RSS for its communal activities, the letter had words of praise for the RSS as well. In course of his letter, the Sardar said: “There can be no doubt that the RSS did service to the Hindu Society. In the areas where there was the need for help and organization, the young men of the RSS protected women and children and strove much for their sake. No person of understanding could have a word of objection regarding that.”

What the Sardar did not elaborate in his letter was that the “women and children” whom the RSS protected, were Hindu, the organization did not come to the aid of the Muslims who were also massacred in the tumultuous days preceding, during and following Independence.

A serious study needs to be made to find out why the pre-independence Congress virtually became a party of the Hindus. Leaders like Khan Abdur Ghaffar Khan and Moulana Abul Kalam Azad were the exceptions rather than the rule. An answer has also to be found why Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a Congress leader and a nationalist, broke with the Congress and became, to quote Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, “the sole spokesman” of the Indian Muslims.

In 1905, Bengal was partitioned. Next year, on December 31, 1906, the founding conference of the Al India Muslim League was held in the palace of Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka. The League demanded separate electorate for the Muslims. Jinnah was in Calcutta on that day. He not only refused to join the Dhaka conference, his reaction to the formation of the Muslim League was extremely hostile.

Rafiq Zakaria, in his book The Man Who Divided India writes (p. 12):

“Jinnah reacted strongly against it. He organized, along with a few friends of his, a countermove in Calcutta at the same time to warn the Muslims not to succumb to the British policy of ‘’Divide and Rule’` which was being endorsed by the newly formed League. He said it would eventually harm the Muslims and deprive them of participation in national life.

“The Aga Khan, who was elected as the first President of the League, pointed out subsequently that Jinnah was ‘our doughtiest opponent in 1906.’ He had publicly denounced the the League’s communal move. In the words of the Aga Khan, ‘Jinnah came out in bitter hostility towards all that I and my friends had done and were trying to do.’ He opposed the League’s stand of favouring separate electorate for the Muslims and described it ‘as a poisonous dose to divide the nation against itself.’ (Italics mine BDG.) 

It was a prescient prophecy of the future. It is a tragic irony that the same Jinnah became history’s instrument for fulfilling his own prophecy.

But it was not Jinnah alone. One by one, all the Muslim leaders of the Congress left the party. They included the famous Ali Brothers, Shaukat Ali and Mohammed Ali — both devoted disciples of Mahatma Gandhi and both leaders of the Khilafat movement which was supported by Mahatma Gandhi. Shaukat Ali is known to have supplied revolvers to the revolutionary Sachindra Nath Sanyal.

But the Ali Brothers also deserted the Mahatma. Syed Saad Ahmed, in an article in Oulook, wrote: “It was during his tenure as Congress President (in 1923) that Mohammed Ali began drifting away from the Congress. The scholar Mushirul Hasan attributes this to the ‘worsening Hindu-Muslim relations and the feeling in some Muslim circles that the Congress was aiding communal forces in order to establish Hindu Raj.’”

And how did the Congress treat Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose unflinching loyalty to the ideal of secularism remained till the last breath of his life? He told Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal that by agreeing to divide India and accept Pakistan, the Congress had thrown him “to the wolves”.

The All Parties Conference in Lucknow in 1928, this writer believes, was a watershed in the politics of India. From the attitude and words of the Congress leaders taking part in the conference, the Muslims somehow came to the conclusion that in independent India they would have to live under Hindu dominance. Therefore, they must have a separate ‘homeland’ for themselves. This conviction led eventually to the adoption of the proposal at the Lahore Conference of the Muslim League in 1940 which read:

“That geographically contiguous units are demarcated regions which should be constituted, with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of (British) India should be grouped to constitute ‘independent states’ in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign.”

Although the word “Pakistan” was not mentioned in the Lahore resolution, it soon became the war cry of the Indian Muslims. The seeds of the partition of India were sown.

Looking back, the questions arise: was the alienation of the Muslims inevitable? Could not the vivisection of India be averted? It is likely enough that future historians will hold the Congress more responsible than the Muslim League for the partition of India. The Congress leadership of those days had become “tired old men” who were unwilling to wage another battle against the British and maintain the unity of India. They had become impatient to get into power. They accepted Mountbatten’s partition plan without even taking Mahatma Gandhi into confidence.

When the Mahatma went back to Delhi from Calcutta in September, 1947, Acharya Kripalani was the Congress President. At his very first meeting with Kripalani, the Mahatma lamented: “Professor, even you did not think it necessary to consult this old man!” He was alluding to the Congress assent to the partition proposal behind his back.

In a letter dated 9.7.1948 to the Nawab of Bhopal, Nehru wrote: “Partition came and we accepted it because we thought that perhaps that way, however painful it was, we might have some peace to work along our own lines. Perhaps we acted wrongly. It is difficult to judge now. And yet, the consequences of that Partition have been so terrible that one is inclined to think that anything else would have been preferable.” (Quoted in A Study of Nehru, edited by Rafiq Zakaria, pp. 7-8)

Penderell Moon, in his book Divide and Quit has noted that Jinnah was never serious about the Pakistan demand. He used it as a bargaining counter with the Congress. When the demand was accepted, he was taken by surprise.

D. C. Jha, in his book Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress and the Partition of India, has given this interesting anecdote (p. 105):

“In his book The Shadow of the Great Game, Narendra Singh Sarila has quoted Col. Elahi Baksh, the physician who attended on Jinnah during his last illness in August-September of 1948, that he had heard Jinnah saying ‘I have made it (Pakistan) but I am convinced that I have committed the greatest blunder of my life.’ And around the same period, after meeting Jinnah on his sick-bed, the Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was heard to have muttered: ‘The old man has now discovered his mistake.”


Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were the only two Congress leader who remained steadfast to the ideals of secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity throughout their lifetime.  Rudrangshu Mukherjee, in his book Nehru & Bose, Parallel Lives, (Page 42) has recorded that shortly after Nehru became the chairman of the Allahabad municipality in 1923, under his guidance the Municipal Board “rejected the suggestion to prohibit cow slaughter.” So, from the very beginning of his political life, Nehru never yielded to the sectarian Hindu demand for banning cow slaughter. Indeed, he never ceased from warning the country in general and the bureaucracy in particular, of the danger that Hindu communalism posed to the unity and integrity of India.

Unfortunately, during the fateful days of transfer of power, Jawaharlal the politician got the better of Jawaharlal the statesman.

As for Mahatma Gandhi, he wrote in Young India as far back as May 11, 1921: “If not during my life-time, I know that after my death both Hindus and Mussalmans will bear witness that I had never ceased to yearn after communal peace.”

Today, when Hindu communalism is threatening to transform India from a secular, democratic State to a Hindu theocratic State and a weak and enervated Congress is finding it tempting to play “soft Hindutva” politics for immediate electoral gains, the future, indeed, seems gloomy. There is time yet. The electoral fortune of the Congress has considerably dwindled. Let it go back to its original moorings of socialism, secularism and democracy without a thought for electoral gains. In the long run, it will pay and save the country from a disaster.

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