As we celebrated the birth anniversary of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad yesterday, one of the greatest freedom fighters and the first education minister of independent India, we failed to accolade his efforts towards fostering communal harmony. It would be a major misapprehension if we don’t reflect on his views on communal harmony in today’s scenario. The visionary of a man had channeled his efforts towards unraveling communal problems, but his efforts couldn’t see the light of the day due to the supposed impediments created by Jawaharlal Nehru.
This article revisits Azad’s efforts and strategy to stop the partition of India and Pakistan and talks about the reason for its failure and the “greatest political blunder of his life”.
On February 17, 1946, lord Pethick-Lawrence had announced in the British Parliament that their government would send a cabinet mission to India to discuss the question of Indian freedom. This cabinet mission was not only crucial for political bargaining between India and Britain, but it also needed to resolve the communal ‘problem’ in India.
The cabinet mission arrived in India on March 23, 1946, and Maulana Azad, being the president of the Indian National Congress (INC), was beckoned to address the cabinet mission and work towards the solutions. At the time of Partition, the Muslim community was anxious about their future, which was acknowledged by Maulana Azad. He, being equally anxious, started working on pragmatic solutions for the problem at hand.
Maulana never considered Partition as a solution because of religion was its very premise. He met the commission on April 6, 1946, but before that, he thought extensively about the communal problem and came to the conclusion that if the constitution of India would be federal in nature and gave complete autonomy to the provincial government on as many subjects as possible, then the fear of Muslims would be reduced as they are in the majority in few provinces and they can decide on their future. He put forward his solution to the cabinet mission who acknowledged Maulana’s approach while listening to his solutions with full interest.
After explaining this to the cabinet mission, Maulana presented it to the Congress Working Committee with all the nitty-gritty, and Mahatma Gandhi praised him and said, “finally you have found the solution to the problem which worries us in daily life.” Though members of the working committee like Sardar Patel raised few questions and instead of Maulana, Gandhiji answered his question which satisfied Patel.
After that, as consensus built in the working committee, Maulana Azad on April 15 issued a statement that spoke in-detail about demands of Muslims and other minorities. In his statement he extensively opposed the idea of Pakistan and even said, “I must confess that the very term Pakistan goes against my grain, it suggests that some portions of the world are pure while others are impure such a division of territories into pure and impure is un-Islamic and is more in keeping the orthodox Brahmanism which divides men and countries into holy and unholy- a division which is a repudiation of the very spirit of Islam, Islam recognizes no such division and the prophet says “God has made the whole world a mosque for me”.
Further, he added, “The formula which I have succeeded in making the congress accept secures whatever merits the Pakistan schemes contains while all its defects and drawbacks are avoided. The basis of Pakistan is the fear and interference of the center in Muslim majority areas as Hindu will be in majority in the center. The congress meets this fear by granting full autonomy to the provincial units and vesting all residuary powers in the provinces. The congress schemes, therefore, ensures that Muslims Majority provinces are internally free to develop as they will, but at the same time can influence the center on all issues which affect India as a whole.” In this statement, Maulana Azad countered the Muslim League on Islamic and rational lines, and this was applauded by the Congress and sections of the Muslim League.
Initially, Jinnah was opposed to the cabinet mission scheme and its solution. Muslim league’s demand for a separate independent state was not considered. With the advent of a more feasible solution by Maulana and cabinet mission member’s explicit denial of partition, Jinnah changed his stand and confided in the Muslim League council that there could be no fairer solution than the one presented in cabinet mission.
He also told the council that “this is maximum we can achieve and advise the league to accept the scheme, and the council voted unanimously in its favour.” The acceptance of cabinet mission by both Congress and the Muslim League was a glorious event in the history of the freedom movement of India, but who knew that it was nothing but a mirage in the desert.
Unfortunately, the calendar ticked close towards the time of elections for the next Indian Congress President in April. Maulana Azad was president of INC from 1939 till 1946, and this time around felt that he did not want his name to be proposed. Although, he was anxious that whomsoever would be the next president should go with the same policy which he proposed to the cabinet mission, with the consensus of the Muslim League.
There was a general feeling in the Congress that Maulana Azad should continue as president as he successfully conducted the negotiations, and now he should be given charge to implement it. Some birds also carried the news that Sardar Patel’s allies want Patel to be elected as the president. Maulana chooses to stay out of the chaos and on April 26 he proposed Nehru’s name as Congress president, and Nehru was elected. Maulana couldn’t have guessed in his wildest imagination how this decision of his would change the course of history.
On May 16, 1946, the cabinet mission published its scheme which was very much similar to the proposal Maulana Azad had made. The cabinet mission’s proposal accepted his views that most of the decisions would be made at the provincial level, but, on July 10, Nehru as the Congress president held a press conference in erstwhile Bombay (Mumbai) where he said, “Congress would enter the constituent assembly completely unfettered by agreement and free to meet all situations they arise,” and further added that “Congress had agreed only to participate in the constituent assembly and regarded itself to free to change and modify the cabinet mission it thought best”.
This statement of Nehru gave Jinnah a chance to review his decision to accept the cabinet plan and he immediately asked Liaqat Ali Khan to call a meeting of the Muslim league council. In the council meeting, Jinnah reiterated the demand for Pakistan in his opening remarks and said that the Congress president had declared that they could change the scheme through its majority in the Constituent Assembly, which meant that minorities would be placed on the mercy of the majority. Muslim league council passed a rejection of the cabinet mission plan and gave a direct action plan to achieve a separate state.
The Congress Working Committee tried to rectify this mistake by stating that the cabinet plan would be practiced in a similar ethos that had been passed earlier and invited the Muslim League to take part in the constituent assembly and government formation for the wider interest of the nation. But, it was too late to make things work as Jinnah said, the mentality of congress can be understood by his continuous change in the statements. He further added that the “Congress president’s words represent the real congress, his direct action call further worsen the situation as it led to violence in many parties and Bengal was burning.”
This is how the history of India changed. Maulana, later in his biography, “India Wins Freedom” confessed that the appointment of Nehru as the President of INC at such a crucial moment changed the course of history. He considered that his choice of Nehru was the “greatest political blunder of his life.” He further emphasised, “If Mr. Patel or I had been the president of Indian Congress, we could have risen every morning to a different county, a different reality. He would not have allowed this nation to be divided.”