Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Majlis-i-Ahrar, Part 4

Oxford University Press is due to release any day now, the following book:
A Socio-Political Study
Samina Awan
ISBN13: 9780199060115ISBN10: 0199060118 Hardback, 350 pages

In the meantime, one of Samina Awan's papers is available here.
J.R.S.P. (Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan, Vol 45, No 1, 2008)

Remember the Munir Report said that
(1) the Ahrar split from the Congress over matters of religion
(2) the Ahrar always execrated the Muslim League.

Samina Awan's paper tells a different story.

Of course, we do not know how objective an observer Samina Awan is.  Nevertheless, there is food for thought here.


The Ahrar leaders boycotted the Simon Commission in 1927-28, and subsequently rejected its recommendations; which included a federal political system for India, and separate electorates for Muslims.  The All-Parties National Convention held at Calcutta in December 1928, adopted the Nehru Report. The adoption of this Report led to a division of the nationalist Muslims into two groups; one group, to which a majority of the future Ahrar leaders belonged, wanted its acceptance with some amendments; while the other group favoured its unconditional acceptance.

The independence resolution appealed to the anti- imperialist sentiments of the MAI, and brought it closer to the INC. When the latter launched its civil disobedience movement, after the rejection of its demand by the British government, the MAI shelved its organisational work, and enthusiastically participated in the non-cooperation movement. {In spite of the First Round Table Conference} However, the MAI stuck to its original objectives and at its all-India conference in July 1931, reiterated that, “the chief aim and object of the Majlis will be complete independence for India”.

In order to call off the civil disobedience movement and attend the second RTC, Gandhi was released unconditionally, and the Viceroy held negotiations with him. These negotiations climaxed with the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact on 5 March 1933; and consequently, Gandhi decided to attend the second RTC in London. The MAI felt the INC had bypassed it. Maulana Habib- ur-Rahman and Syed Ataullah Shah Bukhari (the leaders of Ahrars) rushed to Bombay to persuade Gandhi not to attend the RTC.  They argued that the nationalist leaders should not engage in constitutional discussions with the colonialists because it would be a ‘futile’ exercise. However, they failed to convince Gandhi, and his decision to participate in the RTC resulted in the ‘parting of ways’ between the INC and MAI. The blind faith and trust that the MAI leadership had so far reposed in the INC, was shattered. Henceforth, it did not openly share a common platform with the INC.

The MAI had tried to mobilise the Muslim masses in support of joint electorates at the time of the Nehru Report, but found it difficult. Their campaign for joint electorates convinced them of the growing demand for a “separate Muslim identity”, and they gradually came to accept the importance of the system of separate electorates for Muslims. Their participation in the Congress-led civil disobedience movement and severance of their links with that party in 1931, brought home the realisation that Muslims constituted a ‘political entity separate’ from the Sikhs and Hindus.

Secondly, the MAI was dissatisfied with the weightage provided for the minorities in the Communal Award,which gave the Muslim community a thin majority in the Punjab legislature. They felt that the Award had not awarded to the Muslims their due share in the Punjab Assembly,19 and believed that a solution acceptable to all the communities could still be found. They proposed that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims should sit together, and work out an agreed formula for the representation of various communities in the Punjab; an alternative to the Communal Award.  However, they warned that if any community attempted to solve the communal problem by force, Muslims would be justified in fighting back for the protection of their interests. They also criticised the Communal Award, because it was silent on the long-standing Muslim demand of 33 per cent Muslim share in the central legislature.22

The MAI was disappointed by the reaction from Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjab, and began to take an equally communal line. They took out processions and rallies in many towns of the province, in support of their position. With the passage of time, they adopted a more oppositional attitude, not only towards the British, but also against the Hindus and Sikhs.   It was alleged that the Sikhs had enlisted 100,000 men to challenge the Muslims, and that the government was supporting the Sikhs, with the objective of precipitating a conflict between the two communities. The MAI called on the Muslims to carry swords to defend themselves, particularly in those districts where the Sikhs carried kirpans.

They set up an action committee in the Punjab, to counteract the activities of a similar body established by the Sikhs. The MAI made Amritsar the centre of their activities over the issue of Communal Award, and from September to December 1932, it organised several public meetings in the Punjab. At a Provincial Ahrar Conference held on 4-5 December 1932, the MAI formed a sub-committee to suggest a formula for the Communal Award. It was to be discussed at the Allahabad Conference, scheduled for March 1933. But no agreed formula could be worked out at these sessions, and the MAI was thus left with no option but to accept the Communal Award. ....The Majlis also formally accepted the Communal Award at an All-India Communal Award Conference in Dacca, on 24 March 1935.


The British Government issued a White Paper after the third Round Table Conference in March 1933. The Conference appointed a Joint Select Committee, which finalised its report in November 1934, and was subsequently debated in Parliament. The Report consisted of recommendations for the future government of India. It also discussed the issue of communal representation, and provided a basis for the British government to introduce Communal Award. When the Indian Legislative Assembly debated this report in February 1935, the INC moved a resolution for the total rejection of the report, condemning it as one of the ‘usual imperialist devices’ “to deprive the Indian people of the power to assume charge of their affairs”. M. A. Jinnah, then the leader of the Independent Party, disagreed with the INC, and moved an amendment that was finally accepted. The MAI supported Jinnah’s position on the White Paper, and also the report of the Joint Select Committee.

The British Parliament passed the Government of India Act 1935 on 2 August 1935, which provided for a federal political system for the sub-continent......The MAI, like all other Muslim political parties, was concerned about the federal part of the constitution, though it preferred to wait and watch. However, this part did not come into operation, since the required number of states did not accede to the federation. This similarity of views on constitutional issues was an important factor that brought the MAI closer to the All-India Muslim League (AIML). In 1936, the MAI allied itself with the Muslim League, and its leaders accepted membership of the Central Muslim League Parliamentary Board, although this alliance was also short-lived.

Electoral Politics

The MAI decided to participate in the electoral process in the 1930s, without modifying its ultimate objective of complete independence from the British colonial rule. There were several reasons behind this decision. The MAI wanted to influence the constitution-making and law-making processes; and after the severance of its relations with the INC and the formulation of its own platform and programme, it wanted to prove its own separate and distinct existence. Its spectacular performance in the agitation against the rulers of the three princely states gave it confidence. The MAI, which was primarily an urban political party, like other Muslim political parties, had supported the Communal Award. As the anti- Communal Award campaign of the Mahasabhites and the Akali Sikhs intensified, the MAI felt that it could counter that pressure by participating in the elections, and asserting its Muslim credentials. They also harboured the dream of leading the Muslim urban lower and middle classes, through a sustained struggle. The increasing communalism in politics had spawned the creation of a number of political groups jostling to capture the leadership of urban Muslims in Punjab, and MAI was emerging as the most influential voice.

The Majlis might have contested the August 1930 elections, but boycotted them as a result of its decision to participate in the INC-sponsored civil disobedience movement. Their first electoral activity was in 1933, in the three bye- elections to the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Then in 1934, the MAI put up candidates in two constituencies, in the elections to the Central Legislative Assembly; and in 1937, it took part in the elections to the provincial assemblies under the Government of  India Act of 1935, and supported candidates for the provincial assemblies of the Punjab, Bihar and Bombay.

The next spate of elections that the MAI contested were those of the provincial assemblies under the Government of India Act of 1935. The MAI realised that it had to broaden its electoral platform in the Punjab, as it could not face the Unionist Party alone. It looked towards M. A. Jinnah and the Muslim League as its natural allies. It had supported Jinnah and his Independent Party in the Central Legislative Assembly. The MAI leaders and the Punjab Leaguers, including, Allama Mohammad Iqbal, had jointly struggled for the welfare of the Kashmiri Muslims, and had similarity of views on the Ahmadis. Jinnah himself had been active in resolving the Shahidgunj dispute, and had visited Lahore several times for this purpose.

Therefore, when the AIML, under Jinnah’s leadership, decided to contest the elections, and Jinnah visited the Punjab in search of partners, he held talks with the Ahrar leaders. He knew that the MAI was a popular political force among the urban Muslims; and his abortive attempt to win over the Unionists led by Mian Fazl-i-Husain, had further strengthened his desire to woo the MAI.

The Ahrar leaders held several meetings with Jinnah, who, following the AIML’s Bombay session in April 1936, had been authorised to constitute a Central Parliamentary Board on the eve of the 1937 provincial elections. Jinnah convened a meeting of the Muslim leaders in Delhi on 26 April, to negotiate for a pre-election alliance; and two Ahrar leaders, Afzal Haq and Maulana Habib-ur-Rahman, were invited to attend the meeting. Jinnah asked the Ahrar leaders to participate in the provincial elections under the League umbrella. They were initially receptive to the idea, but hesitant in signing an agreement to the effect.

They laid down two conditions for an alliance: firstly, the alliance should have ‘complete independence’ as its primary objective; and secondly, the League would expel all Qadianis from its ranks. Jinnah remarked that he could not support complete independence, since the AIML constitution only had provision for responsible government. As for expelling Qadianis, that would have to be decided by the General Council of the AIML. They agreed to continue these parleys in Lahore. Jinnah visited Lahore in May 1936, to hold further talks with the political parties, but his negotiations with Mian Fazl-i-Husain did not succeed. The Unionist leader had declined to be part of the Central Muslim League Parliamentary Board; earlier, he had refused to accept Jinnah’s request to preside over the all-India session of the AIML. Jinnah’s talks with the leaders of the MAI and Majlis-i-Ittehad-i-Millat were successful, and Iqbal provided the requisite help in this context.59 Jinnah focused on Muslim issues, and used the same arguments that he had used with their colleagues in the UP, in his effort to establish a cross- party alliance in India.

Jinnah visited the head office of the MAI, and then held an exclusive meeting with its leaders at Abdul Qavi Luqman’s residence. They requested him to preside over a public meeting in Lahore. Subsequently, the MAI arranged the function, which its volunteers guarded with their symbolic axes.61 After the meeting, Jinnah left for Srinagar, where he met Kashmiri leaders, including Mirwaiz Muhammad Yusuf, who apprised him of the Ahrar contribution towards the cause of the Kashmiri Muslims.  While in Srinagar, Jinnah announced the formation of the AIML Parliamentary Board; and four members of the MAI, Abdul Aziz Begowal, Afzal Haq, Sheikh Hissamuddin and Ghulam Hussain, were included in the Board. The MAI president accepted these nominations, and announced that they would participate in the proceedings of the Board.  Soon, the MAI incurred the displeasure of the Unionists, particularly of Mian Fazl-i-Husain, for associating themselves with Jinnah; as he was viewed as a political foe by the Unionist leader. The MAI had to face the Unionist animosity in the Punjab, though the motivating factor for their alliance with the AIML was Jinnah’s sincerity and integrity, and his concern for the welfare of the Muslim community.

The MAI’s association with the AIML did not last long; soon the conflict started over the selection of candidates for the Central Parliamentary Board. The Punjab Parliamentary Board required the applicants for the ticket to give 500 rupees as a non- refundable contribution, and an additional sum of 150 rupees for the ticket. This amount was more than the Ahrar candidates could pay, and the Ahrar leaders argued that it was a pretext to keep their candidates out from the electoral contest.  The Ahrar dissociated themselves from the activities of the Muslim League Provincial Board in Punjab. The Unionist pressure played some role in making the MAI revise its alignment; but the Ahrar insistence that there should be a clause in the oath for the AIML candidate, that he would struggle for the expulsion of Ahmadis from the Muslim community, was a major point of disagreement.

Interestingly, the Unionists were not willing to accept that as well, because they did not wish to lose the support of the British. Still another point of conflict was that in some cases, candidates of both the parties, wanted to contest the same constituencies in urban areas. When the MAI’s conflict with the provincial Muslim League leadership heated up, they approached Jinnah for its resolution, but by then the conflict was too advanced. The pro-Unionist Muslim press in the Punjab played a significant role in aggravating the MAI-AIML differences. Finally, the Majlis broke the alliance on 25 August 1936, putting the blame on the Punjab League leadership; and decided to contest the elections from its own platform.

While examining the role of the MAI representatives in the assemblies, two features were prominent: they opposed imperial control; and concentrated on social issues and human rights. Despite having a low representation in the assemblies, they still managed to have a high profile. They attempted to stay aloof from the Shahidganj Masjid dispute, but were vigorously engaged in legislation pertaining to blasphemy, conditions in jails and other social issues. During 1933-4, the Party was quite visible in the assemblies, but after the setback of the 1937 elections, the MAI took its cause to the public at large. With the outbreak of the Second World War the Ahrar focus, like that of others, shifted to the campaign against recruitment for the military in the Punjab.

This is a rather more involved history than that presented in the Munir Report.  It also opens my eyes to something - we still perceive things through the lenses provided by Jinnah and the All-India Muslim League.  If we examine some speeches by the Nationalist Muslims, that may be a corrective.

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