The 1940s were a turning point for the All India Muslim League. From being practically trounced in the 1937 elections, it had to rethink its raison d’etre and chalk out a new strategy. The 1940 Lahore Resolution gave it a slogan to rally the Muslims of India, and its unclear nature was in itself a strength as diverse people could make out whatever they wanted from the resolution.
The 1940s were also the time the Muslim League took a clearly communal stance, with complete opposition to anything Hindu or Hindu related. It was preached that not joining the Muslim League was simply going against Islam and therefore any Muslim who supported another party was in effect leaving his/her religion. Such strong exhortations — which in a number of cases were backed by fatwas of religious scholars — were the reason the Muslim League increased in number, stature and power during the 1940s.
While the Muslim masses were being convinced to join the Muslim League by purely religious rhetoric, the Muslim League had to also lure in several ‘notables’ and ‘electables,’ many of whom had been long standing members of the Indian National Congress. Using the same logic that anti-Muslim League meant being anti-Islam, a number of prominent Muslim politicians joined the Muslim League especially in the wake of the 1945-6 elections where in effect the future direction of India was set.
As a result of a number of politicians joining the Muslim League, the League issued a rather interesting pamphlet called ‘Why I joined Muslim League’ in January 1946, to propagate their cause. The people and their reasons for joining the League make a very interesting read and give us an insight into how the League worked upon certain people.
The first prominent person mentioned in the pamphlet was the redoubtable Mr Abdul Qayyum Khan, from the erstwhile NWFP. Qayyum was a long-standing member of the Congress Party and was even the party’s deputy leader in the Central Assembly. His joining the Muslim League was not only a great coup but gave fillip to the very weak League in the NWFP where Qayyum carried great clout.
Writing to Jinnah in August 1945, Qayyum called this decision as the ‘most momentous decision in my life,’ and that he agreed with Jinnah that “…the stand taken by you is absolutely correct that any Muslim who opposes you is betraying the cause of Islam in India.” Qayyum’s joining right before the election was very significant for the Muslim League, especially in the NWFP, as due to his efforts the Muslim League’s tally came very close to the Congress in the elections.
Several other stalwarts of the Congress also joined the Muslim League during this period. Malik Lal Khan, a former President of the Punjab Provincial Congress Committee, joined the Muslim League on August 24, 1945, stating that “The Muslims in India owe it to Islam to strengthen their only political organisation, namely, the All India Muslim League.”
Mr P. K. Mohiuddin Kutty, the president of the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee, also joined the Muslim League and stated that “I am also convinced that the Muslim League is the only authoritative organisation of the Mussalmans of India.” The addition of these politicians swelled the ranks of the Muslim League with people who had had decades of political experience and acumen.
Interesting was the reasons for joining the Muslim League of the then President of the Punjab Provincial Congress Committee and the member of the All India Congress Committee, Mian Iftikharuddin. He argued that his primary reason for resigning from the Congress was its abandonment of the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity. He released a press statement in which he argued that there were two things necessary for such a cooperation: “Firstly, assuring the Muslims that they shall have the right to self-determination in areas where they are in a majority, and secondly, coming to terms with their representative organisation, the Muslim League, on this basis.”
Mian Iftikharuddin then argued that “the recent events and the new tendencies of the Congress leadership have made it plain that, as things are today, it is not possible for a person like myself to work for the cause of unity in the Congress.” His joining of the Muslim League at the end of September 1945 was a big blow to the Congress party in the Punjab which was practically decimated in the elections on Muslim seats as a result.
The Muslim League’s focus on religious, rather than simply political, affiliation of Muslims to the party, also led to a break in one of the most successful cross-communal parties in India, the Unionist Party in the Punjab.
The Unionists were a mix of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh middle tier landlords, businessmen and urban people, and had been ruling the Punjab since the introduction of self-government. Its success was testament to the fact that it was possible for people from different communities to come together politically and work.
As Professor Ian Talbot has shown, the success of the Unionists, especially in their particular environment, has been given little academic and public attention, and certainly merits more inquiry. However, in the increasingly communal environment of post-war India, the Muslim League began to lure away critical members of the Unionists, so much so that by the end of the elections in 1946 the Unionists were merely a rump of their previous existence. They were able to form a government with Akali and Congress support even in 1946 but it was clear that their Muslim base had been dramatically eroded by the Muslim league.
One of the first important Unionists who joined the Muslim League was Sir Firoz Khan Noon. Sir Firoz was one of the founders of the Unionist Party and had served as India’s High Commissioner to the UK, and had also served successively as the Labour and Defence member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council.
Sir Firoz joined the League and underscored that “It would be against the interests of Islam and Muslims to vote for any non-League candidate” in the 1945-6. Politicians like Khan Mohammad Yusuf from the Punjab also began describing not joining the League as “a Himalayan blunder politically, and uncondonable sin otherwise…”
Indeed, by late 1945, the League began to equate its allegiance as allegiance towards Islam and not joining it as rebellion against the religion. Such a close correlation between the two certainly made it impossible for most Muslim politicians to remain in non-League parties.
This short pamphlet clearly shows that the popularity of the League was not dependent on either its economic, social development or other plans. It was squarely based on religion, and not joining the League was termed abandonment of the religion itself, or a very grave sin. The statements of these politicians certainly help us understand this phenomenon in a better manner.