• Omer Haq


The extreme face of communalism started taking a definite shape after 1937. While there were instances from the past that paved the way for communalism to take such a fascist form, regardless of nationalist leaders trying their best to unite Hindus and Muslims of the country. In this blog post, we attempt to bring out the explanations of what drove communalism to keep transitioning into a more violent form and how even nationalist leaders undesirably gave into it. We shall also look into the major controversies of the present that encircle INC and leaders who were at the forefront for indirectly giving into shaping the structure of unrest.

Communalism remained liberal until 1937, after which it started taking a rather extremist face.

While liberal communalists based themselves on the idea that India consists of different religion-based communities which have their specific interests. Differences in these interests thus lead to mutual conflicts and their merger into a single nation was the ultimate goal of Indian politics.

Thus to bring all the communities onto a mutual ground and to reach this ultimate goal, liberal communalists demanded separate communal rights, safeguards and reservations.

On the hinge side, liberal communalism also had a narrow social base because politically it was only based on upper and middle classes. On the other hand, communalism started taking the position of extremism and fascism right after 1937. It was based on the politics of hatred, fear and irrationality.

The idea of domination and suppression became the ultimate theme of this communal propaganda unleashing hatred against the followers of other religions. The interests of Hindus and Muslims were declared exclusively in conflict.

The communalists attacked other communities, in the words of WC Smith, “with fervour, fear, contempt and bitter hatred.”

Extreme communalists started operating on the principle of "the bigger the lie the better." They also attacked their co-religionists who supported the idea of nationalism and spoke extremes against the INC and Gandhi.

So by 1937, communalism acquired a popular base and began mobilising a popular mass opinion. For this mass movement to acquire an aggressive base in urban lower-middle classes, appeals to religion and irrational fear & hatred were made to arouse emotions instead of radical socio-economic factors. This was because of the reactionary, upper-class base of communalism.

This transfer of communalism from the liberal to the extremist phase had numerous reasons. One of them could be:

  • As a result of the civil disobedience movement in the years 1930-34, Congress emerged as the dominant political force in the elections of 1937 with their ever-growing nationalist theme. This led other political parties of landlords to face a drastic decline.

  • Moreover, the youth which included workers and peasants were increasingly moving towards the left. This made the national movement more radicalised in its economic and political policies. So, these zamindars, landlords and other jagirdari elements found the early defence of their interest no longer feasible and they started resorting to communalism as their newfound class defence.

  • This trend was visible across UP, Bihar, Punjab and Bengal. For example, in Punjab, the big landlords and the Muslim bureaucratic elite who had initially supported the semi-communal and loyalist Unionist party gradually started shifting to the Muslim League in the years 1937-45 which promised to protect their interests. This was because the Unionist party being provincial could no longer protect them from Congress' radicalism.

  • Similar was the case of Muslim zamindars and jotedars in Bengal.

  • In Northern and Western India too, Hindu zamindars, landlords, merchants and moneylenders began shifting to Hindu communal parties. Also, to attract them, VD Savarkar the then President of Hindu Mahasabha started criticizing the class struggle between landlords & tenants.

  • Similarly in other parts of Punjab, the Hindu communalists became more active in defending the moneylending and trading interests.

Indian National Congress, New Delhi, 1937

Another reason for this shift from liberal to the extreme after 1937 can be seen in the way colonial rulers started aligning their policy of divide and rule towards religious communalism. This was because of the failure of their earlier attempts to create division. Since all of them were overpowered by the nationalist movement.

For example, the non-brahmin challenge in Maharashtra and South India, mobilisation of scheduled castes against the INC, splitting of right and left wings, were all fizzled out.

Even the interprovincial and interlingual rivalries had weakened after Congress accepted the validity of linguistic states and the cultural diversity of the Indian people. Moreover, the winning of INC in the 1937 elections had swayed away all the major social and political groups of colonial ideology.

Therefore, the rising communal angle seemed to be the only card available to the colonialists to repress the National movement.

So they put all their stakes on it while setting a major emphasis on Muslim communalism even though it was headed by Jinnah, who colonists disliked because of his anti-colonial viewpoint.

The episode of World War II from 1939, further enhanced the idea of communalism in the minds of colonial rulers. So when Congress withdrew its ministries, demanded the complete freedom of India, and transfer of power immediately after the war was over, Britishers started banking on the Muslim League whose politics and demands were opposite to that of INC.

Indian soldiers in Bordeaux, France during WW II

To divide the national opinion, they officially backed the Muslim communalism, gave the league power to veto any political settlement and recognised them as the sole spokesperson for Muslims.

The Muslim league agreed to this collaboration. Even the Hindu Mahasabha and other communal organisations extended their support to the colonial rulers to safeguard their communal interests. The colonialists accepted their support, but the backing of Muslim communalism remained of utmost meaning to them.

While in the elections of 1937 both the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha had fought on the grounds of liberal communalism but both lost poorly. The League won 109 seats out of 482 allotted to them under separate electorates. The Hindu Mahasabha won far less than this. They realised that if they do not take to militant, mass-based politics they will eventually face an ultimate end.

Until now radical nationalists had built this cadre-based politics and conservatives were not a part of this mass movement. So in the 1930s, a right-wing model of mass politics gained strength amongst the Hindu and Muslim communalists to carry with their vested interests. But this model had a rather fascist form.

There were various instances of the past that had left a way for communalism to take an extreme form

For example; Congress had gone very far in accepting the Muslim communal demands in the 1920s, the communal awards of 1932 and the Government of India Act of 1935 accepted all the liberal communal demands. Neither did Congress put forth logic and opposed any of the concessions being given to the communalists, even when these concessions had no long term guarantee.

Thus, after all the Muslim communalist demands were accepted, there was no real way for these communal organisations to move forward with. Either they would have dissolved or would have discovered new demands or new threats to their communities. This blurred vision created a conscious design for extreme communalism to fatten.

Similar was the case with Hindu communalists. Until 1937 INC had permitted both Hindu and Muslim liberal communalists to work within Congress but under Nehru and the left's pressure, they were being frontally attacked. They were not accommodated in both 1934, 1937 elections and were expelled in 1938.

As a result, Hindu communalism faced a political extinction. Thereafter they too took to a new basis of their growth, that is extreme communalism.

As emphasised by Bipin Chandra that one of the logic behind communalism was that if it were checked under the initial stages, it wouldn't have risen to any of its higher stages. A fine example of this would be the life history of Jinnah which shows that if the infancy of communal ideas were accepted, it will inevitably mature and take over the individual desire and rationality of the person. This was how the Ambassador of Hindu Muslim unity ended up crying for a separate nation.

To elaborate on this; when Jinnah came back to India after becoming a lawyer in 1906, he was a secular, liberal nationalist and a follower of Dadabhai Naoroji. He acted as his secretary at the Calcutta session in 1906.

Dadabhai Naoroji

He opposed the Muslim League which was then being founded. Even Aga Khan, the first president of the Muslim league later wrote that Jinnah was their toughest opponent. He was bitterly against the principle of separate electorates as he said it would divide the nation against itself.

From 1906 onwards Jinnah propagated the idea of national unity in the meetings he was addressing. Sarojini Naidu entitled him as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. Yet his initial step towards communalism happened without his conscious desire when he entered the Central legislative council from Bombay as a Muslim member under separate electorates.

His other step in 1913, slid him into a communal nationalist when he joined the Muslim League. Although he was still a nationalist, favoured Congress and kept opposing separate electorates. But subconsciously he had assumed the role of a spokesman of the Muslim community.

The young Jinnah

This 'paired' role reached its limit during the Lucknow Pact where he persuaded Congress to accept the demand of separate electorates and communal reservation while now acting as the spokesperson of the Muslim communalism.

Although from the core he remained a nationalist and committed to secular politics. For example; he resigned from the Legislative Council as a protest against the passing of the Rowlatt Bill and refused to believe the communal theme that self-government would lead to Hindu rule. Instead, he emphasised that the real issue is the home rule or transfer of power from bureaucracy to democracy.

In 1919-20 when Congress took to mass politics, Jinnah disagreed with this and left Congress along with people like Surendranath Banerjea, Bipin Chandra Pal, Tej Bahadur Sapru, C. Sankaran Nair, and many more who were of the same thinking

After this when he saw that mere liberal politics had no future and neither he could go into political passivity he turned to communal politics. Thus becoming a liberal communalist. The vicious cycle of communalism had transformed him from nationalist to communal nationalist and then a liberal communalist.

Yet until the 1920s communalism hadn't completely overpowered his nationalist idea.

For example, in 1924 when he revived the Muslim League with the demand of safeguarding the interests and rights of Muslims, his political base was to organise and stand in the protection of their community. But on the other hand, he was also preaching Hindu-Muslim unity through a fresh Lucknow pact and cooperated with the Swarajists to fight against the colonialists and their policies.

Muslim League Working Committee, Lucknow Session

In 1927-28 he gave his support to the boycott of the Simon commission, although he did not join the mass demonstration against it.

Thus now, his entire political base had become communalist and if he were to give up communalism his political influence shall also wither away. This was evident by the discussions on the Nehru Report in 1928-29.

Gradually he started giving in to a more reactionary communal form and ended up being the leader of Muslim communalism as a whole. On the way, he became close to Aga Khan and M. Shafi but lost the support of nationalist leaders like MA Ansari, T.A.K Sherwani, & his lieutenant M.C. Chagla.

Aga Khan III

Authoring his 14 demands/points can be seen as a major symbol of Jinnah's transformation. He further became alienated from mainstream nationalism when Congress started organising radical mass movements during 1930.

Even the Muslim youth became inclined towards the left, making Jinnah face a major dilemma.

Thereafter he decided to stay in Britain but his political core made his return to India where he once again revived the declining League in 1936. This time, he did so based on liberal communalism and spoke of Hindu Muslim unity.

For example, he said at Lahore in March 1936: ‘Whatever I have done, let me assure you there has been no change in me, not the slightest, since the day when I joined the Indian National Congress. It may be that I have been wrong on some occasions. But it has never been done in a partisan spirit. My sole and only object have been the welfare of my country. I assure you that India’s interest is and will be sacred to me and nothing will make me budge an inch from that position.’

Following this, he asked Muslims to organise separately but parallel to this he also asked them to prove that their loyalty to the country is above the interests of their community. His plan behind this contrasting view must have been to use the Muslim league to win enough seats to force another Lucknow pact on Congress.

Moreover, he had assumed that Congress was bringing pre-Gandhian Constitutional politics by participating in the 1937 elections. So because of these assumptions and have no particular agenda for the elections since the communal award had already accepted all of the league's demands, Jinnah and the Muslim league fought the 1937 elections on a semi-nationalist congress type of programme.

Their only demand was the protection and promotion of the Urdu Language/ script and the adoption of measures for the improvement of the general condition of Muslims

But losing the elections marked that Jinnah's assumptions weren't correct

So, the alternative that was left with Jinnah was either to continue with liberal communalism which had already shown its results in the 1937 election or to entirely give up communal politics. Another alternative was to take to mass politics which in his and the league's semi-loyalist view could only be based on the danger Islam would face from the Hindu Raj.

Jinnah ended up choosing the last alternative in 1937-38, moving towards extreme communalism.

Gandhi and Jinnah

His entire political campaign now based itself upon appealing to his co-religionist the fear and insecurity that Congress did not want freedom from the colonial rulers but wanted to bring Hindu Raj in cooperation with the British which would suppress the Muslims and eliminate Islam in India.

This could be seen in his presidential address to the League in 1938 where he said that the high command of the Congress is determined to crush all the communities to establish Hindu Raj in the country.

  • In March 1940 he told the students at Aligarh that Mr Gandhi's hope was to subjugate the Muslims under Hindu Raj.

  • At his presidential address in April 1941, he declared that in United India the Muslims will be absolutely wiped out of their existence.

  • On 18 August 1946 Jinnah referred to the caste Hindu fascist Congress who only wanted to dominate the minorities and rule India.

The transformation of Jinnah from Nationalist to Extreme communalist was a huge blow.

It became inevitable that even the average communal propagandist would fall to even worse

For example; Fazl-ul-Haq, who held a responsible position at the Premier of Bengal, told at the 1938 session of the League: ‘In Congress provinces, riots had laid the countryside waste. Muslim life, limb and property have been lost and blood had freely flowed. . . .that the Muslims are leading their lives in constant terror and oppressed by Hindus and their mosques are being defiled.'

Now the Muslim communalist also started targeting the Nationalist Muslims. Leaders like Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and other Nationalist Muslims were being marked as to show boys of the Congress and traitors to Islam. They were even subjected to social terror during 1945-47.

Even Jinnah himself during his presidential address in April 1943 described Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as the 'in charge of the Hinduizing influences and emasculation of the martial Pathans'. Thus extreme communalism had brought forth religion as propaganda.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan

In 1946 Muslims were asked to vote for the League because a vote for the league and Pakistan would count as the vote for Islam. It was promised that Pakistan would be ruled under Sharia. Muslims were given a choice to choose between a mosque and a temple.

The fight between Congress and the Muslim League was illustrated as a fight between Islam and kufr

At a similar time, Hindu Communalism had also gained an extreme communal face. Even though it had a different political route.

Two major liberal communal leaders Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malviya had a similar journey as that of Jinnah. While Lajpat Rai died in 1928, Madan Mohan Malviya went on to find himself in a similar dilemma as that of Jinnah in 1937. Yet he decided to quit active politics citing health reasons but Hindu communalism went on flourishing.

Madan Mohan Malviya

The basic logic of communalism had brought forth other communal leaders to the front line. The Hindu Mahasabha took a fascist form under V D Savarkar. The RSS which was already working on fascist lines from the beginning started branching out beyond Maharashtra.

Gradually VD Savarkar started warning Hindus of the dangers of being dominated by Muslims.

  • In 1937 he said that "Muslims want to brand the forehead of Hindus and other non-Muslim sections in Hindustan with the stamp of self-humiliation and Muslim domination. 'They want to reduce Hindus to the position of a helot in their lands."

  • In 1938 he went on to say that Hindus have already reduced to helots/slaves throughout their land.

VD Savarkar

However, it was RSS that became the chief propagator of extreme communalism under MS Golwalkar. In 1939 Golwalkar declared that if minority demands were accepted the life of Hindus will run into the risk of being shattered.

RSS along with Golwalkar attacked the Muslims, Congress and other national leaders for endangering the existence of Hindus. They condemned the nationalist leaders for spreading the view by which Hindus began to think of old invaders as their friends. He wrote, "We have allowed ourselves to be duped into believing our foes to be our friends . . . That is the real danger of the day, our self-forgetfulness."

Golwalkar viciously announced that if non-Hindu people wish to reside in Hindustan, they must adopt the Hindu culture, language and uphold the values of the Hindu religion.

They must give up intolerance and ungratefulness towards this land and its long tradition

He went on to write; "We Hindus are at war with the Muslims on the one hand and British on the other. Italy and Germany were two countries where the ancient race-spirit had re-risen. Even so with us, our race has to rise once again. Thus giving Hindus the right of banishing Muslims."

M. S. Gowalkar

RSS took a more fascist turn in 1946-47. They attacked Congress leaders saying that they had no spirit, no stamina to stand on his legs and fight for the independence of their motherland and that all this had to be injected into him in the form of Muslim blood.

They went on to accuse Gandhi in 1947 saying that those who declared “no Swaraj without Hindu-Muslim unity” have committed the greatest treason on our society. Moreover, the Hindu communalists also tried to bring forth the theme of 'Hinduism and Hindu culture in danger'.

This campaign of fear and hatred carried out by Hindu and Muslim communalists reaped itself in the form of Calcutta killings of August 1946, in the butchery of Hindus at Noakhali in Bengal and of Muslims in Bihar, in the bloodshed of partition in 1947 and the assassination of Gandhi by a Hindu communal fanatic.

While the huge cost of the communal belief was paid by Muslims who remained or migrated to Pakistan.

After Pakistan was formed Jinnah expected to go back to liberal communalism or secularism which is evident from his Presidential Address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947. He said; “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”

But it was too late.

Communalism had already caused a large division in history and had led to gruesome bloodshed.

As a consequence, it did more harm than any good to Muslims of Pakistan that most secular people could have ever imagined.

Even in India where a secular Constitution had been framed, the future held more shortcomings than ever before.

People walking past destroyed cabinets during the 1946 Calcutta killings

Now two major controversies that arose due to this communal issue were:

  • One is of the view that if Jinnah would have been placated during the years 1937-39, the communal problem would have been solved.

  • Another was if a coalition government would have formed with the Muslim League in UP in 1939, the issues could have been settled. So the rejection of Jinnah's political desires turned him into a separatist.

But one should take a note here that Jinnah had already transformed into a liberal communalist before his political desires started to face dejection. And Congress did make efforts to come to a common point by negotiating with Jinnah during the years 1937-39. Since Jinnah was already caught up in the vicious loop of communalism, these negotiations ended with no arguable outcomes. He also refused to tell Congress the demands which would satisfy him and lead him to join Congress against the colonial rulers.

The only demand that he came up with was that Congress should declare itself as a Hindu body and accept the Muslim League as the sole representative of Muslims

But, as Rajendra Prasad also said, Congress could not have met this demand because it would mean to falsify the entire history and future of India. It would have completely turned India into a fascist state.

The communal ideology that Jinnah was following was thus left with only one unfulfilled demand and that was separatism. The only alternative to this was to abandon politics.

Therefore in the early 1940s, Jinnah and the Muslim League came up with the demand for Pakistan which was based on the theme that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations and must have separate homelands.

Even Hindu communalism moved in the same direction. Though their demand for separatism could not come into play, they instead started asserting that Hindus were the only ones who could live in India and if Muslims were to live they should either live as second class citizens or should be expelled.

Now if we look at the second controversy; the UP decision of 1937 coalition with the Muslim League would have meant moving towards constitutional politics in which people had a minimal role to play since the League did not support mass politics. And Jinnah had already declared Muslims as the distinct third-party in India much before the discussion in 1937 had taken place.

So the coalition had major consequences. It would have meant accepting Congress the status of the Hindu body, betraying the Nationalist Muslims who stood with secular ideas.

It would have also led to the abandoning of radical agrarian programs which were passed in Faizpur in 1936 because the league was in support of the interest of landlords. Their representation in the coalition would not have led to the passing of this bill.

Even the Congress Socialists and Communists who played an important role in the UP Congress at that time had also pressured Nehru to reject the coalition and threatened with the launch of a public campaign of their demands.

The fact here is that communalism as an ideology could not ever be placated; it had to be confronted which Congress did not do as we discussed in the previous episode.

Interestingly, the communists did try to appease the Muslim League during the years 1942-46 but instead lost their best cadres to Muslim communalism. They even tried to form a coalition with them but withdrew from it as a wise decision. The negotiations that Congress and the left were trying to have with the league were based on the assumptions that liberal communalists could be made to fight against the extremist and fascist beliefs. This turned out to be a delusion.

Moreover, after 1937, it was only the nationalist Muslims and Nationalist Hindus who were opposing communalism.

Liberal communalists like Malviya, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee failed to oppose Hindu communalism. Neither did leaders like Iqbal who followed the liberal idea could oppose Muslim communalism. At most, they kept quiet rather than giving into extreme communalism.

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