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‘Congress has committed suicide’— Why Nehru’s secular ideals angered UP workers of party

In ‘Claiming Citizenship and Nation’, Aishwarya Pandit writes that Congress workers in UP felt betrayed by their ‘anti-Hindu’ leaders and started drifting to RSS, Hindu Mahasabha.

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On 10 July 1947, one R.S. Vidyarathi from Anand Math in Meerut shot off an angry letter to the Congress High Command, denouncing its decision to accept the partition of the country. As a Congress sympathizer since the early days of the freedom struggle, he could not come to terms with the decision of his party. In a letter to Acharya Kripalani, he wrote:

It is no doubt most regrettable that the Congress should have submitted to the decision of the partition of the country without any authority, [sic] to that effect from the people whom it claims to represent. But any way by accepting the decision to partition India in favour of the Muslim League, a communal organisation in the country, the Congress has committed suicide.

Vidyarathi’s letter was one of many hundred letters sent to the Congress High Command which expressed horror at the fact that Congress had ‘submitted’ to the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. Another letter from Hindu Relief Committee in the same district challenged the Congress government on its ‘anti-Hindu policy’:

It is a fact that UP where Muslims are only 14% is a stronghold of the Muslim League. Only of late Hindus who had become cowards on account of being trampled upon for centuries, begun to scent the danger of his total annihilation and is now preparing to learn to defend himself if unjustly attacked. The vast majority of Hindus of this province are nationalists and Congressites and wish the Congress all success. The Congress has been kept alive only by their blood and it would be a sorrowful day if on account of biased communal politics like those of your government, [sic] we may have to decry as partial and unjust the very institution which is so dear to our heart. Your policy of unfairly appeasing the Muslims is misconceived.

This correspondence reflects the prevailing sense, among many Congress workers of having been betrayed by their party. This mood, and the response it engendered, is best understood as a form of Hindu counter-mobilization. Borrowing from Steven Wilkinson’s notion of Muslim counter-mobilization, I suggest that UP was gripped by the sense of a need, among many sections of the Hindu politicized community that they were in danger. Paradoxical though it may seem, given their overwhelming numerical dominance in the province, they felt under seize, brow-beaten into conceding the partition of Bharat Mata, threatened by the growing enemy across the border, and challenged by an ‘internal enemy’ within.

This enemy was the Muslim who stayed behind. He generated hatred and also fear. Hindus believed that not only were many working as agents for the enemy, but they were rendered powerful by their unity and fanatical zeal. A counter-mobilization was the need of the hour, in the face of the imagined Muslim threat.

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Of course, the ‘Hindu’ tilt of the Congress in the United Provinces and its consequences has been the subject of much debate in recent historiography. William Gould argues that in the 1930s Congress used religious symbols to win support, while continuing to pay lip service to its secular stance. Despite Nehru’s open displeasure, powerful provincial Congress leaders, such as Purushottam Das Tandon, were often seen on Arya Samaj platforms. Others as Prabhu Bapu shows, had forged links in the 1920s and 1930s with the Hindu Mahasabha, and the provincial Congress bosses could not stop the Mahasabha’s cadres from infiltrating into the Congress, where they exerted a strong ‘Hindu’ influence on the party’s rank and file. Contrary to Bapu’s claim, this nexus between Congress and the Mahasabha was never broken: a powerful ‘Hindu’ sentiment among ordinary Congressmen helps to explain why the party in UP so resolutely opposed the partition of India.

These policies and politics against the backdrop of universal adult franchise, unleashed a new round of factional struggles within the Congress, as different leaders jockeyed for power. In these struggles, certain groups which in the past had accepted the ‘Congress system’ began to challenge it often from within the party.

In his study of factions in Uttar Pradesh, which laid the groundwork for understanding the electoral politics of the UP Congress, Paul Brass argues that the party relied on distributing benefits to build up its support base and that this inevitably led to arm-wrestling within the party and also between the party and government. Brass, however, does not give sufficient weight to the anti-Muslim and anti-partition sentiment, simmering after 1947, and its impact on the state Congress.

Congress leaders from the Uttar Pradesh at the centre were of course provincial heavyweights in their own right. All had earned credentials as freedom fighters and served time in jail. From the United Provinces, Dr Sampurnanand, Chandra Bhanu Gupta, Charan Singh, G.B. Pant, Purushottam Das Tandon, Algu Rai Shastri, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai (a close confidante of Nehru) and Mohan Lal Saksena were among the big players on the national stage, whose standing after partition in both the province and nation changed, as did UP’s place within the national polity. Each had a powerful constituency in his home state, which the centre could ill afford to ignore.

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The 3 June 1947 plan and Hindu ‘counter-mobilization’

As soon as the High Command accepted the 3 June plan, the Congress party in the United Provinces faced a fierce wave of ‘Hindu counter-mobilisation’. The party’s UP rank and file, right down to the lowest levels deeply opposed partition. The storm of protest which followed shook its organizational foundations and compromised party discipline. The threat was palpable as organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha sought to woo Congressmen away from their party, under the emotive rallying cry of the ‘Hindu nation’ in danger.

In the years just before and after independence, the popularity of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) increased, as did the hold of Muslim right-wing organizations over Muslims in the province. The All-India Congress Committee (AICC) and the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC) offices were inundated with protests from many different organizations. Many local Congressmen began to claim that Congress had jeopardized the future of Hindus by bowing down to the Muslim demand for Pakistan.

Nehru viewed the activities of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS with alarm, his correspondence with Patel, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee among others revealed that he saw their activities as a real threat to the unity of India. On 30 December 1947, in a secret letter to Patel, he accused the RSS of having a hand in the murder of Muslims in Jammu, alleging that the RSS was working against government efforts to solve Kashmir crisis. In another letter to the Maharaja of Kashmir, he accused the RSS of trying to destabilize Sheikh Abdullah who was the only leader of credibility among the Muslims of Kashmir. On 7 December 1947, in another letter to the Premiers of all provinces he said, ‘we have a great deal of evidence to show that the RSS is an organization which is in nature a private army and is proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines and even following the technique of the organization. It is desirable that the present state governments keep a watchful eye and take action as they deem necessary. Unfortunately, a number of Congressmen without thinking are attracted to this fascist and Nazi modes of thought and practice’.

One of the main concerns for Nehru was that Congressmen were gravitating towards the RSS and the Mahasabha and were forging covert alliances with them throwing party unity and caution to the winds. Partition of the subcontinent had a lasting impact on many Congressmen and Nehru could see the party ideals disintegrating before him.

The Congress rank and file perceived Muslims as strong and dangerous, presumably because they were misguidedly seen to be a homogenous community. Many Hindus in the United Provinces perceived a pro-Muslim partisanship among some Congress leaders at the centre, whom they accused of favouring Muslim minorities.

It was not only the members of right-wing organizations who were openly anti-Muslim, Hindu majoritarian tendencies had been unleashed within the Congress due to the High Command’s acceptance of the partition plan. This reveals the extent to which the High Command was out of tune with the mood on the ground and Nehru’s professions of secular ideals did not find many followers. Casting aside differences, Congressmen united around a common cause, the notion that Hindus were a single, unified race in danger of being annihilated by Muslims, whom they hated and despised but believed to be armed with enviable courage. As Vasudha Dalmia has shown, UP with its many temples and holy places, was seen as a region of particular religious importance for Hindus in the province. The stakes were high: the province which had been the ‘heartland’ of the Pakistan movement had to return to Hindu control.

In the barrage of criticism which All-India Congress leaders faced from all sections of provincial Congressmen, terms such as ‘appeasement of minorities’ were often used. So was the term ‘Hindu majority’, a pointer to growing discourse of ‘majoritarianism’. This ‘majoritarianism’, Gould argues, had its roots in a collective sense of insecurity among Hindu revivalists.

When partition was announced, Congressmen, already deeply disillusioned by the actions of their leaders, unleashed a tide of violence against Muslims who stayed on. This phenomenon has been rather understated by some historians, notably Mushirul Hasan, who exaggerate the ability of leaders in New Delhi to control this growing tide of hostility against Muslims.

This excerpt from ‘Claiming Citizenship and Nation: Muslim Politics and State Building in North India, 1947-1986’ by Aishwarya Pandit has been published with permission from Routledge.

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