The irony of history
On August 31, 1942, Lord Linlithgow wrote to Winston Churchill: "I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellion, since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security."
It wasn't until the beginning of the following year that the British were able to quell the uprising caused by Congress's call on August 9 to the British to 'Quit India', but not long before were the colonial rulers compelled to use 57 battalions against the rebels, with the administration breaking down in large parts of Bihar and what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh.
The British blamed the Congress for the violence, but one probable reason for the attacks on railway stations and the cutting of telegraph wires was the incarceration of virtually the entire Congress leadership which left no one in the field to control and guide the raging mobs. Some historians have pointed out, however, that this wasn't the first instance of the Congress's absence from the battlefield which enabled its arch-opponent, the Muslim League, to gain ground.
Moreover, the timing of the Quit India movement, which aimed at extracting a promise from the British to leave India at the end of World War II, has been questioned since it took place when the Allies were involved in a life-and-death struggle with the Axis powers. As such, it was unrealistic to expect an immediate assurance from the British, especially when a die-hard imperialist like Churchill was the Prime Minister. Had the Congress been the only player in the tussle with the colonial rulers, its tactics might have succeeded. But this wasn't the case since the Muslim League had by then been able to successfully exploit the fears which the Congress ministries, ruling between 1937 and 1939, had aroused among sections of the Muslim society about the imposition of a Hindu raj via the singing of Vande Mataram, among other things. As a result, the Congress's attempt to force the pace, as it were, in the advance towards independence only enabled the Muslim League to cosy up to the British with its extended offer of support towards the war effort.
But the League might not have made any headway if the Congress had not made several mistakes, as the colonial era bureaucrat, Penderel Moon, said in his book, "Divide and Quit." One of them was the decline in 1937 "to form coalition governments with the League in those provinces in which they had a majority." Then, when the war broke out, the Congress "could have retraced their steps and sought to join the League in coalitions both in the provinces and at the centre". At a time when, according to Moon, "moderate men were still in control of the Muslim masses both in Bengal and in the Punjab region, the forces of disruption could have been checked" by a "working partnership" between the Congress and the League. But fate decreed otherwise.
A relook at the events at the time of the Quit India movement suggests that partition might have been avoided if the Congress had not been driven by the belief that there were only two forces in India at the time—the British and the Congress—dismissing the idea that there existed third parties such as the Muslim League. Besides, Jawaharlal Nehru had dismissed communalism as a "side issue." Yet, arguably, much of the country's ills stem from the partition. Domestically, the Hindu-Muslim problem hasn't been solved. And, externally, India has acquired an inveterate enemy in Pakistan, whose publicly declared aim is to bleed India with a thousand cuts.
India was fortunate in the 1930s and 1940s by having an array of leaders of stature like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Vallabhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, and C Rajagopalachari on the side of the Congress, along with Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League on the other side as well as Sir Sikander Hayat Khan of the Unionist Party and Fazlur Huq, formerly associated with the Krishak Praja Party, who moved the so-called Pakistan resolution in Lahore in 1940—although Pakistan had not been named in it. Even then, the country moved inexorably towards partition with the "mistakes" in the 1937-42 period playing a key role.
It is undeniable that ego clashes between Nehru and Jinnah came in the way of finding a common meeting ground, with the former delivering the final death blow to the possibility of an agreement by virtually rejecting the British Cabinet Mission's plan of avoiding partition even after the Muslim League had accepted it.
What history tells us, therefore, is the need for treading with caution in dealing with India's complexity. Any attempt to project a party as the only hope for the country, as the Congress did 75 years ago, is fraught with fateful consequences. The Congress did succeed in getting rid of the British though at the cost of the country's unity. But any attempt to evict the Congress from the country via a Congress-mukt Bharat agenda could make the party's opponents fall prey to the malady of hubris. IANS
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are strictly personal.)