During the Lok Sabha debate on the Bill amending the Citizenship Act, Union home minister Amit Shah suddenly lost his temper and blurted: “Is desh ka vibhajan agar dharma ke aadhar par Congress na kari hoti to is Bill ka kaam nahin hota (Had the Congress not partitioned this country on the basis of religion, there would have been no need for this Bill).”
His remark sent a shock wave through the Lok Sabha, provoking responses which were echoed within hours by civil society. But Shah, the master tactician, had got what he wanted – he had once again put India’s secular intelligentsia and the increasingly befuddled Congress party on the defensive. And that might have been just the extra edge the BJP needed to get this monstrous Bill through the Rajya Sabha.
Shah’s obvious purpose always was to hustle it through, as he did with the Unlawful Activities Act Amendment Bill before the opposition had time to muster its full strength. And he did it with great aplomb.
What is depressing is the fact that even 48 hours after he made this outrageous claim, no one in the Congress, or for that matter the rest of the opposition and civil society, has pinned down the outrageous lie that Shah spoke in the august halls of parliament on a Bill that, by changing the very basis of the Union of Indian, has begun the process of tearing it apart.
All have defended the Congress by saying that while it accepted the creation of two nations, it did not do so on the basis of the two-nation theory. To the vast majority of Indians, born well after Partition, this must sound like sheer sophistry. That is what Shah (who is only 55 years old) was almost certainly banking upon. It was up to the present leaders of the Congress party to checkmate Shah’s strategy. But that required an immediate command of history that Sonia Gandhi, who was sitting in the front opposition benches, did not have. So, in a manner with which we have grown wearyingly familiar, she stayed seated and remained silent.
It has therefore fallen to this 81-year-old former journalist to set the record straight. For what I know about the tumultuous last days of the British Raj and the first months of independence is not second-hand but living, first-hand knowledge. So Shah, whose knowledge is also necessarily second hand, may be able to fool others but he cannot fool me.
The Congress party’s resolution of 1947 accepting Partition gave a full explanation of why the party had felt itself left with no option. It restated in pain-filled detail why it had accepted Partition as the lesser of the two evils the country faced at the time (early 1947) despite its staunch and continuing opposition to the two-nation theory. Its reason was the urgent and imperative need to prevent the “poison of communalism” from spreading further and “tearing apart the social fabric of the country”.
The resolution reflects its leaders’ awareness that they were surrendering their own most cherished principle, but felt compelled to accept the lesser evil in order to avert a much greater one.
To understand why it felt this, it is necessary to go back in time to June 1947, when Mountbatten announced the partition plan. The ‘communal poison’ to which the Congress was referring was the Muslim League’s ‘direct action’ plan to deliberately inflame Hindu-Muslim animosity in order to garner support for its demand for partition. This had begun with the planned killing of Hindus in Calcutta of August 1946 that went on for two days, before the Hindu reaction engulfed Bihar in a bloodbath.
This was followed by a planned pogrom of Hindus and Sikhs in what was then the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) in December 1946. This was a Muslim League conspiracy in the most evil sense of the term, because it occurred in a province ruled by the Khudai Khidmatgars (also dubbed the Frontier Congress) which had been stoutly opposing partition ever since it was mooted in 1940. The two minorities made up only 6% of the province’s population, but they were the richest 6%, consisting of traders, moneylenders and rich landowners. The pogrom was therefore aimed both at seizing the assets of the Hindus and Sikhs and simultaneously de-legitmising the Khudai Khidmatgars. (This was a pogrom that the British government had tacitly supported and enabled. The evidence is in the Transfer of Power Documents, Volume 12.)
Those who escaped fled to Rawalpindi, where they received little sympathy or support, and to Muzaffarabad where the Muslim inhabitants, despite the communal hysteria of those times, received them with open arms. But by then the Muslim League National Guard (modelled, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on Germany’s SA) had the bit between its teeth.
In January 1947, the League turned its attention to Punjab, where as in the NWFP, the Sikhs numbered 18% of its population but owned 30% of all the farmland and paid 50% of the land revenue to the British. Lahore, Amritsar and other cities were dominated by Hindu traders and moneylenders. So here too, the League used the lure of stolen wealth to start a series of communal riots and pogroms.
Like the NWFP, Punjab was also against the partition of India. It was ruled by the Unionist party, a party composed in more or less equal parts by Muslim, Sikh and Hindu feudals, under the prime ministership of Sikander Hayat Khan and after his death in 1942, by Sir Khizar Hayat Khan. Khizar Hayat Khan also opposed Partition but lacked the strength of his predecessor. As a result, the Unionist alliance had begun to fray at the edges when the Muslim League launched its communal riots in January 1947, following his resignation.
This brought the danger to the freedom movement posed by the poison of communal polarisation to the Congress’s doorstep. For Punjab stretched then from the Kabul river at the foothills of the Hindu Kush range till Delhi. If the capital went up in flames, then not only would freedom get indefinitely postponed, but the dream of a single independent country would be destroyed in the scramble by the rest of the country to prevent the poison from spreading into it.
It was to avoid this dire fate that the Congress accepted Partition. It reasoned that three quarters of a secular, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country was better than none. It was to save an inheritance of secularism that stretched from Gautama Buddha till Akbar and the Din-e-Ilahi, and embraced Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis and Jews, in addition to Muslims, that it decided to cut that glorious India’s losses and accept Partition.
And while the Congress was fighting this epic battle for an ideal, what was the RSS doing? From the Dandi Salt March in 1929 till Gandhi’s Quit India call in 1940, the RSS stoutly opposed every attempt to secure freedom through satyagraha and even offered its cohorts to the government to act as civil guards to quell the unrest that Gandhi’s call would generate. It maintained a monumental silence on the Muslim League’s direct action programme and while it may not have instructed Nathuram Godse to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi, according to Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary, “Members of the RSS at some places had been instructed beforehand to tune in to their radio sets on the fateful Friday for the ‘good news’.”
For the RSS to claim that it is amending the Citizenship Act to complete the work that was left undone by the Congress is beyond calumny; it is sick comedy. Unfortunately, as Nagaland’s extension of the requirement to obtain an Inner Line Permit to the whole of Dimapur district has just shown, it is comedy that could turn in a flash into tragedy.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based journalist and writer.
Note: An earlier version of this article had misidentified Sikander Hayat Khan as Sir Khizar Hayat Tiwana’s son. The story has been updated after a reader pointed out the inaccuracy.