Revisiting Partition: Gandhi's Role in Integrating the Northeast with Independent India

Gandhi’s role in the leadership he gave to Assam Congress to help geographically integrate the northeast to independent India is not well documented.

Mahatma Gandhi during a morning walk in Guwahati in 1946. Courtesy: Nirode Barooah's book on Gopinath Bardoloi

Mahatma Gandhi during a morning walk in Guwahati in 1946. Courtesy: Nirode Barooah’s book on Gopinath Bardoloi

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content, that will attempt at drawing a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.

Not too long ago, BJP president Amit Shah referred to Mahatma Gandhi as a “chatur baniya”, which loosely means “a clever trader”.

Opinions and counter opinions flew over Shah’s intent behind that cryptic remark. I remember thinking why Northeast Indians like me should be particularly grateful to the “chatur baniya”.

In fact, on a closer glance, Shah himself should also be thankful to Gandhi for having, in the first place, a state called Assam in independent India where his party could sweep an assembly election in May 2016. As the BJP president, the win in Assam was certainly a face saver for Shah after the 2015 Bihar debacle.

This August marks 70 years since that unfortunate episode of the truncation of British India, which we remember as Partition. Perhaps it is time to reflect on the role Gandhi played in the run-up to Partition so that people from the Northeast can call themselves Indian.

Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement is well documented but the leadership he gave to the Assam Congress to help geographically integrate the Northeast to independent India is not quite so. His role should be seen through two vital interventions that came at a time when the indigenous people of the region needed it the most.

Significantly, one intervention – in the form of a statement – was to protect the demographic character of Assam in which Gandhi suggested violent means “if necessary,” a trait that the world has never known Gandhi for.

Though Assam saw six years of agitation in the 1980s against “illegal immigrants” from what is now Bangladesh, and is still nowhere near finding a solution to it even after signing a peace accord with the central government, no reference is made to the support Gandhi offered to the pre-independence leaders of the Assam Congress on the issue – at least to validate the longstanding nature of the vexed issue, if not for anything else.

In the seminal book on the Northeast, Strangers of the Mist, Sanjoy Hazarika refers to that statement of Gandhi, recorded by his secretary and diarist Pyarelal Nayyar, to observe that it “has been completely ignored so far in Assam, perhaps because it is so little known.”

Sanjoy Hazarika
Strangers of The Mist
Penguin India, October 2000

That statement, called ‘A message to the people of Assam’, was issued from Panchgani, the hill town in Maharashtra in July 1944. Assam of Gandhi’s times also included Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya – most part of what we now term as the northeast.

Gandhi’s statement was in response to the then Congress leader Gopinath Bardoloi’s objection to the Muslim League leader and Assam premier Muhammad Sadullah’s land settlement policy, undertaken to populate the state with migrants from erstwhile East Bengal.

Known as the Line System, the policy had its roots in a British effort to extract more revenue from Assam by making the land more productive (since the local peasants were not willing to work for the British). It later amped up the migration policy under its “grow more food” programme in the build-up to World War II. The Muslim League government in Assam under Sadullah further fuelled the policy, so much so that Viceroy Lord Wavell later wrote in his memoirs that Sadullah was much more interested in “growing more Muslims”.

Hazarika noted in the book:

“Uppermost in his (Bardoloi’s) mind was the unspoken fear that these migrations were laying the foundation for a demand by Jinnah for Assam’s inclusion in a future Pakistan, by emphasising the size of the Muslim population and its close links with East Bengal.

The Assamese caste Hindu power block felt most threatened by the migrations, fearing a loss of political power and economic and cultural dominance by the immigrant Muslims. On top of it, the issue touched old suspicions of domination by Bengalis in the nineteenth century. Those memories still rankled.”

Bardoloi thought of devising a plan to discard that policy, if not reverse its impact already on the demography of Assam. It was none other than Gandhi who came out in his support.

Hazarika underlined in his book,

“The Mahatma was blunt: ‘If the people feel that the present policy of the government on settlement and immigration is oppressive and anti-national, let them fight it non-violently, or violently, if necessary.’”

A few days later, Gandhi sent another message, saying, “I have no message of hope for my Assamese brothers and sisters but I send my deep sympathy for them. May God bless you all to come out of the ordeal successfully.”

Gopinath Bordoloi. Credit: Wikipedia

Gopinath Bordoloi. Credit: Wikipedia

These messages emboldened Bardoloi to tailor a plan, with support from Rohini Kumar Choudhury, a right wing Assamese Hindu from the Nationalist Independent Group. Hazarika terms it a “coup”, for it caught Sadullah unawares and toppled his government in November 1941 and thereby put a halt – albeit for a short while – his provincial government’s backing to rampant migration from East Bengal. Sadullah, though, returned to power in August 1942 and continued till February 1946.

By mid 1946, all thanks to the Sadullah government’s actions as per the covert plan of the Muslim League leaders from New Delhi, Bardoloi, as the head of Assam Congress, was to face his severest test – saving the state “from being sold out to Pakistani interests.” Therein too, it was Gandhi who backed him.

Bardoloi’s biographer and well-known historian Nirode Barooah wrote in Gopinath Bardoloi, ‘Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre: 

“As in the case of all his previous important political decisions, Bardoloi wanted to consult Gandhi. For this purpose, he sent two of his trusted colleagues, Bijoy Chandra Bhagawati and Mahendra Mohan Choudhury, to Srirampore in the middle of December 1946.”

 Bijoy Chandra Bhagavati. Credit: Wikipedia

Bijoy Chandra Bhagavati. Credit: Wikipedia

While Bhagawati was the secretary of the Assam Congress, Choudhury was then the secretary of Assam Congress Parliamentary Party.

The Muslim League was in support of the grouping scheme proffered by the Cabinet Mission to divide British India into two halves. The Assam Congress was opposed to the party high command’s likely decision to go with the constituent assembly’s plan to divide the states into sections and thereby eventually fall for the grouping scheme. By agreeing to be a part of the sections, Assam ran the risk of being clubbed with Bengal which was already seeing an ugly confrontation building up between the state Congress and right-wing Hindu organisations with the League over division of the boundary based on religion. Assam leaders feared that it would have to opt for Pakistan if voting was done on the basis of religion along with the Muslim-dominated Sylhet, which was added to the state during the division of Bengal and continued to be so even though the British revoked its 1905 decision in 1911.

On the other hand, it feared that if clubbed with Bengal, the Hindu Bengalis would dominate Assam culturally and linguistically, like they did in the early days of British rule.

Mahendra Mohan Choudhury. Credit: The Assam information portal

Mahendra Mohan Choudhury. Credit: The Assam information portal

Bhagawati and Choudhury’s conversation with Gandhi on December 15, 1946 – recorded by anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Basu and later published in the December 29, 1946 issue of Harijan – said, “Two Assam friends, Shri Bijaychandra Bhagawati and Shri Mahendra Mohan Choudhury saw Gandhiji on the morning of December 15, 1946 on behalf of Shri Bardoloi. They asked him what Assam was to do with regard to the question of grouping. It was a question of life and death for Assam. They didn’t wish to be grouped with Bengal. Some people told them that they would be helping the League if they stay out. Assam couldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of progress of the rest of India and so on. They had asked the Congress Working Committee (CWC) which failed to give any clear guidance. So they had come to him for advice.”

Gandhi told them categorically not to agree for sections, to “lodge its protest and retire from the constituent assembly.” He gave the duo “many historical instances” to “steel” their hearts and give them “courage”, underlining, “If you do not act correctly and now, Assam will be finished.”

Gandhi was quoted as saying by Basu, “Tell Bardoloi, I do not feel the least uneasiness. My mind is made up. Assam must not lose its soul. It must uphold it against the whole world. Else I will say that Assam had only manikins and no men. It is an impertinent suggestion that Bengal should dominate Assam in any way.”

Recalling those moments to Hazarika decades later, Bhagawati, then well into his eighties, said that they “travelled by rail, road and ferry to reach Gandhiji at Serampore.”

On reaching Serampore, they sought time with Gandhi. “We were told to go with him on his walk at 3 pm. But we could hardly get a word in as the Mahatma walked and talked with a Sikh we didn’t know. Then it was time for his bath and massage.” But Gandhi summoned them to his hut in the evening and read the short letter that Bardoloi had sent with them, briefing him on the developments on grouping and the positions of the central and state Congress leaders.

“We told him that it was the biggest test of our lives,” Bhagwati recalled.

An interesting nugget of information, also little known, comes across from Gandhi’s conversation with the two Assam Congress leaders, that Subhash Chandra Bose was opposed to Assam Congress resigning from the provincial government in 1939 by following the call of Gandhi, which helped the Sadullah government to seize power in the state and push for the Line System.

Saadulla, 6th from left (standing) and his daughter Betty (extreme left, sitting) attending a wedding at Shillong in the 1930s. Credit: www.motijanhazarikarahman

Saadulla, 6th from left (standing) and his daughter Betty (extreme left, sitting) attending a wedding at Shillong in the 1930s. Credit: www.motijan-hazarika-rahman.com

Basu’s noting of the interview of Bhagavati and Choudhury quoted Gandhi as saying, “Subhas Babu opposed it as he thought Assam was a special case. I told Bardoloi that there was much in what Subhas Babu had said and although I was the author of that scheme of boycott I said Assam should not come out if it didn’t feel like it. But Assam did come out. It was wrong.”

What also floated up in that interview was the apparent sign of the growing grip of Congress “high command” on party men to the extent of being undemocratic, a trend that was to reach its zenith by the time Indira Gandhi took over the reins of the party. Nirode Barooah points out, “Having grown up only in the tradition of habitual obedience to the central command, the two Congressmen could not believe their ears (about what Gandhi told them to do).”

Gandhi sensed the dithering in them, gave them examples from his own actions to show how they could do “a kind of satyagraha against the Congress for the good of the Congress”. He concluded by saying, “Tell the people (of Assam) even if Gandhi tries to disguard us, we won’t listen.”

There was no stopping Bardoloi thereafter. The Assam Congress along with like-minded parties went full throttle to make Assam a part of independent India. Barooah writes that soon after the CWC session of December 22, 1946, Pandit Nehru, J.B. Kripalani and Sankar Rao Deo decided to meet Gandhi personally at Serampore on the question of Assam. They were obviously unhappy with his decision. Though Sardar Patel was initially supportive of Bardoloi, he later backed out. Patel, Nehru and other central leaders of the Congress were of the view that Assam’s opposition to be a part of the sections would delay the independence of India.

Muslim League Working Committee, Lucknow Session. Credit: Wikipedia

Muslim League Working Committee, Lucknow session. Credit: Wikipedia

But Gandhi was of the view that “each unit must be able to decide and act for itself.”

“No one can force Assam to do what it does not want to do. It must stand independently and autonomous. Whether you have that courage, grit and gumption, I do not know. You alone can say that. But if you can make that declaration, it will be a fine thing. As soon as the time comes for the constituent assembly to go into sections you will say, ‘Gentleman, Assam retires.’ For the independence of India, it is the only condition…I am hoping that in this, Assam will lead the way. I have the same advice for the Sikhs. But your position is much happier than that of the Sikhs. You are a whole province. They are a community inside a province. But I feel every individual has the right to act for himself, just as I have,” Gandhi told Bhagwati and Choudhury.

So it was Gandhi, and Gandhi alone, who stood by the decision of the Assam Congress to oppose the “central command” when it came to the effort behind integrating greater Assam to today’s India.

According to Barooah, after Gandhi’s decision on Assam, the British government realised that “the constituent assembly would never function in the manner planned by the Cabinet Mission”, and “made a new plan” for transfer of power under a new viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, “who having already had a poor opinion of Jinnah, told him categorically in April 1947 that he could not expect Assam in his East Pakistan.”

“In the east”, Mountbatten writes, “I pointed out that he would get the most useless part of Bengal, without Calcutta, and if he wished it he could have Sylhet back from Assam.”

Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947. Credit: Wikipedia

Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947. Credit: Wikipedia

Future exchange of letters between Bordoloi, as Assam’s first chief minister, and Pandit Nehru, as the country’s first prime minister, is a testament of the two Congressmen more at loggerheads than reaching any point of agreement, particularly when it came to the issue of migration that continued from the then East Pakistan to Assam. Interestingly, it also held up the existence of a space for debate between a prime minister and a chief minister, an impossible dream in today’s time and politics.

However, what is also noteworthy is that Bardoloi’s role of nation building and working on the idea of India, particularly during Partition, was curiously never quite highlighted by the Congress “high command” in the coming decades. In 1999, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government conferred the Bharat Ratna on Bardoloi, many in Assam didn’t know whether to be pleased or offended by the news from New Delhi. The country’s highest civilian award to Bardoloi, the first in the northeast, came nearly half a century after his death.

B.C. Roy, though the second chief minister of the neighbouring West Bengal but the one who can be really called a contemporary of Bardoloi and an equally tall Congress leader from the independence movement, was bestowed the Bharat Ratna back in 1961.

Today, if Gandhi is to be remembered for his significant role in integrating a good part of the northeast to an independent India, Bardoloi should also be celebrated not just for fighting his corner well to be with India but also for sticking firmly to the strong sense of sub-nationalism of the people of the northeast – if not for being a Congress man who dared to create a space within his own party, as Gandhi said, “for a satyagraha for Congress’s own good”.