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23rd March: A walk down memory lane

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Dr. Yaqoob Khan Bangash |

The March 1940 Lahore Session of the All India Muslim League—the first in fifteen months—was an epoch-making meeting of the party. The session not only changed the fortunes of the party but also ultimately led to the partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan.

The reason for the importance of the session was the passing of the later dubbed, ‘Pakistan Resolution’, which gave a purpose and a goal to the Muslims of India. Presented on 23 March 1940 and passed a day later, ironically right across Lajpat Nagar on the other side of the Ravi river where in 1929 the Indian National Congress had passed the ‘Purna Swaraj’ (Complete Independence) resolution.

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The Muslim League laid the foundation of the ‘Two Nation Theory’ and the demand for a Muslim homeland(s) in this session in the lush green Minto Park. Poignantly, Lahore was the city where both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League had declared their goals, just a decade apart. The 1930’s was a crucial time for the All India Muslim League (AIML).

It had argued that it represented the Muslims of India since its founding in 1906, but even as late as 1930 its total membership only touched a couple of thousand, among the ninety million-strong Muslim population of India. In the 1937 provincial elections, held for the first time under the Government of India Act 1935, the AIML also fared badly.

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Out of nearly five hundred Muslim seats, the AIML only managed to win just over a hundred, and in the Muslim majority provinces, its performance was particularly dismal. The 1937 elections, therefore, had severely dented the League’s claim to represent the Muslims of India, where non-League Muslim parties, and in a couple of cases the Congress, won more Muslim seats than the League.

The AIML had to reorganize and reorient itself! After the debacle of the 1937 election, the president of the AIML, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, began to reorganize, re-galvanize and energize the party. In the ensuing years, several alliance were made with provincial Muslim leaders, such as the Sikandar-Jinnah pact in 1937, a membership drive was undertaken, and concrete steps were taken to organize the League from the village upwards in all provinces of British India.

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However, it was clear to the League leaders, and especially Jinnah, that this was not enough. What the League needed was a purpose, an aim, behind which they could unite and rally the Muslims of India under the umbrella of the League.

Just like the Congress the League had also rejected parts of the Government of India Act 1935 and wanted a new arrangement for India, which gave more representation and adequate safeguards for the Muslims of India. The League also developed a new strategy: rather than arguing for the rights of Muslims as a ‘minority’ now the League claimed that the Muslims were a ‘nation.’

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The Sind Muslim League was the first to pass such a resolution in October 1938 where it maintained that it was ‘absolutely essential in the interests of an abiding peace of the vast Indian continent and in the interests of unhampered cultural development, the economic and social betterment, and political self-determination of the two nations known as Hindus and Muslims, to recommend to All-India Muslim League to review and revise the entire question of what should be the suitable constitution for India…’.

Thus, for the League, the question was not between a majority and a minority now, it was between ‘two nations’ which required a ‘national’ solution.

Different constitutional schemes proposed for a future ‘India’

Ever since the objections to the Government of India Act 1935, several Muslim leaders had propounded schemes for the future constitutional structure of India. For example, Dr Syed Abul Latif of Hyderabad Deccan proposed an Indian Federation of four Muslim and eleven Hindu cultural zones.

Another scheme was put forth by Professor Syed Zafarul Hasan and Dr Mohammad Afzal Husan Qadri of Aligarh, which divided India into three sovereign states, with two states—in the north-west and the north east being Muslim majority. Similarly, the Nawab of Mamdot who was the President of the Punjab Provincial Muslim League argued for a ‘confederacy of India’ where India would be divided into five countries brought together in a confederal arrangement.

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The poet laureate Sir Muhammad Iqbal too had set his own vision for a ‘Muslim India within India’ in his famous Presidential Address at Allahabad in 1930, and Choudhry Rehmat Ali in his 1933 pamphlet, Now or Never, had articulated three Muslim states, Pakistan in the north-west, Bang-i-Islam in the north-east and Usmanistan in the Deccan.

Hence, as further shown by Dr Venkat Dhulipala in his book ‘Creating a New Medina’ there was no dearth of options for the Muslims of India. As for the AIML, it set up a sub-committee to examine all proposals at its Working Committee meeting in Merrut on March 26, 1939.

By the time the Lahore Session of the AIML met in March 1940, however, the deliberations had not finished, and Jinnah in his presidential address stated that ‘…there are several schemes which have been sent by various well-informed constitutionalists and others…We have also appointed a sub-committee to examine the details of the schemes….’ Hence, when the Lahore Resolution was put forth it was not supposed to be a final or an airtight scheme for the future of Muslims in India.

For the first time it united the Muslims of India behind the vision of the All India Muslim League, and it did not matter where or what exactly this ‘Pakistan’ was or meant;

Controversy over what was meant by the Lahore Resolution

The resolution itself was put forth on March 23, 1940 by A.K. Fazlul Haq from Bengal and seconded by Choudhry Khaliquzzaman from the E 13 United Provinces, and passed the next day. The most important part of the resolution read: “Resolved that it is the considered view of this Session of the All-India Muslim League that no constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to the Muslims.

Unless it is designated on the following basic principle, viz. that geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions which should be so constituted with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary, that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North-Western and Eastern Zones of India should be grouped to constitute “Independent States” in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.”

Read more: Jag Lahore Jag aur bacha Pakistan ko!

Almost immediately this resolution became controversial and questions began to the asked as to what it really meant. From the resolution itself it was not clear what ‘grouped’ meant, what ‘independent states’ really meant, and what actually entailed by meaning that the constituent units shall be ‘autonomous and sovereign.’

Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan’s Resolution?

The first debate was about the authorship of the resolution. Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan who was part of the sub-committee declared in the Punjab Assembly in March 1941 that he was the one who had drafted the original resolution but that it had been altered by the Working Committee.

He said that ‘the main difference between the two resolutions is that the latter part of my resolution which related to the centre and co-ordination of the activities of various units was eliminated.’ So if one takes the view of Sir Sikandar, the Muslim majority areas in the north-east and north-west should be grouped together to form one state, perhaps within a confederation with the rest of India. However, since the resolution mentioned ‘independent states’ perhaps the Working Committee was envisioning two independent Muslim states.

As against Sir Sikander’s scheme, Choudhry Khaliquzzaman, the seconder of the resolution also claimed in his book ‘Pathway to Pakistan’ that it was his proposal which Jinnah had agreed to and noted in his notebook.

So if one takes the view of Sir Sikandar, the Muslim majority areas in the north-east and north-west should be grouped together to form one state, perhaps within a confederation with the rest of India.

Sir Zafraullah Khan’s Resolution?

Furthermore, Abdul Wali Khan has also claimed in his book, Facts are Facts, that it was Sir Zafraullah Khan who had in fact authored the resolution, but that it was kept secret due to the fact that Sir Zafrullah was a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council and a member of the heterodox Ahmadi Muslim sect. This claim adds another, interesting, dimension to the debate, that of the role of the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who had seemingly instructed Sir Zafrullah to draw up the memorandum.

What constitutes ‘states’?

The second debate was about what it meant to be ‘grouped’ and what meant by ‘independent states.’ Were the ‘independent states’ supposed to be joined together in some confederal arrangement? Or was it a mere reference to the provinces in these regions being grouped so as to form one of the ‘independent states.’

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At the annual session of the League in Madras in 1941, the wording of the Lahore Resolution was revised and the word ‘together’ was added after ‘grouped,’ but the redrafted resolution was still unclear as it read that ‘North-western and eastern zones of India shall be grouped together to constitute the Independent States as Muslim Free National Homelands in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.’

The use of the plural, ‘states’ and ‘homelands’ therefore still signified the possibility of more than one Muslim states. This issue became all the more critical since the Muslim League constitution was amended in 1941 to reflect this aim, and so it was unclear what was the final goal of the party. The confusion caused by the text of the Lahore Resolution was apparent in the resolution of the Sind provincial assembly; wherein March 1943 the first resolution in a legislature was passed, demanding a Muslim homeland.

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Spearheaded by the president of the Sind Muslim League, G.M. Syed, the resolution stated that since Muslims differed from Hindus in almost every respect, they were ‘entitled to the right as a single, separate nation, to have the independent National States of their own, carved in the zones where they are in majority.’ Hence, as late as 1943, several sections of the AIML itself were envisioning more than one state for Muslims in South Asia.

Despite the above interpretations of the Lahore Resolution as envisaging more than one Muslim countries in South Asia, the press quickly labeled the Lahore Resolution as the ‘Pakistan Resolution.’ Led by newspapers like Milap and Pratap, the public discourse on the topic at that time, especially among the Hindu press and the Congress, became that of one consolidated Muslim state.

Since the word ‘Pakistan’ quickly caught up and even the Muslim League leaders began to use it, it was never clarified how many different units it would comprise and whether they would be completely sovereign or come together in some confederal arrangement among themselves or with the rest of India. It was only in the meeting of the Muslim League Legislators Convention in April 1946 that it was finally clarified that in the ‘zones comprising Bengal and Assam in the North-East and Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan in the North-West of India…where Muslims are in a dominant majority, be constituted into a sovereign state…’ and that there should be ‘two separate Constitution-making bodies,’ for Pakistan and Hindustan.

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There is a strong possibility that the confusion regarding the exact contours of the resolution was not caused by weak draftsman-ship but was deliberate. Keeping the resolution vague gave Jinnah a free hand in negotiating a final solution for the Muslims of India.

Committing to a particular roadmap, be it one or several states, would have meant little space for maneuver in negotiations with the British and the Congress. This flexibility is exactly what Professor Ayesha Jalal argues in her work, which led Jinnah to initially accept the proposals of the Cabinet Mission plan in 1946. Despite the unclear nature of the resolution, it achieved its most important purpose: it gave the Muslims of India a goal, an aim, something to struggle towards.

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For the first time, it united the Muslims of India behind the vision of the All India Muslim League, and it did not matter where or what exactly this ‘Pakistan’ was or meant; in fact, any further clarity on the final solution would have created divisions among different factions of Muslims in India.

The mere fact that there was now something to look forward to gave hope and courage to the Muslims of India. As a result of the resolution and the efforts of Jinnah and the League, within a few years the AIML went from a few thousand members to several million, and in the 1945 and 1946 elections, it swept both the federal and provincial Muslim seats except in the NWFP. Whatever its shortcomings, the resolution had achieved its goal.

Dr Yaqoob Khan Bangash is a historian of Modern South Asia. He is Assistant Professor at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.

Controversy over One or Two Nation has needlessly affected Pakistan’s Identity

The controversy surrounding the ‘real’ meaning of the Lahore Resolution and its differing interpretations has meant that ever since the creation of Pakistan, questions have been asked whether it should have been one country composed of two different wings and whether even within the western wing should the provinces have fully autonomous status.

Hussein Shaheed Suhrwardhy, the last premier of united Bengal, had floated the idea of a united and independent Bengal, but both parties and the British had shot down the idea. Similarly, people like G.M. Syed in Sind had long advocated maximum autonomy for the provinces according to his interpretation of the Lahore Resolution.

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The reality of Pakistan between 1947 and 1970 and the eventual separation of East Bengal as Bangladesh in 1971, perhaps showed that the original interpretation of the Resolution—that of ‘states,’ was more suited to the geographical and cultural reality of South Asia. Similarly, the various movements for autonomy in Sind, NWFP, and Baluchistan, in western Pakistan have exhibited that maybe all Muslim majority provinces should have been autonomous.

Whatever the interpretation of the Lahore Resolution, it is clear that it envisioned a future for Muslims in maximum freedom and full control over their affairs. The experience of Congress rule between in 1937 and 1939 in Muslim minority provinces had impressed upon the leaders of the Muslim League—where a majority of them hailed from Muslim minority provinces, that maximum autonomy was the best safeguard for Muslim interests in India.

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Post-independence it was significant that the Dominion of Pakistan became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on March 23, 1956, harking back to the resolution passed at Minto Park in 1940. It is a shame that in subsequent years, this ‘Republic Day’ was renamed ‘Pakistan Day’ to obliterate the memory of the country finally achieving full independence. But perhaps this change was correct too, the Pakistan of 1959 (when the change was made) as now, still needs to implement the spirit of the Lahore Resolution.

Dr. Yaqoob Khan Bangash is a historian of Modern South Asia. He is Assistant Professor at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.


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1 COMMENT

  1. It is indeed a very good, interesting, informative and a critical account of Pakistan Day 23rd March Resolution. The title of the article ” 23rd March: A walk down Memory Lane” itself suggests that the author Dr. Yaqoob Khan Bangash has made painstaking efforts in producing such a nice article on the subject with his sincere critical analysis. The most interesting revelation is about demand for establishment of three states Pakistan, Bang-e-Islam and Usmanistan. A quote of the article explains it elaborately as under:-
    Quote
    “The poet laureate Sir Muhammad Iqbal too had set his own vision for a ‘Muslim India within India’ in his famous Presidential Address at Allahabad in 1930, and Choudhry Rehmat Ali in his 1933 pamphlet, Now or Never, had articulated three Muslim states, Pakistan in the north-west, Bang-i-Islam in the north-east and Usmanistan in the Deccan.” Unquote.
    Let us just think that if the proposed 3 Muslim majority states been established in the Indian Subcontinent on the eve of 1947 partition, what would have been the overall impact politically, economically and on social fabric. Was it possible to avoid bloodshed then?

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