New Year Double Issue

The Original Sin

Page 1 of 1

The legacy of Lucknow 1916

BY ITS LOOK, Motinagar in Lucknow is a typical urban area of an Indian city: a haphazard arrangement of shops, houses, lanes and bylanes. In current times, it seems that like much of Old Lucknow, it has been left to its own devices even as civic progress marches on in trans-Gomti areas of the city.

Residents of Motinagar know their habitation derives its name from that of Motilal Nehru, but few, if any, can recall the exact reason why. There is a bust of Nehru Sr in the locality, but in line with the anarchy that pervades the politics of the province, it takes time to figure out that the metallic figure is indeed his. His name has been scrawled out alongside those of unknown politicians who want to make it big.

In 1916, matters were different. A century ago, this month, Nehru Sr was a hero. He, along with a group of ambitious fellow lawyers and members of the provincial council, had thrashed out the first cross-communal political deal that ushered in the country’s age of mass politics. It was also a disaster-in-the-making, one that ultimately widened Hindu-Muslim cleavages in the decades ahead to the point of no-return.

The story of the fateful accord began a year earlier. From all accounts, 1915 was another normal year for Indian politics. It had seen the usual gatherings of the two pre-eminent political outfits of the Subcontinent—the Congress and Muslim League—in Bombay. Other things were typical of the period, too. Jostling for power and prestige in various legislative councils had intensified greatly since the last round of ‘reforms’ in 1909 that increased the representation of Indians in these councils. Viewed a century later, this increase was hardly dramatic. But seen from the vantage point of that time’s trend, the rise in the number of elected members was enough to open the doors of electoral competition and a scramble among communities for these prized positions in public life.

But something changed over the course of the year, unchaining forces that would change Indian history forever. In a quirk of fate—one that History is famous for—two unrelated events occurred in 1915. In February that year, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the pre- eminent national leader of that period, died. With his death, the liberal wing of Indian politicians began its quick march to irrelevance. Later, in November, the last big liberal, Pherozeshah Mehta, too departed.

This left the field wide open for ‘extremists’ such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who had been ousted from the Congress in 1907. As long as Gokhale was on the national stage, the chances of Tilak’s re-entry, let alone changing the direction of politics, were minimal. With the last restraint gone, suddenly Indian politics took another, more aggressive direction. Gone were the carefully crafted memorials to the British Government that were barely acknowledged. The idea that Indians needed to be trained and educated before taking up ‘responsible’ positions became unfashionable overnight. Suddenly leaders such as Dinshaw Wacha and C Sankaran Nair, who blended professional and political careers and had worked hard for steady constitutional progress in India, became obsolete. Challenging the Government not only became fashionable but also indispensable for political progress.

If this was the story in the ‘Hindu’ camp, the Muslim League was witnessing its own churn. Steadily courted by the British since the turn of the century, ‘old party’ Muslims looked to the Government for progress and advancement. Based largely in Aligarh in the United Provinces, these conservative Muslims were more interested in education and nurturing professionals than in full-fledged political careers. Happy with the 1909 reforms, they were loath to oppose the colonial Government. But just like the Old Congress, the Muslim ‘old party’ also came under severe pressure from younger, politically ambitious, Muslims. Located largely in the Awadh region of United Provinces, these ‘young party’ Muslims believed that nothing could be gained without challenging—or even fighting— the British. In 1915, matters came to a head when Syed Wazir Hasan, at that time the secretary of the League, sought a compromise with the Congress on Muslim representation. Very soon, the League’s old guard—exemplified in the figure of the moderate Bombay leader Casim Mitha—was defanged decisively.

By early 1916, it was evident that a deal between the League and the Congress was only a matter of time. What remained troublesome were the details. These were bitterly contested— both by old guard Muslims and Hindu leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya. Ultimately, all opposition was washed aside. In parallel sessions of the two parties from December 29th to 31st, 1916, a deal was hammered out in Lucknow. In its bare bones, the agreement was simple. In those provinces where Muslims were in a majority, they would accept a less than proportional representation in the legislatures; where they were in a minority, they would get representation much greater than their population. In virtually all the provinces, Muslims were the winners. In Bengal, for example, Muslim representation was pegged at 40 per cent, while their population share was 53 per cent. In Punjab, the share was 50 per cent with a population of 55 per cent. Both provinces were to see a bloodbath in 1947. In United Provinces—where the most bitter communal divisions existed—a compromise was reached with British help: with 14 per cent of the population, Muslims received a 30 per cent share in the provincial council.

1916 marked the virtual end of a judicious style of deliberative democracy in India. Until then, politics was based on a careful analysis of facts by an educated elite corps of leaders

For a moment—but only a moment—there was joy among the class of emerging professional politicians. They had finally discovered the secret that would allow them to force the British into concessions. Until that time, the great limitation of politics in India was the inability of communities to transcend their boundaries and reach out to others. This made any kind of mass politics unimaginable. In 1916, the road to mass politics lay through religion. This had disastrous consequences for India. After Independence, politicians discovered caste as a much safer bet to organise cross-community politics. But the template was set in 1916.

What consequences can an almost-forgotten event of a century ago have today? Many. But two are worth consideration.

Consider one contemporary ‘puzzle’. In the wake of Narendra Modi’s sweeping electoral victory in 2014, respected academic voices began raising questions about ‘illiberal democracy’ in India. Under this formulation, India turns illiberal after the act of voting every five years. In the period in between, dissent is muzzled, individual freedoms are barely tolerated and liberalism is confined to newspaper columns.

Should this even be considered a mystery? 1916 marked the virtual end of a judicious style of deliberative democracy in the country. Until then, politics was based on a careful consideration of facts, practised by a liberal and educated elite corps of leaders. The idea was simple: the British were an educated class of rulers and a similarly placed class of Indians could wrest reasonable concessions based on a cool marshalling of facts, data and argument. If this was the world of Burke, Bentham and Mill imported into the tropics, it was no less true that Indians accepted it wholeheartedly. Men like Gokhale, Mehta and MG Ranade not only considered it their duty to get ‘concessions’ from the British, but also train the next generation of leaders.

Once the Lucknow Pact was signed, politics became a matter of numbers and mastering the kaleidoscopic combination of religion, caste and region. In this kind of politics, where is the room for individuals making decisions on rational grounds? What matters is which community one belongs to.

It is not surprising that Lucknow remains the heart of such politics today, for community- based political organisation has its deepest roots in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This has even distorted the language of politics. Electoral spoils are now conflated with ‘social and political justice’, rendering Indian politics one big jumble of Hayekian poisoned words.

If there is a puzzle here, it is this: why have liberals, probably the most educated class of Indians along with the Communists, continuously sided with political parties that have persisted with caste arithmetic?

There has been another lasting consequence. The Muslim quest for parity with Hindus in every sense did not end in 1947 when Islamic separatism led to the creation of Pakistan. Ideally, this should have ended a painful chapter of modern Indian history. After all, a huge number of Muslims chose to remain in India. This includes some highly conservative members of the community, most notably exemplified by the clerics at Deoband in UP, who were against the Partition of the Subcontinent and sided with the Congress when matters came to a crunch.

The quest for parity continues today in strange and irrational ways. Through the Cold War and even now, Pakistan seeks ‘hyphenation’ with India—especially in how India is perceived by other countries, notably those of the West. That is not the end of it. From the number of nuclear weapons—an irrational metric as these are not usual munitions: the use of even one can bring any country to its knees—to seeking territorial re-adjustments on the basis of religious composition (read: Kashmir Valley), it is possible to trace Pakistan’s ideas linearly to the chain reaction that was set off by the Lucknow Pact of 1916.

It is another matter that Pakistan has enjoyed a geographic advantage that Independent India never had. Located at the cross-roads of geopolitically important parts of the world—West and Central Asia—the country has been courted by the US, Russia and China. Yet, its quest for parity has never borne fruit for the simple reason of numbers: it was a brute truth in 1916, as it is in 2016, that Hindus outnumber Muslims in the Subcontinent. This is an unpleasant assertion to make in a liberal country, one that most ‘Hindus’ are unlikely to contemplate. But it is also true that Pakistan refuses to ponder it. This is the sad and continuing logic of 1916.

It is, of course, a mistake to trace any number of consequences to a single historical event. Surely the Lucknow Pact should follow the same logic. But many of the features that were unlocked in those momentous days a hundred years ago exist to this day. Organising politics on the basis of community instead of individuals is a feature of Indian democracy that sets it apart from its Western counterparts. Before 1916, Indian politicians struggled hard to transcend the limits of their communities; after 1916, they never looked back. Pakistan’s behaviour, or more accurately the attitude of its leaders who followed the lead of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, too, traces its roots to 1916. It is one of the ironies of Indian history that Jinnah, the liberal that he was in 1916, lost out in the frenzy of mass politics in the years that followed. It was a strange twist of history that this follower of Dadabhai Naoroji and Gokhale became the ultimate champion of communal logic.

Today, the Rifa-e-Aam Club in Lucknow where Muslim League leaders met and devised their strategy is a crumbling building occupied by ragpickers and petty traders. In Motinagar, no one knows where the Congress and the Muslim League pitched their tents close by with Jinnah and Congress luminaries shuttling between them, finessing points of text in a document while Gandhi waited in the wings. What matters are the ideas and forces unleashed in Lucknow, 1916. They remain alive and kicking even today.