During the course of the debate on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 , Home Minister Amit Shah said, “If the Congress had not divided this country on the basis of religion, there would be no need to bring in this bill. It was the Congress that divided the country on religious lines , not us.” It is important to note that Mr. Shah’s comments are misleading; the truth is far more complicated.
The events leading up to Partition involved a bewildering array of historical characters and motives, often at variance with one another. Mr. Shah also overlooks the body of evidence that suggests that it is difficult to influence the course of history if various groups are united comprehensively for or against an idea.
The idea of religious identity being the basis for Partition has less to do with the Congress and more to do with the ardent advocates of a communal notion of nation-building — V.D. Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha and Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League. The Muslim League had a firm grasp on the political value of such an idea. Jinnah outmanoeuvred political opponents on his way towards establishing Pakistan.
An idea that grew
By 1940, the germ of the idea, propounded initially in 1923 by Savarkar, had seized Jinnah’s imagination and was fuelled by events on the ground. From the beginning, both M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the idea.
When World War 2 broke out towards the end of 1939, Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy of India, did not receive the kind of support that he wanted from the Congress for war efforts, even though there were substantial differences of opinion on the way forward between Nehru and Gandhi. The Congress promised help, but with heavy caveats, including independence at the end of the war. On the other hand, Jinnah was far more canny, less conditional, and more tactical in extending his support. As the Congress increased pressure on the British, Jinnah, with the backing of Bengal, Punjab and Sindh, increased Linlithgow’s political interaction with and dependence on the Muslim League. Eventually, Jinnah (and the Hindu Mahasabha) did not support the Quit India Movement.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, predisposed to managing situations through divisions, saw innate merit in supporting Jinnah rather than giving into the Congress’s demands. Soon after Jinnah articulated the idea of Pakistan in the Lahore Resolution of 1940, the British endorsed the essence of it, thereby pushing the idea further into the realm of reality.
Failure of the Congress
It is also a fact that the Congress failed in persuading either Jinnah to give up his separatist dream or in convincing the British to not help Jinnah take that path. The Quit India Movement also contributed to the steady drift between the goals of the Congress and those of the British. In 1942, the Congress rejected the recommendations of the Stafford Cripps mission that endorsed the idea of Partition. Even before Partition, the failure of talks between Jinnah and the Congress had a fallout on the ground, helped by a parallel rise of extremist views and forces on both sides of the political spectrum. Till as late as 1946, the Congress remained opposed to the idea of nations being carved on the basis of religious identities.
The various rifts came to the surface in the riots in West Bengal after a political fallout between Nehru and Jinnah. Jinnah called for “direct action” to realise the idea of Pakistan. Thousands died as the riots began in August 1946. Trouble began to spread to Noakhali in West Bengal and Bihar. This was probably the turning point when Congress leaders saw no further point fighting the idea that Jinnah had presented, the idea that the British had assiduously foisted and aggressively worked towards.
The short answer to Mr. Shah’s postulation is it was not Congress that caused the division along religious lines. It was the last to reluctantly go along, for want of a better alternative, all things considered.