Failure of Our Leaders to Agree on a Constitution Led to Partition

Our leaders couldn’t conceive of a democracy without majority rule. And that meant Hindus would always rule.

5 min read
Hindi Female

(This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s death anniversary on 11 September. It was originally published on 21 August 2018.)

Even after 71 years, the anger and pain of Partition haunts us. In India we have mostly settled on blaming Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In Pakistan, the blame is just as easily placed on Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. But the truth is that, Partition befell our nation because all these leaders weren’t able to envision a Constitution for a free India that was fair to both Hindus and Muslims.

They couldn’t conceive of a democracy without majority rule. And that meant Hindus, a permanent majority, would always be the rulers, and Muslims the ruled.

This clash seemed insurmountable in 1947, and to this day it is the chief cause of hostility between the two communities. Majority-rule and democracy became synonymous to most Indians during the freedom struggle.

They imagined free India to function as a British parliamentary democracy, which is a system of majority-rule. In that system the party in the majority runs the Government while the minority bides its time as the Opposition.


Impracticability of Majority Rule in India

Indians failed to realise that in Britain, parties were not religiously divided, but structured along social or economic ideologies. In 1941, British constitutional scholar Sir Ivor Jennings had cautioned about this crucial difference.

“With us, the majority is not permanent,” he wrote. “It is based upon differing views of personal and national interest, views which are susceptible to change and do change from time to time. This important fact must not be forgotten, for it enables the minority to submit peacefully and even cheerfully to the fulfilment of the policy of the majority... A Conservative Government might persuade me to become a conservative overnight, but it cannot change my ancestry, my language, my tribe or caste, my religion, or even my economic status.”[1]

In India, the impracticability of majority-rule was evident as early as 1937, when Indians were first allowed to form provincial governments of their own.

Both the Congress party and Muslim League entered elections under the 1935 Government of India Act, which reserved seats in provincial legislatures on a religious basis. They had a tacit understanding, and avoided direct contest in several Muslim constituencies. Congress however, under the leadership of Nehru, won a huge majority. The League didn’t win even Punjab or Bengal, where Muslims were in the majority. Of the 492 seats designated “Muslim” under the 1935 Act’s Communal Award, the League won only 109.


How Partition Was Born

Following the parliamentary practice, Congress decided to form governments entirely of its own in provinces where it was the largest party. Majority parties in other provinces did the same. As a result, the League’s winning candidates weren’t asked to join in any government. What made matters worse for the League was that Congress also embarked on a massive program to woo Muslims. Nehru declared, “It is for us now to… rid this country of communalism in every shape and form.”[2]

Muslim leaders began to paint Congress’ refusal to form coalition governments as a breach of faith. The League launched a propaganda campaign to shore up its core constituency, raising the “Islam in danger” cry. Jinnah publicly appealed to Gandhi to do something about the growing Hindu-Muslim hostility, but Gandhi seemed powerless.

Pakistan was born in the wake of this 1937 fiasco with the parliamentary system. Its notion of majority-only governments made the League’s fight seem pointless.

Since the Muslim minority status was never going to change in India, it was forever doomed to sit in Opposition. Pakistan, which until now was merely an academic thesis, all of a sudden became a rallying point. BS Rao, chronicler of India’s freedom struggle and member of its Constituent Assembly, wrote, “in 1937 there was singularly little support for the establishment of Pakistan… and in three years the political scene in India underwent a radical transformation.”[3]

Before committing to Pakistan however, Jinnah tried to make it clear that the real issue was the parliamentary system’s majority-rule. He had the League pass a resolution in 1939 declaring that it was “irrevocably opposed to… a majority community rule under the guise of democracy and a parliamentary system of government.”[4] In 1940, the League passed the Pakistan Resolution.


The Basis for Gandhi-Jinnah Talks

For the next seven years, the Indians and British clamoured to find a solution that could satisfy Jinnah by sharing some powers. But since all proposals devised a central government of a parliamentary type under majority control, no progress was made. Remarkably, even the League’s own proposal in 1940 went only so far as safeguarding provincial sovereignty and minority rights. It was seen as a ploy to advance its cause of a separate state of Pakistan. Similarly, in 1942, the Congress’s Quit India resolution was rejected because it only promised a constitution with “the largest measure of autonomy for the federating units.”

Many rays of hope emerged in these desperate years, but all were dashed for want of a fair system to share powers in the central government.

In 1944, Rajagopalachari proposed a formula under which a province could separate from the Union. It became the basis for Gandhi-Jinnah talks. These talks broke down after only 18 days though, because Jinnah would not commit any part of Pakistan’s sovereignty to a national government. Similar was the fate of the proposals made by the Sapru Committee, BR Ambedkar, BN Rau, and many others.


The Challenge of Sharing Powers

The last best hope arose in 1946, with the British Cabinet Mission. The three-member committee pleaded with the Indian people, “to extend their vision beyond their own community,” as it announced a plan to establish a Constituent Assembly and an Interim Government of Indians. The Mission noted that the British had “hoped that it would be possible for the Indian people themselves to agree upon the method of framing the new Constitution, [but] despite the labours which we have shared …this has not been possible.”[5]

The Mission Plan rejected the idea of Pakistan, but envisioned India as a union of provinces which were free to form groups. These groups could determine the subjects that were provincial and those that were to be handled by the union government.

But once again, the union government was deemed to be of a parliamentary type. The League withdrew from the plan, and the country was partitioned. India still faces the grave challenge of sharing powers between a permanent majority and minority, and balancing union and state governments. But until these fundamental issues are resolved, we cannot hope to achieve our potential of being one of the world’s great nations.


[1]The British Constitution by Sir Ivor Jennings, 1941, p31

[2] The Framing of India’s Constitution by B.S. Rao, 1967, vol5 p24

[3]Rao, p21

[4]Rao, p28

[5]Rao, p217

(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author ofWhy India Needs the Presidential System. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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