The Spirit of Tilak-Jinnah Pact could’ve Averted India’s Partition

Do we Indians twist, turn, tweak, transform – and, in extreme cases, mutilate – our history to suit our present needs? Anyone who looks impartially at the dominant political discourse today would, sadly, say, “Yes, we do.” At a time when many Indians have ceased to think of India as a whole as their own, but only a part of our diverse nation to which they belong as their India, it has become fair game to falsify facts of history. Naturally, such people regard as inconvenient the legacy of those great historical personalities who viewed India holistically and devoted their entire life for its freedom and wellbeing. One such distinguished personality is Lokmanya Tilak.

Falsification of history is not the monopoly of communist dictatorships in China and the erstwhile Soviet Union. It has entered into India too. Two accusations against Tilak have been popularised by leftist and Ambedkarite scholars.

The first criticism is that he was “anti-Muslim” and a “Hindu nationalist”. The second is that he was a “Brahminical opponent” of social reform. Both are false.

Was Tilak Anti-Muslim? No!

In support of the first criticism, it is cited that Tilak introduced “Hindu revivalism” into the national movement by bringing the Ganesh and Shivaji Jayanti festivals into the public sphere in Maharashtra. What his critics conveniently ignore is that he also participated in Moharram processions with his Muslim compatriots in Pune, just as many Muslims took part in Ganesh and Shivaji festivities.

Tilak’s belief that Indian nationalism is “composite” – meaning that it has equal place for Hindus and Muslims – is anathema to the proponents of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and Pakistan as an ‘Islamic Nation’.

It is true that in his earlier writings, Tilak minced no words in flaying the fanaticism of Muslim invaders and their acts of bigotry against their Hindu subjects. But it is also true that Tilak’s views on Indian Muslims changed in the course of the freedom struggle, and he became convinced that reconciliation and unity between the two communities was absolutely necessary for India’s liberation and future progress.

Tilak wrote in the Kesari: “When Hindus and Muslims jointly ask for Swarajya from a common platform, the British bureaucracy has to realise that its days are numbered.” Delivering a lecture in Satara on ‘Swaraj’ on 17 October 1917, Tilak said, “Attempts are being made to create dissensions among us, perhaps at the instigation of the government…These persons allege that Swaraj sought for would mean the concentration of power in the hands of the Brahmins or the Muhammadans who would tyrannise other communities of the society. Such arguments create misapprehensions in the minds of the people. I consider it unfortunate. This is no time for dissensions or disunion.”

Lucknow Pact, 1916: Tilak’s Farsighted Initiative 

The allegation that ‘Swaraj’ would lead to establishment of ‘Brahmin Raj’ came from the anti-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra. The other allegation that ‘Swaraj’ would lead to ‘Muslim Raj’ came, ironically, from ultra-Hindu nationalists who had opposed the Tilak-Jinnah Pact in Lucknow in 1916.

If we look back at India’s freedom movement, we see two milestones when Hindu-Muslim cooperation reached its zenith. One was the 1857 War of Independence, when Hindus and Muslims fought shoulder-to-shoulder against “Company Rule” – the colonial advancements of the East India Company. The other was the Lucknow Pact between the Congress and the Muslim League in December 1916, the principal architects of which were Tilak and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Remarkably, Jinnah those days was a member, simultaneously, of both the Congress and the Muslim League. He was held in high esteem in both parties, and was popularly known as an ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity’. Tilak and Jinnah had worked together in the previous decade. (It is worth remembering that Jinnah, a promising young lawyer in Bombay, had defended Tilak in the case of sedition, for which the British imprisoned him for six years in Burma.) Hence, a confluence of India’s two main political streams led to the historic Lucknow Pact in 1916. A.G. Noorani, a prolific scholar, has described this convincingly in his book Jinnah and Tilak – Comrades in the Freedom Struggle.

More by design than by coincidence, the annual sessions of the Congress and the Muslim League took place around the same time, in the last week of December 1916, in Lucknow. The highlight of the Lucknow Pact was that the Congress and the Muslim League agreed on separate representation to Muslims and gave due weightage to their representation, higher than their percentage in population would warrant, in the Imperial/Provincial Legislatures where they were in a minority.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah

At the same time, applying the same principle, it increased the representation of non-Muslims and suitably reduced the representation in Muslims in the Muslim-majority provinces like Punjab and Bengal. As a result, the Pact conceded to the Muslims one-third of the seats in the Imperial Legislative Council.

The idea of separate electorates sounds odd, even repugnant, in today’s India. So does the seemingly undemocratic concept of over-representation to a religious community (to Muslims in Hindu-majority provinces and to Hindus in Muslim-majority provinces). However, we have to view this agreement from the point of view the conditions prevailing in India in the second decade of the last century.

The Indian Councils Act 1909, also known as the Morley-Minto Reforms, had conceded the Muslim demand for separate electorates in its highly restricted devolution of power to Indians. This was opposed by the Congress, which was in favour of joint electorates. At the same time, there was a realisation in large sections of both the Congress and the Muslim League that a united front of Hindus and Muslims was necessary to move towards meaningful self-governance. Tilak best represented this new thinking in the Congress and spoke effectively in favour of the party’s session in Lucknow endorsing separate electorates for Muslims and other provisions in the Pact.

Influential leaders like Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, B.S. Moonje and Tej Bahadur  Sapru opposed him, saying he had surrendered to the Muslims by conceding the ‘anti-national and anti-democratic’ system of separate electorates. Yet, he stood his ground in Lucknow and staked his all for the Hindu-Muslim settlement.

Addressing over 2,000 delegates in the open session and using words that only a leader with enormous conviction and self-confidence can, Tilak said: “It has been said that we, Hindus, have yielded too much. The concession that has been made to our Muhammadan brethren in the Legislative Council is really nothing too much. In proportion to the concession that had been made to the Moslems their enthusiasm and warm-hearted support is surely greater. I urge the audience to give effect actively to the resolution adopted by the Congress.”

Explicating his stand further in his address at the concurrent session of the Home Rule League in Lucknow. Tilak remarked: “There is a feeling among the Hindus that too much has been given to the Muslims. As a Hindu I have no objection to making this concession. We cannot rise from our present intolerable condition without the aid of the Muslims. So in order to gain the desired end there is no objection to giving a percentage, a greater percentage, to the Muslims. Their responsibility becomes greater, the greater the percentage of representation you give to them. They will be doubly bound to work for you and with you, with a zeal and enthusiasm greater than ever. The fight is at present a triangular one.”

Tilak’s stand was that the “triangular” fight among Hindus, Muslims and the British should be reduced to a “two-way” fight between the British and the common front of Hindus and Muslims. And for bringing about this fundamental change, he was prepared to show that Hindus were willing to be magnanimous towards their Muslim brethren, who, after all, were fellow Indians.

What was important was for the Hindus and Muslims to sink their differences in the united struggle for Swaraj. Jinnah echoed Tilak’s thoughts and sentiments: “My message to the Mussalmans is to join hands with your Hindu brethren. My message to Hindus is to lift your backward brother up.”

Had this Hindu-Muslim unity forged by Tilak and Jinnah survived, India’s subsequent history would have been very different. Alas, this was not to be. Our freedom movement took a different and divergent turn after Tilak’s demise in 1920. Congress and the Muslim League failed to discover and agree upon a common ground thereafter, resulting, ultimately, in the blood-soaked partition of our motherland in 1947.

It is my firm conviction that the spirit of compromise and mutual accommodation displayed by the Congress and the Muslim League in the Lucknow Pact is still relevant. Even the Kashmir issue can be easily resolved, and India-Pakistan normalisation achieved, if the governments of our two countries show the same spirit of compromise and mutual accommodation to pursue a loftier goal.

At a time when India-Pakistani normalisation and Hindu-Muslim harmonisation have become more pressing than ever, there is surely much that we can learn from Tilak’s inspiring life and legacy.

Sudheendra Kulkarni

Mr Sudheendra Kulkarni is ex-aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and founder of the ‘FORUM FOR A NEW SOUTH ASIA – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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