During the Quit India Movement, the Hindu Mahasabha Played the British Game


When the Congress party launched the Quit India movement, the Hindu Mahasabha was busy collaborating with the British and running coalition governments with the Muslim League in Bengal, Sind and the NWFP.

Note: This article was originally published on August 8, 2018.

This year, on August 8, we are celebrating the 76th anniversary of the Quit India movement launched by the Congress in 1942 at the height of the Second World War, when India was confronted with Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia coupled with domestic issues such as the failure of the Cripps Mission and war-time inflation.

Mahatma Gandhi, the movement’s chief creator, saw it as an opportune moment to weaken the existence of the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent through a nation-wide civil disobedience struggle. In opposition to committing Indian soldiers to British war efforts, the Congress provincial ministries had already resigned in 1939. Now, a mass non-cooperation movement began with Gandhi’s ‘do or die’ call that reverberated across the Indian subcontinent.

In his speech on the occasion, among other matters, Gandhi denounced Hindu supremacists “like Dr. Moonjee and Shri Savarkar”, icons of the Hindutva movement, who wanted to keep Muslims under their domination. He went on to proclaim India as “the homeland of all the Mussalmans (sic) inhabiting this country”, asserting the very principles of multiculturalism which, at the present juncture in Indian politics, appear threatened. A day later, Congress politicians – including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Vallabhbhai Patel – were arrested among thousands of other freedoms fighters.

The front page of the Indian Express on August 10, 1942. Credit: Wikipedia

Mainly three groups did not support the movement and continued to collaborate with the British Empire: the Communists, the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. Among these, the Communists were not in a position to wield ministerial power while the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League – as unlikely as it sounds today – joined hands in an unholy alliance to form provincial governments.

Hindu Mahasabha’s ‘practical politics’

Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a prominent leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, joined the Fazlul Haq ministry in Bengal, in 1941, as its finance minister. A year before that, Fazlul Haq, before his fallout with the Muslim League, had moved the (in)famous resolution, dubbed as the ‘Pakistan resolution’, which committed the Muslim League to a separate Muslim nation. For this, Haq had been denounced by the Congress as a communalist.

In Sind and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Hindu Mahasabha ran coalition governments with the Muslim League. On March 3, 1943, when the Sind legislative assembly discussed and passed a resolution moved by G.M. Syed recommending to the Viceroy that “Muslims of India are a separate nation”, the Hindu Mahasabha leaders were in the government. Although the Mahasabha ministers opposed the resolution and voted against it, they continued to be a part of the government.

Such endeavours were in accordance with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s presidential address at the Kanpur session of the Mahasabha in 1942, immaculately chronicled by historian Shamsul Islam in his book Hindu Nationalism and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Savarkar had asserted that the Hindu Mahasabha follows the policy of “responsive co-operation” with the British Empire since he considered the Congress a “pseudo-nationalist body”.

For Savarkar, this “practical politics” led to “reasonable compromises” meant to “capture the centres of political power only in the public interest”, playing down his personal interests. The biographer of Savarkar, Dhananjay Keer, also adopts this view sympathetic to the Hindu Mahasabha while freely plagiarising from Savarkar’s speech.

BJP chief Amit Shah at the Savarkar Sahitya Sammelan in Thane in April 2017. Credit: PTI

On June 10, 1943, a few months after the Sind legislative assembly favoured the creation of Pakistan, Savarkar reiterated the Hindu Mahasabha’s commitment to forming provincial governments including with the Muslim League to further the Hindu cause. On June 17,1943, Dr Hemandas Wadhwani (a Hindu Mahasabha member), health minister in the Sind government, met Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the chief of the Muslim League, to talk about the situation of communal harmony and to forge an anti-Congress alliance. Wadhwani also apprised Savarkar of his talks with Jinnah and tried to arrange a meeting between the two. To be fair, forming a coalition government was the Hindu Mahasabha’s political right, but it does not augur well for the ‘nationalistic’ credentials of Hindutva heroes like Mookerjee and Savarkar.

It is clear, as Jyotirmaya Sharma elucidates in his book Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, that Savarkar’s “commitment to the creation of a Hindu Rashtra superseded the goal of political independence of India”. This “practical politics” of Savarkar-led Hindu Mahasabha may have been beneficial to his organisation but was certainly disastrous to the fate of the Indian subcontinent.

Borrowed nationalism 

The Hindu Mahasabha had ideological similarities with the Muslim League. Both parties believed in the notion of ‘one religion/culture, one language’ as the guiding force of nationhood borrowing from the parochial nationalism of Western Europe. The Hindu Mahasabha wanted a country for Hindus speaking Hindi while the Muslim League preferred to have a country of Urdu-speaking Muslims. By doing so, both organisations also adopted the principle of having a ‘common enemy’. For instance, the Hindu Mahasabha considered Pakistan (read Muslims) as its common enemy while the Muslim League hated India (read Hindus), mistaking a secular nation as the homeland of Hindus.

The Hindu Mahasabha, like the Muslim League, believed that Hindus and Muslims are two separate and antagonistic nations. Savarkar in his presidential address during the 1937 session of the Hindu Mahasabha held at Ahmedabad put forth this idea of separate nationhood, three years before the Muslim League passed the Pakistan resolution in Lahore:

“India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on the contrary, there are two nations in the main; the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.”

Savarkar’s speech at Ahmedabad is filled with anti-Muslim rhetoric. He had imbibed these sectarian values as a child when he enjoyed participating in a mob responsible for vandalising a mosque.

Although the Hindu Mahasabha remained an elitist movement, the Hindu Mahasabha-Muslim League bonhomie indirectly legitimised the cause of Muslim separatism spearheaded by the Muslim League especially in the electoral sphere with tragic consequences.

For instance, in the 1936-37 provincial elections, the Congress party performed better than expected to obtain an absolute majority in five out of 11 provinces. It emerged as the single largest party in four more provinces and ultimately formed governments in eight provinces. On the other hand, the Muslim League was decimated, including in Muslim-majority provinces. In Sind and the NWFP, the Muslim League could not win a single seat. In Punjab, it won only one seat. Its performance in Bengal was also below expectation, as it could not capture even one-third of the Muslim-reserved seats. Less than 5% of the Muslim population supported the Muslim League in those elections.

It became crystal clear that the Muslim League had no mass Muslim support. In fact, no party could properly represent the Muslims as many Muslim-reserved seats went to independent candidates. 

Seeing this dismal performance, a critical question arose for the Muslim League: How to vitiate the atmosphere on communal lines in provinces like Bengal and Punjab which were central to the logic of Partition? Jinnah exploited the emotional campaign of ‘Islam in Danger’ to gain mass Muslim support after the 1936-37 elections – a divisive cause in which the Hindu Mahasabha came to its help through coalition ministries.

By the time of the 1945-46 provincial elections, the Muslim League had gained substantial Muslim support in Bengal, Sind, Bengal and the NWFP, making the Partition of the Indian subcontinent inevitable. It won 430 seats up from 108 in 1936-37, with roughly 21% of the total vote share. Like its performance in the 1936-37 election, the Hindu Mahasabha was a total disaster in the 1945-46 ones, winning only three seats across all Indian provinces.

The pre-independence trajectory of the Hindutva movement is not so righteous. By helping the Muslim League while the Congress leaders were in jail, the Hindu Mahasabha furthered the argument for Partition. At this crucial juncture in India’s polity, it is important to know this dishonourable genealogy of the Hindutva ideologues with which the present-day Hindu right-wing is associated.

Sharik Laliwala, 22, an alumnus of King’s College London and Ahmedabad University, is an independent researcher on the politics and history of Gujarat. He is on Twitter @sharik19.