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Facts Don't Back The Argument That Most Indian Muslims Wanted Partition

86% of adult Muslims in British India did not even have the right to vote.

19/06/2017 12:51 PM IST | Updated 19/06/2017 3:20 PM IST
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Was there overwhelming support for Pakistan among the Muslims of undivided India?

Lately, some in India have been asserting this. As evidence, they refer to statistics from the 1946 provincial assembly elections, in which the Muslim League captured 4.5 million of about 6 million Muslim votes. On the face of it, this would seem to suggest that 75% of Indian Muslims voted for the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan.

This claim glosses over the crucial fact that the 1946 elections, based on the Sixth Schedule of the1935 Government of India Act, had a limited franchise, which means that only a small percentage of adults—those with money and property—were eligible to vote. In fact, only 3% of the population could vote for the Central Assembly and only 13% could vote for the Provincial Assemblies. That means only 30 million people could vote in assembly elections out of a total adult population of 120 million.

[T]hese election results tell us only that a little more than 10% of the adult Muslim population expressed their support for Pakistan by voting for the Muslim League.

Putting these numbers together, the upshot is that out of a total of 94 million Muslims in India, according to the 1941 census, less than 7% had the right to vote, or about 14% of the adult population. This means that 86% of adult Muslims in British India did not have the right to vote.

Consequently, it is misleading to invoke 75% support for the Muslim League among Muslim voters in the 1946 assembly elections to infer that a similar percentage of Indian Muslims supported the party and therefore the cause of Pakistan. The truth is that these election results tell us only that a little more than 10% of the adult Muslim population expressed their support for Pakistan by voting for the Muslim League. Likewise about 4% of the adult Muslim population did not support the Muslim League.

The crucial point is that 86% of Indian Muslims did not have the right to vote, and we in turn do not have the right to infer they would have voted in the same proportion as those who were allowed to vote — which is the assumption you would have to make to infer 75% of Indian Muslims supported Pakistan.

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If anything, there are reasons to believe that the 75% support for the Muslim League over-represented the support among the general population. The reason is that the Muslim League's demand for Pakistan was a cause embraced by the Muslim elite, the very same people who were allowed to vote and were likely to gain economic and other opportunities from the creation of Pakistan. This is a fact that India's British rulers clearly understood. "[A] vote of the whole adult population or of the enfranchised population would be unlikely to provide the result that Jinnah requires," wrote Viceroy Lord Wavell to Lord Pethick Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, on 20 November, 1945.

Limited franchise in effect meant that only people with property or money, and educated professionals, had the right to vote. The large mass of people, of all communities, was simply disenfranchised.

Limited franchise in effect meant that only people with property or money, and educated professionals, had the right to vote. The large mass of people, of all communities, was simply disenfranchised. Enfranchising only the elite, as the British did, created elite leaders such as Nehru and Jinnah, neither of whom would likely have had mass electoral appeal under a truly democratic franchise had such a system existed in late British India. It's no accident that Nehru, Jinnah and other leaders of both the Congress and the Muslim League were Anglicized wealthy lawyers, landowners, merchants, or princes.

Anecdotally, there are many stories of upper middle class and upper class Indian Muslims, including erstwhile princes, who decamped for Pakistan in 1947 to land up in senior positions in the government, military, and corporate sectors. Such people, whom one might charitably call carpetbaggers, voted with their feet and chose Pakistan.

Likewise, like Hindus in what became Pakistan, a large number of Indian Muslims in partitioned border states of Punjab and Bengal migrated to West and East Pakistan respectively, arguably for self-preservation during the carnage following partition.

The real test for those who claim that Pakistan had mass support among India's Muslims would be to look at those provinces, such as the United Provinces and Bihar, which were not partitioned and in which Muslims were relatively safe during the post-partition violence. If indeed Pakistan had mass support, you would have expected mass migration from these provinces. Yet, there's no evidence of such a mass exodus. The census data tells us that the Muslim population of those provinces dropped by one to two percentage points between the 1941 and 1951 census. Even if you assume that all of those people went to Pakistan, this is hardly a mass exodus. The overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims in these unpartitioned provinces remained in India, whether by choice or by default.

Just like with the Muslim electorate, it were the moneyed and propertied elite Hindus who voted for the Congress and Nehru

The official Congress narrative claims that most Indian Muslims were loyal to India, the Congress and Nehru. We have no way of knowing if this is true. It's possible that some or many felt that staying on in India was the best option if only for pragmatic or logistical reasons. In the absence of representative surveys of mass opinion, we are not in a position to make any assertions about those who could not vote.

By the same token, Nehru was an elite leader who before partition arguably commanded relatively little grassroots support. Just like with the Muslim electorate, it were the moneyed and propertied elite Hindus who voted for the Congress and Nehru. We have no way of knowing if some other leader or even some other political party might have emerged as dominant had there been genuine universal suffrage, just as we have no way of knowing if an altogether different grassroots Muslim party might have emerged under a democratic franchise.

There's a peculiar cognitive dissonance among those who argue correctly that the Nehru-led Congress was an elite party operating under a system of limited franchise before 1947 but refuse to accept that absolutely the same logic applies to Jinnah and the Muslim League during this period. You can't say that Nehru was an elite leader and Jinnah had mass support, when both were operating in exactly the same political system before partition.

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