Direct Action Plan: The most critical phase

By Professor Sharif al Mujahid
"We want peace. But if war is forced upon us, we accept it." With this telling couplet from the immoral Firdausi did the Quaid closehis memorable speech to the Muslim League Council meeting in Bombay on July 29,1946. And, to be sure, this couplet represented the bitter Muslim mood at the British acquiescence at the Congress's distortion of the Cabinet Mission plan (1946).

Muslim bitterness at Congress "duplicity" and British "perfidy" led to revoke of their earlier decision to accept the Plan, revert to their original demand and reaffirm their faith in a sovereign, independent Pakistan. Earlier that evening, the League Council had taken a bold decision: it said good-bye to constitutionalism and sanctioned Direct Action for the first time in all its annals, and this to wrest Pakistan. "...Now the time has come" so ran the League resolution, "for the Muslim nation to resort to Direct Action, to achieve Pakistan, to assert their just rights, to vindicate their honour and get rid of the British slavery and contemplated future caste-Hindu domination."

The resolution had also called on its members to return British titles, which it characterised as "tinsels of slavery". The response was immediate: member after member went up the rostrum to renounce his title and affirm his preference for a plain Mr instead. And from now, more than over, it was "Pakistan or perish".

Except for the monumental decision to adopt Pakistan as the league's supreme goal on March 23-24, 1940, nothing so momentous had the League embarked upon in its long chequered history. Nor anything so revolutionary had it launched upon. No wonder, the call to Direct Action stirred Muslim India to its depths: it started Fire Prairie-like. Even so inveterate a critic of Jinnah and the League as the Blitz (Bombay) was constrained to concede: "The worst enemies of the Muslim League cannot help envying the leadership of Mr Jinnah. Last week's cataclysmic transformation of the League from the reactionary racket of the Muslim Nawabs, Noons, and Knights into a revolutionary mass organisation dedicated, by word if not be deed, to an anti-Imperialist struggle, compels us to express the sneaking national wish that a diplomat and strategist of Jinnah's proven calibre were at the held of the Indian National Congress. There is no denying the fact that by his latest master-stroke of diplomacy Jinnah has outbid, outwitted and outmaneuvered the British and Congress alike and confounded the common national indictment that the Muslim League is a parasite of British Imperialism."

Not unexpectedly, the Direct Action decision sent a wave of fear and indignation in the Congress circles. In a strongly-worded speech, Sardar Patel, "the iron man" of the Congress, whipped up his Hindu audience to frenzy and violence, saying that the League's contemplated Direct Action was in fact directed towards the Congress and the Hindus since they would be heading the Interim Government in a short while. Nehru, on his part declared more sophistically that "if the government is strong the Direct Action will go under, and if the government is weak will go under". In his own inimitable manner, Gandhi prognosticated. "We are not yet in the midst of a civil war. But we are near it, at present we are playing at it."

These pronouncements explain why and how the Direct Action Day in Calcutta on August 16 was turned into a day of orgy, violence and bloodshed. In fixing August 16, 1946 as the Direct Action Day, the League's object was not to start a direct action movement on that day but to explain to the people the implications of the League Council's Bombay resolution. This was emphasised repeatedly in the pre-Direct Action Day pronouncements of the League leaders, including that of Jinnah. Also emphasised was the non-violent and entirely peaceful nature of the Direct Action. It was also made clear that, when finally launched, Direct Action would not be directed against anyone in particular, and definitely not against the Hindus, but would be specifically meant to create among Muslims the requisite confidence, to enable them to wrest Pakistan, given the tremendous odds against them and its creation.

As of then, Bengal along had a stable League Ministry, the other one in the Sindh being shaky and a victim of intrigues, from both within and without. This Bengal ministry was, of course, an eyesore to the Congress, which understandably was bent upon discrediting it, leading to its dismissed, if possible. And so Calutta, where Muslims constituted barely 23 per cent of the population, was chosen as the venue to teach Muslims and the League a bitter lesion and to bury the League's contemplated Direct Action in an avalanche of violence and bloodshed. In the result: while the day passed off peacefully in the rest of the Sub-continent, even in other more predominantly Muslim majority provinces, it sparked the beginning of a civil war between Hindus and the Muslims - the long-awaited civil war, so confidently predicted by Sardar Patel when the Muslims had discomfited the Congress attempts to drown the League at the Central Assembly polls, in January 1946. In the Calcutta carnage about five thousand people lost their lives and greater number were injured, the loss of property was immense and frightful. Never before had any communal riot caused such a heavy toll. Seen afterward, the Congress set itself in motion, blamed the League ministry all the way, and tabled no confidence motion, to get it discredited. The League, on the other hand, characterised the holocaust as an organised and premeditated Hindu attempt to get the League ministry discredited and make a shambles of the Direct Action programme.

Summing up the Muslim mood, in his Eid message on August 28,1946, Jinnah said: "Today, the horizon is dark for us... we are vilified, misrepresented and threatened from every direction. Muslim league is ignored and by-passed, tremendous false propaganda is carried on to throw the blame on Muslim League for which there is no iota of justification; the Viceroy and the British government have surrendered to the Congress and it only remains for them now to make a declaration that they have abdicated and are about to hand over to the Fascist caste Hindu Congress, the government of the Sub-continent".

"... This has created a very great and dangerous situation for us and we must face it as a united nation also go through the test and fire of being surpassed, oppressed and persecuted. However, I am confident that if the hundred million Muslims stand united all the manoeuvres and machinations and designs of our opponents will fail miserably and we shall emerge out of this struggle triumphantly..."

"We have argued; we have reasoned; we have supplicated; and we have made great concessions but all to no purpose. There remains in front of us a struggle and we must face it boldly and courageously in a disciplined and organised manner..."

And at that bleak juncture, the Muslims direly stood in need of such words of courage. The Calcutta holocaust was followed by riots in Bombay and Ahmedabad, which presently spread to several cities, towns and villages like UP, CP, Bihar and Madras. Of prime significance was the fact that the earliest outbreaks were all in predominantly Hindu areas.

In mid-October, however, when the news of the death of a large number of Muslim boatmen from Noakhali in the Calcutta carnage reached their folks at home. There was a sudden flare-up in Noakhali in which, according to the Governor of Bengal, the GOC, and the District Magistrate of Noakhali, less than 200 persons were killed and "cases of rape, abduction and forcible marriage were rare". But these incidents came in handy to lay the blame for the now spreading civil war at the League's door and to demand, on that basis, its exit from the Interim Government, which the League had joined on October 25, at the Viceroy's persuasion, in order to control the increasingly deteriorating situation. The Hindu leaders, including Gandhi and Kripalani, issued statement after statement, grossly exaggerating the casualties; the Congress press frantically engaged itself in spreading tendentious and tell-tale stories, even after neutral sources had nailed them to the counter.

As a result of this campaign of hatred, and further instigation by "well-know Congress leaders and members of the legislature" in neighbouring Bihar, Hindus of the five districts of Saran, Patna, Gaya, Monghyr, and Bhagalpur rose en masse against the Muslims, slaughtering some 30,000 Muslims (including women and children), and clearing about 300 square miles of territory of all Muslims. More shocking, while all this was going on, the Congress ministry in Bihar did not even call in the Army for one full week. Alibis were presented to cover up the foul crimes against the Muslims, and the connivance of the Congress Government.

And in a subtle attempt to divert attention, Gandhi who had earlier gone to Noakhali, stayed put over there and tried to focus attention on the "plight" of the Hindu minority in Eastern Bengal. Neither he nor any other Congress leader had any tear shed on the plight of the Bihar Muslims. Nor would the Congress ministry agree to hold an impartial inquiry, while the League government in Bengal had readily agreed to appoint one under Chief Justice Sir Patrick Spend of the Federal Court.

About a week later occurred the three-day holocaust in Garhmukhteswar, in the Meerut District, about 55 miles from Delhi. About 2,000 Muslims were killed and property worth lacs of rupees was either destroyed or looted. Not a shot was fired by the police; the Army was called, but after three days.

Of utmost significance in fathering the causes and extent of the then raging civil war was a revealing pronouncement by Sardar Patel "the Iron Man" of the Congress. In his address to the Meerut Congress session in the late November, he made an oblique reference to the number of Hindus and Muslims killed in Bengal, Bihar and the UP, and called on the Muslims to "examine the balance-sheet", and to reflect. And he capped his call by an ultimatum: "The sword will be met with sword". Meantime, the initial fissures in the improvised edifice of the Interim Government developed into visible cracks, portending a virtual breakdown. The Congress forced the Viceroy to call the first session of the Constituent Assembly on December 9, 1946. The League, however, refused to withdraw its Bombay Resolution, arguing that the Congress reservations about certain vital causes in the Cabinet Mission Plan had made no sense of the plan. A hastily improvised conference between the Congress, League and the Sikhs under the aegis of His Majesty's Government in December 1946 failed to savage the situation either, although HMG's Statement of December 6, upheld the League's stand vis-a-vis the grouping principle. The Statement also laid down that "should a constitution come to be framed by the Constituent Assembly in which a large section of the Indian population have not been represented, His Majesty's Government could not, of course, contemplate forcing such a constitution upon any unwilling part of the country". One result of the post-Direct Action Muslim resurgence was that whenever and wherever their rights were trampled upon, the Muslim refused to take it lying down. This was most amply demonstrated in the Punjab, the Frontier and in Assam.

In January, Muslim Punjab, now resurgent and indignant at being denied its right to administer the province, came into clash with the reactionary Tiwana government. The Tiwana-Glancy-Sachar axis had denied the people even civil liberties. In January 1947, it went further, and banned the Punjab Muslim National Guards and ordered a search of its headquarters. This touched off a province-wide movement for the restoration of civil liberties. Although provoked on numerous occasions, the Muslims refused to turn it into a communal or violent movement.

The Khan of Mamdot, Mian Iftikharuddin, Malik Feroz Khan Noon, Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan, Mian Muhammad Mumtaz Daulatna and others courted arrest.

Thousands upon thousands of Muslim men and women defied the government 's order on processions and meetings. For the first time in the annals of Muslims movements, women came out into the open and branched all odds; it was a teenage girl that climbed and hoisted the League flag atop the Secretariat Building. A rebel paper was printed and circulated.

The jails were filled to capacity soon enough, and the government was forced to release those arrested for want of accommodation. After such measure of popular indignation and resistance, the discredited ministry could not possible survive for long: it collapsed finally in early March when Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana had to tender this resignation.

Dr Khan Sahib, the Congress Chief Minister in the NWFP, had adopted similar tactics to suppress the Muslims and the Muslim League in the Frontier and to keep himself in power. To all who could see, it was evident even as early as October 1946 when Nehru went on a tour in the Frontier that the Khan brother's popularity had hoisted tremendously. Maulana Azad reports that when Nehru arrived in Peshawar, the airport was swarming with a large number of police, which had been placed there to give protection to the unpopular Chief Minster and defend him and his guests against the hostility of the Patahans.

By February 1947, a stage was reached when the Pathans' bitterness against Dr Khan Sahib spilled over into a movement of civil liberties. All the prominent Leaguers, including Khan Abdul Qaiyyum Khan, Pir Sahib of Manki Sharif and Pir Sahib of Zakori, were hauled into god. By the end of March over six thousand people had been arrested; by the first week of April the number rose to twenty thousand. A clandestine radio station in the tribal belt went on the air. Betimes, their fury and indignation reached new heights. In spite of the tremendous odds, the movement continued for four long months and was called off only after the announcement of the June 3rd Plan.

In the wake of the Punjab and Frontier came the civil disobedience movement in Assam. The Bardoloi ministry had imposed a sort of Ghetto Act against Muslim Bengali immigrants, who had settled there for some three decades. The Muslim cultivators of the neighbouring districts of Bengal had been encouraged in the 1920s to migrate to Assam, and cultivate the land, transforming the fearful jungles into smiling cornfields. By mid the 1940s however, the communal feeling of Bardoloi and his henchmen work up. It saw in the settlement of these Bengali immigrants the establishment of Pakistan in their paternal, homeland. Their "remedy" was the Line System the lawless law, which had never been passed by any legislature, and they resorted to eviction, setting elephants to pull down and raze huts to the ground.

This inhuman law sparked the Assam Muslims to launch a civil disobedience movement under the energetic leadership of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. He courted arrest, followed by others. This movement also continued with varying fortunes till the announcement of Partition Plan of 3rd June.

Thus, the Direct Action resolution had sparked revolutionary activity among Muslims. It prepared the ground for the disobedience movements in three provinces, and these in part convinced the British that Muslims would not bargain for anything less than Pakistan. In perspective, then, the Direct Action decision influenced, more than anything else, the course of Indian politics during the final stage of British rule, and led directly to the emergence of Pakistan within a year.

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