How the Muslim League won separate electorates from the British

Interestingly, the Muslim demand for separate electorates is called undemocratic by some authors

The concession of separate electorates to Muslims by the British in 1909 is mentioned in almost every book of history written about that period. However, very few writers have written about the process by which this concession came about. In fact, writers such as Shashi Tharoor (2015) and Narendra Singh Sarila (2004), inter alios, present it as a British conspiracy whereby Muslims were ‘used’ to justify separate electorates in order to divide Muslims and Hindus. Therefore, a detailed study is warranted which will reveal not only the process through which this concession was obtained by Muslim League, but also how British really saw Hindus and Muslims, politically and socially.

In October 1906 the Viceroy Lord Minto received the Simla Deputation consisting of Muslim leaders from all over India. They demanded separate electorates from the British and representation in excess of their population. This was in the most immediate sense triggered by the divergent Hindu and Muslim reactions to the Partition of Bengal of 1905 and the promise made in July 1906 by the new Liberal British government for constitutional reforms of a representative nature. Minto in his reply stated that he understood the Deputation’s demand that Muslims must be represented as a community, but that he was not sure how that representation could be achieved [1]. This last point is crucial and we will revisit it later in the article.

On 21st March 1907, the Government of India’s despatch gave four seats to the Muslims n the Viceroy’s Council. Two to be filled by nomination and the other two by election through separate electorates [2]. The Secretary of State John Morley sent out his own despatch on 17th May 1907 affirming separate representation [3]. In August of the same year, a circular was issued to the local governments in India for their opinion. Interestingly, while they approved of the concept of Muslim representation, they differed on how the representative would be selected. One option was through electoral colleges, other was through recognised Muslim associations and yet another was through nominations. Thus, the demand of Muslim representation through voting by exclusively Muslim electorates was still in the air.

The Muslim League, formed a few months after the Simla Deputation, responded by pointing out this ‘marked gap’ in thinking [4]. The League demanded ten electives seats, all to be filled by exclusive Muslim electorates, with no nominations. It sent its suggestions to the government in March 1908.

However, things turned for the worse for the League when Morley began to change his mind under the influence of Lord MacDonnell and some Hindu pressure [5]. His Council’s Reform Committee proposed electoral colleges which was conveyed in his despatch on 27th November 1908 [6].

This despatch did not envisage separate electorates and advocated the use of joint electorates which would return a fixed proportion of Hindus and Muslims (the college), who would then go on to elect the legislature for the provinces. This system already existed in the District Boards and Municipalities. The Muslim League response came on 31st December 1908, in the Amritsar session presided over by Ali Imam, through a resolution warning the government of a ‘first breakdown of…implicit faith’ reposed on the government by Muslims [7]. Sir Shafi wrote a series of letters to the Viceroy’s Private Secretary Dunlop Smith conveying Muslim concern over Morley’s reform scheme [8]. The London Branch of the League, created in May 1908, applied pressure in Britain through its president Ameer Ali, the veteran Bengali leader. They sent a Memorial to the Viceroy and published pamphlets. The Times gave space for a debate to proponents and opponents of separate electorates with the newspaper agreeing with the Muslim demand [9]. Ameer Ali met Morley but he was not successful. The Muslim press applied pressure too: Paisa Akhbar, Watan and Zamindar were joined by Lahore’s The Observer. In addition Indian Muslims, not just of the League, held protest meetings all over India and sent resolutions to the government. Viceroy Lord Minto too became convinced that Morley’s scheme was a bad idea informing him that ‘though the Mahommedan is silent he is very strong’ [10]. In the month of January of 1909 it seems Ali Imam was won over to the side of joint electorates by a promise of power from Minto. His letter to the Viceroy dated 4th February 1909 is proof of this change. Nevertheless several Britishers took the side of the League. These included Sir A.T. Arundel, the Prince of Wales, Sir A.H. Fraser and Sir George Clarke (described by Minto as anti-Muslim). The British press was divided, with The Times siding with separate electorates and Manchester Guardian opposing it. Morley in his speech on 23rd February 1909 conceded that the Muslim demands would be met ‘in full’ [11]. Hindu leaders such as Malaviya and S. Banerjea vehemently denounced the scheme.

On 1st April 1909, Under-Secretary of State Buchanan gave two opposite schemes. First he stated that the demand of Muslims were to be met. This was backed by the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith. Then he unfolded the government’s plans to achieve Muslim representation: by election through separate electorates, nomination or electoral colleges through joint electorates. The League was infuriated at this about-turn. They now demanded that the 12 seats in the Imperial Legislative Council be filled by separate electorates and applied more pressure on the government. All provincial branches were instructed to enlist Muslim ‘Anjumans’ and associations external to League. Hence, between April and May of 1909 protest meetings were held all over India. In Lucknow and Dacca Muslim shopkeepers went on voluntary strikes [12]. The Lucknow meeting was attended by around 12,000 Muslims [13]. Morley was alarmed and the British Opposition Conservative Party (coached by the London Branch of the League) also applied pressure pointing out the inconsistency between Morley and Buchanan’s statements [14]. The incumbent Liberal Party wanted its reforms to achieve political success. On 26th April 1909 Buchanan, on behalf of Morley, conceded separate electorates for the Muslim community [15].

The Congress-owned or inspired press in India had vehemently rejected the concession [16]. Minto was also unhappy and created trouble when rules and regulations regarding the councils were being drafted. He first got Ali Imam on his side (whom he met directly in Simla) to press the League to accept mixed electorates too. This came to no avail as the League was not interested. It may also be said that what the British (particularly Minto) had in mind by ‘separate representation’ was always different from what the Muslim League understood. Razi Wasti (1964, p. 183) suggests that Sir Charles Lyall, who at the India Office was responsible for advice on separate representation, failed to do his job properly. Either way, the Government of India on 22nd July 1909 spelled out the rules and regulations: six reserved seats for Muslims from six provinces in Imperial Legislative Council, plus two more seats by nomination if Muslims failed to get these seats in the general election. Despite Muslim protests throughout June and July, the government did not budge. Morley had carried both the Muslims and his ‘Hindu parcels’ [17]. Both he and Minto became rather annoyed with Muslim pledges and the latter remarked: ‘I consider that the Muhammadans are fairly and liberally dealt with…we can wisely refuse to negotiate with them further.’ [18] On 15th November 1909 the India Councils Act became effective.

Interestingly, the Muslim demand for separate electorates is called undemocratic by some authors (Jaffrelot, 2015). However, the Father of Indian Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar also demanded separate electorates for Dalits. So did the Sikhs and every minority in India that wanted to safeguard their representation. Even Congress leaders such as G.K. Gokhale had accepted separate electorates [19] and Gandhi, who so vehemently denied the right to Dalits in 1932, asked in May 1947 for necessity of acceptance from at least two-thirds of Hindu minority in Bengal for any government Act to pass [20]. Therefore, minorities asking for reservation or separate register should not be taken as undemocratic.

The struggle of the Muslim League for separate electorates, the maneuvering and double-talk of the British, and their efforts to balance the two communities clearly shows that they were not in favour of either Hindus or Muslims in entirety. They sought their own gain first and foremost.


[1] Minto Papers, 1st October 1906

[2] Government of India to the Secretary of State, paras 52-55, Public Letters from India, vol. Xxxv.

[3] Secretary of State’s despatch, para 26.

[4] ‘Suggestions on the Council Reform Scheme of the GOI by the AIML’, Muslim League Papers, vol. 10, Archives of the Freedom Movement.

[5] Minto to Morley, 9th February 1909, 27th May 1909, Morley Collection (in a retrospective analysis)

[6] Secretary of State to the Viceroy, 27th November 1908, Morley Papers.

[7] Musa Khan, “Processdings of the Annual Meetings of AIML Amritsar”, p. 5

[8] January 1909, Morley Collection

[9] See ‘The Times’ for 26th and 29th December 1908, 4th and 5th January 1909

[10] Minto to Morley, Minto Papers, 12th January 1909

[11] P. Mukherji, “Indian Constitutional Documents”, vol. i, p. 333

[12] Matiur Rahman, “From Consultation to Confrontation”, p. 122

[13] Indian Daily Telegraph, 29th April 1909

[14] Hansard, 5 series (Commons), III, vols. 578-579.

[15] Ibid. 26th April 1909.

[16] See ‘The Tribune’, 2nd July 1909

[17] Morley to Minto, 28th January 1909

[18] Minto to Morley, 24th July 1909, Morley Collection

[19] Indian World, August 1909, pp. 610-13

[20] Pyarelal. “Mahatma Gandhi”, vol. II, p. 185.

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Written by Atif Hasnain


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