A Page from History
It may come as a surprise that before the book ‘A History of the All India Muslim League, 1906-1947,’ there existed no narrative history of the All India Muslim League – the party which led the movement for the creation of Pakistan. One of the reasons why such an attempt was never made was the fact that the real credit for the creation of Pakistan was solely given to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League. In that narrative, the party only played a small role – Jinnah was considered the party and the party Jinnah. Also, as is common in Pakistan, perhaps no one tried to investigate the history of the Muslim League because such an endeavor would have exposed the weaknesses and factionalism in the party. This would have presented the League in a bad light when compared to the better organized and more popular Congress. Therefore, it is commendable that Professor Rafique Afzal took the initiative in the form of a well-researched and thorough history of the All India Muslim League from its inception to the creation of Pakistan.
The book is divided into 12 chapters and three parts. The first chapter focuses on the formation and early years of the party. In this chapter, Professor Afzal clearly notes the elitist nature of the League. He writes, “It (the party) restricted membership exclusively to the Muslim elite… by charging prohibitive registration/ admission and annual fees. At the Karachi annual session, it was decided that every member should pay a non- refundable registrations fee of Rs.50 and an annual fee of Rs.25…” Another condition was that a candidate must have an income of at least Rs.500 per month.
These stipulations clearly made the League the preserver of the interests of the upper echelon of the Muslims. The activities of the party in its early years clearly reflected this trend. Prof. Afzal also points out how hard it was to establish the provincial branches of the League since factionalism had begun to emerge right from its inception. In the chapter on the League’s organizational structure, it is noticeable that the party’s membership was quite mediocre in its initial few decades. By December 1927, just about 1330 people had become members of the League and even among those, only a very small fraction ever paid their dues (pg 31).
One wonders how then the League gained the status of a major political party in India when it membership base was so miniscule. It also raises the question as to why the Congress – which had a much larger membership by the 1920s – and the British Indian government even took the League seriously when it had hardly any members.
Chapter three and four cover the period leading up to the 1935 Government of India Act and primarily chart the ascendency of Jinnah as the preeminent leader of the Muslim League. These chapters show how the Muslim League tried to work with the Congress initially through the famous Lucknow Pact of 1916 and then later, how the Central Khilafat Committee overshadowed and almost pushed the League into oblivion. Chapter four clearly shows the extremely weak nature of the League during 1922-34, especially in 1922 when the situation became so dire that the League could not hold a session and even its council met only twice.
Once, when the council meeting was called, “only two members turned up” ( pg 160). Further, the League’s finances were such that “the party could not fully recover from its recurring financial crises till after 1935” (pg 160). The author also shows how the League was again split into a number of factions, including a Shafi League and a Jinnah League. He writes, “Nobody thought of organizing the League parties in the legislature till the late 1930s,” (pg 164). Therefore, most Muslims set up other ad hoc parties in the legislature – a move that weakened the Muslim League even further.
Part two of the book – chapters 5 to 8 – focuses on the crucial period between 1935 and 1940 when the Muslim League completely falls apart, then reorganizes itself and begins to become a mass party with the demand for Pakistan. Even though Jinnah was back at the helm by the time of the provincial elections, Prof. Afzal notes that “his mission was practically that of an individual, the All-India Muslim League and it branches had virtually no functional organizational structure in any province,” (pg 207). The result of the 1937 provincial elections clearly
exhibited the League’s weakness as it won only 110 out of the nearly 500 Muslim seats (pg 219).
This failure prompted Jinnah to organize the League. He began to forge alliances with the local Muslim leaders in all provinces, convincing them to come under the League’s umbrella. The so-called Jinnah-Sikandar Pact in the Punjab which ensured cooperation between the Unionists and the League was one such result. During this time, the League also searched for a ‘goal’ which it eventually found in the Lahore Resolution of 1940. It was the slogan of Pakistan – which was still vague – which brought disparate members of the Muslim community under the umbrella of the League during these crucial years. However, even while a large number of Muslim leaders flocked to the Muslim League during this period, local-level factionalism remained rife and threatened to wreck the party. It was the leadership of Jinnah which kept the party together.
The third section of the book focuses on the period between 19401947. In this section, the author meticulously charts the rise of the League as a political party. In passing, but still significantly, Professor Afzal notes the importance of the ulema who supported the League in the 1946 elections. He states: “The Muslim League formally sought the assistance of ulema and mashaik in the general elections” (pg 588). He also gives an example where “…an 80-year old man who was threatened by the zaildar to vote for a Unionist candidate refused to submit, saying that if he voted against the League, his iman (faith) would be in danger” (pg 594). This incident clearly shows how religion was now officially infused in the League’s campaign and how the demand for a separate Muslim homeland, based on the notion of Muslims as a separate ‘nation,’ had now transformed into a demand for a religiously inspired homeland. In chapter 11, Professor Afzal argues that the main reason why Jinnah accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan was because it “conceded the substance of Pakistan” and provided “machinery for achieving a fully sovereign Muslim state in ten years” (pg 632). The later story of the rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan, the Direct Action Day, the interim government and the final negotiations during the viceroyalty of Lord Mountbatten are well known.
This book is a very significant and useful contribution to scholarship and will become the basic text on the Muslim League. However, its overly long narrative at times becomes its major drawback. At certain places, there is too much text with little analysis. Also, there is no reference at all to a number of very important works which relate to the Muslim League. An engagement with the arguments of other scholars would have certainly given more depth to the book. That said, the work will hopefully encourage other writers to do further research on the Muslim League as a political party and its impact on the politics in British India and post-independence India and Pakistan.
Book Title: A History of the All-India Muslim League 1906–1947 Author: M. Rafique Afzal Publisher: Oxford University Press Pages: 781, Hardback Price: Rs.1,595 ISBN: 9780199067350