Sunday, April 12, 2009
My dear Subhas Babu,
[This was very formal which was unusual for Gandhi-Bose communication]
"I must dictate this letter as I am willfully blind. Whilst I am dictating this, Maulana Sahib, Nalini Babu, and Ghanashyamdas are listening. We had an exhaustive discussion over the Bengal ministry. I am more than ever convinced that we should not aim at ousting the Ministry. We shall gain nothing by a reshuffle; and probably, we shall lose much by including Congressmen in the Ministry. I feel, therefore, that the best way of securing comparative purity of administration and a continuation of a settled programme and policy would be to aim at having all the reforms we desire, carried out by the present Ministry. Nalini Babu should come out, as he says he would, on a real issue being raised and the decision being taken by the Ministry against the interests of the country. His retirement from the Ministry would then be dignified and wholly justified. I understand that so far as the amendment of Municipal Law is concerned, separate electorate for the Scheduled Class is given up. There is still insistence on separate electorate for Mussalmans. I don't know whether opposition should be taken to the breaking point. If the Mussalman opinion is solid in favour of separation, I think it would be wisdom to satisfy them. I would not like them to carry the point in the teeth of the Congress opposition. It would then be a point against the Congress."
-- Mahatma Gandhi (21 December, 1938)
Background: Under the provincial constitution imposed on Bengal by Government of India act 1935, Bengali Hindus were permanently debarred from exercising any political power in their province.
250 seats in Bengal Legislative Assembly were apportioned as follows -
1) 117 for Muslims of Bengal elected by only Muslim electorate.
2) 48 for any resident of Bengal elected by general franchise.
3) 30 for persons belonging to Hindu "Scheduled" castes - certain castes regarded as "depressed", elected by general franchise.
4) 19 seats for representatives of industries, commerce, elected by their electorate.
5) 11 seats for Europeans, persons of British origin temporarily residing in Bengal, elected by their electorate.
6) 8 for labor, chosen by a labor electorate
7) 5 for landowners, chosen by their special electorate
8) 3 for Anglo-Indians, chosen by their special electorate
9) 2 for Indian Christians, chosen by their special electorate
10) 2 for Universities
11) 2 for women
12) 2 for Muslim women
13) 1 for Anglo-Indian women
As a result of this act, Bengali Hindus were eligible to compete in 117 (250 - 117 - 11 - 2 - 2 - 1) seats at most, to be elected by general franchise. Even among these 117 seats, 30 were reserved for scheduled castes, quite arbitrarily picked. On the other hand, Bengali Muslims could contest 203 seats (117 + 48 + 19 + 8 + 5 + 2 + 2 + 2), 117 of which were to be elected by a Muslim electorate. Based on 1931 census numbers, Muslim population in Bengal was anywhere between 52-54%, which clearly did not justify the numerical distribution of 203-117, even if one were to accept the underlying premise of communal and casteist electorate. British community of Bengal was given 4% of seats in Assembly when their population was not above 0.0004%. In reality, the position of the Hindus was even worse than what this unfair statute implies. They did not win 117 seats they were eligible for. Besides, some of the winners, from both "high" as well as "scheduled" castes joined with Muslims against the general Hindu group, including Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, finance minister in Huq-League ministry formed in 1937, whose resignation, or lack thereof, was the subject of Gandhi's letter to Bose.
In the elections of 1937 based on the provisions of GOI act of 1935, Congress still emerged as the largest party in the legislative assembly, followed by Muslim League and Krishak-Praja-Party. Bengali Muslim votes were almost evenly split between all-India Muslim League, which in Bengal was the party of upper-class Muslims, and Fazlul Huq's Krishak-Praja-Party (KPP), which was the party of peasants and tenants. Because of the electoral system described above, a coalition system was inevitable. Huq first approached the Congress, but all-India Congress was unwilling to co-operate with any other party in provinces where they did not have absolute majority. That forced Huq to join forces with League to form a coalition ministry, and eventually the focus of KPP-Muslim League coalition shifted from socio-economic reforms to communal issues.
Congress refusal to make a special case for Bengal was a mistake. Because of the numerical distribution, it was impossible for Congress to win absolute majority in Bengal any time in near future. Huq's strong power base among Muslim peasants would have been the ideal platform for Congress to stay in touch with Bengali Muslim masses, which, as an opposition party, they failed to do over the next few years. In Assam, Congress did decide to share power in a coalition provincial government. [to be continued ...]
Source: Thy Hand, Great Anarch! by Nirad C Chaudhury -- Chapter - Politics in Bengal (1937-38)