British Colony in Asian Subcontinent and Independence in 1947

From the beginning of the twentieth century, opposition to British rule in India was becoming more organized, particularly after the formation of the Muslim League in 1906. However, although there were times when Muslim and Hindu opponents worked together, often their efforts were undermined by communal rivalry. Detail about the British colony in Asian Subcontinent and events leading to independence in 1947 are discussed below:

The British colony in Asian subcontinent

The British reaction to this opposition varied from oppression to the concession. By 1947, the decision had been made to leave India.

The only question was how India was to be ruled after the British left. The answer was that religious and cultural division was so strong that not only India but also Bengal, was partitioned.

Timeline showing the main events of the leading to independence in 1947

1905 First Partition of Bengal 1930-1932 Round Table Conferences
1906 Muslim League formed 1935 The Government of India Act
1911 Bengal partition reversed 1936 Krishak-Praja Party set up
1916 Lucknow Pact 1940 Lahore Resolution
1919 Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms 1941 Cripps Mission
1920 Khilafat Movement 1942 Quit India Resolution
1923 Bengal Pact 1946 Direct Action Day
1927 Simon Commission 1946 Direct Action Day
1947 India Independence Act
1947 Partition of Bengal
British Government in the Asian Subcontinent
British Government in the Asian Subcontinent

The Partition of Bengal, 1905 and its aftermath


At the end of the nineteenth century, Bengal had a population of 85 million (54 million Hindus and 31 million Muslims). The province of Bengal included not only west and east Bengal (now Bangladesh), but also Bihar and Orissa.

It was a huge area with a population three times the size of Britain at that time. The British found it too large to administer efficiently, and in 1905 Viceroy Curzon partitioned Bengal by detaching east Bengla from the province and added it to Assam to form a new province of East Bengal, with Dhaka as the capital. The capital of West Bengal was Calcutta.

Overall reaction

Although the scheme may have been justified from the viewpoint of administrative efficiency, it did not take into account the Bengali sentiment and nationalist feeling, which Curzon did not believe existed.

But Bengali sentiment was very strong, and the Bengalis, mostly the Hindu middle-class bhadralok, were convinced that Curzon had deliberately divided their people because of their political activities.

They felt that he wanted to reduce their effectiveness by breaking up the province into two: a relatively prosperous West Bengali with a Mainly Hindu in population in which Bengalis were reduced to minority amongst Bihar and Oriyas, and a backward East Bengal which was largely Muslim.

Swadeshi and Boycott movements: protests at the partition

The partition of Bengal created an uproar in the province, and more than two thousand public meetings were held in protest at the measure. Rabindranath Tagore wrote the song Banglar Mati, Banglar Jal calling for accord and unity between the Hindu and Muslim Bengalis.

This time, however, the Indian leaders did not stop with words, and protests were followed by action in the form of the Swadeshi and Boycott movements. The Bengali people were urged to boycott British cloth and other goods and to use Indian products instead. The aims were:

  • To put economic pressure on the British in order to force them to undo the partition.
  • To promote the Indian industry.

Unlike abstract slogans of democracy and individual rights, Swadeshi and Boycott were not only ideas that the people could understand but also movements in which they could participate. Soon, the washermen of Kalighat refused to wash foreign clothes; the cobblers of Faridpur would not mind English shoes; and all over Bengal English cloth, cigarettes, and other goods were bought up and burnt in public.

* The word Boycott is derived from Captain Boycott, the agent of an important Irish Landlord in the 1880s. In order to protest against his eviction of tenants, the Irish Land League ordered the people to have no dealings with him. He could buy nothing and get nothing from them. Boycotting soon became part of the people’s campaign against all unpopular landlords.

Muslim reaction: benefits to partition

Not everyone was opposed to partition. The agitation against the partition of Bengal had been almost entirely run by the Hindu middle class and did not represent the sentiment of the Muslims of eastern Bengal, many of whom thought that the partition would lead to the economic and social development of their region. Therefore, they felt that they should set up a separate political organization to represent their views and demands.

They had watched the reaction of the Hindus to the partition of Bengal with dismay. They saw a massive wave of organized protest which they feared would result in the partition being reversed. They knew that they, the Muslims, were not able to provide such a level of protest to maintain the partition. It was time to act.

The Simla Deputation

On 8 October 1906 a deputation of prominent Muslims, lead by the Aga Khan, visited Viceroy Minto at Simla. There, they requested that the Muslim position in India should be estimated not merely on their numerical strength but with respect to the political importance of their community and the service it had rendered to the Empire.

Their demands were wet out in what has become known as The Simal Deputation. In it they asked that:

  • In all local and provincial elections, Muslims should have their own representatives, who would be elected only by Muslim voters.
  • In the councils, the Muslims should have a higher percentage of seats than their percentage of the population.

Lord Minto accepted their arguments and agreed to separate representation for the Muslims.

The formation of the Muslim League

The Muslims were encouraged by their success in persuading Lord Minto to allow separate electorates and they decided that the time was now right to form their own political party. There were several reasons for this:

  • Although the British had accepted the Simla Deputation and portioned Bengal to establish a Muslim-dominate east Bengal, the Muslim community still felt that it lacked the influence that the Hindus had.
  • The British had partitioned Bengal, but this had resulted in a feeling of outrage in the Hindu community, this had reinforced the division between Muslim and Hindu and had led Muslim leaders to believe that it was even more vital to establish their own political organization.

In 1906. Muslim leaders met at the twentieth session of the Muhammadan Educational Conference at Dhaka. After the conference had finished a meeting was called, chaired by Nawab Viqar-ul-Mulk, to consider setting up an organization to be called the All-India  Muslim League.

At the first meeting of the new organization in December 1906, the League declared that its objectives were to:

  • Protect and advance the political rights and interests of Muslims in India.
  • Represent Muslim needs and aspirations to the government of India.
  • Promote feelings of loyalty to the British government.
  • Remove any misunderstandings amongst the Muslims as to the intentions of any government measure.
  • Prevent the rise of hostility in Muslims towards other communities in India.

The British welcomed the formation of the Muslim League. It was led by landowners and princes, who were moderate in their views and who could help to counter the Hindu protests that were growing, particularly after the partition of Bengal.

Bengal Partition reversed

The Muslims felt it was vital to have formed their own political organization when, in 1911, the British showed that they could not be trusted to protect Muslim interests. Lord Harding, the new Viceroy, agreed to reverse the partition of Bengal.

The decision was announced at a durbar in Delhi on 12 December by King George V, who was visiting India at the time. The British tried to suggest that they had reversed the partition as part of their policy in governing India. In reality, they had been forced into the move by the fierce opposition of the Bengali Hindus.

However, the British also moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi to show that the Bengali Hindus opposition had not been completely successful.

The Lucknow Pact, 1916: a joint demand for political reform from Hindus and Muslims

The failure of the British to grant more rights to the Indians in the period up to 1914, and their policy of repression during the First World War had moved Congress and the Muslim League closer together. In 1916, they held their annual sessions in the same city and drew up the Lucknow Pact. Congress agreed that:

  • Muslims had the right to separate electorates in electing representatives to the Imperial and Provincial Legislative Council. This would apply even to Punjab and Bengal where they did not yet exist.
  • Although they represented only one-quarter of the population, Muslims should be given one-third of the seats in the Councils.
  • No act affecting a community should be passed unless three-quarters of that community’s members on the council supported it.

These were major concessions by Congress and they showed how keen it was to gain the support of the Muslim League. Congress leaders had previously objected strongly to the principle of separate electorates and this was the first time that they had moved away from their belief that India was one indivisible nation.

The Lucknow Pact was a significant moment in the movement towards self-rule and was the first time that the Hindus and Muslims had made a joint demand for political reform to the British. It led to a growing belief in India that home rule (self-government) was a real possibility.

During 1917 two home rule leagues campaigned across India. The Pact marked the high-water mark of Hindu-Muslim unity. It was to be short-lived, however, as the relations between the Hindus and Muslims once more worsened in the 1920s.

The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, 1919: a disappointing attempt to involve Indians in administration

Worried about the progress of the First World War, the British decided that something must be done to secure the loyalty of the Indians. In August 1917. Mir. Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India, announced in the British Parliament that a new policy would be adopted.

It would involve the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions.

The purpose of the new policy was thus to grant responsible and representative government to India in stages. In order to judge the situation in the country for himself, Montagu paid a visit to India late in 1917. He was the first member of the British government to do so.

In 1918, Montagu along with the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford (1916-21) published a Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms. The two leaders stated that a system of government should be introduced in India which gave some measure of responsibility to representatives chosen by an electorate.

This report formed the basis of the Government of India Act, 1919, more commonly known as the Montford Reforms.

It proposed that there should be an elected Legislative assembly with separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs, with 32 seats reserved for Muslims. In the provinces, a new system of diarchy was introduced. Under this system areas of responsibility were divided into two lists.

Reserved subjects                                              Transferred subjects

    Justice     Local government
    Policy     Education
    Revenue     Public Health
    Power Resources     Public Works
    Press and Publication     Forests

Reserved subjects were controlled by the provincial governor and his Executive Council and transferred subjects were entrusted to ministers responsible to provincial Legislative Councils.

If the British thought that they would be welcomed with enthusiasm by a grateful Indian population, they were mistaken. Many Indians had fought with the British in the War and they expected mush created concessions.

Congress and the Muslim League had recently come together, calling for self-rule, and they were bitterly disappointed by the new structure. At a special session of Congress in August 1918, the reforms were condemned as inadequate, unsatisfactory and disappointing.

The Khilafat Movement, 1920: non-cooperation following treatment of Turkey

The Khilafat Movement started because of the treatment of turkey by the British after the First World War. Turkey was a Muslim country, and its ruler, the Sultan, was considered to be the head of the worldwide Islamic community.

When the British threatened to take territory away from the Khalif after World War One, Muslims in India were outraged and formed the Khilafat Movement to protect the Sultan and their religion.

In January 1920, a deputation from the Khilafat movement called on the Viceroy to ask for fairness in the treatment of Turkey in the peace treaties which ended World War One. Turkey had been defeated and the Muslims feared that it would be treated in the same way as Germany and Austria. But whilst the delegation was in England, the terms of the treaty concerning Turkey (the Treaty of Sevres) were announced. Amongst other things, the treaty said that the Turkish Empire was to be split up.

Non-cooperation program

On 22 June 1920, the Muslims in India sent a message to the Viceroy warning that if the terms of their unfair treaty of Sevres were imposed on Turkey, then a policy of non-cooperation in the country would begin on 1 August.

Gandhi began a tour of India to rally support for the Khilafat cause. The non-cooperation program was greeted with enthusiasm by both Hindus and Muslims alike. It involved:

  • Surrendering of titles and resigning from seats in local bodies
  • Withdrawing children from government schools
  • Boycotting British courts
  • Refusing to volunteer to join the armed forces
  • Boycotting foreign goods
  • Refusing to volunteer to join the armed forces
  • Boycotting foreign goods
  • Refusing to stand for election.

These measures helped to turn the Khilafat Movement into a general anti-British protest movement. There was a great deal of support across the country and the British were highly embarrassed when visits by British royal princes were greeted with demonstrations and strikes.

For example, when the Prince of Wales visited Bombay in 1921, there was a nationwide strike, and demonstrations in Bombay led to anti-British rioting in which 53 people were killed.

The British reacted by introducing a policy of repression involving widespread arrests. By the end of 1921, there were more than 30,000 political prisoners in India’s jails. The Khilafat Movement had attracted Muslims and Hindus alike and, for a short while, the communal rivalry was put aside.

Law and order break down

The British have concerned that the Khilafat Movement was a threat to law and order, and it is true that there were disturbances across India. In November 1921, riots broke out in Nilambur which led to a pitched battle between the locals and British soldiers.

At Tirur, the police station was set on fire and arms and ammunition stolen. Perhaps the most famous incident occurred in Chauri-Chaura, a village in Gorakhpur district. In February 1922, 21 policemen were killed after they fired on a political procession.

Non-cooperation movement called off

Gandhi had already begun to have reservations about the wisdom of his civil disobedience campaign, which had resulted in disturbances in Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay. Now he decided that India was not yet ready for a mass campaign and he called off the movement.

His decision upset many Congress leaders, and the Muslims, too, accused Gandhi of retreating just when the cause was being taken up with enthusiasm by the Indian people. The British saw how Gandhi’s support had declined and, a few weeks after he called off his civil disobedience campaign, he was arrested and sentenced to six years, imprisonment.

The Bengal Pact, 1923: another attempt to unite the two communities in Bengal

In the wake of the breakup of the short-lived Hindu-Muslim political alliance, another bold attempt was taken up to unite the two communities in Bengal in the early 1920s. It was started by C R Das, a man of vision who sincerely believed in the principle of sharing political power with the majority Muslim community of the province. Within the Congress, he formed a faction called Swarajya Party and became very popular within a short period.

In a bid to seek the active cooperation of the Muslims, C R Das held discussions with prominent Muslim leaders of Bengal, and early in December 1923 came to an agreement with them, which became known as the Bengal Pact. The terms of the pact included the following:

  1. Representation in the Bengal Legislative Council would be on the populating basis with separate electorates.
  2. Representation in the local bodies would be in the proportion of 60% to the majority community and 40% to the minority community.
  3. Regarding Government appointments, it was decided 5% of the appointments should go to the Muslims. Till the above percentage was attained, 80% of posts would go to the Muslims and the remaining 20% should go to the Hindus.
  4. No resolution or enactment would be allowed to move without the consent of 75% of the elected members of the affected community.
  5. Music in processions would not be allowed in front of the mosques.
  6. No legislation in respect of cow-killing for food would be taken up in the Council and endeavors should be made outside the council to bring about an understanding between the two communities. Cow-killing should be taken up in such a manner as not to wound the religious feeling of the Hindus and cow-killing for the religious purpose should not be interfered with.

Tough the Pact was opposed by the majority of the Congress leadership, there was popular support for C R Das non-communal political agenda. Unfortunately, his premature death in 1925 came as a blow to the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity.

His death was followed by the rejection of the Pact, even by some of his own followers. A large number of Bengali Muslim politicians became shocked at this act and began to move away from the Congress as well as the Swarajya Party.

Adapted from Banglapedia, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh

The Simon Commission, 1927: the possibility of constitutional change

It was not until 1927 that the national movement was roused toe action again. The new Viceroy, Lord Irwin (1926-31), announced that a commission under Sir John Simon would be visiting India.

The Act of 1919 had provided that after ten years, a Commission would be appointed to report on the possibility of constitutional change. Irwin pointed out that as a gesture of goodwill, the Simon Commission was begin sent two years before it was strictly necessary.

Indians excluded from Commission

However, the Commission was to include no Indians and was to be responsible solely to the British Parliament. The Indian leaders protested strongly. The notion that Indians had no right to decide their future constitution for themselves, but must wait on the British for favors was unacceptable to them.

At the Madras session in 1927, Jawaharlal Nehru put forward a resolution for complete independence and called for a boycott of the Commission. His views were upheld, and when the Simon Commission arrived in India in February 1928, it was boycotted by every political party and greeted with black flags and cries of Simon, go back. After many years, the nationalist movement seemed to be picking up momentum again.

The Nehru Report: a constitution by Indians

In May 1928, members of the Congress, the Muslim League, the Liberals, the Hindu Mahasabha and the central Sikh league met in an All-Party Conference to draft a constitution which the Indian People thought should be used for their country.

Pandit Motilal Nehru chaired a committee that devised this constitution, which was contained in the Nehru report which was overwhelmingly approved by the All-Party Conference in September 1928.

The Nehru Report called for:

  • Immediate Dominion status for India (that meant India would become independent but remain a member of the Commonwealth accepting the British monarch as Head of State)
  • India to be a federation with a two-chamber parliament
  • The protection of minorities through a system of reserving seats in the two chambers (though it did not support separate electorates)
  • The vote for all adult men and women.

Gandhi proposed a resolution saying that the British should be given one year to accept the recommendations of the Nehru Report or a campaign of non-cooperation would begin. The resolution was passed.

The Round Table conferences, 1930-1932: to discuss the British recommendations

Despite the opposition it faced, the Simon Commission still managed to produce a two-volume report in 1930. The report had little in it to cheer the Muslim community.

Although it supported the idea of separate electorates, it rejected Muslims having a one-third share of seats in the Central Assembly and the idea of Sindh being separated from Bombay. The British then called a Round Table Conference to discuss the commission’s recommendations.

The First Roundtable Conference, November 1930: Congress refuses to attend

The first conference was held in London in November 1930. It was attended by the Muslim League, the Liberals, and representatives of the Princely States. However, Congress refused to attend unless there was a guarantee that anything agreed at eh conference would be implemented.

No such guarantee was given. Instead of attending, congress began its program of non-cooperation. Since Congress was India’s Largest party, it was difficult for significant progress to be made in the talks. There were, however, some advances made:

  • The princes declared that they would join a future federation of India as long as their rights were recognized.
  • The British agreed that representative government should be introduced at the provincial level.

The Muslims, whose representatives included Jinnah, Maulana Muhammad Ali, and the Aga Khan, left the conference feeling some ground had been gained.

The Second Round Table Conference, September 1931: Little agreed

When the Indian representatives returned from the first Round Tale Conference, they urged Gandhi to stop his non-cooperation and agree to attend the next set of talks. In February 1931, Gandhi met the Viceroy, Lord Irwin in the first of a series of meetings to agree on the terms of future progress.

Some British politicians, especially Winston Churchill, objected to Irwin holding talks with someone who had just been imprisoned for opposition to British rule. Irwin, however, understood the need to bring Congress into the discussions.

So on 5 March 1931, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed. Irwin agreed to release most political prisoners and return property seized by the government; Gandhi agreed to call off the non-cooperation campaign and attend the next round of talks. He also agreed to give up his demand for full independence in return for a promise that in a federal Indians would have a genuine say in how they were governed.

The Second Round Table Conference took place in London Between September and December 1913. It failed for two reasons:

  • The Labour Party had lost power in Britain and the new coalition government was less keen to reach a compromise in India.
  • Gandhi took a hard line in the talks and refused to recognize the problems of the minorities in the subcontinent.

Consequently, little was achieved at the conference. The British warned that if the agreement could not soon be reached, they would impose their own solution to the Indian problem.

The Third Round Table Conference, November 1932: poor attendance

The third Round Table Conference stood little chance of success. Lord Irwin had been replaced as Viceroy by Lord Willington, who was much less prepared to make concessions. In Places, the non-cooperation movement restarted and Willington responded by having Congress leaders.

Including Gandhi and Nehru arrested. In January 1932, Congress formally re-started the non-cooperation campaign.

The events of 1932 meant that none of the parties involved in the Third Round Table Conference expected it to achieve anything. Indeed, congress boycotted the talks as did all the major princes. Jinnah had gone it voluntary exile, disillusioned with the lack of progress being made, and was not even invited to the conference.

The Muslims were therefore represented by the Aga Khan, but there were only 46 delegates and the meeting broke up with nothing of any substance agreed.

The Government of India Act, 1935: the power to the people?

Despite the failure of the Round Table conferences, in March 1933, the British government announced its proposals for how India should be governed. In August 1935, the proposals were made legal by the Government of India Act and became law.

This was the last major legislation that the British government passed before independence was granted. Its main terms were:

  • India was to be a federation including both the provinces of British India and any Princely States which chose to join.
  • There were to be two houses of parliament at the central government level. The upper house (Council of State) and the lower house (Assembly). Dyarchy was dropped at the provincial level but introduced at the central government level.
  • Certain ‘reserved’ subjects (defense, foreign affairs, ecclesiastical affairs, and the administration of the tribal areas) were to be administered exclusively by the Governor-General, assisted by up to their appointed councilors.
  • At the provincial level, diarchy was replaced with a system in which provinces were given a large degree of autonomy. The ministers of provinces were, in effect, heads of the provincial administration, and provincial governors were instructed to act on their advice except in areas where they had special responsibilities (the peace of the province and the rights of minorities).

The Act appeared to grant real power to the people of India, but in reality, things were a little different:

  • The Governor-General was head of the Federation and could exert special powers in the reserved subjects.
  • Provincial governors also had special powers in the two reserved areas. They had the authority to dismiss ministers and even the right to dismiss the whole administration and rule by proclamation during a period of emergency.
  • Although the Act appeared to give the Indian people a say in running their own country, there was a very limited franchise. The property qualification for voting meant that only 25% of India’s population was allowed to vote in the provincial elections.

The Act is unwelcome but parties agree to participate in elections

The government of India Act was opposed to all sides in India. The princes resented the loss of power it would entail, Nehru called it a ‘Charter of Slavery’ and said that it had so many safeguards that it was like a machine with storing brakes bout no engine’.

To Jinnah, it was simply thoroughly rotten, fundamentally bad, and totally unacceptable.

Provincial government and politics in Bengal, 1937-1947

Krishak-Praja Party: appeals to the rural masses

The Krishak Praja Party (KPP) was founded in 1936 by A K Fazlul Huq. As the leader of rural society, Fazlul Huq understood the importance of appealing to the rural masses. So the KPP program for the elections included:

  • Abolition of the Permanent Settlement system of revenue
  • Making peasants the absolute proprietors of land
  • Reduction of rent rate
  • Freeing the indebted peasantry from the bondage of the Mahajan class
  • Giving interest-free loans to peasants
  • Creating irrigation facilities by digging canals all over the country and making the river navigation free by eliminating engulfing water hyacinths
  • The introduction of free primary education.

Huq’s oratory was as attractive as his political program to the peasantry. His approach was non-communal and hence he commanded respect from the scheduled caste Hindu peasantry as well. the KPP election manifesto was finally reduced to one election slogan: Dhal-Bhat (rice and pulse) for all.

The peasant voters responded to Huq by supporting him in a big way. Though established only a year previously, his party secured the third position among contesting political parties in terms of a number of seats won in the elections. In summary, the Congress party got 52 seats, Muslim League 39, KPP 36, and various splinter groups and independent candidates won the rest of the total 250 seats.

Of the 36 members elected with KPP tickets, 33 were from East Bengal. The KPP thus emerged essentially as an east Bengal peasant party.

The decline of the KPP

Ironically, the decline of the KPP began immediately after its spectacular electoral victory. Fazlul Haq, the KPP leader, formed a coalition ministry with the support and participation of the Muslim League and some other smaller groups and independent members. As the Chief Minister, Fazlul Huq seemed to have concentrated his attention more on power politics than on developing his party.

Of the 11 ministers in his cabinet, only two, including him, were from the KPP and the rest were from the Muslim League and other factions. This dissatisfied and number of influential members, thus weakening the KPP.

Muslim League makes a come-back

In the meantime, the Muslim League began to rework its strategy and strength in all-Indian as well as provincial level. From November 1937 onwards, the Muslim League leadership began to re-organize the party from the grass-root level. The bulk of the Muslim population was poor, downtrodden, and exploited by both the Hindu and Muslim upper classes.

Their discontent was basically economic. But it was now given a religious shape by the Muslim League, “Islam is in danger” was the cry by which the support of the Muslim masses was secured. Gradually, Jinnah put forward the ‘two-nation’ theory: that Muslims were divided from Hindus not merely by religion, but also culturally and racially: that they were, in fact, a nation within a nation. The ascendancy of the Muslim League was so rapid that by 19843 when the Huq Ministry fell, the KPP had become practically non-existent.

The party contested the elections of 1946 but got only four seats. Whereas the Muslim League got 114 seats. After the partition, AK Fazlul Huq came to Dhaka and revived his party under a new name, Krishak Sramik Party, which survived until 1958.

The Second World War and the move towards partition The outbreak of War, 1939

On 3 September 1939, Britain announced that it was at war with Nazi Germany. On the same day, Viceroy Linlithgow announced that India, too, was at war with Germany.

Congress resigns from government

Congress objected to this announcement, saying that if India was to fight, it could only do so if it were granted a promise of full independence. The British would no grant this, but instead promised Dominion status after the war, Congress could not accept this and called on its members to resign from the government.

Before doing so, however, it passed a resolution setting out its entire disapproval of Nazism and fascism. It supported the British cause, but would not support Britain without a promise of independence.

Muslim League demands

The Muslim League also had demands to be met before it would agree to support the British. Jinnah demanded:

  • An end to the anti-Muslim policies by Congress
  • That no law affecting Muslims should be passed unless two-thirds of Muslim members supported it
  • That Congress should agree to form coalitions in provincial administrations.

Neither the British, nor Congress, would agree to these demands. Consequently, throughout the war, the Muslim League’s position was one where it did not give full support to the British. However, like Congress, it disproved of Nazism and Fascism, so did not go as far as actually opposing the British.

The divide between Congress and the Muslim League widens

As Congress members had resigned from the government, on 22 December 1939, the Muslim League called a Day of deliverance across the sub-continent to celebrate the end of the tyranny, oppression, and injustice that had occurred under Congress rule.

Congress was deeply offended by this and Nehru was moved to comment on how Congress and the Muslim League now seemed to agree on very little.

The Lahore Resolution, 1940: time to consider a Muslim state

Two years of Congress rule and a growing realization that the British would soon be forced to leave India convinced Jinnah that it was time to consider establishing a Muslim state. at the annual session of the Muslim League held in Lahore on 22 March 1940, the premier of Bengal, Fazl-ul-Haq, put forward a resolution demanding that:

Regions in which the Muslims are numerically a majority, as in the north-western and eastern zone of India, should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.

The Cripps Mission, 1941: trying to win support for the British war effort

In March 1941, the British sent Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the cabinet, to India to see if a compromise could be reached which would win support for the British war effort. Cripps proposed that:

  • After the war, an Indian Union would be set up with Dominion status (though individual provinces could opt out of the Union and negotiate their own independence)
  • After the war, a constituent assembly should frame a new constitution.
  • Elections for the Constituent Assembly would be held immediately after the war.

The Muslim League rejected the plan immediately as it contained no reference to the establishment of Pakistan. Jinnah was pleased to see, however, that the right to opt-out of a future Union was included. This showed that the British realized the need to protect minority interests.

Congress also rejected the Cripps proposal, as it was now demanding immediate control of India’s affairs. It was not prepared to wait until the war was over and wasn’t sure that it trusted the British to deliver their promises.

Gandhi called the proposals a post-dated cheque on a failing bank. Congress knew that the British were desperate and intended to exploit this.

The Quit India Resolution, 1942:  a Hindu attempt to drive the British out

In May 1942, Gandhi spoke at a Congress meeting in Allahabad. He talked of how British behavior towards India has filled me great pain. He argued that if the British left India, there would no longer be a threat of a Japanese invasion.

So they should be persuaded to go to a non-violent protest. On 8 August 1942, the All-India Congress Committee passed its quit India Resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of the British. To support the campaign, there should be a mass struggle on non-violent lines on the widest possible scale.

Two days later, Gandhi, Nehru, and other senior Congress figures were arrested. The Congress Party was banned. For several weeks, there was widespread rioting and the British lost control in some parts of the country. Only the strongest measures, including the use of machine guns and aerial bombing, restored their rule at the cost of thousands of Indian lives.

The Muslim League did not approve of the Quit India campaign. It saw the Hindus attempts to drive the British out as a means of gaining control in India to exercise their own, anti-Muslim, wishes. Jinnah criticized the Quit India campaign as ‘blackmail’, saying that Congress was trying to exploit Britain’s problems to win advantages for itself.

After Gandhi was released from prison, he and Gandhi met for talks but failed to agree on the best way to rid India of the British.

The divide grows in 1945

In 1945, the Second World War ended. The British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, and the Conservative Party were defeated in a general election; the new Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, and his Labour Party were committed to Self-government in India.

Wavell was told to organize elections to both provincial and central assemblies and then set up an Executive Council with the support of the main Indian parties. The elections were to show just how divided India had become.

Congress claimed to represent all Indians and all communities. If fought the election on a policy of an undivided and independent India. The Muslim League, on the other hand, appealed to the Muslim community with a policy of setting up an independent Muslim homeland. The results were announced in December 1945.

  • The Muslim League won 87% of the Muslim vote, all 30 Muslim seats in the Central Legislative Assembly, and 446 of the 495 Muslim seats in the principal elections. It took control of Bengal and Sindh and was the largest party in Punjab.
  • Congress won 91% of the non-Muslim vote and took control of the other eight states. The victory of congress in the NWEP was the serious blow to the Muslim League, as Congress took 19 Muslim seats compared to the Muslim League’s 17 seats.

It was now clear that there could be no settlement in India without its approval.

The Cabinet Mission Plan, 1946: an attempt to find a settlement acceptable to all

In March 1946, the British made their final effort to settle the differences within India. A three-man delegation (Lord Pethick-Lawrence,  Secretary of state for India,  Sir Stafford Cripps. President of the Board of Trade and A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty) was sent to India to try to find a settlement acceptable to all.

This ‘Cabinet Mission’ arrived in New Delhi on 24 March 1946 and met representatives of the Muslim League, Congress, the Sikhs, and the Hindu Mahasabha.

The delegation soon found that there was little common ground between the Muslim League and Congress. Jinnah was insisting on the formation of Pakistan comprising six provinces. Once this was established, he might consider the setting up of a central agency of India and Pakistan to look after certain common subjects. Congress was opposed to any partition and would not accept Jinnah’s ideas.

The Cabinet Mission, therefore, decided on a different approach. It proposed that an interim government should be set up to rule India whilst the British withdrawal was organized. The government would form an All-India Commission from members of the provincial and Central Legislatures.

The commission would then decide whether there should be one or two states after the British had left.

Neither Congress nor the Muslim League agreed to the new plan, but the delegation continued its work and in May 1946 the Cabinet, Mission announced its final plan.

  • It rejected the Idea of establishing Pakistan
  • Instead, there would be three different parts to a post-British India:
  1. The Hindu Majority territories
  2. The western Muslim provinces
  3. Bengal and Assam
  • Each part would have local autonomy and would be able to draw up its own constitution.
  • Foreign affairs, defense, and communication would be dealt with by the central Indian Union.

Cabinet Plan in dropped

The Muslim League stated that it was prepared to nominate members to an interim cabinet to oversee the move to independence based on this plan. Nehru, however, said that Congress would not feel bound by the plan once the British had left.

The Muslim League felt that this made further discussions pointless. Any agreement might just be overturned after the British had gone. So the cabinet plan was dropped.

Direct Action Day, 1946: shadowing Muslim solidarity

By late summer 1946, it was clear that the British withdrawal from India was imminent. The Muslims feared that the British might just pull out and leave India to sort out its own problems. If that happened, the Muslims would surely suffer at the suffering at eh hands of the overwhelming Hindu majority.

What was needed was a show of Muslim solidarity and an indication of Muslim strength to both the British and Congress.

In July 1946, the Muslim League passed a resolution declaring that it should prepare for the final struggle against both the British and Congress. On 16 August, the Muslim League called off a ‘Direct Action Day to show the strength of Muslim feelings. In many places, thousands demonstrated peacefully to show Muslim solidarity.

In Calcutta, however, the demonstration turned to violence in which up to 4,000 people died in the Great Calcutta, however, the demonstration turned to violence in which up to 4,000 people died in the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’.

Towards independence, 1947

Despite the violence and the failure to reach the agreement between Congress and the Muslim League, the British were determined to make arrangements for leaving India.

Mountbatten plans speedy transfer of power

In February 1947, Attlee announced that the British would leave India no later than June 1948. a new Viceroy, Viscount Mountbatten, was set to work out a plan for the transfer of power.

Attlee had deliberately set a short time span for arrangements to be made. He feared that if more time we’re given, there would just be more disagreement.

Mountbatten soon realized the need for a speedy settlement. In March 1947, there were notes and killings between Muslims and Hindus in Punjab. Soon the trouble spread to other provinces. It seemed that civil war, with the inevitable thousands of deaths, might be only months away. Mountbatten arrived in India in March 1947.

His meetings with different political leaders convinced him that partition was inevitable. Few people wanted India partitioned. But Jinnah was adamant that the Muslims must have their own state.

The plan

On 3 June 1947, that plan was announced:

  • Two states should be set up, India and Pakistan. The interim constitution of both states was the 1935 Government of India Act.
  • Each state was to have Dominion status and have an Executive responsible to a Constituent Assembly.
  • Muslim majority provinces would vote either to stay in India or join Pakistan.
  • In Sindh and Balochistan, the provincial legislatures voted to join Pakistan. Bengal and Punjab had two decisions to make. Firstly on whether to join Pakistan. If so, they then had to decide whether the provinces should be portioned into Muslim and non-Muslim areas. Both decided that they should join Pakistan, but that their Muslim-minority areas should stay in India. The NWFP also joined Pakistan after holding a referendum. The Muslim-majority district of Sylhet in Assam joined the eastern wing of Pakistan.

Independence and two separate states

Mountbatten said that the final transfer of power would be on 15 august 1947, even though there was still a need to draw boundaries between Muslim and non-Muslim areas, particularly in Bengal and Punjab. and resolve issues such as the division of assets.

On 15 July 1547. the Indian Independence Act was passed.  British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, two dominion states. A new country had been born.

Why was Bengal portioned?

Within 36 years from the annulment of the first partition of Bengal in 1911, the province again came to be divided in 1947 into two halves along the same geographical lines, mainly on communal consideration.

Jinnah’s demand for the partition of India led to the second partition of Bengal. The Hindu-majority West Bengal became a part of the  Indian Union, with the Muslim-majority East Bengal a part of Pakistan.

The Hindus by and large opposed the 1905 partition and most Muslims rendered their support to it; but it was the Hindus, especially the Hindu Mahasabha, who proposed the partition of Bengal in 1947 and Muslim leadership which was reluctant to accept it.

HS Suhrawardy, chief minister of Bengal, made a last-moment attempt to keep Bengal united with the status of an independent state. However, his move for a United Independent Bengal was unsuccessful.

The Hindus had become a political minority under the Muslim-dominated coalition rule in Bengal in the years between 1947. The resultant Hindu fear of Muslim domination in undivided Bengal outside the Indian Union and the Indian Muslim fear of perpetual Hindu domination over them in a united India helps explain why Bengal wad eventually partitioned.

How it happened

The British proposals for partition, known as the 3 June plan, laid down elaborate procedures for partition and transfer of power. These included, among other things:

  1. The holding of the national system of voting by the members of the Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas of the Bengal Legislative Assembly sitting separately (a similar procedure to flow in the case of Punjab).
  2. A referendum in the Surma Valley of Assam ie, the Sylhet district in the North-East and the North-West Frontier Province in the North-West to determine their future.
  3. A Boundary Commission to demarcate the adjoining areas between the proposed states.
  • As per the plan, on 20 June the issue of Bengal partition was decided upon by the members of the Assembly. Several rounds of voting were held. On the question of joining the Indian Union, the vote of the joint session of the House was 126 votes against the move and 90 votes in favor.
  • Then the members of the Muslim-majority areas (east Bengal) in a separate session passed a motion by 106-35 votes against partitioning Bengal and for joining the new Pakistan as a whole.
  • This was followed by the separate meeting of the members of the non-Muslim-majority areas (West Bengal) who by a division of 58-21 voted for the partition of the province.
  • In a referendum held on 7 July, the electorate of Sylhet by a majority of 55-578 votes (239.619 voted for joining East Bengal as against 184.041 for remaining in Assam) gave the verdict in favor of Pakistan.
  • Consequent upon this, the boundary commission headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe made up the matter of territorial demarcation between the two newly created states.

Adapted from Banglapedia, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh


The Partition of India radically changed the political map of the subcontinent. Behind the bare fact of creating two new countries of Pakistan and India, there took place a huge displacement of people. Muslims tended to migrate to Pakistan and the Hindus to India. So a huge refugee problem hit both states.

The politics of tension and mistrust of the pre-independence period grew even more serious. At the same time, the two states seemed to have started two different journeys in the making of post-colonial history.

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