Sunday, Jun 26, 2022

Those Fateful Days

A Sentimental Essay in Three Scenes—1906: All India Muslim League formed; 1945-46: elections that settled the political fate of South Asia; June 3, 1947: Jinnah's speech broadcast on radio ...

Those Fateful Days
Those Fateful Days

Or, as in the case here,
Merely three

Scene 1

In December 1906, twenty-eight men traveled to Dhaka to represent U.P. at the formation of the All India Muslim League. Two were from Bara Banki, one of them my granduncle, Raja Naushad Ali Khan of Mailaraigunj. Thirty-nine years later, during the winter of 1945-46, I could be seen marching up and down the only main road of Bara Banki with other kids, waving a Muslim League flag and shouting slogans. No, I don’t imply some unbroken trajectory from my granduncle’s trip to my strutting in the street, for the elections in 1945 were in fact based on principles that my granduncle reportedly opposed.

It was Uncle Fareed who first informed me that Naushad Ali Khan had gone to Dhaka. Uncle Fareed knew the family lore, and enjoyed sharing it with us boys. In an aunt’s house I came across a fading picture. Seated in a dogcart and dressed in Western clothes and a jaunty hat, my granduncle looked like a slightly rotund and mustached English squire. He had been a poet, and one of his couplets was then well known even outside the family. Sadly, I cannot correctly recall it. And so I offer only an improvised version.

Khair se bagh-i-jahaN meN surat-i-shabnam rahe
Ek hi shab go rahe lekin guloN meN ham rahe

I lived in the world’s garden like a drop of dew,
For only a night, but among roses.

A grand-aunt always said it was a perfect epitaph for her brother.

Posterity, in the form of Professor Francis Robinson, tells a bit more. Robinson writes,

‘[He was] a Kidwai Sheikh, of the same family as the [taluqdar] of Jehangirabad …. He attended the foundation session of the All India Muslim League at Dacca in 1906 and was appointed a member of its provisional committee. From 1907 to 1909, he campaigned with Viqar-ul-Mulk and Mahomed Ali for the foundation of District Muslim Leagues. He was the first secretary of the UP provincial Muslim League after its foundation in June 1909. In the same year, he agitated against separate electorates and took part in the July 1909 discussions of the Government of India’s compromise proposals. [He was] supported by [his uncle, the Raja of Jehangirabad] in 1909 as a candidate for the Oudh Muslim seat on the provincial legislative council. Described by Hewett [the Lt. Governor of U.P.] as "a disreputable Taluqdar," he faded from politics after the Morley-Minto Reforms.’ [1]

Naushad Ali Khan had not faded away; he had merely died, reaching not even the age of thirty-five. Ironically, in that election in 1909, he had lost to none other than the second Bara Banki man at Dhaka: Mr. Mohammad Nasim, the grandfather of Professor Irfan Habib. I may also add that, unlike what frequently happened with reference to one of his cousins, there was never an exchange of knowing glances when Naushad Ali Khan’s name came up in the family. He had married, but had no issue. He had lived extravagantly, often giving donations beyond his means to public causes—like the five thousand rupees to the Mohsin-ul-Mulk Memorial Fund at Aligarh. [2] And when he died his estate was sold off to pay his debts.

Now that I have delineated the critical role Bara Banki played in the foundation of the Muslim League, I can boldly skip forward thirty-nine years to the winter of 1945, when the elections that settled the political fate of South Asia came also to Bara Banki.


Scene 2

I was eleven years old in the fall of 1945, mildly precocious for my age, and the smallest boy in seventh grade. I was also an enthusiastic member of the All India Muslim Students Federation (MSF), which had opened its branch in Bara Banki a year or two earlier. An all-boys organization, it had a fair number of members from the three schools in the city. We played a prominent role in the processions taken out by the League. We managed the crowd, helped with banners and flags, and lustily led others in raising slogans. We did much the same at the Muslim League’s election rallies, except that smaller boys like me were assigned to help in the curtained section exclusively for women. I doubt if I ever knew where the office of the District Muslim League was, but I can still point to the spot where the MSF once had its dingy office that included a tiny lending library. Nafis Ahmad Tirmizi, a studious classmate of my brother Matin, ran it. Nafees Bhai had a serious bearing, but he also had an ability to make even small boys feel at home in the MSF. Other older boys were rambunctious. They did daring things, like roughing up the local Rashtriya Swayam Sevak boys when the latter tried to take over a playground of the newly opened Niblett Islamiya School.[3]

The big attraction of the MSF for me was its reading room—in actuality, the back part of the single-room office where a table and some chairs served many purposes. We didn’t get any Urdu newspaper at home—Father read only The Pioneer—but at the MSF I could read two: the weekly Manshur from Delhi and the daily Tanwir from Lucknow. The first was the mouthpiece of the Central Muslim League; the U.P. branch just for the purpose of the elections had started the second.

The files of the two newspapers now seem to have disappeared in India. Soon after Independence, North Indian Muslims, scared of house searches and arrests, desperately got rid of anything connected with the League, and many public libraries did the same for their own reasons. Only last year, finally, did I find a few tattered pages of Manshoor, all from May 1944, at the Jamia Millia. I was surprised. I had always remembered it as a fine-looking paper. That, apparently, wasn’t always the case. Despite its two mastheads, one in English—‘Supported by Mr. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’—and the other in Urdu—‘Murabbi Qaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’—what I saw was third-rate calligraphy on cheapest paper. Offered at 3 annas per issue, it couldn’t have found many takers. Obviously, before 1945, Manshur and its Urdu readers had not been of much importance to the Central Muslim League.

An editorial dated May 28, 1944, however, didn’t surprise me, for it laid out the ‘hostage theory’ of the League, which I had so often heard in 1946. ‘The Muslim League,’ it declared, ‘wants that the Muslims in the Muslim-majority regions would become safe from the influence and domination of the Hindu majority in other regions (khariji hindu aksariyat). And that a balance of power should be created between the Hindus and Muslims of India by establishing free and autonomous Muslim governments in those regions (azad aur khudmukhtar muslim hukumateN). Whatever kind of treatment Muslims in Hindu-majority regions will require from the Hindu governments, the Hindus in the Muslim-majority areas would require the same from the Muslim governments. And thus the rights and welfare (huquq aur mafad) of the Muslims in the Hindu sectors shall will be much better protected.’

It sounds so simple, so logical. Believe you me, it sounded simpler and more logical back then, when phrases like ‘territorial adjustments,’ ‘linking corridors,’ and ‘inseparable heritage sites’ were the currency of the day. And when the most potent, the most passionately raised cry at our rallies that winter was: pakistan ka matlab kya // la ilaha illallah, ‘What does Pakistan mean? // "There is no God but Allah!"’

It was, of course, the League’s high command that chose the man to represent Bara Banki in the legislative assembly. Choudhry Khaliquzzaman, at the time the most powerful man in the League in U.P., has unwittingly provided a revealing story in his memoirs. According to him, the U.P. branch of the Muslim League set up a board of nine persons to select 66 candidates for the elections. When the board convened, some of its members had candidates of their own for consideration against the candidates already chosen by Khaliquzzaman and his coterie. The first case taken up was for a seat where Maulana Hasrat Mohani, a crotchety communist/pan-Islamist/romantic, had a different nominee. The presiding officer called for a vote in favor of Mohani’s candidate, and only three hands went up. Then, before a vote could be called on the other man, Khaliquzzaman intervened and withdrew—‘out of respect for the Maulana,’ he says—the name of his choice. The wily Lucknow politician no doubt knew the rules of polite society well. His action, as he coyly puts it, ‘had an overwhelming effect on the Board’s future decisions, as all the sixty-five candidates were then selected unanimously.’ [4]

Be that as it may, the young Maulana Jamaluddin Abdul Wahhab was the perfect choice for Bara Banki. His father, Maulana Abdul Bari of Firangi Mahal—we called him Bari Miyan—had gained national fame as the leader of the Khilafat Movement. The famous Ali Brothers had once proclaimed him their spiritual mentor. Even Gandhiji had come and stayed at his house in Lucknow. After the abject collapse of the Khilafat Movement, the people of Firangi Mahal had followed many different political paths. Bari Miyan’s son, not quite out of his twenties in 1945, had chosen the League’s.

In our jawar, in that hard-to-define landscape of kinships and marriages but also of emotional affinity and cultural one-ness that also transcended religious and sectarian divides, Bari Miyan had been the most revered Sunni figure during his life. Probably no Sunni Muslim elite family in our jawar was without someone who was Bari Miyan’s disciple. My late grandfather must have been one, since he had sent my father to study at Firangi Mahal; my grandmother certainly was—though at a second remove. She was a disciple of Qutub Miyan, Bari Miyan’s spiritual heir. I had seen Jamal Miyan at our house; he called my grandmother ‘chachi’ (aunt), and she, in turn, didn’t observe purdah with him. Of course, all the savants of Firangi Mahal, though established in Lucknow, belonged in their ancestral origin to Bara Banki. They were all considered men of our jawar even though they lived in Lucknow.

The resident League ‘leaders’ in Bara Banki, on the other hand, while belonging to the right class, were mere lightweights. To make sure of my impression, I called up an older brother in Karachi. Matin was at Aligarh in 1945. When the administration of the university encouraged the students to go out and work for the good cause, he had gone off, first to Gorakhpur in Eastern U.P. and then to Nawabshah in Western Sindh. The experience was doubtless good for his soul, but only a disaster for his education.

I asked Matin: was there in Bara Banki much of a Muslim League before 1945? ‘Hardly any,’ he promptly replied. Then he mentioned the two names that were linked in his mind with the Muslim League of those years. That assured me that my own recollection had not been wrong. One man, as Matin put it, was ‘a nut case,’ though neither he nor I could recall exactly how. As for the other man, I can still visualize him, a lumbering figure with a prominent head, made the more conspicuous by a fur cap that he sometimes decorated with a crescent and star. He was indeed a prominent figure at the League’s rallies that winter. But then he was no less conspicuous in Bara Banki for living in a curiously unfinished house that was surrounded by tall reeds and invariably got flooded every year by an insignificant stream. Matin and I were also able to identify the president of the local branch of the League, but decided he too wasn’t much known for anything.

In contrast, several of the Muslim elite or the miyan log of the jawar, who had joined the Congress, had made a name for themselves in local and provincial politics. The most prominent, of course, was Rafi Ahmad Kidwai of Masauli, who was made the Revenue Minister in the 1937 Congress government in U.P., and who later went on to greater prominence in the Central cabinet under Nehru. Rafi Ahmad Kidwai could have run from Bara Banki, but he chose to put his political reputation to the test elsewhere, and gave the nod for the Bara Banki seat to a distant cousin, Jamilur Rahman Kidwai of Baragaon. Thus it developed that the battle to represent Bara Banki Muslims in the provincial assembly was fought between a Jamal and a Jamil—a rather confusing manifestation of the truth in the Prophet’s axiom, allahu-l-jamil va yuhibbu-l-jamal, ‘God is Beautiful, and Loves Beauty.’

It’s not too surprising that the Congress candidate, whom I called Jameel Chacha and most people addressed simply as Jameel Miyan, was also educated first at Firangi Mahal and only later at secular institutions. Like most Kidwais of his generation, he had joined the Congress and identified himself with the faction around Jawaharlal Nehru. Since 1937 he had been the president of the district Congress, and had twice gone to jail at the party’s orders. Needless to say, he had what counted most in Bara Banki: the jawar connections. Not only was he a Kidwai, he belonged to a major clan of the Kidwais.

Equally unsurprisingly, while Jameel Miyan presided over the congress Party in Bara Banki, his older brother, Ehsanur Rahman Kidwai, was the General Secretary of the U.P. Muslim League. Being also a man of adab, he didn’t actively work against his brother in Bara Banki; instead he joined Khaliquzzaman’s campaign in Lucknow, and earned grateful mention in the latter's memoirs.

My father was not much interested in national politics; for him politics was only local. He took delight in all the intrigues and cliques that decided the elections for the District (i.e. rural) and the Municipal (i.e. urban) Boards of Bara Banki. In fact, he had once been elected the vice-president of the District Board. But he read only The Pioneer, the pro-Raj newspaper, and didn’t subscribe to either the National Herald or the Qaumi Awaz when the two were started in Lucknow at the instance of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rafi Ahmad Kidwai. At some time in his life he had received the title of Khan Sahib, the lowest civilian reward that the British gave out to Muslims. In 1946, he also held two honorary posts: he was an Honorary Magistrate and also a Special Railway Magistrate. (When some of his land tenants found that out they began to travel ticket less. If caught and hauled up before him, they knew he would only curse them out and then pay the fine himself. Or so some of them told me after his death.)

It may perhaps be unfair of me to believe that Father couldn’t have cared less about the elections or the two political parties, had Jamal Miyan not been the Muslim League candidate. But he had to do in 1946 what was required of him by the unwritten rules of the culture he lived in. Had it been someone other than Jamal Miyan, Father would have supported Jameel Miyan, since the latter was not only his peer but also distantly related. Jamal Miyan, however, was the son of my grandmother’s spiritual mentor, and he addressed Father as ‘Masud Bhai.’ Clearly, when it came to Father’s loyalties, Jamal Miyan had a higher claim—not on account of his politics, but in his own person.

And so Father energetically gave the Firangi Mahal ties what he owed them. It meant hosting visitors, holding sessions with friends and cronies about ways to ‘influence’ the voters in their respective circles of traditional authority, and loaning his car and driver to shuttle women voters on the day of the election. I honestly do not recall ever hearing him discuss any of the qaumi (national) issues, and I definitely never saw him at any of the League’s meetings.

Uncle Fareed, on the other hand, talked qaumi politics all the time. Though proud of the one-time prominence of his uncle, he did not much approve of the Muslim League. He was an old-fashioned pan-Islamist; his heroes were Jamaluddin Afghani, Shibli Nu’mani and Abul Kalam Azad. He knew much of Shibli’s Urdu poetry by heart, and had me memorize Shibli’s long lament on the Balkan War. But I don’t recall him quoting from any of the poems in which Shibli had made fun of the League—I came to know of them much later. As for Uncle Fareed’s adoration of Abul Kalam Azad, he could quote several favorite snippets from Ghubar-i-Khatir, including one where Azad most sensuously describes his morning ritual with jasmine tea while a prisoner in the Ahmadnagar Fort. When my brother Mohsin found work in Bengal, Uncle Fareed asked him to bring some of the same tea from Calcutta. Needless to say, the tea didn’t live up to Azad’s intoxicating words.

Uncle Shaheed, another first cousin of Father’s, was not only himself a Kidwai but was also married to Jameel Miyan’s sister, and yet he was a fairly vociferous Muslim Leaguer. It was always exciting fun for us boys when the two uncles happened to visit at the same time. They argued with much vehemence. Not outside, not in Father’s presence, for he was much older and also cared little for their sort of political talk. They went at each other in the zenana section of the house, in the presence of my mother and sisters, where my brothers and I could also freely butt in if things slowed down.

The league’s election rallies that I can now recall were held in the evening, in the period between the two post-sunset prayers of maghrib and ‘isha. It ensured good attendance. People finished their day’s work at the store or at the office, then went home, prayed, had dinner with the family, and then, content in body and soul, sallied forth again for a nice time with other men. Bara Banki had, then, any number of open spaces that could accommodate crowds; the most sought-after was our open-air grain market. It was right in the heart of the city, and the clock tower that commemorated the jubilee of Victoria Regina, ‘India’s Caesar,’ provided it with an imposing backdrop. Less than a mile from our house, it was close enough for me to get to after grabbing some food in the kitchen. But I don’t think I ever attended any rally to its very end. I was still sleeping in the ladies’ section of the house, where the back door was locked early.


Outlook Newsletters


Read More from Outlook

Lament Of Separation: Songs Of Habba Khatun, Last Queen Of Kashmir, Still Echo In Valley

Lament Of Separation: Songs Of Habba Khatun, Last Queen Of Kashmir, Still Echo In Valley

In happy times and sad, Habba Khatun’s sensuous songs make both young and old emotional. With the never-ending conflict bringing tragedies to every doorstep, Habba’s lyrics of separation amplify their mourning.

How Indian Laws Govern People’s Right To Love And Live

How Indian Laws Govern People’s Right To Love And Live

In India, only those relationships between a man and a woman are considered to be legitimate when there is a marriage between the two.

Kohli Quits Test Captaincy, Leaves Leadership Vacuum

Kohli Quits Test Captaincy, Leaves Leadership Vacuum

Virat Kohli, 33, had recently stepped down as India's T20I captain and was subsequently removed as the ODI captain.

UP Elections 2022: How Congress Is Harnessing Power Of 'Persecuted' Women To Counter BJP

UP Elections 2022: How Congress Is Harnessing Power Of 'Persecuted' Women To Counter BJP

A Mahila Congress leader, who is the face of the ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon’ campaign, however, has accused the party of anti-women bias after she was denied a ticket.