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Rallying the Qaum: The Muslim League in the United Provinces, 1937–1939


This paper re-examines the nature of the Muslim League's mobilization of the UP Muslims during the period of Congress party rule and the extent to which it was successful in emerging as their ‘authoritative, representative organization’. In the light of such a re-examination, the paper makes two arguments. First, in contrast to the existing historiography which highlights the role of Jinnah in the ML's revival, this paper underlines the agency of the local leadership of the ML in this process. Second, the paper argues that even though the ML emerged as a popular political party among the UP Muslims in this period, its strength still remained uncertain. This became evident during the Madhe Sahaba agitation between 1938 and 1939 that led to serious tensions and riots between Shias and Sunnis in the city of Lucknow. These tensions threatened to fracture the political base of the ML in the UP besides snowballing into a wider all-India conflict. During this crisis the ML stood aside helplessly, unable to exert its authority as the ‘premier’ organization of the Indian Muslims. These divisions within the Muslim community in the ML's putative bastion in the UP demonstrate that the party still had a task ahead in terms of rallying the Qaum.

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1 Phillips, C.H. & Wainwright, M.D. (eds.) The Partition of India: Policies and Perspectives, 1935–1947, London, 1970; Moon, Penderel, Divide and Quit, Berkeley, 1962; Chaudhry, Khaliquzzaman, Pathway to Pakistan, Lahore, 1961.

2 Misra, Salil, A Narrative of Communal Politics, Uttar Pradesh, 1937–39, Delhi, 2002.

3 Khairi, Saad R., Jinnah Reinterpreted: The Journey from Indian Nationalism to Muslim Statehood, Karachi, 1995.

4 Pandey, Deepak, ‘Congress-Muslim League Relations, 1937–39: The Parting of Ways’, Modern Asian Studies 4 (12): 626652, 1978; Chander, Sunil, ‘Congress-Raj Conflict and the Rise of the Muslim League, 1937–39’, Modern Asian Studies, 21 (2): 303328, 1987.

5 See Pandey, Gyanendra, The Ascendancy of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh: Class, Community and Nation in Northern India, 1920–1940, London, 2002, pp.52, 95—96, 174–175. Pandey has characterized this lack of Muslim support for the Congress as symptomatic of its ‘imperfect mobilization’ of the Indian masses. See Pandey, Gyanendra, The Ascendancy of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh: A Study in Imperfect Mobilization, Delhi, 1978. Muslim alienation from the Congress has been explained as a result of the growing Hinduisation of the Congress and its greater tendency to deploy Hindu imagery while imagining the nation from the early 1930s. See Gould, William, Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India, Cambridge, 2004. Other scholars have explained growing Muslim ‘separatism’ as an autochthonous development powered by Muslim self-imagination as a distinct people whose political identity was derived primarily from their religious identity. See Robinson, Francis, ‘Congress and the Muslims’, in Islam and Muslim History in South Asia, Delhi, 2003 (paperback edition), pp. 210230; Shaikh, Farzana, Community and Consensus in Islam: Muslim Representation in Colonial India 1860–1947, Cambridge, 1989.

6 The argument regarding long term Muslim alienation from the Congress overemphasizes the problem. While Muslim estrangement from the Congress was indeed evident during the Civil Disobedience movement, the success of the Muslim Unity Board comprised of ‘Nationalist Muslims’ closely aligned to the Congress Swarajists in the 1934 elections demonstrated the continuing relevance of the Congress in UP Muslim politics. These elections also pointed to the weakness of other Muslim political groups such as the Muslim Conference and the old Muslim League. The 1937 elections were fought by the Congress and the newly revived ML in a widely known informal alliance against the landlord-led National Agriculturalist Party (NAP). A number of Muslims elected on the ML ticket were Congress sympathizers. Most importantly, the fractured nature of Muslim verdict in the 1937 elections vividly underlined the fact that no singly party held sway over the UP Muslims. Thus if the Congress had a long way to go before it could boast of substantial Muslim support, so did other Muslim parties such as the Muslim League. The second line of argument with its focus on ML attacks on policies of the Congress government such as the Wardha scheme of education, Vande Mataram etc., though very important in explaining the ML's rise, ignores the prior controversy surrounding the Congres party's MMCP and the ML strategy against this programme.

7 Hasan, Mushirul, ‘The Muslim Mass Contacts Campaign: Analysis of a Strategy of Political Mobilization’, p. 155, in Hasan, Mushirul (ed), India's Partition: Process, Strategy, and Mobilization, Delhi, 2002 (paperback edition).

8 Ibid., p. 159.

9 Salil Misra also argues that there is no evidence in this regard but attributes the failure of the programme to the long-term alienation of the Muslims from the Congress. See Salil Misra, pp. 240–242.

10 This paper does not dwell on the debate between Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni and the poet-philosopher Mohammad Iqbal on the concept of Muttahida Qaumiyat which has been discussed elsewhere. See the Introduction by Barbara Metcalfe to Madni, Husain Ahmad, Composite Nationalism and Islam translated by Husain, Mohammad Anwer and Imam, Hasan, Delhi, 2005.

11 Gopal, S. (ed.), Selected Works of Jawharlal Nehru, vol. 8, New Delhi, 1975, p.22. (henceforth SWJN).

12 SWJN, vol.8, p. 128.

13 SWJN, vol.7, p. 277.

14 SWJN, vol.8, p. 97.

15 P.N. Chopra (ed), Towards Freedom, Vol. 1, 1937, pp. 24–25.

16 The programme was run exclusively by Muslims within the Congress. Nehru and Ashraf however tried to dispel the notion that the mass contacts programme was ‘a communal movement dealing with Muslims only’. As Nehru noted ‘Our programme is identical in this respect for Muslims and Hindus and others; only in order to draw the attention of our workers to work amongst the Muslim masses have we talked of Muslim mass contacts.’ SWJN, vol. 8, p. 419. Also see AICC Papers/ File G-74, Weekly Meeting of Heads of Department attended by Nehru, Kripalani, K.M. Ashraf, and D. Narsinh. At this meeting Nehru suggested that the name Muslim mass contacts be substituted by some other ‘better’ name.

17 The newspaper was started as a Company. The Directors of the company were G.B. Pant, Rafi Kidwai, Narendra Dev, Hussain Zaheer, K.M. Ashraf, and Abdul Aleem.

18 Ashraf, K.M., ‘Congress ki Shirkat aur Musalmanon ki Tehzeeb ka Sawal’, Hindustan, 5 September, 1937. Also see Searchlight, 25 and 27 April, 1937, for a report of Ashraf's speeches in Bihar. AICC Papers/ File G-68/1937.

20 AICC Papers/ File G-68/1937.

21 See K.M. Ashraf, Firqaparvar Siyasi Anjumanon ke kaam Karne ke Tariqey aur Hamara Farz, Hindustan 29 August, 1937. Also see the essay by Z.A. Ahmad, ‘Congress aur Muslim Awam’, Hindustan, 26 September, 1937, for a similar argument.

22 K.M. Ashraf, ‘Congress ki Shirkat aur Musalmanon ki Tehzeeb ka Sawal’, Hindustan, 5 September, 1937.

23Hamari Qaumi Zabaan’, Hindustan, 15 August, 1937. The rhetoric of the MMCP stalwarts matched the new nationalist historiography being written in this period which stressed the composite Hindu-Muslim culture, namely the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, that began developing in north India during the medieval period. Ashraf's own work, Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan, Delhi, 1959, reflected this trend.

24 Sajjad Zaheer, Congress Ki Wazartein, Hindustan, 8 August, 1937.

25 Hafiz Malik, ‘The Marxist Literary Movement in India and Pakistan’, Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 26, No. 4, 1967, pp. 649–664; Shabana Mahmud, ‘Angare and the Founding of the Progressive Writers Association’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 30, No. 2, May 1996, pp. 447–467.

26 The Pioneer, 23 April, 1937.

27 Searchlight, 27 April, 1937, in AICC Papers/File G-18 (iii)/1937. See also K.M. Ashraf, Congress ki Shirkat se Kya Murad Hai, Hindustan, 2 August 1938, for a similar argument.

28 Ashraf to Habib Hassan, 15 July 1938, AICC Papers/ File G-68/1937–38.

29 K.M. Ashraf, ‘Muslim League ki Siyasi Ahmiyat aur Hamara Tariqeqar’, Hindustan, 17 September 1938. See also ‘Hamara Kaam’, Hindustan, 20 February, 1938.

30 Ashraf to Habib Hassan, 15 July, 1938, AICC Papers/ File G-68/1937–38.

31 See K.M. Ashraf, ‘Congress Mein Musalmanon ki Shirkat aur Hindu Zahniyat ka Sawaal’, Hindustan, 12 September, 1937. Ashraf here also appealed for the Congress to delink itself from acchutoddhar and other similar Hindu social reform activities and to remain a purely political anti-imperialist organization in order to remove the impression from Muslim minds that Congress was a Hindu organization.

32 K.M. Ashraf, ‘Congress ki Shirkat se Kya Murad Hai’, Hindustan, 28 August, 1938.

34 ‘Has Mr. Jinnah ever identified with the sufferings of the Mussalmans? Some of us have concluded that Mr Jinnah and his compeers are made of totally alien stuff which has nothing in common with the masses.’ AICC Papers/File 12/1937.

35 Towards Freedom, Vol. 1, p. 261.

36 Star of India, 4 January, 1937.

38 The Pioneer, 7 May 1937.

40 AICC Papers, File 16/1937.

41 Towards Freedom, vol.1, p. 492.

42 Ismail Khan to Nehru, 16 January 1938 in Tirmizi, SAI (ed.), Paradoxes of Partition, 1937–39, Delhi, 1998, p. 320.

43 See the memoir of Husain, Muzaffar, Meri Siyasi Sarguzasth, Lucknow, 1983. Husain worked actively in the election campaign of Nisar Sherwani, the Congress candidate in the Jhansi by-election, which was won by the ML in June 1937. Also AICC Papers, File 38/1937, Letter from A.B. Abbasi to Congress office. ‘Dr. Ashraf has his religious unpopularity against him. Could he assure his co-religionists to be a true Musalman?’

44 Madina, 13 November, 1937.

45 Mahmudabad was one of UP's most prominent landlords. He was the youngest member of the ML's central working committee, its National Treasurer as well as the chief organizer of the Muslim League National Guard set up to defend Muslim lives and property. He was also the chief patron of the All India Muslim Students Federation (AIMSF) formed by Muslim students who had broken away from the All India Students federation (AISF). His Kaiserbagh palace was the virtual headquarters of the UPML. Even though he belonged to the landed aristocracy, Mahmudabad cultivated an austere personal style. He wore khaddar, was known for his generosity towards his tenants and his piety as a practicing Shia.

46 Speech at Arrah reported in Asar-i-Jadid, 18 April 1939, in Husain, Syed Ishtiaq (ed.), Khutbat-i-Raja Sahab Mahmudabad: Raja Sahab Mahmudabad Mohammad Amir Ahmad Khan ke Khutbat, Irshadat, Interviews aur Chand Aham Dastavezat ka Majmua, Karachi, 1997.

47 The Leader, 18 October, 1937.

48 Asar-i-Jadid, 18 April 1939, in Khutbat-i-Raja Sahab Mahmudabad, Karachi, 1997.

49 Mahmudabad's speech at the Bombay Provincial Muslim League Conference reported in Asar-i-Jadid 13 January 1938 in Khutbat-i-Raja Sahab Mahmudabad, Karachi, 1997.

50 Mahmudabad's views were echoed by some of his colleagues in the UPML. Khaliquzzaman, in a speech at the Kanpur District Political Conference, noted that the Muslims had no need for a special socialist programme since the Holy Quran embodied all the principles of socialism. See Madina, 21 August, 1938.

51 See Mahmudabad's later essay ‘Pakistan ki Taarif’, Sidq, 11 May, 1941.

52 Zulqarnain, 28 July, 1938.

53 The Leader, 21 October, 1937.

54 PAI for the week ending 3 September, 1938.

55 PAI for the week ending 14 May, 1938.

56 The Leader, 18 August, 1938.

57 This was done against the wishes of Jinnah who wanted to put up an ML candidate but was thwarted by the Khaliquzzaman group. This election took place before the collapse of negotiations between the Congress and this group on ministry-making in July, 1937. Jinnah, in his talks with the Jamiat ul ulema-i-Hind leaders, in fact threatened to resign from the Presidentship of the ML if the party did not put up a candidate in Bahraich. See Leader, 30 March, 1937.

58 The Congress got a majority of votes in the rural pockets of Orai and Jhansi but lost heavily in the urban Hamirpur segment. See Nehru's statement to the press, AICC Papers/ File G-61/1937.

59 See Rao Hamid Ali Khan to Jinnah, in Masood, Mukhtar (ed.), Eyewitnesses of History: A Collection of Letters Addressed to Quaid e Azam, Karachi, 1968, pp. 95–6. ‘The defeat at Bijnaur has spread a very bad effect among the Muslims all over the country and particularly in the neighbouring districts. In my own village where the majority is of Muslims, are thinking of where to go [sic].’ Also see Shafaat Ahmad Khan to Jinnah, pp. 70–72.

60 The Leader, 18 November, 1937.

61 Madina, 21 January, 1938.

62 The Arya Samaj agitation was against the Nizam of Hyderabad for his alleged denial of religious rights to his Hindu subjects. See PAI for the week ending 24 June, 1939.

63 PAI for the week ending 2 April, 1938.

64 PAI for the week ending 19 March, 1938.

65 K.M. Ashraf to Nehru, 2 September, 1938, in Chatterji, Basudev (ed.), Towards Freedom: Documents on the Movement for Independence in India, 1938, Part I, Delhi, 1999, p. 87.

66 These were first opened with Shaukat Ali, the old Khilafatist, in 1938. The Congress left wing turned to Jinnah himself in the following year. See Liaquat Ali Khan's letter to Jinnah, 16 June 1939 in Qasimi, Muhammad Reza (ed.), Liaquat-Jinnah Correspondence, Karachi, 2003. Liaquat wrote to Jinnah that Sajjad Zaheer, Mian Iftikharuddin, Dr Hussain Zaheer met him to say that the left wing was anxious for a settlement with the League and was willing to force the High Command to acknowledge the ML as the representative organization of the Muslims if the ML could give them a face saver. They also stated that the Hindus in the left wing were fully with them in this regard.

67 Haig to Linlithgow, Haig Papers, 10 April, 1939.

68 Government Gazette of the United Provinces Published by Authority Extraordinary, Lucknow, Monday, 28 March 1938. Government of the UP General Administration Department, pp. 2–6. The following background to the problem is based on this Gazette. File 113/1939 (Public Information), UP State Archives, Lucknow.

69 Gazette Extraordinary, p. 3.

71 Fortnightly Report for the first half of January 1938, File 18/1/37 Home Poll, NAI, New Delhi.

72 PAI for the week ending 30 April, 1938.

73 See PAI for the week ending 3 September, 1938 for its report on Rae Bareli.

74 S.M. Ismail to Jinnah, 10 April, 1939, Qaid-i-Azam Papers, Reel 14, File 161 Madhe Sahaba, April–July, 1939, Neg 10773, Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library, London. (Henceforth, QA Papers, OIOC).

75 PAI for the week ending 28 May, 1938.

76 PAI for the week ending 24 September, 1938.

77 PAI for the week ending 18 March, 1939.

78 PAI for the week ending 25 June, 1938.

79 PAI for the week ending 13 May, 1939.

80 PAI for the week ending 23 April, 1938.

81 PAI for the week ending 22 April, 1939.

82 PAI for the week ending 4 March, 1939.

83 PAI for the week ending 15 April, 1939.

84 PAI for the week ending 11 March, 1939.

85 PAI for the week ending 18 February, 1939.

86 PAI for the week ending 13 May and 10 June, 1939. This was a constant ML refrain and was possibly true to an extent as partners of the Congress such as the Jamiatul Ulama-i-Hind and the Ahrars tried to use the dispute to their own advantage. However, what must also be noted is that the prominent UP ML leader, Khaliquzzaman, was widely rumoured to have stoked Shia Sunni tensions in 1936–37 in order to ensure his election victory. See Shafaat Ahmad Khan to Jinnah 18 May, 1939, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers. Shafaat wrote that ‘the issue is entirely due to the machinations of the Congress though it must be confessed that in 1936, during the election campaign of Khaliquzzaman sahib, the Sunni agitation was deliberately engineered by Khaliq against the Shia candidate and a Shia Sunni riot in May or June was the consequence’.

87 PAI for the week ending 4 June, 1938.

88 PAI for the week ending 24 June, 1939.

89 PAI for the week ending 24 September, 1938.

90 PAI for the week ending 1 October, 1938.

92 PAI for the week ending 17 September, 1938.

93 PAI for the week ending 15 April, 1939.

94 PAI for the week ending 15 April, 1939.

95 Haig to Linlithgow, 24 January, 1939, Haig Papers.

96 PAI for the week ending 1 April, 1939.

97 Open Letter by Mustafa, M. Golam, SecretaryAnjuman-i-Mustafavi, The Moonlight, 10 April, 1939, Qaid-e-Azam Papers, IOR Neg 10773, Reel 14, File 161, Madhe Sahaba, OIOC, British Library, London.

98 The Moonlight, 10 April, 1939, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers.

99 Tabarra was further distinguished from Sub or abuse which was forbidden by the Quran. It was pointed out that the Quran enjoined the believers not to abuse the Gods of others so that they may not out of ignorance abuse your God.

100 Ibid.

101 Karim ur Raza Khan to Jinnah, 27 April, 1939, Madhe Sahaba file, QA Papers.

102 See PAIs for the months of April and May 1939.

103 Haig to Linlithgow, 12 June, 1939, Haig Papers.

104 PAI for the week ending 3 June, 1939.

105 The Pioneer, 29 April, 1939.

106 Telegram by Mahmudabad, Pirpur, Ismail Khan to Jinnah 1 May, 1939, Madhe Shaba File, QA Papers.

107 See Telegrams by Hassan Ispahán to Jinnah from Calcutta and Sir Sultan Ahmad from Patna, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers.

108 Sir Raza Ali to Jinnah, 19 June, 1939, Madhe Sahaba File, QA Papers.

109 Ibid.

110 Haig to Linlithgow, 9 May, 1939, Haig Papers.

111 Hindustan Times, 14 June, 1939.

112 Haig to Linlithgow, 12 June, 1939, Haig Papers.

113 Nizam of Hyderabad to Lord Linlithgow, 25 April, 1939, Linlithgow Papers MSS EUR. F125/121.

114 The Kanpur mosque affair occurred in 1930. The UP Government as part of its Town Improvement Scheme in Kanpur decided to demolish a part of the mosque compound in order to let a road pass through. This was objected to by Muslim leaders and snowballed into a major movement across India.

115 The Statesman, 3 June, 1939.

116 The Pioneer, 6 June, 1939.

117 Haig to Linlithgow, 9 August, 1939, Haig Papers.

118 See Note by the Chief Secretary, United Provinces Government, on the Development of the Khaksar Agitation in the United Provinces L/P&J/5/268; OIOC, British Library, London.

119 Haig to Linlithgow, 25 September, 1939, Haig Papers.

120 Ibid.

121 Nehru to Gandhi, 25 December, 1939, SWJN, vol. 10, p. 417.

122 Hallett to Linlithgow, 1 January, 1940, Hallett Papers.

123 For an elaboration of this argument see David Gilmartin, ‘Partition, Pakistan and South Asian History: In Search of a Narrative’, Journal of Asian Studies, 57, no. 4 (November 1998), pp. 1068–1095. I, however, differ from Gilmartin in that I do not see Pakistan as purely a ‘symbolic vision of Muslim unity’ which was ‘extraordinarily vague’ in the public mind or as ultimately a ‘non-territorial vision of nationality’. For an elaboration of my argument see my forthcoming book, Between Homeland and the Nation: The Muslims of the United Provinces and the Movement for Pakistan 1935–1947, based on my doctoral thesis submitted to the Department of History, University of Minnesota, May 2008.

* An initial version of this paper was first presented at a colloquium ‘One Hundred Years of the Muslim League’ at the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago on 3 November, 2006. I would like to thank the organizers of the conference, as well as its participants, especially Muzaffar Alam, Dipesh Chakrabarty, David Gilmartin, C.M. Naim, Sumit Sarkar and Ishtiaq Ahmad Zilli for their encouragement. I would also like to thank David Gilmartin, B.M. Chandana Gowda and Ajay Skaria for commenting on early drafts of the paper.

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