The Sikhs and the Independence Movement
Indian nationalism emerged in the later nineteenth century, and by the end of the first World War the movement for independence was becoming a major force in public life. During the decade from 1919 to 1929, there were waves of protest against the British that were unprecedented in extent, duration, and intensity. The decade ranged from the Amritsar meeting of the Indian National Congress (in the aftermath of the Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and in anticipation of the Non-Cooperation campaign which grew from the activist programs of Khilafatism and Gandhian Satyagraha) to the Lahore Congress which adopted the memorable resolution that called for purna swaraj. Yet it was also an era marked by major constitutional advance. The politics of protest, prompted by grievous causes and moving to direct action, at times displaced — but never replaced — the moderate politics of constitutional discussion. The era was one in which “the Raj . . . found new moderates with whom to deal, men whose caste and communal rivalries with other Indians inclined them to work with the British. This hardly required any contrivance on the part of the rulers. Like a croupier, the Raj made contracts with one player after another; but as the one turned aside, the next always made his way to the table.” Constitutional politics, like the politics of protest, was both generated by and generative of competition and collaboration. The Punjab, a province which had a Muslim communal majority that could be held in check when Hindus and Sikhs worked in combination, tested the limits of the three communities and of the two kinds of politics in the Indian independence movement — the limits of the effectiveness of electoral agreements and the limits of the commitment to non-violent protest. In the decade from 1919 to 1929, political patterns were established there which were replicated later in the process leading to India’s independence, in the 1930s and the 1940s, and even beyond.
Constitutional Advance and Communal Electorates
The instruments of representative government which the rulers of British India created in the late nineteenth century were conservative and were crafted to preserve the place of certain social classes, interests, and institutions. Included among them were the various composite “communities” composed of the diverse members of a single religious tradition, e.g., the Muslim community (and at a later stage the Sikh and sections of the Hindu). Each of these religious communities was treated as a separate category for the purpose of political representation. In the regulations which gave effect to the Indian Councils Act of 1892 (and which empowered British executives in the provinces to appoint to a minority of seats in their advisory councils non-officials who were recommended by organizations such as municipal and district boards, universities, and merchant associations), the Muslims were included in the list of classes and interests for which representation should be secured. The Morley-Minto reforms, embodied in the Indian Councils Act of 1909, reserved seats in the provincial councils (except for those of Punjab and Burma) for Muslims. They were selected by direct election in separate electorates composed exclusively of members of the Muslim community — the first communal electorates. This pattern of separate electorates, whether non-communal or communal, was expanded in the provisions of the Montagu-Chelmsford (or Montford) reforms set forth in the Government of India Act of 1919. The Act provided for enlarged and more powerful legislative councils in the provinces, added separate electorates for the Muslim community in the Punjab and in the Central Provinces where a council had been formed in 1914, and created new electorates on the basis of religious community — notably for the Sikhs in the Punjab.
These instruments of representation were reviewed in Britain and India in the period from 1927 through 1932, with a view toward assessing their effectiveness as a framework for the transition to responsible government and toward a constitution under which India’s status would be more nearly that of a full dominion or a free nation. Official review of the Montford reforms began in November 1927 when Parliament appointed Sir John Simon to chair an all-white Indian Statutory Commission. Independent of the official inquiry, and in large measure in reaction to it, Indian political leaders made their own proposals for India’s future. A broad coalition met in 1928, under the chairmanship of Pandit Motilal Nehru, as the All-Parties Conference and recommended that India should become a dominion having a strong central government and a unitary electorate, with minority rights protected by reservation of seats in all legislative bodies except for those of the Punjab and Bengal. In the same year an All-Parties Muslim Conference met under the chairmanship of the Aga Khan and resolved that India should become a federation of semi-autonomous states, reconstituted into a framework designed to safeguard Muslim communal interests. These conferences, along with the Simon Commission, also fueled a debate within the Sikh community about whether to cooperate with the official inquiry and whether to support the continuation of separate, communal electorates.
The controversy generated by dissatisfaction in India over the Statutory Commission’s members and its work became so great that, over Sir John Simon’s objections, Viceroy Irwin was authorized to announce that the British government would invite representatives from India to attend a conference in England for a full discussion of constitutional issues. The 31 October 1929 announcement also indicated that the discussion would include the prospect of a federation of British India with the Indian States. This led in fact to a series of three conferences in London between November 1930 and December 1932. At the first of these Round Table Conferences there were 89 delegates, with 57 from British India, 16 representatives of Parliament, and 16 from the Princely States. But because the Indian National Congress had launched a campaign of civil disobedience against the government, it went unrepresented. Lacking participation by the Congress and preoccupied with the problems of creating an Indian federation, the first conference adjourned in January 1931 without making appreciable progress on the crucial question of communal representation.
The second Round Table Conference got off to an uncertain start in September 1931. Mahatma Gandhi attended as the sole representative of the Congress, the Princes were evidently reluctant to enter into a federation, and the communal question blocked progress for British India. Of the enlarged membership of 114 at this second conference, 51 were appointed to the Minorities Committee which was charged with the responsibility to formulate a recommendation concerning communal representation and procedures to protect the rights of minorities. The Muslim members of the Minorities Committee demanded that separate, communal electorates must be preserved. They proposed that seats in the legislatures of the Muslim-majority provinces of the Punjab and Bengal should be based on the actual population ratios there, while seats in provinces in which Muslims were in a minority should be based on the negotiated ratios which were weighted favorably toward Muslims and which dated back to the pact between the Congress and the Muslim League signed in Lucknow in 1916. The Sikhs had not been party to that pact and did not favor preserving the weightage for Muslim minorities, partly because they themselves suffered the irony of being a minority of significant standing in the Punjab and yet of having not been accorded a strength of representation equivalent to that given to Muslims in those provinces in which the latter were in a minority.
The British feared a communal deadlock which would make constitutional advance impossible, and they sought to win the cooperation of the Muslim delegates. Already at the end of the first conference the British had proposed that Sind should be separated from Bombay as a Governor’s province, and at the end of the second conference the Prime Minister declared that the North- West Frontier as well would be made a Governor’s province. Elevation of these two Muslim-majority regions to full provincial status was expected to have strong appeal for that community’s delegates. Yet they sustained their demand for communal electorates and gained support from the Hindu depressed classes, the Anglo-Indians, and a section of the Indian Christians — each of which found it to advantage to conjoin their own claims with those of the Muslims. The Sikhs, the Congress, and the Hindu Mahasabha together proposed the abolition of communal electorates.