Anti-colonial movements as passive revolution: Abdur Razzaq’s insights on 1947

Spread the love

This stain-splattered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn,
This is not the dawn which we were waiting for in ferment
This is not the dawn with longing for which
Friends walked on hoping to find somewhere or else.
̶  (Faiz 1971: 122-23; trans. modified)

These lines open Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous poem Subh-e-Azadi (August 1947), translated as ‘Freedom’s Dawn (August 1947)’. Agonized  and agonizing as it is, the poem provides a measure of naïveté of great expectations too, as if such daybreak was never apprehended. Included in Dast-e-Saba (1952), Faiz’s poem became emblematic of what commentators would later call the pity of Partition. For a Bengali contemporary of the Panjabi poet’s,  ‘Abdur Razzaq of Dacca’, who around that time was engaged in drafting a thesis on political parties in undivided India the disaster was no midnight’s child. The English journalist Dick Wilson, sometime editor of the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’, dedicated a book with this inscription: “To Abdur Razzaq of Dacca who first made Asia come alive in my mind” (Wilson 1971: Dedication).

When the Independence of India Act, passed in the British parliament on July 16, 1947 and received royal assent in two days, setting up the two Dominions of India and Pakistan was providing for, among many other things, the territorial division of British India, constituting two provinces each in the former Panjab and Bengal of British India, Abdur Razzaq was a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), described as “an institution of higher education for elites within the British Empire, in particular India” (Moscovitch 2012: 35).

The Act also provided a separate Governor-General for each Dominion and a legislature with full authority to make laws, thus bringing British colonial rule to an end. Razzaq was neither surprised nor lamented the facts. He analysed instead. Going beyond sale patters and platitudes, he only asked two elementary questions: what imperatives determined the liquidation of British rule in India and what propelled it to divide their handiwork into two Dominions of India and Pakistan? Conclusions he reached in 1950 may appear new even three quarters of a century later because they are facts of experience. Setting the loose talk aside, Razzaq goes for the plain facts of experience. He records: “When Independence did come, it came in the form of an Act of Parliament”. But why? In asking this question, he had to ask, necessarily, probe another: what on earth were the political movements in India doing, only to discover that they had no programme beyond the demand of freedom from foreign domination principle?


Abdur Razzaq had no time to waste before reaching the anti-climax: it was all a business deal at the rush hour. The trail to this anti-climax which he followed was bi-modal: one mode mental and the other material. The manner and method of exercise of power in India followed material developments in the means and relations of production. Political ideas always played second fiddle to changes on the material plane. “The political process in India,” writes Razzaq, “had not been carried to its logical denouement on the wings of fiery resolutions either of the Congress or the Muslim League or of any other political or semi-political body. The resolutions of such bodies have mainly served to draw attention to changes or impending changes in the manner and method of the exercise of power in India. Independence did not come as a dramatic culmination of mass struggles against an implacable foe, but as a legal undertaking initiated by Parliament to cede control over its previous colony (Razzaq 2022: 2-3).

Abdur Razzaq’s take on the failure of the much-trumpeted revolutionary idea of Swaraj in the early 1920s to attain its avowed goal is also deceptively simple. Non-cooperation, an idea integral to its attainment, lacking appropriate sanction, remained in the end only a great idea. “The reason behind its failure to bring about Swaraj,” Razzaq observes, “was that the action taken to create sanction behind the idea was not commensurate with its greatness. The predominant body of men on whose active cooperation the Government was being carried on in the 1920s came from the educated and propertied classes. The great idea alone had no power to move them in the direction of non-cooperation” (Razzaq 2022: 4).

Abdur Razzaq hits the bull’s eye with this one simple fact. The ‘educated and propertied classes’ from which came the ostensible non-cooperators also provided the principal cooperators to the British administration in India. “The fact,” he rightly observes, “is that the political evolution of India has been the result not merely of a political struggle” (Razzaq 2022: 78). Objective trends include developments in the state apparatus as well as the economic laws of motion underwriting the social formation. The state apparatus in British India, as elsewhere, formed no exception to the rule of forming historical blocs. In colonial India too, the exercise of political power, at least since land revenue ceased to be the principal source of government’s income following changes in the economic formation, depended on the native allies of the foreign bureaucracy collaborating with the master.

Razzaq is at his best where he rises to lay bare the secret of Indian nationalism: “Political movements, basically, have voiced the sentiments and expressed the needs of these allies. There is no question of a struggle by the educated middle class against the indigenous allies of imperialism in India for the simple reason that the educated middle class has essentially belonged to the same class as the allies themselves” (Razzaq 2022: 79).

What, then, was the eventual contribution of Swaraj in the actual political development of India’s freedom movement? The mentality of a pressure group only, to be brief, and no political programme or party for that matter: “The attempt to fashion a political party with a positive programme was suddenly abandoned. In its stead, the political movements since 1920 formulated their problem in the negative terms of liquidating foreign control over the country” (Razzaq 2022: 4).

Class composition of the political movements, in other words, explains it all. “The Congress consisting as it did of diverse elements and ideologies was united in one thing only—that of achieving freedom from foreign domination. The predominance of pressure group mentality consequent upon the absorption in a negative task, had fatal consequences for the growth of political parties in India.” These consequences, of course, included the prevention of working out a common political programme. Abdur Razzaq’s thematic question, “Why was there no political party in India?”, was thus firmly answered: no programme, no party. “[The] notion of a positive welfare state,” interpolated he, “could not be reconciled with ‘ploughing the wilderness’ to pursue the one-point agenda that the Congress programme had become” (Razzaq 2022: 4-5).


For Razzaq, the Independence of India Act, 1947, with its provisions for dividing India into two states—India and Pakistan—owes it to this lack of a programme for a positive welfare state. The imaginary opinion which treats the division of 1947 as a function of the Machiavellian tactics of the ‘third party’ bent on dividing “what nature and history of man in India had designed as a unity,” according to Razzaq is not sustainable (Razzaq 2022: 5).

The idea of India’s ‘natural unity’ itself is a cultural idea, ‘an article of faith’ for a long time, indeed, and moreover, a highly contested idea. There were, to be brief, many nations in India, some developed and some still developing. The ‘unity of India’ or otherwise has always been an administrative fiat even before the British rule united the sub-continent by the fact of conquest and subordination. “The concept of the unity of India, the one concept on which political India was irreconcilably divided,” Razzaq writes, “was primarily derived from the history of British administration in India” (Razzaq 2022: 96).

If it was the Briton who united it, who then broke the fabric of India’s body politic? The mountain Razzaq took on shoulders is to provide the answer: the educated Indian, the Indian bourgeoisie or the middle class, you name it, who was also in part the product of the British rule in India. Abdur Razzaq took the challenge “to explain the division of India with reference to the climate of thought of the educated Indian whose task it was to initiate the political movements in India” and I am obliged to say that he achieved it remarkably well. His method is all the more remarkable inasmuch as he sought the thought-climes of the educated Indian, “in the permanent contributions to the two vernacular literatures of Bengali and Urdu in India,” leaving behind resolutions of political bodies, press clippings, etc., to the proper baskets they belong. “In the permanent contributions to these literatures,” Razzaq adds, “is enshrined the results of the searchings of the heart that began in the early years of the 19th century,” or so Razzaq writes (Razzaq 2022: 5).

The place where Razzaq uncovers the political feat par excellence of the educated Indian is on the plane of the mind, the second mode on the trail. If this class or class-bloc, if you will, was not good for much else, they were worthy in preventing further split in the successor Dominions by their permanent hostility to self-flagellation.

Abdur Razzaq catches the Indian National Congress out in its own words, as incarnated in an official history, c. 1935. The Congress, according to its official historian, was destined to full two great missions. It, on the one hand, as an avowedly national body was committed to the political objective of uniting all Indians, irrespective of religious creed, caste, or nationality, for attaining freedom from foreign power. While also assuming as “the organ and exponent of national renaissance” the solemn duty of evolving a grand synthesis of various schools of Hindu religious thought, “so as to be able to dispel prejudice and superstition, to renovate and purify the old faith, and reconcile Vedantic idealism with the nationalism of the new age.” It is indeed a pity that the Congress did not quite look in the face to see any contradiction between its two great missions. Razzaq’s wry remark undeniably reaches its target: “In the degree to which [it] attained success in fulfilling this great mission, the Congress was, by implication, working hard for the division of India, notwithstanding the numerous protestations to the contrary” (Sitaramayya, 1935: 22-23; Razzaq 2022: 5-6).

The third party, however, had supplied the final cause: English education as the royal road to social and economic power. An imbecile middle class, since the third quarter of the fateful 18th century, “came into being through embracing the deliberate attempts to introduce English education” as “all roads to improved status during Company rule in India have been through the connection with company’s administration” (Razzaq 2022: 103). As Razzaq has noted neither the great merchants and traders, nor even the members of the landed aristocracy as such were the dominant groups in Indian society, because entry to the landed aristocracy itself was determined primarily by way of connections with the servants of the Company. “The growing classes of Indian employees of the Company,” in Razzaq’s words, “were the men who were the natural leaders of Indian society. Undoubtedly, they held minor positions in the Company but still as a class they were the most powerful as well as prosperous among the Indians. The principle and the method of their recruitment, as well as the manner in which they were educated and the subjects on which they were educated, determined the intellectual climate of the coming middle class” (Razzaq 2022: 104).

If one primitive motif that drove English education in the late 18th century was providing men able to understand the language well enough working as interpreters between the English merchants and indigenous trading classes, the other was the moral regeneration of the people insofar as it would facilitate conversion to Christianity. The content of the education imparted through English, or adapted from the English source materials, had invariably this all-important objective in view. “The first organized attempt to introduce English,” as Razzaq notes, “was inextricably connected with the missionary aim of conversion” (Razzaq 2022: 107).

It must be one of those ironies of history, that the missionary efforts at promoting English education to facilitate conversion to Christianity “seemed to produce only a reformed Hinduism”, as men like Rammohan Roy were moved by altogether different motives. “The missionary,” notes Razzaq, “in fact, by his uncontrolled and indiscreet enthusiasm had achieved an end exactly contrary to his wishes. The indigenous movement for reformation was the direct answer to the proselytizing zeal of the missionary. So far as the larger question of the long-term development in the society was concerned, it had one very unfortunate consequence. The introduction of English which could have been a wholly secular question was as a matter of fact, instrumental in bringing forth a revivalism in the educated class which did not exhaust itself even by the end of the century” (Razzaq 2022: 107-08).

On Rammohan Roy, protagonist of English education and European–at least English—leaning in India, Razzaq only has this unsavory remark to offer: “All through the period of his active life the subjects to which he was mostly devoted were purely religious” (Razzaq 2022: 108). The worse was yet to come though. The owl of Minerva only takes flight after the sun has set.  “If the society had contained the devotees of one religion, this religious trend might have developed into a secular outlook. But in the context of India, with devotees of more than one religion, it was merely a prelude to further and disastrous complications” (Razzaq 2022: 109).

With Bankimchandra Chatterjee, who dominates the field of creative activity in the late 19th century, push comes to shove, disastrous complications became a full-fledged trauerspiel. In Bankim’s most widely appreciated literary work Ananda Math, “a piece of most impassioned writing on the theme of Hindu-Muslim struggle,” occurs ‘Vande Mataram’, war song of the sons going to battle against the Muslims. “The book,” remarks Razzaq, “is the work of a genius who has portrayed the whole of his talents in the creation of a hymn of hatred against the Muslims” (Razzaq 2022: 115). He leaves us with two questions: “Under the circumstances, how did the national movement come to pick its theme song from such a book? How did the book come to be so popular?” (Razzaq 2022: 115).

It’s a pity that I now run out of room for either of these or the question of Muslim reform and revivalist movements in India, something only slightly older than its Hindu counterpart. However, let us say for a thread that the disaster came not when people had gone ‘fanatic’, but only when the revivalist phase died down yielding place to a ‘secular’ frame of mind.

Abdur Razzaq’s none too edifying remarks on Mohandas Gandhi also seem to be echoed by a later writer who probably couldn’t consult him. “Perhaps this is a jarring note,” writes Antony Copley, “on which to end this comparison, and it is not intended to suggest that Gandhi was in the least a Fascist; it is simply to comment on the way any political movement with a religious idiom is in danger of arousing a religious and communal response within India’s religiously plural society” (Copley 1988: 19).


1    Antony Copley, ‘Congress and the Risorgimento: A comparative study of nationalism,’ in D. A. Low, ed., The Indian National Congress: Centenary Hindsights (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 1-21.

2    Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Poems by Faiz, Victor Kiernan, trans. (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1971).

3    Brant Moscovitch, ‘Harold Laski’s Indian students and the power of education, 1920-1950,’ Contemporary South Asia, vol. 20, no. 1  (March 2012), pp. 33-44.

4    Abdur Razzaq, Political Parties in India, Ahrar Ahmad, ed. (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2022).

5    Dick Wilson, Asia Awakes: A Continent in Transition, reprint (New York: New American Library, 1971).

The Daily Star, Feb 21, 2022

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *