Freedom fighter Allah Baksh Sumroo’s life shows that Indian Muslims are not Pakistanis-left-behind

Allah Baksh Sumroo, a premier of Sindh province—equivalent to the current post of a chief minister—was a committed patriot, whom the Muslim League hated to the extreme. Sumroo’s story directly challenges the ongoing communal and divisive rhetoric where Muslims are projected as a comprador class that was wholeheartedly behind the Muslim League’s two-nation theory.
28 July, 2020

The narrative that all Muslims got together to seek India’s partition on the basis of the two-nation theory is now a few decades old. It has acquired salience again, with some hyperventilating neo-nationalists reiterating that all Muslims are traitors as they joined Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League to divide India. These people forget that a large number of Muslims, who consciously decided to stay back, had a choice—either to leave and be Pakistanis or stay back in India and choose their homeland. Many opted for the latter. A similar choice was made by many Hindus who decided to stay back in Pakistan. However, staying back in a democratic, secular and plural India was different from opting for a regressive and sectarian Islamist Pakistan. The future of both, who stayed behind, has proved that so tellingly. 

Unfortunate political developments and the prevalent communal rhetoric in India has forced me to go back to the history afresh. There is a concerted campaign to malign all Indian Muslims as leftover Pakistanis, who are enemies within the country; the narrative is that these fifth columnists should be shunted out to Pakistan in the so-called national interest. But merely indicting all Muslims for the sake of petty majoritarian politics goes against the facts of history. 

We are a nation obsessed with history, more often concerned with correcting the presumed historical wrongs than learning anything from the past. With this compulsive preoccupation, some of us live perpetually in the past. Even so, most people believe that Maulana Azad, an Independence-era leader, fought a lone battle for a united India, while a majority of Indian Muslims vouched for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and his Muslim League. This has no factual basis and any extent of living in the past will help unravel actual facts.  

To put the record straight, some unsung heroes from our recent history should be talked about. There are many historical characters that were crucial to countering the politics of hate and division of the country around the time of partition. Among them was Allah Baksh Sumroo, who served as a premier of the Sindh province—equivalent to the current post of a chief minister—for two terms between 1938 and 1942. Sumroo was a committed patriot, whom the Muslim League hated to the extreme. He belonged to a feudal Sindhi family but was known for a frugal living and commitment to democratic values. Sumroo wore khadi even as a young man of twenty. We hear about using flags as a power symbol so often these days, but he never used a flag on his official car even in those feudal and colonial times.

What is important to remember today is his commitment to undivided India. Sumroo emerged as a major challenge to the divisive politics of communalists of all hues, particularly the Muslim League. Azad was undoubtedly a national face, espousing composite nationalism, but he actually derived strength from such regional but powerful voices like Sumroo. 

To go into the details of his massive anti-Muslim League politics would require a much longer discussion. Let me just refer to one of the most important episodes in the history of our sad partition of the country. The Muslim League passed a resolution recommending the creation of an independent state of Muslims on 23 March 1940 at Lahore. Soon, Sumroo organised a huge conference of patriotic Muslims between 27 and 30 April 1940 in Delhi, called the Azad Muslim Conference. According to some estimates, there were not less than seventy-five thousand people who gathered from all over India to condemn the Muslim League for its divisive politics.

Most of these people came from a large number of political and social organisations, largely representing the backward and artisanal sections of the Muslim society. This representation at the conference was an indicator that the Muslim League spoke for the ashraf, or the privileged sections of the Muslim society while the majority of Muslims—the ajlaf, or the backward sections—remained almost untouched by the League’s rhetoric. The British identified a collaborative section of the Muslim community, helped in forming the Muslim League but this section largely represented the affluent—the zamindars, and business and professional classes. The leadership that emerged in the League had little clue to the highly differentiated Muslim society they claimed to represent. Azad could see this early. Referring to Indian Muslims at the time, he wrote in his weekly Urdu language newspaper, Al Hilal, in 1912: 

The most unfortunate part of their life is that they have a section of elite who are in the forefront and leading them. Those are the self-proclaimed leaders of the community. They have put the crown on their own head, with their own hands, instead of the masses doing the same. They indulged in all sorts of exhibitionism of power and the worst is show of their wealth. And by so doing they had converted the millat [class] of downtrodden men in their community as their slaves and camp followers. And now if anyone tries to question their validity as leaders or defy them, they are successfully suppressed and annihilated by those selfish leaders; as they have the power of money.

Sumroo’s presidential address at the Azad Muslim Conference in April 1940 also exposed the misplaced arguments of the League, particularly in the name of religion and culture. All through his speech he spoke extensively on the shared history and heritage, stressed on the compositeness of Indian nation and nationalism and emphasised that the compact between diverse communities cannot be severed. Strongly condemning the two-nation theory exponents, The Sunday Statesman of 28 April 1940 quoted him saying in his speech:

A majority of the 90,000,000 Indian Muslims who are descendants of the earlier inhabitants of India are in no sense other than the sons of the soil with the Dravidian and the Aryan and have as much right to be reckoned among the earliest settlers of this common land. The nationals of different countries cannot divest themselves of their nationality merely by embracing one or another faith. In its universal sweep Islam, the faith, can run in and out of as many nationalities and regional cultures as may be found in world.

He underlined the long history of shared heritage of Hindus and Muslims, as mentioned in a Hindustan Times report on the same day:

It is a vicious fallacy for Hindu, Muslim and other inhabitants of India to arrogate to themselves an exclusively proprietary right over either the whole or any particular part of India. The country as an indivisible whole and as one federated and composite unit belongs to all the inhabitants of the country alike and is as much the inalienable and imprescriptible heritage of the Indian Muslim as of other Indians.

Sumroo made these detailed references to the shared history and intermixing of Hindu and Muslim cultures over the centuries to counter both the League as well as those who were arguing for Hindutva majoritarianism. He was aware, like Azad, of the forces which threatened the future of united composite India. Sumroo needs to be talked about today more seriously to counter all those who threaten fellow Muslim citizens to go to Pakistan. 

In his address, Sumroo provided a counter for another argument put forth by neo-nationalists today—that Muslims asked for Pakistan and once it was granted by dividing the country, all of them should have moved there. This would have settled the issue forever. All those who make such insinuations today need to know what popular Muslim leaders like Sumroo said of the creation of Pakistan:

It was based on false understanding that India is inhabited by two nations, Hindu and Muslim. It is much more to the point to say that all Indian Mussalmans are proud to be Indian nationals and they are equally proud that their spiritual level and creedal realm is Islam. As Indian nationals—Muslims and Hindus and others, inhabit the land and share every inch of the motherland and all its material and cultural treasures alike according to the measures of their just and fair rights and requirements as the proud sons of the soil.

Azad, too, sent a message of support to the Azad Muslim conference as he was not able to attend it. He expressed his solidarity with the conference and wished that the deliberations would be fruitful for the great cause of the freedom of the country and the Muslims. 

This fight for composite and inclusive Indian nationalism, which looks so alarming and threatening today, is more than few decades old. Azad and Sumroo challenged these regressive and divisive forces in the 1930s and 1940s. They almost took the battle to the enemy’s camp by organising a huge conference in Delhi, which unnerved the Muslim League leadership. Sumroo was assassinated in 1943. It was suspected to be the League’s handiwork.  

We can comprehend his stature and the sense of loss on his death by reading some of the reactions in contemporary press and also the pain expressed by several nationalist leaders. The Hindustan Times described him as follows:

… finest of Sindhis, one of the truest of Musalmans, one of the noblest sons of India who loved his peasants for he loved the land; and he used to wear khaddar even in the twenties, for he loved the poor. Both the Hindus and Muslims looked up to him as a leader … He had an all-India mind and in the midst of division and strife, pinned his faith on an independent united India, and dreamt the dream of the united State of Asia in the years to come … 

His murder was seen as a national calamity by several papers. The Amrita Bazar Patrika called him “one of the most vigorous personalities, endowed with a high sense of duty and rare courage of conviction, who easily commanded the respect and admiration of all, even of those who differed from him on some or the other public questions.” Commenting on his death, the newspaper added, “A life so full of promise has been cut short. And India is much poorer today by the death of the young man of 42 whose sturdy patriotism and devotion to duty would be cherished long after the present unhappy situation has ended and India has come into her own.”

The right wing in India often says that Subhas Chandra Bose, a leader of the anticolonial struggle, did not find his rightful place in Indian history. I find it politically motivated and not really a sincere observation. It is people like Sumroo, who seem to be lost in our history records, even in the writings of the so-called liberal and Marxist historians, except for a chapter in a book by Shamshul Islam titled Muslims Against Partition of India

Another prominent Muslim voice from the past, who can rightfully represent our composite nationalist ethos is Saifuddin Kitchlew, a Kashmiri freedom fighter whose family moved to Punjab. It was his arrest along with Dr Satyapal, a political leader, that triggered the protests leading to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. Most of us are oblivious to his contributions as well. Kitchlew had also mourned the loss of Sumroo saying:

At this critical period of the freedom movement in the country the death of a man like Mr Allah Baksh is a thundering blow to the forces of nationalism. Mr Allah Baksh was a thorough going nationalist. Mr Allah Baksh is dead but his work will remain. 

It is necessary to know about such men and women from our past as their profiles directly challenge the ongoing communal and divisive rhetoric where Muslims are projected as a comprador class that was wholeheartedly behind the League’s two-nation theory. Azad was surely the prime political figure, an Islamic scholar, who stressed on the composite nationalism. However, he was not fighting a lone battle against the Muslim League, as Jinnah wanted the British and the Muslims to believe. He was hated and derided as a show boy of the Congress party, precisely to show that most of the other Muslims and their leaders were with the idea of Pakistan. This falsehood needs to be exposed, particularly in the midst of the ongoing divisive politics.  

S Irfan Habib is a historian and author. He was earlier the Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.