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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

How the salad bowl of multicultural Bombay shaped the Indian Independence movement

Different communities largely held the same objective of independence, but starkly different methods of how to achieve it and what it would look like

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: August 20, 2021 7:25:49 pm
India, 75 years of independence, india at 75, mumbai, bombay independence movement, Indian independence day, indian independence, gandhi, jinnah, indian national congress, inc, muslim league, parsi, bombay, mumbai communal divide, bombay news, mumbai news, Indian ExpressThe last British troops left the country from the Gateway of India but their legacy of divide and rule remained behind (Wikimedia Commons)

When the Independence movement was at its crescendo, Bombay was home to a diverse group of communities, much like it remains today. When Gandhi arrived in the city in 1916, it was already a teeming metropolis, unconstrained by the bounds of nostalgia like Calcutta and free of the identity crisis that plagued Delhi, soon to become the nation’s capital. From its Parsi traders to its Muslim merchants, across the busy, predominantly Hindu fishing communities and working-class mill compounds, from capitalists to communists and the peasants to the Western educated elite, the city was a patchwork of different identities, sometimes in a state of confluence but more often than not, in one of conflict instead.

Although considered by many to be more European than Indian, according to the famed Bombay historian Jim Masselos, in his essay, Changing Definitions of Bombay, “Bombay was always an Indian city: even in the days of the Raj, Bombay was never merely a white enclave surrounded by an Asian universe.” On the contrary, the city was at the forefront of the resistance, lending its own unique character to the blueprint of what would soon be an independent nation.

The Indian National Congress (INC) and Muslim League were both headquartered in Bombay, as were a number of other volunteer organisations, smaller community groups and student movements. Influential leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Dadabhai Naoroji and Muhammad Ali Jinnah all called Bombay their home at some point. The Khilafat, Non-Cooperation and Quit India Movements were launched from the city with citizens enthusiastically heeding their call. During these movements, protests erupted across Bombay. Markets observed hartals, students sabotaged symbols of colonial rule, crowds picketed foreign goods and lawyers formed aid funds in defence of dissidents arrested by the British.

Communal differences

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, one of India’s busiest train stations (Sameer Patel)

Despite being the epicentre of so many seminal developments, Bombay was still more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. There were a myriad of class and religious conflicts which often culminated in rioting and violence, and a distinct spatial divide between the different ethno-religious groups within the city. In his essay, Parsis and Bombay City, the author Jesse S Palsetia, points out that during the nineteenth century, “the main characteristic of the political culture of Bombay” was the “tradition of political cooperation.” However, that changed after the first two decades of the twentieth century. As different movements took root, often with conflicting approaches and interests, the fissures within Bombay became increasingly apparent. 

Referring to Masselos’ commentary on community development in Bombay as one of ‘integration and encapsulation,’ Palsetia notes that the city developed a pattern of “many communities coexisting within the broader fabric of the city’s life, while safeguarding their unique community and caste interests.” This resulted in a citizenry that, although mostly united in their desire for independence, was patently divided in terms of how to get there. However, according to Faisal Devji, Professor of South Asian History at Oxford University, who spoke with via phone, Bombay despite its cleavages “remained united in regard to its local governance.” In particular, Devji points out that Bombay, unlike other cities at the time, never had separate electorates and its Municipal Corporation consisted of individuals from varied backgrounds.

The city was therefore appealing to Gandhi, who chose to settle there once he returned from South Africa. Although Gandhi was a proponent of a simple village life and aimed to represent the majority of India’s population who resided in the countryside, he understood the value of Bombay’s financial resources and political capital.

Gandhi’s arrival in Bombay politics represented a seminal shift in the workings of the Congress and the League. Once highbrow organisations, after Gandhi initiated his mass movement, the two were forced to follow. This shift was especially prominent in the 1920s when politics in Bombay transformed from being largely elitist to being wholly inclusionary. Shashi Tharoor, in his novel An Era of Darkness, perfectly encapsulates Gandhi’s approach to the nationalist movement. He writes, for Gandhi, “self-governance had to involve the empowerment of the masses, the toiling multitudes of India in whose name the upper classes were clamouring for home rule. This position did not go over well with India’s political class, which consisted in those days largely of aristocrats and lawyers, men of means who discoursed in English and demanded the rights of Englishmen.”

Hindu-Muslim cooperation

Gandhi’s commitment to inclusivity led him to embrace all the different communities within Bombay, even promoting the well-intentioned, albeit verbose, slogan ‘Hindu–Muslim–Sikh–Parsi–Christian–Jew unity’ during the Non-Cooperation Movement. Gandhi’s attempts to promote religious harmony are perhaps best remembered through his interaction with the Khilafat Movement. Established in 1919, by Maulana Kalam Azad and the Ali brothers, the Khilafat Movement was a political protest campaign to defend the Ottoman Caliphate. For Azad and the Ali brothers, Khilafat was an opportunity to “invoke jihad as anti-colonial nationalism and a religious duty to be performed by uniting with Hindus,” writes Robert Rahman Raman in Civil Disobedience and the City. Gandhi for his part embraced the idea and was later officially asked to lead the movement, the only time, according to Devji, that a Hindu was granted the honour of leading a pan-Islamic coalition.

Gandhi announced the joint launch of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movements from Bombay in 1920. However, both met with a premature end and by 1922, the short-lived phase of Hindu-Muslim unity was over. The seeds of disillusionment already existed between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay, exemplified by two major riots that took place during the nineteenth century and exacerbated by the British policy of divide and rule. During the non-cooperation movement many Muslim traders were adversely affected economically and according to Danish Khan, an author and researcher who spoke with, they “began to see the merit of an independent state.” After the movement ended, Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, fled to England and Muhammad Iqbal, a writer by trade, took his place. The League and the Congress soon started drifting in opposing directions, a trajectory that eventually resulted in the Partition of India. Three key developments shaped that trajectory.

 The Hindu-Muslim divide

First, writes Danish Khan, in The Politics of Business, in response to the Gandhian economic approach, “members of the city’s Muslim merchant families formed an alliance with the Parsis and like-minded groups to oppose Congress.” Concerned that Gandhi’s non-cooperation politics would compromise textile workers and traders, the Muslims of Bombay were reluctant to embrace Congress politics.

Second, after the Khilafat Movement ended and communal tensions erupted across the city, the League was finally able to transition from being representatives of the wealthy Muslims into being a movement for the masses. This was compounded by the organisational approach to the 1930 Civil Disobedience Movement. According to Raman, Congress workers and their supporters were “mostly Gujarati, Hindu and Jain merchants, and middle-class Maharashtrians.” As a result, “the Civil-Disobedience Movement in the city acquired a distinct Hindu character.” This subsequently isolated Muslims, who, despite their own lack of singularity, found more in common with members of the religion than they did with members of their class.

Gandhi and Jinnah (Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually, in 1930, Iqbal first put forward the League’s demand for a separate Muslim state. Jinnah, who ironically opposed Gandhi’s attempts to mix religion and politics during the Khilafat Movement, returned to Bombay and reclaimed leadership of the League. Under him, it was clear that the League and the INC had diametrically opposite approaches to independence. According to Khan, “the INC saw independence as the starting point, after which, they would settle matters of governance and religious divides. The League on the other hand wanted to sort out these issues before independence, with the British acting as arbitrators.”

Much is said about the contributions of North Indians Muslims, but often it is forgotten that the Western Muslims, particularly the ones from Bombay, were the ones who actually funded the League. After Jinnah resumed the mantle of leadership, he was able to elicit popular support due to a combination of Congress missteps and his own political acumen. According to Devji, Jinnah, a consummate Bombayite, “was able to posit himself as a leader for all Muslims” by paradoxical virtue of being “a very much non-Muslim figure in terms of appearance, language and mannerism.”

One of those missteps, according to Khan, was the Congress’ decision to impose prohibition across the state due to Gandhi’s personal opposition to alcohol. As the alcohol business contributed much to the state’s revenue, a property tax was introduced in cities like Bombay and Ahmedabad. The city’s Muslim merchants, along with the Parsis, had invested in a lot of property and thought it was “discriminatory to target one particular class to compensate for a Gandhian fad.” Thereafter, in the context of Bombay, “Congress was seen to use the city as a source of finance without doing much for those who were paying municipal taxes and other duties. This turned away several Muslim merchants towards the League even though they did not like Jinnah’s confrontationist attitude.”

When Gandhi and his fellow Congress leaders were arrested in Bombay a day after announcing the Quit India Movement in 1942, Jinnah and the League seized the opportunity to fill the political vacuum they had left behind. Appealing to their dissatisfaction with communal politics in Bombay, Jinnah enticed the city’s Muslim merchant class and working class to unite under the banner of the League in the absence of the Congress. They could now finally claim, as noted by Tharoor, “a popular mandate to speak for the majority of India’s Muslims.”

The idea of Partition in many ways took root in Bombay. Devjil notes this was as much due to practicality as it was to ideology. Prominent families saw the value in supporting the League to promote their own business interests. For example, he points out that the Dalmia family supported the League and Jinnah, because their rivals, the Birlas, supported the Congress. Similarly, the city’s working-class Muslims were swayed by the League’s narrative of Pakistan as a socialist state that would guarantee them economic equality. While not all Muslims were in favour of the Partition, by the time Gandhi was released from prison after the Second World War, his ideal of communal harmony had lost its appeal amongst both Hindus and Muslims alike.  

The Parsis of Bombay

A statue dedicated to Pherozeshah Mehta, a prominent Parsi lawyer, in front of the BMC Headquarters in Mumbai (Sameer Patel)

Another community that was prominent in Bombay politics were the Parsis, who according to Palsetia, “led in defining the emerging Indian response to both protesting and accommodating colonialism.” Parsis had played a dominant role in the earlier, liberal phase of Indian nationalism, with figures such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and Dinsha Wadia occupying leadership positions within the Congress. Dinyar Patel, a Professor at the University of South Carolina, in his essay Beyond Hindu-Muslim Unity, writes about the conflicting interests of the Parsis during the Independence Movement. He asserts that “Parsis, a wealthy colonial elite and a numerically insignificant minority, had never reached a consensus about the degree to which they should cooperate with other Indians in nationalist politics—and whether an emerging Indian national identity should take precedence over their communal identity.”

Additionally, Patel notes that the Parsis were initially wholeheartedly in favour of the Raj, even going as far as arguing that “they themselves were foreigners. More Iranian than Indian.” Naoroji and Mehta, like most Parsis of their time, operated under a similar line of thinking. They both advocated more rights for Indians but did so within the existing constitutional framework established by the British. According to Palsetia, “the shetias were thoroughly socialised to British rule” but were prepared to challenge the British when their religious or humanitarian concerns were threatened.

Parsis in Bombay stayed away from nationalist politics, believing like many of the Muslims that methods such as non-cooperation would compromise their business interests. Despite this, Gandhi was cognizant of the influence of Parsis in Bombay politics and made an overt attempt to integrate them into the movement. His support, to some extent, reassured members of the group who were concerned that independent India would be a Hindu-Muslim state, with no place for minorities like the Parsis and the Christians. However, by and large, Patel states “their political inclinations ranged from mere indifference about Indian affairs to loud protestations of loyalty towards the British.”

Ironically, that changed after the Prince of Wales Riots of 1921 in which Parsis across Bombay were targeted by angry mobs over their support for the British monarchy. At the time of the launch of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920, Patel states that Parsi opposition to Congress “reached an almost fever pitch.” However, following the riots, Gandhi and other Congress leaders vocally signalled their support for the community, repeatedly invoking them to engage in the public debate. This in turn, according to Patel, convinced the Parsis that a “position of indifference towards the nationalist movement” was “an increasingly untenable position to hold.” Thereafter the Parsis were more engaged in nationalist politics but, albeit, not to the extent of other communities.

The Left and the Right

Like the Parsis, the working classes and Communists of Bombay also resisted the ideas espoused by both the League and the Congress. Other groups formed local organisations that promoted independence without aligning themselves directly with the two major parties. The Hindu right, including the RSS, and breakaway factions of the parties were similarly either isolated from or opposed to the movement.

For the Communists, the Congress party’s approach to independence did not address their basic needs. As Raman notes, the Congress was successful in reaching out to the poor but not the workers. The latter therefore aligned themselves with the Communists, and favoured methods that prioritised economic development and the equitable distribution of wealth. Although mill grounds in Parel were used for resistance activities, many of their workers refused to participate. 

Although the Communist party advocated an independent India, announcing those demands from Bombay in 1927, its approach was radically different from that of the Congress. The Communists supported strikes against the British, including one in Bombay that more than 90,000 workers participated in. Some members even joined the Congress during the Second World War while others aligned themselves with the breakaway Congress-Socialist party. The Communist strikes were integral in undermining the Raj during the Second World War and even though the party favoured alternative methods than the League and Congress, it played a significant role in India’s independence movement. 

The Hindu right, especially the RSS, on the other hand, were indifferent to the idea of independence, primarily campaigning on issues that threatened the interests and religious dominance of Hindus. They regularly campaigned against Muslims remaining in India and disapproved of Gandhi and later Nehru’s attempts to form an inclusive and representative movement. The RSS refused to participate in the Quit India Movement and one report from the Bombay Government even praised the origanisation for its willingness to comply with the law and not engage in any activities that were seen to be anti-British. The RSS presence in Bombay significantly contributed to the communal divisions within the city and their desire to eradicate Muslims from India was a significant reason behind public support for the League’s call for partition. 

One objective, different methods

Gandhi chose Bombay as the base of his campaign because he believed that the city’s diverse religious identities working together could provide the catalyst for communal cooperation on a national scale. In a way, his beliefs were vindicated as various groups came together to lead protests, marches, and other acts of organised resistance across the city. Gandhi was a beloved figure amongst the people of Bombay and had a great sway over the mechanisms that financed the resistance activities. However, as Devji asserts, “cities produce communal minorities and majorities” and Bombay in many ways, epitomised that notion.

The city was and continues to be spatially divided across community lines. Those different communities largely held the same objective of independence, but starkly different methods of how to achieve it and what it would look like. The freedom movement in Bombay was therefore fractured, much like the movement was on a national level as well. The Congress and the League, along with their leaders in Gandhi and Jinnah, used Bombay as a battleground for their competing ideologies. Eventually, they were able to compromise enough to secure an independent nation but not enough to keep that nation undivided.


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