M. Rafique Afzal. A History of the All-India Muslim League, 1906-1947. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pages: xxiii+781. Price (Hardcover): Rs. 1595. ISBN: 978-0-19-906735-0.
M. Rafique Afzal’s A History of the All-India Muslim League, 1906-1947 is predestined to become the standard historical account of the League because of its attention to detail, comprehensiveness, clear prose, and rigorous research. At nearly 800 pages, the account is also exhaustive and provides a tremendous amount of information about the League, its inner workings, and Jinnah’s leadership. There are three lessons in particular that emerge from the narrative, none of which are particularly flattering to the League. First, the League was, in organizational terms, an inconsequential entity until the 1940s. Second, during its heady ascent in the 1940s as the crisis of British imperial succession deepened, the League was plagued by factionalism and infighting. Third, barely keeping the League in balance was Jinnah and his followers at the central level.
To begin with, with a Rs. 500 per month minimum income requirement for membership during its early years, the League was an elitist party that, though it claimed to act in the best interests of the Muslims of India, primarily represented only the wealthiest segment of Indian Muslim society. Unlike the Indian National Congress (INC), which underwent a transition to mass politics in the early 1920s, the League sought to craft a national profile for itself without following a Congress-like strategy of reaching out to the people. The result, as Afzal explains, was that the League ended up “Fumbling in the Dark” in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, the total membership of the All-India Muslim League ranged from about 600 in 1917 to about 1300 in 1927. In 1922, out of a total of 1093 members, a mere 23 had actually paid their party membership dues. To call the Muslim League a political party at this stage would perhaps stretch the definition of this term to the point of meaninglessness.
In spite of its organizational weakness and lack of popular support, the League was able to stage a comeback from the mid-1930s onwards and it managed to transform itself into a national movement by 1946. This turnaround was the product of a number of factors including Jinnah’s leadership, the behavior of Congress ministries in 1937-9, and the growing imminence of British departure from South Asia. The latter in particular meant that the smug parochialism of the Unionists of the Punjab or Khudai Khidmatgars of the North-West Frontier Province was increasingly out of touch with the evolving historical and strategic realities of a nascent post-colonial world.
Where Afzal’s narrative provides great insight is in regard to the internecine warfare that raged within the Muslim League throughout the Pakistan Movement. Byzantine complexity and relentless intriguing and leg pulling characterized the provincial Muslim Leagues, both while they were out of power and when they came into it. The formation of the League ministry in NWFP in May 1943 under the leadership of Aurungzeb, is a case in point. Aurangzeb failed to conciliate his rivals within the party and in fact “hardened their animosity by his attitude” and “created new opponents” (416). The lack of trust within the provincial League was so great that the enrolment campaign was entrusted to Qazi Isa, a member of the central committee. This didn’t work as planned for Qazi Isa’s “alleged partiality, arrogance, and close association with Aurangzeb damaged the whole reorganization process, which had not been completed even by April 1945” (417). Afzal’s account of the rivalries and intrigues within Sindh is such that one might well be reading a chapter from medieval history. The story that comes across with astonishing and embarrassing clarity is that the provincial Muslim League leaders were largely an assortment of pompous low-lives whose desire for self-aggrandizement trumped any meaningful role for enlightened self-interest, let alone high ideals of patriotism.
In spite of the terrible drawbacks it suffered from, the All-India Muslim League was able to fulfill the claims of its propaganda machine that it was the sole representative party of the Indian Muslims. It did so in dramatic fashion in the 1945-6 elections campaign where the Muslim League secured all the seats reserved for Muslims at the center and nearly all the seats in the provinces. Afzal’s meticulously researched narrative furnishes a solid explanation for how this was achieved in spite of the bickering and backstabbing at the provincial leadership level. The first component was the steady growth of Muslim League offices and chapters owing to effective financial management at the center and dedicated workers in the field. The second was that the demand for a separate state for the Muslims had genuine popular resonance and enabled the Muslim League to (temporarily) escape the limitations of politics-as-usual. And the third element was Jinnah’s leadership and the patience with which he managed his unruly cohorts.
In terms of readership, the book under review is addressed primarily to researchers and those with an above average interest in the history of the Pakistan Movement and the Muslim League. It will appeal to historians as well as political scientists and provides a useful starting point for generating research questions about the Muslim League. Non-specialist readers will likely be deterred by the length of the book but, given the jargon-free prose, those patient enough will find reading Afzal’s latest offering richly rewarding.
Afzal’s A History of the All-India Muslim League is now the gold standard narrative account on the subject. It is superbly researched, copiously referenced, and provides a holistic account of the struggles of the Muslim League as an organization and a national movement. In its pages, one finds revealed the elements that eventually made the Muslim League a force to be reckoned with, for, after all, it succeeded in its aim of creating Pakistan. At the same time the inherent weaknesses of the League, its lack of a second tier of able leaders who could take up the mantle in the event of the central leadership being eliminated, and its reliance on Jinnah’s personal authority to maintain coherence, as catalogued by Afzal, help answer important questions about its breakdown after independence. On balance A History of the All-India Muslim League is a fine effort well worth reading for its informative richness.
Dr. Ilhan Niaz is Assistant Professor of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and the author of The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008 (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010, 2011, 2012). His next book, Old World Empires: Cultures of Power and Governance in Eurasia is under publication at Routledge, New York & London.
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