Direct Action Day: lessons to be learnt

VIEW: Direct Action Day: lessons to be learnt — II —Yasser Latif Hamdani

The real tragedy that unfolded on August 16, 1946 was that Jinnah had transformed into precisely the kind of politician he had warned his old friend Gandhi against becoming. He gave up the fine wisdom of the old ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and chose instead to walk the perilous course of disorder and chaos

The truth is that the Muslim League could not afford mass-scale Hindu-Muslim violence in Calcutta or in India. Suhrawardy was in power through a cross-communal ministry, which depended as much on Hindu support as it did on Muslim support. At the national level, after the collapse of the Cabinet Mission Plan, Jinnah’s strategy was to hold out from the interim government by pitching extreme demands. After being tainted with the same brush as Congress, Jinnah could no longer hold onto his earlier demand of Congress-League parity in the interim government or that, having swept Muslim seats, League alone had the right to nominate Muslims to the interim cabinet. Wavell — who absolved the League privately of the blame for Calcutta killings — used the killings as an excuse to go ahead with the transfer of power to a Congress-only cabinet.

Ironically, for all the later propaganda against the Muslim League on account of Direct Action Day blitz, the Congress mouthpiece in Bombay, declared a week later:

“The worst enemies of the Muslim League cannot help envying the leadership of Mr Jinnah…cataclysmic transformation of the League from the reactionary racket of the Muslim Nawabs, Noons, and Knights into a revolutionary mass organisation dedicated, by word if not be deed, to an anti-Imperialist struggle, compels us to express the sneaking national wish that a diplomat and strategist of Jinnah’s proven calibre were at the helm of the Indian National Congress. There is no denying the fact that by his latest master-stroke of diplomacy, Jinnah has outbid, outwitted and outmanoeuvred the British and Congress alike and confounded the common national indictment that the Muslim League is a parasite of British Imperialism.”

In fact, the opposite was true. Jinnah had been outwitted by both Congress and the British in Calcutta who had managed to sully the pristine reputation of a politician who throughout his life had been known for his secular and constitutional approach to politics. He was now branded a communalist, hate-monger and a mass murderer. Unsourced lines like “we shall have India divided or destroyed” are attributed to him even though there is no record of him saying any kind of it. Reliance instead is placed on the highly partisan account given by Margaret Bourke-White who was a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi and whose account fails verification not the least because she was actually not where she claimed to be that day. Thus a caricature.

In this, however, Jinnah only had himself to blame. He had tragically miscalculated the power of mob hysteria. As a much younger man, Jinnah had been prophetic in his predictions about the consequences of mob hysteria when he warned Gandhi in his letter:

“I thank you for your kind suggestion offering me ‘to take my share in the new life that has opened up before the country’. If by ‘new life’ you mean your methods and your programme, I am afraid I cannot accept them, for I am fully convinced that it must lead to disaster. But the actual new life that has opened up before the country is that we are faced with a government that pays no heed to the grievances, feelings and sentiments of the people; that our own countrymen are divided; the moderate party is still going wrong; that your methods have already caused split and division in almost every institution that you have approached hitherto, and in the public life of the country not only amongst Hindus and Muslims but between Hindus and Hindus and Muslims and Muslims and even between fathers and sons; people generally are desperate all over the country and your extreme programme has for the moment struck the imagination mostly of the inexperienced youth and the ignorant and the illiterate. All this means complete disorganisation and chaos. What the consequence of this may be, I shudder to contemplate; but I, for one, am convinced that the present policy of the government is the primary cause of it all and unless that cause is removed, the effects must continue. I have no voice or power to remove the cause; but at the same time I do not wish my countrymen to be dragged to the brink of a precipice in order to be shattered. The only way for the nationalists is to unite and work for a programme, which is universally acceptable for the early attainment of complete responsible government. Such a programme cannot be dictated by any single individual, but must have the approval and support of all the prominent nationalist leaders in the country; and to achieve this end I am sure my colleagues and myself shall continue to work.”

The real tragedy that unfolded on August 16, 1946 was that Jinnah had transformed into precisely the kind of politician he had warned his old friend Gandhi against becoming. He gave up the fine wisdom of the old ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and chose instead to walk the perilous course of disorder and chaos, the world that he did not and could not understand. The British, of course, took full advantage of his predicament. The events that followed showed what happens when gentlemen accustomed to constitutional advance threaten to fight in the streets like rabble. Their bluff is called with terrible consequences for all.

The warring parties in Karachi must therefore learn their lessons, for those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.


Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer. He also blogs at and can be reached at

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