Indian National Pact and Bengal Pact – 1923

Postal stamps of Lala Lajpat Rai, Dr Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari and Chittaranjan Das.

Following the end of Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement, communal tensions worsened in the Subcontinent. The introduction of religious sentiments into the political sphere did irreparable damage to the fragile relationship between Muslims and Hindus. For a more detailed and contemporary breakdown of the worsening relationship between India’s sister communities, I recommend one reads The riot-torn history of Hindu-Muslim relations, 1920-1940[1] by Dr B. R. Ambedkar.

The reality on the ground inevitably drew a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim leadership. Cooperation between the AIML and INC was a mere shadow of its former self. Within Congress itself, Muslim representation was at an all-time low of 3.6% in 1923[2]. The unprecedented era of Hindu-Muslim unity was taking its final breath. However, there were still some that weren’t willing to give up on the failed dream just yet.

Many attempts had been made at achieving Hindu-Muslim unity throughout India’s history. Before the British Raj, Emperor Akbar attempted to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity by creating a new religion Din-i Ilahi[3], a syncretism of Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jain and Buddhist beliefs. Similarly, many Indian saints of both Islamic and Hindu tradition advocated for greater cooperation between the two religious communities, one notable example being Kabir Das[4].

However, all these attempts failed to bring about any meaningful and sustained unity between Hindus and Muslims and largely lived and died with their progenitors. It wasn’t until the advent of the 20th century and India’s modern political awakening that anything close to true Hindu-Muslim unity occurred.

The first example of Hindus and Muslims bridging the political gap can be seen with the implementation of separate electorates under the Minto-Morley Reforms. The Congress Moderates, led by Gokhale, supported the League’s demands for separate Muslim representation despite opposition from those that saw separate electorates as an unnecessary provision, such as Jinnah.

The next and most successful example was the Lucknow Pact of 1916, which precipitated the golden age of Hindu-Muslim unity during the latter half of the First World War. During this period, the Indian political elite became a unified force under the Indian Home Rule Movement, leading to the August declaration of 1917 and the subsequent Chelmsford-Montagu Reforms.

This period of unprecedented Hindu-Muslim unity was brought to an end by mass agitation under the Non-cooperation Movement, which saw Gandhi’s political legitimisation of the Muslim Ulama. During this period, Jinnah went into self-imposed political exile after cutting ties with the INC, and all other political parties save for the AIML.

The majority of Indian opinion was in favour of Gandhi and the Khilafats. To oppose them would be to oppose the will of the Indian people, and so all Jinnah could do was stand by and watch as all the work he did in bringing about an understanding between Hindus and Muslims was undone. As far as India was concerned, mass agitation was the way forward regardless of how much damage it did to Hindu-Muslim unity.

Following this, multiple attempts were made at snatching back what was lost. In this essay, we will look at the first of those attempts.

In March 1923, during their annual session in Lucknow, the AIML passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a national pact ensuring unity between India’s various communities. This went a step further than the Lucknow Pact as it aimed to include a lot more parties than just Congress and the League. In September that year, during their special session in Delhi, the INC resolved to appoint a committee to help prepare a draft for the national pact. In December, the committee’s report was presented to Congress at the INC’s session in Kakinada.

The draft of the Indian National Pact[5] consisted of the following resolutions:

  1. It shall be the firm and unalterable object of the Indian National Pact’s signatories to secure complete Swaraj for India.
  2. The form of government under Swaraj shall be democratic and of the federal type; however, its exact nature will be determined by a national convention.
  3. Hindustani is to be India’s lingua franca written in both the Nastaliq and Devanagari scripts.
  4. Full religious liberty is to be afforded to all of India’s communities as part of their constitutional right.
  5. To prevent any religious community from being given undue preference, no government or public funds will be devoted to any religious institution or purpose.
  6. Once Swaraj has been achieved, it will be the duty of every Indian to defend it against all attack, external or internal.
  7. Minority communities shall have separate representation in the legislatures, both central and provincial.
  8. No cow slaughter to take place except on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, out of respect for India’s Hindu community.
  9. No music is to be played in front of places of worship at such times that may be fixed by local boards.
  10. If two or more religious processions occur on the same day, they shall follow different routes as determined by local boards.
  11. Provincial and local boards will be appointed as arbiters to prevent any conflicts that may arise during religious processions.
  12. India should participate in forming a Federation of Eastern Countries for mutual help in commerce and emancipation from European powers with a view to support oriental culture and foster friendly relations.

The committee’s report was signed by Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, founder of Jamia Millia Islamia University and staunch supporter of the Khilafat Movement, and Lala Lajpat Rai, founder of Punjab National Bank and die-hard nationalist. Lala Lajpat Rai was part of the Lal Bal Pal triumvirate alongside Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. The three men had led the opposition against the Bengal Partition of 1905. Those who have read the previous essays may recall that Tilak had founded the first Home Rule League in Belgaum.

In regards to separate representation for minority communities, both Dr Ansari and Lala Lajpat Rai held opposing views. Dr Ansari wanted separate representation to be extended to municipalities and local boards. In contrast, Lala Lajpat Rai believed that a time limit should be imposed on separate representation, after which it should be scrapped entirely.

Lala Lajpat Rai further posited that separate representation should be in proportion to the numerical strength of each community with special provisions made for small minorities such as Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. To this, Dr Ansari suggested that larger minorities such as Sikhs and Christians may be given special representation in the provincial legislatures but only very small minorities such as Parsis may be given special representation in the central legislature. Regardless, the electorates will be joint in all cases, and there is to be no distinction based on caste, creed or colour in public services or educational institutions.

In addition to the resolutions already a part of the Indian National Pact, Dr Ansari also wanted the following clause added: No bill/clause/resolution concerning a particular community can be passed if 3/4 of the members from said community oppose it. This very same clause was part of the Lucknow Pact several years prior. Unfortunately, it never made its way into the Indian National Pact, perhaps indicating that relations would never return to what they once were. At least on the national level.

Alongside the Indian National Pact, a second cross-community pact was in development by the Bengal Provincial Congress under the leadership of Chittaranjan Das, founder of the Swaraj Party, with the involvement of Bengal’s Muslim representatives. It, too, was presented to Congress at the Kakinada session.

The draft of the Bengal Pact[6] consisted of the following resolutions:

  1. Representation in the Bengal Legislative Council is to be determined in proportion to population with separate electorates subject to necessary adjustments.
  2. Representation in local bodies is to be in the proportion of 60% for the majority community and 40% for the minority community, with the inclusion of separate electorates to be determined at a later date.
  3. 55% of government posts should be reserved for Muslims.
  4. No resolution or an enactment concerning a religious community can be passed without the consent of 75% of the elected members from said community.
  5. No music is to be played in procession before a Masjid.
  6. No interference is to be made in sacrificial cow slaughter for religious reasons.
  7. No legislation is to be passed concerning cow slaughter in the Bengal Legislative Council.
  8. Cow slaughter is to be carried out in such a way as not to offend Hindu religious sentiments.
  9. Annual representative committees, of which half are Muslim and half Hindu, are to be formed in every sub-division to arbitrate any disputes between the two communities.

One interesting thing to note here is the resolutions in both pacts concerning music outside places of worship, cow slaughter, and religious processions. In the Lucknow Pact, no such resolutions were included. Instead, its resolutions were largely concerning representation rather than actual religious sensibilities. This shows just how much the legitimisation of religious rhetoric had impacted Indian politics. The mere fact that these issues had to be discussed by the political leadership rather than solved by Hindus and Muslims on the ground indicates just how much the communal question had infiltrated Indian politics and how pressing the conflict between the two communities was.

It should be added that there is no religious requirement in Islam to slaughter a cow. In the case of Eid al-Adha, goats and sheep serve just as well, and most Indian Muslims opted for this to avoid unnecessary troubles. At the INC’s Kakinada session, one of the Muslim members boasted that he had reduced the amount of cow slaughter in Aligarh on the occasion of Eid al-Adha from 500 cows to just two[7]. Furthermore, in Hyderabad, a princely state consisting of a majority Hindu population ruled by Muslims, the Nizam had outlawed cow-slaughter on Eid al-Adha entirely. The current draft of the Indian National Pact contradicted that ruling.

Both the Indian National Pact and Bengal Pact were subject to debate at the December session of Congress. A debate that lasted approximately four hours over the course of which many Congress members had their input. It was then decided that a vote would be taken regarding whether each pact should continue being pursued. The overwhelming majority voted in favour of a second report of the Indian National Pact to be presented no later than the 31st March 1924. Unfortunately, no second report ever arrived.

Despite insistence from C. R. Das that the Bengal Pact was still subject to change on account of it being a draft proposal, the Bengal Pact was rejected with 678 votes against 458[8]. The main reason given was that the Bengal Pact was specific to the situation in Bengal, and if other provinces adopted them, it would lead to more frictions between Hindus and Muslims. In contrast, the Indian National Pact was abstract without any hard figures so that it could be implemented in the provinces with respect to each specific situation. In addition, the Bengal Pact directly contradicted the Indian National Pact’s stance on cow slaughter opting to prevent its ban rather than facilitate it.

Other Congress members asked why Muslims should have to enter into an agreement with Hindus before standing under the banner of freedom when other communities didn’t need such concessions. Not only that, but what was wrong with the Lucknow Pact that a new pact needed to be drafted anyway. These were the attitudes of an Indian National Congress that refused to open its eyes to the current state of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Furthermore, regardless of one’s views regarding the relationship between Muslims and Hindus, opting to delete a draft proposal before it was even completed sent the message that the largely Hindu INC refused to even consider the needs and apprehensions of Muslims. For Muslim India, this sent a clear picture of what Indian Independence would look like. A union dominated by Hindu opinion without adequate protection to the Muslim minority. A Hindu Raj.

All in all, the Indian National Pact and Bengal Pact proved to be yet another failed attempt at Hindu-Muslim unity. It was safe to say that things were no longer as simple as back in the days of the Lucknow Pact. For Jinnah, a man who tried his absolute hardest to bring about a fragile understanding between Hindus and Muslims, this must have been a hard pill to swallow.


This essay is part of a larger series on the history of the Pakistan Movement called Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement


[1] Ambedkar, B. R., 1941. The riot-torn history of Hindu-Muslim relations, 1920-1940. [online] Columbia.edu. Available at: <http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/ambedkar_partition/307c.html#part_4> [Accessed 8 May 2021].

[2] Brown, J., 1985. Modern India: The Origins Of An Asian Democracy. Oxford University Press.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Dīn-i Ilāhī | Indian religion. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Din-i-Ilahi> [Accessed 9 May 2021].

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Kabir | Indian mystic and poet. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kabir-Indian-mystic-and-poet> [Accessed 9 May 2021].

[5] Mitra, H. N., 1923. Indian Annual Register, 1923. Vol. II. [online] Archive.org. Available at: <https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.45778/page/n125/mode/2up> [Accessed 8 May 2021]. p.105-108

[6] Ibid. p.127-128

[7] Ibid. p.125

[8] Ibid. p.127

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