In 1906, Viceroy Minto and Secretary of State John Morley were getting worried that the Congress, which they saw as a predominantly Hindu body, was becoming too powerful. They believed that the British Empire in India would weaken if Muslims joined the Congress movement. Against this backdrop, they possibly devised a scheme to exploit the schism between Hindus and Muslims to consolidate the British hold over India, all in the name of secularism.

On 28 May 1906, Minto wrote to Morley and said that though “we must recognise [the Congress] and be friends with the best of them, yet I am afraid there is much that is absolutely disloyal in the movement and that there is danger for the future”. “I have been thinking a good deal lately,” he continued, “of a possible counterpoise to Congress aims.”

At this time, Minto thought that the Indian princes and landholders could be organised as an opposition to the Congress. On 6 June, Morley wrote back and said that his advisors were worried that Muslims would soon join the Congress movement, which would spell doom for the British Empire. “Everybody warns us that a new spirit is growing and spreading over India”, he wrote. “Lawrence, Chirol, Sidney Low”, who were his advisors, “all sing the same song...Be sure that before long the Mahommedans will throw in their lot with the Congressmen against you,” they had said to Morley. On 27 June, Minto wrote to Morley about the “disloyal tone of the Native Press” with which Congressmen were “so largely connected”.

On 26 July 1906, Morley made a speech in the House of Commons in which he hinted at reforms in the Indian legislative councils. A few days later, on 4 August, the secretary of Aligarh College, Nawab Mehdi Ali Khan (better known as Mohsin-ul- Mulk), wrote a letter to Mr WA Archbold, the British principal of the college, who was at the time spending his summer vacation in Simla. In it, he asked whether it would be advisable for a delegation of Muslims to meet Viceroy Minto in order to speak to him about the rights of Muslims in India.

“You are aware,” he wrote, “that the...young educated Mohammedans seem to have a sympathy for the ‘Congress’, and [Morley’s] speech [in the House of Commons] will produce a great tendency in them to join the ‘Congress’.” He also wrote that if elections to the legislative councils were introduced under the new proposals, “the Mohammedans will hardly get a seat while the Hindus will carry off the palm by dint of their majority”.

A few days later, this letter reached Viceroy’s Minto’s desk. On 8 August, Minto forwarded the letter to Morley and told him that he was inclined to grant the “proposed deputation” an audience. This was unusual because very rarely, if ever, had a viceroy met a deputation consisting of only one religious community or group. In 1901, for instance, Viceroy Curzon had refused to meet a deputation consisting only of Muslims, and no viceroy had met a deputation consisting only of members of the Congress.

Between 9–10 August, Archbold and JR Dunlop Smith, the private secretary to Viceroy Minto, exchanged letters, in which Dunlop Smith informed Archbold that he had obtained permission for the Muslim delegation to visit Viceroy Minto. On 10 August, a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council by the name of Denzil Ibbetson advised Minto to receive the deputation. It could be a “calamity”, said Ibbetson, if the younger generation of Muslims were driven into the “arms of the Congress party...for at present, the educated Mohammedan is the most conservative element in Indian society.”

On 10 August, Archbold wrote back to Mohsin-ul-Mulk, and advised him to prepare a memorial to ask Viceroy Minto for special privileges for Muslims in elections to legislative councils. He wrote that the memorial must begin “with a solemn expression of loyalty”, perhaps to address Minto’s unhappiness with the disloyal tone of the Congress. The memorial was to say that elections “would prove detrimental to the interest of the Muslim minority.

“It should respectfully be suggested”, he wrote, “that nomination or representation by religion be introduced to meet Muslim opinion”. However, he warned Mohsin-ul-Mulk that Archbold’s role in this process must not become publicly known. “[I]n all these views I must be in the background”, he wrote, “[t]hey must come from you”.

“I can prepare for you the draft of the address or revise it,” he wrote, since “I know how to phrase these things in proper language.” A formal letter requesting an appointment with the viceroy should be prepared, he wrote, which “should be sent with the signatures of some representative Mussalmans”. The deputation which goes to meet the viceroy, he added, must “consist of the representatives of all the Provinces”.

On 1 October 1906, thirty-five Muslim representatives from different provinces and princely states met Minto at his Viceregal Lodge in Simla. The memorial, which had probably been edited by Archbold, was read out to the viceroy by the Aga Khan. Among other things, the memorial asked the viceroy for special privileges in elections.

Muslim seats in the legislative councils, said the Aga Khan, “should be commensurate, not merely with [the] political strength [of Muslims in India], but also, with their political importance and the value of the contribution which they make to the defence of the Empire.” “[D]ue consideration” must also be given, he said, “to the position which [Muslims] occupied in India, a little more than a hundred years ago, and of which the traditions have naturally not faded from their minds”.

In other words, the Muslim delegation requested Viceroy Minto to give Muslims weightage in legislative councils because the Muslim community was politically important, because it contributed to the defence of the British Empire, and because Muslims were, before the British arrived, the ruling race in India.

Minto had been advised by Dunlop Smith and Archbold to give the deputation a “reassuring reply”. He responded by agreeing with the deputation’s demands on the subject of elections and said that “any electoral representation in India would be doomed to mischievous failure” if this were not so. Later that day, Minto’s wife received a letter from an official (probably Dunlop Smith) which said that Minto’s decision was a “work of statesmanship” which prevented “sixty-two millions of people from joining the ranks of the seditious opposition”, ie it prevented Muslims (there were 62 million Muslims in India at this time, according to the 1901 census) from joining hands with the Congress.

Dunlop Smith wrote a letter to another British official the following day in which he said that “the [Muslims] declared to the [viceroy] that they would not join the Congress, [and] that they preferred appealing to their Ma Bap.” The Muslim League itself was founded ninety days after this deputation met Minto (though Muslim opposition to the Congress was decades old, spearheaded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan).

Tellingly, on 15 September 1909, Chief Justice Lawrence Jenkins wrote a letter to Morley, in which he said, “[F]rom all I hear...I incline to the view that the Muhammedan demand was prompted in the first instance from other sources, and has been skilfully engineered.”

There is, therefore, some evidence that the Muslim demand for special protection in elections was devised by colonial officials as part of a divide and rule policy. This was certainly the view taken by nationalist leaders and observers. On 4 October 1906, the Amrita Bazar Patrika wrote that this entire episode appeared “to be a got-up affair and fully engineered by interested officials”.

In 1923, a Khilafat leader and president of the Congress, Maulana Muhammad Ali, called the Muslim deputation’s visit to the viceroy a “command performance”, akin to a play being put up at the request of the royal family. These words were repeated by Vallabhbhai Patel in the Constituent Assembly in May 1949.

Another member of the Constituent Assembly, KM Munshi, called this an “unholy alliance” between “British rulers” and “the leaders of a section of the Muslims in North India”, and a “command performance” planned by Archbold and Dunlop Smith, “among others”.

Of course, it cannot be said that the colonial British administration manufactured Mohsin-ul-Mulk’s fears that Muslims would be left behind in the reformed legislative councils. However, colonial officials like the viceroy bent over backwards to accommodate the demands of the Simla deputation. In the words of historian BR Nanda, ‘[W]hat is surprising is not that the Muslim leaders should have wanted to lead a deputation and submit a memorial to the Viceroy, but that they should have been so warmly welcomed and given such wide-ranging assurances so hastily on constitutional issues of which the full implications were yet to be worked out by the Viceroy and his advisers.”

Republic Of Religion: The Rise And Fall Of Colonial Secularism In India

Excerpted with permission from Republic Of Religion: The Rise And Fall Of Colonial Secularism In India, Abhinav Chandrachud, Penguin Viking.