In 1906, the Aga Khan led his (in)famous deputation to the then Viceroy of India, Lord Minto, a person now immortalised for generations of Calcuttans as a rather important bus stop, Minto Park.
The deputation asked for two things: separate electorates based on communal lines and "adequate Muslim representation" that would take into account not merely the numerical strength of India's Muslims but also "their political importance" and "the value of their contribution which they make to the defence of the Empire".
This led to the Indian Councils Act of 1909, commonly known as the Morley- Minto Reforms, which bought a measure of representation to Indians for the first time but with separate electorates. The deputation was also one of the drivers for the founding of the Muslim League in Dhaka later on that year.
Why did the Aga Khan take this step clearly against what is considered a near-sacred principle now, one man, one vote? The reason was that the north Indian Muslim elite were worried that representative democracy with a limited franchise (based on education and wealth) along with communal voting blocks made caste Hindus easily the most important power centre in the United Provinces, replacing the largely Muslim, Awadh Elite. This formulation was meant to stem that inevitable tide.
While this incident is (quite correctly) stressed highly in standard Indian historiography as a key milestone on the road to Partition, another strikingly similar petition is usually left out in this as causation. This petition was also sent by a communal minority who were once an unquestioned elite but now felt the heat of democratic representation bear down on their power.
The petition was sent by a very large section of Bengali Hindu bhadralok to the Secretary of State, Lord Zetland in 1934. And since, in the end, it was Bengal and not the United Provinces that was partitioned, it could be argued quite convincingly that this petition had a far larger effect on the final events of 1947 than the Aga Khan's.
Background: in 1932, the British introduced something called the Communal Award which, in Bengal, made population the basis for awarding seats to different communities. This might seem blindingly obvious now, given how universal adult franchise is so widespread, but in United Bengal, till then, as a result of limited franchise based on wealth and education, Bengali Hindus had more seats than Bengali Muslims, in spite of being a numerical minority.
Loss of power
The 1932 award, by reversing that principle of awarding representation on the basis of wealth and education and now awarding seats on the basis of overall population, alarmed the elite Bengali bhadralok who had dominated the province till then, a little like the Awadh Elite, pre-1857.
The petition, therefore, just like the Aga Khan's sought to soften the blow of majority rule.
It argued that the Communal Award, by simply counting heads, had ignored the “enormously predominant role that [Hindus] have played under British rule in the intellectual, cultural, political, professional, and the commercial life of the province’. The memorial continued on with some numbers: "Hindus of Bengal though numerically a minority, are overwhelmingly superior culturally, consisting as much as 64% of total literate population and more than 80% of school going population. Their economic preponderance is equally manifest in the spheres of the independent professions and commercial careers making up nearly 87% of the Legal, 80% of the Medical and 83% of the Banking, Insurance and Exchange business’.
The petitioners therefore objected "strongly against the unfair and unprecedented provision to protect a majority community by conferring upon it a position of permanent and statutory predominance in the legislature and making that position unalterable by any appeal to the electorate".
The bhadraloks who sent this plea – to not base political representation directly on the basis of population – included a veritable who's who of Bengal at the time: Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chatterjee (the author of Devdas), PC Roy (the chemist), Nil Ratan Sarkar (physician), SP Mookherjee (Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University and later part of Nehru's cabinet) and BP Singh Roy (Former Land Revenue Minister).
"National" to "communal"
This represents a remarkable change in attitude of the bhadralok who had once thought of themselves as purely Bengali in identity and above communal markers. For example, in 1905, they had strongly resisted the partition of Bengal on communal lines. Historian Bidyut Chakrabarty, in his book, The Partition of Bengal and Assam, comments on this change:
"If it is contrasted with the 1905 partition, the second partition [of Bengal, in 1947] is a paradox of history. In 1905, the Hindus had opposed the division and the Muslims wanted it. In 1947, the Muslims were opposed to it while the Hindus were in favour. There was a complete reversal of the Bengali Hindu attitude."
Gandhi had once remarked on how Muslims had never seen themselves of as a minority under Mughal rule but did so in colonial-and-soon-to-be-Independent India. Of course, that journey from "Hindustani" to "Muslim", under the new pressures of representative democracy, is typified by the Aga Khan's deputation. And, in a striking parallel, the journey of the bhadralok from "Bengali" in 1905 to "Hindu" in 1947, asking for the partition of Bengal, is typified by the 1934 petition,