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UNITY CONFERENCE

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UNITY CONFERENCE, convened on 3 November 1932 at Allahabad by a small group of Hindu and Muslim leaders led by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and Maulana Shaukat `All, to which were invited delegates representing a broad spectrum of Indian religious communities, interest groups, and political organizations, aimed at drafting agreements concerning Indian constitutional advance and political representation in provincial and central legislatures.

The conveners of the conference had hoped to demonstrate India`s readiness for self government by successfully resolving competing communal demands for separate political representation and by producing an agreement to substitute for the terms of the Communal Award announced by the British on 17 August 1932. Although previous efforts at developing a communal settlement had failed, the conveners drew encouragement from events in the wake of the Award. First, the terms of the Award generated widespread protest among groups which claimed that their interests had not been adequately or fairly represented.Second, Mahatma Gandhi`s initiative had secured Hindu agreement in the Poona Pact on formulae for reservation of seats for depressed classes in place of the separate electorates as provided in the Award which the British had accepted.

Pandit Malviya toured the Punjab conferring with Sikh and Hindu leaders and soliciting their participation. The conference opened in Allahabad on 3 November with 121 elected and invited delegates. Classified by religious community, there were 63 Hindus, 39 Muslims, 11 Sikhs and 8 Indian Christians in attendance.A unity committee was appointed on the first day to study and resolve critical issues while the full conference stood adjourned. Despite attrition suffered during its fortnight of deliberations, the committee on 17 November produced an agreement for ratification by groups represented by conference delegates.

The agreement proposal included a basic proviso that all of its conditions be considered for adoption without revision. Pandit Malviya instructed conference delegates to work for ratification of the agreement by their respective organizations and to reconvene by the middle of December in order to adopt it. The unity agreement contained a number of significant features.It fixed weight ages for Muslims for a period of ten years at the level which had obtained prior to the Communal Award.

It proposed specific formulae for communal representation in the provincial legislatures. In general they provided relatively greater representation than did the Award for minority groups by reducing representation for majority Hindus and for Europeans. The agreement also included safeguard clauses for the protection of religious practices in order to assure the minority groups their right to challenge legislative bills which might be injurious to the traditions of their community.These compromises were designed to secure support of the minorities for two fundamental features of the agreement, the demand for establishment of a national central government within a short period of time and the replacement of separate communal electorates by a system of joint electorates with reservation of seats for various communities.

The response to the terms of the agreement varied widely.The Sikh participants advocated support of the agreement, claiming that it satisfied the major demands of the community in the following provisions dealing with Punjab : (1) at least one Sikh minister ;(2) a procedure to appeal against legislative or administrative action if considered discriminatory towards Sikhs, and mandatory resignation of the ministry if it should refuse to abide by a final judicial opinion on the matter ; (3) the reservation of 20 per cent of seats for Sikhs in the legislature ; and (4) Sikh representation on the Punjab Public Service Commission.The agreement was also in accord with the Sikh demands in regard to the central government, guaranteeing four and a half per cent representation in the legislature, a Sikh Cabinet member for the first ten years and a Sikh member on the Public Service Commission. Assured of these safeguards, the Sikhs agreed to the reservation of 51 per cent seats for Muslims in the Punjab legislature, including those elected from special constituencies.

However, Sikhs in the United Provinces and in Bengal appealed to their brethren to support their further claims for special minority representation in those provinces. Hence the Sikh delegates framed amendments for meeting this demand for consideration of the conference in December.A number of Muslim organizations, on the other hand, criticized the agreement as totally untenable. On 20 November the All India Muslim League convened a joint conference of the council of the League and the working committee of the All India Muslim Conference and the Jamiat ul Ulema iHind (Kanpur) to consider the agreement.

This conference rejected joint electorates, demanded specific percentage for Muslim representation in the provinces and condemned the unity agreement as one which placed Muslims in a position substantially worse than that offered by the Award. The opposition of these groups prompted a second All Parties Muslim Conference in Lucknow on 1516 December which reconsidered the entire unity agreement and drafted amendment proposals.The working committee of the Unity Conference reconvened in December abandoned its insistence that the entire agreement be maintained without any revision. To consider the various proposed amendments, it nominated a subcommittee composed of six Sikhs, six Muslims, seven Hindus and four Christians to resolve the differences.

The subcommittee completed its report, with the exception of a solution of the problem of communal representation in Bengal, and submitted it to the whole conference on 24 December. The delegates approved the agreement in principle, but they did not officially adjourn pending setdements of disputes concerning representation in Bengal and Assam.It was not found possible to evolve a formula for communal representation in Bengal acceptable to all the parties and thus a final unity agreement could not be reached. Proponents of the original conference made sporadic attempts during 1933 to bring the delegates together once again, but without success.

Although the conference appeared to fail on a minor point, early statements from Muslim leaders made it seem likely that they would not have agreed to an alternative to the Communal Award in any case. In addition, neither Europeans nor Anglo Indians were represented at the conference even though their position would have been affected by an agreement which would replace the Award.Finally, the unity agreement linked electoral arrangements in the provinces with provisions for constitutional advance in the central government, thereby going beyond the scope of the Communal Award. The participation of the Sikhs in the unity conference produced two major results for the Panth.

First, the community and its claims gained a great deal of publicity throughout India. In 1928, Sikh leaders had been unable to enlist the support of other nationalists and had walked out of All Parties Conference which subsequently endorsed the Nehru Report. In 1932, following the despair which came from finding that the Communal Award failed to embody provisions favourable to Punjab Sikhs, leaders of the community were courted by Pandit Malviya and others who acknowledged that Sikh support would be vital to any alternative agreement.In the wake of the Award, Sikhs clearly formulated their position.

Delegates to the unity conference, among whom were Sundar Singh Majithia, Giani Kartar Singh, Giani Sher Singh, Ujyal Singh, Jodh Singh and Teja Singh, worked effectively to incorporate appropriate provisions for representation and safeguards into the agreement. In the unity agreement, the Sikhs gained recognition of most of their claims. Second, the events leading up to and including the conference helped to strengthen a sense of Sikh communal solidarity extending well beyond the borders of the Punjab.

Sikh minorities in Bengal, Sindh, and the United Provinces, learning of the successful negotiations concluded by Sikhs` delegates at the conference, felt encouraged and directly appealed to those delegates representing the Chief Khalsa Diwan to support their claims, too. In sum, success in the Unity Conference and the development of interprovincial solidarity coupled with failure by the British to admit Sikh claims in the provisions of the Communal Award significantly strengthened Sikh nationalist aspirations.

References :

1. Sarhadi, Ajit Singh, Punjabi Suba. Delhi, 1970
2. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. II. Princeton, 1966
3. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983
4. Gopal Singh, A History of the Sikh People (1469-1978). Delhi, 1979
5. Gurmit Singh, History of Sikh Struggles. Delhi, 1989-92
6. Tuteja, K.L., Sikh Politics. Kurukshetra, 1984
7. Gulati, K.C., Akalis Past and Present. Delhi, 1974

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