COMMUNAL AWARD was an official statement of British government policy in respect of the composition of provincial legislatures as a further step in the transfer of responsibility to the Indian people. The Secretary of State for India presented the terms of the Award to Parliament as command paper 4147, and they were published on 16 August 1932 under the title Communal Decision. The terms of the Award defined the methods of selection and the relative strength of representation of various “communities” in the legislatures as they were expected to be formed under provisions of a new constitution for a federation of Princely Indian states and British Indian provinces, which was being devised at the time and which was given final shape later in the Government of India Act of 1935.In effect, the Award was a political settlement worked out for the people of British India by officials in London.
The provisions concerning representation which were set forth in the Award, and which led to its designation as “communal,” carried forward the use of categories which had operated in Indian politics since the nineteenth century. When the rulers of British India began to respond positively to the claim that Indians should have an active role in governance, they created institutions which were designed to give representation to particular classes and special interests rather than to the population at large.Among those who were treated by the British as a class or a single interest group were each of the several “communities” composed of members of a particular religious tradition such as Muslims and, at a later stage, Sikhs and sections of Hindus. Under the regulations made to give effect to the Indian Councils Act of 1892, for example, British provincial executives were empowered to appoint to a minority of seats in their advisory councils non officials who had been recommended by organizations such as municipal and district boards, universities and merchant associations.
Although the Muslims were named at that stage among the classes and interests for which representation should be secured, only with the Minto Morley reforms, embodied in the Indian Councils Act of 1909, were seats reserved in the provincial councils (except for those of Punjab and Burma) for Muslim representatives who were selected by direct election in separate electorates composed exclusively of members of the Muslim community. Communal electorates, therefore, date from this stage. This complex pattern of separate electorates, on non communal as well as communal basis, was extended under the provisions of the Montagu Chelmsford (or Montford) reforms contained in the Government of India Act of 1919.These reforms provided for enlarged and more powerful legislative councils in the provinces, added separate electorates for the Muslim community in the Punjab and in the Central Provinces where a council had been formed in 1914, and created additional electorates on the basis of religious community most notably for the Sikhs in the Punjab.
The Montford reforms were subjected to a thorough examination in India and in Britain in the period from 1927 to 1932, with a view to assessing their effectiveness as a basis for Indian participation in responsible government and to framing a new constitution which would bring India closer to the status of a full dominion or a free nation.An official review of the reforms began in November 1927 when Parliament appointed Sir John Simon to chair an all white Indian Statutory Commission. The Commission published its report in June 1930. Independent of the official inquiry, and in large measure in reaction to it, political leaders of India met in order to work out their own proposals for India`s future.
Under the chairmanship of Pandit Motilal Nehru, a broad coalition met as the All Parties Conference in 1928 and recommended that India should become a dominion having a strong central government and a unitary electorate, with minority rights protected by reservation of seats in all legislative bodies except for those of the Punjab and Bengal. In the same year, an All Parties Muslim Conference met in Delhi under the chairmanship of the Aga Khan and resolved that India should become a federation of semi autonomous states, which ought to be reconstituted into a framework designed to safeguard Muslim communal interest. The Sikhs rejected the report of the Nehru conference.The Sikh League at its annual session, held at Gujrariwala on 22 October 1928, passed by a large majority a resolution disapproving of the Report for limiting the national goal to the attainment of dominion status and demanding for the Sikhs 30 per cent share of the legislative seats in the Punjab, with adequate provisions for the protection of their rights in other provinces in case separate electorates were adopted.
In part, to offset the controversy generated by dissatisfaction in India over the appointees to the Statutory Commission and their work, and despite objections from Simon himself, Viceroy Irwin gained authorization to reaffirm the goal of dominion status for India and to announce that the British government would invite representatives from India to attend a conference where constitutional issues could be freely discussed. His announcement also indicated that the sphere of constitutional discussion would extend to include the prospect of a federation of the Princely states with British India.Irwin released it on 31 October 1929, and eventually three conferences took place in London between November 1930 and December 1932. A total of 89 delegates attended the first of these Round Table Conferences, 57 from British India and the remainder divided evenly between the Princely states and the Parliament, but the Indian National Congress, then engaged in civil disobedience, was not represented.
The Sikhs were represented at it by Ujjal Singh and Sampuran Singh. Lacking representation from the Congress and preoccupied with problems of federation, the first conference adjourned in January 1931, without having made appreciable progress on the issue of communal representation.The second Round Table Conference got off to an uncertain start in September 1931, with Mahatma Gandhi attending as the sole Congress delegate and the Princes demonstrating reluctance to enter a federation. The Sikhs were represented by the same two delegates, Ujijal Singh and Sampuran Singh.
Of the enlarged membership of 114 at this conference, 51 were appointed to the Minorities Committee which was charged with the responsibility of formulating a recommendation concerning communal representation and procedures to protect the rights of minorities. Progress within the committee was made difficult by the tenacity with which Muslim delegates held to the demand for separate communal electorates.They claimed that seats in the legislatures of the Muslim majority provinces of the Punjab and Bengal should be based on the actual population ratios there, while seats in provinces in which Muslims were in a minority should be based on negotiated ratios weighted favourably towards Muslims in the manner of the Congress Muslim League pact signed in Lucknow in 1916. Sikhs had not been party to that pact and did not favour perpetuation of the artificially high weight age in Muslim minority representation.
Indeed, the Sikhs suffered the irony of being a minority of significant standing in the Punjab and of not having been accorded a strength of representation equivalent to that given Muslims in those provinces in which the latter were in a minority. To prevent a deadlock, British officials sought to win cooperation from Muslim delegates. Already, at the end of the first conference, they had proposed that Sindh should be separated from Bombay as a governor`s provinces; at the end of the second conference the Prime Minister declared that the North-West Frontier as well would be made a Governor`s province.Elevation of these two Muslim majority regions to full provincial status was expected to have strong appeal for the delegates from that community.
But the Muslim delegates were not reconciled. Of the other major interests present at the second conference, the Muslims were able to win the support of only the delegates of the so called minor minorities the Hindu depressed classes, the Anglo Indians and a section of the Indian Christians each of whom found it of advantage to conjoin their own claims with those of the Muslims. The Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Sikhs remained opposed to the Muslim position.Negotiations within the committee broke down over the minor procedural question of whom to appoint to a subcommittee to assess the points at issue, but the actual matters at stake were major and the differences among the various interests represented at the conference were substantive.
Since the Muslims held to the position that unless their demands were satisfied they could not be a party to any new constitutional scheme, even one which would provide for Indian responsibility in the central government, an impasse occurred and the problem of finding agreement about representation in the provinces of British India, and in the Punjab and Bengal in particular, eluded solution.In his statement at the close of the second Round Table Conference on 1 December 1931, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald revealed that unless the spokesmen for the several Indian communities and interests could reach agreement among themselves, “His Majesty`s Government would be compelled to apply a provisional scheme” which he acknowledged “will not be a satisfactory way of dealing with this problem,” but which, he thought, would be preferable to no change at all.MacDonald`s statement of promise and of warning was con cretized some nine months later, after a final attempt to open the way to a negotiated settlement through a consultative committee but before the start of the third Round Table Conference, in the form of the Communal Award. The Award was in the form of an arbital settlement of the conflicting claims of various interests in regard to the composition and method of election to the provincial legislatures.
This involved not only the question of the method of providing representation to the religious communities but also of the relative strength to be accorded to each in relation to the other in every province, the method and relative strength of representation of non communal special interests, and the size of the legislative bodies. Corresponding provisions for the Central Legislature were not taken up by the Award, for that matter depended on the outcome of discussions with the princes concerning whether the Indian states would join a federation and, if so, what percentages of seats should be assigned to the states and to the provinces of British India, respectively.The main consequence of the Award was the fragmentation of the Indian electorate still further. The Award demarcated the following communal constituencies: general (composed of Hindus and other residual communal groups), Muslim, Sikh, Indian Christian, Anglo Indian, European, depressed classes, (with electors voting also in the general constituency), and tribal or backward areas.
Special seats were designated for women within the various communal categories to assure their representation in the provincial legislatures. The Award also preserved the following non communal special constituencies : labour, commerce, landholders, and universities.Determination of the size of the electorate and the geographical extent of the communal constituencies was not complete at the time the Award was announced; so the government included a clause which would allow for slight variations in the final numbers of seats, except for the Muslim majority provinces of Bengal and the Punjab. After a ten year period the electoral arrangements established by the Award were to be subject to revision, with the assent of the communities affected.
In preparation for the Award, the British analysed the probable overall communal composition of each legislature from all constituencies.For example, in the Punjab the special constituency electorates were expected to return five Hindus, four Muslims, and one Sikh, thereby increasing the total number of seats held by Hindus to 48, those held by Sikhs to 33, and those held by Muslims to 90. Of 175 total seats in the Punjab legislature, Indian Christians would hold two and Anglo Indians and Europeans one each. When compared with the figures for the population of the province, the anticipated composition of the Punjab legislature was to be as follows: with 23.2% of the population, Hindus would hold 27.4% of the legislative seats, with 56.5%, Muslims would hold 51.4% of the seats, and with 13%, Sikhs would hold 18.9% of the seats.
While Sikh leaders had anticipated that the Award would not fully meet their expectations regarding representation and safeguards for their community, they were stunned when the announcement actually came. They felt that the Muslims who had been granted relatively stronger representation in the Punjab legislature than had been recommended by the Simon Commission had been unduly favoured. Another point of resentment was the failure of the British government to take into account the 1.9% Sikh population increase documented by the 1931 census.Eight prominent Sikh leaders released on August 17 a statement to the press describing the Award as a repudiation of promises made to their community.
They called for a unified response by Sikhs in peaceful opposition to the Award, and they urged that preparations be made for possible Sikh secession from the northern districts of the Punjab. This initial Sikh response to the terms of the Communal Award was consistent with the position that had long been taken by leaders of the community. The earliest formal Sikh claim to representation in excess of the population ratio of the community was made in 1916 by Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia in a private letter to the Chief Secretary to the Punjab Lieutenant Governor.He foresaw that the British were likely to accept bilateral agreements between Hindus and Muslims concerning communal representation such as the 1916 Lucknow Pact which gave Muslims 50% of the communal seats in the Punjab.
Recognizing the potentially disastrous implications for his own community, he warned that new reforms schemes were likely to fail if they did not recognize rightful Sikh claims to effective political representation. He cited as a model for the protection of Sikh interests the safeguards granted to Muslims under the Minto Morley reforms and declared that, consistent with their position and importance, Sikhs would consider their just share to be one-third of all seats and appointments in the Punjab government and an adequate and fixed representation in the councils of the Viceroy and the Secretary of State for India.One further factor in favour of the claim put forth by Sundar Singh Majithia was that, while by the 1911 census Sikhs were but 11.1% of the population of the Punjab, they comprised 24.1% of the electorate. Under the Montford reforms the government did create separate communal electorates in the Punjab for Sikhs, but the percentage of communal seats allocated to them was only 18.9.
Formation of the Simon Commission and the prospect of further reforms prompted Sikhs to organize mass meetings and demonstrations to press their claims for increased representation.As their primary goal, most Sikh leaders sought abolition of the system of communal electorates in favour of a system of reserved seats to protect the interests of minorities. Secondarily, they argued that, if communal electorates were perpetuated, weighted representation in excess of their community`s numerical strength would be justified by several factors, i.e. comparisons with minority weight ages in other provinces granted to Muslims, Anglo Indians, and Europeans; contributions to military service; proportion of Punjab revenue paid; and the historical role of Sikh power in the Punjab.In March 1931, following the failure of the Second Round Table Conference, the Central Sikh League adopted a resolution entitled “The Sikhs and the Future Constitution of India,” which presented seventeen points of Sikh concern related to the proposed reforms.
These seventeen points became the organizing focus for negotiations with other communities and with the government. They expressed opposition to a Muslim statutory majority in the Punjab whether through separate communal electorates or reservation of seats, demanded representation of 30% for the Sikh community in the Punjab legislature and administration, and required representation at the level of 33.3% in the Cabinet and in the Public Service Commission.Failing agreement on these terms, they proposed alteration of the boundaries of the province in order to transfer predominantly Muslim areas to the North-West Frontier. As a last resort, they resolved that the Punjab should be administered by the Central government until an agreement consistent with the seventeen points could be reached.
Other points included provisions for Sikh participation in the army, services, and Central government; for Sikh representation in other provinces of British India; and for the support and use of Gurmukhi script. During the summer of 1932, the community mobilized itself for protest against impending “communal raj.”An All Parties Sikh Conference held at Maharaja Ranjit Singh`s samadh in Lahore on 24 July appointed and empowered a seventeen member autonomous Council of Action to adopt necessary measures and to oppose the working of any constitution which failed to give Sikhs full protection or which did not provide for an effective balance of power for each of the principal communities in the Punjab. At the conference, political protest was linked to religious values.
Members of the Council of Action made in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib a vow that they would make “every possible sacrifice” in the fight against any form of communal majority.Sikh Rights Day was set for 31 July as a day of protest, to be preceded by the performance of Akhand Paths. The day also served as the occasion for enlisting volunteers in the newly formed Akali Shahidi Dal. Widespread commitment to these principles from within the community and intransigence outside it prevented conventional negotiations from making any headway.
In early August, Sir Jogendra Singh convened sessions with Muslim leaders in Shimla, but opposition to compromise as voiced by nonparticipating Council of Action spokesmen and the persistent rumours that Muslims would be given a clear majority in the Communal Award doomed these discussions.After the Award was published, proving the rumours true, diverse strategies were proposed by Sikh leaders to protest its terms. While some called for total noncooperation with the government and others optimistically appealed to Muslims to work to wards a compromise which would recognize the legitimate demands of Sikhs, those realistically disposed advocated symbolic forms of protest and selective noncooperation.The Council of Action planned the formation of a broadly representative organization to be called the Guru Khalsa Darbar and announced 17 September to be observed as Panthic Day when all men should wear dark turbans and contribute to the Sikh Defence Fund.
On 25 September, delegates from Sikh organizations throughout India convened an All Sikh Conference at the Akal Takht in Amritsar. They resolved to establish a Khalsa Darbar composed of 250 members, of which 200 were to be elected popularly; further that all Sikh officeholders should prepare formal resignations and forward them to the new organization so that full noncooperation could be launched if and when it were deemed necessary.Meanwhile, Sikh members of the Punjab Legislative Council had joined with Hindu members to vote for adjournment on 5 September, the first day of the Assembly. While they were denied a vote on procedural grounds, the Sikh members led a walkout on 7 November.
However, none of these measures nor any others succeeded in persuading the British to withdraw the Award or to recast its terms. It was left to the Poona Pact, an agreement among Hindus regarding the terms of depressed classes representation, to raise new hopes that the various communities together might devise their own settlement to replace the Communal Award.A Unity Conference was convened in Allahabad in November, and the Council of Action, the Sikh League, and the Khalsa Darbar each sent delegates. They influenced the form of the agreement which was drafted at the conference.
It incorporated safeguards for Sikhs in the Punjab in exchange for their acceptance of a majority of reserved seats for Muslims. But the agreement foundered on the question of working out terms relating to Bengal. For this reason, it did not receive official consideration as an alternative to the Award.The experience of the Sikhs in relation to the Communal Award contributed to three developments within their community and province. First, the refusal of the government to accede in any respect to the demand for political safeguards against possible excesses under a communal majority meant that the era of Sikh collaboration with the government was on the wane.
The strategy which had been effective in protecting Muslim interests produced few positive results for the Sikhs.Second, the crisis precipitated by the impasse in communal negotiations and announcement of the Award tended to contribute to the creation of new organizations within the Sikh community, and this process of rapid mobilization encouraged the formation of factions on the basis of strategy, ideology and style of leadership. Finally, the strength of Sikh opposition to a Muslim communal majority in the Punjab gave credibility to proposals for partitioning the province in order to form a separate Sikh majority canton, district or province.
1. Nayar, Baldev Raj, Minority Politics in the Punjab. Princeton, 1966
2. Congress and the Problem of Minorities. Allahabad, 1947
3. Chatterjee, Ramananda, “The Communal Award” in The Modern Review. September 1932
4. Gulati, K.C., The Akalis : Past and Present. Delhi, 1974
5. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. 2. Princeton, 1966
6. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983