Indian provincial elections, 1946

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Provincial elections were held in British India in January 1946 to elect members of the legislative councils of British Indian provinces. [12] The elections laid the foundation for the creation of Pakistan. [13] The Muslim League finished second, but it had won the overwhelming majority of Muslim seats. [13] It won nearly 1/3 of India, as such it gained the negotiating power to begin partitioning India. This was done as it became evident that a united India would be politically unstable. The Muslim League won a plurality of seats in the Punjab assembly, but not an overall majority, and a coalition government was formed by Congress and the Unionists; this pro-union coalition collapsed as soon as it was formed, which proved a nail in the coffin for Gandhi and Nehru in proving that a united India would be a stable nation. [3]


On 19 September 1945, the Viceroy Lord Wavell announced that elections to the provincial and central legislatures would be held in December 1945 to January 1946. It was also announced that an executive council would be formed and a constitution-making body would be convened after these elections. [12] [14]

These elections were important as the provincial assemblies thus formed were to then elect a new Constituent Assembly for an independent India.

Originally, the Muslim League had been a party which received most of its support from the Muslim-minority provinces, where fear of Hindu ‘domination’ was greater as was the sense of ‘a loss of privilege’, and to showcase its argument for Muslim nationhood the League needed support from both Muslim-majority as well as Muslim-minority provinces. In the election campaign, the League resorted to establishing networks with traditional power bases, such as landowners and the religious elite, in the Muslim-majority provinces to win support. Religious slogans were utilized and the term ‘Pakistan’ was put forward. Several scholars state that the meaning of Pakistan was kept vague so that it meant different things to different people. [15] On the other hand, Venkat Dhulipala observes that, rather than being vague, the proposals for Pakistan were vigorously debated in public, maps printed, economic foundations analysed and Pakistan was envisioned as a modern Ilsmaic state. [16] [18]


A key battleground during the elections was the Punjab province. The Punjab had a slight Muslim majority, and local politics had been dominated by the secular Unionist Party and its longtime leader Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan. The Unionists had built a formidable power base in the Punjabi countryside through policies of patronage allowing them to retain the loyalty of landlords and pirs who exerted significant local influence. [19] For the Muslim League to claim to represent the Muslim vote, they would need to win over the majority of the seats held by the Unionists. Following the death of Sir Sikander in 1942, and bidding to overcome their dismal showing in the elections of 1937, the Muslim League intensified campaigning throughout rural and urban Punjab.

A major thrust of the Muslim's League's campaign was the increased use of religious symbolism. Activists were advised to join in communal prayers when visiting villages, and gain permission to hold meetings after the Friday prayers. [19] The Quran became a symbol of the Muslim League at rallies, and pledges to vote where made on it. [19] Students, a key component of the Muslim League's activists, were trained to appeal to the electorate on communal lines, and at the peak of student activity during the Christmas holidays of 1945, 250 students from Aligarh were invited to campaign in the province along with 1550 members of the Punjab Muslim Student's Federation. [19] A key achievement of their religious propaganda came in enticing Muslim Jats and Gujjars from their intercommunal tribal loyalties. [19] In response, the Unionists attempted to counter the growing religious appeal of the Muslim League by introducing religious symbolism into their own campaign, but with no student activists to rely upon and dwindling support amongst the landlords, their attempts met with little success.

To further their religious appeal, the Muslim League also launched efforts to entice Pirs towards their cause. Pirs dominated the religious landscape, and were individuals who claimed to inherit religious authority from Sufi Saints who had proselytised in the region since the eleventh century. [19] By the twentieth century, most Punjabi Muslims offered allegiance to a Pir as their religious guide, thus providing them considerable political influence. [19] The Unionists had successfully cultivated the support of Pirs to achieve success in the 1937 elections, and the Muslim League now attempted to replicate their method of doing so. To do so, the Muslim League created the Masheikh Committee, used Urs ceremonies and shrines for meetings and rallies and encouraged fatwas urging support for the Muslim League. [19] Reasons for the pirs switching allegiance varied. For the Gilani Pirs of Multan the over-riding factor was local longstanding factional rivalries, whilst for many others a shrines size and relationship with the government dictated its allegiance. [19]

Despite the Muslim League's aim to foster a united Muslim loyalty, it also recognised the need to better exploit the biradari network and appeal to primordial tribal loyalties. In 1946 it held a special Gujjar conference intending to appeal to all Muslim Gujjars, and lifted its ban on Jahanara Shahnawaz with the hope of appealing to Arain constituencies. [19] Appealing to biradari ties enabled the Muslim League to accelerate support amongst landlords, and in turn use the landlords client-patron economic relationship with their tenants to guarantee votes for the forthcoming election. [19]

A separate strategy of the Muslim League was to exploit the economic slump suffered in the Punjab as a result of the Second World War. [19] The Punjab had supplied 27 per cent of the Indian Army recruits during the war, constituting 800,000 men, and representing a significant part of the electorate. By 1946, less than 20 per cent of those servicemen returning home had found employment. [19] This in part was exacerbated by the speedy end to the war in Asia, which caught the Unionist's by surprise, and meant their plans to deploy servicemen to work in canal colonies were not yet ready. [19] The Muslim League took advantage of this weakness and followed Congress's example of providing work to servicemen within its organisation. [19] The Muslim League's ability to offer an alternative to the Unionist government, namely the promise of Pakistan as an answer to the economic dislocation suffered by Punjabi villagers, was identified as a key issue for the election. [19]

On the eve of the elections, the political landscape in the Punjab was finely poised, and the Muslim League offered a credible alternative to the Unionist Party. The transformation itself had been rapid, as most landlords and pirs had not switched allegiance until after 1944. [19] The breakdown of talks between the Punjab Premier, Malik Khizar Hayat Tiwana and Muhammad Ali Jinnah in late 1944 had meant many Muslims were now forced to choose between the two parties at the forthcoming election. [19] A further blow for the Unionists came with death of its leading statesman Sir Chhotu Ram in early 1945.


The results were in favour of the Indian National Congress, which won 91 percent of the vote in non-Muslim constituencies, thus proving that for most Hindus it was the legitimate successor to the British rule. [20] Of the total of 1585 seats, it won 923 (58.23%). The Hindu Mahasabha Party, contesting the elections on a militant Hindu platform, was annihilated, losing all eighteen seats they contested. [21]

The All-India Muslim League won 425 seats (26.81% of the total), placing it as the second-ranking party. It won the majority of the Muslim vote as well as most of the reserved Muslim seats in the provincial assemblies. [22] The arrangement of separate electorates for each religious community had guaranteed that Muslim contestants would contest the elections against each other rather than against contestants from other communities. Thus, the debate over creating Pakistan had primarily become a debate among Muslims in the electoral arena. [23]

The Communist Party of India had presented 108 candidates, out of whom only 8 won a seat. The set-back came as a result of the decision of the party not to support the Quit India movement of 1942. Seven out of the eight seats it won were reserved for labour representatives. All in all, the Communist Party obtained 2.5% of the popular vote. Albeit far from competing with the two main parties, the communists became the third force in terms of the popular vote. Amongst the communist candidates elected were Jyoti Basu (railways constituency in Bengal), Ratanlal Brahman (Darjeeling) and Rupnarayan Ray (Dinajpur).

The results for the North West Frontier Province came through in March. Congress achieved a strong majority, largely due to the personality of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, enabling them to form a government without trouble. [21]

In the Punjab, the concerted effort of the Muslim League led to its greatest success, winning 75 seats of the total Muslim seats and becoming the largest single party in the Assembly. The Unionist Party suffered heavy losses winning only 20 seats in total. The Congress was the second largest party, winning 43 seats, whilst the Sikh centric Akali Dal came third with 22 seats. [21]

In Assam, Congress won all of the general seats, and most of those reserved for special interest, thus forming the local government. The Muslim League won all of the Muslim seats. [21]

In the Muslim majority province of Sind, the Muslim League won the most seats. Congress however also achieved strong results, and initially hoped to form a coalition in government with four Muslims who had defected from the Muslim League. At the last minute, one of the four Muslim dissidents went over to the Muslim League, handing them a majority of one. Congress then lobbied three European members, who would swing the balance of power into their favour, but their overtures were rejected. The Governor of Sind therefore asked the Muslim League to form the local government. [21]

Legislative Assemblies [4]

Province Congress Muslim League Other parties Independents Total
Assam 58 31 Europeans 9 Others 3 7 108
Bengal 86 113 Europeans 25 Others 12 14 250
Bihar 98 34 8 12 152
Bombay 125 30 2 18 175
Central Provinces 92 13 7 112
Madras 163 28 Communist Party 2 22 215
North West Frontier Province 30 17 2 1 50
Orissa 47 4 9 60
Punjab 51 73 Akalis 22 Unionist Party 20 Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam 2 7 175
Sind 18 27 10 4 60
United Provinces 153 54 7 14 228
Total 923 425 123 114 1585


The Congress formed its ministries in Assam, Bihar, Bombay, Central Provinces, Madras, NWFP, Orissa and United Provinces. The Muslim League formed its ministries in Bengal and Sind. A coalition consisting of the Congress, Unionist Party and the Akalis was formed in Punjab. [2]

Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed has given a well documented account of how the Coalition Government in the United Punjab collapsed as a result of a massive campaign launched by the then Punjab Muslim League. AIML (Punjab) deemed the coalition government as a 'non-representative' government and thought it was their right to bring such government down (notwithstanding the fact that it was a legal and democratically elected government). AIML (P) called for a 'Civil Disobedience' movement (which was fully backed by Mr. Jinnah and Mr. Liaqat Ali Khan, after they had failed to enlist Sikh's support to help form an AIML led government in Punjab). This led to bloody communal riots in Punjab during the later part of 1946. By early 1947, Law and order situation in the Province came to such a point where civil life was utterly paralysed. It was under such circumstances that the coalition Punjab Premier (Chief Minister) Mr. Khizer Haya Tiwana was forced to resign, on 2 March 1947. His cabinet was dissolved the same day. As there was no hope left for any other government to be formed to take the place of the Khizer government, the then Punjab Governor Sir Evan Jenkins imposed Governor's rule in Punjab on 5 March which continued up to the partition day, that is 14 August 1947. Akali-Dall Sikkhs who, with 22 seats, were major stake-holders in the coalition along with Congress(51) and the Unionist Party (20), were infuriated over the dissolution of the Khizer Government. It was in this backdrop that on 3 March 1947, Akali Sikh leader Master Tara Singh brandished his Kirpan outside Punjab Assembly saying openly 'down with Pakistan and blood be to the one who demands it'. From this day on wards, Punjab was engulfed in such bloodied communal riots that the history had never witnessed before. Eventually, Punjab had to be partitioned into the Indian and Pakistani Punjab. In the process, over a million of innocent people were massacred, millions were forced to cross-over and to become refugees while thousands of women were abducted, raped and killed, across all religious communities in Punjab.

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