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Mohammad Yunus : First Chief Minister of Bihar

Mohammad Sajjad

While turning the pages of history of the colonial Indian Muslim politics, only issue that comes immediately to our mind is their engagement with the question of Hindu-Muslim relations, communalism, and power sharing formula in various sectors/ institutions. Here is a case a little away from all such issues.

It is a relatively lesser known aspect of history that Mr. Md. Yunus earns the distinction of having served as the first Premier (Prime Minister, now called Chief Minister) of Bihar during April- July 1937.

Starting his career as barrister, he also flirted with journalism by bringing out English daily, Patna Times, an English weekly, edited by Shambhunath Jha. He was elected on the symbol of the Muslim Independent Party (MIP) in 1937, which had emerged as the second largest party in Bihar, almost routing the separatist political formations like the Syed Abdul Aziz led Muslim United Party, i.e. MUP (launched in December 1936, subsequently it merged with the Muslim League, which was organizationally almost non-existent in Bihar till the 1937 elections), and Ahrar. As many as 20 candidates were elected on the symbol of MIP, 6 more independent candidates and 3 Muslim candidates belonging to the Congress (including Dr. Syed Mahmud, 1889-1971) won with the support of the MIP.


In the 1937 provincial elections the Congress and the MIP contested elections with seat adjustments. The MIP won 15 out of 40 reserved seats and the Congress won five seats. The Muslim League was unable to secure any seats.

Such ideological affinity and electoral adjustment gave rise to an impression in the public mind that the Congress and MIP would jointly form the government in Bihar. The Congress, however, reneged on the tacit understanding, giving a rude shock to the Muslims. The Congress, on the issue of ‘Governor’s discretion’ initially refused to form the ministry. The Congress insisted that it would form the ministry only after an assurance from the Governor that he would not use his special/ discretionary powers. The deadlock in Bihar continued from April to July 1937; till then the MIP, the second largest Party, formed its ministry under Md. Yunus, making it clear that it would give way to the Congress, once it decided to accept office. The plea of the MIP was that the Act of 1935 itself provided for Governor’s special powers, and the very fact that the Congress contested elections on the basis of the Act was evidence of the Congress’ acceptance of the condition (Governor’s special powers). Some Urdu sources indicate that the MIP wished to form a coalition ministry with the Congress, which was not acceptable for the latter, even in July 1937. Accordingly, the MIP, being the second largest party, formed its ministry (for about 120 days during April-July 1937), though making it pretty clear that it would give way to a new ministry as soon as the Congress reconsidered its decision. However, there took place a sort of ‘Hindu backlash’ against the MIP, whereby, according to Taqi Raheem, even the Socialists, including Abdul Bari, were embittered by the fact of the MIP’s formation of the interim ministry. (For details see my essay in SAHC, London, vol. 2, no.1, January 2011, It details how the Congress outrageously denied legitimate share in power to the Muslims)

What was MIP? 

The Muslim Independent Party (MIP) was a political party launched on 12 September 1936 by the Imarat-e-Shariah, under the leadership of Maulana Abul Mohasin Mohd Sajjad (d. 1940) of the Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind. This [the Imarat-e-Shariah] was an agenda of Maulana Azad, in whose, “scheme of things, in countries like India where Muslims were a minority and did not hold political power, the Imarat would function as an institution of political authority and state power…He envisaged it maintaining a relationship with the country’s government through a collective agreement” (Papiya Ghosh, IESHR, 1997). Assisted by ulema and mashaikh, in order to prepare a legitimate popular support base, the Imarat had to establish shariat courts (Darul Qaza).  The MIP was described as a party for the emancipation of the poor and the uplift of agriculture. The MIP supported the Congress goal of independence but aimed at securing constitutional safeguards for religion and culture. For bearing ‘an unmistakable resemblance with the Congress’ the MIP earned lamentations of the Bihar Muslim League (The Indian Nation, 9 November 1934). Its leaders like Usman Ghani, Hafiz Md sani and Shaikh Adalat Husain of Bettiah had suffered imprisonment for having participated in the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-32 (The Indian Nation, 10 November 1934). Imarat-e-Shariah’s mouthpiece Imarat, an Urdu fortnightly (banned during the Civil Disobedience Movement) and subsequently giving birth to Naqeeb, Urdu weekly articulated the muttahidah qaumiyat (composite nationalism) and contested the two nation theory of Jinnah’s Muslim League till very end.

How did Yunus’ ministry perform?

Displaying his deep concern for being accommodative towards all social groups, Yunus made it a point to have people from a cross section in his cabinet.  He kept the departments of Law and Order, Judicial and Jail, Education and Registration with himself. Babu Guru Sahai Lal was given Rural Development; Kumar Ajit Prasad Singh Dev was given Local Self Government, and Abdul Wahab Khan got the Revenue dept.

Agrarian issues seem to have been addressed on priority basis by the Yunus led ministry. An Urdu account (1987) written by his contemporary, Asghar Imam Falsafi (1902-1997), in his, Mr Mohd Yunus ke Daur-e-Wizarat ka Ek Aks, records that Mr. Yunus was very accessible to the common people, undertook mammoth visits of the villages, directly hearing the problems of the peasants; he paid special attention to the production of sugar-canes and to control flood. [Taqi Raheem has also compiled Tazkira-e-Yunus.] In 1931 food grain prices had fallen. He, therefore, reduced the burden of rent to be paid by the tenants. The Hindi-Urdu tension and the Hindu-Muslim tension was a subject nobody could afford to ignore then. He was a type of politician who never tried to shift the blames. He never allowed the personal prejudices to influence his professional business. For example, his decision to accept the office of the ministry was met with great uproar by the Congress and the Socialists. On 31st March 1937, they staged a huge dharna before the house of Mr Md Yunus; which had turned violent and stone pelting was done on Yunus’ house.  Thus they were arrested by the police. On 1st April, immediately after accepting the office, the first order issued by Mr Yunus was to release them, and other under-trial prisoners/ freedom fighters unconditionally. Frequent jail inspection to look after the inmates (mostly freedom fighters), where he had hours long detailed conversations with the inmates, and it was a testimony of his style of functioning. Responding to a communal tension in Aurangabad, on 22 April 1937, he rushed to the place of occurrence, involved the two communities in talks and persuaded them to agree for peaceful living, without calling even a single extra policeman; he personally led the procession of idol immersion. This exercise consumed his four hours and things were settled effectively. Lord Zetland is said to have got highly impressed with such a prompt, effective and judicious way of dealing with such sensitive matter, and therefore he showered laurels for his administrative management. The Hindus-Muslims of Aurangabad jointly hosted a feast in which Yunus was the chief guest.

His ministry restored the Local self Government (Democratic Decentralism), convened elections for it. Then in late 1937, he undertook a survey of the Diara lands (the then Monghyr district) along with the collectors, commissioner and the Member of the Revenue Board, and asked them to prepare a master plan for the agrarian development of that region. In 1915-16, a 15 year land settlement was made which expired on 31 March 1930, and then this settlement was again extended. But the Yunus ministry substantially reduced the rent (raiyati) to be paid by the peasantry of Diara.  It included complete waiver of the arrear of the rent for 1933-34, which was Rs 5039. And for the subsequent three years the waiver was up to 50%. This was not done out of electorally dictated hasty populism, but Yunus got done a comprehensive survey by Nagendra Lal Bose, the Deputy Collector. A proper legislation was done (Act 112), applications for the reduction of lagan were invited by the Settlement officers of the thanas, on four anna stamp paper, without requiring signature of an advocate. This was done by extensive campaign in the villages so that the peasants don’t fall prey of bureaucratic corruption (bribery).

Earlier in 1908, he had participated in the Lahore session of the Congress of 1908. For many years he served as the President of the Bihar Students’ Association. In 1916, he represented in the Imperial Legislative Council and during 1921-32 he was a member of the Bihar Legislative Council.

He called a comprehensive meeting with the owners of the sugar mills of the Tirhut Division, and persuaded them to operate the mills till entire crop of sugarcane reaches the mills, for it he also got reduced the rail fares by 60% so that import of the sugarcane from the adjacent provinces could be encouraged for the mills. These steps helped in mitigating the peasants’ restlessness, and thereby rural indebtedness was sought to be fought. For further achievement on this aspect of rural indebtedness, he undertook following four steps:

(a)    Establishment of a board to arbitrate the loan related disputes,
(b)   A ceiling on the rate of interest taken by the moneylenders,
(c)    Establishment of Land Mortgage Banks,
(d)   Registration of the moneylenders and ways of monitoring them

For this, he asked Y.A. Godbole, ICS to undertake journey of some of the provinces who was supposed to propose for a Conciliation Board of Cooperatives. The moneylenders were asked to furnish a list of the borrowers.
Similarly, to control flood, he personally joined the labourers working with spades to dig soil for embankment in the Adampur village of Siwan Subdivision. It earned him great popularity, and people greeted him throughout his journey from Adampur to Chapra. Every district was provided with at least 100 boats, before the rainy season and onset of flood. He also kept soliciting suggestions from the experts on containing flood.

On 16 May 1937, he rushed to Dumraon to resolve the dispute between the industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia and the Maharaja of Dumraon. With a peace between the two, Dalmia invested a capital of Rs 5 crores, and factories of cement, lime, and paper were opened. This effort at industrial development heralded a big opportunity of employment.

In 1929, on an experimental basis, the colonial government had permitted the use of Urdu script, along with Nagri, only in Patna Division. In June 1937, Yunus extended this to entire province. [In Manbhum (then in Bihar, now in West Bengal) district, Bengali was also allowed along with Nagri].  In fact, the Bihar branch of the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu had convened a meeting in the Anjuman Islamia Hall of Patna on 27 May 1937 pressing for this demand, and they had convened around one thousand meetings in different parts of Bihar, including some in rural areas. The Tribune is said to have given wide coverage of this movement for Urdu, and editorialized in appreciation of this step.

The magnificent, imposing buildings of the Assembly and Council, and that of the Patna Civil Court were constructed by his ministry.

He remained lifelong President of the “Theosophical Society” and “Mel Milap Association” of Annie Besant (Mahamaya Prasad was the Secretary); had donated his one of the personal houses to it. It also launched a magazine Mel Milap, it was a bilingual journal (Urdu and Nagri), which also published poems of Yunus.

He kept reiterating that the day the congress will decide to accept the office, the MIP will step down, this decision came on 7 July 1937, but as an officiating Premier he had to continue in the office till 19 July 1937. He was particularly fond of debates in the assembly/council (in fact his own election as the Premier of Bihar was done after 4 day long debates participated and arbitrated also by Maulana Azad), had 3-4 day long debates on the Act of 1935 and then proposed amendments and moved Agriculture Income Tax Bill, and a Bill for exempting the Waqf properties from taxation. He also proposed Bills for:

(a) Protection of the personal laws of the Muslims,
(b) A draft proposal for proportionate representation of Muslims in the municipal and district boards,
(c) Protection and maintenance of the Muslim Waqf properties

Besides, after quitting the office of the Premier, he did not remain silent and inactive. He spoke in the assembly on the issues like the riots of Tilkori (Hazaribagh, 10 May 1938), Giani Nabiganj (P.S. Sikandra, Monghyr, 7 July 1938), Deawan (26 July 1938), Bhagalpur (2 August 1938).

Early Life of Yunus

Born at Penhara (P.S. Naubatpur, Subdivision Danapur, Patna), he belonged to the descendents of a Sufi, Hazrat Shah Ibrahim Malik, whose tomb is on the hills of Bihar Shareef (Nalanda). His father was Moulvi Ali Hasan, a zamindar of the village, and advocate in the Patna Court. Yunus was the younger son, [elder being Yusuf, also Bar at law], got Bar at law from England in 1906 and came back to Patna. He was very fond of games and sports. He was married to Zaibunnesa, daughter of Moulvi Abdul Jabbar, an affluent zamindar and a leading lawyer of Mirzapur (UP); this family originally belonged to Patna from where they had migrated to Mirzapur. Md Yusuf Imam, barrister and leader of Congress was brother of Zaibunnesa. Besides being a successful lawyer, Yunus was thrice elected to the Legislative Council of Bihar and he was on the Patna Municipal Board during 1917-23. He also served as Director, Bihar Bank, and Bihar & Orissa Provincial Cooperative Bank., and also of Bihar United Insurance Company. He was the Chief Whip, Bihar Legislative Council, 1921-26. Yunus had a sudden attack of coronary thrombosis, while walking in a street of London, where he died on May 13 1952, and was buried in the graveyard of Brooklyn, a suburb, 7 kms away from London.

His sons Yasin Yunus and Yaqub Yunus were also advocates, and the elder (Yasin) acted his secretary. They preserve his diary and two collections of poems, Kalam-e-Yunus, and Payam-e-Mohabbat. [Yaqub Yunus, probably an Alig, was also associated with the All India Muslim Majlis Mashaweraat of Syed Mahmud (1889-1971) in 1960s.   (Courtesy: bihardays.com)

(Mohammad Sajjad is Assistant Professor at Centre of Advanced Study in History, AMU, Aligarh)


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