Calcutta Notebook


Recently, there has been a spate of worship of Dr Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, and it is being highlighted that he unsettled Mr Jinnah’s plan of integrating Bengal into Pakistan, by bringing about a partition of Bengal. There are still many among the Bengali bhadraloks who consider that the partition of Bengal was a historically correct decision. One argument is that 99 percent of the Hindu population were in favour of the partition. The second argument is that had it not been for the partition of Bengal, the entire province would have gone to Pakistan. There is a third line of reasoning that argues that the Hindus of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, were, and still are, oppressed  lots and this is a solid justification for  partition.

Let us examine these arguments. First of all, the suggestion that 99% of the Hindus of Bengal were in favour of the partition of Bengal automatically deprives the Hindus of East Pakistan of the right to live there. But this suggestion is patently a false one. When the issue of deciding on the partition through voting in the legislative assembly of Bengal was raised, nineteen members from the Hindu dominated constituencies voted against the partition, while fifty eight voted in favour of it. A few including Mr Kiran Shankar Ray, the leader of the Congress Party, abstained.

Secondly, no referendum was organized among the Hindus, and the middle and lower caste Hindus were excluded from expressing their opinions. The urban upper caste Hindus were in general in favour of partition of Bengal. It is unfortunately true that the legislators belonging to the Communist Party of India too voted for the partition of Bengal, arguing that popular opinion was in favour of it. It was not really a popular opinion, but the opinion of the upper-caste Bengali Hindu bhadraloks who did not want to share power with the Muslims.

The argument relating to the unsettling of Jinnah's plan is also not very well-founded. It is needless to mention that today's Bangladesh, founded in 1971, was only a part, albeit the larger part, of undivided Bengal. This part did not stay inside Pakistan. Ever since the formation of Pakistan, this part revolted in varying degrees against the domination exercised by the Pakistani central government. The language movement that started during Jinnah's lifetime and subsequently caused much bloodshed was one example. The movement was the first serious assertion of Bengali identity in the then Pakistan, and culminated in the formation of the separate state of Bangladesh. So, it is sheer foolhardy to suggest that undivided Bengal would have remained under the domination of Pakistan.

Regarding the oppression of Hindus and other non-Muslims, it should be kept in mind that in undivided Bengal, Muslims constituted 53-54 % of the population. That this 53-54% could endanger the identity of the rest 46-47% is an absurd thought. In the scheme of Sarat Bose and Abul Hasim, the two formidable advocates of united Bengal, the Prime Minister of Bengal was to be a Muslim and the Home Minister a Hindu. Even when Suhrabardy, who had earlier been opposed to the partition of Bengal, joined Jinnah in accepting it, Hasim remained firm in his stand and earned the epithet 'snake in the grass' from the pro-Jinnah daily The Dawn.

About the post-partition oppression of Hindus by Muslim communalists in the then East Pakistan and present Bangladesh, one fact should be noted. Those who were, and still are, concerned about it had, and still have little means at their disposal to prevent it. The situation was somewhat different in colonial undivided Bengal. One may in all fairness draw attention to one event that took place in early 1941 when the Fazl-ul-Huq ministry was in charge of the administration of Bengal.

Nirad C Chaudhury, in his autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch has described the event in some detail. It may be worthwhile to quote him.

"At that time there was a sudden outbreak of the chronic Hindu-Muslim animosity in Dacca district. Actually, there was no rioting between the communities but only attacks on the Hindu villages and homes by the Muslims over a very wide area of the district. These attacks, accompanied by looting and burning of Hindu houses, were continuous, and they were apparently allowed to go on by the Bengal government; which was under a Muslim ministry. The panic among the Hindus was very great, and thousands of them fled to the neighbouring Hindu princely state of Tripura.

...The Press in Calcutta raised a hue and cry, and began to denounce the Muslim Government. Political parties were naturally anxious to exploit the situation as much as possible. The leading politician of the party with pronounced Hindu leanings at once flew to Calcutta to offer his sympathy to the Hindus. But Sarat Bose did not. So there were piteous appeals to him from the Congressite politicians not to allow the Congress to be an object of criticism and to go to Dacca to balance the visit by the Hindu leader. Sarat Babu did not, however, leave Calcutta but raised his voice in the Legislative Assembly. He severely criticized the Muslim ministry for its failure to give protection to the Hindus and brought forward charges of abduction and forcible conversion to Islam against the Muslim rioters. The Muslim Home Minister at once asked him to bring authentic instances to his notice, and assured that he would deal with them. Sarat Babu issued an appeal for information." (Ibid. pp576-77)

In 1941, there was the scope for raising such issues in the Legislative Assembly and putting pressure on the ministry, or to fly to Dacca. But after the partition of Bengal, such scopes were exhausted. Those who were vociferous in their demand for partition of Bengal were unable to prevent the outbreak of Muslim cornmunalism in East Bengal. They had only one option, namely to stoke up the fire of Hindu sentiments against the Muslims of West Bengal. This they did with partial success, and even now their political-ideological successors are trying to do so.

Of course, it is true that there were horrible communal tensions in both parts of Bengal in 1946-47, and some eminent persons, baffled by the developments, opined in favour of the partition of Bengal. But later events of communal outrages have proved that they did not have the perspicacity to understand that division of a nationality along religious lines were likely to do more harm than good to both communities. What is noteworthy is that those who admire Shayma Prasad Mukherjee's role in the partition of Bengal are shedding tears for the persecuted Hindus of Bangladesh. It is difficult to find an attitude more sickening in its hypocrisy.

Right now, there is no immediate possibility of uniting the two Bengals. But at least something may be done to promote exchanges between the people of West Bengal and the people of Bangladesh. Many now know something about the rise of a neo-rich class in Bangladesh, which has accumulated vast amounts of wealth by plundering national wealth. One also knows something about the abysmal conditions of the working class there. Yet the Bengali identity is more articulated there. A conscious promotion of economic and cultural exchanges should lead to the strengthening of this identity, particularly in this part of Bengal, the western part.

Vol. 47, No. 17, Nov 2 - 8, 2014