Partition of Bengal
Background and Consequences

Anirban Biswas

Pre-partition Bengal consisted of two parts. One is today’s Bangladesh that wrested independence from Pakistan in 1971. The other is today’s West Bengal that remains dependent on Delhi where the seat of India’s central government is located. What is today’s Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan during 1947-71? It was a part of Bengal, although the greater part, before 1947. After its renaming as East Pakistan, it never really succumbed to the domination by Karachi and later, Islamabad. This was first witnessed in the historic language movement that started in M. A. Jinnah’s life time and succeeded, after some bloodshed, in securing for the Bengali language its rightful place. As a culmination of the assertion of Bengali nationalism, the state of Bangladesh came into being.

When Lord Curzon decided to divide Bengal, there began a strong movement against it. The Muslim elites wanted the partition of Bengal, while the Hindu nationalist leaders fiercely opposed it. Some elite Muslims, e.g.   Abul Kasem (Badruddin Umar’s grandfather) and Abdur Rasul, opposed the partition of Bengal. It may be pointed out that after the British began to introduce English as the only medium of instruction, the Muslim middle classes boycotted it for two reasons. The first reason was that they were angry with the English who had wrested power from the earlier Muslim rulers, and the second reason was that they considered themselves heirs to a rich linguistic and literary tradition, which was Persian. The Hindu middle classes, on the other hand, thought that the English rule was going to stay and they would gain in worldly status by adopting the English system of education.            

When the Muslim elites found that owing to their lack of knowledge of English, they had lagged behind the Hindus, they began to think afresh, and afraid of Hindu domination, they supported the proposed partition of Bengal. The strong movement against this partition finally succeeded and in 1911, the partition was annulled. The anti-partition movement openly upheld the unity of Bengal, of the Bengali nationality as a whole, not of Bengali Hindus only.

With this background in mind, the case of partition of Bengal in 1947 has to be examined. It may be recalled that when C. R. Das’s Swarajya Party was controlling the Calcutta Corporation, C. R. Das decided to reserve a proportionate number of corporation jobs for Muslims. After his death, the leaders of the Bengal Congress rejected it. It is a legitimate surmise that had C.R. Das’s suggestion been accepted and implemented, the Muslim League would not have got much of a space in Bengal’s politics.

In Bengal, there were repeated attempts at preventing a Hindu-Muslim unity. As an example, the case of the Fazl-ul-Huq ministry formed in 1937. It should be mentioned that Mr. A. K. Fazl-ul-Huq after gaining a majority of the seats reserved for the Muslims in the assembly-- his party, the Krishak Praja Party, represented mainly poor Muslims-- showed a readiness to combine with the Congress. This overture was rejected on account of the decision of the all-India Congress and hence, Huq turned to the Muslim League to form a coalition government, the only non-Muslim member of the cabinet being Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, who was not then a member of the Congress. The Basu brothers wanted to oust this ministry and replace it with a Hindu-Muslim coalition ministry. N. R. Sarkar promised before them that he would resign, but he went back on his word. On the basis of the evidence given by N. R. Sarkar, Maulana Azad and G. D. Birla, Gandhi disapproved the idea of the coalition government. N. R. Sarkar might have thought that in case a coalition between the Congress and Muslims was formed, he might be excluded from the ministry. While Maulana Azad’s position was somewhat queer, that of G. D. Birla, who was the most reliable financial backer of Gandhi, is clearly understandable. Nirad C. Chaudhuri put the point with a fair degree of accuracy in his second autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch:

“So intelligent a man as G. D. Birla could not have been unaware of the bearing government power had on the interests of the community, the Marwaris, in the province. These were very large. So long as British rule lasted, the Marwaris could do nothing to prevent the British trading and industrial interests being supreme and theirs being in second place. But theirs, too, was a close second and some British companies took Marwaris as partners. But the more ambitious of them wanted to supplant the British, not cooperate with them. Therefore, they generally supported the Gandhian movement. Gandhi was given to understand by G. D. Birla that as regards money he could always depend on the house of Birla. But he would also want to see that the British withdrawal from India did not harm Marwari interests in India and in particular, in Bengal. As regards India, he could depend on Gandhi and the Congress to support all Marwari interests. But the Bengali intelligentsia, which resented the overshadowing Marwari presence in Calcutta, might try to get rid of it. Birla also knew that the middle-class Bengalis were inefficient in business and would not by themselves be able to harm Marwari vested interests. But the Bengali Hindus could become dangerous if they combined with the Muslims. Whether they did any good to themselves or not, the Hindus and Muslims between them could injure the Marwaris. So, Birla’s prime concern would be to prevent a combination of the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal. I have no doubt that in appearing to support the Muslim Ministry in Bengal, he had in mind the British game which was adopted by the Marwaris.” (Chaudhuri, Ibid, p-486)

A few years later, came the communal riots in Bengal that started on the Direct-Action day of 16 August after Jawaharlal Nehru declared that the Congress would not be fettered by the Cabinet Mission plan.  According to Abul Hasim (father of Badruddin Umar), who was always entirely against the partition of Bengal, H. S. Suhravardy, the then Chief Minister of Bengal, made a grave mistake by declaring that day a holiday. Hasim, who was then the Secretary of Bengal Muslim League, took his two sons, one aged 15 and another aged 8, to the rally held at the Monument Maidan.  It is quite possible that Hasim, as he claimed in his memoir, In Retrospection, was not aware of what was going to happen. Samar Sen wrote in his memoir that the day before, he had gone to Nizam Hotel for a dinner and encouraged its servants to join the Direct Action before proceeding to Delhi. Samar Sen was neither a Muslim nor a member of the Muslim League; he was a left-leaning distinguished Bengali poet then working at the all-Inia radio. Had he been able to foresee that a riot would break out, he would not have behaved in such a manner.

In the Kolkata riots, Muslims suffered more than Hindus although there was wanton destruction of life and property. Sensible persons tried to check this madness and at times succeeded, but on many occasions, failed. For example, the Imam of a mosque in the Park Circus area succeeded in saving the life of a daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, the illustrious religious reformer, and her family. Nirad Chaudhuri’s brother, on the other hand, failed to save the life of a poor Muslim fruit seller who was dragged to death by his own customers. (Ibid, p-811) The Kolkata riots were followed by riots in Noakhali where Hindus were mostly victims. In Bihar, Muslims were killed in masses.  Professor Abdul Bari, an important Congress leader of Bihar, was killed. As per Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s account, “The Hindus of Bihar rose and killed the Muslims who were a minority in the province, in masses.” (Ibid, p-813) `Gandhi and his companions visited Noakhali as guests of the Bengal government and by travelling on foot over a wide area, instilled a sense of security in the minds of Hindus. On 22 August, a large procession was organized in Kolkata with the participation of Congress, Muslim League and communist leaders and supporters, which succeeded in restoring peace. But such processions scarcely made an impact on those who were bent on dividing Bengal on communal lines. Dr. ShyamaPrasad Mukherjee, who appeared as their face, met the governor of Bengal and issued an open statement advocating the partition of Bengal. He was supported by J. B. Kripalani, then President of the Indian National Congress.   

The communal situation in Bengal prodded many, including eminent intellectuals like Suniti Chatterjee, Meghnad Saha and R. C. Majumdar, to argue for a communal partition of Bengal. This was a cowardly surrender to communalism. There was no general referendum, but a gallop poll through which the upper caste bhadraloks, not the vast number of lower caste or intermediate caste Hindus living mostly in rural areas, expressed their opinion in favour of a partition.  Sarat Basu and some others, however, stood firm against partition despite malicious propaganda against him that he and his fellow travellers had been spending money lavishly for purchasing votes against partition.  Gandhi believed in that propaganda, and in reply to his letter, Sarat Basu dared him to disclose the names of the tale bearers. Gandhi however refused to do so. (Vide, letters between Basu and Gandhi, Abul Hasim, In Retrospection, Bengali translation, Kolkata, pp139-40) It was the conviction of Sarat Basu and his fellow travellers that a partition of Bengal would do severe harm to the Bengali nationality and culture as a whole. Their argument was that Bengal should remain united and independent as a nationality, and should not be looking towards Delhi or Karachi for patronage. Sarat Basu and Abul Hasim, the then secretary of the Bengal Muslim League, signed a provisional agreement in this regard. It was a five-point agreement, and the main points were:

(a) Bengal would be an independent state. (b) Once this proposal was accepted, the present council of ministers would be dissolved and an interim council would be formed with equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus (including Hindus), and in this interim council, the chief minister would be a Muslim and the home minister a Hindu, (c) the Muslim and non-Muslim members of the legislative assembly would form a 30-member constituent assembly with sixteen Muslims and fourteen Hindus.

The agreement was signed on 20 May, 1947 at Sarat Basu’s house in Woodburn Park, Kolkata. (Abul Hasim, Ibid, p-136) Prior to the signing of the agreement, Hasim repeatedly said in public that given Bengal’s population composition, neither Hindus, nor Muslims could dominate over one another by sheer numerical superiority. It was logical enough, because although Bengal was a Muslim-majority province at the time of partition, it was a slender majority.

Yet Bengal was partitioned, because the majority of the legislators of the Hindu majority constituencies voted in its favour. There were fifty-eight votes in favour of partition and twenty-one against it. What is more notable is that the all-India Muslim League, including M. A. Zinnah, also accepted it. Abul Hasim opposed it seriously, but most of his important colleagues in Bengal, including H. S. Suhrawardy deserted him. These deserters ostensibly had come to the conclusion the partition of Bengal was a fait accompli and since Zinnah had accepted it, there was little point in harming their worldly prospects by opposing him. Just as Maulana Azad was the tragic hero in the episode of partition of India, Abul Hasim had been pushed by his own party to a similar role in the partition of Bengal. It is written in some accounts that the Birlas invested money in promoting the cause of partition of Bengal. This suggestion does not seem untenable in view of what G. D. Birla did for thwarting Sarat Basu and Subhas Basu’s attempt to bring down the Muslim ministry in 1938.

At present, some peculiar arguments are being paraded to justify the partition of Bengal. One is that had Bengal not been divided, it would have gone to Pakistan. Those who argue in this stupid fashion are willingly blind to the fact that even East Pakistan, which was the greater part of Bengal, but nevertheless a part, never meekly submitted to the domination of Karachi and later, Islamabad. This found its first strong expression in the language movement that is commemorated every year on 21 February. The struggle for the right of the Bengali language finally culminated in the formation of independent Bangladesh. It is ridiculous to suggest that when a part refuses to submit to Pakistan, the whole would have submitted to it. The upshot of the partition of Bengal and the Hindu bhadraloks’ support to it was that Muslim communalists had a fertile ground for transforming the partition into a rancorous hatred of Hindus. ‘They have divided Bengal, so why are they in it?’ It is not that Bengali Muslims gained much because a permanent harm to Bengal means harm to both Hindus and Muslims. Every day we hear the propaganda that Hindus are being regularly persecuted in Bangladesh. The propagators, if asked whether they were ready to go Bangladesh in order to stand by the religious minorities there, would invariably reply in the negative and some of them would cite the reason of legal obstacles. Such legal obstacles were, to be sure, created by the partition of Bengal. Yet they would not admit that the partition of Bengal was a mistake.

Right now, there is a propaganda that tens of thousands of Muslims are migrating from Bangladesh to West Bengal so as to create an Islamic Republic of Bengal. Now, formation of such an Islamic Republic requires two essential conditions: First of all, it requires that Muslims come to enjoy an overwhelming majority in Bangladesh and West Bengal taken together. Secondly, it requires that Muslims of both parts of Bengal are to be almost exclusively communal, or anti-Hindu in outlook. On the eve of the partition, Muslims constituted about 53-54% of Bengal’s population. Has the demographic situation changed so much as to elevate the population to an overwhelming majority of say, 80 or 85%? Certainly not. Again, it must be borne in mind that forces against majoritarian communalism in Bangladesh are strong and vocal. This was amply demonstrated by the Shahabag movement that was directed against the forces of Muslim communalism. So, the fear of an Islamic Republic of Bengal is utterly unfounded.

Partition of Bengal was a historical blunder and cost the Bengali nationalist much in respect of human life and other resources. This blunder cannot be corrected overnight. But there are still ways of bringing the two Bengals closer. These ways may be discussed in a latter essay.

Back to Home Page

Sep 8, 2019

Your Comment if any