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75 Years Partition

The unusual story of Bengal

When Rahmat Ali coined ‘Pakistan’ as the template for a Muslim homeland, each letter represented a zone: ‘P’ for Punjab, ‘A’ for Afghan region, ‘K’ for Kashmir, ‘S’ for Sindh, and ‘Tan’ for Baluchistan. Bengal was completely left out. For Bengali Muslims, the prospect of Pakistan presented a huge dilemma as many among them were committed to both their religious and regional loyalties

The unusual story of Bengal

Photo for representational purpose only.

Salil Misra

IT is often not realised that there was not one partition in 1947, but two actually. There was a partition of the Indian sub-continent into two nation-states of India and Pakistan. But much more significantly, there was also a partition of the old composite regions of Punjab and Bengal. The partition of the sub-continent was tragic, that of the regions catastrophic. For some reasons, Punjab has hogged the limelight as far as the literary and historical attention is concerned. The Bengal partition, by comparison, has not received the same importance. But it was no less calamitous.

It may be argued that it was somehow Bengal’s destiny to live through multiple partitions. The region actually experienced four partitions in the 20th century. It had its first partition in 1905 when the British government partitioned Bengal to carve out a separate province combining East Bengal and Assam. This partition was fiercely resisted by the Bengalis, who led the famous Swadeshi Movement against the British. The second partition happened in 1911 when the earlier partition was annulled and Bengal’s linguistic unity was restored. But Bihar and Orissa, till then part of Bengal presidency, were separated from Bengal. The third partition happened in 1947 when parts of Bengal were integrated into India and Pakistan. And the final partition of Bengal happened in 1971 when a separate nation-state of Bangladesh was created out of erstwhile East Pakistan.

Bengal was similar to Punjab in some respects, but very dissimilar in some others. Like Punjab, it was a Muslim majority province. Like Punjab, the Muslim majority was very slender. Muslims constituted nearly 54 per cent of the population of Bengal, much like Punjab. But the similarities ended here. A large majority of Bengali Muslims consisted of poor peasants. This was quite unlike Punjab, where there was a substantial presence of rich and prominent Muslim landlords, particularly in the western pockets.

This fact, of a different class profile of Muslim population, had some very important consequences. The All India Muslim League, the main representative organisation of Indian Muslims, was formed in Bengal in 1906. But it was much more interested and invested in the Muslims of Punjab, UP and Bombay, than in Bengali Muslims. When the Congress and Muslim League signed a pact in 1916, the Muslim League agreed to surrender the Muslim majority in the proposed Bengal Assembly, in return for various other concessions. In 1930, Mohammad Iqbal, as the president of Muslim League, proposed the formation of a separate and autonomous Muslim zone, a “Muslim India within India” as he called it. In this “Muslim India”, he included Punjab, Sindh and North-West Frontier provinces, but happily excluded Bengal. That was not all. In 1933, Rahmat Ali, the young student in Cambridge, made an appeal to the Muslim leaders, “on behalf of the Muslims of North West”. In his appeal, he coined the word ‘Pakistan’ as the template for a Muslim homeland, with each letter representing a zone: ‘P’ for Punjab, ‘A’ for Afghan region, ‘K’ for Kashmir, ‘S’ for Sindh, and ‘Tan’ for Baluchistan. Again, Bengal was completely left out in his imagination of ‘Pakistan’, both real and metaphorical. Did it occur to him, or to Iqbal before him, that they had excluded the largest Muslim zone with more Muslims than anywhere else in the sub-continent, from their conception of an exclusive Muslim homeland? This is an extremely curious and unusual fact of the story of Indian partition.

When did it dawn upon the leadership of Muslim League that the poor Bengali Muslims ought to have been included in the Muslim League’s imagination of a Muslim homeland? It was only as late as in 1937 that the League leadership woke up to the importance of Bengali Muslims. The British had by this time introduced provincial autonomy. Under this constitutional arrangement, any party that won a majority of seats in the provincial Legislative Assembly could form a government in that province. In Bengal, the government was actually formed by Fazlul Huq of the Praja Krishak Party, representing the Muslim peasants of Bengal.

It was also after 1937 that Jinnah’s politics acquired greater coherence and clarity. His new priority was to create a common all-India political platform for Indian Muslims. The main obstacle in this project was that the energies of ‘Muslim politics’ in the minority and the majority provinces were flowing in very different directions. The Muslim politics in the majority provinces such as Punjab and Bengal was not very interested in politics outside the regions. But without their cooperation, there could be no pan-India platform of Muslim politics. The Pakistan demand, declared in 1940, was one way of bringing together Muslim politics of majority and minority provinces.

In pursuing his Pakistan goal, it was necessary for Jinnah to capture Bengal. He was able to do it with the help of the British in 1941, when Fazlul Huq, the leader of Bengali Muslims, was expelled from the Muslim League, and soon a Muslim League government was installed in Bengal. By 1945, Muslim League was able to form governments in all the provinces that were being claimed for Pakistan.

However, the prospect of Pakistan presented a region like Bengal with a huge dilemma. It was not easy to make a clear choice between the religious and regional loyalties. Many Bengali Muslims discovered that they were equally committed to their religious identity as Muslims and to their regional identity as Bengalis. The trouble was that the Pakistan issue did not allow combining of the two solidarities. A support for Pakistan threatened to tear apart the old regional solidarity. A cementing of the regional solidarity with other non-Muslim fellow Bengalis would obviously nip the Pakistan scheme in the bud. This was the real dilemma before the Muslims of Bengal.

Interestingly, in Bengal, the strong communal solidarities had not been able to completely destroy the centuries old Bengali solidarity. And so, when the prospect of Pakistan loomed large, which also entailed the partition of the region, some leaders in Bengal — Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sarat Bose in the main — came up with a novel proposal. In the eventuality of India being partitioned, they proposed the creation of a separate sovereign united Bengal, outside both India and Pakistan. However, by the time this proposal was mooted in April 1947, Calcutta and Noakhali had already witnessed unprecedented communal violence in 1946. The Calcutta violence, in which nearly 5,000 people died in four days, may well have been the final nail on the idea of Bengali Hindus and Muslims living together in harmony. In the end, India was partitioned into two nation-states. And so was Bengal, along with Punjab.

The partition of Bengal, like its Punjab counterpart, led to more violence, trauma, forced migration and displacement of people. There was one difference though. In Punjab, the forced migration and displacements were episodic, sudden and dramatic. In Bengal, however, they were slow, diffused and prolonged. If the story of partition is really the story of forced migrations and displacements, then it can be easily concluded that Bengal still lives in the shadows of its own partition.

— The writer teaches history at Ambedkar University, Delhi

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