Partition of Bengal - A saga of lost hopes and homeland

Partition of Bengal – A saga of lost hopes and homeland


Another Independence Day has passed. Once again, the Hindi patriotic songs were played on loudspeakers in each neighbourhood of West Bengal. People also unfurled the tricolour flag on their rooftops on the call of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many two-wheelers and auto-rickshaws also flaunted the flag to exhibit ‘patriotism’. Amid these optics, many Bengalis may not remember that August 15th was not merely India’s Independence Day, but also the day of the partition of Bengal, which has endangered the existence of Bengalis.

The partition of Bengal, which took place simultaneously with the formation of two British dominions of India and Pakistan from British India, displaced and killed millions; it destroyed the livelihoods of millions belonging to the marginalised communities like lower-caste Muslims and the ostracised Bengali Dalits known as Namasudras. It resulted in one of the world’s largest refugee crises, where those who were rendered homeless never got recognition as citizens.

But the partition of Bengal on the eve of India’s Independence Day raises some questions. The timid opposition offered by prominent Bengali politicians and intelligentsia to the idea of partition, the passive resistance to the act by the progressive forces, including the communists, and the overwhelming communal narrative that it endorsed and paved the way to communal hatred among the Bengali people raise several questions.

The lost anger

Before the partition of Bengal in 1947, when the British government adopted a similar scheme in 1905, to create a communal rift, the Savarna Bengali Bhadralok community—an upper-caste gentry community in Bengal—exhibited its utmost disdain for the empire. The Bhadralok community, many of whose members had feudal estates in the eastern parts of Bengal, was terrified of losing their zamindari and socio-economic status. 

Prominent people of the upper-caste Bengali Hindu community erupted with intense anger against the British Empire. Several intellectuals, including the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore, joined a mass movement that called for boycotting British goods and adopting “Swadeshi” or indigenous products, especially clothing, to oppose Lord Curzon’s plan to bifurcate Bengal based on religion.

An extremist movement started in the British province to thwart the partition of Bengal in 1905. A large number of youths of the Bhadralok community took vows intending to defeat the British through armed struggle. The armed struggle, which mostly focused on individual assassinations of government servants and policemen, started under the leadership of Aurobindo Ghosh. 

Several revolutionary activists like Khudiram Bose, Praful Chaki, Kanailal Dutta, Satyendranath Bose, etc, sacrificed their lives while taking part in the armed underground movement. The legacy of the movement, especially led by the Anushilan Samiti, Yugantar Samiti, etc, didn’t end, but revolutionaries like Jatindranath Mukhopadhyay—known as ‘Bagha Jatin’—and others, including Binay Bose, Badal Gupta, Dinesh Gupta, ‘Masterda’ Surya Sen, etc, also sacrificed their lives over 30 years in their struggle against the empire’s colonial oppression.

The Bengali Bhadralok community continued to struggle against colonial exploitation, against the partition of Bengal, without caring for their lives. Several members of the Bhadralok community played a pivotal role in spreading and applying Marxism in India. With such political advancement, why did the community accept the partition of Bengal in 1947? Why does the Bengali Bhadralok community, which held Rakhi Bandhan against the division of Bengal in 1905, claim only West Bengal as its own and disown the very eastern part?

Religious polarisation

Religious polarisation was responsible for the Bhadralok community’s 180-degree reversal of position on the partition of Bengal in the 1940s. The Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League were intensifying communal hatred at that time, despite running a coalition government in the Bengal province during the war and beyond. 

Ironically, the anti-feudal Tebhaga movement, led by the Communist Party of India (CPI), paved the way for a major communal polarisation in Bengal. During the Tebhaga movement, the landless and poor peasants fought against the feudal landlords in different parts of Bengal. Most of the poor and landless peasants in eastern parts of Bengal were from the Muslim community, while most landlords came from the Bhadralok community.

After the communists, due to their apparent disarrayed situation and lack of a sustainable programme, allowed a lacunae in the peasants’ class movement against the landlords, the Muslim League hijacked the momentum and turned the anti-feudal sentiment of the landless and poor Muslim peasants into a communal hatred against the Hindu Zamindars and other Hindu farmers and villagers.

While the Muslim League turned towards the Muslim peasants, the Hindu Mahasabha under the leadership of Syama Prasad Mukherjee launched a vicious communal propaganda to vilify the Muslims and build support for the notorious feudal landlords. The Mahasabha rejected the demand for land distribution and two-thirds crop share for the peasants, which widened the communal fissures.

This polarisation helped the Muslim League to call for “direct action” in August 1946 and to the infamous communal riots that resulted from it. In August 1946, the “Great Calcutta Killings” took place. Several thousand Hindus and Muslims were killed in Calcutta during the carnage, which lasted for four days. 

Many people were killed in the Noakhali riots. And both sides tend to identify themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor. Trust in each other, and in one’s neighbours, began to diminish and this resulted in a deep social rift, which became permanent since then.

At that time, Mohandas Gandhi, who was sidelined within the Congress party following the defeat of the Axis Power in the second world war, went on a hunger strike to stop the killings. With the help of the Muslim League’s Prime Minister Hussain Suhrawardy, the riots were finally suppressed. But the mistrust that arose between Hindus and Muslims as a result of these riots helped in the partition of Bengal and led to a forever hostile relationship between the two communities.

Hindus or Muslims – who supported the partition of Bengal?

Despite the intense religious polarisation, the majority of Muslim Bengali legislators opposed the referendum on the partition of Bengal at the time. But the Bengali Hindu representatives of the legislative assembly, under the influence of the Hindu Mahasabha, which insisted on the partition of Bengal, supported this proposal. 

At that time, Mukherjee, whose communal politics and loyalty towards British imperialism were staunchly opposed even by the likes of Subhash Chandra Bose, appealed to Governor-General Lord Mountbatten that Bengal should be partitioned at any cost, irrespective of whether any other part of British India is partitioned or not. 

Mainly under the leadership of Mukherjee, along with the Hindu Mahasabha, a large section of the Congress stood for the partition of Bengal. They mentioned the terrible incidents of the 1946 riots, propagated various kinds of lies and instilled Islamophobia and fear among Hindu Bengalis regarding living together with Muslims.

Mukherjee’s Hindu Mahasabha, an organisation of North Indian upper-caste Hindus, especially the Marwaris who owned a large number of businesses in Kolkata and western parts of Bengal, was in no way willing to cede those industries, jute mills or other businesses along the Ganges to the Bengalis. 

The Congress and Gandhi were indebted to the Birlas, a major capitalist family at that time, who funded their political activities. The Congress party was also determined to save Birla’s businesses from going into the hands of Bengalis.

Moreover, an undivided Bengal in the Union of India would pose a threat to the hegemony of upper-caste North Indian Hindus. The upper-caste Hindu leaders of the Congress party and the Hindu Mahasabha feared that if Bengal remains united, it would have more than 140 seats in the Parliament, the highest in India and the key to power will rest with the Bengali Muslims and Namasudras, the two major communities in the province.

Both Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress carried out their campaigns to ensure that the communal fissures widened between the two communities in Bengal. Facing a joint attack from these, supplemented by the demand of the Muslim League to join Bengal into Pakistan, the existence of the Bengalis was at stake.

A united Bengal against the partition of Bengal

A new trend arose at that time under Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose of the Congress party against religious polarisation and to safeguard the unity of undivided Bengal, the largest province in British India.

On April 27th 1947, Suhrawardy and Bose proposed the “United Bengal” resolution to Mountbatten in Delhi. In their proposal, they said that Bengal and its people have a common language and a shared culture. They said that Bengal had maintained its independent existence even before the British colonial rule and if it was a united and sovereign state, Bengal would be a much developed and progressive country.

Suhrawardy said, “Let us pause for a moment to consider what Bengal can be if it remains united. It will be a great country, indeed the richest and the most prosperous in India capable of giving to its people a high standard of living, where a great people will be able to rise to the fullest height of their stature, a land that will truly be plentiful. It will be rich in agriculture, rich in industry and commerce and in course of time it will be one of the powerful and progressive states of the world. If Bengal remains united this will be no dream, no fantasy (sic).”

Bose, driven by the idea of socialism, wanted to name the United Bengal as the Sovereign Socialist Republic of Bengal. Suhrawardy, who himself was a left-leaning elite in the Muslim League, didn’t oppose the idea of having a socialist economy for an independent Bengal either.

Many Muslim League and Congress leaders agreed to this proposal of Suhrawardy and Bose. Muslim League’s leader and the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said, “What is the use of Bengal without Calcutta; they had much better remain united and independent: I am sure that they would be on friendly terms with us”.

Among the other leaders of the Muslim League, then provincial ministers, Fazlur Haque, Mohammad Ali Chowdhury, and the Bengal secretary of the League, Abul Hashim, supported the proposal of a United Bengal. Along with them, Kiran Shankar Roy and Satya Ranjan Bakshi of Congress supported this move from the Hindu side.

But this United Bengal proposal was rejected by Mukherjee as it was likely to harm the Marwari community who sponsored and led his organisation. Similarly, though Gandhi gave his nod to the United Bengal proposal, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel rejected the demand to alleviate the fear of the same Baniya class Mukherjee was serving.

Nehru said that a United Bengal can be a possibility if it agrees to be a part of the Union of India. The Hindu Congress leaders, in association with the Hindu Mahasabha, which was later accused of murdering Gandhi, opposed the proposal of United Bengal as a scheme of Suhrawardy to usurp the entire Bengal province into a quasi-Pakistan.

As the Marwari and Gujarati capitalists vehemently opposed passing over Calcutta to the Bengalis, the Congress party and the Hindu Mahasabha left no stone unturned to wean away the majority of Hindu legislators to their side. As the voting rights were reserved for mostly the elites under British rule, it was easy to take a decision on the partition of Bengal on the basis of religion by using the support of the big landlords and capitalists and ignoring the people’s demands.

Partition of Bengal based on religion

To satisfy Nehru, Patel, Mukherjee and Jinnah, Bengal was partitioned on religious lines following the Radcliffe Line. Millions of people had to leave their homes and migrate to “other” lands through the borders created by Delhi and London, for their religious identity, forgetting their Bengali identity.

The major displacement of millions of Bengali people took place to ensure that the Marwari community’s business interests in Calcutta remain secure and that the Bengali upper-caste Bhadralok community doesn’t have to share power with the Muslims and Dalits, who were the majority of undivided Bengal. 

Moreover, Nehru and Patel also included princely states, including Cooch Behar, Manipur and Tripura in the eastern and northeastern parts to secure the business interests of the big capitalists of India. In the treaties between the Patel-led Union of India and the kingdoms like Cooch Behar, Manipur and Tripura, the fate of the citizens was not explicitly stated, leaving them in limbo until now. 

Although the Bengali Muslims later rejected Jinnah’s two-nation theory—originally proposed by Hindu Mahasabha leader and Hindutva fascism’s ideologue VD Savarkar—and took part in a protracted armed struggle to free themselves from Pakistan’s colonisation, the upper-caste Hindu leadership of West Bengal prostrated before New Delhi and allowed its Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan juggernaut to pulverise Bengali nationalistic aspirations.

The idea that a nation is formed on the basis of common religion, which was a template used to create Israel by the West on Palestinian soil, still guides the idea of nationalism in India. The Bengali Bhadralok community of West Bengal, despite showing overwhelming support for the liberation of Bangladesh, still vehemently oppose the idea of the formation of a nation on the basis of a common language, culture and roots. They indirectly endorse the idea of nationhood formed on the basis of religious identity.

As a result of such views, the Bhadralok community, despite flaunting its leftwing alignment and progressiveness for a few decades, have succumbed to Hindutva fascism. The Namasudra community, especially the Matua sect, which fought vehemently against the Brahminical caste system under Harichand Thakur and Guruchand Thakur, also fell victim to Islamophobia and became the footstools for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the fountainhead of Hindutva fascism—and its parliamentary wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal.

Therefore, although the BJP, which is the offspring of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) formed by Mukherjee in the early 1950s after he quit the Hindu Mahasabha and joined hands with the RSS, has unleashed state terror on the displaced Bengalis from present-day Bangladesh living in Assam, and has been disenfranchising them en masse to appease Assamese nationalism, the Bengali upper-caste Bhadralok and the Namasudras, incensed by Hindutva, continue to support it electorally.

Despite its notorious record with the displaced Bengalis in Assam, the BJP manages to sweep the polls in Tripura, a state whose demography has changed drastically due to the influx of millions of Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. Driven by sheer Islamophobia, like their forefathers in the 1940s, the majority of this community still votes for the Hindu identity, ignoring their Bengali roots.

The failure of the communists in preventing the partition of Bengal

The communists, who led the major anti-feudal struggle in undivided Bengal and had a strong working class base, didn’t act against the partition of Bengal. The CPI remained a vacillating force, appeasing both the Congress party and the Muslim League and took no decisive action to stop the menace.

Without concern for the salvation of the Bengali nation, the Bhadralok leadership of the Bengal CPI tactically accepted the communal policies of the Congress party’s Hindu leadership and did not engage in any political movement and limited its role to publishing a few pamphlets and editorials in its mouthpiece. 

Rather than taking independent decisions based on ground realities, they supported the idea of United India on the one hand and saw the demand for Pakistan as a “right to self-determination” by wrongly interpreting the Leninist line, on the other. The entire Bengal CPI leadership remained hostage to the party’s Maratha leadership.

At that time two members of the CPI were in the provincial assembly – Jyoti Basu and Ratanlal Brahman. But they also did not resort to any form of agitation to stop this conspiracy. In Bengal, the communists built the Tebhaga movement in the villages and built a strong trade union movement in the factories. They dared the British imperialist rulers but didn’t unite these classes to stop the communal provocative and divisive politics of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. 

Rather than stopping the partition of Bengal or supporting Suhrawardy and Bose’s idea of a United Bengal with socialism as its driving force, the Bengal communists organised movements for the creation of refugee colonies, by endorsing the partition. They adapted to the partition and made peace with the Hindu and Muslim supremacists on both sides of the Radcliffe Line.

Although the history of the communist movement in India states that after the Sino-India War in 1962, the CPI split for the first time in 1964 and the CPI (Marxist) or CPI(M) emerged, in reality, the party split for the first time in 1948, during its Second Congress in Calcutta and the Communist Party of Pakistan was formed. 

Just as the communists did not oppose the partition of India on the basis of this religious fanaticism, they also didn’t demand the formation of nation-states on the basis of common language, culture and shared roots. Their betrayal of the idea of the unity of the working class was seen throughout the 1940s.

One of the important periods for the Indian subcontinent’s anti-colonial movement was 1945-56. During this period, mass movements turned excessively militant. The country was abuzz with the strike in Bombay, there was a massive movement in support of the naval mutineers, people were demanding the release of the arrested soldiers of Azad Hind Fauz, and the peasants were fighting in Tebhaga and Telangana. 

If, at this point in time, PC Joshi, who was then the CPI’s general secretary, had once called for a nationwide rebellion and mobilised his party’s apparatus, it would not have been too late for the various peoples of colonial India to throw off British rule. 

But the CPI leadership remained silent; they allowed the Congress and the Muslim League to usurp the fruits of their labour. They silently watched the scope of a revolution diminishing and remained mute spectators during the partition.

But after this situation, when the people of the country were elated with the idea of freedom from British rule, the CPI leadership called independence a sham and called upon the people to revolt. Of course, the CPI had to pay the price for that ultra-left adventurism. The Nehru-led Congress government banned the party in 1948 and launched a massive crackdown on it.

Partition of Bengal: Lost hopes 

Except for the elites and urban middle class, Bengalis on neither side have been happy after the partition of Bengal. Bengalis were shot in East Pakistan for their language. Although Bengali Muslims stood against Pakistan, Bengali Hindus felt it better to flee to India rather than join the resistance despite being attacked. Even though millions of Bengalis sacrificed their lives for the liberation of Bangladesh, the new state failed to live up to their aspirations.

Bangladesh has become the base of extreme financial corruption, political dictatorship and religious fundamentalism. India’s expansionism has eroded the Bangladesh government’s sovereignty and crippled its ability to take independent decisions, especially on military and foreign affairs. 

The ruling class of Bangladesh now sways at the beck and call of New Delhi; it is financially mortgaged to the US-led Western bloc for the sake of its garment export business. The US unapologetically meddles in the domestic affairs of Bangladesh and issues sermons on following “democratic norms” in the country.

On the other hand, millions of Bengalis who fled Bangladesh and came to India before and after the liberation war, are still living in fear of getting labelled as “illegal immigrants” as they don’t qualify for Indian citizenship after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 or CAA 2003 was passed. 

In Assam, most of the Bengali refugees in their own country are in fear of losing their citizenship and being imprisoned in detention centres. Thousands were killed in several tranches during anti-Bengali ethnic violence in Assam, the largest one being in Nellie, where over 10,000 were killed unofficially within a span of a few hours.

While India was supposed to be a Union of states, its subsequent rulers, especially BJP’s Modi, have ensured greater centralism and destroyed the idea of federalism. With centralism comes the dominance of the Hindi language, which has been imposed on the Bengali-speaking people through a planned cultural expansion using cinema, art, music and other mediums. 

The Bengalis of Assam’s Barak valley, who once fought against the imposition of Assamese and Hindi, remain silent now on the aggression of Hindi. The north Indian language developed for official purposes even has entrenched deep into the rural pockets of West Bengal, challenging the Bengali language, and the quintessential Bengali culture and rituals which have tied the Hindus and Muslims together for centuries.

In Bangladesh, the aggression of the Salafist version of militant Islam, coupled with the hegemony of the Arabic language and culture, has been trying to gain a foothold since the 1990s. The ultra-orthodox Islamic doctrine challenges the local customs and rituals of the Bengali Muslims and also attempts to detach them from their Bengali roots.

The misery that the partition of Bengal brought to the people of Bengal remains to this day. The hopes and dreams of Bengali Hindus and Muslims around the partition of Bengal, which they dreamed of and began to walk with hardships or for which they shed blood, and participated in the liberation war, have been lost somewhere today. The partition of Bengal has left Bengalis with a history of lost glory and many unfulfilled aspirations.

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An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker

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