Imagining what could have a been a strong, vibrant, democratic state
In 1947, the Partition of British India was essentially the partition of the presidencies of Bengal and Punjab and people of these two provinces suffered the most due to the bifurcation.
In the run-up to the dates of independence with the suspense of the pending disclosure of Redcliffe line, mass riots broke out across Punjab forcing 1.5 million people from east to west and vice versa within the province before, during and immediately after August 14 and 15.
A kind of violent population exchange took place, and almost all the Muslims were dispatched to Pakistan from Indian Punjab, and similar things happened to Sikhs and Hindus from Pakistani Punjab in the reverse direction.
Punjab or, at least the Western part of it, was central to the idea of Pakistan; whereas Bengal, or the eastern part of it, a much bigger area by population, wasn’t.
Punjab was also a core issue for the Sikhs — almost all of whom lived in that one province where they had the heartland of their short-lived, independent empire, before the British colonial occupation of it in mid-19th century.
Also, not much violence took place in Bengal, at least during the actual Partition. But because of the partition, the Hindus of East Bengal who were sizeable and economically well-off suffered a lot.
A momentum to migrate from their ancestral homes in the East Bengal for West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura developed gradually, induced by both pull and push factors of migration over the next two decades.
A vast and relatively well-off settled population slowly and quietly got uprooted from the land, where their forefathers lived since time immemorial.
But it was the majority of the Bengali-Hindu leadership of the then Bengal who pitched for the Partition of Bengal to salvage a smaller than half-Bengali Hindudom in the western part of the province for the community.
A flawed understanding
But their assessment of Bengali Hindu interests had been highly flawed. The vast Hindu population of the bigger part of Bengal gradually became a refuge after 1947 in neighbouring parts of India, including West Bengal itself. In neither of the places were these mostly penniless refugees welcomed.
A new and almost everlasting social cleavage emerged between the natives and the refugees. Generations went through big struggles and were tormented mentally. In Assam, the Axomiya treated them like unwanted intruders and second class citizens.
As time passed, West Bengal turned from the richest province of India into an insignificant one. The supply of raw materials for jute mills from the east dried up as East Bengal set up its own jute mills.
Before 1947, Kolkata was the capital of the vast province of Bengal and the rich across the presidency had commercial, property, investment, employment, and many other interests and ties in Kolkata. After 1947, not anymore.
What happened to West Bengal?
Now, West Bengal, once the birthplace of the rich modern Bengali culture, has become a state in India increasingly dominated by Hindi culture backed by north and western Indian corporate interests. Unlike Bangladesh, hardly any major capitalist in West Bengal is Bengali, and the loyalty of dominant capitalists in the state of western and north India, mostly of Bania origin, lies elsewhere.
Also, unlike Bangladesh, the market of West Bengal isn’t protected, and West Bengalis aren’t in charge of that. Hasn’t it become more like a colony of north and western India, the way East Bengal was of West Pakistan between 1947 and 1971 ?
In hindsight, one has to ask the question of what the West Bengali Hindu gained by their decision to bifurcate Bengal, especially when there was a hasty yet concrete proposal for an independent United Bengal by important leaders like Suhrawardy, Sarat Bose, Abul Hashim, and Kiran Shankar Roy?
Why did the Bengali Hindu leadership get so carried away by the words of Mountbatten, Nehru, Kripalini, Kalipada Mukherjee, Syamaprashad, and so on, who never had either a genuine insight of the intricacies of Bengal or who had a default agenda in contradiction with the interest of all Bengalis?
On part of the Muslim League, some important leaders like Khawaja Nazimuddin and Maulana Akram Khan opposed the idea of United Bengal fearing the perpetuation of Hindu domination in Bengal, and with the prospect of Dhaka’s not becoming the political nerve centre replacing Kolkata.
But in the end, it was an emotion swayed Bengali Hindu call that resulted in the division of the presidency. The All India Congress leadership never understood the uniqueness of Bengal as Kripalini brutely put it, that they have to get as many territories as possible for India. The interest of the common people, and a better future for a big presidency were never on their focus.
Jinnah initially supported the idea of United Bengal, but as he saw no progress, he backtracked later. Gandhi gave it a patient hearing, but was powerless to do anything.
Inclusivity and fairness
The United Bengal proposal had a few important points which indicated a move towards inclusivity and fairness. Proportional representation and a confessional system with rotational premiership and presidency were implied. Parliamentary representation would have been proportional to the population, and government jobs were to be half for the Muslims and half for the non-Muslims, comprising general Hindus, schedule castes, and other minorities.
Within the Hindu pie, a fair chunk was kept for the scheduled caste. For Bengal’s constituent assembly, 16 Muslims and 14 Hindu members were proposed. The interim government would have had a Muslim prime minister and Hindu home minister. Had the negotiation got a real start with all the major Congress and Muslim League factions of Bengal on board, further details would have come out in this promising five points line.
Ironically, the Bengali Hindus vehemently opposed the 1905 division of Bengal and their mobilization, agitation, and revolutionary acts forced the British to annul the first partition of Bengal in 1911. In 1947, the same group went ahead for the partition of the presidency. Many Bengali Hindus tried to justify the 1947 division of Bengal with Kolkata and Noakhali riots of 1946.
There were a few thousands deaths, and in these two places and perhaps in some other places too, people were worried for some time. But these were no way even near to the bloodbath of Punjab or Jammu massacre.
Bengalis could have lived with the memories of these isolated incidents, and time would have healed that. There would have been a gradual shift towards a fair Hindu-Muslim equation in Bengal without much hardship for any community. A joint Bengali Hindu-Muslim society and culture would have flourished. But that was not to be.
A great prospect for the people
A United Bengal would actually have encouraged the entire northeast to join the independent state and make something like the third grouping of Cabinet Mission plan.
The Bengali and Assamese language and cultures are very close anyway, and Assam, a faraway place from Delhi, would not have any direct land connection to northern India due to the presence of big Bengal in between. Neither did it have any direct access to the sea.
Overall, an independent United Bengal would have been a great prospect for the people of the presidency, or even the entire eastern part of the sub-continent. It would have combined the energy of the rising Muslims with the knowledge and expertise of already advanced Hindus to a great effect.
It also would have reduced the suffering of people who migrated, by retaining them in their native places. It would have allowed the growth of a very promising independent democratic state in the eastern part of the sub-continent and, by now, that state would probably have been a major continental power in Asia.
But that one emotional call to divide Bengal in a historically watershed moment has jeopardized a lot of things of immense prospect.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.