Saturday, 15 February 2014

Three Partitions of Bengal - Historical Perspective

Three Partitions of Bengal:
Historical Perspective

Dr. Mozammel Haque

The 43 years of Bangladesh politics can be primarily divided into two periods: the first 15 years of military-bureaucratic period from 1977 to 1991 and the second period of democratic government for another 15 years from 1991 -2006. During these two periods I want to see the role political parties and the government played and the place of Islam in the governance of the country which is claimed to be the second largest Muslim country of the world. The second part is the period from 2009 when Sheikh Hasina came to power till the election in 2014. In this part, I would like to look into the three controversial factors which brought the country into political chaos and confusion: these are National Caretaker Government (NCG); War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) and Islam-secular agenda.

The present 'cultural divide' between the religious right and the liberals in Bangladesh was not a political phenomenon. The debate between the secularists and Islamists in Bangladesh was not an academic wrangle but an inheritance of the Muslim resistance to the Hindu cultural and political hegemony in undivided Bengal under the British rule. It is essential to understand the growth of Muslim middle class in this region of the undivided Bengal which has passed through three caesarean operations in the 20th century; first in 1905, second in 1947 and third in 1971, the separation from Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. Recently, there is a tendency to distort historical facts, if done by politicians or journalists, that is understandable, but when it is done by educationalists, academics and researchers that is not acceptable and at the same time shameful.

First Partition of Bengal in 1905
Growth of Muslim Middle Class
The present Bangladesh, which was Eastern part of the United Bengal before 1947, was mainly inhabited by the majority Muslims, who were generally poor peasants, farmers and artisans in the 19th century. As they were poor farmers and peasants, they did not have political leaders to vindicate their grievances. So far it is learnt that in the first quarter of the 20th century before the first partition of Bengal Sir Nawab Salimullah was demanding and negotiating with the British colonial government for the upliftment of the Muslims of the Eastern Bengal. On the other hand, Hindus, the minority, were Zamindars, landlords and businessmen; they dominated the social life of the region. As they were educated people, they had their newspapers, media and leaders who were demanding their rights from the British government. For more information about this period before the first partition of Bengal, I would like to request readers to read the book entitled Muslim Community of Bengal 1887-1912 by Dr. Sufia Ahmed, published by Oxford University Press,, Dhaka, 1974 (This book is of course the product of her Ph.D. theses from SOAS in 1960) and also see Ph.D. dissertation on Economic Geography of East Pakistan by N. Ahmed from LSE in 1953.

Lord Curzon, the then Governor-General of India, for administrative purposes and for the welfare of the Muslim community in Eastern Bengal and Assam first partitioned Bengal in 1905. Muslims of Eastern Bengal and Assam under the leadership of Sir Salimullah supported the partition. They made progress in education and their economic conditions were better off. A Muslim middle class grew who realised their position in society and politics, became politically conscious and culturally aware of their distinct position in politics and culture. The All-India Muslim League was formed and founded in Dhaka in 1906.

On the other hand, the Hindu community under the Indian National Congress were against the Partition of Bengal. They started Swadeshi Movement (boycott of British goods) in 1905 and continued up to 1908 in order to pressurize the then government to change their policy on partition of Bengal. Its chief architects were Aurobindo Ghosh, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai. Surya Sen was a Bengali freedom fighter who is noted for leading the 1930 Chittagong armoury raid in Chittagong of eastern Bengal in British India. Poet Rabindranath Tagore, the landlord, was against the partition and wrote two poems during this period, one, Amar Sonar Bangla, written and composed by him in 1905 during the Partition of Bengal the first ten lines of which were adopted as the National anthem of Bangladesh in 1972 and the other, Jana Gana Mana, song composed by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911 to welcome the visit of King George V  at the time of the Coronation Durbar of King George V during the annulment of Partition of Bengal  which is the National anthem of India. I would request the readers to please see and read the book entitled The New Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, 1905-1911 by M.K.U. Molla published by the Institute of Bangladesh Studies, Rajshahi University, Rajshahi, 1981 (This book is again the product of his Ph.D. Theses from SOAS in 1966).

Second Partition of Bengal in 1947
Growth of Muslim Nationalism
After the annulment of the Partition of Bengal in 1911, the Muslims of Eastern Bengal realised their political position. There was a rise of Bengali Muslim Middle Class, migrating from the mufassil locales of eastern and northern Bengal into Calcutta from the early twentieth century.  Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq started a campaign to alleviate the sufferings of the peasants and farmers of Bengal. He formed Krishak Sramik Proja Party and tried to campaign for the peasants. From 1913 to 1947, Muslims of Bengal made progress, not only in education, but also culturally and politically. Culturally, Muslims became conscious of their separate cultural identity as Bengali Muslims. Their own separate language, literature, media developed. Muhammad Akram Khan published Azad and Muhammadi from Calcutta where a group of Bengali Muslim journalists and writers grew up such as Abul Kalam Shamsuddin, Mujibur Rahman Khan, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Poet Farrukh Ahmed who were writing in the Azad and Muhammadi papers regularly.

From the 1920s, Mujibur Rahman Khan and Abul Kalam Shamsuddin, in their journalistic and literary endeavours started an ideological drive towards articulating an undivided Bengal within a proposed Purba Pakistan, by working for the Azad daily newspaper. By the early 1940s, both had become seasoned journalists with articles published in Bulbul, Saogat, the English language The Mussalman, and Mohammadi.

It should be mentioned that the Calcutta’s Muslim literary community of the late 1930s and early 1940s was centred in the offices of newspapers and literary journals such as Azad, Mohammadi and Saogat. Azad begun in 1936 by Muhammad Akram Khan and his son Khairul Anam Khan in Entally Road in Calcutta. Akram Khan and his family were behind Mohammadi both the daily and monthly editions. In the early 1940s when Akram khan fell seriously ill, the management and editorship of the publications was handed to young rising stars of Bengali Muslim journalism Abul Kalam Shamsuddin, Mujibur Rahman Khan and Abul Mansur Ahmed. These individuals also went on to promote Bengali Muslim literature, enunciate Purba (east ) Pakistani autonomy and articulate a literary cultural movement of renaissance in the Bengali Muslim community in the mid 1940s. Mujibur Rahman Khan and Shamsuddin were part of many literary societies including the Bengali Muslim Sahitya Samaj, which met infrequently throughout 1920s and 1930s, but also their own Naoroze Samiti.

Along with cultural consciousness and literary regeneration, there was political awareness among the Muslims of Bengal.

It is rightly pointed out, “What Fazlul Huq wanted to achieve was: a Bangalee nationalism shared between the Hindus and Muslims where the Muslims would be allowed to enjoy the benefits of their numerical majority while their socio-economic grievances would be redressed through a political process. He wanted to prove that he could be a Muslim as well as a Bengali in a broader cultural and political sense. Ironically, Fazlul Huq and later H.S. Suhrawardy's vision of Bengali nationalism was undercut by the Indian National Congress and the powerful vested interests. Even when Fazlul Huq moved the Lahore Resolution (later came to be known as the Pakistan Resolution) in 1940, he did not want a divided Bengal nor did he close the doors of the Hindu-Muslim amity. Whenever Fazlul Huq introduced land reforms, it was the Congress and its powerful Zamindar supporters who opposed him. Whenever he moved to introduce reforms for the elevation of Muslim education, there was vigorous opposition from the Hindus.”

Both Fazlul Huq and H.S. Suhrawardy pursued the dream of united Bengal but it is the Indian nationalists who obstructed the implementation of the dream. So the second partition in 1947 was imposed by the Indian nationalists and Hindu bhadrolok  under the leadership of Indian National Congress who demanded and voted for the division of Bengal and the Muslims of Bengal inspired by the Muslim nationalism, at the last moment, having no other alternative, joined Pakistan under the Two-Nation Theory. Professor M. Rashiduzzaman said, Fazlul Huq’s “dream of 'united' Bengal was later pursued by H. S. Suhrawardy through the failed Hindu-Muslim Pact of 1947. It was the Hindu legislators not the Muslim members of Bengal Assembly who asked for the partition of Bengal. The Bengali Muslims didn't want to leave Calcutta; they were driven out of it!”

“The Bengal Pact of 1947 failed because the Hindus opposed the concept of a united and sovereign Bengal which was likely to be dominated by the Muslim majority. The Bangladeshis could not realistically look at the future possibilities of a 'Greater Bengal' entity as an extension of their passionate Bangalee nationalism,” he also said.  

Sugata Bose in her article, “A doubtful inheritance: The Partition of Bengal in 1947) wrote: “Cold and narrow calculations of power by the Congress leadership and the Western-Bengal Hindu elite had more directly to do with the political and administrative decision of partition, as it came about in 1947, than two decades of social conflict in agrarian East Bengal.”

Not only that, Nirod C. Chaudhury in his book Autobiography of an Unknown Indian clearly wrote and blamed the Indian Nationalists and the West Bengal Hindu elites for the partition of Bengal in 1947 and it is interesting to note and remember, even the Rabindranath Tagore was also supported the Partition of Bengal in 1947. Please read the book The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirod C. Chaudhury.

Thus, the first partition of Bengal in 1905 was supported by the Muslims of Bengal, whereas the Hindu community under the Indian Nationalists was against the Partition and welcomed its annulment in 1911. On the other hand, in 1947, Muslims of Bengal wanted undivided Bengal whereas the Hindu bhadrolok demanded and voted for the partition. It is very interesting. Let us see what happened after the creation of Pakistan.

[to be continued…..]

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