Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal: PART II
By Nurul Kabir
September 2, 2013
IN THE midst of such campaigns for partition of Bengal on communal lines, some leaders from both the Bengal Muslim League and the Bengal Congress made serious efforts to avert the division of Bengal and keep it as a sovereign state outside India and Pakistan. The prominent politicians of Bengal involved in the efforts included Abul Hashim, former general secretary of the Bengal Muslim League, and Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Muslim League leader and the erstwhile chief minister of Bengal, and Bengal Congress leader Sarat Chandra Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy — the leader of the Congress’s Parliamentary Party in the Bengal Provincial Assembly.
Abul Hashim had a meeting with Sarat Bose in October 1946 at the latter’s residence to discuss his idea about the ‘partition of India and to make Bengal an independent and sovereign state’ and Sarat Bose ‘accepted’ the proposition, provided Hashim gets ‘it accepted by the leaders of the Indian National Army’, founded by Shubhas Chandra Bose, ‘at the annual dinner’ of the organisation. [Abul Hashim, op-cit, p 152] Hashim writes in his memoirs that he subsequently ‘attended the dinner and succeeded in securing unanimous support of the leaders of the INA.’ Since then, they worked together to realise the objective.
Then, at a meeting between them ‘in the last week of February, 1947, Abul Hashim and Sarat Chandra Bose discussed the plan for a sovereign, independent Bengal comprised of the Bengali speaking people of eastern India from Purnea in Bihar to Assam in the furthest-east.’ [Mohammad HR Talukder, op-cit, pp 28-29]
Meanwhile, Suhrawardy, the erstwhile chief minister of Bengal, decided against the partition of Bengal and joined the move for a united independent Bengal. He met Mountbatten on April 26, 1947. During the meeting, Suhrawardy told the Viceroy that ‘given enough time … he could get Mr. Jinnah to agree that it (Bengal) need not join Pakistan if it was prepared to remain united.’ [Harun-or-Rashid, op-cit, p 272]
Meanwhile, particularly ‘when the Muslim League government of Bengal refused to accept’ the Mountbatten’s plan for ‘partitioning Bengal with Calcutta in West Bengal, ‘Jinnah asked Suhrawardy to work for a sovereign, independent Bengal.’ [Mohammad HR Talukder, op-cit, p 28]
Subsequently, Suhrawardy held a press conference in Delhi on April 27, 1947, the day after he met Mountbatten, and proposed and pleaded for a political scheme of ‘an independent sovereign state of undivided Bengal’, while terming the Hindu Mahasabha and Congress sponsored demand for the partition of Bengal as a ‘short-sighted’ one, which he found the manifestation of ‘a sense of impatient frustration’. Professor Harun-or-Rashid describes the Delhi statement as Suhrawardy’s ‘official launching’ of the scheme of Independent United Bengal. [Harun-or-Rashid, op-cit, p 261]
Earlier, on April 21, 1947, Jogendra Nath Mandal, a prominent Bengali Scheduled Caste leader and a minister of the Interim Government at the centre, made a public statement, saying that ‘the Scheduled Castes [of Bengal] are opposed to the proposal for partition of Bengal.’ [ibid, p 260]
However, Suhrawardy returned to Kolkata the same day that he had his press conference in Delhi, and the day after, on April 28, he, along with Abul Hashim, Khawaja Nazimuddin and Fazl ur Rahman of the Bengal Muslim League, met Sarat Chandra Bose in Calcutta to discuss the ways of getting the idea of an independent United Bengal materialised.
Subsequently, the Bengal Muslim League constituted a five-member high profile sub-committee headed by Nurul Amin, with the other members being Suhrawardy, Habibullah Bahar, Hamidul Huq Chwodhury and Fazl ur Rahman to negotiate with the Hindu leaders such as Surendra Mohan Ghose, the erstwhile president of Bengal Congress, Kiron Sankar Roy and Sarat Bose.
Later, on May 12, 1947 Abul Hashim and Sarat Bose ‘met Gandhi to discuss the Sovereign United Bengal scheme and received his blessings.’ [Mohammad HR Talukder, op-cit, p 29] But the day after, on May 13, 1947, the president of the Indian National Congress, JB Kripalini, ‘dismissed’ in ‘unequivocal terms’ a plea to ‘save the unity of Bengal’. In reply to the plea, made by Ashrafuddin Chowdhuri, a Muslim ‘veteran nationalist and peasant leader from Tippera’, Kripalini wrote: ‘All that the Congress seeks to do today is to rescue as many areas as possible from the threatened domination of the League and Pakistan. It wants to save as much territory for a Free Indian Union as is possible under the circumstances. It therefore insists upon the division of Bengal and Punjab into areas for Hindustan and Pakistan respectively.’ [Sugata Bose, Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics: 1919-1947, Cambridge University Press, First Indian Edition in association with Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1987, pp 230-231]
Still, the members of a ‘Congress-League joint committee of Bengal formally signed a tentative agreement on May 20 for a Sovereign United Bengal’. [ibid] The salient features of the agreement included: (1) The Muslim League government in Bengal shall continue to hold office, but, in place of Hindu ministers, new nominees of the Bengal Congress shall be appointed immediately. (2) Bengal shall not join India or Pakistan and shall remain free. The question of Bengal joining Pakistan or India, or remaining independent shall be decided by the Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise. (3) Seats of Muslims, the Hindus, the scheduled castes and other minorities shall be fixed according to their population. (4) Parity shall be maintained in the Council of Ministers. [See footnote no 155, in Mohammad HR Talukder, ibid, p 235]
Meanwhile, to foil the move, a communal section of the Congress leadership of Bengal resorted to a false propaganda that the local Muslim League was distributing money among the members of the Bengal Legislature to vote against the division of Bengal, and that it was nothing more than a trickery on the part of the Muslim League for ‘dividing Hindus and Scheduled Caste leaders’. The group pursued the central leadership of the Congress to stick to the division of Bengal on religious communal lines.
Patel vehemently opposed the scheme of the Sovereign United Bengal and described it as a ‘trap’ of the Muslims and warned many a Congress leader of Bengal ‘not to fall into the trap’. In a letter to Kiran Sankar Roy on May 21, 1947, the day after the agreement was signed between some leaders of Bengal Muslim League and Bengal Congress, Patel warned Roy that ‘it is incumbent on all Congressmen to set aside personal predilections and to stand united on the official policy of the Congress’ and hoped that ‘as a disciplined Congressman’, Roy ‘will appreciate the advice’. [Harun-or-Rashid, op-cit, p 297] The latent message of Patel’s cautionary note was nothing but a threat to take disciplinary measure against Roy, in case the latter went ahead with the United Bengal project.
Nehru was no different. Earlier, on May 17, in a letter to Kiran Sankar Roy, Nehru wrote that he was ‘certain that various proposals put forward by Suhrawardy for a limited Independent Bengal plus joint electorates plus fifty-fifty are dangerous from the point of view of both India and Bengal’. Then he said: Those or similar proposals can only be accepted on the basis on union with India… I am more convinced than ever that we must stick to our guns. If there is no union of Bengal as a whole to India, then there must be a partition of Bengal, and Western Bengal must join the union. …In the crucial days to come I hope Congressmen in Bengal will hold fast together and stand for this position.’ [For Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to Kiran Sankar Roy, see Bangladesh Times, Dhaka, August 11, 1994. The letter was first published in the Kolkata-based Statesman on March 20, 1994.] In the same letter, Nehru assured Roy, in the form of a political predication that the partition of Bengal and its Western part abutting India ‘will surely lead to East Bengal also joining the Union before long.’
However, opposing the idea of the ‘independence of Bengal’, Nehru again said in a press interview on May 27, 1947 that ‘the independence of Bengal really means in present circumstances the dominance of the Muslim League in Bengal.’ [Harun-or-Shahid, op-cit] So, he was opposed to the idea.
Meanwhile, the members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly were scheduled to decide through voting on August 5, 1947 as to which of the two Constituent Assemblies — Hindustan Constituent Assembly and Pakistan Constituent Assembly — the province would join.
Under the circumstance, Sarat Bose wrote to Jinnah on June 9, 1947, requesting the latter to ‘kindly’… ‘Give specific instruction [to the Muslim League members]…to enable Bengal remain united and make her a free and independent state’.[The full text of the letter of Sarat Chandra Bose is cited in Abul Hashim, op-cit, pp 175-176]
The same day, he sent a couple of telegrams to Gandhi on June 9, the same day he had written to Jinnah, and the day after, ‘challenging’ the allegation of ‘trickery’ against the Bengal Muslim League and urged Gandhi to persuade Nehru and Patel not to divide Bengal.
In response, Gandhi in a telegraphic message on June 11, 1947 informed Sarat Bose that he had ‘now discussed the scheme [of united Bengal] with Pandit Nehru and Sarder Patel’, and found ‘both of them are dead against the proposal’ [Kamruddin Ahmad, A Socio Political History of Bengal and the Birth of Bangladesh, Fourth edition, Inside Library, Dhaka, 1975, p.82] Then he advised Bose to ‘give up the struggle for the unity of Bengal and cease to disturb the atmosphere that has been created for partition of Bengal’. [ibid. Also, in Abul Hashim, op-cit, pp 177-178] Clearly, influenced by Nehru and Patel, Gandhi had revised his original thoughts about the partition.
Jinnah, on the other hand, ‘sent instructions to the Muslim Legislators to vote solidly for Pakistan and to vote against partition of Bengal. Mr. Jinnah wanted the whole of Bengal in Pakistan’. [Abul Hashim, In Retrospect, op-cit, p.176] That Jinnah was against the division of Bengal was also evident in his arguments against Louis Mountbatten’s plan for division of Bengal and the Punjab. Arguing against the proposed divisions, Jinnah said: ‘[T]he Punjab is a nation. Bengal is a nation. A man is a Punjabi or a Bengali first before he is a Hindu or a Muslim. If you give us those provinces you must, under no condition, partition them. You will destroy their viability and cause endless bloodshed and trouble.’ [Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Mountbatten and the Partition of India, Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1983, p 63]
Notably, the Bengal Muslim League was also dead against the division of Bengal in 1947. The mainstream of its leadership, however, did not want a sovereign united Bengal. Rather, in line with the initial aspiration of Jinnah, it wanted undivided Bengal to be incorporated into Pakistan. Maulana Akram Khan, the erstwhile president of the Bengal Muslim League had, therefore, as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman recollects in his memoires, publicly declared: ‘Bengal would be split over my dead body. As long as I am alive I will not allow Bengal to be partitioned. The whole of Bengal will become part of Pakistan.” [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Unfinished Memoirs, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2012, p 78]
However, the erstwhile Bengal Congress led by President Surendra Mohon Ghosh and secretary Kalipada Mookherjee, and its central high command ‘wanted half of Bengal in the Indian Union’ — the half constituting the Hindu majority West Bengal. Therefore, ‘the Congress High Command sent instructions to the Hindu legislators of Bengal to vote for partition of Bengal’. [Abul Hashim, op-cit, p 176]
Suhrawardy, along with Abul Hashim, the secretary of Bengal Muslim League, and Muhammad Ali, finance minister in Suhrawardy’s cabinet in Bengal, met Gandhi on May 11, 1947 ‘to discuss with him the question of Sovereign Bengal’. The meeting did not went well as Suhrawardy ‘lost his temper’ after Gandhi had pointed out that the former, as the head of the Bengal administration, was ‘morally responsible for every death that occurred in Bengal’ during the Hindu-Muslim conflicts and subsequently Suhrawardy accused Gandhi ‘of being the author of the whole trouble’. [ibid, pp 167-168] After Suhrawardy left the place, the observation that Gandhi made about the scheme of United Bengal was: ‘Hashim, the difficulty is that no one trusts Suhrawardy.’ [ibid, p 168]
However, in the wake of intense campaign spearheaded by the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha for the division of Bengal, a joint meeting of the legislators of Bengal, both the Muslim- and Hindu majority districts, was eventually held at the Assembly Chamber on June 20, 1947.
The Statesman, a Kolkata-based daily, reported the next day that in the joint meeting, chaired by the speaker of the House, Nurul Amin (1897-1974), 90 members voted for joining the existing Indian Constituent Assembly and 126 members voted for joining the proposed Pakistan Constituent Assembly.
Then the legislators of the Hindu majority districts of Bengal and those of the Muslim majority ones met separately to decide whether or not the province should be partitioned. Subsequently, of the members of the Hindu majority districts of the Bengal Assembly, who met under the chairmanship of the Maharajadhiraj of Burdwan, 58 legislators voted for the partition and 21 members belonging to the Muslim League voted against. The majority 58 members also resolved that the region/state comprising Hindu majority areas should join the Indian Constituent Assembly.
On the other hand, of the members of the Muslim majority districts, 106 legislators, 100 of them belonging to the Muslim League, voted against the partition of Bengal while 35 voted against. However, as soon as the decisions of the legislators belonging to the Hindu majority districts reached their counterparts of the Muslim majority areas, the latter decided by 107 to 34 votes that the region/state comprising Muslim majority areas should join the proposed Pakistan Constituent Assembly.
Five legislators representing Scheduled Castes and one representing Indian Christian community supported the Muslim League stance. [The Statesman report of June 21, 1947 is cited in Safar Ali Akanda, Language Movement and the Making of Bangladesh, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013, footnote no 1, p 16.] Notably, along with the legislators of the Bengal National Congress, those belonging to the Bengal unit of the Communist Party of India, which was dominated mostly by those born into Hinduism, voted for the partition of Bengal. [Abul Hashim, op-cit, p 182]
Subsequently, Bengal was bifurcated along the line of Hindu and Muslim majority areas, and East Bengal got incorporated into Pakistan.
To be continued.