Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART IVby Nurul Kabir
SHEIKH Mujibur Rahman, a young Muslim League activist in Kolkata in the mid-1940s, who would eventually become the founding president of Bangladesh in 1971, also believed that Mountbatten’s personal dislike for Jinnah, and his subsequent bias for Nehru, affected adversely the interests of Pakistan in general and East Bengal in particular. Jinnah’s refusal to meet Mountbatten’s aspiration to become the governor general of Pakistan, writes the Sheikh, ‘annoyed Mountbatten so much that he seemed bent on doing harm to the cause of Pakistan.’ He wrote: ‘[T]he Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, was helping the Congress covertly in all sorts of ways…Even though Radcliff was given the responsibility of demarcating the boundary, many believe that Mountbatten seemed to have secretly worked with the Congress to come up with a map of their own...I doubt if Lord Mountbatten would have done as much as harm to Pakistan if he had become its Governor General.’ [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Unfinished Memoirs, (Trans.) Dr Fakhrul Alam, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2012, pp 78-79]
Finally, with the partition of India on communal lines in mid-August 1947, Bengal was also split into the Muslim-majority East Bengal and the Hindu-majority West Bengal with Kolkata remaining the capital city of the latter.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman believed that, out of dislike for Jinnah, Mountbatten not only contributed to India’s having Kolkata but also deprived East Bengal of certain Muslim-majority areas. ‘Even though Muslims constituted a majority in Nadia, he allotted Krishnanagar and Ranaghat Junction to them (West Bengal of India). Similarly, though there were more Muslims than Hindus in Murshidabad, he gave the entire district to India. In Maldah district there were as many Hindus as there were Muslims and so he divided it into half. But although Dinajpur had a Muslim majority he cut Balurghat into two so that Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling could go to India and Assam could have a direct link with the rest of the country. All these districts should have come to Pakistan. In the east, even though the referendum had been won in favour of Pakistan, the Muslim-majority subdivision of Karimganj went to India. [ibid, p 83]
However, in May 1947, the erstwhile president of the Bengal Muslim League, Moulana Akram Khan, publicly declared that the ‘partition of Bengal can be effected only on the corpses of the Muslims of Bengal.’ History records that the Bengali Muslims did not want the bifurcation of Bengal, but history also records that they sacrificed ‘not a single drop of blood’ to resist the division. [Harun-or-Rashid, op-cit, p 306] It is important to find out why the Bengali Muslims did not actively resist the partition of the province. It is equally important to understand why the Bengali Muslims of East Bengal had preferred to leave their Hindu cousins of West Bengal to live with an ‘unknown people’ living more than a thousand miles away in West Pakistan.
The reasons for Bengali Muslims to remain passive about the partition of Bengal, and prefer to be a part of Pakistan, could be attributed to a number of reasons that include, in addition to the explicitly communal political manoeuvring by the Congress and Mahashabha in the late 1940s to divide Bengal, communalisation of society of Bengal on religious lines due to the Hindu interest-driven movement for the annulment of the partition of Bengal between 1905 and 1911, fresh memory of the Bengal famine of 1943 that hit Bengali Muslims hardest, communal riots of 1946 in which Muslims were the worst victims, and of course the linguistic communalism created by the Kolkata-based literary caste of the Hindu elite.
Under the first partition scheme, a new province was created out of the ‘overgrown’ Bengal Presidency of the day, and the newly created province was brought to existence consisting of East Bengal and Assam. Dhaka was made capital of the new province. Kolkata remained the capital of West Bengal, with Bihar and Orissa inducted into the province.
The first partition was done under the leadership of British viceroy Lord Curzon for, what his regime argued, a better conducting of the administrative businesses, which, in turn, would specially benefit the people of East Bengal. However, when Lord Curzon opened the discussion of partitioning Bengal in 1902, it concerned the Kolkata-based elite of Hindu bhadralok. The partition for them, as Rafiuddin Ahmed noted, ‘would not only mean the division of the Bengali-speaking people into two unequal halves but would pose a threat to the economic survival of the bhadralok’. [Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims: 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity, Second edition, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998, p 180] Besides, the partition would make Bengali Hindus a religious minority in East Bengal and a linguistic minority in West Bengal. They, therefore, opposed the idea.
Under the circumstances, Lord Curzon toured Dhaka, Chittagong and Mymensingh in the third week of February 1904 to ‘mobilise Muslim support to the partition’. While delivering a speech on February 18 at Ahsan Manzil, the Dhaka residence of Nawab Sir Salimullah, Curzon told the audience that Dhaka was only ‘a shadow of its former self’ and assured them that the government partition ‘envisaged the creation of a centre of Muslim power’ in Dhaka, ‘which would invest in Mahomedans in Eastern Bengal with a unity which they have not enjoyed since the days of the old Mussalman viceroys and kings.’ [Lord Curzon is cited in Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims: 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity, Second edition, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998, p 188] Lord Curzon also said, ‘The centre and possibly the capital of a new and self-sufficing administration must give to the people of these districts by reason of their numerical strength and their superior culture the prepondering voice in the province so created.’ [Lord Curzon cited in Kamruddin Ahmad, A Socio Political History of Bengal and the Birth of Bangladesh, Fourth edition, Inside Library, Dhaka, 1975, p 2. Also, cited in John R, Mclane, ‘Partition of Bengal’ in Sirajul Islam (ed.), History of Bangladesh: 1704-1971, Volume I (Political History), Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1992, p 314]
Many an analyst, however, asserts that the real British objectives behind the partition in 1906 included, along with dividing the Hindu and Muslim populations for ruling the region comfortably, farther expansion of the repressive state machinery to the rural areas of eastern Bengal and thus establish better administrative control over the people, isolating ‘the hinterland’ from Kolkata to ‘accelerate exploitation’.
Nevertheless, the Muslim community of East Bengal, particularly its emerging educated sections, was very happy about the partition, as it had created special opportunities for the otherwise backward community to grow in different directions — jobs, education, trades and industries included.
John R Mclane, an American professor who studied the partition of Bengal, rightly observes, ‘The partition [of 1905] was welcomed by educated Muslims because it expanded their educational, economic and political opportunities.’ [John R. Mclane, ‘Partition of Bengal 1905: A Political Analysis’ in Sirajul Islam (ed.), History of Bangladesh: 1704-1971, Volume I (Political History), Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1992, p 311]
Eager to bring in social equalities with the Hindu community, the educated Muslims in question were, after all, aware of the fact that in 1901, ‘Muslims held only 41 of the “high appointments” under the Government [of Bengal] while the Hindus, who were less than twice as numerous, held 1,235 posts.’ [ibid, p 317] Immediately ‘after the partition was effected’ in 1905, the ‘Government found that of the ministerial posts in divisional, district, and sub-divisional offices in Eastern Bengal, Muslims held less than one-sixth of the appointments although they made up two-thirds of the population in the new province ... in the Police Department in Eastern Bengal the Muslim position was even worse. In what was called the Eastern Bengal Range, where Muslims equaled 59 per cent of the population, they held 4 of the 54 inspectorships, 60 of the 484 Sub-Inspectorships, 45 of the 450 head constables and 1,027 of the 4,594 constableships.’ [ibid]
John R Mclane writes that such ‘Hindu dominance was repeated in the legal class from the touts in the villages to the barristers who appeared before the High Court, in the education system from the village school teachers to the Government Secretariat where textbooks were chosen that emphasized Hindu history, myths and values, and in the land system from the village kachari where Hindu clerks received Muslim tenants’ rents to the head kachari at the rajbari (palace) of the zamindar and the district land record office.’ [ibid, p 318] Under these circumstances, the creation of East Bengal and Assam province, with Dhaka its capital, promised the potentials for gradually earning the Muslim equality with its Hindu counterparts. The educated sections of the marginalised Muslim community, therefore, were happy about the partition of Bengal.
To be continued.
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