Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART VIIIby Nurul Kabir
THERE were at least four other factors, other than political, which generated in the collective consciousness of the Muslims of East Bengal a sense of distrust about their Hindu counterparts that might have dissuaded the former to put up any decisive resistance against the partition of Bengal. The factors included the traumatic experience of communal riots in Kolkata spearheaded by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress in August 1946, the bitter memory of the Bengal famine of 1943, general socio-economic discriminations prevailing in Bengal for several generations, and of course, the linguistic division artificially imposed on the Bengali middle class by the unholy axis of the Kolkata-based English-Hindu educated elite. In all the four cases, the Muslims of Bengal were at the receiving end, and therefore proved to be the primary victims of the phenomena. Under the circumstance, their collective political wisdom persuaded them to try their luck in their own domain in East Bengal, independently of the irrational interference of the Kolkata-based Hindu elite. Hence, they refused to be ‘corpses’, as previously announced by Moulana Akram Khan, for keeping the Bengal united against the political and diplomatic machinations of the Hindu elite to split Bengal.
The horrible communal riot began in Kolkata, which left in Kolkata at least 5,000 people killed and 15,000 injured, of whom majority were Muslims, began on August 16, 1946 — the day the Muslim League observed ‘Direct Action Day’ against the British rulers of India. The riot, which was virtually discovered to be a deliberately organised act of violence against the Kolkata Muslims, continued in full swing for five days, till August 20, The objective studies of the riot primarily blame the Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress for the horrible communal conflict, while they do not absolve the responsibility of a section of the Muslim League leadership for the carnage.
The convention of the All India Muslim League, held in Bombay on July 19, 1946, adopted the fatal resolution of observing Direct Action Day against the British government on August 16 to press home its demand for the creation of Pakistan.
The programme was planned in the wake of influential Congress leader Sardar Ballabhbhai Patel’s repeated public statement that the British would quit India after transferring power to the Indian National Congress. The then British viceroy in India, Lord Wavell, who was negotiating with Muslim League on the Pakistan issue as well, kept silent on Patel’s claim, which Jinnah suspected was a ‘double cross’ by the British regime. Meanwhile, the viceroy called Nehru to form an interim government in Delhi, and accordingly Nehru formed the cabinet, with himself as the prime minister, on August 8, 1946.
An enraged Jinnah resolved to demonstrate Muslim grievances against the regime and called for Direct Action Day. Moreover, asking the Muslim League’s Working Committee to prepare a plan of ‘direct action’, Jinnah proclaimed: ‘Never have we in the whole history of the League done anything except by constitutional means and by constitutionalism. But now we are obliged and forced into this position. This day we bid goodbye to constitutional methods.’ [HV Hodson, The Great Divide: Britain-India-Pakistan, Hutchinson & Co, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1969, p 166.]
In Kolkata, the secretary of the city unit of the Muslim League, Mr Osman, called a general strike for the day. [Abul Hashim, In Retrospect, Bangladesh Book Co-operative Society Ltd, Chittagong, Second edition, 1988. p 131.] But the chief minister of Bengal, Shaheed Suhrawardy, declared ‘direct action day’ a ‘public holiday’. Abul Hasim called it a ‘great blunder’ [ibid., p 133]
Abul Hashim writes that ‘complete hartal and general strike in all spheres of civic, commercial and industrial life, save and except in essential services of water works, hospitals, clinics, maternity centres, electricity, gas and postal services’ were observed. Describing the success, he writes that ‘processions with bands starting from every area converged’ at the meeting venue at the foot of the Ochtorloney Monument at Maidan in the afternoon.
As soon as the public meeting commenced, ‘news started pouring in the venue that the Muslims in different parts of the city such as Behala, Kalighat, Metiaburuj, Maniktala and Shambazar have been exposed to severe attacks by the Hindu and many a Muslim has already been killed and injured,’ writes Abul Mansur Ahmed, who was present in the front row of the audience at the meeting venue. ‘Soon after, the processions of people in blood-soaked attires started coming in with injured victims on their shoulders and blood-soaked flags in their hands. They were complaining that the Hindus had attacked the Maidan-bound peaceful processions of the Muslims without any provocation. Enraged by the unprovoked attacks, they appeared crazy to seek vengeance against the Hindus,’ writes Mansur Ahmed. [Abul Mansur Ahmed, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchas Bachhar (Fifty years of politics that I have seen), Khoshroj Kitab Mahal, Eighth edition, Dhaka, 1999, p 198.]
Meanwhile, Khawaja Nazimuddin Ahmed said in his speech at the rally that ‘our movement is not directed against the government of India, but against the Hindus.’ [Abul Hashim, In Retrospect, p 133; also, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchash Bachhar, op-cit., p 197.] Abul Hashim, who was present on the dais, instantly ‘pushed him back from the microphone and pointing his fingers to the Fort William’, he said that the struggle of the Muslim League was ‘not against any people of India’, rather it was ‘against the Fort William’ that represents the colonial British regime. [Abul Hashim, ibid, p 133]
However, the riot erupted in Kolkata and continued for several days, displaying the extent of the
capacity of human beings to get dehumanised when it comes to religious conflicts.
Abul Hashim, the erstwhile general secretary of the Bengal Muslim League, pleaded the Muslim League’s complete innocence of its hand in the riot. He writes that ‘the Muslim League had no knowledge, no apprehension and no anticipation as to the unprecedented violence that started in the morning and continued in the afternoon of the 16th of August when we were all in the midst of the meeting held at the foot of Ochtorlony Monument.’ [Ibid., p 132.]
In support of his claim, Hashim put forward formidable evidence: ‘Men may lie but circumstances never lie. I brought from Burdwan with me two sons. Badruddin Mohammad Umar, a boy of 15, and Shahabuddin Mohammad Ali, a boy of 8 [,] to show them the great gathering that was expected on the occasion at Calcutta. I took my sons to the Maidan and Lalmiah of Faridpur took his grandson aged six or seven. If we apprehended any danger we would not have taken our sons and grandsons to the Maidan.’ [ibid]
Abul Hashim, who is well known for his secular political views within and beyond the Muslim League and his proactive role for keeping Bengal united and independent, was unlikely to have been personally involved in, even aware of, any machination of communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims. But it is very difficult to completely exonerate the entire leadership of the Bengal Muslim League of the responsibility for the riot, particularly after the declaration of August 16 as a ‘public holiday’ by Suhrawardy, which Hashim himself found to be a ‘great blunder’ and Khawaja Nazimuddin’s declaration on the same day that their ‘struggle is against the Congress and the Hindus’.
Abul Mansur Ahmed believes that the ‘primary responsibility’ of the riot goes to the Muslim League. [Abul Mansur Ahmed, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchas Bachar, op-cit., p. 197] He argues that Jinnah’s ‘ambiguous programme’ of the ‘direct action day’ and Suhrawardy’s explicit announcement of ‘public holiday’ on the day in West Bengal acted as provocations against the Kolkata Hindus. Suhrawardy’s announcement of public holiday on a partisan cause, Mansur Ahmed argues, ‘made the Hindus logically and justifiably apprehended that the Hindus would be forced to observe the Muslim League’s programme and therefore got prepared beforehand, which got evident on the fatal day’. [Ibid., p. 198]
Mansur Ahmed’s allegation of ‘ambiguity’ about the nature of the ‘direct action day’ programme, however, ultimately does not stand, for the initial ambiguity was eventually removed two weeks before the observance of the day on August 16. True that there were some initial ‘misgivings’ about ‘direct action’, but ‘to remove them’, the working committee of the All-India Muslim League met again at Bombay on August 2, 1946 and unambiguously called upon the Muslims of India ‘to suspend all business on August 16, 1946, and observe complete hartal’. [M. A. H. Ispahani, Qaid-E-Azam Jinnah: As I Knew Him, Forward Publications Trust, Karachi, 1966, p. 191]
Under the circumstance, Hodson finds Suhrawardy’s attitude ‘more bellicose’ than Jinnah’s and describes the former’s role to be a provocative one for the Kolkata carnage. He writes: “In Calcutta the League Ministry under Mr. Suhrawardy, who had adopted a much more bellicose attitude than Mr. Jinnah, declared 16th August a public holiday, an extremely dangerous thing to do when communal passions were inflamed, Satan would find work for idle hands to do, and any gathering or group in a crowded city might invite reactions from hostile bystanders.” [H V Hodson, The Great Divide: Britain – India – Pakistan, Hutchinson & Co, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1969, p. 166]
In this regards, Joya Chatterji writes, the ‘[Hindu] Mahashabha volunteers were ready and eager to act upon their leader’s advice, even if bamboo staves, knives and crude country pistols had to do service for cavalry and artillery. Hindus, as much as Muslims, were prepared for battle on 16 August; both sides were armed and Hindus appeared to have had bigger battalions’. [Joya Chaterjii, Bengal Divided, op-cit., p.238]
Analyzing the composition of the rioting elements, Chatterji writes: “While Muslim rioters consisted mainly of up-country migrants, a surprisingly large number of bhadralok Hindus were arrested on charge of rioting. …Bengali Hindu students and other professional or middle class elements were active…a large portion of the crowed which killed Dr Jamal Mohammad, an eminent eye specialist, consisted of educated youths’. [Ibid., p.239]
Also involved on the Hindu side were ‘released’ INA soldiers and Marwari businessmen. Chatterji’s study shows that ‘it was this …alliance between students, professional men, businessmen and ex-officers, Congressmen, Mahasabhaites, shopkeepers and neighbourhood bully boys, that led the Hindu crowed to its bloody victory in the streets of Calcutta in 1946’. [Ibid.] Subsequently, “more Muslims than Hindus died in the fighting, and in characteristically chilling style, Patel summed up the hideous affair with the comment; ‘Hindus had the best of it’.” [Ibid., p. 233]
As to why the members of the bhadralok, Hindu elite in other words, rioted against Muslims, Dr Mahendranath Sarker, a prominent physician from Burdwan, who was ‘arrested for hurling a bomb into a Muslim crowed in the unrest that continued after the Killing, provided an answer: “I am now a Congressman. I was previously a member of the Hindu Mahasabha. I joined the movement favouring the partition of Bengal.” [Ibid.]
The Hindu cruelty towards the Muslims got so brutal during the riot that many a right thinking Hindu was exposed to psychological breakdown, In this regard, Mansur Ahmed mentions a Brahmin young munsef of Alipur court who, after witnessing the mindless actions of the Hindu fanatics, was forced to receive treatments in a mental hospital for quite some time. The young man saw the ‘highly educated and culturally accomplished Hindus, like retired judges and senior lawyers, killing with swords and machetes the slum-dwelling Muslim men, women and children of the neigbourhood’. [Abul Mansur Ahmed, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchas Bachar, op-cit., p. 196]
The Muslim fanatics also did not lag behind in the display of cruelty against the Hindus. Describing Muslim cruelty, Abul Mansur Ahmed said: “May be a Hindu cobbler was fixing the shoes of a Muslim or a Hindu barber dressing the hairs of his Muslim client in my own neigbourhood. Suddenly a group of Muslim assassins appeared in the scene with sharp-edged iron rods or javelins in their hands and hit the Hindu man on his head, or stabbed through his throat or belly, leaving him dead within no time. The murder over, the killers chanted slogans of victory and rushed towards another direction for other preys.” [Ibid.]
The whole environment got perverse. The situation got so perverse that a Muslim ‘friend’ of Mansur Ahmed, whom the latter knew as ‘a kind-hearted humanist’, once charged him in the following language: ‘How many Hindus have you killed? Your proclaimed commitment towards Muslim interests is nothing but mere rhetoric’. [Ibid.]
To be continued.
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