Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART Xby Nurul Kabir
MANY Muslims, particularly the young political activists of the Bengal Muslim League who had struggled to save the Muslims of Kolkata and Patna from the wraths of rioting Hindus, got upset Gandhi for his reluctance to visit the two cities during the communal conflicts. Of such unhappy youths, one was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then a young Muslim League activist, who would eventually become the most influential politician in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, to wrestle out its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
However, history records that Gandhi, with the active support of Suhrawardy, made a lot of successful efforts to restore communal harmony in the post-riot Kolkata. During one of those days, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his photographer friend gave Gandhi, who was staying Narkeldanga area of the Kolkata city, quite a suggestive ‘present’ on the Eid day — a wrapped packet of photographs of some Muslim victims of riots in Kolkata and Patna. The photographs included, in the words of the Sheikh, ‘some of Muslim women whose breasts had been cut off, little babies who had been beheaded, mosques burning, corpses lying in the streets and many such gruesome scenes from the riot.’ Explaining the purpose of giving Gandhi such a ‘present’, the Sheikh writes in his memoirs, ‘We wanted the Mahatma to see how his people had been guilty of such crimes and how they had killed innocents.’ [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Unfinished Memoirs, (Trans.) Dr Fakhrul Alam, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2012, p 86.]
However, what is rather more important to note in this regard is that Jinnah visited neither Noakhali nor Kolkata nor Patna. Instead, when the report of Bihar killing reached him, Jinnah remarked in ‘cold blood’, ‘[T]he blood of the innocent Muslims could not go in vain and the world would now be convinced that the partition was the only solution of the Indian problem.’ [See footnote number 2 in Kamruddin Ahmad, ibid, p 73. Also, Abul Hashim, ibid, p 137.]
Nehru rather proved different. He not only visited Bihar, but also took the risk of his life there to stop further killing of the Muslims. Suhrawardy writes in his memoirs: ‘It will remain to the credit of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru that he had the courage to face howling Hindu mob in Bihar and order them to stop rioting; otherwise he would have them shot.’ [Mohammad HR Talukder (ed.), Memoirs of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy with a Brief Account of His Life and Work, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1987, pp 105-106.]
Nevertheless, the Kolkata killing left a deep scar on the minds of the Muslims of East Bengal, generating in their political consciousness a sense of separation with their Hindu cousins of West Bengal that stopped them from fighting against the joint efforts of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress to divide Bengal on religious communal line in 1947.
Bitter memories of famine
Again, the bitter memories of the killer famine of 1943,the worst victim of which was the poor Muslims of East Bengal, played a role behind the reluctance of the Muslim multitude concerned to put up any significant resistance against the Kolkata-based Hindu elite’s political scheme to divide Bengal on religious lines. The famine, which came to be known in history as the Great Bengal Famine, affected in different ways and degrees at least ‘two-thirds of the total population’ of the erstwhile Bengal. The report of the official Famine Inquiry Commission, published by the government in 1945, said the famine had killed ‘about 1.5 million’ people in Bengal. But a member of the commission, WR Aykroid, later admitted that the figure was a result of underestimation of the victims, because the commission ‘took little account of roadside deaths’ caused by the famine. [WR Aykroidis cited in Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Tenth Impression, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, p 52.] However, a report prepared on the basis of a ‘sample survey’ by the anthropology department of the Calcutta University, which was published on February 21, 1944, revealed that the famine of 1943 had killed ‘well over three and half millions’ in Bengal. [See Appendix D-2 in Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Tenth Impression, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, p 197.]
Sugata Bose, a historian of agrarian Bengal, writes: ‘Between 1942 and 1945, the peasantry of east Bengal suffered privation on a scale unknown in recent history without showing much disposition to collective protest… In early 1943, the first symptoms of famine were detected in the eastern districts of the Chittagong division. Brahmanbaria, Sadar and Chandpur subdivisions in Tippera, and Sadar and Feni subdivisions of Noakhali were the regions most severely affected by the famine. In these grain deficit districts, while the mass of landless and land-poor peasants starved. …from April 1943 they began to die in millions.’ [Sugata Bose, Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics: 1919-1947, Cambridge University Press, First Indian Edition in association with Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1987, p 218.] Understandably, the victims were mostly poor Muslims, for like many other historians, Sugata Bose also points out that ‘the peasantry [of East Bengal] was predominantly Muslim’. [ibid, p 187]
Amartya Sen, who especially studied the Bengal famine, says: ‘The Bengal famine was essentially a rural phenomenon. Urban areas, especially Calcutta, substantially insulated from rising food prices by subsidized distribution schemes, saw it mainly in the form of influx of rural destitutes.’ [Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Tenth Impression, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, p 63.]
‘The number of starving and sick destitutes in Calcutta was estimated to be “at least 100,000” in October . A decision was taken by the end of the month to remove the destitutes from the city. The Bengal Destitute Persons (Repatriation and Relief) Ordinance, passed on October 28, was a rather controversial piece of legislation, since it was alleged that “repatriation” was rather more firmly achieved than “relief” in the many “destitute homes” and “camps” set up outside Calcutta.’ [Amartya Sen, ibid, p 57]
While there were more reasons than one for the famine, including crops failure and subsequent shortage of food grains as well as loss of purchasing capacity of the people, the man-made problem of transportation and distribution of food grains in the deficit areas created havoc on the poor people of East Bengal — thanks particularly to certain anti-people measures of the colonial and colonised governments in Delhi and Kolkata in the wake of Japanese invasion of neighbouring Burma during Second World War.
Japan occupied Rangoon on March 10, 1942. Subsequently, apprehensive of a Japanese invasion of India thorough Cox’s Bazar of East Bengal, the British colonial government in Delhi asked the Muslim League government of Bengal to adopted the ‘scorched-earth policy’ to resist the possible Japanese advance by way of disrupting the physical communication systems in Bengal. The erstwhile government of Bengal complied with the dictates of Delhi that fatally affected the food-supply chains in East Bengal causing deaths of millions.
MA Hassan Ispahani, an erstwhile Muslim League leader and a member of the Bengal Provincial Assembly, wrote: ‘The war was being waged with increasing intensity and Japan had gone through South-East Asia as does a hot knife through butter, and having placed Burma under her heels, was knocking at the very gates of India from Cox[’s] Bazar on one side and Imphal on the other.’ [MAH Ispahani, Qaid-E-Azam Jinnah: As I Knew Him, Forward Publications Trust, Karachi, 1966, p 91.]
Under the circumstance, the British government in Delhi asked the provincial government of Bengal ‘to make as little available to the enemy as possible’ in case of an invasion. Subsequently, ‘boats, the main means of transportation in East Bengal, were burnt or broken up [in thousands], resulting in a major dislocation of the principal means of transportation and communication in the Province’. [ibid, p 92]
Besides, as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman recalled the time later, in December 1969, the ‘soldiers stationed in various parts of Bengal had priority call on the foodgrains and on supplementary foods like eggs, chickens, bananas, coconuts, vegetables and pulses.’ [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman recalled the period on the occasion of writing on Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who was civil supply minister of Bengal during the famine. Mujibur Rahman’s article, My Leader: A Messenger of Peace, was published in the special supplement published on Shaheed Suhrawardy of the Karachi-based Morning News on December 5, 1969. The Sheikh is cited in Mohammad HR Talukdar, op-cit, p 19.]
Mujibur Rahman also blamed the ‘hostility’ of the Congressite food minister of the central government, ‘Sree Nivas, who had just succeeded Sir Azizul Huq’, towards the provincial government of Muslim League ‘to procure food for the civil population’. He wrote that ‘foodgrain was not available, even for money’. Ispahani argued that the situation ‘created by the British Indian Government out of fear of a Japanese invasion brought into being famine in some areas, to begin with, and, later, in the entire province’. [MAH Ispahani, op-cit, p 92]
To be continued.
comments powered by Disqus
THE government has rejected the public statement issued by the UN human rights commissioner, Navanethem Pillay, on her departure. This rejection has been accompanied by a demonstration of anger. Full story
This reality of the partition discourse is overlooked in our textbooks as well as in higher academia. The two spools of Jinnah’s speech made public by Outlook magazine last week, and which Pakistan wants to be handed over, failed to raise the bar... Full story