Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XIby Nurul Kabir
IN THIS circumstance, the government also failed to provide the people with food grains. Explaining the reasons for the failure, Ispahani writes: ‘Conditions were so bad and the food shortage in the Province so great that nothing less than heavy imports from outside the Province and from abroad and their quick distribution could bring relief to the sufferers and to the dying. Help from other parts of India was both slow in coming and meager. War conditions and lack of safety at sea made speedy outside assistance almost impossible. The South-Asian granaries, which were close to Bengal, were occupied by Japan. And aid, even ships escaped Japan’s attack, from far-off countries, was as bad as having no aid at all. East Bengal being a deltaic region and the main means of transportation being boats which had been destroyed in thousands in compliance with the Centre’s scorched earth policy, the speed of distribution was naturally slow.’ [MAH Ispahani, Qaid-E-Azam Jinnah: As I Knew Him, Forward Publications Trust, Karachi, 1966, p 93]
The result was obvious. Referring to official reports, Amartay Sen writes that ‘the wholesale price of rice, which had been between Rs. 13 and Rs. 14 per ‘maund’ (about 82.3 lbs.) on 11 December 1942, rose to Rs. 21 by March 1943 and to above Rs. 30 by 21 May; by 20 August it had risen to Rs. 37. [Amarya Sen, op-cit, p 54]
Sen argues that the price of rice practically went up much higher than what the official reports have cited. Quoting a news report published in the November 5, 1943 issue of The Statesman, he says that the price, particularly in the retail markets, went up much higher, such as in October 1943 ‘rice was being sold in Chittagong at Rs 80 per maund.’ [ibid, p 55] The food prices were, therefore, went much beyond the capacity of the rural poor, most of them Muslims, to buy. The only option they were left with was to starve to death.
Recollecting the ‘horrifying situation’ arising out of famine, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was a young Muslim League activist in Kolkata and was engaged in relief work those days, wrote in his memoirs: ‘Hundreds of thousands of people were swarming to the cities in search of food. But there was no food or clothing left for them. The British had confiscated all naval vessels for the war effort. They had stockpiled rice and wheat to feed their soldiers. Whatever was left had been appropriated by businessmen. This led to a horrifying situation. Businessmen began to sell rice that would normally sell at ten takas a maund at forty or even fifty takas. Not a day went by without people dying in the city streets.’ [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Unfinished Memoirs, (Trans.) Dr. Fakhrul Alam, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2012, p 17]
Mujibur Rahman went on to recollect: ‘I saw …mothers dying in the streets while their babies still suckled; dogs competing with people foe leftovers in garbage dumps; children abandoned by their mothers who had run away or sold them driven by hunger. At times they failed to do even that since there would be no buyers. They would knock on doors and cry out: “Give us some food, I am dying and can’t go on; at the very least give me some of the water that you have strained off the boiled rice”. She would often die even as she uttered these words.’ [ibid, p 18]
However, the Hindu leadership of the Bengal Congress publicly accused the provincial Muslim League government of Khawaja Nazimuddin Ahmed and the Ispahanis of ‘creating the famine’ and failing to feed the people during the calamity. Notably, the Ispahanis were the Bengal’s leading rice merchants those days and their firm, M.M. Ispahani Limited, was assigned by ‘the Governor and his Cabinet’ of Bengal to purchase rice from food surplus areas of Bihar and Orissa to cover the shortfall of the government stock of food grains to be distributed among the people. Ispahani Limited charged the government some amount of ‘commission’ for the procurement of rice.
Hassan Ispahani, however, rejects the allegation, calling it ‘too absurd for any sensible man to believe’ and asserts that the Ispahanis rather ‘helped’ the people in the ‘hour of agony’. He says that the total purchase of Ispahanis on behalf of the government amounted to ‘an insignificant fraction of the total shortage of [food grains] of well over million tons’ and the ‘commission’ charged was ‘nominal’. He also claims that the Congress had indulged in politicking about the famine. ‘Even Hindu political leaders like Dr. [Shamaprasad] Mukharjee and Mr. Sarat Chandra Bose admitted in private that they were fighting a political battle with no restriction on the choice of weapons,’ writes Hassan Ispahani. [MAH Ispahani, Qaid-E-Azam Jinnah: As I Knew Him, Forward Publications Trust, Karachi, 1966, p 95] He alleges that their unjust criticism made in the public sphere caused him ‘nervous breakdown’ during the famine. In this regard, he, however, expresses his gratitude to Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, a famous physician and industrialist who became chief minister of West Bengal after the partition, for ‘saving’ his ‘life’ by way of treating the ‘nervous breakdown’.
Be that as it may, the famine took lives of more than three million people, mostly poor Muslims of agrarian East Bengal, due to the scarcity of food in general and rice in particular. Even the conventional food habit of the rural poor contributed to the increased deaths. Reports have it that the rice-eating population of Bengal, particularly East Bengal, did not even know about wheat those days, let alone prepare chapatis or gruel with wheat forming the base. When ‘served gruel’ to the uprooted starving villagers in the gruel kitchens, run in the towns by the private charities and government authorities during the famine, many of them, particularly the younger ones, ‘fell victims to acute digestive and stomach troubles and died’.
That the Muslims of Bengal were the worst victims of the famine could also be surmised from a famine-time communally worried communication of Hassan Ispahani to the Muslim League supremo Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In a letter written on September 20, 1943, Ispahani urged him to convince the governments of allied forces ‘to sit up and take serious note’ of famine in Bengal, the ‘first line of defence against the Japanese’, and ‘release freight space for the carriage of food grains in large quantities, from countries that have surplus.’ Finally, he cautioned Jinnah: ‘Unless those who can help and in them I include the Government of India…help without delay, Bengal will be turned into a graveyard and it should not then surprise anyone if the Muslim majority in the province turns into a minority when the next census is taken.’ [Hassan Ispahani, Ibid, p 97]
The Muslims did not become minority in Bengal due to famine, but the bitter experience that the community had undergone during the famine generated in their minds a sense of communal grievances against their Hindu counterparts.
The Hindus for various historical and political reasons were economically better off than the Muslims and, therefore, less affected by the famine than their Muslim counterparts. Portraying the social stratification of the colonial Bengal, Abul Mansur Ahmed said, ‘Zaminders of Bengal are Hindu and the tenants Muslims, Bengal’s moneylenders are Hindu and borrowers Muslims, physicians Hindu and patients Muslims, judges Hindu and accused Muslims, players Hindu and spectators Muslims, jailors Hindu and jailed Muslims, so on and so forth.’ [Abul Mansur Ahmed, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchas Bachar, op-cit, p 125]
The underdeveloped political consciousness of the Muslim multitude of Bengal, particularly East Bengal, could hardly look at the phenomenon from the historical perspective. They rather found themselves as the victims of communal exploitation by the visibly well-off Hindu landowning as well as professional classes around them, ignoring the fact that the poor classes of the Hindu community underwent similar, if not the same, difficulties during the famine. The result was obvious: further deterioration of Hindu-Muslim relation. Sugata Bose rightly points out that ‘during the wartime subsistence crisis communal relations [between Hindus and Muslims] had become more embittered.’ [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 221]
The Muslim League, ‘at a time of unprecedented material distress and psychological uncertainty of the peasant masses’, most of whom were Muslims, ‘was able to consolidate its position’, as it became easy for the League “to give the poor Muslim peasants” discontent a communal coloring.’ The Muslim peasants not only voted the Muslim League to power in Bengal in the elections held in 1946, they also got least bothered about the joint call made by a section of the non-communal League-Congress leadership to resist the partition of Bengal on communal line.
The underprivileged Muslim multitude of Bengal must have aspired for changing their fate for better as a community in their own Muslim state without any Hindu competition, if not opposition, that they have empirically experienced for about two hundred years.
To be continued.
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