Colonialism, politics of language
and partition of Bengal PART I
by Nurul Kabir
I do not know whether or not a political Pakistan will emerge in India, but what I am sure about is, given the way writers of the Hindu community and the education department have been ignoring the use of the spoken language of the Muslim majority community of Bengal in their literary works and textbooks, a literary Pakistan will be created in Bengal.
Abul Mansur Ahmed (1898–1978)
[T]he people of eastern and western Bengal did not belong to the same stock and the people of western Bengal, who could not rise above the influence of the Sanskrit language, ridiculed the dialect, accent and customs of the people of eastern Bengal, who also returned the compliments in the same terms.
Bankim Chandra Chattayapadhya is perhaps mainly responsible for the partition of Bengal.
Ahmed Sofa (1943–2004)
THE British colonialist politics of partitioning India in 1947 also partitioned Bengal—and that too—on religious communal line. In the process, East Bengal, a Muslim majority area within Bengal, got included in the Muslim-dominated Pakistan, while West Bengal, the Hindu majority region of Bengal, became part of the Hindu-majority India.
Here, again, along with political, economic and religious reasons, the language, Bangla language in the present case, its different varieties spoken and written in East and West Bengals, domination of Sanskrit and words of Sanskrit origin in the works of the Hindu authors and that of Arabic and Persian words in the works of the Muslim ones, even the different contents of literary works produced by the Hindu and Muslim litterateurs of Bengal, substantially contributed to the political partition of the Bangla-speaking region on communal lines. In fact, the linguistic and literary division among the Muslim and Hindu populaces of Bengal had taken place much before the region faced politico-geographical bifurcation in communal direction in 1947. In that sense, the political division of Bengal just followed its linguistic and literary division.
Notably, Bengal, which was divided by the British colonial regime, came into political existence during the Muslim rule in the 13th century. Durgachandra Sanyal, a social historian of Bengal, rightly points out that the entire Bengal of the day did not came into political existence as one country during the pre-Muslim Hindu rule. He says: ‘The [pre-Muslim] Hindu kings of Gowda gradually occupied and established control over five kingdoms of the region — Borendrabhumi, Banga, Mithila, Rar and Bakdip or Bagdi. They used to be called those days penta-kingdoms of the Gauda. Subsequently, the Muslim rulers occupied the penta-kingdoms. Then they incorporated Mithila into Magadha and named it Sube-Bihar; and they combined the rest four kingdoms into one and gave it the name of Sube-Bangala. The nomenclature of Bangala Desh has derived from the word Bangala of Sube Bangala. Then the areas on the northern and eastern frontiers that came under the control of the Muslim rulers had been inducted into Bangala Desh. Thus, Bangala Desh has become a vast country.’ [Durgachandra Sanyal, Bangalar Samajik Itihas (Social History of Bangla), Model Publishing House, Kolkata, 1410 (Bangla calendar), (2003 Gregorian calendar), p 18] The Britishers have called this Bangala Desh, Bengal.
Colonialism, communalism and division of Bengal
THE partition of Bengal in 1947 was an obvious result of the divisive politics of partitioning India on religious lines, sponsored by the colonialist British regimes and their local collaborators, particularly the Kolkata-based Hindu landed gentry that came to be known as the bhadralok class, born out of the Permanent Settlement of Lands, popularly known as the zamindary system, introduced in Bengal by Lord Cornwallis in 1793.
Some of the prominent Muslim politicians of the Bengal Muslim League, such as Abul Hashim and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, both from West Bengal, made efforts with some leaders of the Bengal Congress, such as Sarat Chandra Bose and Kiron Shankor Roy, to keep the province united as a sovereign state. But the high command of the Indian National Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha appeared bent on the division that jeopardised the unity efforts. The Bengal Congress actively opposed the move for keeping Bengal united, independently or within either of the dominions of India and Pakistan. The leaders of the Bengal Muslim League, particularly those hailing from East Bengal, did not appear politically enthusiastic about the anti-partition move either.
However, along with political and economic factors, the language, in the present case Bangla, which was communalised by the colonial European linguists and grammarians much earlier, and accepted and practised by many a Hindu literary genius, stood in the way of the emerging Muslim educated middle class of East Bengal not to put up any active political resistance against the partition of Bengal on religious line.
The partition of Bengal in August 1947 was, in fact, the second of the kind; the first one took place on October 16, 1905, which was eventually annulled on August 20, 1911. The first partition was undone in the face of massive political resistances organised by the Kolkata-based Hindu elite. Ironically, similar resistances organised by the Kolkata-based Hindu elite also ensured the second partition. Both the times, the purpose was the same: Resisting the possibility of communalistic political, economic and cultural dominance of the Hindu elite over the Muslims of Bengal.
Abul Hashim of the erstwhile Bengal Muslim League, one of those well-meaning politicians who unsuccessfully tried to prevent the division of Bengal, writes in his memoirs that the ‘united movement of the [Indian National] Congress and the [Hindu] Mahasabha for partition of Bengal greatly influenced the Hindus of West Bengal and the Calcutta dailies supported the movement.’ [Abul Hashim, In Retrospect, Bangladesh Book Co-operative Society Ltd, Chittagong, Second edition, 1988, p 156]
Joya Chatterji, an India historian from West Bengal, also writes that ‘a large number of Hindus of Bengal, backed up by the provincial branches of the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, campaigned intensively in 1947 for the partition of Bengal and for the creation of a separate Hindu province that would remain inside an Indian union.’ [Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition: 1932-1945, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 1996, p 227]
It was not very easy to convince a big section of the Hindus to fight for dividing Bengal on communal lines in the 1940s, because many of them had fought for the annulment of the partition in the first decade of the century on ‘patriotic’ grounds. The communalist Hindu leaders, therefore, redefined ‘patriotism’. NC Chatterjee, a leader of the Mahasabha, told the Bengal Provincial Hindu Conference held at Tarakeswar in the Hoogli district of West Bengal on April 4, 1947: ‘It is not patriotism to repeat old slogans and to be slaves of catchwords. The most glorious chapter in the history of Bengal is the agitation against the Partition imposed by British Imperialism…But we shall be guilty of treason to the motherland if we merely quote old slogans without understanding their implications. The Anti-Partition movement in the Swadeshi days was a fight against Imperialism, which wanted to cripple the greatest nationalist force working for the Independence of the country by making the Bengal Hindus minorities in both the provinces. Our demand for partition today is… to prevent the disintegration of the nationalist element and to preserve Bengal’s culture and to secure a Homeland for the Hindus of Bengal which will constitute a National State as a part of India.’ [NC Chatterjee is cited in Joya Chatterji, ibid, p 241] For the Bengali Hindu elite in question, the duty to preserve ‘Bengal’s culture’ clearly meant the culture of the Hindus alone and ‘National State’ meant a state solely of the Hindus. They, therefore, projected it to be a ‘patriotic duty’ of the Bengali Hindus to fight for the partition of Bengal in 1947.
As to why, then, it was the duty of the Bengali Hindus to divide Bengal now, in 1947, NC Chatterjee argued: ‘Our demand for partition today is prompted by the same ideal and the same purpose, namely to prevent the disintegration of nationalist element and to preserve Bengal’s culture and to secure a Homeland for the Hindus of Bengal which will constitute a National State as a part of India.’ [ibid]
Originally, the British colonial forces contemplated the division of India before they left the subcontinent. The Congress and the Muslim League, although fighting for a bigger share of power on communal lines for years, did not initially agreed to the idea of the partition. Abul Hashim writes that ‘the British scheme for partition of India’ was first ‘suggested through [Chakravarti] Rajagopal Achariya, which was rejected by the Congress and the Muslim League.’ [Abul Hashim, op-cit, pp 155-156] However, when Rajagopal Achariya [Rajagopal Achariya is also spelt by different authors as Rajgopalachari. Rajagopal Achariya or Rajgopalachari was the Minister for Industries and Supplies in the Interim Government of India in 1946, Governor of East Bengal after independence of India on August 15, 1947, and Governor-General of India after Mountbatten quit the job in June 1948] argued in 1944 that the ‘Congress should accept a Pakistan comprising only the Muslim majority districts’, Joya Chatterji writes, ‘a handful of Calcutta Hindus had welcomed the proposal. Implicit in the Rajagopalachari Formula was the partition of the Punjab and Bengal.’ [Joya Chatterji, op-cit, p 231]
Later, in February 1947, ‘Lord Mountbatten prevailed upon Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukharjee [of the Hindu Mahasabha] and Sarder Ballav Bhai Patel [of the Congress] and set afoot his diplomatic activities for creating conditions favourable to partition of Bengal and the Punjab and to implement the British plan of Partition of India.’ [Abul Hashim, op-cit, p 155]
Shyama Prasad, after meeting the governor of Bengal, Sir Frederick Burrows, on February 22, 1947, made a public statement the next day ‘demanding partition of Bengal on communal basis.’ The erstwhile president of the Indian National Congress, Acharya Kripalini, publicly supported the Hindu Mahasabha demand. Mohanchand Karamchand Gandhi, who would eventually support the partition of Bengal, however, ‘remarked’ in February 1947 that ‘if Bengal was partitioned the communal problem would be a lasting feature of Eastern India.’ [Mohammad HR Talukder (ed.), Memoirs of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy with a Brief Account of His Life and Work, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1987, p 29]
Nevertheless, both the Congress and the Mahasabha resorted to mobilise supports of the Bengali Hindus to back the British colonial plan for dividing Bengal on religious communal line. In May 1947, the two parties ‘jointly convened a mammoth public meeting in Calcutta to press for partition [of Bengal], which was presided over by the historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar.’ [Joya Chatterji, op-cit, p 250]
It was primarily the Kolkata-based Hindu elite, the ‘bhadralok class’ in other words, that formed ‘the backbone the movement’ for the Partition of Bengal, which was governed by the Muslim League at the time. The elite in question had specific political and economic interests in the partition. In this regard, Joya Chatterji writes: ‘Frustrated by their loss of power in bhadrolok politics, shaken by the rapid collapse of the zamindary system, bhadralok groups had begun to devote their energies to the defence of their traditional privileges, moving away from the mainstream of nationalist politics in the process. Partition promised, in some measure, to restore their political hold over those parts of the province in which Hindus were in a numerical majority. It was in these areas that the prospects and experience of ‘Muslim rule’ had caused the fiercest resentment and it was here that the partition movement found its strongest support.’ [ibid. p 253]
As regards the economic interests of the Hindu bhadralok caste, Chatterjii notes: ‘There was strong calculation of economic self-interest in this campaign, which was not only well orchestrated but also well funded. Businessmen, whether Bengalis or outsiders, in Calcutta and up country, played a prominent role in organizing the campaign [for the partition of Bengal]’ [ibid, p 254] Referring to a news report published in the Kolkata-based The Statesman on May 1, 1947, Harun-or-Rashid writes: ‘At a representative meeting of various industrial and commercial organisations of Bengali and non-Bengali Hindus in Calcutta, a resolution was passed supporting the demand for separate West Bengal province. An influential committee was formed including, among others, Birla, Goenka, Jalan, Driver and Nalini Ranjan Sarker in order to realize the objective.’ [Harun-or-Rashid, The Foreshadowing of Bangladesh: Muslim League and Muslim Politics: 1906-1947, Revised and enlarged edition, Second impression, 2012, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, p 259]
Besides, the ‘Marwari traders from all over the province sent petitions to the all India Congress Committee’, claiming that ‘business in Bengal under Muslim League ministry was absolutely crippled’ and therefore they were ‘wholehearted in their support of the move to partition Bengal.’ The trade bodies that signed such petitions included the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce, the Eastern Chamber of Commerce, the All-Bengal Traders and Consumers Association, et cetera — all dominated by non-Muslim businessmen. [See footnote number 91 in Joya Chatterji, op-cit, p 254]
To be continued.