Divided we fall

The pains of Partition in memoirs

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Sunday, 12 November 2023

The people of the Indian subcontinent faced a new situation following the 1947 Partition along religious lines. Achieving freedom after almost 200 years of the British colonial rule, the people of East and West Bengal thereafter became entangled in two different kinds of nationalism in two different lands. The boundary that was drawn between the two Bengals by British lawyer-cum-jurist Cyril John Radcliffe led to the uprooting and migration of millions of Hindus and Muslims from one part of the subcontinent to another. Although a majority of the Bengalis did not oppose the partition of Bengal amid the euphoria for independence, their emotion, pain, anguish and concerns were reflected subsequently in numerous memoirs written later on.
In fact, the people of East Bengal were so carried away by their zeal for freedom that they did not even raise their voice for a fair share of assets despite having a weak and vulnerable provincial economy. Interestingly, none among the governor, the chief minister or chief secretary of East Bengal knew the local Bangla language, although the fate of East Bengal was decided through them. The Kolkata daily The Statesman wrote in its 9 March 1948 issue: Only a few countries start working with no funds in their pocket as has been the case with East Bengal; added to that misery was a broken administration. The Writers' Building of Kolkata was considered to be the most efficient secretariat in undivided India. But, due to the farce of partition, East Bengal had to start functioning with only 12 departments. It had a total of 9 secretaries, 4 joint secretaries, 19 deputy secretaries and 26 assistant secretaries. The condition of the secretariat was quite pathetic. Researcher Mohammad Ali Khan wrote (Sachitra Bangladesh, March 2009), "No files arrived from Kolkata in the beginning. The files had to be pinned with the thorn of Bablah or Babul (Acacia Arabica) tree in the absence of office pins. … two-storied buildings were erected with bamboo walls. The roofs and walls were all made of bamboo. … In the absence of chairs and tables, the officers and employees had to work by laying mats on the floor."
Similar views were expressed by well-known litterateur Abul Fazal in his autobiographical book 'Rekhachitra' (Chattogram: Boighar, 1965): "The independence of the country was declared on the night of Shab-e-Quadr of 1947. … Two independent nations-Pakistan and India-were born. We were deprived of the provincial capital Kolkata that was built with our labour and money over many years. The old and broken Dhaka had to be made capital of East Pakistan overnight. On 25 August 1947, a few days after the establishment of Pakistan, Abul Fazal presented a picture of how East Bengal was deprived during a welcoming ceremony in Chattogram. He noted: "The state that emerged in Bangla under the aegis of a mercantile civilization was always and in all respects centred on a city. As a result, all the riches of Bangla flowed towards Kolkata alone. Even the fishes from Sylhet-Tripura-Jashore-Faridpur-Khulna were delivered to the Kolkata markets. Kolkata had walloped all the food and raw-materials of East Bangal like an Octopus in this manner. A major part of the revenue generated by the government of Bengal was also spent for Kolkata. The whole of East Bengal has remained forever neglected. Not only politics, the economy of East Bengal has also been repeatedly slaughtered by Kolkata."
Expressing similar sentiments, Hamida Khanam wrote in her memoir 'Jhara Bokuler Gandha: Smriti-Alekhya' (Dhaka: Sahitya Prakash, 2001): "I felt bad after arriving in Dhaka. There was no resemblance between what I learnt about Dhaka from the mouths of students residing in Kolkata's Bethune College Hostel as well as my own imagination with the realities of Dhaka. My first impression was: 'Dhaka is now the capital of East Pakistan - why is its condition so poor? Didn't anyone realize during the partition process what we would get and what we would lose? There was no library in Dhaka like the imperial library of Kolkata; there was no museum, and there were virtually no transports except horse carriages. … All the secretaries were non-Bangali. What kind of independent country is this! So has there been only a change of masters for us? I have so many questions'."
Varying opinions were also expressed regarding the allocation of Kolkata to West Bengal. In his memoir 'Atmasmriti' (Dhaka: Sahitya Prakash, 2005), Abu Jafar Shamsuddin wrote, "It was seen after the declaration of partition that Kolkata had fallen on the Indian side. Mr. Jinnah climbed to the throne of the Governor General after digesting a 'moth-eaten and truncated Pakistan'. On the other hand, the possession of Kolkata city was not lost in exchange for the corpse of Moulana Akram Khan. He remained alive - hale and hearty. We also heaved a sigh of relief. Innumerable ordinary people had to sacrifice their lives during the riots in Dhaka, Noakhali, Bihar and 'The Great Calcutta Killings'; but no leaders of the concerned parties were martyred in this religious war. They swiftly occupied their respective thrones".
Many government employees believed that Kolkata would be allocated to East Bengal. In his memoir 'At-Dashak' (Kolkata: Protikkhan Publications Pte Ltd., 1988), Bhabatosh Datta wrote, "Almost all Muslim students and teachers of Islamia College were pro-Muslim League. When the decision of partition was announced, we received letters that the government employees would have to say whether they wanted to live in India or Pakistan. Almost all our Muslim colleagues wrote, 'Pakistan, preferably Kolkata'. They felt that the whole of Bengal should be included in Pakistan, and if that was not possible, then at least the eastern bank of the Ganges including Kolkata should be its boundary".
Renowned writer and politician Abul Mansur Ahmad wrote in his memoir: 'Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchash Bachhar' (Dhaka: Khoshroj Kitab Mahal, 1995) about how much people gained or lost due to the partition. He wrote, "There may be consolation that not only Radcliffe, we all cheated us in a collective manner". In his autobiographay 'Atmajibani' (Dhaka: Utsho Prokashan, 2007), noted politician Dewan Mohammad Azraf wrote, "Even before the publishing of the award of Boundary Commission by Radcliffe, Mountbatten had given his verdict mentally. By cutting half of Karimganj Sadar thana from Sylhet, scope was created for linking the hilly Tripura region with Assam. After arranging a referendum for deciding the fate of Sylhet by considering Sylhet district as indivisible, I still fail to find logic in taking away a part of Sylhet. However, above all logic rests the intentions of humans. Radcliffe wanted that Tripura must not get separated from India". However, the politicians of Muslim League were also considered responsible to some extent for this debacle, as they were quite inexperienced in determining the geographic locations and boundaries of the province.
Similarly, renowned folk-singer Abbasuddin Ahmed criticised the last chief minister of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, for the loss of Muslim-majority Cooch Behar to India. The then king (Maharaja) of Cooch Behar had met Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy several times to express his interest about inclusion of Cooch Behar in East Pakistan. Abbasuddin wrote on the subject in his book 'Amar Shilpi Jibaner Katha' (Dhaka: Hasi Prokashani, 2001): "A few months before the partition, the then Maharaja of Cooch Behar Nripendra Narayan Chowdhury met Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy several times or exactly thrice to seek his opinion on joining India or Pakistan. He said: 'Pakistan is on three sides of my kingdom, what's your opinion?' The minister told the Maharaja thrice, 'I am too busy; I shall tell you after consulting with Quaid-e-Azam'. … For how long could the Maharaja wait? He joined India despite his reservations due to silence of the then chief minister". Abbasuddin felt that the rivalry between Khawaja Nazimuddin and Suhrawardy for the prime minister post of Pakistan was the main problem faced by the Muslim League politicians at that juncture. Therefore, they did not have the time to worry about the inclusion or exclusion of Cooch Behar or Tripura.
However, despite deprivations, the people of East Bengal welcomed the new state of Pakistan. One Ashab Uddin Ahmad wrote, "The Muslims all over East Pakistan welcomed this new nation and state with the sound of Azan". This was reflected in the writings of various daily newspapers as well. The daily 'Dainik Azad' brought out an independence issue on 14 August 1947. In an editorial titled 'Azad Bharat - Azad Pakistan', the daily wrote in an emotional language: "The Indian subcontinent is luminous with the sunshine of freedom. The ignominy of long two centuries of subjugation is now extinct, her sky and air are now illuminated with the new light of independence. The sun that once set in the Ganges on the boundary of Palashi ground, that sun has risen again coloured by the blood of innumerable devotees, materializing the messages of Bangla's poets. That ray of sun brought to the surface the dreamland of ten crore Muslims of India - Pakistan; the rest of India also assumed an independent shape as the state of India. … We are embracing this classic moment with humility. We felicitate with all our heart the inhabitants of independent Pakistan and independent India".
On the other side also, independence was embraced by the people of Kolkata with much emotional fervour and joy. A description of that could be found from a report published in the periodical 'Begum'. The report reads: "From the morning of 15 August, the Hindu-Muslim boys and girls and even the elderly joined the celebration. There were innumerable people on the streets. The roads and different places of the city were decorated with illuminations". Bhabatosh Datta wrote: "That romantic dream came to life the next morning. Truck-loads of Muslim citizens went out to welcome the independence of India. There were also celebrations in mosques". Litterateur Mahbub Alam Chowdhury wrote: "Despite the pain, the hearts of the Bangali were drenched with the good news. The wonderful sights of Hindu-Muslim unity attracted the attention of all. … Slogans filled the air: Hindus-Muslims stay united".
But this elation and ecstasy surrounding independence did not last long. According to the population census of India, 2.55 million Hindus migrated to India from East Bengal, while 0.70 million Muslims migrated to East Bengal from West Bengal and Bihar (Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh: Banglapedia, 2003) during the partition in1947. But various studies have shown that about 17 million refugees from the two Bengals migrated to the other side within one year of the partition. It was the largest population shift in history in such a short time. The common people were saddened by this mass migration, as it happened only because of a political decision. Hamida Khanam wrote in her memoir (Dhaka: Sahitya Prakash, 2001): "What kind of life is this, the world has suddenly become smaller. The borders have become limited to only a few districts. Where is that vast sky extending from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and the loving people with whom we grew up since childhood? They have suddenly become citizens of another country; their addresses have now been lost".
Mahbub Alam Chowdhury had depicted in his writings the predicaments of partition and the suffering of the uprooted people on both the sides. He had good ties with renowned poet-cum-essayist Annada Shankar Ray, and they continued their friendship via correspondence even after the partition. Annada Shankar Ray used to make fun of the then political leaders for their role in the partition through rhymes. In the same vein, Mahbub Alam Chowdhury wrote in his essay 'Akash, Mati O Somoy' (Sky, Soil and Time): "When people divide the sky, soil and time, and claim that this much is India's and that much is Pakistan's, or this era is the age of Hindu uprising and that era is the time of Muslim revolution, then the Almighty smiles unnoticed. … The episode of bragging and screaming that was enacted before our eyes - that certainly was not our essence, nor is it our holistic ethos. It is merely a fragmented and temporary stuff".
The partition of Bengal and India in 1947 merely on religious grounds was an unprecedented event in the annals of history. The uprooting of millions of people from their hearth and home and the mass exodus from one land to another only because of religious identities was never seen previously anywhere in the world. Leaving behind their ancestral abodes, millions had to head for an unknown future at an unseen habitat. Although the common people had to accept this inevitability that was promoted by the politicians as a viable means of overcoming the communal rifts and frictions, the sorrows, pains and anguish of the people - both Hindus and Muslims - were reflected in numerous memoirs chronicled later on. These can be used as societal documents and documentary evidences in the historiography of the Indian subcontinent and its partition.

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary, ex-Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly, and former Editorial Consultant of The Financial Express.
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