An impassioned and deeply-researched work, Bhaswati Mukherjee’s Bengal and Partition: An Untold Story is an invaluable contribution to the particular issues that animated politics in Bengal, a marginally Muslim-majority province, that distinguished it from the freedom movement in much of the rest of the country. It was not only, or indeed most significantly, the Hindu-Muslim demography of the province that gave it a unique perspective, but, overlaying these religious differences was the proud linguistic unity and syncretic cultural heritage that made Bengal different. (I would rate Chapter 6, “The Struggle for identity: Language and Religion”, as the most outstanding in the book).
These cultural characteristics, Mukherjee convincingly argues, were, however, adversely affected by the ownership of land: a disproportionate majority of zamindars were Hindus, who banded themselves in their bhadralok identity. The relatively few Muslim landowners, on the other hand, found their identity in their Persian and Turkic origins, accentuated by a marked linguistic preference for Urdu and Persian over the native Bengali. The two religion-based elites kept themselves apart, in contrast to the masses who together evolved a composite culture — but in acute poverty and deprivation.
To this was added the bhadralok taking to modern education as the vehicle for advancement, while the Muslim elite shrank from embracing the foreign power that had overthrown their centuries-old political dominance in Bengal. In striking contrast, the Muslim masses remained indigenous and vernacular (like most of their wretched Hindu brethren). The rival elites played out their differences in the political field where the British played umpire and firmly grounded their policies on the ancient Roman dictum of ‘divide and rule’. But we only had ourselves to blame for remaining divided.
The author lists the leading members of the bhadralok: it does not contain a single Muslim name, for it would have been anathema to the bhadralok to let the Muslim aristocracy and the lower castes into their ranks. Equally, the “Muslim communalists”, as Mukherjee brands them, did not wish to be synthesised into a larger and largely Hindu nationalist identity.
This was aggravated by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath (1882), and, especially the poem that later became the national song, Vande Mataram, having captured the imagination of the bhadralok from which the Muslim elite had distanced themselves and into which the bhadralok had no intention of including the Muslim gentry. It was only after AK Fazlul Huq, born of peasant stock, arrived on the political scene that the Muslim jotedar (ryot and rent collector) and the masses of Bengal peasantry started involving themselves in the affairs of the nation. Under the British, the enfranchised electorate never exceeded 14-15 per cent — elections under the colonial aegis were, thus, never “representative”.
All this, the author recounts with skill and impressive documentation. From Robert Clive’s victory at the farcical Battle of Plassey (1757) to the first partition of Bengal (1905), the horrific Bengal Famine of 1943 and the subsequent partition of Bengal in 1947, Mukherjee never fails to link her arguments to the relevant primary and secondary sources. But as an impassioned nationalist herself, the author does not give adequate space to those she believes betrayed her beloved homeland.
This results in TB Macaulay getting selectively quoted, no reference being made to his remarkably prescient prediction that the Empire would not last more than a century, nor the constructive achievements of colonial rule, nor the grievances (often self-inflicted) of the minority community, nor of the failure of the Bengal Congress leadership to conciliate opposing Muslim opinion, only aggravated by the many failures of the Congress national leadership. Indeed, the chief unanswered question is why the Bengal Congress behaved so cravenly before the Indian National Congress. The reason, of course, is that much of Bengal preferred the national over the local leadership.
There is no mention of the 1927 Delhi Pact where MA Jinnah, the prime mover of the 1916 Lucknow Pact, acknowledged that separate electorates had led only to the 1920s becoming the worst decade of communal violence. He proposed, along with Motilal Nehru and Tej Bahadur Sapru, to abandon separate electorates in exchange for 33 per cent reservation of seats in the Central Legislature, a proposal endorsed by the Congress Working Committee but rejected by the All India Congress Committee, and later, Mahatma Gandhi, which led to the final parting of ways between the “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” and the mainstream freedom movement.
There is also only passing reference to the astounding experiment of running an exemplary harmonious coalition government between Syama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha and Fazlul Huq of the Muslim-dominated Krishak Praja Party, affiliated to Jinnah’s Muslim League, after Huq had seconded the Lahore Resolution of March 1940, often, if wrongly called, the “Pakistan resolution”. The Huq-Mookerjee coalition government was not brought down by any internal dissension but by governor Richard Casey’s unilateral order, when the Japanese were knocking at Bengal’s door.
Another brilliantly written and heavily documented chapter is on the 1942-43 Bengal Famine, in which Mukherjee weighs in with an academically sound and emotionally poignant damnation of Winston Churchill’s callous racialism in refusing to divert available grain stocks to starving Bengalis — an action that horrified even his Secretary of State for India, leading to the best quip in the book: the historian SD Choudhry remarking, “Churchill said that history would judge him kindly because he intended to write it himself!”
Mukherjee puts much of the blame for Partition on the weak negotiating capabilities of Jawaharlal Nehru, exonerating her bhadralok heroes who had laid the foundations of the second division of Bengal by refusing to conciliate their fellow Bengalis of a different religion. The only alternative presented was by Subhas Bose’s elder brother, Sarat Chandra, of a united Bengal splitting from the Union of India.
That, the author elides. The real solution came in 1971 but Mukherjee terminates her tale with the second partition of Bengal, that did not include the partition of Pakistan. One hopes she will join the caravan of others marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh, including the much-awaited volume India and the Bangladesh Liberation War by our common Foreign Service colleague, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta. I hope Mukherjee, as a proven historian of high ability, will supplement that effort to complete the story.
The writer is a senior Congress leader and former Union minister