The Muslim demand for partition was arrived at almost reluctantly. It was not until the Muslims had experienced at first hand the Congress interpretation of Indian nationalism under Congress governments formed in Bihar, the U.P., the C. P, Bombay, Madras and Assam that opinion swung in favour of a drastic solution. The idea of partition was first voiced in the Lahore Resolution of 1940, after the Congress ministries had resigned in 1939 upon the outbreak of the Second World War. The proposal was tentative, a feeler rather than an irrevocable demand, purposely vague in respect of its details, designed to test political reactions. But no sooner had it been put forward than there began a hysterical outcry against the Muslims as traitors, fifth columnists, and so on. Misunderstanding between the two communities widened, and reached a stage where communication between them became virtually impossible.
It is not to be supposed that the Congress leaders who were neither immature nor inexperienced did not understand the psychology behind the Muslim demand. But they were not prepared to compromise. Mr Gandhi characterised the demand for partition as a demand for vivisection, and as was usual with him, the image of mother India was invoked to inflame Hindu religious feeling against it. Dr Rajendra Prasad wrote a book called India Divided, painstakingly enumerating the points against partition, but showing no perception of the facts which had provoked the demand. Pandit Nehru thundered against it in characteristic fashion, mouthing theories and doctrines likely to appeal to Western audiences but refusing to answer the Muslim charges against Hindu overlordship. Mr C. Rajagopalachariar alone among the elder group of Congress politicians appeared to understand the nature of the forces at work, but his was a voice in the wilderness.
But for all its attachment to the myth of unity, it was the Congress which wrecked the Grouping Scheme of 1946. This was the last constitutional chance of preserving the facade of an undivided India. Sponsored by the Cabinet Mission, it was accepted by the Muslim League and initially also by the Congress. But as soon as they realised that it meant a Muslim majority in the eastern group comprising Bengal and Assam with the possibility of the Muslims opting out of the Union, they went back on their acceptance. First, they put forward an interpretation of the powers of the Groups and provinces which was not upheld by the sponsors. A conference at London failed to convince them that the Muslim League was right in insisting that the wording of the Grouping formula gave each Group power to withdraw from the Union at the Centre if it decided to do so. Next, they resorted to the plea that whatever the sponsors might say they would stick to their own interpretation. Finally there was the notorious statement by Pandit Nehru in which he declared that whatever the previous agreements, once the Constituent Assembly met it would consider itself free to shape the political structure of India without being tied down to any commitments. This was a clear warning that the Congress was in no mood to honour any assurance. Maulana Azad in his India Wins Freedom has termed the statement a tragic blunder which sealed India's fate and rendered partition inevitable. For after this, how could the Muslims have any faith in the Congress?
Having wrecked the Grouping Scheme the Congress's next move was to demand the partition of the Punjab and Bengal. Until the arrival of Lord Mountbatten there had been no talk of the partition of the provinces. Intended to disconcert the Muslim League, this move was sprung as a surprise upon it at the eleventh hour, when the British Government seemed on the verge of agreeing to Pakistan as a way out of the constitutional impasse. The Sikhs in the Punjab and the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal under the leadership of Mr Shyamaprasad Mookherjee led the vanguard in this tactical action. Within weeks the movement assumed an intensity which showed that it had been carefully planned to unnerve the Leaguers and create an unforeseen obstruction. That the Muslim League was at first dismayed by it is proved by the tacit support given by the Quaid-e-Azam to the sovereign Bengal plan of Mr Suhrawardy. A divided Punjab as an adjunct to undivided Sindh, Baluchistan and the N. W. F. P. could survive without much difficulty, but a divided Bengal, shorn of its capital city, Calcutta, and separated from the west by nearly a thousand miles of Indian territory would surely be a problem. If the Bengali Muslims could arrive at an accommodation with the Hindus and create an independent state in the east, they could be free of the danger of domination by the brute Hindu majority at the centre. We who were then young did not relish the sovereign Bengal move; we wanted Pakistan; even a truncated, moth-eaten Pakistan seemed to us a better alternative to the sovereign Bengal plan. I remember criticising Mr Suhrawardy and Mr Abul Hashem, the chief sponsors in strong language in the Comrade, the English Weekly recently revived by Maulana Akram Khan. But the point worth remarking is that the plan though blessed at first by Mr Sarat Bose, was rejected by the Congress High Command.
The idiots who hold the Muslim League responsible for partition intentionally overlook these historical facts. Supporters of Bengali nationalism should in particular never forget that but for the insistence on the partition, Bengal as an entity would have stayed intact. Commenting on partition of the province on the morrow of Independence Day in 1947, I wrote in the Comrade (which I used to edit unofficially from behind the scenes) that the ultimate destiny of the districts sundered from East Bengal lay in a return to their parental unit.
As one surveys the history of this period in retrospect, one is met by the insistence of the Congress on doing everything in its power to block a settlement, which might have saved India's unity. Much is being made today of Bengali nationalism, both in Bangladesh and India. But if it were a reality, why wasn't it invoked to prevent the partition of Bengal in 1947? The very Hindus who had launched a terrorist movement in 1905 to force the British Government to repeal the creation of the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam on the plea that it involved cutting up in two halves what was a unit, now in 1947 demanded that rather than face the possibility of living under a Muslim-majority government in a Sovereign Bengal, they must be allowed to stay in India with such areas of Bengal as they could claim on the basis of their numerical preponderance in them. No one talked of the unity of the Bengali race; no tears were shed over the vivisection of the motherland. The adherents of the Bandemataram cult were nowhere visible on the horizon.
It is a sad commentary on the political sagacity and maturity of the Muslims that they have managed to forget all this. When immediately after the Partition of 1947, the Hindu Press in Calcutta began expressing concern at the fate of the Bengali Muslims in East Bengal, and talked of the indissoluble ties of language and race, the Muslims proved an easy prey to the propaganda.
The Indians began by painting a dismal picture of the subservience to which the Bengali-speaking Muslims of East Pakistan would be reduced in the event of Urdu being declared Pakistan's state language. The Bengali-speaking Hindus of West Bengal saw no threat to their identity in the adoption of Hindi as the Indian state language. This was perverse logic. We seemed to be back in the world of Humpty Dumpty. But the so-called intellectuals of East Pakistan failed to see through the Indian game and immediately took up the cry that Bengali had to be saved from the threatened onslaught. A myth was concocted almost overnight about a conspiracy against the Bengali language.
The second move in the game was to build up an equally fictitious image of a Bengal overflowing with milk and honey which had been delivered over to Pakistan. The so-called Bengali scholars claimed to discover almost everyday more and more evidence of a rich cultural heritage in Bengal's past now exposed to risk. The fact that the province had not yet recovered from the devastating famine of 1943 and the ravages of the Second World War was conveniently overlooked. Nor did anybody care to draw. attention to the recurring cycle of famines and shortages which has been a constant in Bengal's history. Only about 43 years before the 1943 famine, there had been at the turn of the century a terrible famine of the same kind which had taken a heavy toll of human life. Stories of similar food shortages at twenty-five or fifty year intervals form the staple of Bengal's literature. But the illiterate public in Bengal have a short memory and are apt to forget inconvenient truths. They love day-dreaming. Oblivious to the picture of this barrenness and starvation, the image they love to cherish of Bengal is that of an inexhaustible granary where no one goes hungry.
Yet in spite of the myths sedulously propagated by one class of creative writers, overpopulation and hunger appear to have been Bengal's fate down the centuries. The seventeenth century Calendar poems are revealing documents and knock the bottom clean out of these myths. They usually describe a cycle of twelve months in the life of a man or woman drawn from the poorer section. Their realism is stark and uncompromising. The men and women who figure in them are ill-clad and ill-led, subsisting on food which elsewhere would not be considered adequate even for the lowest animals. living on the outskirts of civilisation and completely lacking in the capacity or intelligence to have an appreciation of their condition.
The basis of the myths about Bengal's proverbial wealth is the fertility of her soil. Fertility is indisputably an asset, but it has to have some relation to the population that the land is required to support. What is plentiful for a population of a million would obviously be inadequate for five or ten million. Bengal's problem has always been an ever-widening disproportion between her resources and an ever-increasing population. On this account, despite the apparent fecundity of her soil, she has always had a problem feeding her people.
Secondly, she has always been subject to nature's ravages which every year neutralise the abundance of her harvests. Situated at the top of a triangle formed by the land mass of India and Burma, she has to contend with visitations from the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayan mountains, in the form of cyclones, tidal bores, tornadoes and monsoon rain. Harvests are apt to be washed away by devastating floods or mined by tornadoes and cyclones. I cannot recall a single year ever since my generation came to maturity when there has not been in one part of Bengal or another either a flood or a cyclone exacting a terrific toll of life and property. There is no month in the year which can be considered absolutely safe. A depression in the Bay of Bengal is a warning that something untoward might be in the offing. If the area is lucky, the depression heads south-east towards Burma or south-west towards the Madras coast. Or it may weaken. If these things do not happen, one must prepare for the inevitable, a storm or cyclone or a tidal bore. The tidal bore and cyclone of November 1970 which carried off nearly half a million people was only one in a regular series. Losses of fifty or forty thousand lives, accompanied by the destruction of tens of thousands of homes, from cyclones or tornadoes cause no surprise. The decade beginning with the year 1954 was particularly noted for a succession of devastating cyclones, each accounting for thirty or forty thousand lives on an average.
While heavy rain leading to floods and inundation is one of her problems, Bengal has also to grapple occasional droughts. The north-western regions comparatively dry, and there are years when during sowing season there may be little or no rain. Failure of rain even in the south at the appropriate season not uncommon. Drought or flood both mean the same ultimately, failure or loss of crops and consequent starvation.
In recent decades, with density of population exceeding 1500 per square mile, the acreage of cultivable land has shrunk dangerously. The proportion or ratio that is considered economically safe in developed countries between cultivable land and land used as housing lot is much greater than the proportion here. Sizable farms are rare. An average holding consists of an acre or half an acre somewhere in the vicinity of a homestead, and from this the peasant tries with his primitive techniques to extract a living. Tilling means barely scratching the soil with a ploughshare. The average yield per acre in this country is one of the lowest in the world.
No one in Bengal can remain or is unaware of these facts. Poverty here is universal. The so-called well-to-do classes are distinguished from the utterly destitute by their ability to have two square meals a day. Of wealth in the Western sense, or in the sense in which the word is understood outside, there is no evidence. The owners of 'Stately Homes', the landlords, now an extinct class, were able to maintain some show of opulence only because they did not have any standards of good living to live up to. An ugly brick pile, without furniture, ill kept, unclean and unhygienic, shorn of the conveniences which are indispensable for real comfort, was their idea of luxury and grandeur.
The average Bengal's conception of elegant living is limited to a cottage made of 'clay and wattles' surrounded by fruit trees, adjoining a pond and supported by an acre or two of farmland. His ancestors believed, (and it is a belief firmly embedded in his consciousness) that perfect felicity meant being able to live on the harvest from the farmland, fish from the pond, fruit from the orchard, and milk from the cows bred on the homestead, without being required to procure anything from outside. Essentially agrarian in origin, these ideas could flourish best in a society isolated from the rest of the world, caring neither to learn from it nor to give. But as mediaeval Bengali literature shows, this felicity, such as it is, was available only to a few. The rest of the population lived in utter poverty. They were so poor that they had no money to buy food even at prices which would be considered fantastically, unimaginably cheap. Their destitution was made worse by their lack of enterprise or adventurousness. The idea of immigrating to places elsewhere never occurred to them. They were content to stay where they had been born, and attachment to the soil of the motherland came to be recognised as the highest form of patriotism. Sometimes this attachment was carried to ridiculous lengths. People did not believe even in crossing the big rivers. The Padma, the Brahmapurtra, the Meghna were the great dividing lines between one area and another which were not to be overstepped. Enclosed within the boundaries of their insulated world, people progressively sank into a kind of rustic idiocy, fancying their own ideas to be the only valid ones imaginable, their own notions of luxury and elegance to be the ultimate standards in such matters. Search in Bengali literature, mediaeval or modern, for something a little removed from dimness and squalor, and you are apt to be painfully disappointed. Bankim Chatterjee, Tagore and Sarat Chatterjee, the three greatest figures in modern Bengali literature, universally so recognized, give no evidence in their portrayal of Bengali life of the existence at any level of high living standards or of arts and crafts of a high order.
Bankim and Tagore wrote a great deal about the upper classes in their fiction. Besides, there is Tagore's autobiography to judge by. His father's Reminiscences is also a valuable social document. That Tagore belonged to the highest Hindu caste and was descended from a family of landlords is not in dispute. His reflections on culture may easily be taken to mirror the highest social standards of which the Bengali Hindus of modern times could conceive. Now what do these reflections disclose? Not, I am afraid, even the kind of culture noticed among the country squires portrayed by Fielding or Jane Austen. I do not mean intellectual culture alone. The material Standards which Tagore and his father describe, despite a wealth of servants and maids, are not comparable to the standards reflected in Tolstoy's portraiture of his early life. Socially, Tolstoy belonged to the same class as the Tagores. But what a difference between the two! Behind the description of luxury and opulence as they understood them one can dimly make out the spectre of poverty! A battalion of servants and maids were made possible by meannesses and economics in other areas; the servants and maids were expected not to dress adequately; a piece of cloth to wrap around their bodies was all they were entitled to, and a liveried footman or maid was an idea wholly beyond them. Carpets and tapestries were little appreciated; crockery unknown; brass pots of coarsest design but rinsed bright were the highest ideal in domestic comfort.
The difference between a man who was poor and a person considered rich consisted in the latter's having a sufficiency of plain fare twice or three times a day, milk, rice and fish. Cookery as an art had not been cultivated. Hospitality implied giving a guest rice and pulses which he was expected to cook himself; if he accepted cooked food, one entertained him to milk¬-based sweets of the crudest variety.
Bengal's first contact with Muslim culture dates from its conquest by the Muslims in the thirteenth century. So marked was the gap between her traditional culture and the way of life of the newcomers that the local inhabitants who chose to cling to their caste system with its taboos remained ignorant of the new values in spite of centuries of Muslim rule. A few who accepted service under the Muslims adopted some of the superficies of the new life; they learnt to understand what cooking meant or what such eatables as cheese or ice cream added to the pleasures of the palate; but to the majority of the Hindus the Muslims continued over the centuries to represent an unholy, extraneous mystery.
During the Civil War of 1971 there was a great deal of talk in the American Press, particularly in such journals as Time and Newsweek, about the revolt of the Bengalis against the attempted imposition of an alien culture upon them by the Punjabis. In so far as the term Bengalis connoted Bengali Muslims, this was of course a plain lie, there having been no difference between the culture of one section of Muslims and another in Pakistan. In so far as the statement referred to the original culture of the local inhabitants, there was not much in it which one could consider worth defending. There was in either case no truth in the allegation that the inhabitants of East Pakistan were being forced to accept a way of life repugnant to them. What had indeed been happening since the adoption of policy of industrialisation by Pakistan was that the crust of old customs and superstitions was gradually breaking up, people were beginning to understand the advantages of modern comforts; polished floors were being substituted for mud and sand, bamboo being replaced by cement concrete, porcelain taking the place of brass and bell-metal chairs and tables being substituted for cane mattresses. New roads, better communications, the influx of capital from abroad, the growth of industrial townships, the arrival of new skills and techniques, had begun to erode the traditional pattern of life and end the old isolationism. An air of cosmopolitanism filled the atmosphere. Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, were being forced increasingly to come into contact with foreigners whose ways and judgements were so different. The opening of airports in remote areas like Lalmonirhat or Shaistanager, the setting up of a paper mill at Chandraghona or a newsprint mill at Khulna, the establishment of a network of jute mills all over the province, the discovery and utilisation of gas at Haripur and Titas disclosed new potentialities at the same time that they opened up possibilities of change never foreseen.
It was this that appeared to be a threat to the Bengali way of life. A reaction against it developed in the form of xenophobia which really was a mask for the feeling of inferiority which the Bengalis experienced in relation to outsiders. An ambivalent attitude was exhibited towards these people. No one could deny either openly or secretly that Bengal, overwhelmed with a large population, needed foreign capital for development, since she had no capital herself. On the other hand, the presence of outsiders who seemed to possess both money and skill was keenly resented. To rationalise the resentment, they created the myth that the outsiders were not really helping in the development of her resources, but fleecing Bengal. There had existed, they maintained, back in the dim past of Sonar Bangla, a Golden period when the country lacked nothing. The outsiders had eaten her resources away, reduced her to destitution and poverty and degraded her to her present position. The myth took hold on the imagination of the public. In their lucid moments, of course, they remembered how relentless the realities around them were. But the natural bent of their minds towards romanticism and emotionalism gave rise to puerile fancies, without the slightest foundation in fact, about the wealth and resources of the motherland. The Indian conspirators kept fanning this puerilism, taking advantage of the inevitable frictions, which the advent of foreign capital produces in any society.
As the campaign against Pakistan advanced, and the number of people old enough to remember what the pre-Pakistan past had been like dwindled, and the memories of even the older generations were overlaid by other sentiments, the myth about a Golden Period completely crowded out the reality. I recall an address given by Dr Muzaffar Ahmad Chowdhury at a meeting in Banglabazar, Dhaka orgnaised by the Khadi Pratisthan, a Congress affiliate, towards the end of 1968 or during 1969, in which he bewailed the misery of Bengal's condition. She had been reduced to a waste land, he said, pauperised; there was hardly any life left in here. Two years later in October 1970, I heard at Rajshahi a speech by one Abdul Hai, a Jamaat-e-Islami worker which not only echoed the same sentiments but repeated the same lamentations in more forceful language. This was a strange collusion between a downright communist pledged to the destruction of Pakistan's ideology and an organisation which claimed to stand by Islam and opposed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the grounds that his programme was calculated to dismember Pakistan.
A stray incident, this, but it showed how far the rot had gone. Towards 1970, people became so hysterical that any suggestion that the Awami League doctrine of extreme autonomy boded ill for the future of East Pakistan was regarded by all and sundry as rank treachery towards the Bengalis. All political parties took up the Awami League cry that full autonomy was what East Pakistan needed; some of them offered open support to the six-point Programme without realising that the six points were in actuality a formula for secession. We know that many of the leaders or parties other than the Awam.i League were secretly apprehensive that the country was going downhill towards disintegration, but they dared not say so for fear that they would be accused of betraying the interests of their province. This was a measure of the Awami League's success.
Truth is believed to be stranger than fiction, but here in East Pakistan, idealism beyond all proportion, had eclipsed the truth. Conspiracy, ignorance, romanticism, xenophobia, continued to impress on the minds of the old and young alike the image of a Bengal whose phenomenal riches had down the ages attracted the greed and cupidity of outsiders, whose people, crippled and hamstrung by exploitation were capable potentially of surpassing all other races in artistic and intellectual achievements.
Add this page to your favorite Social Bookmarking websites