In 1905, all of Bengal rose in uproar because the British had partitioned the state. Yet in 1947, the same people insisted on a partition along communal lines. Why did this happen? Exploring the roots of alientation of the two communities. Nitish Sengupta peels off the layers of events in this pivotal period in Bengal’s history, casting new light on the roles of figures such as Chittaranjan Das, Subhas Chandra Bose, Nazrul Islam, Fazul Huq. H.S Suhrawardy and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Bengal: The Unmaking of a Nation is a thought-provoking and important work of scholarship.
‘A fascinating story of the interplay of communal forces (aided of course by some hard-boiled, pragmatic and occasionally opportunistic politicians) that triumphs over the statesmanship of some leaders and the romantic yearing of a united Bengal that most Bengalis Cherish even now’ Business Standard.
There is no parallel in history to the paradox that while in 1905 a majority of the people of Bengal rejected the British-directed partition of their land and fought against it, only four decades later, in 1947, the same majority asked for a partition of Bengal between Muslim majority and Hindu majority areas. The explanation lies in nearly six decades of interaction between the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal in the course of which the two communities, after coming close to each other on several occasions, eventually apart and asked for partition.
The 1905 anti-partition nationalist movement in Bengal also led to heightened communalism. In a way it both hastened the end of British in 1947. The annulment of the partition in 1911 was not to the liking of the majority of East Bengal Muslims. Along with the loss of Dhaka’s privileged position, the shifting of the imperial capital from Kolkata to Delhi was a big jolt to Bengali pride in general. What Berlin is to the Germans, Kolkata is to the Bengalis, both Muslims and Hindus.
.Notwithstanding the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of the India-Bangladesh relationship, the cultural unity and interaction between the two Bengals have remained steady. Also, there is a far amount of cross border, often strictly illegal, movement of people, leading to people-to-people contact. Interestingly, West Bengal has still kept the adjective ‘West’ in her name despite suggestions from time to time to follow the Punjab pattern of having an Indian Punjab pattern of having an Indian Punjab and a Pakistan ?Punjab. Clearly, many Bengalis in West Bengal still like to fondly cling to the vague idea that they constitute the western part of a greater Bengal in the cultural sense. In that belief while remaining as two political entities, Bangladesh and west Bengal can have close cultural links and freedom of movement among themselves. These issues will have to be addressed by the leaders by the leaders of India, Bangladesh and west Bengal.
As a matter of fact, there is and always has been a great deal of cultural interaction between the two Bengals. Bangladesh is at present facing a serious challenge from Islamic fundamentalism. Hopefully the nationalist feelings, still very strong, will be able to overcome it. What is not noticed is that, despite the surface tension between the two countries-India and Bangladesh-from time to time, a great deal of fellow feeling and mutual understanding between the common people of the two Bengals remains beneath the surface. This is reflected from time to time in events like the wave of jublication that prevails in Bangladesh when Amartya Sen, the economist, wins the Nobel prize, the joy and pride with which the news of Mohammad Yunus getting the Novel Peace prize is greeted by people at large in west Bengal, or the fact that Fazlul Huq’s centenary is celebrated with equal solemnity in west Bengal, Or the people of Bangladesh taking much pride in the achievements of Saurav Ganguly as a cricketer and also feeling sorry when his career crashlands. Television and radio channels treat the two Bengals as their common market and the same interaction is noticed in music and films. All this makes one feel that despite the fact that politically they are two different countries, culturally Bengal had always remained one and will ever remain. This author will consider his labour amply rewarded if this trend is strengthened as a result of the publication of this study.
It is well established that a sort of composite of Bengali culture developed prior to the advent of the British and there was hardly any communal animosity. The unity of language was a key factor in the emergence of Bengal’s history, the period of Mughal rule to the British conquest in the eighteenth century and the period of British rule. It was only after the advent of British rule in Bengal that a wide divergence developed on account of a variety on account of a variety of factors, the most important being the policy of divide and rule followed by the rulers. Paradoxically, the great Bengal Renaissance and Hindu Reformation Movement of the nineteenth century, which lifted up educated sections of Hindu society, accentuated the divide between the upwardly mobile Hindu community and the numerically larger, but ‘withdrawn’ Muslim community.
The nineteenth-century resurgence among the people of Bengal was, by and large, confined to the Hindus for a long time. The Muslims, smarting under their replacement as the rulers of Bengal, progressively withdrew to a kind of cocoon, not even wishing to accept the English language and the lifestyle induced by British rule. A kind of divergence was created between the mainstreams of the two communities. The promised ‘nation in making’ of the nineteenth century remained an unrealized dream and was, in fact, followed by a process of the unmaking of a nation. On the one hand, the Muslims’ contempt for English education as a passport to jobs under the government and, on the other hand, their disregard of modern professions like law, teaching and government jobs created a kind of duality or divergence of interest. The community’s subsequent romance with English education, thanks to reformers like Abdul Latif and Amir Ali, led to a clamour for government jobs, till then a preserve of the Hindu Bengalis. This further intensified the divergence.
There was indeed a high noon of Hindu-Muslim camaraderie in Bengal in the first two decades of the twentieth century climaxing under the charismatic leadership of Deshbahdhu C.R. Das. Except for a handful of Zamindar-type sections of Bengalis, Muslims and Hindus were, by and large, united his leadership. His untimely death was a great tragedy, all the more so because the more vocal section of the Hindu public opinion repudiated his legacy, like the Bengal pact. Thus, from this high noon, there was a climb down of substantial sections of Muslims to communalist position, leading to the return of separatist politics which lasted until the tragic partition of 1947.
I am indebted to a large number of friends and professional academicians who have encouraged and helped me to undertake this study. I particularly remember that the suggestion to carry on after 1947 until the emergence of Bangladesh came from a large number of people from Bangladesh who were present at the launch of my book History of the Bengali-speaking people at London school of oriental and African Studies in 2006. I recall their suggestion with gratitude. I think Mr Santosh Kumar Mukherjee, formely of the Oxford University Press, for going through the first draft and giving some useful suggestion. I also thank my daughters Mekhala Gupta for providing me invaluable computerized data for finalizing the maps, professor Arindam Banik for helping me to get useful materials, my personal secretary Nirmaljit Singh and assistance at every stage. Above all, I must recall with gratitude the fond memory of my late wife Sunanda, who encouraged my return from the world of management and economics to history as a subject. But for the turning point she gave me, the book may not have been there.
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