The recent decision of the Centre to rename Kolkata Port as ‘Syama Prasad Mukherjee Port’ triggered criticism from several quarters, especially the so-called ‘Left-liberal brigade’. Leftists, ultra-leftists, alleged “liberals” and linguistic chauvinists are united in attributing to Syama Prasad Mukherjee the partition of Bengal in 1947, and of pushing two-thirds of Bengal into (East) Pakistan.
How much of it is true? Did Dr Mukherjee really have a role in partitioning India on communal lines? Which of the prevailing political nuances of the time propelled the patrons of erstwhile Bengali political and intellectual life to consider the partitioning Bengal as an ultimate question of ‘life or death’?
As Paschimbanga Dibas (20 June), or ‘West Bengal Day’, approaches, we revisit the historic campaign of the Bengali Hindus of erstwhile undivided Bengal, under the leadership of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, to grab a slice of their homeland from the notorious designs of Mohammed Ali Jinnah by effectively putting up resistance to the communally-biased provincial government of the Muslim League.
In undivided Bengal, which was famous for the firebrand politics of rebellious ideologies and tendencies, the campaign for the creation of West Bengal represents a unified assertion of cultural patriotism transcending political allegiances.
This remarkable show of unity of the Bengali Hindu people in the face of state-led persecution, on the one hand, and the atrociously collaborative tactics of Sarat Chandra Bose and Jogendra Nath Mondal, on the other, could not jeopardise their zeal to carve out a separate homeland within the auspices of the Indian state.
The Build-Up To The Partition
According to the census of 1941, Muslims comprised 53.4 per cent of the population of Bengal province; followed by Hindus at 41.7 per cent, and a miniscule population of animists, Buddhists and Christians.
Bengali Hindus, who constituted the second-largest ethnic majority after Bengali Muslims, had to undergo two brutal episodes of ethno-religious persecution; first in the provincial capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata), in August, 1946, that was followed by another, in Noakhali and Tippera districts of eastern Bengal, in October, that same year.
An estimated 10,000 Bengali Hindus lost their lives and thousands of Hindu women were raped and molested in the two conspiratorial pogroms combined, fuelled by the Ansars and Azrails of the Muslim League.
The conscience of the Bengali Hindu was shaken in the immediate aftermath of these two horrible genocides, which were engineered by none other than the Premier of Bengal, H S Suhrawardy himself, and by the Islamic fundamentalist forces unleashed by the Pakistan movement, which was gaining ground throughout India.
Being a Muslim-majority province, Bengal was not an exception to that rule. The streets and villages of Bengal echoed with the cries of ‘ladke lenge Pakistan’.
Syama Prasad Mukherjee, whose position and legitimacy as the undisputed leader of the Bengali Hindus rose after the two gruesome massacres, had proclaimed in Assam’s Sylhet on 7 April, 1940:
The dangers in front of us are many; the latest addition in the shape of a movement for Pakistan should not be lightly brushed aside. The preposterous claim must be nipped in the bud by all lovers of Hindusthan.
“Jinnah is out to destroy the very soul of India”, he said. Mukherjee had no politically-correct qualms in asserting that his dream was always a United India, and not an edited or truncated one. He begged all to help realise it.
However, Muslim insurgency was continuously rising. He remained hopeful till the last and reiterated the call for a ‘United Hindusthan’, evident in his address at the North Bihar Provincial Hindu Conference of 14 April 1940.
We shall rise, we shall unite. We shall live in a country whose destinies shall be in the hands of her children alone and where the flag of a tree and United Hindusthan shall proclaim forever the glory of peace and progress, of tolerance and freedom.
The persistent and terrible persecution of Bengali Hindus at behest of the Suhrawardy government convinced them that co-existence with the Muslims was an impossible affair. Even after that, Mukherjee batted for a separate Hindu-majority province within a United India.
However, the immediate turn of events had destined something else for the Hindus of Bengal.
The ‘United Bengal’ Fiasco
In 1947, a few faction leaders in the Bengal Congress, like Sarat Chandra Bose of the Socialist Republican Party, who sided with the Muslim League that was staunchly opposed to the partition of the province, hatched the ‘United Sovereign Socialist Bengal’ plan.
A committee for the preparation of a draft of the new plan had Suhrawardy (premier), Nazimuddin (ex-premier), Fazlur Rahman (Bengal revenue minister), Kiran Shankar Ray, Satya Bakshi, and others as its members.
Abul Hashim, who was regarded as a ‘progressive’ among Muslim League leaders, proclaimed that Hindus and Muslims would have equal rights and opportunities in a United Bengal, which would have a constituent assembly to be membered by 16 Muslims and 14 Hindus.
In the interim government, the prime minister would be a Muslim, and the home minister a Hindu.
Tathagata Roy, who authored a biography of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, writes that the plan was foiled following concerted and unanimous efforts of the Hindus of Bengal.
Hindu opinion was firmly against a sovereign and united Bengal. The Amrita Bazar Patrika, a nationalist English daily published from Calcutta, ran a plebiscitary opinion poll among the Hindus of Bengal, where a staggering 98.3 per cent of them opined in favour of partitioning the province.
Had there been a Sovereign United Bengal, then the plight of the Bengali Hindus would have been similar to the Sindhi Hindus who were left without a country to call as their own.
Support For The Partition Of Bengal
The most vocal demand for partitioning the province on religious lines came from Syama Prasad Mukherjee. His role was that of a hotr, or officiator of yajna, sacrifice; a sacrifice that called on the Bengali Hindu to offer everything for the realisation of a ‘separate homeland’.
The demand for a separate West Bengal within a United India was carried forward by the formation of the ‘Bengal Partition League’ around the end of 1946 by Mukherjee. He garnered the support of all classes of Bengali Hindu society, from the bhadralok and gentry to the rural peasantry.
Revolutionary leader Upendranath Banerjee and peasant organiser Hemanta Kumar Sarkar rallied behind him.
The advocates of the partition of Bengal were drawn from diverse sections of the Bengali populace, which transcended the lines of caste, class, occupation and ideology.
Bengal Provincial Hindu Mahasabha leader, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, argued that the demand for a separate West Bengal was to:
Sustain Bengali Hindu nationalism, carve out a separate homeland for the Bengali Hindu people and constitute it as a province within India, and preserve the Bengali culture and heritage.
For Chatterjee, this was a question of ‘life or death’ for Bengali Hindus. At the Bengal Provincial Hindu Conference at Tarakeshwar, presided over by Mukherjee, on 5 April 1947 and attended by Hindu Mahasabha leaders like Surya Kumar Bose and Sanat Kumar Ray Chaudhuri, the proposal to constitute a ‘separate Bengali Hindu homeland’ within India was passed.
It authorised Mukherjee to constitute a council to oversee the partitioning of the province. One lakh volunteers were enrolled for this purpose.
The role played by the Bengal Pradesh Congress in accelerating the demand for partitioning the province was noteworthy. The provincial working committee had passed a resolution giving an official stamp to the demand for the partitioning of Bengal.
The meeting was attended by Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Kshitish Chandra Neogy, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, Dr Pramatha Nath Banerjee, Debendralal Kha, Makhanlal Sen, Atul Chandra Gupta, and others.
With the consensus on the partitioning of the province having been accepted by both the Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress, no less than 76 pro-partition meetings were held throughout Bengal. Some 59 of those were convened by the Congress; 19 by the Mahasabha and five jointly.
Mukherjee had clarified that the partitioning of Bengal, was in no way related to the partition of India.
On 22 April 1947, at a rally in New Delhi, he declared that even in case the Muslim League accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan (which did not mention the partitioning of India), a separate province for Bengali Hindus needed to be constituted.
In stern opposition to the inclusion of the whole of Bengal into Pakistan, Mukherjee called a general strike on 23 April, which was supported by the grassroot workers of the Communist Party and Calcutta Tram Workers’ Union activists.
Communist activist and educationist Dr Kalyan Dutta writes that the Hindu Communists’ apathy to the designs of the Muslim League gained impetus after the 1946 Great Calcutta Killings, when the Muslim Communists of Kidderpore Dock, who had joined the ranks of the Muslim League, did not spare even the red card-holding Hindu activists of the Communist Party.
This troubled relationship drew large sections of the communists and socialists into the pro-partition side.
The role of Scheduled Caste leaders in the partitioning of Bengal was praise-worthy. Mention should be made of Matua Mahasangha’s chief Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, Bengal Provincial Depressed Classes League’s secretary R Das; and Bengal’s ex-minister Premahari Barman.
The Depressed Classes League and the Depressed Classes Association — the two premier Scheduled Caste interest groups in undivided Bengal — were wary of the inclusion of Bengal into Pakistan.
Taking the right lessons from the Noakhali genocide, where the worst sufferers were the lower-caste Namahshudra peasants and fishermen, they demanded that their ‘natural habitat’ — the districts of Khulna, Jessore, Bakarganj and Faridpur — be kept in West Bengal.
They jointly proclaimed that the views of Jogendra Nath Mondal, in seeking the inclusion of Scheduled Caste areas in Pakistan, did not represent the majority opinion.
All prominent Scheduled Caste leaders, with the exception of Mondal, backed the line of the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha in securing a separate Bengali Hindu province.
All eminent personalities of the Bengali bhadralok espoused the creation of West Bengal.
Zamindars, including Maharaja Uday Chand Mahatab of Bardhaman and Maharaja Srishchandra Nandy of Cossimbazar had passed resolutions in their annual convention in March, approving the formation of a province consisting of the Hindu-majority areas of Bengal.
The British Indian Association too rallied its support behind Mukherjee. P N Sinha Ray, Maharaja Prabendra Mohan Tagore, Maharaja Sitangshukanta Acharya Chaudhuri, Amulyadhan Adhya and Amarendra Narayan Roy supported the move.
Among the eminent Bengali intellectuals, who endorsed the partition of Bengal, mention should be made of the physicist Dr Meghnad Saha, linguist Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and historians Jadunath Sarkar and Dr Ramesh Chandra Mazumdar, Nalinakshya Sanyal, Major General A C Chatterjee, Jadab Panja, Upendranath Banerjee, Dr Sishir Kumar Banerjee, Subodh Chandra Mitra and Shailendra Kumar Ghosh.
Partition At Last
Lord Mountbatten was sent by the British Crown to India to oversee the process of Partition. On 3 June 1947, Mountbatten came up with a plan under which the legislators elected from the Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas of the assemblies of Bengal and Punjab would meet separately to determine the fate of the two provinces.
Accordingly, the Bengal Provincial Legislature met on 20 June 1947. Since the 1946 provincial elections gave a resounding majority to the Muslim League in Bengal, it was, therefore, not difficult for the league to push its agenda of inclusion of the whole of Bengal into Pakistan.
The Bengal Legislative Assembly, at its joint session, decided by 120-90 votes, that it should remain united if it was to join the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.
Later, legislators from Hindu-majority Western Bengal met separately and decided by a 58-21 vote that the province was to be partitioned, and West Bengal was to join the Constituent Assembly of India.
All the 21 legislators who voted against the partition were Muslim by faith, and represented the Muslim League. The 58 legislators who voted in favour of partition were mostly from the Congress, Communist Party and Hindu Mahasabha.
Landholders and labour representatives and Christian legislators also voted alongside the Congress and other parties in favour of partition.
Later, in another separate meeting of legislators from Eastern Bengal, it was decided by 107-34 votes, that in the event of partition, East Bengal was to join the Union of Pakistan.
Henceforth, with the formation of West Bengal, a tedious but glorious and indefatigable episode of a unified Bengali Hindu struggle achieved fruition.
The materialisation of the long-drawn goal of resistance to the evil designs of the Muslim League and a frenzied provincial government was attained by the Hindus of Bengal through the inclusion of Hindu-majority West Bengal into the Indian Union.
This showed that despite being an ethno-religious minority in the province, it was the sheer determination of the Bengali Hindu people in the face of the biased Islamist state machinery, which propelled them to link their future with the destiny of the Indian polity.
This episode can be inferred in the words of the eminent Bengali novelist, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (1926):
...Numbers are not the ultimate truth in this world. There are greater truths, in whose scale of values the arithmetic of counting heads has no place.
However, the partition award of Radcliffe did not satisfy Bengali Hindus fully, as the Hindu-majority district of Khulna and Buddhist-majority Chittagong Hill Tracts were pushed into Pakistan.
Initially promised 55 per cent, West Bengal received only 36 per cent of the land of erstwhile unified Bengal, as their homeland. While Muslims, who comprised 16 per cent of West Bengal’s population in 1947, stayed back in India, in East Bengal, Hindus comprised double the figure — at near about 30 per cent.
Predominantly Hindu areas of Faridpur and Bakarganj were left out in Pakistan, while the Muslim-majority district of Murshidabad was transferred to West Bengal, on purely strategic and commercial lines. Anyway, the Bengali emotion in favour of partition can be best summarised by words of the litterateur Bibhuti Bhusan Bandyopadhyay:
Good that Bengal was partitioned. Bengali Hindus will heave a sigh of relief.(25 June 1947)
The intention of Syama Prasad Mukherjee in partitioning Bengal was evident from his 19 March 1947 speech where he clarified that the Bengali Hindu struggle for West Bengal was to cater to the maintenance of pluralism, democracy and free thinking in Bengal within a united India, and to save the Bengali Hindu from the jaws of ‘communal frenzy’.
He further clarified that if there were subtle attempts to include the whole of Bengal in Pakistan, then the Bengali Hindus would not hesitate to rip off a piece of land from Islamic Bengal, and establish the rule of democracy and promote institutions for the due maintenance of Bengali Hindu culture and traditions.
He also extended Bengali Hindu support to all such forces prevalent in India at that time that would, by all means possible, hold on to preserve the unity and integrity of akhand Hindustan.
The criticism of Mukherjee stems from the much distorted reading of history and feeding of leftist propaganda that projects the union of undivided Bengal with India as something factually correct and then lamenting the inclusion of two-thirds of Bengal in Pakistan, attributing this to Mukherjee.
This article seeks to shatter the narrative and establishes the fact that Mukherjee can be credited with snatching away one-third of Bengal from the insidious designs of Islamic fundamentalist forces and uniting that part with India.
He had made it clear that while the 1905 partition was a colonial device intended to break the cord of Bengali Hindu nationalism, the 1947 Partition was a much needed initiative to preserve the forces of Bengali and Indian nationalism from being engulfed by the communalism of the league.
India’s Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on 12 December 2019. The new amended law has provided a path to Indian citizenship for repatriate refugees belonging to many Indic faiths from three neighbouring countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
For the first time, a government at the Centre has been instrumental in shedding the relics of Partition from the nation’s fuselage, thereby acknowledging that partition was a sad reality that happened in the eastern frontier as well.
The history of the influx of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to India is as old as India’s Independence.
According to demographer Abul Barkat of Dhaka University, between 1971 and 2013, not less than 1.13 crore Hindus fled to India as a result of religious persecution and discrimination in Bangladesh. At this rate, he suspects, that there would be no Hindus left in Bangladesh after 2030.
The passage of the bill by the Narendra Modi government sparked massive protests nationwide, of both violent and passive character, by Islamists, leftists, ultra-leftists, liberals and linguistic chauvinists alike.
From 13-15 December 2019, West Bengal experienced violent protests by Islamist groups that lay siege to railway property and transportation. The West Bengal Legislative Assembly, dominated by Muslim-appeasing parties, ignored the sentiments of Bengali Hindu refugees and passed a resolution condemning the citizenship amendment law.
The 1947 episode was in no way an ordinary struggle for political or civil rights. This was a momentary endeavour of the Bengali Hindus in their collective mission to protect their culture, tradition, religion, language and script.
For a brief period, the politically charged identities of ‘Gandhian’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ were brushed under the carpet and united under the identity of being only ‘Bengali Hindus’.
Those highly-opinionated individuals, who led the fight against the excesses of Islamist administration, were sure of the reality that in case Bengal was not partitioned, it would have implied an imminent erosion of the Hindu spirit from the soul of Bengal.
The partition of Bengal was the only option available that could have saved the subsequent generations of Bengali Hindus from total annihilation.
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