Bengal undivided

Posted in Bengal, fantasy, history, what ifs by jrahman on August 14, 2012

I’ve been intermittently posting two series of alternate histories, one with a Pakistan where Bengal, not Punjab, experienced communal cleansing (latest post) and the other is an India that was never partitioned (latest post).  As it happens, even in the unpartitioned India, I imagine Bengal partitioned on communal line.

Does that mean I believe Bengal was always destined to be divided?

No.  I don’t believe there is anything inevitable about history.  There are specific reasons why key players make particular choices, which together with external shocks (sometimes truly random), shape the course of history.  It’s not that hard to imagine a history where Bengal remained undivided, whether as part of India or Pakistan, or as an independent, sovereign state.

So, what if Bengal had not been partitioned?

Ah, but we shouldn’t ask that question.  As I wrote here:

questions like what if partition hadn’t happened? are meaningless.  One has to ask why partition happened?  If one believes it was a historical inevitability, then there is no event that could have happened that would have changed it.  If one traces it to specific factors, then the questions are what if even X or Y had (or had not) happened?

Let’s then ask what could be these specific factors and events that led to Bengal’s partition?

I would contend that one major factor leading to partition — not the only one, but a major one — was the Hindu Bengal’s fear of Muslim majoritarianism.  Given that bhadralok Hindu Bengalis faced a potential majoritarian backlash in any post-colonial political arrangement where Bengal was undivided, it was rational for the Hindu Bengali leaders to seek partition.  This is not to deny independent forces at play in Muslim Bengal or supra-Bengal developments.  Those factors were important too.  But it appears to me that perhaps even if there was a consensus in New Delhi to leave Bengal alone, Hindu Bengal might still have feared Muslim majoritarianism.

Thus, if we are looking for event X or Y, I’d suggest looking for what would have assuaged the fear of a Muslim Bengal.

Perhaps had the first partition of Bengal, in 1905, been on ethnic instead of communal line?  Recall, the British reason for that partition was that Bengal — which at that time covered not just Bangladesh and Paschimbanga, but also the entire north east India as well as the current Indian states of Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand — was too big to govern.  Lord Curzon’s solution was to create an Eastern Bengal and Assam province, whose Muslim majority brought the communal division at the forefront of politics.  Perhaps if Bihar, Orissa and Assam were curved out instead — as indeed happened in 1912 — then a pan-Bengali identity would have overshadowed the communal difference?

Alternatively, perhaps the same effect could have been had CR Das lived longer and pushed through his Bengal Pact in the 1920s?

Or perhaps if Subhas Bose — arguably the most charismatic Hindu Bengali politician in history — pushed for a Bengali nation in the 1930s?

Or perhaps if Fazlul Huq had been able to form a coalition government with Congress instead of Muslim League in 1937?

Or perhaps if Huq’s coalition government with Shyama Mukherjee survived into the late 1940s?

As you can see, it is indeed possible to think of a number of scenarios where Bengal might have ended up undivided.

Let’s narrow things down a bit further.  Let’s think of a world where Pakistan still comes into being in the northwestern part of the subcontinent, one where Pundit Nehru still leads India into its tryst with destiny on 15 August 1947, but where Bengal emerges as the third independent country out of the British Indian Empire.

Obviously, for such a scenario to unfold, history would have to play out as in reality until fairly late into the Empire’s end game.

How late?  What’s the latest date beyond which Bengal’s partition became unavoidable?

Arguably, that fateful day was 16 August 1946 — the Direct Action Day.  The average Bangladeshi might not even know what happened on that day — lamentable indeed is our historiography — but among historians of modern subcontinent, there is serious disagreement on exactly who did what that day.  What there is little disagreement about is the fact that on that day, and for a few days following, Calcutta saw some of the worst violence in the history of Bengal.  And then that violence was repeated couple of months later in Noakhali.  And by the end of 1946, any serious possibility of an undivided Bengal had ended.

The interesting thing is, in the year of partition itself, Bengal was relatively quiet, while Punjab burnt.  Mahatma Gandhi’s presence in Calcutta was a key factor.  But the violence of 1946 also seems to have had an impact on Bengali politicians, including HS Suhrawardy, the last Prime Minister of Bengal.  Whereas in 1946, Suhrawardy’s role was at best a partisan communal politician who was ineffective at stopping violence (and there are many narratives where he appears in a far worse light), post-partition Suhrawardy was perhaps the strongest voice of secular, pluralist democracy in Pakistan.

What if, sensing the storm that was about to engulf the subcontinent, Suhrawardy took different decisions on 16 August 1946?  What if he had imposed curfew and called in the army before things got out of hand?  Indeed, what if he had defied Jinnah’s call for direct action and called for Hindu-Muslim amity in Free Bengal?

Suppose North India and Punjab burnt for Jinnah’s direct action, but Suhrawardy had kept Bengal peaceful?  Would that have been a strong signal to the bhadralok Hindu that they had a future in Muslim majority Bengal?  What if, following a peaceful August, Suhrawardy worked with Shyama Mukherjee, Sarat Bose and other Hindu leaders for a Bengali state?  What if he had the support of Fazlul Huq and other Muslim Bengali leaders?

Would the powers-that-be in New Delhi have gone along with something like that?

In reality, Suhrawardy, with the support of Sarat Bose and Fazlul Huq, did propose something along those lines in May 1947.  But by then too much blood had flown through the rivers of Bengal.  By then, Nehru had acquiesced to Jinnah’s Pakistan, and there was little support for the Bengali state even in Bengal.

However, had a stronger claim could be made in 1946, perhaps Nehru-Jinnah-Mountbatten would have accepted it?  After all, they would still have had their hands full in Punjab and North India.  Perhaps they would have simply left Bengal alone to its devices?

How would such a Bengal have turned out?


9 Responses

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  1. fugstar said, on August 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    its funny where your imagination and historical framing stop and start. Im reading partition as an outcome primarily of congressian inflexibility to greater Muslim political agency.

    I would have liked to have seen Subhas Chandra Bose not get sidelined and betrayed by people in congress and play out a different WW2, where bengal isnt starved so tragically to such death and lingering poverty.

    The Indian National Army delivers Japans promised aid, despite the British refusal to accept it when it was offered. Non parochial bengalis and other folks form a cosmopolitan non national non secular political conglomeration that leads Asia, Africa and the Americas out from colonial shadow without reproducing its ways of thinking and being.

    • jrahman said, on September 4, 2012 at 5:00 pm

      It’s quite reasonable to see partition as “an outcome primarily of congressian inflexibility to greater Muslim political agency”. Of course, it’s not the only way to view partition. In an All India context, I think that explanation has considerable merit. In the Bengal specific context, however, I think it’s not so much about Congress inflexibility as it is about Hindu-Muslim differences and genuine apprehensions of the communities about each other. This doesn’t sit well with the nationalist narratives in either side of the Radcliffe Line, and we Bengalis like to blame others for our problems. I like to take a less romantic view.

      And that allows my imagination and historical framing to stop and start at funny places. 🙂

      For all the hype about Subhas Bose, I find it striking that he showed no appreciation of things that were happening in Bengal. And for all our pretensions, I am not sure you could find all that many non-parochial Bengalis who could do all that cosmopolitan conglomeration jazz.

  2. Sampurna said, on October 11, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    You have a very interesting blog. I liked traipsing through your what-if narrative, though to understand it better, let me ask a few questions:
    1. You say “It was rational for the Hindu Bengali leaders to seek partition.” To me it seems you are obfuscating the basic fact that it was the Muslim League, with a great deal of not so subtle British support, that wanted a partition along communal lines. (I’m deliberately keeping moderates, iconoclasts, and bomb-throwers out of the premise here.) Any specific reason for your aggrandisement of the Hindu Bengali’s partition dreams?

    2. Why do you call Subhash Bose a Hindu Bengali politician? I believe you’d understand that I know Subhash was Hindu, Bengali, and a politician, but profiling him with those epithets is almost the same as calling Hitler a Christian. So, is there a reason for your choice of description?

    3. What makes you think Nehru-Jinnah-Mountbatten would have conceded to any claims of an independent, unpartitioned Bengal, when most (if not all) their round table time went in aligning India’s men, money, and grains to serve Britain’s war economy – in exchange for post-war favours?

    Do know that I do not consider either the Congress or the Muslim League as people’s party who genuinely cared for the aspirations of the Indian people. In fact I wonder if the entire halaballoo around India’s freedom aspirations were not just a hot air balloon fed by centuries of hunger, disease, and famine. Anyway, with due respect, I’m slightly wary of your broad-stroke painting of the bhodrolok Bengali Hindu (naturally – I’m one) – so I’ll be glad to have answers.

    You may like something that I wrote a few months back – it’s personal but pertinent:

    • jrahman said, on October 27, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      Sampurna, my apologies for the delay in replying — for some reason your comment was stuck in the spam folder. Some brief answers.

      1. I am not aggrandising the Hindu bhadraloks’ desire for partition, nor minimising the role Muslim separatism played. But “it’s only Muslim League that wanted a partition” narrative is really just a particularly Indian nationalist version of what happened. I would recommend the work of Ayesha Jalal, Joya Chatterjee and Tazeen Murshid to get a feel for the narrative that I find more convincing. According to this narrative, because of well understood reasons, some castes of Hindus gained material advantage in education/job/wealth relative to their population size. By 1920s and 1930s, once independence became a realistic possibility, these Hindus worried about the implications. In any majoritarian system, they had reasons to fear that their status would come under threat. Partitioning Bengal was one way to resolve this dilemma. This doesn’t mean ML or the British didn’t have their own agenda. Nor does it mean that wanting partition is a ‘bad thing’.

      2. The full epithet is this: arguably the most charismatic Hindu Bengali politician in history. Let’s take out the word Hindu, and we have “arguably the most charismatic Bengali politician in history”. And I believe that epithet better fits Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Reasonable people can agree to disagree about this.

      3. I am not sure I follow the “war economy thesis”. We know that Jinnah didn’t particularly want Bengal without Calcutta — he called it a rural slum. We also know that he wasn’t averse to the aborted Bose-Huq plan. We know that Mountbatten’s Plan B was to hand over powers to provincial governments — the Plan Balkan. So that only leaves Nehru, who would probably have been strongly opposed to it. But then again, if there was a strong demand for it in Bengal, and if it was one less thing the incoming Congress administration had to worry about, then perhaps Sardar Patel would have convinced Nehru.

      • Sampurna said, on November 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm

        Thanks for your reply. I haven’t read many of the writings you have mentioned, but even otherwise I’m not averse to your conclusion that every interest group had its own agenda and its own reasons for partition.
        Having said that, I’m not too sure if partition has been a “good thing” – from the perspective of 60 odd years after India’s independence. And I would certainly say that partition had been a curse and a nightmare for those witnessed it.
        Anyway, I’m not sure I follow your #3 but that’s probably because you didn’t understand by what I meant by the strains of Britain’s war economy being of paramount importance in sealing Bengal’s fate.
        As for #2, I would simply thank you for the response. It has helped me understand (with some sadness) certain things that historical writings do not readily reveal. Suffice to say that we, in this part of Bengal, do not exactly call Mujibur Rahman a “Muslim” Bengali politician.

      • jrahman said, on November 15, 2012 at 9:19 am

        I didn’t say partition has been a good thing. Clearly, the way it happened was a great tragedy. But from the vantage point of the pre-partition decades, making an argument for the division of Bengal would not necessarily have been a bad thing.

        More importantly, history should not be seen as a contest between good or bad.

      • Sampurna said, on November 15, 2012 at 12:30 pm


  3. Alternate history « Mukti said, on January 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    […] readers would know, there are at least two such series, perhaps three, running in this blog where Bengal, or India, had never been partitioned, or where partition had meant a different kind of Pakistan. […]

  4. Being Bengali in a divided Bengal « Mukti said, on February 12, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    […] Naeem touches on to ‘what might have beens’ in a united Bengal before moving on to the present era.  He recounts the well known story of how Indian Bengali […]

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