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?