Partition was inevitable - but Bangladesh was testimony to its fragility

History is replete with ironies. One of the greatest historical ironies is that the creation of Pakistan on the basis of religion was swiftly undone in the East, not due to religion but due to language

"Bengal and Partition: An Untold Story" (Rupa)

History is replete with ironies. One of the greatest historical ironies is that the creation of Pakistan on the basis of religion was swiftly undone in the East, not due to religion but due to language. The efforts of the Urdu-speaking minority of West Pakistan (25 million out of 69 million) to impose Urdu as the official language and eradicate Bengali from the culture and civilizational fabric of the 44 million Bengali Muslims unleashed social and political unrest soon after the creation of this theocratic state.

The history of East Pakistan post its creation, with a mass language movement, repression by the West Pakistan ‘Junta’, refusal by Pakistan to accept the results of a free and fair election that would have installed Mujibur Rahman as prime minister of all of Pakistan and the genocide of 1 million Bangladeshi Muslims and minority Hindus in 1971 is a narrative of a violent struggle for self-determination. It contradicts the underlying theme of Bengali literature post Partition that violence and killings were peripheral events in the East, unlike in Punjab.

Clearly, Jinnah and his successors never appreciated the leitmotif of the Bengali identity, Hindu or Muslim. The Bengali Muslim, it has been correctly stated by Rafiuddin Ahmed, has a personality clearly linked to his socio-territorial background. ‘The songs he sings, the music he plays, the poems he composes, the literature he produces, his daily life, marriage rituals, dietary habits, are all clearly linked to the territory of his birth.’

Was Partition inevitable? Was there a religious or communal divide before the EIC’s conquest of India? The answer is a resounding no!

Shashi Tharoor (in an article in The Guardian) notes: ‘A separate communal Hindu or Muslim identity did not exist in India before the nineteenth century. Yet the creation and perpetuation of Hindu–Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of “divide et impera” would reach its culmination in the collapse of British authority in 1947.’

Even the so-called political process leading up to a Partition based on religion was farcical. The 1946 elections based on the Sixth Schedule of the 1935 Government of India Act, was not based on universal franchise. A small percentage of adults, with money and property, were eligible to vote. This resulted in about 3 per cent of the population voting for the Central Assembly and 13 per cent voting for the Provincial Assemblies.

It is most unfortunate that the vote was by Muslim and Hindu elites and their leaders, Jinnah and Nehru. The people of India—Hindus and Muslims—did not exercise their right to franchise to divide their nation forever. Outside of Punjab and Bengal, the majority of Muslims in all other provinces opted to stay in India. There was no mass exodus of Muslims from the rest of India to Pakistan.

Those who ruled us at that time understood this reality and ensured that the popular vote was eliminated from the electoral process. Viceroy Lord Wavell wrote to Lord Pethick Lawrence, secretary of state for India, on 20 November, 1945: ‘[A] vote of the whole adult population or of the enfranchised population would be unlikely to provide the result that Jinnah requires.’

Was India let down by its leadership? While Gandhiji valiantly tried to stem the floodwaters of communalism at Noakhali, perhaps the need of the hour were many more Gandhis—grass-roots leaders who understood perfectly how to stop the tide. There were some, notably Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee. But they became victims of the politics of the day.

On both sides of the communal divide—Muslim League and Congress—leaders were elite, London-educated barristers coming from feudal families. Gandhiji was the notable exception who rose above these limitations.

One cannot absolve the leaders of the INC for their failure to accommodate legitimate Muslim aspirations within an overall framework of an Indian federal structure. They made political concessions when they should have stood firm. They remained rigid when flexibility was required. They made no attempt to address the root causes of Muslim communalism through accommodation of the liberal and reasonable-thinking Muslims. In Bengal, the Bhadralok committed many political errors including making national calculations through the mirror of narrow caste and class considerations. The Bengali zamindar and moneylender did the same.

On the side of the Muslim League, there were small-minded men with huge political and personal ambitions to carve out their destinies in a Muslim-majority Pakistan. It was greed and ambition, rather than the views of the people based on a popular vote, that created Pakistan.

In this debate, one cannot underestimate the desire of our colonial rulers to leave behind a permanently divided country. Britain was of the view that a Western-supported Pakistan, allied through military groupings with the West, would be a natural bulwark to a resurgent India and an ambitious Russia. How could Churchill and his successors ever imagine that the cosy state of their creation would one day become the epicentre of terrorism and the greatest threat to Western interests? It is India that stands tall as an ally of USA and the West to safeguard international peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.

Gandhiji was deeply chastened by his failure to control events in Noakhali. His bias towards Nehru ensured that Sardar Patel would be sidelined in crucial moments of the nation’s history. As a result, Patel was unable to adequately influence Nehru’s decisions in the crucial months leading up to 15 August, 1947 and thereafter.

Partition then became inevitable. The trauma that followed made it destructive, but not definitive. Later, the creation of  Bangladesh was a testimony to the fragility of the Partition. The scars of 1947 continue to throw a long shadow on the future of South Asia.

(Excerpted with permission from the book "Bengal and Partition: An Untold Story" by Bhaswati Mukherjee/Rupa Publications)