The troublesome inside story of East Pakistan: A handbook for students and researchers of contemporary history

The greatness of this epic novel is that even while describing the minutiae of day to day politics, Sen never deviates from his grand vision of good governance and humanistic politics which should be free from vested interests and religious bigotry

Nalinaksha Bhattacharya May 17, 2021
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Niranna: The Starved (Volume 3)

In his third and final volume of ‘Niranna: The Starved’, Aditya Sen has given his narrative a new dimension by telling us the troublesome inside story of East Bengal, later renamed as East Pakistan.  In the earlier two volumes of his book, we have seen through the introspective eyes of Sen’s chief protagonist, Harisadhan Majumder, the heart-wrenching scenes of famine, the Second World War and the partition that divided the Indian sub-continent into two independent nations, India and Pakistan.

The independence of these new nations was preceded and accompanied by extensive riots on both sides of Bengal and Punjab that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Harisadhan is a rare character whose love for his country is not diminished by the prevailing fears and apprehensions of living in East Bengal, now the eastern wing of Pakistan. He refuses to join the trail of thousands of Hindu refugees crossing the border in search of a new home. A humanist and reformer, Harisadhan can’t even think of leaving his beloved hometown Khulna, though, with thousands of Muslim refugees pouring in from the other side of the border, the town has changed beyond recognition. It’s now a semi-urban, industrialized township where, on the bank of Bhairab river, massive chimneys of jute mills, run by the West Pakistani industrialists, could be seen spewing out smoke. Many of his former friends like Mahendra  Ghosh, the philanthropic zamindar, have left Khulna but Harisadhan has acquired new friends like Abdul Karim, a progressive lecturer of  Daulatpur College (where his son Dibyendu is a student ), Mustafa Nurul, a historian from Dacca (now called Dhaka) and Abinash Mukherjee, who lost his wife in the partition riots,  Karim’s wife Sahin, Nurul’s wife Ayesha and Abinash’s daughter Sharmila are also very close to Harisadhan’s wife Prabhabati and his son Dibyendu. They are, in fact, some of Sen’s newly introduced characters in this book that provide relief and lighter moments in this otherwise grim book on East Pakistan’s long struggle for autonomy. When he goes to Dacca for political discussions, Harisadhan stays at Nurul’s house and has lively discussions with his enlightened wife Ayesha on politics and women’s status in the Muslim society.

Though Harisadhan doesn’t actively participate in the Language Movement, he follows its trajectory with keen interest. He doesn’t restrain his son Dibyendu from going to Dacca to join the protest marches. Dibyendu returns from Dacca with the heart-rending news of police firing on the students’ demonstration on 21 February, 1952 that killed Abdus Salam, Rafique Ahmed, Abul Barkat and several other students. Later, when a Martyr’s Day meeting is organized by the students of Daulatpur College, Harisadhan is invited to speak on the burning issue.  Sen justifiably highlights the importance of the Language Movement in his book because it catalyzes the assertion of Bengal national identity in East Pakistan and becomes a forerunner to Bengali nationalist movements, including the six-point Movement of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that eventually leads to the liberation war of Bangladesh.

The Language Movement of 1952 gives a boost to East Pakistan’s democratic movements and this is reflected in the landslide victory of the United Front in the elections to the provincial assembly held in1954. The United Front Coalition of Bengal regional parties was anchored by Fazlul Haque’s Krishak Shramik Samajbadi Dal and the Awami League led by Sahid Suhrawardy.  Rejection of West Pakistan’s dominance over East Pakistan and provincial autonomy were the main ingredients of the Coalition’s 21- point agenda. Unfortunately, factionalism surfaced soon after the elections and the United Front fell apart. Harisadhan is naturally very disheartened by this unexpected setback. He visits Dacca, along with his protégé Abdul Karim, to meet the leaders who helmed the United Front - Fazlul Haque, Maulana Bhasani, Sahid Surhawardy and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - to understand the reasons behind United Front’s downfall. Apparently, the irreconcilable differences between Haque and Surahwardy caused the fall of the coalition government. 

Harisadhan ruefully observes that both these leaders are more concerned about the central government politics than the interest of East Pakistan. Harisadhan, a far-sighted observer of shakers and movers in the political arena, discovers in Mujibur Rahman, then a young leader of Awami League, the future leader of East Pakistan.   

The political and administrative instability in Pakistan culminates in the promulgation of Martial Law in 1958 by General Ayub Khan who assumes the supreme power, deposing Iskander Mirza, the president, in a military coup. The arrests of political leaders begin and a state of fear and apprehension prevails in the country. Though Harisadhan is not a member of any political party, attempts are made to put him behind the bars. That’s when Harisadhan decides to leave Khulna and East Pakistan.

 His sunset years in a refugee colony near Naihati are not spent in peace and contentment as he watches his adopted state West Bengal struggling to cope with the food crisis and the refugee problem. Even the visionary Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy is unable to rehabilitate the refugees properly because of the central government’s uncooperative attitude and the lack of support from his own colleagues and party men. Harisadhan, a keen watcher of political and social changes in society, can’t ignore the Naxal movement that claims the lives of thousands of innocent youths and also the Operation Barga, launched by the Left Front government when they come to power in 1977.

Though the novel’s main appeal is the turbulent history of East Pakistan, Sen doesn’t ignore the love story between Dibyendu and Kalpana which, thwarted by many obstacles, flows like a turbulent stream through the pages of the first two volumes of his book. As Kalpana is a divorcee with a child, both of them are apprehensive about their love being recognized by Dibyendu’s parents. To their great relief, Harisadhan and Prabhabati Devi accept Kalpana as Dibyendu’s future wife and the book ends on a happy note.

 Apart from the general readers of fiction, this book will be a good handbook for the students and researchers of contemporary history who want to get a ringside view of the political developments that rock East Pakistan and culminate in the liberation of Bangladesh. In this book Harisadhan is not only an observer of the socio-political changes happening before his eyes, he is also vox populi, the voice of the people, that demands politicians rise above their narrow party politics and work in tandem with all the stakeholders to provide the basic amenities of civilized existence - food, shelter and education - for the common people. 

The greatness of this epic novel is that even while describing the minutiae of day to day politics, Sen never deviates from his grand vision of good governance and humanistic politics which should be free from vested interests and religious bigotry.  

(Niranna: The Starved (Volume 3); Author Aditya Sen; Publishers Sanbun; Pages 312; Price Rs. 395))

(The reviewer can be contacted at n.bhattacharya02@gmail.com)

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