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Haunted by unification: A Bangladeshi view of partition | Afsan Chowdhury

25 August 2017

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Dhaka Tribune - August 14, 2017

by Afsan Chowdhury

In Bangladesh, 1947 is a distant memory, erased by the bloody 1971 liberation war against Pakistan

It was May 16, 1971, when soldiers from the Pakistan army rounded up all the Hindu men in Jogisu village in the Rajshahi district, about 300km from Dhaka, the capital of what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. There were 42 in total. They were all shot dead and the Muslim villagers were ordered to dig a hole in which their bodies would be dumped. Nine widows in white saris recounted the scene for a show I was filming on the atrocities committed during the Bangladesh war of independence, fought between Pakistan, then known as West Pakistan, and East Pakistan and India.

“The soldiers then urinated on the grave,” one of the widows, 60-year-old Sri Shundar, recalled.

Jogisu was one of the thousands of villages that faced such a fate.

But were the events of that year the product solely of the war of independence or could they be traced back to 1947 and the partition of British India?

In Bangladesh, 1947 is a distant memory, erased by the much fresher bloody ones of 1971. The partition was experienced by India and Pakistan, but for Bangladesh, it is both partition and unification – of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East to make Pakistan – that haunts its national consciousness. It is Pakistan’s birth that pains us.

Marginalised Bengalis

My father grew up in Kolkata but in 1948 found work in Dhaka, then the capital of East Pakistan.

He was contemporaries with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the Bangladeshi nationalist movement and went on to become the first president of independent Bangladesh, and Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the country’s second president. They all stayed at the Baker hostel for Muslim graduate students in Kolkata in the early 1940s and all came from the rising Muslim middle class, which resented, but also respected, the Hindu elite against whom they had become competitors for jobs.

During the holidays, they would return to their East Bengal villages, where the peasants waited for the day when the British colonial rulers would go away and with them the zamindars (landlords). The peasant and the aspirant middle class shared a common dream: an end to British and Kolkata-Hindu domination in jobs and trade. This was not an issue of Hindu or Muslim identity but of economics.

After the Lahore resolution in 1940, which called for the creation of “two states” in the two majority clusters of Muslims (Punjab and Bengal) the future seemed better for my father. But the political future would not be controlled by Bengali Muslims. It was in the hands of the elite, Urdu-speaking North Indian politicians of the Muslim League and led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

There were no Bengalis, who were already being marginalised within India’s Muslim politics, in Jinnah’s circle of political friends.


The above article from Dhaka Tribune is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use