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Partition and Bengal: A book review of Joya Chatterji’s ’The Spoils of Partition’

by A G Noorani, 25 February 2009

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[Book review:]

[The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-67
by Joya Chatterji (Cambridge University Press, 342pp.
]

Bengal’s sorrow

In Bengal, Partition frustrated the plans and purposes of the very groups that had demanded it.

One can count on Dr Asok Mitra to say things that very few dare to say and most do not even notice or perceive. Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905 is one of the legends of the freedom movement. Legends and myths arouse protective emotions that shield them from scrutiny. Bengal’s partition was annulled in 1912 after a furious campaign led by some leading figures. In an article published in The Telegraph of June 27, 2005, entitled “Maro oned in their Myths”, Mitra posed the question, “If the partition of 1905 were allowed to stand”.

The crisp answer was that Eastern Bengal might not have followed Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s line. He pointed out that “the myopic Hindu Bengali has consistently refused to take into account the impact of the anti-partition agitation on the mind of the Bengali Muslim community. The latter would have gained substantially were the partition not interfered with. Curzon’s original decision, whatever its motive, had offered hope of rapid economic and social progress to Muslim masses in Bengal. They had been left way behind since the commencement of the raj. They bore the brunt of underdevelopment of agriculture – and the economy in general – under colonial rule, besides suffering the oppression and repression let loose by the Hindu zamindars.… Had the decision to partition Bengal been allowed to stand, the spread of education amongst the Muslims would have led to the quick emergence of a sensitive Muslim intelligentsia with a heightened social consciousness. Perhaps, from within this category, there would have sprung an exciting crop of thinkers and ideologues who would be inclined to define objective reality in terms of class and not on the basis of the religious divide.… Had all these things happened, the Muslim league would have come a cropper even as the bigoted Hindu oligarchies were stopped in their track. To sum up, if the partition of 1905 was allowed to stand, there would have been no partition of either Bengal or India in 1947.” For that matter, Calcutta might well have continued as the country’s capital. Certainly “no Prime Minister would have even dared to describe it as a dying city”.

Two Bengals

Sukharanjan Sengupta’s book Curzon’s Partition of Bengal and Aftermath (Naya Udyog, Kolkata, 2006) bears the subtitle “History of the elite Hindu-Muslim conflicts over political domination leading to the second Partition, 1947”. Its very last paragraph reads: “Now what a contrast the history had witnessed on 16th October, 1905 and on 19th August, 1947. On the first occasion the Bengalis in Calcutta congregated at the feet of the Monument and declared that they would ‘unsettle the settled fact’ by opposing the formation of the ‘new province of Eastern Bengal’. But the same Bengalis in Calcutta on August 19, 1947 had accepted with no regret what Sir Cyril Radcliffe had done to them. Ten years after the second partition the leading Muslim intellectual of 20th century Bengal Syed Badruddoza in a conversation with the author lamented that ‘perhaps it has fallen to the lot of Bengal that its existence shall remain in division’. It is one belief, but to my mind the ‘Two Bengals’ existed even before Bakhtiar Khilji struck the Sen Kingdom of Gour at the end of the 12th century.”

The distinguished scholar Joya Chatterji, Lecturer in History of Modern South Asia at Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College, established in her widely acclaimed work Bengal Divided the communal divide that afflicted the province. Its subtitle was “Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947” (Cambridge University Press, 1995). The present work is, in a sense, a follow-up to the earlier one and reflects the same qualities of stupendous research and rigorous analysis. She belongs to a very small band of scholars in South Asia whose commitment to the truth is not overcome by false notions of “patriotism” or by communal bias. She explains the rationale behind the partition of India, and in particular of Bengal, and its consequences. Concentration on the partition of Punjab led to the neglect of the fate of Bengal. As with the partition of India, the advocates of Bengal’s partition lived to face the consequences of their miscalculations. She writes with wit and verve.

Earlier, in an article on the boundary award by Cyril Radcliffe, Joya Chatterji exposed the follies and worse of the two commissions over which he presided to demarcate the boundaries of the divided provinces of Bengal and Punjab (“The Fashioning of a Frontier”; Modern Asian Studies; 33(1) 1999; pages 185-242).

To this day, not a single Pakistani writer has dared or cared to question Jinnah’s preference of Radcliffe, a British conservative lawyer, to an impartial three-member commission comprising judges from other countries. By June 1947, Jinnah’s relations with Mountbatten had deteriorated steeply. The Radcliffe Report accepted many of the Congress’ claims in Bengal and was unfair to Pakistan, as Professor R.J. Noore has documented (Making the New Common wealth; Clarendon Press, Oxford; 1987; pages 27 and 37).
Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose Plan

The Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha opposed the Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose Plan for a United Bengal, which Jinnah accepted in a talk with Mountbatten on April 26, 1947. Gandhi prescribed impossible curbs which he would have rejected for the Central government. On May 27, 1947, Mountbatten’s Principal Secretary Eric Mieville “asked him [Nehru] how he viewed the discussions now going on about an independent Bengal. He reacted strongly and said there was no chance of the Hindus there agreeing to put themselves under permanent Muslim domination which was what the proposed agreement really amounted to. He did not, however, rule out the possibility of the whole of Bengal joining up with Hindustan [sic.]” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Second Series, Volume 2; page 182).

This writer has attempted an essay on the move for United Bengal (“United Bengal Plan: Pipe Dream or Missed Opportunity” in The Partition in Retrospect edited by Amrik Singh, Anamika Publishers & Distributors, 2000). The subject awaits scholarly attention which only scholars like Joya Chatterji can bestow.

Her present work traces the chain of events until 1967, when the Congress suffered decline in the State, and beyond. The Congress returned to power after the 1971 elections, whose fairness Jayaprakash Narayan questioned. The Left Front has governed the State since 1977. The book explains the rise of the communist movement, the state of the Muslims and the impact of the movement of refugees. “In the past, Hindus and Muslims had lived cheek by jowl in Bengal, in the main quite amicably. Now they were forced to go their separate ways, with deeply destabilising consequences. Between 1947 and 1967, at least 6 million Hindu refugees from East Bengal crossed into West Bengal.” The impact of Partition on the State’s economy was overlooked as it was on the entire operation – India and Punjab.

On one point this writer disagrees with the author. She holds that the “flaws in the Cabinet Mission plan of 16 May 1946 drove the Congress leadership to look to partition as the solution”. There was more to it than that as K.M. Munshi noted (Pilgrimage to Freedom; Volume 1; page 103). He reproduced Vallabhbhai’s letter written the next day extolling the Plan, which ruled out Pakistan in any shape or form, and remarked: “It was evident that Sardar was prepared to pay a price for averting the partition of the country, and was willing to share power with the Muslim League”. That very day, May 17, Gandhi voiced his reservations and set the line that the Congress disastrously followed.

Nor can it be said that the Centre, as envisaged by the Plan – confined to defence, foreign affairs and communications – was “feeble, indeed, virtually impotent”. Every centre acquires more power with time. The Supreme Courts apply the doctrine of “implied powers”. Remember the provinces of Punjab and Bengal would have remained undivided with the educationally advanced and economically powerful minorities in place. Provinces could secede from the Group; not from the Union. Group A, the India of today, could have set up the Centre we have today; and at the All-India Centre, the same party would have been in a majority. It would have been a united India, unaffected by the rivalry of Pakistan, able to push through its economic and social programme, while enjoying a certain ascendancy over the Pakistan Groups, B and C. Once they began functioning, not the Congress, but the League would have faced crises. After independence, the Muslim politicians there would have to bid for the minority vote. The plan was wrecked by lawyer-politicians who had little imagination and less statesmanship.

Shifts in balance

Bengal’s was a worse case. “Partitioning India was a decision taken by the Congress at the Centre playing from strength. By contrast, the Bengal Congress achieved the partition of their province from a position of fundamental weakness. For their part, the Bengal Hindu leaders demanded partition because they hoped that in a new and smaller province they would win back power and control which they had lost and at the same time gain a measure of influence on the all-India stage.

“During the next two and a half years, in hammering out India’s new Constitution, the Constituent Assembly had to settle how to share power between the Centre and the provinces. After 3 June, the outcome was not in doubt, the Centre intended to arrogate to itself all the powers it needed. Yet the precise ways in which the rules were framed reflected subtle, but nonetheless significant, shifts in the balance between one province and another and between the provinces and New Delhi. The story of how West Bengal tried to steer a way through the transactions of the Constituent Assembly is a revealing commentary on the strategy of its leaders.”

They became centralists to earn kudos from the leaders at the Centre but at the cost of their own State. The author describes their attitude in detail from the Constituent Assembly debates. Undivided Bengal had 60 seats in the Constituent Assembly. The Hindus had 27. After Partition, it was reduced to 16, the Hindus having 12. It was only the members from the South such as K. Santhanam and Sir Arcot Ramaswami Mudaliar who fought for federalism. The author’s analysis of the fiscal provinces is of current relevance. The States became supplicants of the Centre.

West Bengal woke up when the language question came up for debate towards the end of the Constituent Assembly’s proceedings. “If the quarrel over language had exploded earlier in the life of the Constituent Assembly, perhaps the Constitution of India would have been very different from what, at the end of the day, found its way on to the statute book. If the maritime provinces had earlier seen the dangers to their particularist interests of a strong Centre and if they had put up a concerted fight to win a greater measure of autonomy, perhaps Bengal would have followed a different path in the Assembly and would have relied less heavily on the Centre. And if Bengal had seen the sense of forging tactical alliances with other provinces with similar concerns to its own, the constitutional outcome might have been significantly different.”

Joya Chatterji adds: “Dr Ambedkar smuggled in a new article (Article 365, on President’s Rule) which put yet sharper teeth into the President’s emergency powers. West Bengal’s representatives kept quiet about this sleight of hand, although men from other provinces angrily denounced it. Disregarding the high command’s whip, H.N. Kunzru, Thakur Das Bhargava from the East Punjab and Biswanath Das from Orissa fought tooth and nail against this unwelcome addition to the Centre’s powers, but not a single Bengali spoke up.”

Muslims of West Bengal

Muslims of West Bengal were demoralised by Partition. Thanks to India’s democracy, they were able to assert themselves. If initially they voted for the Congress, it was because it was the national hegemon headed by the secular Nehru. “This does not, however, mean that Muslims voted en bloc for the Congress in the 1952 elections or that they had become a single and solid ‘vote bank’ in West Bengal. The many Muslims who stood as independents or as candidates of other parties show that such an assumption would be wrong. The shift towards the Congress was by no means a universal trend among Muslims. Nor were those in the Congress camp all of a like mind in their attitudes towards Muslims. Wooing Muslims where they were numerous was often a matter of cynical calculation rather than genuine commitment to minority rights, and Muslims, for their part, did not always fall for the wiles of their new-found friends.”

On its part, the Congress did not encourage an independent Muslim voice. The author records: “Significantly, Muslims who had been given a place at the Congress high table were not well situated to voice such concerns. For one thing, these politicians by definition had not suffered the personal hardships humbler Muslims had had to endure since Partition. The very fact that they had survived and prospered in partitioned India set them apart from their less fortunate co-religionists. In order to make their mark in Congress circles in the 1950s, ambitious Muslim politicians had ostentatiously to display their ‘secular’ credentials. This did not sit comfortably with portraying themselves as champions of specifically Muslim grievances or having to speak up about matters which the Congress would rather have swept under the carpet. As Theodore Wright perceptively observed in 1966, Congress culture did not encourage its Muslim fellow travellers to represent popular Muslim opinion. In the unique circumstances of divided Bengal, the fact that a few dozen Muslim grandees were able to take advantage of Congress fights and factions to get back into the swing of politics did not mean that Muslim concerns had thereby found effective spokesmen in the Congress camp.” Not one Muslim member of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government – Ghulam Nabi Azad, Jaffer Sharif or Salman Khurshid – resigned over the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Conspicuous failures

The author holds that the powerful Chief Minister Dr B.C. Roy, besides being communal minded, “presided over West Bengal’s economic decline”. The chickens reared by West Bengal’s members in the Constituent Assembly came home to roost. “Ironically, the very same rules which West Bengal’s spokesmen in the Constituent Assembly had helped the Centre put in place now resulted in the province being left without the wherewithal to pay for its economic reconstruction. With Bengal’s support, the Assembly had taken away the province’s largest sources of revenue, the taxes on income and corporations, and excise and jute duties. West Bengal had gambled that it would do better by receiving handouts from a central Finance Commission, which would give it back these revenues and more, and that gamble failed. The algorithms by which the Finance Commissions calculated each State’s ‘need’ whittled down what West Bengal received from the Centre. In 1967, when the Congress in West Bengal was finally cast into the political wilderness, this was as much a consequence of the conspicuous failures of Bengal’s provincial government as a rejection of the Congress centre which had comprehensively let the State down.”

The Hindu Mahasabha had clamoured for the State’s partition but did not profit by it. The Congress did, but only to meet its deserts at the hands of the Left. “The revenge of the periphery” is the title of the chapter which describes its rise to power. “In a word, the Left succeeded in becoming the voice of an increasingly militant and discontented middle class in a Bengal which had discovered, to its chagrin, that independent India was not going to pull any rabbits out of the hat and make its dreams come true.”

As for the Muslims of West Bengal, “terrorised and displaced after the partition, the new rulers treated their problems with a callous indifference and blank disregard. Muslims, just as their Hindu counterparts, had only their own resources on which to fall back, and such support and security as they could find within their own communities. This caused the Muslims of West Bengal to huddle together in discrete and densely populated ‘Muslim pockets’, which pushed them out of the mainstream of Bengal’s political and social life, an increasingly embattled, isolated, alienated and angry minority in the new state. In another of Partition’s stranger twists, these developments paradoxically gave Muslims a more effective say at the polls. In turn, this meant that all political parties that sought office in West Bengal could no longer ignore this aggrieved and not easily controlled minority, an outcome the partitioners had not foreseen and would have much preferred to avoid.” This is no less true of Muslims in some other parts of the country.

The hopes of the Hindu middle classes turned to despair. The writer’s conclusion justly damns the opportunists. It is so comprehensive as to bear quotation in extenso: “In these ways, Bengal’s partition frustrated the plans and purposes of the very groups who had demanded it. Why their strategy failed so disastrously is a question which will no doubt be debated by bhadralok Bengal long after the last vestiges of its influence have been swept away. Many excuses have already been made; and different scapegoats remain to be identified and excoriated. But perhaps part of the explanation is this: for all their self-belief in their cultural superiority and their supposed talent for politics, the leaders of bhadralok Bengal misjudged matters so profoundly because, in point of fact, they were deeply inexperienced as a political class. Admittedly, they were highly educated and in some ways sophisticated, but they had never captured the commanding heights of Bengal’s polity or its economy. They had been called upon to execute policy but not to make it. They had lived off the proceeds of the land, but had never organised the business of agriculture. Whether as theorists or practitioners, they understood little of the mechanics of production and exchange, whether on the shop floor or in the fields. Above all, they had little or no experience in the delicate arts of ruling and taxing people. Far from being in the vanguard as they liked to believe, by 1947 Bengal’s bhadralok had become a backward-looking group, living in the past, trapped in the aspic of outdated assumptions, and so single-mindedly focussed upon their own narrow purposes that they were blind to the larger picture and the big changes that were taking place around them.”