The Partition and the Muslim Minorities of West Bengal, 1947-1967
The studies on the aftermath of Bengal Partition rarely focus on the Muslim Minorities of West Bengal. Even recent scholarship on the ‘Bengal Muslims’ primarily deals with the condition of the Muslims in pre- Partition Bengal and then concentrates on East Bengal/East Pakistan after partition, which is now called Bangladesh. Quite surprisingly, these studies do not cover the Muslims of West Bengals after Partition. The Muslims of West Bengal were marginalised not only in the socio-economic and cultural milieu of post-Independence/Partition West Bengal but also in the academic research. The condition of the Muslims of West Bengal after Partition has not received due attention in academic circle with a very few exceptions. What actually happened to the Muslims of West Bengal after partition? What did Partition mean to them? How did it affect their lives and the mode of thinking? What was their survival strategy in the face of the crucial post Partition situation? All these questions are still awaiting answer. The progressive backwardness of the Muslims of West Bengal identified recently in the Sachhar Committee Report might have some roots in the Partition of the province. The present paper is an attempt to audit the impact of the Partition on the Muslims of West Bengal.
Muslims in Pre-Partition Bengal: Social Origin and Differentiation
Rafiuddin Ahmed, Asim Roy, Richard M. Eaton, Tazeen M.Murshid and a number of scholars contributed largely towards our understanding of the Muslims of Bengal in pre-Partition period. Islam reached Bengal in the thirteenth century after it had become a part of the Turkish Sultanate and grown rapidly with time. It was a very interesting and complex process. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the British government became aware of the huge concentration of Muslim population in the rural areas of eastern part of Bengal. The Muslims outnumbered the Hindus by the end of the century. The Census of 1872 surprised the British officials regarding the presence of a huge Muslim population in the eastern part of Bengal and prompted them to investigate the phenomenon seriously.
Several theories sprang up to explain the growth of Islam in Bengal. Richard Eaton has categorized them into four viz. immigration theories, religion of the sword thesis, religion of patronage theory and religion of social liberation thesis.
According to the immigration theory, the bulk of India’s Muslims descended from other Muslims who had either migrated overland from the Iranian plateau or sailed across the Arabian Sea. This process undoubtedly contributed to the Islamization of those areas of South Asia that are geographically contiguous with the Iranian Plateau or the Arabian Sea. However, this argument cannot explain the mass Islamization in Bengal.
The religion of the sword thesis, on the other hand, stresses the role of military force in the diffusion of Islam in India and elsewhere. Dating at least from the time of the Crusades, this idea received big boosts during the nineteenth century, the high tide of European imperial domination over Muslim peoples, and subsequently in the context of the worldwide Islamic reform movements of the late twentieth century. However, it is very difficult to explain the rise and spread of Islam in India by means of force. If Islamization had ever been a function of military or political force, one would expect that those areas exposed most intensively and over the longest period to rule by Muslim dynasties would today contain the greatest number of Muslims. Yet the opposite is the case, as those regions where the most dramatic Islamization occurred, such as eastern Bengal or western Punjab, lay on the fringes of Indo-Muslim rule, where the “sword” was weakest, and where brute force could have exerted the least influence. In such regions, the first accurate census reports put the Muslim population at between 70 and 90 percent of the total, whereas in the heartland of Muslim rule in the upper Gangetic Plain the Muslim population ranged from only 10 to 15 percent. In other words, in the subcontinent as a whole there is an inverse relationship between the degree of Muslim political penetration and the degree of Islamization. Even within Bengal, this principle holds true. Except Dacca, none of the eastern districts of Bengal contains any famous headquarter of Muslim rulers. Dacca was the residence of the Nawab for about a hundred years, but it contains a smaller proportion of Muslims than the surrounding districts, except Faridpur. Malda and Murshidabad were the old capitals of Muslim rule for nearly four and a half centuries. Yet the Muslims form a smaller proportion of the population than they do in the adjacent districts of Dinajpur, Rajshahi, and Nadia.
The religion of patronage theory can partly explain the growth of Islam in some urban areas but cannot explain the process of mass Islamization in the rural areas of Bengal. Many instances in Indian history would appear to support this theory. In the early fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta reported that Indians presented themselves as new converts to the Khalaji sultans, who in turn rewarded them with robes of honour according to their rank. Political patronage, like the influence of the sword, would have decreased rather than increased as one moved away from the centres of that patronage. What we need is some theory that can explain the phenomenon of mass Islamization on the periphery of Muslim power and not just in the heartland, and among millions of peasant cultivators and not just among urban elites.
The religion of social liberation thesis was popularized by the British ethnographers and historians and widely accepted as an explanation of Islamization in the subcontinent. According to this theory, the oppressive and tyrannical Hindu caste system alienated the lower order. The latter felt attracted by the notion of social equality propagated by Islam and converted to Islam on a mass scale. It is too idealized an explanation of mass Islamization in Bengal. It goes against the religious geography of the subcontinent. In 1872, when the earliest reliable census was taken, the highest concentrations of Muslims were found in eastern Bengal, western Punjab, the Northwest Frontier region and Baluchistan. These areas are situated at the periphery, not in the core of Hindu heartland as well as far from the centre of Muslim political power. Here the control of the Hindu and Buddhist social system was very weak. In Bengal, Muslim converts were drawn manly from Rajbansi, Pod, Chandal, Kuch and other indigenous groups that had been only lightly exposed to Brahmanical culture, and in Punjab the same was true of various Jat clans that eventually formed the bulk of the Muslim community.
Richard M. Eaton has argued that a slower process of conversion occurred as the geographical, agricultural and political frontiers of Bengal moved eastwards. The cultural accommodation was such that local people were not even aware of the process. Islam in Bengal absorbed so much local culture and became so profoundly identified with Bengal’s long-term process of agrarian expansion, that in its formative years the cultivating classes never seem to have regarded it as “foreign”.
Social Divisions among the Muslims of Bengal
The Muslim society in Bengal may be divided into three categories, the Ashraf or Sharif, the Ajlaf or Atrap/ Atraf and the Arzal. The Ashraf or Sharif meant ‘noble or person of high extraction’. They were in fact landholders and North Indian traders. They constituted the upper class in the Muslim society of Bengal. This group included the Syed, Sheikh, Pathan, Mungal, Mallik and Mirza. They were descendents of foreigners and converts from upper Hindu castes.
The second category comprises the Ajlaf or as more commonly known in Bengal, the Atrap/Atraf or lower class Muslims. All converts from the lower castes of Hindus belonged to this category.
The third category, Arzul, was at the lowest strata of the Muslim society in Bengal. They were degraded Muslims. They lived under social disabilities. The upper two categories of Muslims did not involve in any social interaction with them.
The Muslim society suffered from caste distinctions too. The Census Report of 1911 referred to 80 castes in the Muslim society. Inter-marriage between the upper and lower castes existed. Social mobility was comparatively higher than in the Hindu society. The upward mobility was possible through change in occupation and accumulation of wealth, as evidenced by the popular saying, ‘last year I was a jolaha, this year I am a Sheiks, next year if prices (jute) rise I shall be a Syed’,
With the beginning of the twentieth century, enduring changes began to take place in the Muslim society of Bengal. The most important was the emergence of a middle-class Muslim intelligentsia. Their presence was felt in the field of education, employment, culture as well as in politics. They came to the position to contest with their Hindu counterparts. The Muslim population also grew steadily in Bengal. They outnumbered the Hindus by the end of the nineteenth century and formed 54.43% of the total population of Bengal in 1931. It remained almost same in 1941(54.29%). They formed the majority in the province. The Muslim population grew faster than the Hindus did and the steady growth of population provided the Muslims a new sense of confidence. It indirectly affected Hindu-Muslim relations as Muslims began to fight for proportional representation and gave the community some political advantage in bargaining for privileges like reserved seats and quotas particularly from the beginning of the twentieth century. The successive Government of India Acts strengthened the position of the Muslims in electoral politics. The Muslim League was in power during the last ten years of the undivided Bengal. Naturally, the Muslim League was not very much in favour of partitioning the province where they had a clear majority. Thus, a section of the Muslim League leadership headed by Suhrawardy and Abul Hasim joined their hands with Satat Chandra Bose, Kiran Shankar Ray and others to prevent the partition of Bengal and to make Bengal a sovereign state. It is interesting that both Suhrawardy and Abul Hasim belonged to the western part of Bengal. The former was from Medinipur and the later was from Burdwan. However, the ‘United Bengal Plan’ failed miserably. On 20 June 1947, the Partition Plan was adopted in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. The Muslims of Bengal, who had long been enjoying the status of majority in the province, became minority in the newly created state of West Bengal carved out of Partition.
Partition, Communal Riots and the Displacement of the Muslims of West Bengal
The Kolkata killing and the mounting communal tension in West Bengal just before and after the Independence and Partition displaced a large number of Muslims of West Bengal. The then West Bengal Government failed to protect the life and property of the Muslims living in the state, which is evident from the repeated attacks on the Muslims in West Bengal. Those were not communal riots as such, but one-sided attacks on the already enfeebled Muslims of the state. These attacks uprooted a large number of Muslims and forced them to leave West Bengal in an overwhelming atmosphere of fear.
Out Migration of the Muslims from West Bengal
After the Partition, many Muslim families from the western parts of Bengal migrated to the eastern parts of the newly drawn border primarily for security. However, not all of them were riot victims. Some were government servants who opted for Pakistan. Some of them decided to migrate in search for better employment. Some moved purely by ideological consideration. There is a fairly large and varied literature on refugees who came into Eastern India, but there is an almost complete absence of writings on the large reverse flow of refugees from West Bengal to East Pakistan. The out-migration of the Bengali Muslims from West Bengal has not received much attention in the Indian historiography of Partition, though it is an inseparable part of the larger story of Partition migration in the east. Awareness of this lacuna has been reflected only very recently in a handful of studies on the migration of the Muslims from West Bengal to East Pakistan.
The first wave of out migration started with the Kolkata killings. It took the form of an exodus towards East Bengal after the massacre of thirty thousand Muslims in Bihar at the end of 1946. Just after the Partition, a large number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan, mostly to East Pakistan. The Muslims did not feel secure in Kolkata. Muslim artisans and the businessmen as well as the intellectuals started migrating to safer places. Md. Kudrat-I Khuda, a popular professor of Presidency College, decided to leave Kolkata as his residence at Bhabanipur had been attacked during the Kolkata riot. His personal laboratory was also destroyed. Prominent literary figures like, Syed Waliullah, Shidullah Kaysar, leading artist Zainul Abedin and a number of prominent people belonging to the Muslim community left Kolkata. A large section of the Muslim middle class and the artisans left Kolkata. Even most of the Muslim bastee dwellers left the city due to recurrent attacks on them. Consequently, according to one estimate, the Muslim population of Kolkata dropped considerably, from 23% in 1946-47 to 12% in 1951.
The second wave of migration started with the outbreak of a series of riots in different parts of West Bengal in 1950. The most devastating riot took place in Howrah. Muslim workers in the jute mills of Howrah were attacked in the last week of March 1950. Nearly one hundred Muslims were murdered brutally. Ashok Mitra (ICS and the Census Commissioner of 1951) has recounted his experience in suppressing the riot in his memoir. A Large number of horrified Muslims left Howrah for safety. Sporadic incidents of attack on the Muslims could be found even at Burdwan town, a town comparatively free from communal disturbances. The Hindu rioters attacked and set fire to the house of Abul Hasim, the prominent Muslim League leader who actively campaigned for the United Bengal Plan along with Sarat Chandra Bose. He decided to stay in West Bengal after the Partition while other prominent League leaders left. However, he was so shocked by the incident of arson that he along with his family members migrated to East Pakistan. A large number of his relatives followed him. In an interview, his son Badruddin Umar confessed that the migration of their relatives could be avoided if his father had not migrated. . Large-scale population movement across the border also took place in Nadia, which assumed the shape of almost an exchange of population. This time it was truly a two-way traffic. The namasudras were driven out of East Bengal and in turn, Between 100000 and 200000 Muslims from the bordering villages of Nadia were driven out of West Bengal. About 131000 Muslims had left Kolkata alone on the eve of the 1951 Census. Forced by the circumstances a section of the Muslim businessmen decided to leave Kolkata by exchanging their property privately with their Hindu counterparts coming from eastern parts of the border. The contemporary newspapers contain a large number of advertisements for property exchange. One such advertisement was published in Anandabazar Patrika on 6 April 1950 may be cited here. A Muslim businessman named Nuruddin Ahmed of 1-E, Anjuman Road, Kolkata sought to exchange or sale his running automobile business situated on one of the main roads of the city with an income of minimum 2/3 thousand per month along with attached garage and residential house with similar business in any towns of East Pakistan immediately. According to the government Report of 1950-51, 7 lakhs Muslims had left West Bengal, of which 5 lakhs later returned.
The third wave of Muslim migration to East Pakistan took place in 1964 following anti-Muslim riots in Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal. The Hazaratbal incident in Kashmir sparked off communal riots in Khulna. From Khulna riots spread like wildfire to other parts of East Pakistan. Hindus were attacked in Jessore, Dhaka, Narayangunj, Faridpur, Comilla, Noakhali, Chandpur and Chittagong. The attacks on the Hindu minorities in East Pakistan resulted in a fresh wave of migration of the Hindu Bengalis towards West Bengal. The communal situation deteriorated in West Bengal, which resulted in the outbreak of communal riots on 10 January in Kolkata and in some adjoining areas like Chakda, Tehatta in Nadia, and Barasat in 24 Parganas. These areas had a huge refugee population. Muslims were attacked in Beliaghata, Entally, Baniapukur, Taltola, Karaya and Amherst Street. Suburban areas like Habra, Nayapara in Barasat, Haltu, and Tiljala in Jadavpur witnessed large scale looting and arson. Violence gripped Maheshtala in Metiaburuj. There were incidents of stabbing in Howrah, Serampore and in different railway stations in Sealdah section. The Kolkata riots lasted until 15 January. Many Muslim bustees were set on fire. The riot of 1964 forcibly uprooted a large number of Muslims and pushed them out of West Bengal. Around 8 lakhs Indian Muslims left for East Bengal. Most of these migrants were from West Bengal or the northeast.
Along with those people evicted by violent communal attacks, a section of Muslims decided to migrate to East Pakistan quite willingly. However, the question of the security of life, property and self-esteem might have played a crucial role in the background of their decision. One such section was the Government employees who, in the previous month, had opted for Pakistan. Certain categories of Government employees were given the choice to opt for either Pakistan or India. Most of the Muslim officials decided to serve Pakistan. All but one of the nineteen Muslim Civil Service officers in Bengal opted to join the Government of Pakistan. A large number of Government employees of subordinate ranks followed them. They joined the nascent bureaucracy of Pakistan within days of Partition. The decision for opting to serve Pakistan was not always voluntary. Sometimes they were persuaded by their Hindu colleagues to quit West Bengal and go to Pakistan. Moreover, as the future boundary of the two succeeding States was uncertain, they were confused a lot at the time giving option. Many thought that it was a temporary thing and that one day the two countries would be one again. A large number of Muslim Government employees of the Muslim majority districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia thought that these districts would naturally go to Pakistan. They opted for Pakistan to stay at home. However, their dream was shattered as these districts were awarded to India quite unexpectedly. They were subsequently replaced by the Indian optees from other side of the border. However, not all the Muslims followed the same strategy. In Malda, which was under the administration of Pakistan until 17 August, very few Muslim Government employees opted for Pakistan as observed by Ashok Mitra, ICS, during his tenure as the first District Magistrate of Malda. The optees usually maintained a close contact with their relatives and friends staying at the other side of the border. They used to settle in close to their previous place of residence. Many displaced employees from Murshidabad settled down in Rajshahi because of its proximity to Murshidabad.
Another group of people mostly derived from the educated middle class decided to migrate to East Bengal for ideological commitment as well as better career prospect. Abu Rushad in his novel Nongor (Anchor) has portrayed the experience of Kamal, an income tax officer, who migrated to Dhaka just after Partition leaving behind his parents, other family members and a host of friends in India. Kamal decided in favour of migration primarily due to his ideological commitment to the idea of Pakistan. To him Pakistan was synonymous with a new home and a new identity for which Muslims of British India had fought. He found that Kolkata, the city where he was born and brought up, had suddenly become hostile. It became an insecure place for the Muslims to live in. He argued that Muslims were no more on equal footing with the Hindus. However, he failed to convince his own family members. His brother, Rahim found no reason to leave for Pakistan. Like many of his contemporary migrants, he tried to get settled in a new alien land. As the title of the noble Nongor(Anchor) suggests Kamal wanted to have a new mooring and get anchored in a new place. However, the process was not very smooth as he had expected. In less than one year of the creation of Pakistan he, like many other Bengali Muslims, was caught in a dilemma when the ideologues of Pakistan had been trying to create a cultural homogeneity ignoring the linguistic and cultural diversity of the people of Pakistan. The forceful imposition of Urdu by the Pakistani Government created a severe resentment among the Bengali Muslims. They were not prepared to sacrifice their linguistic and cultural identity at the cost of Pakistani nationalism. Kamal wanted Pakistan and he got. It separated him from his family. Yet he had no regret for his decision to opt for Pakistan. He tried to strike his roots in Pakistan. However, he was not prepared to discard his past, nor did he want to separate himself from the greater bond of history.
On the other hand, some Muslims migrated for better career prospect. One such case was the migration of the family members of Anisuzzaman, later a renowned scholar based at the University of Dhaka :
"I was born in Kolkata. We lived at Park Circus. Here I participated in the procession of Rashid Ali Day boycotting the class. Here I witnessed the riot of 1946. Our non-Bengali milkman and an unknown young man were murdered in front of our eyes. The elders failed to save the milkman. Our Hindu neighbours including actor Chhabi Biswas left the para (locality) with the help of the police to safer places. Many of our relatives similarly came to our locality leaving their residence in Hindu dominated areas…"
All of our family members were energetic supporters of Pakistan movement. However, they became depressed after knowing that Bengal was also being partitioned along with the partition of India. They blamed the Hindus for the partition of Bengal. As our ancestral home 24-Parganas was included in India, they blamed the Muslim League for not presenting our case properly in the Boundary Commission. My father was then at 50. He spent most part of his life in Kolkata. He was not willing to go to Dhaka from his heart leaving his own city. Moreover, living in the other side of the Padma was a nightmare to him. However, my mother repeatedly said that if there was any future for our two sons, it was in Pakistan. Ultimately, in October 1947, when I had been studying in class seven, we migrated to Khulna closing our establishments in Kolkata as Khulna was closer to Kolkata and some of our relatives were there. And if Pakistan could not stand out, it would be easier to return to Kolkata. My two uncles never thought of migrating to East Pakistan leaving the village.In December 1948, we sifted to Dhaka and permanently settled there. In 1950, communal riots broke out in both sides of the border. It became clear that the partition failed to solve the communal problem…
This section of people were larger in number than the optee Government employees. The Muslims of West Bengal were, in general, backward in the field of education than the Hindu middle class. Thus, after Partition it became very tough to the Muslim middle class to find respectable jobs, which had already become scarce in the state. The coming of the East Bengali refugees made the situation worse. Because the early migrants from East Pakistan mostly belonged to educated middle class and on the whole they were far more advanced in educational standard not only from the Muslim middle class but also from the host Hindu middle class. The job market of West Bengal became very competitive. Thus, the migration of a large section of educated Muslim middle class was a bare survival strategy on their part. The flight of the educated Hindus from East Bengal created a great vacuum in the field of education and other professional jobs. Thus, there was a great demand for the educated people there to fill up the teaching, administrative and other professional jobs. Partition had provided them with new career opportunities that were beyond their imagination. The labour market for university graduates was much better in East Pakistan at that time. During the fifties and sixties people with very poor education held rather important posts in East Bengal largely due to the migration of Hindu middle classes, which were often filled by less qualified Muslims. The migration of the educated Muslim middle class created a vacuum in the social, cultural and political leadership. It was a great loss not only to the Muslims of the state but also West Bengal as a whole.
Along with them, there migrated almost all the top-level Muslim League politicians. Some of them once actively campaigned in favour of Pakistan and so it was embarrassing to them to stay on in West Bengal after partition. However, not all of them belonged to this category. Obviously, some people like Suhrawardy and Abul Hasim within the Bengal Provincial Muslim League actively campaigned against the partition of Bengal. However, most of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League leaders left West Bengal immediately after the partition or within a few years after the incident. Fazlul Huq, the former premier of Bengal devoted his energy to oppose the ‘two nation theory’ and to prevent the Muslim League from the Pakistan Demand. The bitterness between Huq and the Muslim League became extreme and Huq continuously opposed the League. As a result, he got increasingly isolated from the mainstream of Bengal politics. Politically, he became practically a loner though his personal popularity remained very high. As communal riots broke out in Kolkata on 16 August 1946, Huq worked hard to restore communal harmony and to protect his Hindu neighbours in Park Circus, Kolkata . Being requested by the League leaders, Huq joined the Muslim League in September 1946. After partition, he also settled in Dhaka and served as the Advocate General of East Pakistan from 1947 to 1952. He was soon involved in East Pakistan politics after the elections of 1954 and became the chief minister of East Bengal. H.S. Suhrawardy did not migrate immediately. He had been effectively cornered in the internal politics of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League on the eve of partition and was apprehensive about his future political career in East Pakistan. He was also anxious about the fate of the Muslims in West Bengal. He stayed back in Kolkata engaging himself in a peace mission along with Gandhiji. Later he had moved to West Pakistan and joined Mohammad Ali's 'Cabinet of Talents' in 1954 as Law Minister and consequently replaced Chaudhry Muhammad Ali as Prime Minister on September 12, 1956. Abul Hasim, another prominent figure in Bengal politics, also decided to stay on in West Bengal. However, he had to migrate to East Pakistan on 1950. Notable journalist, lawyer and political activist Abul Mansur Ahmed was hesitant to leave. He faced humiliating comments from his colleagues of Alipur Court where had been practicing since long before. Ultimately, he also decided to move and took active part in the politics of East Pakistan. Hamidul Haque Chowdhury also migrated to Dhaka and joined the Dhaka High Court Bar and became a member of the provincial cabinet in charge of the Ministry of Finance and then of Ministry of Land Revenue.
The migration of the creamy layer of the Muslim political leadership to East Pakistan undoubtedly benefited the recipient country. Within a few years they led a remarkable movement for the recognition of their own language which ultimately paved the way for the outburst of the Bengali nationalism in the early 1970s. On the other hand, the migration of the top order Muslim leadership created a serious vacuum in the politics of West Bengal. The Muslims who stayed on in West Bengal became leaderless in a situation where eligible leadership was the urgent cry of the time to protect the interest of the Muslim minorities in the state.
Those who migrated to East Bengal, whatever may be the driving force behind their migration, had to struggle hard to strike their roots there. Some people failed to do so even after long stay. They remained nostalgic about their lost home in West Bengal. In an interview, Badruddin Umar has expressed his nostalgia about his lost home in West Bengal:
"I have not been able to strike roots in this country (Bangladesh)…..I do political work here, I would certainly remain here as long as I can, but I have this feeling that I do not belong to this place….Whenever I come here (West Bengal), I have a special fill.. a certain sense of home coming. My father (Abul Hasim) also suffered tremendously at the end of his life. He used to say, “I shall return, I shall not stay here anymore”….and like that."
The nostalgia for the lost home and a sense of rootlessness of the migrated Muslims has nicely been reflected in Dibyendu Palit’s short story “Alamer Nijer Bari”(Alam’s Own House). Alam was born and brought up in Kolkata. After partition, Alam’s family moved to Dacca after exchanging their house at Park Circus with that of a Hindu Bengali family from Dacca. Three years later, he came to Kolkata to attend a seminar. On his way to Kolkata, one of his associates asked Alam, “Kolkata is familiar to you, isn’t it? Alam replied, “It is the land of my birth.” With these words, he could submerge himself in his own identity as it were. Was the land of one’s birth also one’s native land? This question often made him feel homeless. “Shikar” (The Root), another short story written by Prafulla Roy may be mentioned in this connection. The story demonstrates the strength of man’s bond with his ancestral home. Rajmohan came to West Bengal within a month of partition. He exchanged his ancestral house in Dacca with that of Abdul Karim at Park Circus in Kolkata. One morning, the old gentleman, Rajmohan becomes extremely nostalgic about his ancestral home in Dacca. He feels that even after forty years of stay at Park Circus his primary root is still in his ancestral residence of Dacca. However, a secondary root of his existence is gradually being developing in his Park Circus residence. That afternoon, quite unexpectedly, Abdul Karim, the man with whom he had exchanged his property, came to meet him along with his granddaughter and grandson. His main intension was to revisit his ancestral house where they had lived for generations. It is that house, where his roots rested. He asked Rajmohan to revisit his house too as early as possible: ‘If you are late, you might not see your ancestral house’. Rajmohan was also eager to step into his ancestral house at least once again before his death. The attraction of the roots brought the two old men closer to each other breaking down the barrier of community identity and national border.
The number of Muslims migrated from West Bengal to East Bengal was not numerically much significant as compared to the migration of the Hindus from East Bengal. However, the actual significance of this population movement lies in the social, economic, political and cultural arenas. Most of these migrants belonged to the educated middle class professionals and some of them were prominent personalities in undivided Bengal. Their departure left a vacuum in the socio-cultural life of Bengali Muslims who stayed on in West Bengal. ‘Most of those who remained were the week and poor who had no assets, no connections and little by way of skill to deploy in a new life across the border.’ Few exceptions were obviously there. Many people willingly chose to stay on in West Bengal because neither they had any connection with the politics of Muslim League nor they had any sympathy towards the demand for Pakistan. Some had connections with the Congress; others had connections with the Communist Party and most of them had no connection with politics as such. In the crucial election of 1946, Abul Hasim contested from Burdwan constituency. The other two candidates were the District Congress Secretary, Abdus Sattar and Noor Newaz who represented the Radical Democratic Party of M.N.Roy. Though Abul Hasim secured a clear victory with a big margin, it is wrong to believe that all the Muslims of his constituency supported the political programme of Muslim League. Even being the secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League, Hasim had a left leaning and he had a different stance of his own. Congress had a very good hold at Burdwan. Moreover, Communist Party steadily expanded its support base among the Muslims of Burdwan. Two of his nephews, Syed Shahidullah and Mansur Habibullah, were important Communist leaders in Bengal by the early 1940s. It is interesting that a good number of the early stalwarts of the Communist Party came from the Muslim community. Therefore, those who decided to stick to their ancestral land had their own logic. Even those who actively campaigned for Pakistan did not feel comfortable to leave their ancestral land. Their position was equally awkward like that of the Hindus of East Bengal who rallied behind the demand for partition propagated by the Congress and the Hindu Mahashabha. After the publication of the Radcliffe Award, they realised what damage they had done to themselves. Hasan Azizul Huq who migrated from Jabgram village of Bardhaman in West Bengal to Rajshihi, East Pakistan and permanently settled there along with his parents recalls that none of his uncles and cousins came to East Pakistan. ‘…some of them were part of the struggle for Pakistan … but it never entered their heads that they might leave their homes to live in Pakistan.’ In Abu Rushd’s novel Nongor (Anchor), Kamal did not find a single supporter even among his own family members. His brother Rahim found no reason to leave for Pakistan. Thus, he had to migrate alone.
Internal Displacement of the Muslims of West Bengal
It is interesting that after Partition the settlement pattern of the Muslim communities changed largely. The Muslim families were increasingly forced to settle in small exclusive pockets in the state. During and after the Kolkata Riot, the horrified Muslim families of Kolkata shifted themselves to safer zones, preferably to those places where Muslims formed the majority. They largely flocked to Park Circus, Rajabazar and other Muslim dominated areas of the city . After Independence, deliberate attempts were made to wipe out the Muslims from the city. Instigation primarily came from the Barabazar based Hindu business community. The obvious motives were to capture the shops and business establishments run by the Muslims. Some other opportunists like the Hindu bustee owners used the situation too. They wanted to evict the Muslim bustee dwellers and to allot them to Hindu tenants at a much higher rent. The rioters attacked the Muslim bustees very selectively. Muslims were evicted from the bustees of Miyabagan at Beleghata, Motijhil at Entally, Nikashipara at Shyamazar, Shahebbagan at Rajabajzar and several other bustees of the city. It led to the progressive ghattoization of the Muslims of Kolkata. It changed the urban morphology (the settlement pattern) of the city. The Muslims of city began to live a ghettoized life. However, the ghettoization of the Muslims of the city was not solely due to partition. The majority Hindu community had definitely a determining role in it. Since long before partition, they did not let the Muslims to live in their neighbourhood due to the fear of pollution. It was always difficult for the Muslims to manage a rented house or to purchase a house in the so-called Hindu paras in Kolkata as well as other parts of the state. The situation remains unchanged until today. The partition made the gap between the two communities quite unbridgeable. The partition riots created a barrier of deep distrust between the two. Neither community allows the other to share its space. Thus, both the communities prefer to reside in their own neighbourhoods. This tendency is more prominent among the Muslims as they belong to the minority community. Almost everywhere in the world, the minorities prefer to live in their own neighbourhood.
The horrible experience of the Kolkata Riot pushed a section of the Muslims out of Kolkata and some of them migrated to the countryside, which was comparatively free from communal tension. Hasan Azizul Huq recalls, ‘after 1947 the Muslims of that area (his ancestral village Jabgram, Burdwan) did not experience any real trouble’. In an Assembly debate regarding the security of the Muslims in West Bengal, Pramatha Nath Bandopadhay said that unlike the cities, where the mutual trust had been lost, there was no dearth of solidarity between the Hindus and Muslims in countryside. Because of that, a section of the urban-based Muslims who had some ties with the countryside migrated there for safety. In 1950, after the attack on their house at Burdwan town, Abul Hashem temporally shifted his family to his ancestral village, Kashemnagar. It was a common survival strategy of the Muslims of West Bengal at that turbulent period.
Muslims of West Bengal in Search for Security, Identity and Equity
The Muslims of West Bengal had to face some crucial problems during the post-Independence period. These were primarily to secure their life and property, to fix up the issues relating their identity and to establish themselves on the soil of West Bengal on equal terms with the majority community.
Though the Indian state adopted a secular constitution, it is very interesting that in the Indian Constitution the status of the minorities was kept undefined. India is committed to secularism, which means it must allow all religions in all spheres of life and it must protect the minorities. However, the history of minority rights discourse in post-Partition India shows how our nationalist leadership was inspired by a vision of a homogenised cultural nationalism. By that time, the ‘unclean’ partition had cast its shadow over all constitutional thinking on the ‘minority question’. The minorities, chiefly meaning Muslims—formed a ghetto. Their loyalty was suspect. The nation had to strike a bargain with them. Minority protection was a deal. Secularism was the political face of that deal. The nation was thus forever a half-nation, destined to remain an entity perched precariously on an uncertain concept of secularism that would allow pogrom, army brutalities, and strategic isolation of communities on the margins (of the “core”) of the nation. Secularism would mean, in short, building a nationalist core and ‘protecting’ the minorities consequent to that. If secularism began as a moral politics, it soon became a strategy. Thus, the post-Partition Indian State, though committed to the cause of secularism, was not sincere enough to the cause of minority protection. The recurrent attacks on the minorities and the failure of the Government to protect the lives and properties of the minorities clearly indicate so. Anwar Pasha in his novel Neer Sandhanee has portrayed the post-Partition experience of the Muslims of West Bengal. Hasan a Bengali Muslim student migrated to East Bengal just after Partition. After a brief stay there, he came back to West Bengal. He was neither enthusiastic about Pakistan nor prepared to accept Pakistan as his homeland. He rather preferred to stay back in India as India has declared herself as a secular country. Moreover, his conscience did not permit him to leave behind fellow Muslims in an uncertain and helpless condition. His friends failed to convince him that it would not be possible for Muslims to live with the Hindus in India. Mutual mistrust and hatred between the two communities mounted day by day. Even students were not free from communal prejudices of the time. Some Hindu students even refused to share the dormitory with the Muslim students. When a large number of Muslims from West Bengal were migrating to East Pakistan, Hasan was not thinking so. He preferred to stay in India as India was committed to secularism. However, a large number of Muslims who stayed on in West Bengal were not fully convinced with the so-called ideals of secularism. In practice, it was violated very frequently. Thus, Qadir and Malik in the novel opposed Hasan vehemently in the question of secular nature of Indian State. Malik called it Dar-ul-Harb (Land of Enemy), because harassed by a policeman for weaving bears, he had to save it. In spite of severe opposition from the fellow Muslims, people like Hasan, though tiny in number, wanted to stay on in secular India. It is ironical that at the end of the novel Hasan was arrested on charge of not withstanding the liberal attitude of the Indian people.
The Question of Security of Life and Property of the Muslims
The declared official policy of the Indian government in West Bengal was aimed at not evacuating the minorities, as had been done in Punjab, but negotiating with the Pakistani authorities for creating conditions of security, so that a mass exodus could be averted. A number of initiatives were taken to this end. An inter-dominion conference was held at Kolkata in April 1948 where the rehabilitation ministers of the two states made a joint declaration ‘that they are determined to take every possible step to discourage such exodus and to create such conditions as would check mass exodus in either direction’. Another inter-dominion conference met at Delhi in December 1948 to follow up on these measures. Later Nehru-Liaquat Pact was signed on 8 April 1950. These initiatives failed to check the movement of the refugees from East Pakistan to West Bengal. However, some Muslims who had previously migrated to East Bengal returned to West Bengal. Some of them found their ancestral home occupied by Hindu refugees. Muslim property was seized and occupied in many areas to accommodate the refugees from East Pakistan. The refugees even encroached on the graveyards of the Muslims for settlements. Particularly in the areas around the city of Kolkata, many refugee settlements were established on land “formerly inhabited by Muslim labourers and artisans” who were “replaced by displaced Hindus from East Pakistan”. Many Muslims were dispossessed of their homes in the city leading to their “ghettoization” in a few neighbourhoods. They became refugees in their own land. Thus, “it could be argued that East Bengali refugee settlement across West Bengal affected the minority Muslim community most adversely… The need of the refugees’ for new homes pitted them against local West Bengalis, but the widespread dispossession of West Bengali Muslims must be seen as a manifestation of East Bengali refugee communalism driven by as much revenge, as a racist consciousness that marginalized or erased Muslim presence in the new refugee homeland of West Bengal.” The left opposition members in the Legislative Assembly demanded special provisions for the Muslim evacuees in the Eviction Bill (which after subsequent modification became Act XVI of 1951).
The interests of the Muslims could have been safeguarded, at least to some extent, if the West Bengal government had been more sincere about it. Initially the West Bengal government was so confused about rehabilitating the refugees from East Bengal that an influential section thought about evicting the Muslims from the bordering districts of West Bengal to accommodate the Hindu refugees from East Bengal. Annadasankar Roy, then the District Magistrate of Murshidabad has narrated his experience as well as the secret agenda of the West Bengal Government towards the Muslims of the state in his “Binur Diary”:
"One day Binu got a call from the Chief Minister to meet him. After getting down at Sealdah station Binu bought a newspaper and saw that West Bengal was not going to evict the Muslims. All were rumours. Binu reached the secretariat and he was taken to the chamber of the Chief Minister. The commissioner was present there. In the closed-door chamber, the Chief Minister instructed him to push out the Muslims beyond the border within a stipulated time. Binu was astonished. The other District Magistrate requested to extend the time a little. That was sanctioned… Binu got out of the chamber and said to his colleague, ‘Bloodshed in unavoidable. I need written order. You go inside and ask for written order.’ When he asked for written order, the Home Secretary said, ‘No written order will be provided. Oral order is enough.’
…the Home Minister came to the bank of the Padma with Commissioner. A lunch was arranged in their honour on the Government touring launch. The minister was accompanied by a group of his political colleagues…
After the lunch, the minister and the commissioner went for rest. Binu started chatting with the political workers. One of them, sitting beside, said others: ‘A telephone call from Delhi has been received. Now he is not in the country. Do whatever you have to do.’
Binu understood that Jawaharlal was abroad. They had to do what they had thought out before his arrival. The minister came to convince Binu to carry out their plan.
A request came from the minister’s cabin wishing to meet Binu. Stepping into the cabin Binu saw the commissioner present there. That was a tri-party secret meeting.
The meeting started with an introduction praising Binu as an efficient officer… the minister informed Binu that a war with Pakistan was fast approaching. If the Indian army acquired Rajshahi Binu would definitely be the District Magistrate of Rajshahi.
Binu laughed inwardly! He had been the District Magistrate of Rajshahi eleven years back. Recently one of his junior officers had been promoted to the post of secretary bypassing him.
The minister continued, “It is necessary to expel the suspected community before the war. Who can trust the Muslim community of the border region? They are secretly maintaining a tie with the Muslims of Rajshahi. They are quasi-Pakistani. Can you drive them out immediately?”
“I would not do it, rather I would resign.” Binu disagreed, “it could not be done without bloodshed.”
“Let it be so… no problem.”… “Look, thousands of people are coming from the other side due of government repression. How could we rehabilitate them? What should be our policy? Tell me.”
“Rehabilitate them wherever you like. But not on the border. There is not a single piece of vacant land here.” Binu replied.
“Who told you to formulate policy? We will formulate policy. If it is our policy to drive the Muslims of the border out, could you carry it out?” The minister asked.
Binu moved his head, “I can fight if needed but I cannot do such assignment.”
… Two days later, the local MLA informed Binu, “Another I.C.S is coming in your place.”
A large number of Muslims never thought of migrating to Pakistan. Some of them even considered the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan grossly unreasonable. Morshed Ali in Shawkat Ali’s novel Warish was one of them. He admired the plurality of Indian society based on unity in diversity. Naturally, he was not in favour of migrating to Pakistan. One day he found that his newly built house was occupied by a group of refugees from East Bengal. He apprehended a conspiracy to uproot him from his soil. However, he remained unmoved and thought that the communal tension was over. He was wrong to read the situation. The situation continued to worsen. Morshed and members of his family were humiliated. Forced by the circumstances, Morshed decided to migrate to Pakistan against his conviction.
The Congress led West Bengal Government failed to protect the Muslims during the riot of 1964. During the Indo-Pak War in 1965, the Muslims were in general looked down upon with great suspicion. A large number of the Muslims of West Bengal were arrested and humiliated without proper grounds. They were suspected as spies of Pakistan. On the other hand, the Congress, the party in power, tried its best to mobilize the Muslim vote in its favour by bringing the prominent Muslim leaders to its fold. This strategy worked well up to 1962. The 1967 election was a great blow to the Congress in West Bengal as well as other parts of the country. Congress lost eight states after the General Election of 1967. One of the obvious reasons was the erosion in Muslim vote bank. The year 1967 is a turning point to the Muslims of West Bengal too. They gradually came out of the fear syndrome and begun to concentrate on economic development.
The identity crisis of the Muslims
The partition made the identity of the Muslims of West Bengal (as well as Muslims of whole India) very problematic. What should be their status in the newly created nation state, which had been formed on the basis of religious identity? The identity crisis of the Muslims was not altogether a product of the partition. However, the partition added a new dimension to it. There had been an age-old dichotomy between the Muslim identity and the Bengali identity. The identity of the Muslims of Bengal had been partitioned long before the actual partition happened. That fragmented identity of the Muslims of Bengal haunted them very much. The Hindus of Bengal, in general, believed that the Muslims of Bengal were not Bengalis. Primarily, two factors were at play behind this misconception about the Muslims. The Kolkata based Hindu Bengali intellectuals had an important role in it. The majority of the Muslims of Kolkata were non- Bengali in origin. They used to speak in Hindustani and Urdu. Moreover, the upper class Muslims stressed their foreign origin publicly to enhance their social status. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Muslim writers of Bengal developed a distinct style of Bengali language loaded with Urdu and Arabic words. However, at the subaltern level, both the Hindus and the Muslims shared almost the same language and culture. Yet the Muslims of Bengal often faced embarrassing questions like, “Oh, are you a Muslim? I thought you are a Bengali.” The Partition made the identity issue of the Muslims more problematic than before. As a section of the Muslims had demanded Pakistan, the loyalty of the Muslims as a whole was questioned. They were labelled as anti-national and constantly looked upon with a degree of suspicion. Even today, they required to prove that they were not anti-nationals in their everyday life. They are placed in the category of second-class citizen. In the popular mainstream Hindi films, the Muslims were essentialized as feudal, anti-modern, dogmatic, traitors and more recently, since the 1990s, as terrorists. It is interesting that in the post-Independence Bengali films, Muslims are almost missing though they form nearly one fourth of the total population of West Bengal. Same thing has happened in the case of West Bengal based Bengali literature.
The Question of Equity
Theoretically, under the secular constitution of India, all citizens are equal in the eyes of law. The Indian state, which came out of partition, declared itself secular. However, in actual practice, it failed to satisfy the minorities. The minorities, particularly the Muslims were treated separately on the ground of national security as their loyalty was suspected. They were treated as outsiders. They were barred in intelligence services. They are still ill represented in administrative and other higher services as well as in academic institutions at all India level. In West Bengal, the situation was no better. Here, the Muslims were historically far behind the Hindus in respect of wealth, power and education. It was only during the last two decades of the undivided Bengal that the Muslim middle class came out to challenge the superiority of their Hindu counterparts by utilizing the newly acquired political power and benefits of reservation in government jobs. With the partition, the situation changed drastically. The benefit of reservation was withdrawn. Moreover, the arrival of the educated middle class refugees from East Pakistan made it very difficult for the Muslim youth to find a job. Some times the pro-Hindu attitude of the employers came in their way. Sayed Abdul Halim, a retired Deputy Inspector of School, Government of West Bengal spoke out about the discrimination he had experienced in his whole tenure of service.
“I served honestly and sincerely through out my service life (1955-91). However, I did not get due promotion though many of my junior officers got that. It was very difficult for the educated Muslim youth to get jobs in our times… before the coming of the West Bengal School Service Commission, as almost all the school managing committees were controlled by the Hindus; it was very difficult for our boys to get into the school service. Today my two sons are serving in schools. I am sure; they could not have got these jobs if the School Service Commission had not been formed.”
Though Muslims are inadequately represented in the state services there is no provision for any reservation for them in West Bengal. Some other states like Kerala have provided statutory reservations for Muslims in jobs and admission in educational institutions. Muslims account for 23% of the population of Kerala. Provisions for reservation have been made for them by the Government of Kerala under Articles 15 (4) and 16 (4) of the Constitution of India and there has been no legal hurdle to such reservations.
Thus, the partition had a disastrous effect on the Muslims of Bengal. The partition drove out the creamy layer of the Muslim society of West Bengal. Those who stayed on were progressively marginalized in every aspect of life. During the first two decades after partition, they faced a tremendous communal hostility. The Hindus, particularly the Hindu refugees demonized the Muslims, as a collective cultural memory of uprootment from their homeland (for which they blamed the Muslims) had been very much powerful among them. The Hindu Bengali refugees intensified the general hostility towards the Muslims of West Bengal that was reflected in repeated attacks on them. The prime agenda of the Muslims of West Bengal was how to secure their life and property. They isolated themselves into ghettos, particularly in the riot-affected areas like Kolkata. The ghettoization of the Muslims and their withdrawal from the mainstream society is one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary history of West Bengal. They faced a very complex crisis of identity. How to locate themselves in the new political system that emerged out of Independence/ Partition was one of the greatest challenges to the Muslims of West Bengal (as well as India). They were isolated, alienated and their identity was fragmented. Therefore, we have now the reproduction of the concept of partition as the only way out, even when the nation is not being territorially partitioned. Each group now must have its own defined territory. Our nationalist history seems have left no other solution for us. Thus, the territorial partition leads to more fragmentation in the partitioned societies, which is evident from the experience of the Muslims of West Bengal after the Partition in 1947.
[A version of this paper has been published in Indian Journal of Politics, Vol. XLII, No.1 & 2 (January-June 2009)]