From the early part of 17th century, the great news about India’s wealth and affluence started to spread far and wide and invariably it reached the Western ears. The West was, of course, the centres of political and military might of the world at that time. Although India’s population was about 10% of world population, its economy was more than 30% of world’s GDP, taking the whole of Western economy into consideration. The amazing quality of muslin fabric in Dhaka, the exotic aromatic spices of South India, the evocating flavour of Assam tea etc were great attractions to the Western explorers, adventurers, fortune seekers and, of course, colonizers.
The Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and latterly British fortune seekers and colonizers all started streaming in various guises at various ports of India, Sri Lanka and even beyond into Indonesia and so forth. But the golden goose of India was the province of Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal in India) where wealth was fabulous, people were generous, mild-mannered and hospitable. But the provincial administration was ridden with selfishness, sycophancy, antagonism and conspiracy; in short, it was simply in dysfunctional state. On top of that, the Moghul Empire at the centre in Delhi was just crumbling down. The European fortune seekers and colonizers could not dream of a better set of conditions to fulfil their ambitions than in India.
The East India Company of Britain started their stall in Calcutta in the 17th century as a simple trading post for import and export of various commodities. As they made jaw-dropping profits and their economic and political powers grew much bigger for their boots, the British government took notice. Moreover, when America managed to tear itself away from the British hegemony, Britain turned its attention towards the East. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (the 1st Indian War of Independence) when the British colonizers just managed to hang on to powers by the skin of their teeth, the East India Company was nationalised urgently and India was taken under the British Crown and it became officially a British colony in 1858 CE.
Fast forward nearly a hundred years and come to the turbulent period of 1940s, when World War II was ravaging and tearing apart the very fabric of human society and civilisation, Britain as a major combatant had no option but to agree to grant freedom to the people whose support she needed badly at that time. America also had been exerting tremendous amount of pressure on Britain to decolonise its territories. After the end of war in 1945, Britain started to decolonise in earnest and in great haste.
In India, the poison of sectarian division had been sown for decades, if not centuries, first by the petty bourgeoisie administration and then firmly by the British Raj to ‘Divide and Rule’ the country. The Hindus and Muslims had been told that they were totally different people, different race and different culture. It played very nicely at the hands of opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians and rulers, although the great national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and a few other leaders took a somewhat different stance. They asserted that the Muslims and Hindus in independent India would live in self-governing states based on democratic principles. But that that did not assuage the fear of the underclass Muslims being overwhelmed by the Hindu majority or the Hindu superiority. The political leaders of the Hindu majority did nothing to dispel such fears of the minority community; on the contrary they were rather flaming the fears.
The two communities started drifting apart ever since Allama Iqbal proclaimed his sectarian Two-Nation Theory (TNT) in 1930, where he envisaged the creation of a separate Muslim State in the North West part of India for Indian Muslims. Only as an after-thought Iqbal said years later that there was no reason why Bengal should not join the Muslim State. Although Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not keen to have a separate Muslim State at the beginning, but under Iqbal’s persuasion and, to some extent, due to antagonistic attitudes of some communal Hindu politicians, he gradually drifted towards separate two-nation-state idea.
However, when at the Lahore Conference of the Muslim League (ML) in 1940, the creation of a Muslim State, called Pakistan, on the basis of two-nation theory was adopted, the partition of India was virtually sealed. Communal feelings ran high throughout the whole of India and sometimes they boiled over into communal riots. In the 1946 provincial election in British India, the creation of Pakistan was a matter of patriotism, self-preservation and religiosity all rolled into one for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslims in the province were mostly landless farmers, day labourers and contract workers. So, they took the election as an opportunity to seek emancipation from not only the British colonial yoke but also Hindu dominance.
The election was also taken as a new dawn for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslim League got nearly 95% Muslim seats (114 out of 119 of all Muslim seats) in Legislative Assembly of Bengal. That was the best performance of the Muslim League in the whole of the country. Although 114 seats out of the Provincial Seats of 250 were not the majority, but they were the overwhelmingly dominant group.
Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as a student leader, was a staunch supporter of the Muslim League and was associated with Husain Shahid Suhrawardy, a very prominent leader of the Muslim League from Bengal. He went to Sylhet with about 500 students from Calcutta to campaign for Pakistan before plebiscite in that district of Assam. The election result was the outcome of emancipation of dispossessed and landless farmers who had been promised to be made landed farmers.
Things started moving at break-neck speed after the Provincial Election in 1946. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared on 20 February, 1947 to give independence to India within two years. On 3rd June 1947, British government formally accepted the division of British India into India and Pakistan. However, nobody, not even the top leaders like Jinnah and Nehru had the faintest idea on 3rd June what the two countries would look like. Communal riots broke out throughout the whole country due to uncertainty. This vagueness had created a grave chaotic situation and aggravated the plight of people who suffered tremendously during the partition. Hindus in their millions moved from anticipated Pakistani territories in one direction and Muslims from Indian territories moved in the opposite direction and anger spilled over these moving migrants!
The British government washed its hands off from all responsibilities for the peaceful transfer of power and oversight of proper partition of the subcontinent under the guise of its commitment to transfer power as soon as possible. On 17th August 1947, the first batch of British military troops set sail out of Bombay for home. Both India and Pakistan had been left on their own devices to slug it out.
But the province of Bengal (the then East Pakistan) where the British East India Company first set its foot some 200 years ago was in much disorientated state. It joined up, albeit on the strength of the provincial election in 1946, with another province (in fact, four provinces in West Pakistan which were later merged into one) which was some 1500 miles away, separated by an enemy state (as per Pakistani version). There was no common tenuous bondage between these two provinces except only religion; everything else like culture, language, attire, attitude and even race were different. The state of Pakistan was simply huddled up on the outcome of an election, which was based on emotion and centuries of pent-up injustices on the Muslims, and from undue haste of the British colonial masters to depart.
Within one year of Pakistan’s independence, in 1948, the severe fault line appeared when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in Dhaka, East Pakistan that Urdu would be the national language. But by far the majority, nearly 55%, of the whole country’s population was Bengali speaking and Urdu was spoken by less than 20% of the population. So, what was the justification for Urdu to be national language other than sheer subjugation of East Pakistan?
The Language Movement ensued in 1952 when police opened fire on unarmed university students and killed eight of them, when they demanded Bengali to be the national language. Ever since that time, West Pakistan tried to kowtow the Bengalis into total submission and keep them as the underclass in the country. The Punjabis of West Pakistan started dominating by sheer military strength all spheres of activities in life – economy, education, employment, the civil service, sports and so forth and worst of all, they were conducting organised campaign to wipe out the Bengali identity by disenfranchising Bengali and to force people to learn Urdu. When Britain withdrew in 1947, Pakistan became the de-fact colonial power over East Pakistan and started exploiting with even more ruthlessness than the British.
Pertaining to Bangladesh liberation war, 1971
The independence for Bengalis (Muslims and Hindus) in Bangladesh did not come about until 16th December 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan and became a sovereign independent state. So, it can truly be said that there was a hiatus of 24 years for the Bengalis. The process of independence, which started on 14th August 1947 when the British Crown hurriedly left the scene without fulfilling its colonial obligations and responsibilities, did not come to completion until the 16th December 1971. Then and only then the true partition could be said to have been completed.
- Dr. Anisur Rahman (a nuclear scientist) is an author and a columnist and
- Dr. Jadabeswar Bhatrtacharjee (a medical doctor) is a freelance writer.