The mass Hindu migration bears a complex history of immense human suffering
The most contentious historical issue between Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims is the migration of a very large number of Hindus from East Bengal (East Pakistan) around partition and in the following decades, and even from Bangladesh later. The process appears to still be ongoing, although at a hugely reduced rate. This change was not entirely a smooth and spontaneous one. It involved the uprooting of a large settled population from their ancestral land, where the elite of the same had been in a very dominant position hitherto. The pain, sufferings, and nostalgia have been immense, and they haunted generations of millions of people.
Parallel to this silent tragedy, “Bengaliness” -- a language-centric identity consciousness -- has flourished, starting from its caste Bengali Hindu base in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. On one hand, it gradually accommodated the vast middle and lower caste Hindus of greater Bengal. On the other, Muslims of Bengal have embraced, to a substantial extent, the “Bengali” identity alongside their local and global Muslimness.
A secular identity hinged on language and common aspects of the culture of this linguistic group, otherwise quite distinctly divided along the lines of faith and religio-culture within it, emerged slowly in both post-partition Bengals. However, the trajectory of community history for Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims differed quite a bit. The difference is rooted not just in the events around the time of partition; rather, it goes back a long way to colonial encroachment of the post-Mughal, independent Bengal Sultanate by the British in the middle of the 18th century.
While the Hindus readily accepted British rule and started cooperating with them in setting up the new colonial administration -- and the Hindu traders continued trading, paid taxes, and flourished -- the weakening Muslim aristocracy was unsure of how to come to terms with the new reality. The close contact of upper and middle caste Bengali Hindus with the British resulted in prosperity of Bengali Hindus, and set into motion the identity formation of the Bengali Hindu gentry. The Bengal renaissance ensued and Bengali language and culture flourished with a high degree of Sanskritized Hindu characteristics.
Muslims, on the other hand, fell behind on socio-economic progress due to British discrimination against them, and also for their own inwardness. In pre-British times, there was almost equal representation of Hindus and Muslims among the feudal class spread across each locality of Bengal. The British made this overwhelmingly Hindu-dominated through the Permanent Settlement Act and other later acts. Many Hindu traders became landed aristocracy in a short span of time.
The local Muslim aristocracy was largely reduced to smaller or marginal land-holders. Gradually, local Muslim aristocrats, who had roots in the west, mixed with ordinary local Muslims to make up the community of Bengali-speaking Muslims. The British patronized a tiny Muslim elite at a regional or provincial level. They could hardly contribute to the emancipation of the vast Muslim peasants, who were subjects of the British-made Hindu feudal. However, this small Muslim elite took up the political leadership of Bengali speaking Muslims since the early 20th century, and the Bengali Muslim middle class gradually started to show its nascent form in the 1930s and 1940s -- almost a century later than that of the Hindus.
During the British rule, this gulf of difference in socio-economic conditions between Bengali Hindus and Bengali speaking Muslims later resulted in the Pakistan movement, where Bengali Muslims sought their own geographic domain for their belated yet quick advancement in the form of a political unit. The outcome was the eastern part of the Bengal Presidency of British India becoming East Pakistan. And that’s when the tragedy of Hindus in East Bengal or East Pakistan started.
The creation of Pakistan as the homeland of sub-continental Muslims and the departure of British colonial power completely changed the power equation in East Bengal. Hindu zamindars collected taxes largely from their Muslim subjects at the behest of the British Raj. With the colonial army and police replaced by the Pakistan army and police, and the political power going to the Muslims followed by communal partition-time riots, the Hindu elites and socio-political leadership panicked and started deserting East Bengal for the welcoming India.
Many already had property and family across the Radcliffe line and many exchanged property with solvent Muslims aspiring to come to East Pakistan from India. Caste cleavage was another weakness of the Hindu minorities of East Bengal. Prosperous Hindus were a minority among the Hindus but they occupied powerful positions. Their departure created a panicked and irreversible momentum of Hindu migration over the two decades after the partition. Many Muslims took advantage of this Hindu weakness and provoked the prosperous Hindus to leave for India by creating various forms of pressure with a view to grab their property. Such persecution was later extended to the poor Hindus too.
The Hindu leadership in East Bengal was in complete disarray. They didn’t know what to do. The Hindus were sizable in East Bengal during the partition, with a population ratio of about 27%. Just clinging on would eventually have made them politically valuable in this era of universal adult franchise.
The deaths of Jinnah and Liakat Ali Khan and the takeover of Pakistan by autocrats like Iskander Mirza and General Ayub Khan worsened the Hindu situation in East Bengal. No one was interested in taking care of vulnerable minorities in Pakistan. The absence of meaningful elections reduced the political value of the Hindus and the persecution was perpetuated.
About 6 million Hindus migrated from East Pakistan to India in the first two decades after partition. In the 1950s, about 27% of Kolkata’s population were migrants from East Bengal. The reverse movement of the Muslims into East Pakistan was roughly counted as 1.5 million. Many Hindus of 1971 -- mass refugees from Bangladesh to India -- are also suspected to have stayed back in West Bengal, Tripura, and Barak valley. In present-day West Bengal, the number of East Bengali migrants and their descendants may go as high as 15 million.
In West Bengal, the Muslims were largely poor and hardly had any motivation to migrate. Muslims were more tribal and relatively more aggressive in nature than the Hindus, who were quite diverse within themselves. On the other hand, closer solidarity among the Muslims helped them to create deterrence against direct persecution towards them by the majority in West Bengal. But faith tribalism and the lack of openness to modern education among Muslims caused them significant harm. Conservative solidarity is a double-edged sword.
The sufferings of the Hindus have often gone unnoticed by the enlightened part of the majority in East Pakistan. In those times, print media wasn’t well developed in East Bengal, and there was hardly any electronic media barring state-run radio. The news collection coverage was way below ideal. Political news of the tumultuous East Bengal stole the limelight.
Hence, this silent persecution, suffering, and resultant quiet migration of the Hindus continued. Rumours of persecution of Muslims in India -- true or false -- were used by religious bigots to attack or create disturbance for the Hindus. Incidents included the one in Hazrat Bal Mosque of Indian Kashmir in 1964, where a claimed hair of Prophet Muhammad was stolen, coloured, and portrayed as Hindu conspiracy against Muslims in India.
In reaction to this rumour, Dhaka, Narayanganj, and many other places saw Muslim criminals with various motives rioting against the Hindus. Often, such attacks had ulterior motives of grabbing the property of the Hindus, even by forcing them to migrate to India. There were also incidents of abduction of Hindu girls, their forced conversion to Islam, and forced marriage to Muslims.
The Hindu-Muslim strife wasn’t a sudden creation. It goes further back -- perhaps to the nature of Islam and Hinduism as religions, including their evolutions as socio-political forces in this part of the world and the way they influenced the lives of their followers.
There is a complex history. Hindus and Muslims lived in parallel worlds in British Bengal. The Hindu one was prosperous, and the sizable group of the Hindu elite was close to colonial power since the beginning. The Hindu elite were also included significantly in the hierarchy of the pre-British Independent Bengal Sultanate and Mughal Bengal.
However, they switched sides quickly after British victory. They cooperated with the colonial dispensation. The Hindu elite and middle class received a significant chunk of the resources of the colonial state. On the other hand, the vast majority of Muslims were largely impoverished cultivators and their elite, after losing their aristocratic status of the Bengal Sultanate, were confused in the early stages of colonial Bengal about how to deal with the British Raj. Even in the localities of Bengal under the British Raj, local Muslim elites didn’t match the wealth and power of their Hindu counterparts, whose ascent under British patronization was spectacular. In fact, the apex ruling class changed from Muslims with western origins to the modernizing British, and Hindus rather welcomed it.
However, in the early years of the 20th century, the British wanted to lift the backward Muslims. They also sensed that too much of Bengali Hindu influence was detrimental to their own hegemony. Hence, they turned towards the Muslims and tried to patronize them for political and economic progress, and also as a counter force to Hindu dominance. By then, Muslims learned from the Hindus that cooperating with the British was the way forward for community emancipation. The rest of the history of Hindu-Muslim discord is basically the stride of the Muslims towards socio-economic rise to catch up with their neighbouring Hindus, and the Hindu resistance to maintain the hegemonic status quo in their favour.
When the British divided the Bengal presidency to favour the Muslims, the Hindus exerted their accumulated power in the form of “Banga Bhanga Rod” (repeal of the division of Bengal) and the Swadeshi Movement, which were inclined to some kind of Hindutva mixed with Indian nationalism. Only this time, the Hindu leadership remembered their poor Muslim neighbours and asked them to join the movement in the spirit of Bengaliness and Indianness.
But that was against the interest of the Bengali Muslims, as the new province of East Bengal and Assam were designed to give space to the backward Muslims to prosper. Muslim leadership at that time was quite mindful of that, although they were in no way near as powerful as the Hindus. Due to sheer scale of the Hindu movement for the repeal of the division, the British administration eventually had to bow to that pressure. But they took their revenge by shifting the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi, and by separating Bihar and Odissa from the Bengal presidency.
Peasant movements were the early form of Muslim political expressions against tax policy of the British and zamindars. The latter were mostly Hindus and the peasants were mostly Muslims. With the gradual devolution of power, limited though, by the British to the natives and the introduction of elections gave the Muslims a real opportunity to make some stride using politics as a tool.
For Bengali Muslims, Pakistan was more of an essential domain for socio-economic progress rather than Muslim nationhood. However, the Bengali Muslims’ ascent was tumultuous rather than smooth. There were two fault lines for Bengali Muslims. One was to take over social, political, and economic power from the minority Hindus in East Bengal, who were hitherto in command of these arenas in East Bengal as continuation from the British Bengal, and the other was finding a proper place in Pakistan, especially by countering West Pakistani domination.
While the headlines were stolen by the political events in East Pakistan since the very inception of Pakistan, the developments in the other fault line went largely unnoticed in the East Pakistani elite consciousness, or perhaps ignored. Affirmative action in the form of educational and job reservations for the Muslims could have been a civilized way of favouring this vast, backward population for progress. In reality and at ground level, it almost turned into Hindu uprooting and grabbing of Hindu property, aided by a confused Hindu leadership, the departure of many prosperous Hindus due to the Hindu majority pull of surrounding India, Hindu disunity along caste lines, etc.
An almost unstoppable migration trend was set in motion. Many Muslims turned violent towards Hindus and became greedy for their assets after finding the latter vulnerable, especially in places where Hindu domination was overwhelming in the pre-partition era. Most of such property encroachment was done through a mixture of classes -- poor, powerful jotdars (middle peasant), aspiring lower middle class with political connections, etc.
Persecution and forced migration were even extended to poor lower-caste Hindus, and that’s the conclusive proof that mass Hindu migration from east Bengal wasn’t just a voluntary act due to community-based partition of the sub-continent and the presidency of Bengal. Orthodox Islam was often used or misused to unleash so called anti-infidel (read: Hindu) persecution. The political leadership of East Pakistan conveniently turned a blind eye.
Like the history of many other parts of the sub-continent, the modern history of Bengal, especially the Hindu-Muslim accounts, is complex. Determining the right causal relations of chains of events and their objective community and maintaining neutral judgment is difficult. That’s how even the liberal narratives of socio-political developments of British Bengal from West Bengal and Bangladesh differ significantly.
This mass Hindu migration was a less publicized thing in East Pakistan and later in Bangladesh, and still is. In West Bengal, people are by and large aware of the facts, and there is a silent and lingering discontent passing from generation to generation among the migrants and the host communities who also had to bear some of the brunt. The sufferers often blame a host of people, ranging from Congress and Muslim League leadership to Muslims of East Bengals, and especially the radical elements of the group for their generational misery.
But in the age of enhanced connectivity through movements, TV, internet, and social media, the heat of discontent can still be felt. It was there for many decades and it’s not going to go away anytime soon, although it doesn’t have any immediate implication. The partition migrants of both India and Pakistan are already settled with their new lives in their current places. Many had better fighting spirit due to their misfortune and did better than the locals. However, regressive and divisive political forces are trying to tap into this old wound for current political gains.
Above all, it’s a history of immense human suffering. The once thriving Hindus have become a marginal community now in Bangladesh. There was a world of this community in East Bengal which was full of life, happiness, creativity, and relative prosperity. Literature, music, theatre, and all other aspects of Bengali culture and intellectual, political, and social activism flourished due to the initiatives and contribution of Bengali Hindus of East Bengal alongside the west. Bengali Muslims picked it up from there. There was, and perhaps still is, a lack of creativity and free thinking among Bengali Muslims due to the backward pull of conservative Islam.
Philanthropic acts by Hindu zamindars, colonial officials, and wealthy businessman benefitted both Hindus and Muslims. Today, Bangladeshis have made a country of relatively prosperous cities, townships, and villages with an upwardly economy of their own. But the intellectual, creative, and cultural rise of Bengali Muslims, as it is today, especially in Bangladesh, had started holding the hands of Bengali Hindus.
This is an undeniable reality. Bengali Muslims are considered relatively liberal in the Islamic world, which is a good feat to achieve going by universal standards. It probably wouldn’t have been possible without positive Bengali Hindu influence on Bengali Muslims.
The wound of Hindu migration is a grave one. Many of the lost properties are already occupied and used by many poor and middle-class occupants. Hundreds of thousands of families are dependent on those now. Thinking of reversing everything is impracticable. Bangladesh has amended the notorious “Enemy Property Act” to make way for reclaiming some of the properties lost by the Hindus.
This is probably not enough to redeem the extensive pain suffered by the community. The pain can only be healed -- fully or partially -- by acknowledgement and reconciliation. Bangladesh must find a way to do that.
There is hardly any possibility of a political union of the parts of historical Bengal. But bridging the mental cleavage in this era of connectivity can be a goal. No mass human suffering should go unrecognized. Otherwise, there won’t be any distinction between human sensitivities and savage denials.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.