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Dhaka Tribune

Partition’s parting shots

Update : 18 Aug 2014, 06:03 PM

The Partition of India and the vivisection of Bengal in 1947 no longer stands at the front and centre of public consciousness in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Liberation from Pakistan in 1971 pushed them onto the backburner, and the tragic murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family on August 15, 1975  has given the date(s) of Partition – August 14 and 15, 1947 – a different colour in Bangladesh altogether.

Indeed, the very existence of Bangladesh has effectively put the two-nation theory, upon which Partition was predicated, permanently out to pasture and has correspondingly driven it away from most East Bengali discourses. The very name East Bengal has all but disappeared as well, hastily buried to be able to slam shut the door to history and begin again, new and improved, only as the Republic of Bangladesh.  

But mental magic-rope tricks can’t erase centuries of sociology or the calamitous events that accompany it, no matter how emotionally inconvenient it may be to remember them. The balm of nationalism and the pride of nation-statehood go a long way toward taking the sting out of past injustices, but many of the issues that both led to and are a consequence of Partition still affect the sovereign Bengali nation-state that now exists in place of the province.

Although a great deal of Partition-inspired art and literature, as well as academic research, focuses on the western boundary between India and Pakistan, where the violence and the upheaval is believed to have been more acute, crucial opportunities to understand its causes and effects are missed when one considers the nuances of Partition in the east, and the absence of a clean, quick break here, which led to the events of 1971.

Bengal’s vital role in both Indian and Muslim nationalism leading up to 1947 is also an essential part of the story of Partition, which too often remains untold. It is often forgotten, for instance, that the Muslim League was founded in Dhaka in 1906; that AK Falzul Huq, the premier of an undivided Bengal drafted and presented the Lahore Resolution in 1940 (even though the draft called for “muslim states” in plural) and that Direct Action Day in 1946 sparked the Kolkata Riots that led to widespread communal violence in undivided India.

Even less is known about the attempts at securing Kolkata as the capital of East Pakistan, about the Hindu Mahasabha’s role in taking West Bengal and Assam out of the Pakistani equation, and the very real push for a united, independent Bengal by Sarat Chandra Bose, Huseyn Shahid Surhawardy, and Abul Hashem.

East Bengal’s struggles with its orientation are at the heart of its experience with Partition, and subsequently with its experience within Pakistan. Quite often, the same individuals that stressed its Islamic character also opposed communalism, and many of the architects of Pakistan were also the vanguards of Bengali linguistic nationalism.

This schizophrenic behaviour is most apparent in men like Surhawardy and Fazlul Huq, who championed a Muslim homeland but also supported a Bengali nation-state and bi-communal politics.(Fazlul Huq refused to join the Muslim League because it was a platform for Muslims only).This existential dilemma  has led to East Bengal being the only territory in all of South Asia to have enthusiastically subscribed to, and then to have emphatically forsaken the narrow confines of the two-nation theory.

To understand and critically discuss the factors that led to this, the Bayaan Collective, in partnership with University Press Limited and Dhaka Tribune, hosted “Partition Week: Nations and notions” from August 10-14, with the hope of creating a dialogue on the relevance of Partition in the present time. The event was the first of its kind in Dhaka, and brought together academics, writers, filmmakers and researchers, all of whom presented papers on a particular aspect of Partition.

Four films related to Partition were also screened. The week began with an exploration into the socio-economic circumstances that have driven Bengali Cinema, before and after 1947 and the subtexts of national identity that inform storytelling. Presented by Dr Zakir Hossein Raju, from his book “Bangladeshi Cinema and National Identity” the talk focused on the narrative monopoly that Hindu Bengali “bhadroloks” enjoyed in an undivided Bengal, at the expense of Bengali Muslims.

Much like corresponding references in literary works, in cinema too, Hindu Bengali identity attempted to assert itself as the only “true” Bengali identity, with Muslims being just generically “Muslim.”

The fact that this was successfully established for a brief period, despite Bengali Muslims being in the majority and Bengali literature being developed, for the first time, by Muslim Bengali Sultans in the 1400s, is a testament to the social and economic exclusion that characterised British patronage of Hindu zamindars in 18th century Bengal.

It is also evidence of the pan-Islamic nature of anti-colonial struggles in many Muslim-majority areas. According to Dr Zakir, the desire to establish a “second Bengali cinema,” coincided with the need to establish “seperate Bengaliness,” which could reflect the experience and culture of eastern Bengal-delta.

By 1947 the need for “national cultural modernity” among Muslim Bengalis stood in contrast to both the pan-Islamism of the Pakistan movement and the Bengali “bhadrolok” identity of the Bengal Renaissance, neither of which represented the unique experience of being both Bengali and Muslim.

The creation of East Pakistan and a second Bengali film industry was therefore seen as an opportunity to develop characters and a film language entirely its own, that would provide a vehicle for this identity. However, panelist Manzare Hassin Murad, an independent documentary  filmmaker, opined that apart from a few films like “Mukh o Mukhosh,”  Bangladeshi cinema, as the successor of East Pakistani cinema, has fallen very short of that mark.

The point being made overall, is that a 19th century Bengali identity was unable to achieve the “singular, secular, cultural marker” required for unity, in spite of such an identity existing in the middle ages, and this manifests itself in virtually all spheres of life, even in cinema.

The second session of Partition Week dealt with the much more complicated question of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and its inclusion in a Muslim majority East Pakistan despite it being a predominantly non-Muslim area. Tamina Chowdury from Cambridge University presented a paper of the intricacies of communal politics in the region and the economic consideration that affecting the boundary.

According to her research, the CHT was not included in the Muslim League’s original demands for territory nor was it of particular interest to the Congress, which viewed it as beyond the pale of Indian civilisation. Being a frontier land, it was an excluded territory, and therefore had no representation in the Bengal Assembly.

Effectively no one from the CHT had the political authority to determine it’s fate, which was left to the judiciousness of the Boundary Commission. The League developed an interest in it when it realised it would not be awarded Kolkata, and would only have Chittagong as Pakistan’s eastern port. Infrastructural projects already underway to develop Chittagong port required the hinterland, the CHT as well as Kaptai Lake, to be connected to it and so it was economic and infrastructural considerations, more than anything else that led to the CHT being part of East Pakistan.

The Congress and the Hindu Mahsabha eventually did make a bid for the CHT, and its one of the few instances in Partition history that the demands of the Congress were not put above all other considerations when allocating territory. The Congress generally had far greater say than the Muslim League in the way Partition unfolded.

Similar to the CHT, traditionally muslim areas like Maldah and Murshidabad were not awarded to Pakistan (even though they originally had been, they were finally awarded to India on August 17, 1947) because that would have cut the “seven sister” states of North Eastern India apart from the Indian mainland. Religious considerations were only one among many other things that determined the drawing of lines in South Asia.

The third Partition Week session looked at the historical legacy that led to people becoming “stranded Pakistanis” or Biharis as they are more commonly known in Bangladesh, after they arrived at their “promised land” and became unwelcome foreigners there.

Presented by Dina Siddiqi of Brac University, the session correctly identified the Biharis as among the worst sufferers of Partition, finding themselves constant victims of prejudice, and stateless twice in 25 years. Having left their lives in India behind, Muslims from the eastern part of the Ganges basin moved to East Pakistan in search of a life free from communal strife, but became embroiled in an ethno-linguistic conflict that resulted in their total disenfranchisement.

That many of them sided with Pakistan over Bangladesh is not unusual or unexpected, considering they were not Bengali and stood to become second-class citizens in a country based on linguistic nationalism. But not all of them did, and that’s the point that is often overlooked in the search for scapegoats and enemies.

Session 2 and session 3 dealt with the narratives that led to the creation of Bangladesh and East Pakistan, and examined how they ignored the realities on the ground, leading to exclusion, prejudice, hatred and conflict. A perpetual “othering” – using either religion or language, has been an enduring problem in Bengal, traces of which still plague the current state and erupt into violent confrontation from time to time.

The topics of discussion at the fourth and fifth sessions centred on the grand narratives o f Partition and the personal stories that are the result of it.

Dr Emdadul Haq of North South University presented paper on the conditions and attitudes among both Hindus and Muslims that led to demands for a Muslim homeland, and more specifically for the dividing of Bengal. He ascribes a lot of the blame to Hindu attitudes towards Muslims, who were seen as an underclass, but also to Muslim attitudes regarding Western and Hindu civilisation, which they viewed as morally inferior.

Literature and rhetoric before Partition intensified these differences, and even though men like Jinnah originally championed Hindu-Muslim unity, they were unable to contend with the forces that were determined to pull the communities apart, unnaturally and deliberately.

Among the narratives around 1947, there was also talk of a united independent Bengal, which, despite numerous efforts, fell apart at the 12th hour as Hindu Bengalis became anxious about living in a muslim-majority country. It’s interesting to note that there was hardly any talk of East Bengal remaining with India even though that may have been the only way to keep Bengal together. Muslim Bengalis were the least amiable, it seems, to remaining in a multi-religious, multicultural environment.

The final session of the week delved into personal stories, some tragic and others triumphant, as boundary lines ran through families, districts, neighbourhoods and villages. Once again, an unnatural “othering” was superimposed upon actual differences, creating East Bengali migrants in West Bengal and West Bengali migrants in East Bengal, who had family members in the opposite parts.

These communities struggled to integrate into a new society and align themselves to new identities – Indian, Pakistani, and then Bangladeshi. The jarring nature of these experiences, along with the violence often experienced or witnessed created a displaced generation who’s psychological disconnections played out in the public sphere and in literature.

Along with cultural traits that were specific to regional identities, languages and dialects also struggled to survive in this tumultuous atmosphere. The session was hosted by Dr Ferdous Azim of Brac University and also featured journalist Afsan Choudhury  

The legacy of Partition manifests itself in Bangladesh through these and other examples of displacement and prejudice. University Press Limited has a number of titles dealing with these issues in both English and Bengali; “A Divided Legacy,” “Partition’s Post-Amnesias,” “Fault Lines” and “Bangla Bhag Holo” give a clearer picture about the complexities of identity and the fallout of separation. But it would be foolish to imagine that these issues exist in isolation.

The conditions that created the catastrophe that was Partition, which led to the largest mass exodus in human history, still exist in British India’s successor states. In spite of divisions, population exchanges, boundary fences and nation-state building, nothing has really changed. The same policies of exclusion, prejudice and contempt plague Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, and pit their populations against themselves as well as against one another.

These are ailments of the heart and can’t be remedied with borders and boundaries. For South Asia to be truly free of communalism, etho-linguistic chauvinism and racism, it will have to examine its commitment to multiculturalism and its belief in the principles of pluralism and the complexities of identity. Until we can appreciate that differences and contradictions are a healthy part of our social experience and learn to rise above petty hatreds, we will be condemning ourselves of continuing cycles of bigotry and bloodshed. 

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