The Partition that happened 70 years ago has generated much interest recently in the American and British press and television. Surprisingly, there has not been any significant discussion on the matter here -- although Bengali Muslims played a vital role in the struggle for Indian independence.
The Partition of India and Pakistan was based on the two-nation theory that Muslims and Hindus are two distinct nations. It was the August 1946 Calcutta Hindu Muslim communal riots that I witnessed as a boy of 12 years of age, which precipitated the partition.
The struggles of Muslims
Nothing illustrates the condition of Muslims in pre-partition Muslim majority East Bengal better than the life sketch of my late father, born to a poor impoverished cultivator’s family. Muslims then were mostly a cultivator’s class deprived of economic opportunities of education, jobs, health care, hygiene, and housing.
Whatever social opportunities were available were confined to the Hindus and patronised by the British who believed in “divide and rule.” They constituted what was known as Hindu bhodrolok community of lawyers, doctors, teachers, writers, businessmen, and government officials.
The Muslims suffering from neglect, destitution, exclusion, and perpetual pain of debt were literally the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Hindu landed gentry.
In our village, my father was the first Muslim who completed his graduate studies with distinction because of his sheer determination in overcoming daunting circumstances, mostly of financial distress. He walked 10 miles each day back and forth from his home to his school and college. He defrayed the expense of his education by engaging in private tuition of boys and girls.
Pressed by poverty, he abandoned hopes for higher studies; and in order to support my grandfather’s family of nine children, he looked for a job. But in those days, it was not easy for Muslims to find a job without influence. Muslims then were virtually in a state of social segregation and apartheid.
Forlorn and depressed, one day he showed up at a recruiting centre in police lines in our district town in Comilla. He was offered a job, at the lowest rung in the police department. He had no choice. Starvation was staring in the face of his family.
It was in 1927 that he accepted the job, and he languished for 20 years in subordinate positions as assistant sub-inspector of police, sub-inspector of police, and police inspector till Independence in August 1947, when he was promoted as deputy superintendent of police and moved from Calcutta to Dhaka -- the provincial capital of East Bengal, later named East Pakistan.
I shudder to think of our fate in the absence of Partition
Dhaka in 1947, even after Partition, witnessed intermittent communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. Concerned about our security, my father sent me and my elder brother to Brahmanbaria, our sub-divisional hometown for admission in Annada High School, reputed for academic excellence.
The tough looking Hindu headmaster Binod Behari Dev, with a pugnacious mustache, said in a gruff voice that there was no seat vacant in his school, and advised us to seek admission in George High School or Edward High School. Later we discovered that his high school was exclusively for Hindus. My father was adamant.
We were finally admitted due to his insistent personal interest and the intervention of local authorities. In the evening, when I moved about in the town, I noticed that there was no sign of a Muslim presence in the society.
I had the same experience in 1951, when I moved for my college education to Faridpur, a district town where my father was posted. In Rajendra College, there was not a single Muslim professor in the faculty belt with the solitary exception of one who taught Urdu and Arabic. The names of all doctors, lawyers, and shops in the town bore distinctly Hindu names.
As a child, I imagined in my naivete that Hindus were a superior race and Muslims lacked merit and talent. Hence we were left out of the loop of privilege. It was only later when I grew up that I realised that the causes of backwardness of Muslims was discrimination and a lack of economic opportunities to them.
An unpleasant truth
Years later in 1980, when I was serving as a first secretary in our diplomatic mission in Calcutta, I went to see Annada Shankar Roy, a noted Bengali writer and a former formidable Indian civil service (ICS) officer, the administrative arm of the British Raj. He looked at my visiting card and said that it was unfortunate for him to remain alive to see a Bengali introducing himself as a diplomat of a foreign country.
I could not help but retort, pointing out the exploitation of Muslims by Hindus who treated Muslims most unfairly, as untouchables and outcasts. He looked at me with a grimace. It was clear he was not prepared for such a blunt unpleasant truth.
During the remaining nine years of his career after Partition, my father received two promotions as additional superintendent of police and superintendent of police in quick succession. After retirement, he built a house in Dhanmondi. He raised his children with the best education opportunities he could afford.
We have had the privilege and opportunity to spread out around the world and hold high-ranking jobs in the US and the UK.
Thus, we were no longer a downtrodden class of poor peasants steeped in the stranglehold of poverty, deprivation, and ignorance. By now, we have climbed the social ladder and transformed of our lives from rural folks to urban elite in the course of less than 15 years since Partition -- even within the limits of disparity and discrimination under Pakistan colonial rule, it was nothing short of miracle.
Partition and its fruits
It is apparent that Partition helped the social mobility of Muslims of East Bengal. The success story of my father and our family, typical of many more similar Muslim families, would have remained a far cry, a distant mirage in the absence of Partition.
It is true that the aftermath of Partition left in its trail an enduring scar of dispossession, displacement, and blood of both communities. But it is equally true that it ushered in unprecedented opportunities for Muslims in East Bengal free from upper-class Hindu domination -- sadly, this is often the missing narrative to many in the new generation in Bangladesh.
Some 37 million Muslims decided to stay back in India after Partition. The number has since swelled to 172 million. Indian Muslims are now being persecuted by Hindu lynch mobs on the rampage for eating or storing beef, harassed, and harried for marrying or dating Hindu girls, or are subjected to a campaign of conversion under BJP rule headed by Prime Minister Modi, far removed from Nehru’s secularism.
I shudder to think of our fate in the absence of Partition.
Abdul Hannan is a columnist and former diplomat.