Ten years ago I was living in Dhaka during the 60th anniversary of August 14, 1947. It astonished me that the occasion passed without a stir. The government said nothing and there was almost no coverage in the media. I couldn’t find a single event hosted by the seminar and press conference crowd, usually eager to discuss so many issues.
The 70th anniversary just went by. A glance at the Bangladesh media suggests the response is much the same. Among some quarters in Pakistan and India, there has been quite a bit of discussion, and there was also coverage in the international media. Much of it focused on the blood-soaked tragedy of Partition.
Why do we have this amnesia?
Why do we act as if this anniversary does not belong to us, that it only concerns India and Pakistan? Was this not the moment that people in Bangladesh said farewell to the British? True, we became East Pakistan then and that phase in our history would prove disappointing and we would have to fight again for independence. But that cannot take away from the fact that August 1947 was momentous for us as a people, a time combining great promise and immense tragedy.
I believe we keep quiet about August 1947 because as a nation, we are uncomfortable about how to fit that into our national narrative. The result is doubly tragic. We fail to discuss the challenges of creating a society free from British colonial baggage. And we do not reflect on our role in the history that led to Partition, our own complicity in communal division, a reflection that could allow us to build a society respecting all our citizens.
The end of 200 years of colonialism should have brought on a clear-eyed assessment of the colonial heritage and the structures we inherited. We could not build a new society in a flash, but we needed to sort out what to keep and build on, what to discard and start anew. Yet while the flag of the Empire was lowered and white faces in power departed, decolonisation in any real sense didn’t get far. In the daily life of citizens, we are still ruled by so much of the colonial legacy, much of it a fetter on developing us as a free people.
Laws that affect us to this day
Take the matter of the police, the courts, law and prisons, the face of the state that the masses face daily. This continues to be an experience with relentless arbitrariness and brutality.
A few times there has been talk of police reform, of doing away with the Police Act that currently holds sway. That police act was established in 1861! There has also been talk of reforming the Jail Code for treatment of prisoners. When was that act established? 1864.
Yes, we’ve added amendments and while there have been minor reforms, in most cases we piled on worse accretions. In 1974, we added the Special Powers Act, providing security forces with emergency powers. Periodically, we’ve been under martial law. Today, our police have become renowned for extra-judicial killings. Starting with killings by the Rokkhi Bahini, we moved on to Operation Clean Heart, and finally we come to the 21st century when RAB turned 'crossfire' into a verb.
Consider education. Initially, the British set up a system to train clerks for their rule, though later the universities they set up became respectable centers of learning. But at the broadest level, education was about rote memorisation, not developing rounded knowledge or analytical and critical skills.
We’ve grown madrasas for the poor, institutions that do not prepare their students for this world. For the elite, there are more opportunities with private schools. The public educational system for the majority is marked by lowered standards, though there has been success with expanding education for girls. In higher education, the public universities have stagnated while among the mushrooming private ones, only a few offer quality while the majority churn out today’s equivalent of clerks.
In governing, we idealised British parliamentary rule but could only establish a caricature at best, or resorted to dictatorial rule on multiple occasions. Even when we came up with a caretaker regime to run elections in a fractured environment, neither faction really believed in it as anything other than a stepping stone towards one-party domination.
An energetic discussion about what decolonization would entail could have been exciting. Sure, it would also bring out all sorts of untenable, root-and-soil nonsense, but it could have opened up new vistas for thought and action.
Why did the anti-colonial effort not get very far here?
That may well be because of the other legacy of 1947 - Partition.
While many anti-colonial activists were focused on getting the British out, the eyes of East Bengal’s Muslim establishment, both the aristocracy and the newly-emergent middle class, were more focused on how to negotiate their interests vis-à-vis the Hindu elite they had concluded would inevitably dominate a unified country. The Pakistan concept would eventually gain majority support here because those with influence had concluded there wasn’t enough room for their advancement in a unified India. Unfortunately, the trust they placed in Pakistan would soon reveal domination by a new elite. It would create a ground reality for another movement, culminating in independence in 1971 at the cost of even more blood, pain, and loss.
The roots of all this lay in the uneven evolution of different communities in Bengal. There are many reasons for that: the long divide-and-rule game of the British; among locals, the domination in economy and culture by Hindus; casteist prejudices towards both Muslims and Nomoshudro and other lower caste Hindus; the narrow mindedness of the Muslim aristocracy; and the slower evolution of a Muslim middle class.
When a middle class grew among Bengali Muslims, it was inevitable that it would start to look out for its sectional interests. That drive need not have channelled itself along communal lines, but sadly history only offered that context. We could not rise above that. There might have been a possibility of an alliance among the lower orders, the Muslim middle class and peasantry and lower-caste Hindus, but the success of communal divisiveness would not allow that to emerge.
Everyone with power and influence here had a role in communalism gaining strength in mainstream politics. And as the end of the Raj approached, Dhaka did not forget that in the years after the 1905 partition of Bengal, its fortunes had improved when it was briefly a provincial capital. As compensation for the scrapping of that role as capital, the University of Dacca had been established, an event instrumental in the growth of the Muslim middle class. I often wonder whether the acceptance of a soft partition might have prevented a hard partition 40 years later.
I do not put the whole fault on communal partisanship. Self-interest is a complex thing. When Calcutta failed to be generous enough to want to help Dhaka, I am reminded that metropolitan centres, accustomed to privilege, with economic and cultural interests entrenched there, do not readily accede to losing that power. Look at Bangladesh today - does Dhaka want to help Khulna, Rajshahi, Comilla, and Rangpur?
The tragedies of 1947 were repeated in 1971
But communal prejudice was not simply a matter of feelings and benign politics. As in any game where certain populations are privileged and others are not, it contained the seeds of ethnic cleansing. Each “riot” foretold what a harder division might entail. And when it came, that separation came with murder and massacre, the worst the year before in Calcutta and Noakhali. As mutual trust dissolved, it set off a huge wave of migration towards both countries.
In multiple waves, Hindus were pushed out of East Pakistan. There were murders, rapes, and seizure of property. There were also Muslims who migrated east, some pushed out, some seeking security, some seeking opportunity. The biggest section of Muslims seeking safety came from Bihar, mostly poor people.
Partition was a disaster. It meant blood, tears, broken families, broken friendships, broken love and attachments. Borders disrupted social, economic, and cultural relationships that had developed over centuries.
Yet despite the tragedies, Partition is not seen as an unmitigated disaster on this side of the border. For the Bengali Muslim middle class, it opened opportunities. Even in Pakistan days, despite ceilings and restrictions, this middle class prospered. There were new government positions as well as a myriad of at least smaller business opportunities.
At the same time, it resented that it had been tricked by smarter political players, now backed by guns and state power. It discovered that the intentions of the Pakistani state were not respectful but colonial. They successfully mobilised the nation behind the striving for self-determination.
Pakistan also miscalculated: deluded by their notion of Islamic loyalty, they did not realise that the communal mindset here was weak, in constant tension with the sense of Bengali identity. All the tragedies of 1947 went for a second round in 1971. The wounds of the old partition were somewhat healed, but there were many losses.
As a community, the first victims were the Hindus of East Bengal. Never until now had so many Hindus been massacred or forced to leave their homes. The majority of the victims of the 1971 genocide were Hindus.
In 1972, a secular state was declared. But the communal politics never went away. The Enemy Property Act was changed only in name to the Vested Property law. Left-behind Hindu property was seized by greedy Muslims. The 1975 reversal only made things worse. And over time, a communal state was cobbled together. There have been adjustments since, but by and large the promise of 1971 has remained unmet.
Just as in 1947 when we missed the opportunity to take stock of what it meant to come out from under the colonial legacy, sidetracked as we were by the Pakistan project, in 1971 we missed the need to have a national discussion about what it really meant to come out from the communal legacy that had been the foundation of the Pakistan project. The idea of a secular state had weak foundations, and it was easy for the Muslim Bengal partisans to push for their sort of state, a soft Islamic Republic. We have been Bangladesh longer than we were East Pakistan, and yet it feels that we have cobbled together something like a Banglastan.
What is behind our amnesia towards 1947?
We are uncomfortable taking a direct look at 1947. Liberation in 1971 undid the Pakistan project, but that had been a project East Bengal had supported. Immediately it raises questions about the two-nation theory, about a subcontinent divided into Muslim and Hindu states. Some of us are nervous that if Pakistan was wrong, there is no basis for a separate East Bengal.
But history creates new ground realities. 1947 had fallen into the past. We fought for an independent Bangladesh, not for joining India. There are nations that fight for reunification; that was not our agenda. And thankfully India did not project this as their political plan, say, as Indonesia did after the Portuguese freed East Timor.
There are, of course, those among us who feel that the two-nation theory was not wrong. They are the heirs of those who loyally fought for Pakistan. To them, Partition was the right option for Muslim Bengal, it was just unfortunate that West Pakistan treated the east with disdain. To them, the undoing of Pakistan does not negate a homeland for Muslim Bengalis. You might call this the two-nation theory modified by geographical reality. Or the two-nation, three states theory; some people seek the legitimacy of this in the Lahore Resolution of 1940 which spoke of independent Muslim states.
After 1971, we had a chance to show the world that a Muslim majority country could be an example where all its citizens have equal rights. The private sphere would necessarily reflect the beliefs of its citizens. Clearly, in a majority Muslim country, there would be more mosques than temples, churches, and monasteries. But the state would recognise that it should not privilege one religion over others. Unfortunately, we went the other way. The constitution was repeatedly amended. Islam was sanctified as the state religion. By the state favoring one religion, it has made second class citizens of the rest: those who belong to other religions, as well as skeptics or atheists. And the ethnic cleansing of Hindus has continued.
Sadly, we have proved ourselves too shackled by our historical legacies to consider a truly equitable, democratic outcome. On the 70th anniversary of August 1947, let’s take out a moment to reflect on that.