Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of India’s partition will find former ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee’s book, Bengal and its Partition, insightful. The writer traces the genesis of partition to events in Bengal dating back to the 1757 Battle of Plassey which the East India Company won by deceit. The spoils and plunder of that battle and the systematic economic exploitation of Bengal cast an ominous shadow on the rest of India, eventually triggering the revolt of 1857. The ironclad grip that the Empire established under a well-orchestrated ‘divide and rule’ policy was designed to make ‘the Jewel in the Crown of the Empire’ serve the larger cause of sustaining its global imperialism.
State of famine
The writer elaborates how Britain’s exploitative economic policies resulted in impoverishment of Bengal and the rest of the country; the Permanent Settlement of Cornwallis introduced in 1793 reduced within no time about 20 million farmers to landless labourers as most abandoned their land holdings unable to pay high taxes. Instead, some preferred to be daily wagers and some others turned indentured labourers, which the author stresses is another form of slavery that the British remains unapologetic for to this day. Food stocks were frequently diverted abroad to feed British soldiers fighting losing battles for the Empire in decline. Culmination of these policies led to Bengal being in a state of perpetual famine. The Great Bengal Famine of 1943-44 starved about 3.5 million to death.
The resilient spirit of Bengalis found sustenance in the renaissance and reformation movements of the 19th century to which the Bengali intelligentsia significantly contributed. Feelings of patriotism and nationalism gave a definitive direction to the freedom movement. However, the rise of sectarian Islamic movements, owing to acute poverty, created conditions for divisive communalism, which the writer laments destroyed the syncretic culture of Bengal that for centuries had amalgamated both Hindu and Islamic beliefs and faiths.
The author explains how the casual interpretation of Indian history by the British eventually influenced the two-nation theory. The publication of James Mill’s The History of British India in 1817 divided Indian history on religious lines into three parts — Hindu, Muslim and British periods. This segmented depiction of Indian history created mental blocks in the collective consciousness of the people. It is indeed revealing that Jinnah was initially not serious about partition, but was only seeking to enhance his bargaining clout in the political calculus. The appointment of H.S. Suhrawardy as Chief Minister of Bengal in 1946 in a Hindu majority state was a deliberate ploy by the British to widen the communal divide. The call for ‘Direct Action Day’ by the Muslim League on August 16, 1946 led to thousands being killed and many more wounded akin to a civil war, not a riot. This pogrom was deliberately aimed at moulding public opinion for creation of a separate Muslim Bengal with Calcutta as its capital. These developments had wider ramifications for India.
Mukherjee strongly feels that the partition of Bengal could have been avoided if only the leaders of the Indian Congress opposed the Communal Award of 1932 that created separate electorates on the basis of religion and caste. She argues that the partition of Bengal and the rest of the country on the basis of religion was a historical blunder. Much later, the creation of Bangladesh on the basis of language and cultural identity, not on religion, vindicated her assertion.
Bengal and its Partition: An Untold Story; Bhaswati Mukherjee, Rupa, ₹595.
The reviewer is a serving Indian Foreign Service officer.
Courtesy – The Hindu