Written by Afsan Chowdhury
I had asked my aunt where she thought her home was. She smiled and said, “I was born there, India, but I raised my family here, in Bangladesh. This is my home.” My aunt is from West Bengal. I was interviewing her for my Partition memories of 1971 project. She talked a lot about finding her home.
Question was, did Bangladesh come out of 1947 or was it already there but delayed by the birth of Pakistan that year?. The Lahore resolution was ‘adjusted’ in 1947 from ‘states’ for Muslim majority areas of India to the ‘state’ of Pakistan. But what did ‘Pakistan’ mean to future Bangladeshis ?
The Muslim peasantry in Bengal suffered under zamindars, mostly Hindus, for a long time and the emerging Muslim middle class wanted more jobs and less competition. The 1946 vote was for the end of zamindary oppression and more economic space for the middle class, not about the assertion of political identity as Muslims leading to Pakistan. At best it was for an independent state as mentioned in the Lahore Resolution of 1940, not the revised One Pakistan of 1947 as announced by Jinnah.
The Pakistan of 1947 not only delayed Bangladesh but planted the bitter tubers that bred the killing fields of 1971. It was inevitable. East and West Pakistan had very different histories of identities. To Bengali Muslims, being a Muslim mattered as much as being a Bengali, a point raised even when Muslim League was formed in 1906.
Unhappiness with the centralized Pakistan of 1947 began early in East Pakistan and protests were widespread as early as 1948 on the critical issue of language. These protests turned into rebellion and ultimately the war of 1971.
Such a not- so-long journey
Pre-1947 Bengal was ruled by the Kolkata-based Bengali Hindu elite. They were educated, well off and collaborators of the East India Company. In 1793 when zamindary was established, they had become the majority of the landlords. Peasants under them hated all zamindars, Hindu or Muslims, but most were Hindus so the class/economic hatred turned into community hostility.
The older lot displaced zamindars of the Mughal era –mostly Muslims — resisted British rule and used peasants to fight back turning resistance into a community response that influenced community participation. But the Hindu peasantry had no champions, least of all in the Kolkata elite. It took a hundred years before the British became oppressors in Kolkata’s eyes.
Bengal politics versus ‘all Indian’ politics
By the mid 19th century, the Bengali Muslim middle class began to emerge looking for jobs and professions in return for loyalty, copying what the Kolkata babus once did. As the contest between the two middle classes sharpened, so did politics.
The partition of Bengal in 1905 was a good example. East Bengalis were mostly peasants, mostly Muslims, mostly resentful of Kolkata and popular with the newly arriving Muslim middle class. In 1906 the Muslim League was formed in Dhaka which gave Indian Muslims a political voice.
But the Kolkata elite responded with the Swadeshi movement which went national and partition was annulled in 1911. Both Swadeshi as well as the Muslim League meant that there was a greater influence on Bengal politics by these organizations located outside Bengal.
Community hostility became political after 1905 but attempts to forge inter-community politics in Bengal continued almost till flag hoisting in 1947. In 1924, the visionary Chittaranjan Das proposed the Bengal Pact hoping to encourage great social harmony through affirmative action but it was rejected by the Kolkata elite and the Congress Party.
In 1937, attempt to form an alliance government also was shot down as a ‘regional’ not a national formula. Finally, the United Bengal Movement (UBM), a plan to set up an independent Bengal state outside India and Pakistan, moved by both Bengal ML and Congress also died in 1947.
But when UBM collapsed, several young Bengal Muslim League activists formed a secret group to work for an independent Bengal. All were admirers of Subhash Bose and the person they thought of as the leader of the would-be new state was a charismatic young man from East Bengal called Mujibur Rahman. He would become the founding leader of Bangladesh.
The language of violence
The decision to declare Urdu as the sole national language was not a cultural but an economic policy to cut off middle class Bengalis from seeking employment. It was met with immediate resistance by the Bengali middle class, those most affected by it.
By 1948, Dhaka observed the first protest hartal on the issue and Jinnah’s pledge to make Urdu the sole national language led to more protests. By 1952 Dhaka University protests turned militant and the consequent police firing delivered martyrs, essential ingredients for a national movement.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile Bengal Provincial Muslim League fully transformed into the Awami (Muslim) League in 1949 ending any significant presence of ‘Pakistan’ in the province. In the election of 1954, East Pakistan-based parties won almost all seats. The Pakistan Muslim league was wiped out and with it went the flag-bearers of Jinnah’s Pakistan. By 1958, when the army took over, many parties had secret ‘independence ‘ groups. East Pakistan was firmly on its way to becoming Bangladesh after a detour.
In 1970 Hindus and Muslims voted together to make Awami League the winner in elections in Pakistan but that also signed a death warrant for many. It was impossible for the Pakistan army to hand over power to a man who prioritized provincial autonomy over the ‘liberation of Kahmir’, the army’s main reason to exist. He was the man they had accused of treason in 1968 and hoped to hang. East Pakistan had become a proxy India.
When it cracked down on March 25th night, few armies had acted so sufficiently to destroy the very objective of the attack. But the journey to the final humiliation in December 1971 in surrendering to India and Bangladesh had begun long before, back in 1947, when Pakistan was born. Bangladeshis have paid a high price for both partition and unification.
A week after I talked to my aunt, her son a freedom fighter in 1971, called to say, “Ma has gone home”. Rest in peace, history.