Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

Voices of Partition: A Dhaka Hindu and a Kolkata Muslim recount what Independence meant to them

If the incoming Hindu population faced the bitterness of displacement on one hand, then the Muslims who stayed on in West Bengal were equally distraught.

Independence day, Independence day 2017, 15th August 2017, 71st independence day, 70 years of independence, India at 70, 70 years of partition, partition, partition history, Indian independence day, independence day India, Independence day news, Indian Express Hossainur Rahaman (left) and Basanti Roychowdhury (right) (Express Photo)

The Radcliffe Line cut through the heart of the subcontinent and was clearly the biggest cost of Independence. As the line cut through lives across India and the newly-created Pakistan, there emerged bone chilling accounts of deaths, violence and suffering from the North West and Eastern quarters of India.

However, there was a significant difference between the way Partition took place in Punjab and in Bengal. While the former represented a sudden cataclysmic division of territories, the latter was a long drawn slow process lasting even several years after independence.

Accordingly, the partition of Punjab was way bloodier than what its counterpart in the East witnessed. Though less dramatic, the partition of Bengal, however, was no less disturbing. Less about blood, the division of Bengal was more about displacement and the crisis of migration and property loss, that went on for the next several years.

An estimated 30 lakh Hindu refugees had entered West Bengal by 1960 as close to 7 lakh Muslims left for East Pakistan. The refugee influx in Bengal was also accompanied by the fact that the government was less prepared to rehabilitate them, resulting in huge housing and sanitation problems for the millions, most of whom were owners of large property back in East Bengal.

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If the incoming Hindu population faced the bitterness of displacement on one hand, then the Muslims who stayed on in West Bengal were equally distraught. Overnight their homeland had turned unfamiliar with questions over their plans for leaving being raised too often as a reminder of their uneasy presence in India. While on one hand the political elite of the country unfurled the Tricolour, announcing to the world India’s achievement of freedom, what did independence mean to those in Bengal and Punjab, stuck in the aftermath of a line being drawn across their homeland? Here are two voices that help us get a sense of the insecurity and pain.

Basanti Roychowdhury: We never thought we would stay permanently

Independence day, Independence day 2017, 15th August 2017, 71st independence day, 70 years of independence, India at 70, 70 years of partition, partition, partition history, Indian independence day, independence day India, Independence day news, Indian Express Basanti Roychowdhury (Express Photo)

“The word swadhin (independence) was something we barely understood. We just knew that Pakistan was getting formed and the Muslims would kill us,” says 85-year-old Basanti Roychowdhury as she reminisces over the days of horror she went through in her teens. A migrant from East Pakistan, Roychowdhury is currently residing with her son and his family in Kolkata. Daughter of a well-off zamindar in Dhaka (currently in Bangladesh), she recounts that for her, 1947 and the years preceding were all about the fear of Hindu-Muslim riots, her father’s hatred towards the nationalist leaders and the uncertainty about whether or not they would have to leave their palatial home.

“Our house was beside Buriganga river. It was a huge house. The surroundings were so beautiful. There was greenery all around. From the window in my bedroom, we could see paddy fields, all green around. There were barely any construction around. I could never imagine leaving Dhaka. My parents would come to Kolkata during vacations, but I hated going anywhere from Dhaka.


My father was a zamindar and we were more or less well off. The house was huge. I have been told you can still find it on Wikipedia. It was called Rooplal house.


When I was in my early teens one my brothers died out of typhoid. The grief of his death led to my mother falling very ill, and during this same time another brother of mine also caught typhoid. We were in fact planning on taking my brother and mother to Calcutta for his treatment. During this time, there were discussions of Pakistan being formed and a date being fixed. Everything was so uncertain, we were scared that we might have to leave our house. But my father was very hell bent that he won’t leave the house in Dhakha.

This was the time when Dhaka saw a large number of Hindu-Muslim riots. Ours was a Hindu locality so it was not that bad. But the Muslims would attack us frequently. We were very scared of Muslims and when they would attack. I have heard they had attacked our house once before I was born. This is why we had a large number of guards. I have heard that the Muslims had arrived at house in a bus, but before they could enter they had been pushed back. After that incident, they had never attacked the house.


I had once seen a large number of Muslims gathered on the other side of the river and crying slogans, about to attack us. I used to shiver with fear on hearing this cry. I was just 6-7 years old then and would start crying every time I heard them shout. The servants would pick me up and all my brothers would stand on guard on the stairs with guns in their hands.

On August 15, we were so scared all day because Pakistan was being formed. There was no happiness about anything at all. There was just fear. The Hindus were so scared as if we were getting finished now. There was no joy of the British leaving. There was just fear of Pakistan. Flag hoisting had taken place at night. I had seen the flag hoisted on my terrace on waking up. All the houses had flags hoisted. We had to hoist it, otherwise the government would suspect us of being anti-nationalist. We were very upset on seeing the flag. We were scared that we would be under the Muslims now.

My father was also very scared. Yet he did not want to leave. He felt that no one would know him in Calcutta. In Dhaka, he had the pride of being rich and well known and he did not want to leave that.

He used to hate Nehru and Gandhi. He was anyway pro-British, most zamindars were pro-British during those days. He used to hate all this rhetoric around the freedom struggle.

My elder brother on the other hand was very involved in the freedom struggle and was very anti-British. He was a student that time, doing his graduation in commerce. Alongside he would be secretly involved in nationalist politics. During that period, the younger generation was very stirred up to free the nation and my brother was also involved in it. He was arrested by the police once. My father had to somehow free him. My sister-in-law used to tell me that my brother used to get guns and arms and hide it under the bed. Generally the police would never suspect members of Zamindar families. But he was caught in a meeting once and got arrested.

We were in Dhaka during Partition and came to Calcutta in August 28 or 29. When we came here we never thought we were going to stay permanently. We had thought of going back after the treatment of my brother and mother. But once we came here people started pouring in heaps and bounds from East Bengal and so we decided to stay on.

When we first came to Calcutta, first of all there was the sadness of leaving our country. Then there was the grief of leaving that huge house and living in a small hut in Calcutta. The Calcutta house appeared like nothing more than a hut to us then. I missed the greenery of Dhaka and still miss it often.”


Dr. Hossainur Rahaman: Jinnah’s name could not be uttered in the house

Independence day, Independence day 2017, 15th August 2017, 71st independence day, 70 years of independence, India at 70, 70 years of partition, partition, partition history, Indian independence day, independence day India, Independence day news, Indian Express Dr. Hossainur Rahaman (Express Photo)

“Muslims are expected to fast each year during the month of Ramzaan, but I have fasted only once in my life and that was on the day of Partition. Such was my grief at Bengal being divided,” remembers 83-year-old Dr Hossainur Rahaman who has been residing in Park Circus in central Kolkata for the past several decades. A retired Professor of History from Chandannagar college and belonging to a family of “old school Congress supporters”, Rahaman recounts how his majority Hindu locality turned into a Muslim habitation overnight during Partition and how his father was pressed about leaving India soon after.


“Growing up, we were five sisters and four brothers. Now I am left with one sister. My eldest sister, Dr. Anwara Khatoon was the first female Muslim doctor to have passed out from Calcutta Medical College. She was quite a well known name in Calcutta.

As a young boy, I never joined politics. But I was well known as a follower of Nehru and Bose. My family was very much old school Congress supporters. In my school days I had a library in my home which I named “Netaji library” and had works of Gandhi and other Congress leaders in it. On the other hand, my father was in ardent opposition to Jinnah. I remember once my brother had gone to see Jinnah giving a speech and when he came home my father gave him a harsh scolding. He made it very clear to my brother that Jinnah’s name will never be uttered in the house.

The area in which I grew up, only 2 or 3 houses were occupied by Muslims. Rest all were Hindus. I was close to just one Muslim family. We were very friendly with the Hindus and did not for once feel that they were different from us in anyway.


On August 15, I was in Parbatipur in present day Bangladesh. I had no idea at that moment about whatever was happening at home. I came back home 2-3 days later. I reached Sealdah station and took a bus from there towards Ballygunj. The bus was absolutely empty. When I was about to get down at Park Circus people around me started screaming. “Jaben na, Jaben na, eita Muslim para (Dont go here, this is a Muslim area)” I was quite surprised but I got off and went home. When I reached home everyone was surprised that I came all alone. When I went out later to meet my friends I was shocked to see that everyone had left and suddenly this area had become a Muslim locality.

I was aware of the announcement of Partition but not about the riots. Once I came back home I became aware of what all had taken place. There was a temple at Kareya road right behind my house. My father got news that Muslims were about to destroy the temple. My father immediately took out his rifle and warned everyone that he would shoot down anyone who would try to touch the temple. Hindus had stayed at our house for a long time as well to hide from the riots. Hindus never attacked our house because my sister was a very important person in Calcutta that time.

I have a significant memory of a relief camp in Brabourne College. My sister was the only lady doctor there and I went with her there. I used to wait outside while she tended to the patients all day long.

After the riots, my father was asked over and again if we would leave. But he decided to stay on. Despite the fact that my sister was offered a job at Dhaka college and one of my brothers was offered a position in the post commission at Karachi, we never for once thought of leaving India.

First published on: 15-08-2017 at 01:50:14 pm
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