As prefaces go, this is rather a long one, but there are reasons for it. I strongly suggest that the prospective reader go through it carefully. It is important for appreciation of certain aspects of the book.
The topic is already very nearly forgotten. It would be completely so in another twenty years when the people, who saw it all happen, die away. I did not see it happen, but at some stage of my life formed an abiding interest in my roots, and therefore in the subject. The subject is the persecution, partly state-sponsored, qualifying as human rights violation, and the resultant exodus of Hindus from what was once known as Eastern Bengal. This ‘Eastern Bengal’ later came to be known as East Pakistan, and is now known as Bangladesh. This exodus began with the independence and the partition of India and that of the province of Bengal, became a flood during the East Pakistan days and continues, though to a lesser extent, to this day.
The stated purpose of this book is to put on record this major case of human rights violation ; and also to trigger further research on the subject ; and further to point out the extent to which it has been concealed. To restate the same on a different plane, the purpose is to tell the post-1960 generation of Bangladeshi Muslims on the one hand and of Indian Bengali Hindus with East Bengali roots on the other, what their ancestors did, the former to the latter, and how the latter swallowed and concealed it.
The purpose of the book is not, repeat not, to create disaffection between Hindu and Muslim or between India and Bangladesh. It is my firm belief that telling the truth does not create disaffection, but concealing it may do so, at least in the long run. However, if such disaffection does result then it is again my belief that the same should be taken care of by means other than suppressing the truth. Preferably by facing it, and also facing the fact that the post-independence generation in either country and either religion have not been told the truth, from mala fide motives.
Very strangely, in these times when world opinion quickly crystallises to condemn any human rights violation, this is one of the very few cases that has all but escaped the attention of the world, even of most of India. Even people who are vaguely aware of the human rights violations in East Bengal suffer from very basic and serious misconceptions about certain aspects of the matter. This is mainly in relation to the aftermath of the exodus and a comparison of refugees from the two erstwhile wings of Pakistan – in other words a comparison between Punjabi and Bengali refugees. The fundamental difference between the two migrations was that the first was a violent, one-time, but two-way affair while the latter was – and is – a continuing one-way traffic, the result of periodic gentle, and not-so-gentle, squeezes. This difference is not only not appreciated by most people ; it is not even known to them.
But, precisely because of this ignorance, the question might be asked, why am I talking about the movement of Hindus alone? What about the reciprocal movement of Muslims from West to East Bengal? The simple reason why I am not talking about any such thing is that there was no such thing, no such reciprocal movement. Muslims have not left West Bengal in any number worth mentioning. This fundamental difference between the human migration in Bengal and that in Punjab simply cannot be overstated. In Punjab, after January 1948, no Muslim was left on the Indian side, and no Hindu or Sikh on the Pakistani side – literally. On the other hand, religious violence in the wake of partition in Bengal, unlike in Punjab, has been strictly a one-way affair. In Punjab there was a Patiala massacre (of Muslims) to match a Sheikhupura (of Sikhs and Hindus), but there is no parallel of the Meghna Bridge or Jagannath Hall massacres in West Bengal.
In fact there has been quite the opposite. The Radcliffe award gave Muslim-majority Murshidabad district to India, and in return Hindu-majority Khulna district went to Pakistan. Today the proportion of Muslims in Murshidabad is much more than what it was at the time of partition, while the Hindu population of Khulna has decimated. There is no Jhulan-jatra any more in Dacca, but Idd and Muhurrum are celebrated with all pomp and glory in Calcutta. Infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims into the border districts of West Bengal and Bihar goes on unabated, and that into Assam has reduced – not stopped – only after a bloody revolt.
Strangely, volumes have been written and spoken in India (mostly in Bangla), and rivulets of tears have been shed about the manner in which the Bengali refugees have suffered in India (which was quite horrible), but practically nothing about what made them refugees or what they suffered in East Bengal that drove them to take refuge in India. The reasons of not so writing are quite interesting and intriguing. This book, therefore, addresses itself, to these two aspects : namely, what happened to the Hindus in erstwhile East Pakistan, and why whatever happened has been so carefully kept under wraps – not just by the tormentors (which is understandable) but also by the victims, as also the media, political parties, intellectuals, and the like, barring a few feeble exceptions. Published material on these aspects is therefore scarce, and whatever little exists on either side of the border is almost entirely in the Bangla.
It is these sources in Bangla that have largely formed the foundations of my research on the subject. The sources of information in printed form have all been referenced in endnotes. Very little of the contents of this book are based on personal experience. I was born in 1945, and the problem had mostly (though not completely) solved itself – as all human problems do, given time – by the time I was mature enough to attempt any serious observation. A substantial part is based on interviews of persons who have seen it all happen with their own eyes, as also others, in India and Bangladesh, and a few in the United States. The interviews were all conducted during the writing of this book, between 1999 and 2001. Quite a few of the interviewees were in their sixties and seventies, some in their eighties, and the events they were trying to describe had taken place some fifty years ago ; it is therefore possible that some inaccuracies had crept in. There is some hearsay also, kept down to the barest minimum. Wherever possible their names and relevant particulars of the persons interviewed have been given. Some of them have wished anonymity, and such wish has been respected. A complete bibliography, list of interviewees and a set of acknowledgements appears at the end of the book.
The questions may well be asked : who is this author, is he qualified to write something like this? And what is the point of writing it anyway, instead of letting bygones be bygones? The last contention is patently puerile – if accepted it would do away with all unpleasant chapters of human history. And it is my duty to answer the rest of the questions too. Also, in the final analysis, for a person like me who does not habitually write books, the provocation to write a book like this must come from something that is intensely personal. It is also my duty to explain this angle.
I am, of all things, a Civil Engineer by training, with also a degree in Law, teaching and working professionally in the interface area of the two disciplines. I am also into active politics, in the Bharatiya Janata Party to be specific, where I head the West Bengal state unit. I have had no formal training in historical, political or sociological research. My interest in the subject primarily stems from the fact that I find the contemporary history and politics of Bengal a fascinating subject, and also that I am Hindu, and my parents came from East Bengal, though I have lived most of my life in Kolkata or Calcutta. My grandfather on my father’s side was a Naib, a sort of Zamindar’s manager (the term is explained in the text) in Satgaon, a tiny village near Brahmanbaria, a subdivisional (now a district of Bangladesh) town in the erstwhile district of Tipperah in East Bengal. My father, a physicist by training, and then a foreman in Survey of India’s Mathematical Instruments Office, had been living in Calcutta for many years when I was born, and my immediate family did not suffer in any significant way as a result of the partition of Bengal and the resultant exodus.
My only claim to any kind of skill in this subject is that certain aspects of the exodus have been troubling me since my childhood, and I have tried to read up all I could on the subject. As I have said earlier, there is precious little, and quite a bit of it in Bangla, which being my mother tongue I had no difficulty with.
As I am not trained or equipped to write History I shall not claim that this book constitutes History. It could perhaps qualify as a political essay. I can however, justifiably contend that it contains an organised presentation of a large number of hitherto unpublished facts, and some published only in Bangla. It also contains inferences from facts, mostly my own, but also of others from published works, interspersed with the facts. And finally, it contains a full chapter on the hiding of history, and why and how this was done.
Now, what happened to trigger my interest in the subject was that when I was a child of eight or so, I had an occasion to pass through the Sealdah railway station of Calcutta sometime in 1952 or 1953. The Sealdah railway terminus was the hub of the railway network that then connected Calcutta to East Bengal, and the foyer and the forecourt of station in those days was something that would put even the present-day squalor of my home town to shame. I saw, with those eyes that only a child has, an emaciated family of some six or seven huddled in a space of about forty square feet in which the mother was trying to nurse a howling baby (the udder must have been dry for several days, I realised much later) while at the same time trying to cook some gruel from vegetable peelings on a fuel of semi-combustible garbage and pieces of rubber tyres. The rest of the family (a middle-aged man, a few naked boys and girls) lounged about listlessly, all within the said forty square feet, within a short distance of where they (and others) had relieved themselves. To this day I hold in my olfactory memory the putrid smells of the smoke from the cooking of the rotting vegetable, the stale urine, the smouldering garbage, the pungent burning-rubber smoke, the all-pervasive decay.
I was with my father, so I asked him who these people were. He said they were ‘refugees’, and upon some more insistent questioning from a precocious kid, let it be known, in steps and with some irritation (he was what is known in India as a ‘secular’ person) that they had been driven out of East Bengal because they were Hindus in a land of Muslims and had nowhere to go and were therefore here at the station.
I then asked him a question that totally discomfited him in a way I found rather strange, and he told me very brusquely to shut up. I was taken aback, for he was normally a very gentle person, and certainly not inclined to speak to his eight-year-old son that way. I did promptly shut up, but the question refused to go away. Now today, well into my fifties, I realise that whatever might have been the answer to the question, one can neither turn the clock back nor try to do what should have been done fifty years ago. On the other hand, it is totally dishonest, stupid, and even downright dangerous, to pretend that such things never happened. And yet that is what the country, including the East Bengali Hindus themselves, have been doing, for the sake of something that passes in India by the names of ‘communal harmony’ and ‘secularism’.
I realise that assailing this holy ghost of ‘communal harmony’ and 'secularism' may result immediately in my being dubbed ‘communal’ or ‘anti-Muslim’. Being called ‘communal’ by those who subscribe to the Left-Nehruvian concept of 'secularism' is something that I am prepared to live with, because I do not subscribe to that concept. However, in reply to the second possible charge I have searched my heart and have come up with the answer that I am not anti-Muslim. On the other hand I am decidedly anti-anti-Hindu. If that term did not exist before then I claim full credit for coining it.
To these champions of communal harmony I have quite a few questions to put:
Can ‘communal harmony’ justify denying mass-scale state-sponsored persecution, ethnic cleansing, arson, rape, murder and mayhem and the pauperisation of some eight million people – in fact denying history?
Should communal harmony encourage collective forgetfulness of a sordid chapter in the life of a people?
Would anyone, in the name of promoting German-Israeli or Jewish-Gentile goodwill, seriously consider denying that the holocaust took place? Or, in the interest of good relations between Blacks and Whites, hide the stories of slavery and the unimaginable human rights violations against Blacks that took place in the U. S. South in the years of racial segregation and in South Africa during the apartheid era?
Is it not infinitely more preferable in such cases to come out with what happened, analyse the reasons (including the reasons for denial, if any), and then say, in the manner of the wall at the former concentration camp at Dachau : “Plus Jamais, Nie Wieder, Nikogda Bolshiy, Never Again”?
Is it not one of the purposes of writing History to learn lessons for the future?
And is it not possible, if such lessons are not learnt, that History might truly repeat itself, and some future generation of Hindus of West Bengal at some date in the future might find themselves in the same plight, with nowhere further west to go?
I think it is quite possible. Some signs are already visible. Hence this book.
“Khoma jetha kheen durbolota
He rudro, nishthur jeno hote pari totha
Tomar adeshey. Jeno roshonay momo
Shottobakko jholi uthe khorokhorgoshomo
Tomar ingitey. Jeno raakhi tobo maan
Tomar bicharashoney loye nij sthan
Onnay je kore ar onnay je shohe
Tobo ghrina tare jeno trinoshomo dohe”
(Where forgiveness is but weakness, O Lord,
May I have the strength, by your command, to be merciless
May the truth flash from my mouth, like a cutlass, at your bidding.
May I do you honour by doing justice, as you would have done.
Let your divine ire burn those that do wrong
and also those that suffer wrongs in silence)
- "Nyaydondo : Noibedyo" : Rabindra Nath Tagore
Klaivyam masmagamah Partha na etat tvayee upapadyate
Kshudram hridayadaurvalyam tyakta uttishthata parantapa
(O Partha (Arjuna)! This frailty does not become you! Get rid of your petty weaknesses and stand up to fight)
- Lord Krishna, Bhagavad Gita, II.3
There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land
- Euripedes, 431 B.C