Chapter 2


Looking at the present crop of politicians of West Bengal (this is in 1999) it is difficult to imagine what a star-studded firmament the politics of Bengal in early part of the century was. Beginning with Surendra Nath Banerjee, Lord S.P. Sinha, Bipin Chandra Paul and C. R. Das, there were stalwarts of the calibre of Subhas Chandra Bose, Sarat Chandra Bose, J.M.Sengupta, B.N.Sasmal and A.K.Fazlul Haq. With the advent of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on the political scene of India the centre of gravity of Indian politics had of course shifted to him, but the province was still very much in the forefront in every way. Quite a far cry from the present state of being in the backwoods.

It is neither possible nor intended to give even an overview of the politics of Bengal during this very eventful half-century. Volumes have been written on this period, and further volumes will continue to be written. However, it is impossible to understand the Hindu exodus from East Bengal without bearing in mind the political framework of the times and the major political events that took place during the period preceding partition of the province. After all, the exodus was a purely political phenomenon – neither religious nor economic. Religion was merely the human attribute exploited in this case by the relevant politicians, and the economic disaster that followed was the result, not the cause of the exodus. In fact economic factors had nothing whatsoever to do with this particular brand of persecution --- Muslim Ashraf and Atrap combined without qualms to drive out Hindu zamindar, pleader, artisan, fisherman and cultivator.

First of all, an explanation as to why the period 1905-1947 has been chosen is called for. 1905 was the year of the first partition of Bengal, an event of very far-reaching political significance. In between there was the politically watershed year of 1920. This was about the time when problems between Hindu and Muslim in undivided India began to take on serious proportions. This was also, coincidentally, the year when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made a serious entry into the politics of India with his non-cooperation movement. This was also the year Lokamanya Balgangadhar Tilak died. The ‘problems between Hindu and Muslim’ referred to are basically communal riots between Hindu and Muslim, of which Bengal had more than its fair share. 1947, on the other hand was the year of India’s independence and Bengal’s second partition, the year in which atrocities against Hindus in erstwhile East Pakistan began with overt or covert state sponsorship, and gradually took on the form of another holocaust.

Such state-sponsored atrocities against Hindus have not stopped even after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. They have merely taken on a much more covert form, which is really a case of bad habits dying hard. The year 1992 had seen unspeakable horrors against Hindus once again, in the wake of demolition of a disused mosque built on the birthplace of the legendary Lord Rama at Ayodhya in India. It was this particular set of atrocities that prompted the tigress from Mymensingh, a frail Muslim woman doctor called Taslima Nasrin, to come out with her unforgettable volume Lojja (Shame) that truly marked a watershed in this otherwise drab landscape. More on Taslima and Lojja later.

To start, take a brief look at 1905. Lord Curzon had been appointed the Governor-General and Viceroy of India in December 1898, and served in that post till 1905. He was not known for his fondness of Indians, and was even less fond of Bengali Hindus in particular. Before leaving he delivered a parting kick to the province in the form of the first partition of Bengal. According to his scheme the existing Bengal Presidency (which at that time included the present states of Bihar and Orissa) was divided into two parts. The western part, comprising the Presidency and Burdwan divisions together with Bihar, Chhota Nagpur and Orissa would form the rump Bengal. The eastern part would be joined with Assam, to be known as the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. This scheme was hatched by him much earlier, and he toured the province to garner support for the same, helped by his able lieutenant Sir Bamfylde Fuller. Sir Bamfylde then became the governor of the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, with its capital at Dacca. Their main selling point for the scheme was that it would fetch for the Muslims a province in which they would be in majority and would not have to play second fiddle to the Hindus. Predictably, they got the support of a number of Muslim landowners of East Bengal, among them Salimullah, the influential Nawab of Dacca. Sir Bamfylde had gone one step ahead of his boss in his salesmanship. Bengali folklore is replete with stories of a king who had two queens – Suo Rani, the great favourite, on whom the king lavished love and gifts, and Duo Rani, the neglected, cast-aside one. Sir Bamfylde used to publicly proclaim
[1] that for him the Hindu was the Duo Rani, and the Muslim Suo Rani.

The partition had been done with the clear objective of breaking the back of the Bengali Hindu, and currying favour with the Muslims. There was widespread opposition to it from all Hindus and a significant number of Muslims, but Lord Curzon remained stuck to it saying that it was a ‘settled fact’. Among the prominent people who publicly opposed the partition were the poets Rabindra Nath Tagore, Rajani Kanta Sen, Kaliprosonno Kavyavisharad, Dwijendra Lal Roy ; assorted public men and men of letters such as Surendra Nath Banerjea, Ramendra Sundar Tribedi, Bipin Chandra Paul, Suresh Chandra Samajpati, Monoranjan Guha Thakurta, and many others. However the number of prominent Bengali Muslims who opposed the partition was very heartening. They included the Barrister Abdul Rasul, Moulavi Abul Qasem, Abul Hossain, Dedar Bux, Deen Mohammed, Abdul Ghafoor Siddiqui, Liaqat Hossain, Ismail Shirazi, Abdul Halim Ghaznavi, and others. Aqatullah, younger brother of Salimullah, the Nawab of Dacca, was a very prominent protester. This list of prominent Muslims is quite interesting, because never again in the politics of Bengal – divided or undivided – would Hindus and Muslims join hands in such large numbers on any issue.

The period between 1905 and 1920 was a period of disquiet for the whole of the subcontinent. There were the Morley-Minto administrative reforms in 1910, the repeal of the partition of Bengal in 1911, and moving the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi with the inauguration of New Delhi in the same year with a royal visit. Meanwhile armed rebellion as an expression of nationalism gained ground in Bengal. The first man to be sent to the gallows in 1909, a young man called Khudiram Bose, was followed by countless others. The first world war was waged in 1914, and continued upto 1918. Two young Bengali Hindu revolutionaries, Jatindra Nath Mukherjee and Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya collaborated with the German consul at Shanghai, and planned to import two shiploads of armaments and land them at Raimangal in the Sundarbans and at Balasore in Orissa. The plan did not work out. Jatindra Nath Mukherjee, also known as Bagha (Tiger) Jatin, was killed in a gun battle with the police at Balasore. Bhattacharyya escaped abroad, changed his name to Manabendra Nath Roy (better known as M.N. Roy) and became an associate of Lenin during and after the Russian revolution. A British army officer called Dyer in 1919 opened fire upon a peaceful gathering in a square at Amritsar in Punjab and killed 1516 people in cold blood. Rabindra Nath Tagore renounced his Knighthood in protest.

Meanwhile the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were introduced in India in 1919 and ushered in a period of Dyarchy. In this system the total range of activities of the government was divided into two groups. One group was called ‘Reserved’ and contained the more important and critical departments, such as Revenue, Police and the Judiciary. These were kept exclusively in British hands. The other group, called ‘Transferred’ comprising the less critical departments, such as Health, Local Government, Education, etc. were put to a limited extent in Indian hands, but with such safeguards that the British retained the power of ultimate decision even on these subjects.

It was around this time that the country started getting polarised around the two principal parties of the country, the Congress and the Muslim League. The Congress, founded in 1885 by a retired British ICS man Allan Octavian Hume as a platform for dialogue between the elite among the Indians and the British quickly changed itself into a forum of anti-British Indians of differing intensities. Although there was no religious bias to the party to begin with, Muslims were lukewarm about the party from day one. Vincent Smith, an eminent historian writes
[2] : “The Muslims in general watched the growth of the Congress from a distance and stood aloof from its controversies with Lord Curzon. But having allowed it to become dominantly Hindu in character through their abstention, they took alarm at the first sign of concessions to its demands. From this sprang the deputation to Lord Minto in 1906, led by the Agha Khan, which demanded separate electorates for Muslims in any representative system that might be introduced.”

The Muslim League, founded in 1906 by Nawab Salimullah of Dacca, also changed its character. It was originally conceived as a political organ of the Muslim landowning class. However in 1913 a very urbane, very anglicised, and anything-but-a-devout-Muslim barrister from Bombay called M. A. Jinnah joined the League. He had joined the Congress in 1906, and joined the League while still with the Congress. He was born in Karachi in 1876 as Mahomet Ali Jheenabhai among a Shi’ite Muslim sect called Khoja Ismaili who, curiously enough, are governed by Hindu personal laws. Under his leadership the League gradually became the rallying point of all Indian Muslims who wanted to be different from Hindus in as many ways as possible. The Congress however continued to persist in the illusion that it was for Hindus and Muslims alike. This illusion, as we shall see, persists to this day, and was one of the factors that brought untold misery to the subject of this book, the East Bengali Hindus.

At this stage a brief digression on the subject of M.A.Jinnah would be in order. What sort of a person was this M.A.Jinnah who, as we all know now, brought about the political division of the subcontinent, the creation of a state called Pakistan, the greatest migration in history, the great Calcutta killings, and needless misery to countless people of India, largely because of, and by the force of his enormous ego? A man who is worshipped as the Qaid-e-Azam, and hated for the vivisection of the country, depending on which side of the political and religious divide one is on, could not have been an ordinary person. Some of the best insights into his character are available from the autobiography of his onetime junior in the legal profession, M.C.Chagla

According to Chagla, Jinnah around 1920 was a completely irreligious person who never prayed, never visited a mosque, and was very fond of ham sandwiches and pork sausages, food absolutely prohibited by his religion Islam. Chagla describes him as the uncrowned king of Bombay, idolized by the youth for his sturdy nationalism. How did such a person become the narrow sectarian leader that we know him to be? Chagla holds two factors to be primarily responsible. First, wherever he was, he had to be the leader, and he saw no chance of this with the Congress being in the total grip of Gandhi
[4]. Second, his personal life : he had married Ruttie, a Parsee Zoroastrian girl many years his junior, daughter of his friend Sir Dinshaw Petit. It was an incompatible match, and had resulted in an unhappy marriage, but Jinnah truly loved her. Ruttie was an avid nationalist, and a good influence on Jinnah, politically speaking. Ruttie died early, and after that Jinnah's only companion at home was his unmarried sister Fatima who was as communal-minded as Ruttie was liberal. Chagla has specifically remarked that she enjoyed Jinnah's diatribes against the Hindus, and if anything, injected an extra dose of venom into them[5]. What followed, of course, is history.

Now to return to the state of the country : the times around 1920 was extremely eventful in many other ways, such as Gandhi’s protest against the exploitation of indigo farmers in Champaran, Bihar, followed by the same against the infamous Rowlatt Act, and finally the launch of his non-cooperation movement ; the end to transportation of Indian ‘indentured labour’ to Mauritius, the West Indies, Fiji, and South Africa ; and many others. However, two events particularly relevant to the subject of this book took place at this time. The first was Jinnah’s severing ties with the Congress following serious differences between him and Gandhi with regard to the latter’s non-cooperation movement. The second took place not in India, but in faraway Sevres in France on 14th May, 1920. It was the publication of the terms of a treaty proposed by the British with the Turkish Sultan. His Ottoman empire had fought on the side of the Germans in the war, and was therefore dismembered. The European part of the empire came under the administration of a commission. The Arab Asian part – comprising the Arabian peninsula, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia (later Iraq) went to Britain and France, under the garb of League of Nations mandates. Only Asia Minor (present Turkey) remained directly with the Sultan. Till the Sultan acceded to these terms his empire would remain under the direct control of the allies.

Now apart from being the ruler of Turkey the Sultan, having had temporal jurisdiction over Mecca, was also, ex officio the Caliph or Khalifa, the temporal head of pan-Islam. The Muslims of India, or the fundamentalists among them at any rate, were therefore quite agitated over this political emasculation of the Sultan and started a political movement which came to be known as the Khilafat movement. The Indian National Congress under Gandhi allied itself completely and wholeheartedly to this movement.

Gandhi’s intention behind doing this was obviously to involve the Muslims in the struggle for independence and thereby forge some kind of a united front against the British. Gandhi, unlike his successor Jawaharlal Nehru, was deeply aware of the basic religiosity of Indians
[6] and therefore considered Khilafat to be an ideal channel for reaching his objectives. The British, on the other hand, were counting on the deep schism between the two communities and were quite disturbed about the designs of Gandhi. Lord Reading, the Viceroy of India, wrote to Lord Montagu, the Secretary of State for India pressing him to alter the terms of the Sevres treaty, with a view to placate the Muslims of India. Meanwhile Mustapha Kemal Pasha came to power in Turkey. He was wedded to the idea of modernising and secularising Turkey. He replaced Arabic alphabets by Roman ones in writing the Turkish language, abolished the purdah (wearing a veil) system for women and made it illegal to wear the Fez, the red conical tasseled cap that had become the hallmark of the Muslim in the early part of the twentieth century. As one of the first steps towards this modernisation and secularisation he abolished the Caliphate, and the Khilafat movement in India died out.

In the wake of the Khilafat movement, however, other things were happening in India. On the Malabar coast,
[7] the northernmost part of the present-day state of Kerala, in August 1921, a group of Muslims of Arab descent known as the Moplahs started agitating against the British. Their rebellion, however, quickly took an abject anti-Hindu turn. The official estimate of deaths, practically all Hindus in this Muslim-majority area, was as much as 2,339. There was widespread forcible conversion of Hindus and desecration as well as destruction of Hindu temples. Some three years later, in September 1924, terrible anti-Hindu riots broke out at Kohat in the North-West Frontier Province. Desecration and destruction of Hindu temples also took place in Amethi in the United Provinces and Gulbarga in Bombay Presidency. The year 1926 saw as many as thirty-five Hindu-Muslim riots in the country. In the riots in Bombay city that took place in 1929 several hundreds died. Out of these the Moplah massacre and the Kohat riots were total anti-Hindu pogroms. The Congress, however, made only a few feeble noises against the Moplah massacre. In respect of the Kohat riots Gandhi started a fast – a hunger-strike actually – at the residence of Moulana Mohammed Ali[8] in Delhi in order to foster goodwill between the two communities and continued for twenty-one days. These riots marked the beginning of the communal rioting that would plague the subcontinent for the remainder of the century.

Gandhi’s unstinted support for the Khilafat movement, however well-intentioned it might have been, together with the feeble reaction of the Congress to the anti-Hindu pogroms of Malabar and Kohat, were terrible mistakes, because they sent all kinds of wrong (and presumably unintended) signals to past and potential anti-Hindu rioters. The first and most important signal received by the Muslims was that the Hindu-dominated Congress would henceforth, so long as Gandhi was in charge, bend over backwards in any given situation to please the Muslims. That trait had already been shown in Gandhi’s participating in a sectarian, retrogressive movement like the Khilafat to reinstall a temporal religious leader many thousands of miles away with whom no Indian Muslim should have had any reason to have any business.

M.C.Chagla, who has been mentioned earlier in connection with the personality of Jinnah, has roundly criticised Gandhi's participation in the Khilafat movement. In his autobiography he writes "I have always felt that Gandhiji was wrong in trying to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity by supporting the cause of the Khilafat. Such unity was built on shifting sands. So long as the religious cause survived, the unity was there; but once that cause was removed the unity showed its weakness. All the Khilafatis who had been attracted to the Congress came out in their true colours, that is as more devoted to their religion than to their country". In Chagla's view it was the Muslim League under the leadership of Jinnah which was then the party of patriotic, secular, modernised Muslims, and the Congress should have allied itself with the League

The second unfortunate signal sent by Gandhi's alliance with the Khilafatis was that, provided a sufficiently large number could be incited to participate in an anti-Hindu riot, nothing much would happen either to the riot inciters or to a mob. Most certainly the Congress would not, repeat not, ask for punishment for the guilty, because that would amount to committing two sins : first, showing that they were prepared to take up cudgels on behalf of Hindus, and therefore could not be said to be equitable towards Muslims ; and second, obliquely admitting that the British alone could keep peace among Hindus and Muslims.

The Congress’s usual reaction to any anti-Hindu riot henceforth would be a mild and inane statement, calling for cessation of all hostilities and restoration of peace and goodwill between the two communities. The worst that could happen following an anti-Hindu riot was that Gandhi himself would come down to the spot of the riot, and appeal for universal peace, hold prayer meetings, or go on fast. Not a breath about bringing the guilty to book. Then some Muslim leader somewhere would make some gesture to make Gandhi break his fast, such as by promising that they would henceforth use their good offices to prevent further rioting. Then Gandhi would break his fast, and the next few days would be all Bhai-Bhai (we are all brothers), until the next riot. Meanwhile the rioters would have had their fun of torching, looting, killing and of course, raping. All in the name of a holy war upon infidels.

This view is supported by as ardent a Nehru-admirer as Ashok Mitra who could not help feeling regret at the fact that even after the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946 (see Chapter 3) neither Nehru nor Gandhi saw it fit to visit Calcutta
[10]. Mitra could attribute this only to the fear that any such visit immediately following the killings (in which, according to Mitra, the guilt of the Muslims was many times that of the Hindus) might result in their being dubbed anti-Muslim. Thus, (conclusion author’s, not Mitra’s) the right or wrong of the situation was of no consequence. What mattered to the leaders, including the Mahatma, was that they should under no account risk being called anti-Muslim.

An anti-Muslim riot was another matter. Then the Congress and the Muslim League would vie with each other to get tough with the rioters. Thus, during the Noakhali carnage (see Chapter 3 for details) where Hindus were butchered, their women raped and brutalised by the hundreds, and families forcibly converted to Islam by the villageful, all that Jawaharlal Nehru did was to meekly follow Gandhi from village to village. What Gandhi did in his turn was to visit villages once inhabited by Hindus with the message that they should come back to their homes. Or rather what had once been their homes, and were now charred remains thereof. But during the Bihar riots that followed in retaliation, where Hindu killed Muslim, the selfsame Jawaharlal Nehru seriously suggested that the Royal Indian Air Force should be brought in to strafe Hindu villages
[11], and Gandhi of course threatened a fast unto death.

These signals had a profound influence on the turn of events in the province of Bengal. Here, first, the Muslims were in the majority. Secondly, they could be inflamed much more easily in the name of waging a Jihad, holy war. Thirdly the logistics of inflaming passions among Muslims existed in the form of their prayer meetings five times a day. And now they were being told that an occasional deviation would result, at worst, in yet another fast by Gandhi. The inevitable result followed. The increasing number of Muslims flocking to the Muslim League felt emboldened beyond belief. With one party among the two principal ones in the country being their very own, and the other trying to placate and appease them in every conceivable way, the future was surely theirs.

In the midst of all these the communities were fast becoming so clearly divided as to make any talk about ‘common interest’ increasingly an absurdity. The fringe of Muslims with the Congress, who were called ‘Nationalist Muslims’ at that time, was constantly dwindling. Meanwhile M.A.Jinnah had returned to India from Britain to be elected the ‘Permanent President’ of the Muslim League and the Muslim League had become synonymous with this one man. By and large the Hindus and Muslims looked up respectively to the Congress and the Muslim League as their own parties, and to Gandhi and Jinnah as their supreme leaders. There were a few exceptions to this rule. Chaudhri Khaliquzzaman of the United Provinces was one, but eventually he yielded to pressure and joined Jinnah in 1937. Another, Allah Baksh of Sind, was assassinated. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of the North-West Frontier, also known as the Frontier Gandhi, leader of the Red-shirted Khudai Khidmatgar (who were a voluntary organisation rather than a political party) remained close to but separate from the Congress. Only the Unionist Party in Punjab, and the Krishak Proja Party in Bengal held out as strong, self-willed, mainstream Muslim political parties distinct from the League. The former was a party which represented rural, as opposed to urban, interests in Punjab, and was led by Mian (later Sir) Fazli Hussain, followed by Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, and Khizr Hyat Tiwana. This party cut across religious lines, and had among its leaders Lala (later Sir) Chotu Ram, representing Hindu Jat agricultural interests and a number of leaders from among Sikh agriculturists. The latter was led by A. K. Fazlul Haq and represented Muslim agriculturists while the Muslim League in Bengal belonged to the Muslim elite, namely the Zamindar class. More about this party later in this chapter.

The sensible thing under such circumstances for the Congress would have been to ally with these parties, who had credible and sober Muslim leaders, so as to draw Muslims away from the rabidly communal Muslim League. Yet the Congress continued to persist in the illusion that they alone represented Hindus and Muslims alike, and in order to reinforce their own faith in it were prepared to do anything – anything at all - to please the Muslims. This did not hurt Hindus from the provinces where they were in an overwhelming majority, such as Bombay Presidency, Madras Presidency or the Central Provinces and Berar. This did not hurt the Punjabi Hindus or Sikhs either, because of the presence of the Unionist Party described above ; nor the Hindus in the North-West Frontier Province because Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, very close to the Congress, held sway there. This did not even hurt the Hindus in the United Provinces or Bihar because, in spite of the substantial Muslim minority being solidly behind the League, the majority was still with the Hindus. On the other hand it hurt the Bengali Hindus like none else, because there was no one here to save them from the tyranny of the Muslim League except the Congress, and that party would do nothing to help the Hindus for fear of being dubbed communal. The one slim ray of hope that existed with Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Proja Party was adequately taken care of by the Congress’s remaining equidistant from them and the League, followed by a most regrettable and pigheaded refusal in 1937 to make a coalition with them.

In such a state Round Table Conferences – some three rounds of them – were held in London among the various concerned parties, namely the British, the Congress the Muslim League and diverse other groups. Nothing much came out of them. In 1932 Ramsay Macdonald, the Labourite Prime Minister announced his 'Communal Award'. This award fixed communal representations in the provinces and was given its final shape by the Poona Pact of 4th September 1932 which secured general as well as special representations for the scheduled or depressed classes. This was followed finally by a mammoth piece of legislation known as the Government of India Act 1935, which received royal assent on 4th August 1935. Vincent Smith describes it as “the last major constructive achievement of the British in India”.

What did the 1935 act do? In short, it enlarged the scope of popular representation subject to the paramountcy of the British. It put an end to the Dyarchy of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms and introduced the federal principle with the corollary of provincial autonomy and the principle of popular responsible government in the provinces. Muslim-majority Sind was separated from Bombay Presidency (which had an overall Hindu majority) to form a separate province. A new province of Orissa was formed from the Orissa Division of the former province of Bihar and Orissa and the adjacent portions of Madras Presidency and Central Provinces. Burma was completely separated from India, and a separate act called the Government of Burma Act was re-enacted in the very next session of the British Parliament.

Provincial elections took place in February 1937 and resulted in striking Congress successes in the Hindu-majority provinces. The Muslim League did well only among Muslims in the Hindu-majority provinces. The Congress, conversely, drew practically a blank among the Muslims. Of the 836 non-Muslim seats that the Congress contested they won as many as 715 ; but of the 485 Muslim seats they contested 85 and won only 26. The Muslim League won only two out of the 86 Muslim seats in the Punjab, 40 out of 119 in Bengal, and none at all in Sind and the North-West Frontier. Thus, very ironically, the Muslim League made a very poor showing in the land mass that is today known as Pakistan.

Two things happened in these elections which made rift between the Congress and the Muslim League irreparable -- and in effect strengthened the position of the Muslim League. The first happened in the United Provinces where the Congress and Muslim League had contested the seats on an understanding that there would be a coalition if they won. This was termed ‘independent cooperation’ by Jinnah and was adopted not just in U.P. but also in all Hindu-majority provinces. Jinnah went on to declare “There is really no substantial difference between the League and the Congress . . . . we shall always be glad to cooperate with the Congress in their constructive programmes”.

When the results came out it was found that the Congress had won a majority of its own in seven out of the eleven provinces. As a result the Congress went back on its understanding. Jawaharlal Nehru declared, with historic shortsightedness, that everybody else will have to ‘simply fall in line’ with the Congress. This actually reinforced Jinnah’s oft-taken position that however much they talked about cutting across religious lines, the Congress could not be trusted to look after the interests of the Muslims. Maulana Azad has termed this action of Jawaharlal a blunder equal to the one he made nine years later on July 10, 1946 when, by a thoughtless remark at a press conference, he gave an opportunity to Jinnah to wriggle out of the League’s reluctant acceptance of the Cabinet Mission proposals (see later in the chapter).

Bhabani Prosad Chatterjee, in his well researched “Deshbibhag : Poshchat o Nepottho Kahini” (in Bangla, meaning “The Partition : the Background and what happened behind the scene [12]) has commented that had
the Congress obliged the League by accommodating them in the United Provinces, the Hindus would surely have accused them of appeasing the League[13]. It is difficult to accept this position. Chatterjee has not mentioned who among the Hindus would have made this accusation. Only the Hindu Mahasabha would have done it, and they did it even otherwise, not without any justification. In truth the reason lay in the Congress’s eternal grand delusion : that they, and they alone, represented all castes and communities through the length and breadth of India.

The second incident took place in Bengal. Here, three parties emerged, with none being able to secure a majority. Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Proja Party, representing the interests of Muslim agriculturists secured most of the seats reserved for the Muslims, but that was not sufficient for him to form a ministry. Haq himself was deeply suspicious of the Muslim League, and wanted to have no truck with them. A number of prominent members of the party, though devout Muslims, were nationalistically inclined, and wanted a coalition with the Hindu-dominated Congress. The Congress however remained stuck in a totally inflexible position, which later proved disastrous, that they would rather sit in the opposition but would not enter into any coalition. Fazlul Haq thus was driven into a coalition with the Muslim League and is said to have remarked, in so many words, that he had been thrown to the wolves. An understanding was reached between him and the Muslim League leaders Suhrawardy
[14] and Nazimuddin through the good offices of a Bengali Hindu Industrialist called Nalini Ranjan Sarker[15] and the Coalition Ministry took office in late 1937. Suhrawardy and Nazimuddin had, until the previous year, belonged to a party known as the United Muslim Party which merged with Jinnah’s Muslim League through the efforts of Ispahani and a few others[16].

This refusal of the Congress to form a coalition with Fazlul Haq has already been termed pigheaded, and was the result of a decision of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) who refused to make an exception in the case of Bengal. This was probably the first nail to be driven in the coffin of the East Bengali Hindus, though very few realised it as such at that time. Nor was it a result of following some inflexible principle, because the selfsame AICC permitted such a coalition in Assam. Now why did the AICC do it? Was it an act of simple political stupidity that occasionally occurs in the life of every nation and moulds the destiny of millions? Or was it something deeper, an act of spitefulness? And if the AICC did it why didn’t the Bengal Congress raise their voice against such a decision, and in favour of coalition with Haq? Perhaps we shall never know. However we can look at observations of contemporary watchers and try to reach our own conclusions.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri, as the secretary of the Bengal Congress president Sarat Chandra Bose, had the opportunity of observing the situation at very close range. It is generally acknowledged that his objectivity, astuteness, and power of observation could not be seriously faulted if the British were not concerned. He has said
[17] : “I am unable to say whether the treatment of Bengal by the Congress was deliberate. But there is no doubt that there was indifference to Bengal in the Congress, if not some real antipathy, which, in spite of being only latent, influenced policies. . . . . Here I have only to add that at that early stage even Sarat Bose showed lack of foresight by being opposed to office acceptance”.

These were all momentous events, the Communal Award of 1932, the Government of India Act 1935 and the taking office of Fazlul Haq’s coalition ministry in 1937. What did they mean for Bengal, or more precisely, Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims ?

Again, Nirad C. Chaudhuri had spoken about these with remarkable clarity. He has this to say
[18] : “Let me begin with the political situation in the strict sense. The starkly obvious feature was that, under the provincial constitution imposed on Bengal by the Government of India Act 1935, Bengali Hindus were permanently debarred (italics his) from exercising any political power in their province . . . . . . except through the charity of the Muslims which was not likely to be bestowed. . . . . they were reduced to a permanent statutory minority, disenfranchised as to power, although given the franchise to elect members to the legislature”. It ought to be mentioned that this situation continued till the partition of the province (except for the brief interregnum of Fazlul Haq’s ministry, 1941-43) till the province was partitioned and Hindu-majority West Bengal came into being. Chaudhuri also wrote[19] in the then popular Bengali monthly Sanibarer Chithi in September 1936 “ Today, as a result of the Communal Award of 1932, there is going to be a dominance of Muslims, as against the Hindus, over the governance of Bengal. . . . . They (the Bengali Hindus) are apprehensive that as soon as the Muslims get political power they would, in education as in literature, undermine the very culture based on ancient Indian ideals which was the pride of the Bengali Hindu. The fear is neither baseless nor unjustified. . . .” (Translation his).

Meanwhile there were legislative and economic changes which bettered the lot of the Muslim peasant. The Bengal Tenancy Act, the legislation forming the framework of the Zamindari system, underwent two amendments, all in favour of the ryot, the tenant peasant, most of whom in Eastern Bengal were Muslim. Jute prices also registered a steep upward movement around this time, and jute cultivators were almost all Muslim. This economic empowerment had an immediate political fallout. Muslims began to increasingly occupy posts of Presidents (who were hitherto mostly Hindu) of Union Boards, the lowest rung in the system then prevalent of Local Self-Government.

In the meantime, while the Congress was proceeding on the Gandhian path, and the Muslim League was busy trying to wrest as much as possible for the Muslims, a different kind of movement was in full swing in Bengal. This was the movement of those who had chosen the path of violence to freedom. They were confined largely to Bengal, and to some extent to Punjab and the Maharashtra region of the Bombay Presidency. The British used to call them terrorists, but in Bengal they were known as Biplobi or Revolutionaries. Their epoch was Bengal’s Ognijug or Agniyuga, the era of fire.

Normally when one talks of Revolutionaries one almost automatically thinks of Marxists or Communists, but these people had nothing to do with Marxism. In fact the Marxists or Communists had played a very underhand and nefarious role in India’s freedom movement – more on this subject later. The inspiration for the movement came from a variety of sources – mainly from the patriotic song Vande Mataram composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, and to the part of the Hindu scriptures known as Bhagavad Gita, which is actually a collection of the counsel that Lord Shri Krishna gave to the warrior Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

This phase of India’s struggle for freedom actually began in the early years of the century, led by a brilliant person called Aurobindo Ghosh who had qualified for the ICS, but failed the test of riding a horse. He eventually left the movement for a life of spiritualism, and came to be known as Sri Aurobindo of Pondicherry. The movement did not have any central control, as a result of which it ebbed and flowed with varying strength at various points of time. Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki were among the first to take shots at the British. Khudiram’s death by hanging and Prafulla’s in a gunfight provided inspiration for hundreds of others. During the First World War some of the revolutionaries tried to collaborate with the Germans – the efforts of Bagha Jatin in this regard have also been referred to earlier.

It is not that the Revolutionaries did not have any organisation at all, merely that they had no central organisation, planning, coordination or control. In fact they used to operate under the loose control of a number of organisations spread throughout the province, especially East Bengal. One very important such organisation was the Anushilan Samiti which had more than five hundred branches in East Bengal. Among the others were Jugantar Dal, Attonnati Samiti, Sri Sangha, Prabartak Sangha and others. A high point in the Revolutionary movement was reached on 18th April 1930 when a group of very ordinary middle-class Bengali Hindu Bhadralok, having formed themselves into an organisation called the Indian Republican Army (doubtless under inspiration from their Irish counterparts), led by a schoolteacher called Shurjo Sen, also known as Masterda, raided the district armoury at Chittagong and cut off Chittagong from the rest of the world by simultaneously ransacking the telegraph office. Most of the group perished in the gunfights that followed, but Masterda, with his associate Tarakeshwar Dastidar were captured, tried and hanged. Their bodies were not allowed to be cremated for fear of unrest. Instead they were secretly thrown into the sea. Some others, such as a young intrepid woman called Pritilata Ohdedar, chose to commit suicide. Meanwhile a number of Indian and British police officers, such as Ellison of Comilla, Asatullah and Tarini Mukherjee were shot dead by other revolutionaries. The same year saw a gun-battle on the corridors of Writers’ Buildings in Calcutta, the seat of the Bengal Government, where three young men called Binoy Basu, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta shot dead Simpson and Craig, two very senior police officers, and were themselves killed or subsequently hanged.

There were similar revolutionaries following the path of armed insurrection in other provinces too, notably in Punjab and in the Maharashtra part of Bombay Presidency. In fact the first among such revolutionaries to go to the gallows were the Chapekar brothers of Poona (now Pune). However, the preponderance of Bengal in this phase of the struggle for freedom is brought out by nothing else as clearly as the walls of the cellular jail at Port Blair, Andaman Islands. In the British days the Indian Penal Code prescribed the punishment of ‘transportation for life’ for certain offences, and that meant moving to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, which were penal colonies just as French Guiana and Devil’s Island were to the French. This practice was abolished after independence, and the cellular jail today stands as a national monument. Now, the cellular jail has the names of its inmates inscribed on the walls, and has them classified province-wise – and out of the thirty-two walls where such names appear, as many as twenty-three carry those from Bengal.

Two points are to be noted. First, these revolutionaries were, to a man, all Hindus. Secondly, barring those from the district of Midnapore, practically all the rest were from East Bengal, many of them from the districts of Barisal, Dacca, Faridpur, Chittagong and Tipperah.

Because of the lack of a central control, of any definite gameplan, and more than anything else of leadership, the revolutionary movement petered out. But it had put the fear of God in the British and had mobilised a lot of fence-sitters to commit themselves totally to independence of the country. While popular perception has it that the mainstream Congress movement, following the path of non-violence under Gandhi, was primarily responsible for bringing independence to the country, this is not accepted by all. In fact it remains an enigma to this day as to what precisely prompted the Imperial British to give up the first slice, the brightest jewel, of their empire, and go home without a serious fight. It is widely believed that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army, and the Naval Mutiny of 1946 had played at least as important a part as Gandhi’s non-violent movements ; because these two caused the British to start doubting, for the second time since the War of Independence of 1857 (wrongly termed by some as the Sepoy Mutiny), the loyalty of their Indian troops. Along with these, the revolutionaries of Bengal and Punjab must have played a very important role too!

But that is not the end of the enigma. What happened to those among the fearless revolutionaries who survived, the majority of whom were Hindus from East Bengal? Very strangely, practically all of them left East Bengal after partition, hounded out by Muslims, without so much as a whimper. The enigma is, why did people, who had braved the imperial power of the British, succumb so meekly when challenged by the might of the much less powerful Pakistani state and their rag-tag Lungi-clad Muslim rioters? Why did such people run away from places that were their homes for hundreds of years? This question has been rarely, if ever, asked. An answer to this question, and also why it is not asked, has been attempted in chapter 10 of this book.

All these surviving East Bengali Hindu revolutionaries lived on to become embittered, frustrated, disgruntled old men in the refugee colonies of post-partition West Bengal. Their exploits were largely forgotten in the media blitzkrieg launched by the Congressites in their self-praise and in praise of Gandhi and Nehru and their non-violent struggle. Their grandchildren born in post-partition West Bengal refused to believe that they did the kind of things they claimed they did. All that they got (in material terms) for risking their lives and then being hounded out of their homes, were commemorative copper plaques, pensions, some franchises from state-owned companies, and railway travel concessions. Quite a few among them became Communists. One or two took to crime, and one became an expert bank robber, of course with a revolutionary objective. Not one of them ever opened his mouth against their being ousted from East Bengal.

We can now return to the mainstream independence movement. The next milestone in Bengal politics was the exit of Subhas Chandra Bose from the Congress in 1939, followed by his exit from the country in 1941.

It happened this way : In 1938 Subhas Chandra Bose was a brilliant young man of only forty, with great personal charm and magnetism. He was the younger brother of Sarat Chandra Bose, President of the Congress in Bengal, which gave him considerable political pedigree as well as clout. He had just come back from a long sojourn in Europe where he had gone for medical treatment. He was a powerful speaker, of a very presentable appearance, a confirmed bachelor, of unimpeachable personal integrity and was totally untainted by any scandal. With all these he had acquired an irresistible appeal to the intelligentsia, and it was only natural that he should be considered for the highest political office that a Hindu in British India could aspire to – namely the presidency of the Indian National Congress. At that time the hold of Gandhi on the Congress was so complete that no one could think of reaching that office without his endorsement, and no one could think of continuing in that office without his support. Gandhi endorsed Subhas’s candidature for the Congress to be held at Haripura in 1938, and Subhas was elected president.

The next three years in his life after this was an anticlimax. Immediately following his election problems started between the two of them. Unfortunately Subhas’s skill at politicking was next to nothing compared to Gandhi’s. Gandhi managed to get practically all the first-rung leaders of the Congress, such as Patel, Nehru, Kripalani, Bhulabhai Desai, Sarojini Naidu, Azad and others leagued up against Subhas. The time for electing the president for the next session, to be held at Tripuri, near Jabalpur, came, and Gandhi endorsed a quiet, if colourless, person called Pattabhi Sitaramayya for the post. An election was held. Such was Subhas’s appeal that he got elected in spite of Gandhi’s active opposition, and Gandhi promptly went on record saying that Pattabhi’s defeat was his defeat. After this his camp made life miserable for Subhas, with the result that he was forced to resign in exasperation, also leaving the Congress in the same motion, to found a new party called the Forward Bloc. This proved to be great political mistake on Subhas’s part. In one stroke he had thrown himself out of the political mainstream of the nation. Even his brother Sarat Bose did not follow him, and remained with the Congress. After this, in January 1941, despite being under police surveillance, he escaped from his house and went to Nazi Germany, and thence by submarine to Japan. His greatest exploits all relate to the period after this exit, but the fact remains that with this he was lost to Bengal.

Subhas Chandra Bose was a natural, charismatic leader, and his exit from Bengal robbed the province of a person who could hold a brief for the province before any forum in the world. His appeal also ran across communal lines, and he had the capacity to persuade the Muslim majority of Bengal to take a rational line vis-a vis the Hindus. As already said, the Congress, despite being an overwhelmingly Hindu party, and existing because of Hindu support alone, was always reluctant to take up the cause of Hindus for fear of losing a Muslim support that wasn’t there. Fortunately for the Hindus of Bengal, there rose above the political horizon, at this juncture, a leader of unmatched clarity of thinking, fearlessness and integrity. His name was Syama Prasad Mookerjee
[20], and for the Bengali Hindus he was to prove to be their last hope in politics – although they did not realise it then, and have only begun to realise it after all these years.

Syama Prasad entered politics at the instance and insistence of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the president of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha, who had then just been released from prison and had come to visit Bengal in August 1939. The Congress’s pandering to Muslim interests in order to garner their votes, at the cost of Hindus who had kept the party in business, had thoroughly revolted Syama Prasad. He heard Savarkar’s speech at the Hindu Mahasabha conference at Khulna and came in contact with him. Meanwhile other Mahasabha leaders, such as Ashutosh Lahiri, N.C.Chatterjee (father of Somnath Chatterjee, parliamentary leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the 1980s and 90s) had perceived the great promise of the man and were pressing him to join. Another person who was instrumental in finally persuading him to join the Mahasabha was Swami Pranavananda, founder of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha.

Another very important thing happened on September 1, 1939 in faraway Europe. Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Poland, and Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister rose in the Parliament at Westminster to say, “Gentlemen, we are at war with Germany”. As a British colony India was dragged into the war which was, till then, a purely European affair – even the United States of America had not joined it then. The Congress wanted an assurance from the British regarding India’s independence after the war as a quid pro quo for India’s joining the war, and the British government flatly refused. The Congress then resigned their ministries in all the seven provinces where they were in power. The British were not terribly hurt. But the happiest person was Muhammad Ali Jinnah who termed the day of such resignation as the ‘day of deliverance for the Muslims’.

Meanwhile Fazlul Haq was having a very hard time with the Muslim League diehards. It was his dream to educate the illiterate masses of Bengal, and in spite of having been Premier he had selected for himself the portfolio of Education rather than the much more politically important Home or Finance portfolios, leaving these to the Muslim League. His politics was so fundamentally different from that of the communal zealots of the League that nobody expected them to stick together for any length of time. He had been more pressured than persuaded to support the Pakistan Resolution of 1940 at the Muslim League session at Lahore, much against his wishes as it turned out later. Finally in 1941, he decided that enough was enough, and after having a word with Syama Prasad, left the ministry which then collapsed. He then formed, in December 1941, the Progressive Coalition ministry with the Hindu Mahasabha, in which Syama Prasad became the Finance Minister. This was popularly known as the Syama-Haq ministry, and this was the last time over a long period that Bengali Hindus were going to get some justice from their government.

Despite the fact that the cabinet enjoyed the confidence of the Provincial Legislative Assembly, the Governor waited for a full week, from the 3rd to the 11th of December, before swearing the cabinet in. And before he did so, he dealt it a terrible blow. On the 11th, a few hours before the swearing-in, he got Sarat Chandra Bose arrested under the Defence of India Regulations, and incarcerated him in the Presidency Jail. The supporters of the Coalition were all aghast and advised Fazlul Haq not to swear the cabinet in. However this would have meant playing right into the hands of the British, and Haq did not do it. Instead he decided to get his cabinet in first, and then apply pressure on the Governor to release Bose. However, this design also failed. The Governor told Haq that this was a decision of the Central Government, and there was nothing he could do about Bose's arrest

The real reason for such conduct was that the British hated the ministry. First, they were right through clearly partial to the Muslims, though not all of them were as brazen as Sir Bamfylde Fuller (see Chapter 1) about it. Secondly, their entire administrative strategy at the time rested, to a large extent, on quietly fomenting and exacerbating Hindu-Muslim tension, and the Progressive Coalition ministry was literally a monkey wrench into their works. This element in their administrative strategy was so basic that even Annada Sankar Ray, who is otherwise unduly mild towards the British even while criticising them in his Jukto Bonger Sriti, is very explicit on this score. He mentions a case where a Brahmin and a Muslim were arrested during the Civil Disobedience movement. The British District Magistrate released the Muslim immediately, telling him repeatedly that the British had no quarrel with the Muslims, but kept the Brahmin in lock-up for a week. Thus, Ray observes, it was rubbed into him that the Government does not desire amity between Hindu and Muslim
[22]. Thirdly they were even more partial to the Muslim League than they were to the Muslims, and could not take kindly to a ministry that had deposed them. The hatred was manifest from a telegram sent by Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, to Amery, the Secretary of State for India on the subject of unleashing repressive measures on the populace who had participated in the ‘Quit India’ movement (see below) : “Herbert (Sir John, the Governor of Bengal) is not very certain of the attitude of Haq, who, under Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s influence shows signs of wobbling, with the result that the Bengal Government may be reluctant to take necessary action”. So they looked for opportunities to dethrone this ministry and reinstall the Leaguers. Such opportunity was not late in coming, and the occasion was provided by the Congress’s ‘Quit India’ call.

In fact the Hon’ble Sir John Arthur Herbert, Governor of Bengal, was a very complex character whose ideas nevertheless fell admirably in line with the Imperial designs of the British. He was known as ‘Herbert the pervert’ in intimate circles for some of his strange proclivities. He had also inherited the love of Muslims and hatred of Hindus from his predecessor of an earlier generation, Sir Bamfylde Fuller (q.v.). He set for himself a task of Muslimizing the Police forces and went about this in a very Machiavellian way.

For their own reasons the British had decided to have two parallel Police departments in their Presidencies. Thus, for Bengal there was Calcutta Police, with jurisdiction over Calcutta, and Bengal Police for the rest of Bengal. They were not just separate and independent departments but had totally different cultures. Calcutta Police was much more the glamorous of the two, with their smart white uniforms (as opposed to drab khaki of the moffusil), and the resplendent red turbans of their constables. Their headquarters, Lalbazar, was modeled after the Scotland Yard of London. The sergeant cadre of Calcutta Police in those days was manned almost exclusively by Anglo-Indians, generally known as Lalmukho (Red-faced) sergeants. However the sub-inspectors’ cadre was manned largely by Indians, mostly Bengalis. Because of the glamour of the Calcutta Police and the fact that its officers were subject to transfer only within the city, a number of young men from good, aristocratic families of Calcutta were attracted to this cadre, and as a result most of the Officers-in-Charge of the Police Stations, who were of Inspectors’ rank in the force, were Bengali Hindus.

Herbert created a number of functional departments in the Calcutta Police Headquarters, such as Criminal Records, Cheating, Murder and so on. He then imperceptibly drew away the Hindu Inspectors from the posts of Officers-in-Charge to head these departments and had them replaced by Muslims. As a result, by the time Suhrawardy was in position for the run-up to the Great Calcutta Killings (see Chapter 3), what are called ‘Line Functions’ in Management Science today, or ‘Command postings’ in the Army were entirely in the hands of Muslim officers. Quite a lot of Suhrawardy’s work thus had already been done in advance by Herbert

In August 1942, in its Bombay session, the Congress called upon the British to ‘Quit India’. This is variously known as the “Quit India’ movement, the August Kranti or Biplob (Uprising) and so on. As a movement it was not a well-planned or coordinated one. However, it was enough for the panic-stricken British to promptly put all the Congress leaders in jail. As a result the movement became a loose cannon and at places, one hell of a cannon. One such place was the Midnapore district of Bengal, the home of such dissimilar characters as Khudiram and Suhrawardy. The district had earned great notoriety after the assassination of three of its District Magistrates – Douglas, Burge and Peddie – so much so that thereafter the government stopped sending Britishers to the district to become its magistrate.

In certain parts of the district, notably in the Tamluk and Contai subdivisions, total independence was proclaimed. The areas were cut off from the rest of India by uprooting railway lines and severing telegraph connections. The British retaliated with brutally repressive measures, deploying both the police and the military who absolutely took the law in their own hands. They made few arrests. Instead they killed, burnt, tortured, maimed and raped, all with a carte blanche issued by governor Herbert.

At this juncture a terrible cyclone, accompanied by tidal waves, hit the Midnapore coast in the very same Tamluk and Contai subdivisions. This was on October 16, on Ashtami day of the Durga Puja, the biggest festival of Bengali Hindus, and the streets were full of people in Contai town. In no time the town went under five feet of water. This was a time of the year when no cyclone is normally expected, and the population was taken totally unawares. Ashok Mitra
[24] writes that some thirty thousand people lost their lives in the first fifteen minutes. It is still believed by many that the District Magistrate of Midnapore, Niaz Mohammed Khan, an ICS officer who later opted for Pakistan and became an important civil servant there deliberately withheld a cyclone warning on the grounds that ‘disloyal people had no right to live’. At any rate, according to Ashok Mitra[25] he recommended to the government in his report that, in consideration of the political mischief wrought by people from the district, neither should the government take any relief measures for at least one month, nor permit any non-governmental organisation to do so. Was this being more loyal than the king – or more malevolent than the devil?

The conduct of Niaz must have been observed with considerable approval by Suhrawardy, although the latter was not in power at this time. For later, when Suhrawardy returned to power by the grace of Governor Herbert, he put Niaz to good use in the run-up to ‘Direct Action’, also known as the Great Calcutta Killings. This is described in the next chapter. Niaz is credited with various other feats, such as an attempt to Islamise the Arakan coast of Burma (later Myanmar) by settling Muslims from Chittagong there. He succeeded in this, but only temporarily, because later, in the 1990s the Buddhist Myanmarese government drove out all these Muslims, known as Rohingiyas, back into Bangladesh. We need only remind ourselves at this stage that it was under administrators like Niaz a few years later that the Hindus of East Bengal had to live.

The unbelievable hardship to which the population of the area were subjected to by this combination of human repression and the natural calamity was carefully hidden by the British administration from the public at large, even from the provincial cabinet. When Syama Prasad came to know of this, entirely through unofficial channels, he was incensed. He rushed to Midnapore, and upon observing the deliberate and inhuman official callousness, took up the matter with the Governor Sir John Herbert who, quite predictably, did exactly nothing. Syama Prasad, in protest resigned from the cabinet on November 20, 1942. Sir John was waiting for such opportunities. Around this time he somehow (possibly by hinting that he would form an all-party government of which Haq would be the Premier) had persuaded Fazlul Haq to sign a resignation of his cabinet, but he kept this up his sleeve for a while. A few months later, when Haq said in the Provincial Assembly that he would have a Judicial Inquiry instituted to determine the cause of the disaster and the relief measures
[26] he sacked the Haq cabinet on March 28, 1943 with this resignation. Thereafter, using his extraordinary powers he installed a Muslim League cabinet led by Nazimuddin, with Suhrawardy as the Minister in charge of Civil Supplies. Nazimuddin flatly refused to take any non-League Muslim into his cabinet, and Haq was out. Herbert also got what he wanted : a rubber-stamp provincial cabinet, with no voice of conscience like Syama Prasad or Haq.

At this point it is necessary to take a look at the role played by the Communist Party of India at this juncture and later. This is because, as will be seen, the Indian Communists, in order to secure political gains, wholeheartedly supported the demand for Pakistan voiced by the Muslim League, and eventually played a pivotal role in preventing proper rehabilitation of the refugees from East Bengal. In order to understand their behaviour during these epoch-making years it is also necessary to briefly digress into the origin and development of Indian Communists.

Around the middle years of the twentieth century it used to be said about Indian Communists in jest, “ Who is that man sweating away in an overcoat on this steamy afternoon ? Oh, that is Comrade so-and-so. But why the overcoat? Because it is snowing in Moscow.” There was considerable truth in the joke, because in those days the Indian Communists were blind followers of the Soviet political line, regardless of its applicability to Indian conditions or of the national interests of India. Just how blind, and where this landed them and all those that listened to them can and ought to form the subject of a distinct line of study. For the purposes of this book the discussion will have to be limited to the bare mentioning of three aspects, namely : first, their position during India’s freedom struggle ; second, their collaboration with the British Government during the war, and especially their depiction of Subhas Chandra Bose as a Japanese stooge ; and third, their role in and following the partition of the country and of Bengal.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded, not in India, but at Tashkent in the erstwhile Soviet Union (now Uzbekistan) on October 17, 1920. This was very symbolic of the fact, observed throughout the life of communism in India, that the Indian communists were always far away from the aspirations of the people – in fact there was always a lack of basic understanding of Indianness among them. One of the founder-members was Manabendra Nath Roy, better known as M.N.Roy, who has been mentioned earlier in this chapter in connection with revolutionary activities in Bengal during the First World War. Roy very soon fell out with Dange, another founder-member, and the Comintern appointed a British communist with Bengali roots, Rajani Palme Dutt, to lead the party. Thereafter Zinoviev, a member of the then-ruling ‘Troika’ of the Soviet Union (of which the other members were Stalin and Kamenev), ordered the fledgling CPI to become an appendage of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

The CPI was opposed to the independence movement from day one. In the first world Congress of the Communist International held in Moscow in 1920 the Programme of the International called Gandhiism a philosophy that was fast emerging as a stumbling block in the way of a people’s revolution. A motion in the sixth International held in 1928, also in Moscow, pointed out that it was the duty of all communists in India to expose the Congress in India, and to resist the efforts of Swarajists, Gandhians and Congressmen of all hues.

Rabindra Nath Datta remembers how the Communists in Noakhali formed small groups to guard Police Stations, Bridges and Telegraph lines from possible attacks by Congressites during the 'Quit India' movement of August 1942.

Their treatment of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose during the war (which they used to call ‘Imperialist War’ until Germany attacked Russia, and ‘Peoples’ War’ thereafter) causes them no end of embarrassment today. Especially in West Bengal where Netaji Subhas is revered as the greatest national hero of the freedom struggle, and where, coincidentally, the Communists have been in power since 1977. In fact Jyoti Basu, the Communist Chief Minister of West Bengal had said in a speech on Subhas’s birthday that they had made a mistake in regard to Netaji. He did not elaborate how he, or his party, proposed to make amends for this ‘mistake’. Probably his condescending to admit the mistake was enough. At any rate, the depiction of Netaji during the war is, at once, interesting and instructive.

The ‘People’s War’, the organ of the Communist Party of India at that time, printed a series of cartoons of Subhas at that time. One of them, published in the November 21, 1943 issue showed Subhas Chandra Bose as a midget dressed in military tunic, guiding the Imperial Japanese Army into India. In the August 8, 1943 issue Subhas’s face was shown as mask hiding a vile and cruel Japanese face. One of the slogans in Bangla that they coined, calling all comrades to arms, ran as follows:

“Comrade, dhoro hatiyar – dhoro hatiyar
Swadhinata shongrame nohi aaj akla
Biplobi Soviet, durjoy Mohachin
Shathey aachhey Ingrej, nirbheek Markin.”

which, freely translated, means as follows:

To arms Comrades – to arms, Comrades!
We are not alone in this struggle for freedom
The Revolutionary Soviet Union, the invincible, Great China,
The British, the fearless Americans – they are all with us.

It is to be noted that Mohachin (Great China) referred to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang China of the time, and not to Mao’s Red China. The punch line, of course, is the description of the American (Markin in Bangla) GI as ‘fearless fighters’ - by the Communist Party of India.

After the ban was lifted on the Communist Party of India, Secretary Puran Chand Joshi sent a telegram to Harry Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the telegram, apart from mouthing the usual inanities about the ‘Anti-Fascist Solidarity of the Indian People’, he also mentioned that his co-revolutionaries had taken a suicidal path, referring of course to the Congress’s Quit India movement. To Ashok Mitra this seemed to be very clever-clever. Everyone knew that the telegram would be censored, and the idea was to let the Government know, without seeming to intend to do so, that the CPI was completely on their side

And finally, the matter of East Bengal refugees, which is the reason why the conduct of the Communists in India is very important for the purposes of this book. When the clamour for Pakistan by the Muslim League, on the basis of Jinnah’s two-nation theory was warming up, and Congress leaders were in jail following the uprising of August 1942, the CPI released a ‘thesis’, drafted by one Gangadhar Adhikari. The substance of the thesis was that there was no such nation as India, that India was really a conglomeration of as many as eighteen different ‘nationalities’ and that each one of these nationalities had the right to secede from the conglomeration. Now the fact was that neither the Parsees of Bombay (now Mumbai), nor the Christians of Mangalore, nor the Jews of Cochin had shown the slightest inclination to secede from India, nor to declare themselves as a separate ‘nationality’. It was only Jinnah’s Muslim League, representing the opinion of the vast majority of the Muslims in India, who claimed that they were a different nation and wanted to secede ; and they loved the Adhikari thesis. However, the CPI’s espousal of Pakistan did not stop here. CPI leaders, such as Sajjad Zaheer, B.T.Ranadive, P.C.Joshi and others, actively wrote and otherwise propagandized in favour of the ‘right of secession of the Muslims of India’.

This was all before the partition actually took place. Probably the Communists expected that in the fledgling state of Pakistan they would be much better off as a party than they were in undivided India. Alas, this was not to be. The atheist Communists with Hindu names were treated no differently from their God-fearing Hindu brethren, and with the exception of very few like Moni Singh they had all to leave their beloved Pakistan for which they had done so much clamouring.

Dhananjoy Basak
[28], formerly of Nawabpur, Dacca City, recalls that his cousin Gopal Basak was an important organiser of the Communist Party of India, and had been named in the Meerut Conspiracy Case. People like P.C.Joshi and Muzaffar Ahmed were regular visitors to their house at Nawabpur. He had, however, taken fright at the look of the Muslim majority after the riots of 1946. He was one of the first among their clan to flee to India after the country as partitioned.

Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti, one of the very few serious researchers on the subject of East Bengal refugees generally agrees with this conclusion
[29], and provides further insight into the blundering ways of the CPI. According to Chakrabarti the Communist party initially “simply refused to accept the existence of the luckless victims of communal hatred . . . . . the party felt that once the panacea of partition was implemented the communal virus would be completely eradicated from the Indian body politic. The party directed its Pakistan cadres not to migrate to India . . . . even (front ranking leaders such as) Sajjad Zaheer, Krishnabinode Roy and Mansur Habibullah were expelled from the party when they came back to India after their release from Pakistan jail”.

What happened after partition in West Bengal is relevant to this book only so far as the same influenced events in East Bengal. The conduct of Communists had such an influence only to a marginal extent, and therefore will be mentioned only in passing. There were a number of ex-revolutionaries among the refugees who had turned Communist after their revolutionary fervour had died out. They were joined in West Bengal by the local Communists, and together they formed a Communist core among the refugees. This formation of a core has been masterfully dealt with in Prafulla Chakrabarti’s book mentioned above, and the serious reader is referred to that book for a fuller treatment of the subject. The refugee problem in Bengal was mismanaged to an extent beyond belief by the Nehru government, as will be seen later in this book. It is this that helped the Communists grow in the state, something that did not happen in most other parts of India. And it is that growth in the refugee camps of those days that culminated in the unbroken rule by the party in the state since 1977.

The Communists taught the refugees to fight for their rights. So far so good. However the forms of fight were such as would in later years brand Bengali refugees, without justification, as a feckless, lazy, unreasonable, undisciplined constantly agitating bunch of people. The refugees were taught to demand cash doles, not jobs, to travel in trains without tickets, to hold up road traffic as a form of protest and to squat on other peoples’ land. The government obliged, spoiling the habits of an entire generation and making heroes out of the Communists. The government made plans to resettle the refugees in the Andaman Islands. This was a very good idea, because the islands had a climate and soil very similar to that of East Bengal. They were moreover totally virgin, with no possibilities of any clash with the local population, something that happened later in parts of Dandakaranya. The Communists persuaded the refugees to refuse rehabilitation in the Andamans, and demanded resettlement only in West Bengal. There was opposition in powerful quarters against the East Bengal refugees going to the Andamans, and those quarters could not be more thankful.

Ironically, after the Communists were voted to power in 1977, and some of the later refugees were under resettlement in Dandakaranya (a rocky and semi-arid tract of land at the tri-junction of the states of Orissa, Andhra and Madhya Pradesh) some misguided non-political elements among them led them to return to West Bengal. The refugees sold, literally for a song, whatever they had been given by the government for setting up a new life there, as also what they had earned for themselves. They then trooped to West Bengal in the hope that the newly installed Communists would help them

Here they met a different lot of Bengali Communists who did not need their support any more. They were summarily told to return to Dandakaranya. These refugees had burnt their boats and were not to be persuaded so easily to return. They defied the government and sailed, in makeshift country boats, to a remote uninhabited island called Marichjhaanpi in the Sundarban delta and tried to set up a settlement without any help from the government. The government retaliated by sending the police on the one hand and Communist goons on the other. Some of the refugees were killed by these goons. Some, in trying to escape from them by swimming across the estuary, were eaten by crocodiles. The rest were packed off in special trains to Dandakaranya where they went, made refugees a second time, by a set of politicians who came to power by dangling before their compatriots the prospect of rehabilitation in West Bengal. Sunil Ganguly
[31] has described poignant scenes of this period in his immensely popular novel in Bangla, Purba-Pashchim (East-West)[32].

Now we can return to the Bengal of March 1943 when Sir John Herbert, the Governor of Bengal, ousted the ministry of Fazlul Haq, and installed in its place the Muslim League ministry with Khwaja Nazimuddin as the Premier, and Suhrawardy as the Minister for Civil Supplies. In 1946 Suhrawardy became

the Premier replacing Nazimuddin. During this period most important posts at the cutting edge of the government, such as the Officers-in-charge of the police stations, came to be manned by Muslims, pushing Hindu officers to ineffectual posts. The government was unabashedly partisan, and said so in so many words. It was a government from which a Hindu could expect no justice.

What the situation was like in those times has been described by in his inimitable style by Rajshekhar Bose in one of his short stories, Goopee Shaheb. Goopee Shaheb (real name Gopinath Ghosh, a Hindu) was an eccentric who used to keep scorpions as pets in his pockets. One day a pickpocket called Chottu Mian (a Muslim) tried to practise his profession on Goopee, and was promptly delivered several near-fatal stings by Goopee’s pets. The author, who was a roommate of Goopee in his 'mess' (bachelor accommodation), was called to furnish bail for Goopee. For it was Goopee, and not Chottu, who had been prosecuted by Gulzar Hussain, the Muslim Officer-in-charge, Muchipara police station, on the charge of attempted homicide of Chottu by getting him stung by scorpions. The author protested meekly while furnishing bail. Gulzar Hussain roared back, telling the author not to try to teach him the law ; for, according to him, even if poverty sometimes drove Chottu to pick pockets, it fell on Gulzar, Mr. Suhrawardy and the Governor to take care of the matter. Goopee had no right to take the law in his own hands.

Sunil Ganguly, in his Purba-Pashchim, writes of the filling of a vacancy of a lecturer in a Government college near Calcutta. The job was given to a Muslim with a third class M.A. degree in preference to a Hindu with a first class degree. When this was pointed out to Nazimuddin he stated quite brazenly that it was the decision of the provincial cabinet that the job must go to a Muslim. First or second class would naturally be preferred, but third class would also do, so long as the candidate was Muslim

That is what those days were like. It was after passing through days for more than four years that the country and Bengal got independence and partition on 15th August 1947. That was however not to be before the province also passed through the unbelievable trauma of three macro-horrors in the space of these four years. These horrors were : first, the Bengal Famine of 1943 ; second, the Calcutta Killings of August 1946 ; and the third, the Noakhali Carnage of October in the same year. These three events saw the death of so many people on such a massive scale in so little time, and such unspeakably nefarious and unconscionable conduct on the part of the Muslim League as well as of the British governments, that they deserve at least a full chapter to be devoted to them. Hence, the next chapter.

[1] Jogesh Chandra Bagal, in his historical work in Bangla, Muktir Shondhane Bharat, ba Bharater Nobojagoroner Itibritto, S.K.Mitra & Bros., 1st Ed., 1940, p. 245

[2] The Oxford History of India, ibid. p. 806

[3] Roses in December, an autobiography, with epilogue ; by M.C.Chagla ; Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 10th Ed., 1994. Chagla (1900-1981), a Bombay Muslim barrister just like Jinnah, was in many ways Jinnah's exact antithesis. While Jinnah after the 1920's became a totally communal Muslim politician, Chagla remained in the profession and entered the judiciary to become a puisne judge at the Bombay High Court in 1941. Later he became Chief Justice, and after retirement, a judge in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Indian ambassador to the U.S, U.K., and finally, Union Education Minister in Nehru's cabinet.. All his life he was a strictly secular person -- secular in the true sense, for he staunchly believed in concepts such as the Uniform Civil Code, and was a strong critic of minority appeasement policies followed by successive governments in India. See pages 84-85, 160-161 of the autobiography for this aspect.

[4] ibid., p.78-79

[5] ibid., p. 119

[6] Swami Vivekananda had compared the action of trying to take religion out of the hearts of Indians to trying to make the Ganga River flow backwards from the sea to the Himalayas and then making it flow on a new channel (Jago Juboshokti, 3rd Ed., p. 24, in Bangla). Yet that is what Nehru had attempted in independent India, with predictably disastrous results.

[7] Forty years later this Malabar coast again became famous in the same context when E.M.S.Namboodiripad, the first communist Chief Minister of India, in order to appease the Moplah Muslims, carved out a Muslim-majority district called Malappuram in this area. Namboodiripad was one of the strongest adherents of the theory that a ‘little bit’ of Muslim communalism was to be tolerated, even welcomed, but anything remotely resembling Hindu communalism was to be nipped in the bud.

[8] Moulana Mohammed Ali together with his brother Shaukat Ali were leaders in the Khilafat movement, who eventually became champions of Muslim rights (Vincent A. Smith, ibid. p. 807)

[9] Roses in December, ibid, p.78, 81

[10] Tin Kuri Dosh, ibid. Part II p. 232

[11] The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, by Louis Fischer, 1st paperback Ed., Harper and Row, New York, 1983, p. 447

[12] “Deshbibhag : Poshchat o Nepottho Kahini” (in Bangla) by Bhabani Prosad Chatterjee, 1st Ed., 1993 Ananda Publishers, Calcutta.

[13] ibid. p. 35

[14] Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (1900-1959), Barrister, Ashraf Muslim from the Midnapore district of present-day West Bengal, Civil Supplies Minister and later Premier of Bengal in the Muslim League ministry, 1943-47, Prime Minister of Pakistan, 1956-57 Suhrawardy was guilty of many misdeeds in his political life, including black market operations in the great Bengal famine of 1943, and inciting and actively promoting the notorious great Calcutta killings. In 1947 he tried to form, with Sarat Chandra Bose, an independent Bengal instead of accepting partition. A very flamboyant person in his personal life, Suhrawardy while still Premier, used to frequent a nightclub called the ‘Golden Slipper’ in Calcutta, and used to drive his own Packard. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their ‘Freedom at Midnight’ have described him as setting himself the prodigious task of bedding every cabaret dancer and high-class whore in Calcutta (p. 255).

[15] Nalini Ranjan Sarker (1882-1953) founder of the Hindusthan group of companies with interests in Insurance, Real Estate, Edible oils and several others. Later joined the Congress and became the Finance Minister of West Bengal.

[16] Jinnah of Pakistan, Stanley Wolpert, Oxford University Press, 2nd Indian Impression 1989 p. 143

[17] Thy Hand, Great Anarch, ibid p. 465

[18] ibid. p. 458

[19] ibid. p. 467

[20] Syama Prasad Mookerjee (1901-1953) Often called Bharat Kesri (Lion of India), the second son of Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee, (known popularly as Banglar Bagh, the tiger of Bengal). Syama Prasad, in his young days was an educationist, having become the Vice-Chancellor of the venerable Calcutta University at the very young age of 33. He entered politics at the instance of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the president of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha, and began political life as the Vice-President of that party. He was the first significant Bengal politician to see clearly what fate the Hindu minority in Bengal was suffering and would suffer, and also to speak out openly against it. In 1941 he formed a coalition Government with A.K.Fazlul Haq which gave Bengal a just and equitable administration. He left this cabinet in protest against the British treatment of the victims of the Midnapore cyclone. In 1947 he became the Industries Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, but left it in 1950 in protest against Nehru’s treatment of the Hindu refugees from East Bengal. He became the founder-President of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (predecessor of the present-day Bharatiya Janata Party) in 1951. He forcibly entered Kashmir against the policy of the Nehru government to allow Indians to enter the state only with a permit. He was taken prisoner and died in captivity under very questionable circumstances in Srinagar jail.

[21] Amar Dekha Rajneetir Ponchas Bochhor (Fifty years of Politics as I saw it) in Bangla, pub. Dacca 1970, by Abul Mansur Ahmed (1898-1979). Abul Mansur Ahmed was a journalist, editor of Krishak, and later Nobojug, the official organ of the Krishak Proja Party, and very close to Fazlul Haq.

[22] Jukto Bonger Sriti, ibid. p. 18

[23] The contents of this and the previous few paragraphs are based on an interview of Nirupom Som (b. 1930), an officer of the Indian Police Service who had served as both Commissioner of Police, Calcutta and Director-General of Police, West Bengal. Som’s father was a judicial officer in the Bengal District Judiciary having retired as a District and Sessions Judge, and therefore he had lived all his life amidst Government folklore. Some of what he said is undoubtedly from the police grapevine, but nevertheless cannot be summarily dismissed.

[24] Tin Kuri Dosh, ibid., Part II p. 146

[25] ibid. p. 147

[26] ibid. p. 147

[27] ibid. p. 120

[28] Interviewed June 2001

[29] The Marginal Men : The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal ; by Prafulla Kumar Chakrabarti, Naya Udyog, Calcutta ; 2nd Ed., 1999, p. 39-44

[30] Interview with R.A.Rangaswamy, sometime Executive Engineer, Dandakaranya Development Project.

[31] Sunil Ganguly (b. 1934), a popular contemporary Bengali novelist of West Bengal and himself a refugee from Faridpur, East Bengal.

[32] Purba-Pashchim (East-West), a novel in Bangla, Ananda Publishers, Calcutta, 1st Ed., 1997

[33] Purba-Pashchim, ibid., p. 94