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Partition and Bengal: A book review of Joya Chatterjis The


Spoils of Partition

by A G Noorani, 25 February 2009

printable version
other articles by the author
Frontline, February 28, 2009
[http://www.frontline.in/stories/20090313260508100.htm]
[Book review:]
[The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-67
by Joya Chatterji (Cambridge University Press, 342pp. ]

Bengals sorrow
In Bengal, Partition frustrated the plans and purposes of the very groups that had
demanded it.
One can count on Dr Asok Mitra to say things that very few dare to say and most do

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One can count on Dr Asok Mitra to say things that very few dare to say and most do
not even notice or perceive. Curzons partition of Bengal in 1905 is one of the
legends of the freedom movement. Legends and myths arouse protective emotions
that shield them from scrutiny. Bengals partition was annulled in 1912 after a
furious campaign led by some leading figures. In an article published in The
Telegraph of June 27, 2005, entitled Maro oned in their Myths, Mitra posed the
question, If the partition of 1905 were allowed to stand.
The crisp answer was that Eastern Bengal might not have followed Mohammed Ali
Jinnahs line. He pointed out that the myopic Hindu Bengali has consistently
refused to take into account the impact of the anti-partition agitation on the mind
of the Bengali Muslim community. The latter would have gained substantially were
the partition not interfered with. Curzons original decision, whatever its motive,
had offered hope of rapid economic and social progress to Muslim masses in
Bengal. They had been left way behind since the commencement of the raj. They
bore the brunt of underdevelopment of agriculture and the economy in general
under colonial rule, besides suffering the oppression and repression let loose by
the Hindu zamindars. Had the decision to partition Bengal been allowed to stand,
the spread of education amongst the Muslims would have led to the quick
emergence of a sensitive Muslim intelligentsia with a heightened social
consciousness. Perhaps, from within this category, there would have sprung an
exciting crop of thinkers and ideologues who would be inclined to define objective
reality in terms of class and not on the basis of the religious divide. Had all these
things happened, the Muslim league would have come a cropper even as the
bigoted Hindu oligarchies were stopped in their track. To sum up, if the partition of
1905 was allowed to stand, there would have been no partition of either Bengal or
India in 1947. For that matter, Calcutta might well have continued as the countrys
capital. Certainly no Prime Minister would have even dared to describe it as a dying
city.
Two Bengals
Sukharanjan Senguptas book Curzons Partition of Bengal and Aftermath (Naya
Udyog, Kolkata, 2006) bears the subtitle History of the elite Hindu-Muslim
conflicts over political domination leading to the second Partition, 1947. Its very
last paragraph reads: Now what a contrast the history had witnessed on 16th
October, 1905 and on 19th August, 1947. On the first occasion the Bengalis in
Calcutta congregated at the feet of the Monument and declared that they would
unsettle the settled fact by opposing the formation of the new province of Eastern
Bengal. But the same Bengalis in Calcutta on August 19, 1947 had accepted with
no regret what Sir Cyril Radcliffe had done to them. Ten years after the second
partition the leading Muslim intellectual of 20th century Bengal Syed Badruddoza in
a conversation with the author lamented that perhaps it has fallen to the lot of

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a conversation with the author lamented that perhaps it has fallen to the lot of
Bengal that its existence shall remain in division. It is one belief, but to my mind
the Two Bengals existed even before Bakhtiar Khilji struck the Sen Kingdom of
Gour at the end of the 12th century.
The distinguished scholar Joya Chatterji, Lecturer in History of Modern South Asia
at Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College, established in her widely acclaimed
work Bengal Divided the communal divide that afflicted the province. Its subtitle
was Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947 (Cambridge University Press,
1995). The present work is, in a sense, a follow-up to the earlier one and reflects
the same qualities of stupendous research and rigorous analysis. She belongs to a
very small band of scholars in South Asia whose commitment to the truth is not
overcome by false notions of patriotism or by communal bias. She explains the
rationale behind the partition of India, and in particular of Bengal, and its
consequences. Concentration on the partition of Punjab led to the neglect of the
fate of Bengal. As with the partition of India, the advocates of Bengals partition
lived to face the consequences of their miscalculations. She writes with wit and
verve.
Earlier, in an article on the boundary award by Cyril Radcliffe, Joya Chatterji
exposed the follies and worse of the two commissions over which he presided to
demarcate the boundaries of the divided provinces of Bengal and Punjab (The
Fashioning of a Frontier; Modern Asian Studies; 33(1) 1999; pages 185-242).
To this day, not a single Pakistani writer has dared or cared to question Jinnahs
preference of Radcliffe, a British conservative lawyer, to an impartial three-member
commission comprising judges from other countries. By June 1947, Jinnahs
relations with Mountbatten had deteriorated steeply. The Radcliffe Report accepted
many of the Congress claims in Bengal and was unfair to Pakistan, as Professor R.J.
Noore has documented (Making the New Common wealth; Clarendon Press, Oxford;
1987; pages 27 and 37).
Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose Plan
The Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha opposed the Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose Plan
for a United Bengal, which Jinnah accepted in a talk with Mountbatten on April 26,
1947. Gandhi prescribed impossible curbs which he would have rejected for the
Central government. On May 27, 1947, Mountbattens Principal Secretary Eric
Mieville asked him [Nehru] how he viewed the discussions now going on about an
independent Bengal. He reacted strongly and said there was no chance of the
Hindus there agreeing to put themselves under permanent Muslim domination
which was what the proposed agreement really amounted to. He did not, however,
rule out the possibility of the whole of Bengal joining up with Hindustan [sic.]
(Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Second Series, Volume 2; page 182).

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(Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Second Series, Volume 2; page 182).


This writer has attempted an essay on the move for United Bengal (United Bengal
Plan: Pipe Dream or Missed Opportunity in The Partition in Retrospect edited by
Amrik Singh, Anamika Publishers & Distributors, 2000). The subject awaits
scholarly attention which only scholars like Joya Chatterji can bestow.
Her present work traces the chain of events until 1967, when the Congress suffered
decline in the State, and beyond. The Congress returned to power after the 1971
elections, whose fairness Jayaprakash Narayan questioned. The Left Front has
governed the State since 1977. The book explains the rise of the communist
movement, the state of the Muslims and the impact of the movement of refugees.
In the past, Hindus and Muslims had lived cheek by jowl in Bengal, in the main
quite amicably. Now they were forced to go their separate ways, with deeply
destabilising consequences. Between 1947 and 1967, at least 6 million Hindu
refugees from East Bengal crossed into West Bengal. The impact of Partition on the
States economy was overlooked as it was on the entire operation India and
Punjab.
On one point this writer disagrees with the author. She holds that the flaws in the
Cabinet Mission plan of 16 May 1946 drove the Congress leadership to look to
partition as the solution. There was more to it than that as K.M. Munshi noted
(Pilgrimage to Freedom; Volume 1; page 103). He reproduced Vallabhbhais letter
written the next day extolling the Plan, which ruled out Pakistan in any shape or
form, and remarked: It was evident that Sardar was prepared to pay a price for
averting the partition of the country, and was willing to share power with the
Muslim League. That very day, May 17, Gandhi voiced his reservations and set the
line that the Congress disastrously followed.
Nor can it be said that the Centre, as envisaged by the Plan confined to defence,
foreign affairs and communications was feeble, indeed, virtually impotent. Every
centre acquires more power with time. The Supreme Courts apply the doctrine of
implied powers. Remember the provinces of Punjab and Bengal would have
remained undivided with the educationally advanced and economically powerful
minorities in place. Provinces could secede from the Group; not from the Union.
Group A, the India of today, could have set up the Centre we have today; and at the
All-India Centre, the same party would have been in a majority. It would have been
a united India, unaffected by the rivalry of Pakistan, able to push through its
economic and social programme, while enjoying a certain ascendancy over the
Pakistan Groups, B and C. Once they began functioning, not the Congress, but the
League would have faced crises. After independence, the Muslim politicians there
would have to bid for the minority vote. The plan was wrecked by lawyer-politicians
who had little imagination and less statesmanship.

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who had little imagination and less statesmanship.


Shifts in balance
Bengals was a worse case. Partitioning India was a decision taken by the Congress
at the Centre playing from strength. By contrast, the Bengal Congress achieved the
partition of their province from a position of fundamental weakness. For their part,
the Bengal Hindu leaders demanded partition because they hoped that in a new and
smaller province they would win back power and control which they had lost and at
the same time gain a measure of influence on the all-India stage.
During the next two and a half years, in hammering out Indias new Constitution,
the Constituent Assembly had to settle how to share power between the Centre and
the provinces. After 3 June, the outcome was not in doubt, the Centre intended to
arrogate to itself all the powers it needed. Yet the precise ways in which the rules
were framed reflected subtle, but nonetheless significant, shifts in the balance
between one province and another and between the provinces and New Delhi. The
story of how West Bengal tried to steer a way through the transactions of the
Constituent Assembly is a revealing commentary on the strategy of its leaders.
They became centralists to earn kudos from the leaders at the Centre but at the
cost of their own State. The author describes their attitude in detail from the
Constituent Assembly debates. Undivided Bengal had 60 seats in the Constituent
Assembly. The Hindus had 27. After Partition, it was reduced to 16, the Hindus
having 12. It was only the members from the South such as K. Santhanam and Sir
Arcot Ramaswami Mudaliar who fought for federalism. The authors analysis of the
fiscal provinces is of current relevance. The States became supplicants of the
Centre.
West Bengal woke up when the language question came up for debate towards the
end of the Constituent Assemblys proceedings. If the quarrel over language had
exploded earlier in the life of the Constituent Assembly, perhaps the Constitution
of India would have been very different from what, at the end of the day, found its
way on to the statute book. If the maritime provinces had earlier seen the dangers
to their particularist interests of a strong Centre and if they had put up a concerted
fight to win a greater measure of autonomy, perhaps Bengal would have followed a
different path in the Assembly and would have relied less heavily on the Centre.
And if Bengal had seen the sense of forging tactical alliances with other provinces
with similar concerns to its own, the constitutional outcome might have been
significantly different.
Joya Chatterji adds: Dr Ambedkar smuggled in a new article (Article 365, on
Presidents Rule) which put yet sharper teeth into the Presidents emergency
powers. West Bengals representatives kept quiet about this sleight of hand,

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powers. West Bengals representatives kept quiet about this sleight of hand,
although men from other provinces angrily denounced it. Disregarding the high
commands whip, H.N. Kunzru, Thakur Das Bhargava from the East Punjab and
Biswanath Das from Orissa fought tooth and nail against this unwelcome addition
to the Centres powers, but not a single Bengali spoke up.
Muslims of West Bengal
Muslims of West Bengal were demoralised by Partition. Thanks to Indias
democracy, they were able to assert themselves. If initially they voted for the
Congress, it was because it was the national hegemon headed by the secular
Nehru. This does not, however, mean that Muslims voted en bloc for the Congress
in the 1952 elections or that they had become a single and solid vote bank in
West Bengal. The many Muslims who stood as independents or as candidates of
other parties show that such an assumption would be wrong. The shift towards the
Congress was by no means a universal trend among Muslims. Nor were those in the
Congress camp all of a like mind in their attitudes towards Muslims. Wooing
Muslims where they were numerous was often a matter of cynical calculation rather
than genuine commitment to minority rights, and Muslims, for their part, did not
always fall for the wiles of their new-found friends.
On its part, the Congress did not encourage an independent Muslim voice. The
author records: Significantly, Muslims who had been given a place at the Congress
high table were not well situated to voice such concerns. For one thing, these
politicians by definition had not suffered the personal hardships humbler Muslims
had had to endure since Partition. The very fact that they had survived and
prospered in partitioned India set them apart from their less fortunate coreligionists. In order to make their mark in Congress circles in the 1950s,
ambitious Muslim politicians had ostentatiously to display their secular
credentials. This did not sit comfortably with portraying themselves as champions
of specifically Muslim grievances or having to speak up about matters which the
Congress would rather have swept under the carpet. As Theodore Wright
perceptively observed in 1966, Congress culture did not encourage its Muslim
fellow travellers to represent popular Muslim opinion. In the unique circumstances
of divided Bengal, the fact that a few dozen Muslim grandees were able to take
advantage of Congress fights and factions to get back into the swing of politics did
not mean that Muslim concerns had thereby found effective spokesmen in the
Congress camp. Not one Muslim member of P.V. Narasimha Raos government
Ghulam Nabi Azad, Jaffer Sharif or Salman Khurshid resigned over the demolition
of the Babri Masjid.
Conspicuous failures
The author holds that the powerful Chief Minister Dr B.C. Roy, besides being

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The author holds that the powerful Chief Minister Dr B.C. Roy, besides being
communal minded, presided over West Bengals economic decline. The chickens
reared by West Bengals members in the Constituent Assembly came home to roost.
Ironically, the very same rules which West Bengals spokesmen in the Constituent
Assembly had helped the Centre put in place now resulted in the province being
left without the wherewithal to pay for its economic reconstruction. With Bengals
support, the Assembly had taken away the provinces largest sources of revenue,
the taxes on income and corporations, and excise and jute duties. West Bengal had
gambled that it would do better by receiving handouts from a central Finance
Commission, which would give it back these revenues and more, and that gamble
failed. The algorithms by which the Finance Commissions calculated each States
need whittled down what West Bengal received from the Centre. In 1967, when the
Congress in West Bengal was finally cast into the political wilderness, this was as
much a consequence of the conspicuous failures of Bengals provincial government
as a rejection of the Congress centre which had comprehensively let the State
down.
The Hindu Mahasabha had clamoured for the States partition but did not profit by
it. The Congress did, but only to meet its deserts at the hands of the Left. The
revenge of the periphery is the title of the chapter which describes its rise to
power. In a word, the Left succeeded in becoming the voice of an increasingly
militant and discontented middle class in a Bengal which had discovered, to its
chagrin, that independent India was not going to pull any rabbits out of the hat and
make its dreams come true.
As for the Muslims of West Bengal, terrorised and displaced after the partition, the
new rulers treated their problems with a callous indifference and blank disregard.
Muslims, just as their Hindu counterparts, had only their own resources on which to
fall back, and such support and security as they could find within their own
communities. This caused the Muslims of West Bengal to huddle together in
discrete and densely populated Muslim pockets, which pushed them out of the
mainstream of Bengals political and social life, an increasingly embattled, isolated,
alienated and angry minority in the new state. In another of Partitions stranger
twists, these developments paradoxically gave Muslims a more effective say at the
polls. In turn, this meant that all political parties that sought office in West Bengal
could no longer ignore this aggrieved and not easily controlled minority, an
outcome the partitioners had not foreseen and would have much preferred to
avoid. This is no less true of Muslims in some other parts of the country.
The hopes of the Hindu middle classes turned to despair. The writers conclusion
justly damns the opportunists. It is so comprehensive as to bear quotation in
extenso: In these ways, Bengals partition frustrated the plans and purposes of the
very groups who had demanded it. Why their strategy failed so disastrously is a

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very groups who had demanded it. Why their strategy failed so disastrously is a
question which will no doubt be debated by bhadralok Bengal long after the last
vestiges of its influence have been swept away. Many excuses have already been
made; and different scapegoats remain to be identified and excoriated. But perhaps
part of the explanation is this: for all their self-belief in their cultural superiority
and their supposed talent for politics, the leaders of bhadralok Bengal misjudged
matters so profoundly because, in point of fact, they were deeply inexperienced as
a political class. Admittedly, they were highly educated and in some ways
sophisticated, but they had never captured the commanding heights of Bengals
polity or its economy. They had been called upon to execute policy but not to make
it. They had lived off the proceeds of the land, but had never organised the
business of agriculture. Whether as theorists or practitioners, they understood little
of the mechanics of production and exchange, whether on the shop floor or in the
fields. Above all, they had little or no experience in the delicate arts of ruling and
taxing people. Far from being in the vanguard as they liked to believe, by 1947
Bengals bhadralok had become a backward-looking group, living in the past,
trapped in the aspic of outdated assumptions, and so single-mindedly focussed
upon their own narrow purposes that they were blind to the larger picture and the
big changes that were taking place around them.

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