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ISBN-13: 978-1433183195  2021, Peter Lang, NYC

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ISBN-13: 978-1433166525    2019, Peter Lang, NYC


Author: Mohammad Rashiduzzaman

     Between the Two Partitions of Bengal  (1905 & 1947)

This is a fused essay—a review of contemporary volumes/essays on British India and Colonial Bengal as well as the oral narratives of that yore combined with a sequel to my recently published books IDENTITY OF A MUSLIM FAMILY IN COLONIAL BENGAL: Between Memories and History, (2021, Peter Lang, NYC) and  THE CENTRAL LEGISLATURE IN BRITISH INDIA 1921-47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, (2019, Peter Lang, NYC). In the aftermath of the abortive Indian “Mutiny” in 1857, a new Colonial imagination was signaled through a set of reforms by the Raj. However, a typically British drip by drip response to the rising political tide in India initially brought the Muslims few tangible benefits. For an example, thru the years from 1893 to 1903,  the Muslim members of the Indian Legislative Council were about 12% of their cohorts whereas 23% of  the country’s total population were then Muslims. Worse was the Muslim presence in Bengal’s law-making body. Nearly 52% of the inhabitants in Bengal were Muslims during that era, but their representation in the Bengal Legislative Council was equivalent to only 5.7% of the legislators. [Data based on my volume on The Indian Central Legislature in British India…ibid).

Ironically, the Muslim enfranchisement augmented by the 1909 Morley-Minto Reforms’ separate electorate turned into a political thorn between the Hindus and Muslims in British India. An array of decentralization, electoral expansion  and legislative changes that followed through the 1920s and 1930s further empowered the Muslims in the Muslim-majority provinces. My pre-1947  Indian legislative delineation was originally my Ph.D. thesis in the early 1960s in England.  But the newly published volume (Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History), centered on pre-partitioned Bengal, trekked through old family recollections, oral anecdotes, memoirs and other available books, interviews, and documents. The grassroots’ remembrances from diverse sources, including those of my parents, were deftly blended with the larger history of British Indian Bengal; but this is not a chronological memoir.

The legislative prominence of the Bengali Muslims—a legacy from the contentious separate electorate (1909)—developed further when the trailblazing Muslim leaders like A. K. Fazlul Huq (Huq) from Bengal and a couple of pioneers from the Punjab  asserted their political demands. Maulana A.K. Azad’s India Wins Freedom and later Ayesha Jalal’s Jinnah, the Sole Spokesman: The Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan unveiled more details about those leaders’ wrangling with Jinnah, who was then consolidating the Muslim League in Bengal and the Punjab.  Most Muslim members of the central and provincial legislatures vented their constituents’ existential grievances—-those were, however, not the bursts of Muslim bigotry!

As many as 30 elected and 3 nominated Muslim members of the Indian Legislative Assembly did not have unbending partisan lines until the late 1930s and 1940s. Those Muslim lawmakers who endorsed the Indian National Congress pushing for the country’s Swaraj were known as the Nationalists.  Jinnah became the acknowledged leader of the Indian Legislature’s prominent Muslim bloc. His legislative vocabularies in 1920s and 1930s usually avoided the communal postures—he was also less than excited about agitational politics in 1920s and 1930s. Jinnah then bargained more for the larger Muslim community in India, not for any specific province. Ayesha Jalal’s groundbreaking book: Jinnah, the Sole Spokesman: The Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan is a vindication of what I had earlier read through the legislative debates. For my research in 1963, I interviewed Lord M. Hailey, once a powerful Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council; he remembered that Jinnah was amongst the outstanding parliamentarians in the central legislature. Until Sir A. Rahim became the President (Speaker) of the Indian Legislative Assembly (1935-45), there was no outstanding Bengali Muslim leader in the Indian Legislature except Fazlul Huq’s stint there (1934-36). Noticeably, the ablest amongst the Bengali Hindu and Muslim politicians preferred to stay in Bengal politics, not at the all-Indian legislature in New Delhi!

In the new edition of my old thesis-based book on the British Indian Central Legislature, I reassessed my old findings and added a fresh resonance to the narrative. But IDENTITY OF A MUSLIM FAMILY IN COLONIAL BENGAL: Between Memories and History, (2021), is a fresh volume, built around parallel memories and Muslim identity imagination in Colonial Bengal. The old Bengal, wracked by religious, social, and political turmoil between its 1905 and 1947 divisions, comes alive in this volume. My father’s personal remembrances cut through the history of undivided Bengal and beyond. This enthralling recount swathes across British Indian and Colonial Bengal’s politics—even more decisively, this trajectory aims at the Bangladeshi amnesia about its inheritances from the past.

Both of my latest volumes entail a tormenting relevance to our contemporary times while India’s surging Hindutva reverberate the old Hindu-Muslim acrimony. By the 1940s, the Muslim politicians were at the cusp of two seismic outlooks: (1) independent India led by the Congress Party in a likely alliance with the Muslim League and other parties or (2) a partitioned India with Pakistan, a separate Muslim state with divided Bengal and the Punjab.  However, there was indeed a last minute, now in obscurity, alternative to the division of Bengal floated by an alliance of Sarat Bose, Abul Hashem, H.S. Suhrawardy and Kiran Sankar Roy—-the well-known actors in pre-1947 Bengal politics.

Two not-so-distant commentaries by Shyamali Ghosh and Sana Aiyar (details provided below) wondered if Fazlul Huq’s (Huq) controversial coalition (1940-43) with Shyama Prashad Mukherjee  (Hindu Mahasabha) was a shaky venture for an undivided Bengal through a Hindu-Muslim power sharing. My father remembered that even some of the ardent supporters of Huq did not like that unnerving collaboration.  One of the key reasons of such negativity was the Hindu Mahasabha’s deep unpopularity with the Muslims of Bengal. Was Huq’s short-lived Hindu-Muslim partnership, though prickly, a predecessor to the subsequent Bose-Hashem thrust for a “united and sovereign” Bengal? Well-known as it was, Fazlul Huq had a nearly emotional “dream” about undivided Bengal sprawling through the Bengal Pact (1923) and the previous Lucknow Pact (1916).

Nonetheless, Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Proja Party’s (KPP) main electoral hold was in the Muslim majority districts in East Bengal—he was politically and personally more active in Dhaka than Calcutta for a stretch since the 1905 Bengal division.  And he was married to a scion of a khandani family in Dhaka. He was proud of his Muslim heritage and he made no secrets about it: visiting ancestral burial grounds of the Muslim constituents was among his campaign postures, my father mentioned. Fazlul Huq’s son late Faizul Huq (Faizul), a former student of mine at Dhaka University, once told me that one of his father’s last tips was: “Don’t Apologize for being a Muslim!” Sometime in the late 1960s, Faizul showed me his father’s sparsely written diary from 1940s, which also had this message written multiple times.

How and why did Fazlul Huq’s … “Alternative of 1940-43” did not gain political traction? Why and how did the Bose-Hashem-Suhrawardy-Roy backed “third way” for united Bengal collapse? In his The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (Autobiography), Nirad C. Chaudhuri (Nirad) did not hide his discontent for the British-introduced parliamentary institutions that had certainly challenged the Hindu bhadralok’s eminence in Bengal. In his memoir, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchash Bochhor, Dhaka, 1968, Abul Mansur Ahmed, an avid writer, an activist, and a far-sighted politician, tackled a few of those gripes. Fascinatingly, Ayesha Jalal’s Jinnah, the Sole Spokesman: The Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, adds original information on the closing days of undivided Bengal while she claims that Jinnah finally accepted the (1947) “partition” when negotiations for the anticipated post-independence federal and provincial configurations disappointingly collapsed.

Joya Chatterji’s (Joya) Bengal Divided: Hindu communalism and partition 1932-1947, Cambridge, 1994 spurned the popular view that Muslims carried the exclusive baggage for the 1947 division of Bengal. My Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History matched assorted memories in old Bengal and I compared a part of her findings with what my father M. Badruzzaman (1893-1975) recalled since I was a school student. An inquisitive schoolteacher with predilections for history and Sufism as well as a pull for writing Bengali essays, he periodically alleged that most well-known Bengali writers did not tolerably project Muslim experiences in their genre—he regretted that the Muslims were the shadowy “others” in most notable fictions. Such “literary disenfranchisement” also spurred the Bengali Muslims more towards identity politics. Taj ul Islam Hashmi weaved the rural subalterns, mostly the peasant Muslims, in his  PAKISTAN AS PEASANT UTOPIA: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal 1920-47, Routledge, 1919; his tome recorded their voices with their not-so-hidden emotions. Joya skillfully bared the Hindu intelligentsia’s panic at the Bose-Hashem-Suhrawardy-Roy’s rush to save Bengal from its impending split—to them, an undivided Bengal, with a Muslim majority, would have been a “Pakistan by another name”!

A few influential zamindar-politicians like Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka, Nawab Nawab Ali Chaudhuri and Nawab Shamsul Huda earlier helped numerous Muslim young men with jobs and encouraged education among Muslims. Such patronages indeed helped the rising educated Muslim middle class mainly from the strapped ryots. Fazlul Huq boosted Muslim educational interests, and individually, he helped countless young men and women with jobs—several autobiographies/personal recollections from 1920s confirmed this. My father remembered that while the Muslims usually approached the Nawabs or senior Muslim politicians and officials for government jobs, the Hindus usually contacted their Hindu patrons for such favors. Roots of the educated Bangladeshi Muslim middle class could still be traced to their predecessors who had experienced their uphill slog in Colonial Bengal—most of their accomplishments were the fruits of their family sacrifices, and many of them were the likely patronage receivers from the Muslim feudal/political elite of the time.

A few younger scholars, in their fresh essays/articles, exposed more on Muslim history, identity quest and politics in old Bengal.  Such dissertation/essays include: (a) Zaheer Abbas, “Construction of Bengali Muslim Identity in Colonial Bengal 1870-1920,” A Master’s dissertation at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, 2010; (b) Shyamoli Ghosh, “Fazlul Huq: Muslim Politics in Pre-Partition Bengal,” International Studies, JNU, Delhi, July 1, 1974; (c)  Mosarrap H. Khan, “The Construction of Bengali Muslim Identity in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century,” Café Dissensus Every Day, (an online liberal magazine, New York), July 15, 2017 and (d) Sana Aiyar, “Fazlul Huq, Region and Religion in Bengal: The Forgotten Alternative of 1940-43,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 42, No.6, November 2008.

Not long ago, I came across Asok Mitra’s extra-ordinary newspaper article “MAROONED IN THEIR MYTHS—if the partition of 1905 were allowed to stand,” (The Telegraph, Calcutta, 06/27/05). He reprimanded the “cult of patriotic fervor” raised against the 1905 split that defined “the Hindu Bengali psyche” for over a century. While political rumors made their rounds among the villagers in those days, one morning, a casual visitor told my grandfather about the 1905 Bengal division that made Dhaka, the capital of the new province. Then, according to family anecdotes, he excitedly told the visiting friend: “It’s good news for  our children—they will get jobs when they finish school!” While my father was a Dhaka College student (1915-19), the Muslims were yet to recuperate from their despair over the 1905 Partition’s annulment in 1911. The creation of the Muslim League (1906) was a reaction to the Congress Party’s uncompromising rejection of the split— the subsequent cancellation of the Partition became a “historical wound” for the Muslims of East Bengal. Nostalgic questions still yearn why Bengal was divided in 1905 and why was it terminated—for genuine administrative reasons for the Raj or for “divide and rule,” and, above all, who were the losers and winners of that exploding episode of Bengal’s history.

With such grassroots vibrations, oral recounts, legislative research, recalls from Colonial Bengal and the bigger pre-1947 India, books, essays, and diaries, I feel that Muslim politics in British India and pre-partition Bengal had multiple layers—religion was not its exclusive raison d’etre.


*M. Rashiduzzaman Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, USA.  An author of several books, scholarly essays and numerous newspaper/magazine articles on British India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, his more recent works are: Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History (Peter Lang, NYC 2021, and The Central Legislature in British India 1921-47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, Peter Lang, NYC, 2019.

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