Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | When politics put Bengal on the communal burner

Hindu triumphalism in West Bengal is based on a roiled, divisive past. Last week, we discussed Bengal’s first Partition in 1905 and how that was the significant step in a chain of events that has come to highlight a showdown between Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Trinamool Congress. This week, it’s about the second step: Bengal’s second Partition.

If today there is a West Bengal, it is because a BJP icon, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, was a key participant of the charge which demanded that Hindu-majority areas of Bengal remain with India after Partition. This ran against the Muslim League’s narrative that all Bengal be part of Pakistan. There was even a proposal by some from the League and Subhas Chandra Bose’s brother Sarat Bose for a united, independent Bengal. That stalled in the face of conservative Hindu and Muslim opposition—especially from the League, even though it was said League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah gave tacit approval for the standalone plan as it would effectively hand the League, control of Bengal. Mookerjee and some key leaders of the Congress saw through that ruse.

As his politics became increasingly radicalized, Mookerjee left the Indian National Congress to join the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal and became its ‘working president’ in 1940. Flush in the middle of Partition politics aired by the Muslim League, Mookerjee began to be heard. In 1941, he is believed to have told a rally that if Muslims wanted to live in Pakistan, they should “leave India…" Two years later, he became all-India president of the Mahasabha. He joined the band against Mohandas Gandhi and the Congress’s Quit India Movement of 1942. (The Muslim League and India’s Communist parties were also ranged against the Quit India Movement.)

Meanwhile, there was an interesting interlude. Even as Mookerjee ratcheted up his pro-Hindu rhetoric, he and Abul Kasem Fazlul Huq, the socialist-minded leader of Krishak Praja Party (KPP)—and later a leading light of the Muslim League—became colleagues. This was over 1941-42, when Huq was prime minister of the province of Bengal and the fight for the future of Bengal—and the idea of a separate homeland for Muslims—had gained momentum.

Huq had initially resisted Jinnah. KPP had fought elections to the Bengal Assembly in 1937 against the League, and won it with the tacit support of the local Congress. When results were declared in this election of diarchy—in which the electorate was divided by religion into two separate vote banks—the Congress declined to be part of the government as it was not in the majority. Its Bengal unit was barred by the policy of a Gandhi-influenced Congress from being part of government wherever it wasn’t in majority. (This contributed to the League’s domination in Bengal.)

For the sake of expediency, the League allied with Huq to form the government in Bengal, seeing it as an opportunity to extend its reach, and erode Huq’s hold. Eventually, League ministers resigned from Bengal’s government. That’s when Mookerjee, elected as an independent member of Bengal’s assembly, joined Huq’s government as finance minister, as part of a coalition that included other Hindu members. But Mookerjee soon left. And Huq was by then increasingly isolated. The League came to control the numbers in Bengal.

Then arrived structured violence. Between four and five thousand are estimated to have died in Kolkata after a call to ‘Direct Action’ proclaimed for the League by Jinnah on 16 August 1946. The ‘action’ was to ensure a British blueprint—the so-called Cabinet Mission Plan—for a Hindu majority India and a Muslim majority Pakistan went through; a plan the Congress resisted. Direct Action was pitched as a hartal, a shutdown-protest that Bengal knows well. But in Kolkata, a large gathering of League loyalists soon turned to arson against homes and businesses, and then to killings. Retaliatory violence followed. After several days, government intervention brought a controlled disorder.

Several historians hold Jinnah and the head of the League government of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who held the home portfolio, responsible. Violence spread in a seemingly seamless way in Muslim-majority eastern Bengal, in turn inviting retaliation in Hindu-majority Bihar.

The deaths in tens of thousands, and displacement in hundreds of thousands, would irrevocably seal a split that would be formalized a year later. Partition began in Bengal. It hasn’t really ended.

Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns at livemint.com/rootcause

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights.

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