How Hindu Refugees From East Pakistan Have Borne The Burden Of India’s Secularism

How Hindu Refugees From East Pakistan Have Borne The Burden Of India’s Secularism

by Sudipto Das - May 10, 2019 03:10 PM +05:30 IST
How Hindu Refugees From East Pakistan Have Borne The Burden Of India’s Secularism Riots in Calcutta preceding the Partition of India. (Keystone/Getty Images) 
  • The most unfortunate thing about the 7 to 8 million Hindus of East Bengal is that there was no one to empathise with them, because their very existence remains unacknowledged till this day.

    India owes its secularism to the Hindus of East Bengal, who never got to tell their stories to the world.

Being a refugee is so much more than just a ‘crisis’. There is a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and refugee connections and protocols. Many a time, the world also sits up and listens to the wails of refugees. But, perhaps, only a refugee knows the real pain of being a refugee. No convention or protocol helps.

Bengali poet Krishna Chandra Majumdar could put that sentiment into words: “How will he know how painful the poison could be, if he has never been bitten by a scorpion?”

The Bengali word for refugee is Udbastu. The word “bastu” or “vastu” in Sanskrit derives from the root “vas” – akin to the English “was” – which signifies not only a dwelling, but also existence. So, udvastu would mean someone without existence, not just homeless, and that is perhaps the word which conveys the real meaning of a refugee, only to some extent though.

The voluminous narratives about the Jews in the popular culture, art, literature and movies over the past 100 years, perhaps, created the most effective support system for them, while they struggled to cope with their bereavements, uncertainties and fear of the unknown in new lands. They might not have received any real support from anyone in their lonely struggles but the world hearing them and weeping for them was a psychological security.

The most unfortunate thing about the 7 to 8 million Hindus of East Bengal, who became refugees after the Partition of India in 1947, is that, there was no one even to empathise with them, because their very existence remains unacknowledged till this day. It is, as though, they never existed.

Whenever anyone talks about or refers to the Partition of India, it is always the Punjab side of the story – seldom the Bengal side. There is a total lacuna in the awareness, and also information, about the Bengal side of the narrative, except for the extensive oral traditions, which have survived even after a few generations.

I myself grew up with a staple dose of stories from the hallowed homeland of my family in East Bengal. Even though I never visited East Bengal, now Bangladesh, I still have a vivid idea of our home and village over there – the rivers, the vast green fields, the floods, the flea markets, the village fares, the crops, the festivals, and of course the horrific conditions under which my father’s family had to suddenly flee their homes, leaving behind everything.

The sad part is that these stories were never heard outside Bengal. Not only that, there has been always a concerted effort at various levels to brush the Bengal side of the Partition narrative under the carpet. This particular aspect needs to be talked about.

In 1947, India was trifurcated – with India at the centre and the disjointed West and East Pakistan at the two sides. The idea was to carve a Muslim majority Pakistan out of the undivided Indian subcontinent. The western part of the Punjab, comprising the contiguous Muslim majority districts, became a part of Pakistan, retaining the eastern part in India.

A similar formula was applied for Bengal. The Muslim majority East Bengal, designated presently as East Pakistan, was attached as an appendage to Pakistan, separated from the western part by more than 1,000 miles of Indian landmass, which retained the Hindu majority West Bengal.

The extraordinary misfortune of the Hindus in Bengal started with the boundary of the partitioned province itself. Some facts and figures here would make things clearer.

Oscar Spate, an eminent geographer and an unofficial adviser to the Muslim League, especially on the matter of the desired boundary of the Pakistan side of Punjab, said in the paper “The Partition of the Punjab and of Bengal”, published in December 1947 in The Geographical Journal, "I favor the Muslim case in the Punjab … and in Bengal my leaning is towards the other side." In the same paper he elaborated why he said so.

The boundary of the partitioned Bengal was unduly favourable to the Muslim side. For example, whole of Khulna district with 49.3 per cent Muslim population was awarded to Pakistan, for reasons Spate did not figure out.

West Bengal had a population of 21.2 million, of whom only 5.3 million or roughly 25 per cent were Muslim minorities, whereas East Bengal had 39.1 million people, of whom a staggering 11.4 million or roughly 30 per cent were predominantly Hindu minorities.

Presently, only 8 per cent of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, is Hindu, whereas West Bengal is still 27 per cent Muslim, compared to 25 per cent at the time of Partition.

By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than 15 million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead.

Anything between 7 to 8 million of the 11.4 million Hindus were forced to flee East Bengal or East Pakistan and seek refuge in West Bengal and other parts of India, over the years, in a staggered way. During this phase, there was formidable resistance even from the newly-formed Indian government in accepting them, or even acknowledging their status as displaced people, forget settling them respectfully.

The Absence Of A Discourse Around Hindu Bengali Refugees

The Second World War created something between 11 to 20 million homeless people, displaced from their original homeland. Indian Partition created 15 million, out of which only the Hindus from East Bengal comprise a staggering 7 to 8 million. What is interesting though is the fact that the latter gets almost no space in the entire narrative about Indian Partition both in India and elsewhere, as if, they never went through anything called Partition.

There were a number of articles in the Indian and Western media in August 2017, commemorating the seventieth anniversary of Partition of India. One in the Washington Post does not mention anything about the Bengal partition, even as a passing comment. Another in The Guardian and one in Daily Mail also have no reference to Bengal. India Today, in an article published in its August issue in 2017 also gave Bengal a total miss.

Not only in the media, the art and literature too give the Bengal partition a near total miss. A list of the 25 best books about Indian Partition, compiled by Penguin in August 2017, includes the likes of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Ismat Chughtai’s Lifting the Veil – a collection of his Urdu writings, Nisid Hazari’s Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, Kamleshwar’s Hindi novel Kitne Pakistan (How many Pakistans?), Krishna Baldev Vaid’s autobiographical Hindi novel Guzra Hua Zamana, translated into English as The Broken Mirror, three translations of the Urdu works of Sadat Hasan Manto, Bhisham Sahni’s Hindi novel Tamas and Khuswant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, among others.

Most of these books deal only with the Punjab side of Partition. The obscure The Train to India by Maloy Krishna Dhar is the only one in the list which deals with the Bengal side of Partition in a similar way.

Given the prolific Bengali literature and the epoch creating works by some of the finest writers of our times who have lived through the Partition, it’s indeed very unusual why none of them wrote anything on Partition.

Sunil Gangopadhyay’s three volume magnum opus Shei Samay (Those Times), Pratham Alo (The First Light) and Purba Paschim (East West), about the history and evolution of Bengal, the Bengalis and the Bengali culture and geopolitics over the past two centuries, spans through the period of Partition of Bengal and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, but surreptitiously bypasses the horrors of the Partition, thus depriving the Bengalis and Bengali literature of the Partition narrative so poignantly created by the likes of Krishna Baldev Vaid, Bhisham Sahni, Khushwant Singh, Amrita Pritam Singh and Sadat Hasan Manto in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

The prolific Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition trilogy Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960), Subarnarekha (The Golden line, 1962) and Komol Gandhar (E-flat, 1961) are among the best works in Bengali touching upon the problems created by Partition. But here too, Ghatak bypasses the horrors, violence and genocide during Partition and rather deals with the agony and trauma of the refugees, their insecurities, nostalgia for the homeland they had to leave and their struggle to sustain their existence in the alien land they are trying to make their homes. So technically, his works are refugee narratives, not partition.

Why Was The Bengal Partition Ignored?

In 1937, All India Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, failed to create a government in any province. But they got 85 per cent of the total Muslim votes across all the provinces, vindicating its stand and claim that it was the only party representing the interests of the Muslims.

This implied that the Congress was not the party of the Muslims, as claimed by Jinnah. This also implied that the Congress was the party of the Hindus – notably, apart from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, there was no other prominent Muslim leader in Congress either. This was not acceptable to the Congress, which, under the idealistic Mahatma Gandhi, could not swallow the Hindu tag.

To shed its ‘communal’ tag, the Congress went all out to woo the Muslims to its side and started a mass contact programme, in what can be considered the beginning of the legacy of Muslim appeasement for political mileage in India. In the next provincial election, in 1946, the League formed governments in Bengal and Sind, and the Congress in the rest of India. In Punjab, the Congress entered into a coalition with the Unionist Party and formed the government. League’s Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy became the prime minister of Bengal.

In 1946, the Cabinet Mission as a part of its objective of handing over India to Indians suggested a three-tier structure with provinces at the bottom, Hindu and Muslim groups of provinces in the middle and the Indian union at the top. It was proposed that the five Muslim majority provinces – the Punjab, Bengal, Sind, Baluchistan, North West Frontier Province – and, curiously again, the Hindu majority Assam, could merge into two Muslim-majority “groups” in the Union. This was acceptable to Jinnah but not to the Congress.

Jinnah thought Congress would reject the 16 June statement wherein the Cabinet Mission had announced the interim government without a single Muslim member from the Congress. But at the last moment, defying Gandhi’s opposition, the Congress accepted the statement, evoking protests from Jinnah.

The Carnage In Bengal

Jinnah declared Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946 to achieve Pakistan. Rajmohan Gandhi, in his magnum opus Mohandas, quoted Jinnah as saying, “Today we bid goodbye to constitutional methods.”

What ensued was mayhem in the streets of Calcutta, killing thousands of Hindus. On 20 August the British owned The Statesman reported, “The origin of the appalling carnage – we believe the worst communal riot in India’s history – was a political demonstration by the Muslim League.”

“The Great Calcutta Killing”, as the daily reported it as, unleashed the chain reaction of communal riots in India. The Suhrawardy government in Bengal did literally nothing to stop the killings in Calcutta. That was the beginning of the Hindu genocide in Bengal, something which would be very soon brushed under the carpet.

The Hindu killings in Calcutta on the Direct Action Day immediately triggered Muslim killings in Calcutta and elsewhere, which in turn triggered horrific riots in Noakhali in East Bengal in October. This unleashed another round of Hindu genocide, which led to the Bihar killings of the Muslims, which again had catastrophic impact on the ongoing Noakhali riots.

The Great Calcutta Killings left 7,000 to 10,000 dead, including both Hindus and Muslims. In the Noakhali riots more than 5,000 Hindus were killed, villages were burned, innumerable Hindu women were raped and many were forcefully converted to Islam. In Bihar, 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims were killed. The Noakhali riots were so horrific that Gandhi had to camp there for months to get things under control.

By the end of 1946, it was clear that the League would not allow the riots to stop till the demand for Pakistan was met.

Travesty For The Sake Of Secularism

When the Partition finally happened, East Pakistan had a staggering 11.4 million Hindus, who by now, had realised that they would not be safe, for sure, in what had already become East Pakistan.

Unlike Punjab, here it was not possible for such a huge population to flee East Bengal overnight. As they trickled into India slowly, over the years, carrying with them horrific stories of Hindu genocide of massive proportions, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru came up with an ill-conceived idea to prevent the Hindu exodus from East Bengal.

Nehru entered into a pact with the government of East Pakistan to help create favourable conditions for the post 1950 Hindu refugees to go back to their original homes in East Bengal. It is really surprising that such a plan was never implemented in Punjab. Leaders like Shyama Prasad Mukherjee were vehemently against this idea.

The only reason for such an action could be the same old fetish for a ‘secular’ garb, at any cost. Accepting the disproportionately large number of Hindus from East Bengal would have destabilised the Hindu-Muslim parity in the share of violence inflicted by each side. It would have exposed the uncomfortable truth that in Bengal the violence was inflicted predominantly by the Muslims against the Hindus.

The very fact that only 700,000 Muslims migrated to East Bengal from the west, against the 8 million Hindus, who would eventually move into India over the years, is proof enough that the violence in Bengal was one sided, against the Hindus.

In Punjab though, it maintained the much sought after parity, which would make both the Muslims and the non-Muslims equally culpable. Any disparity in this regard would be uncomfortable for the idea of secularism.

The Bengal side of the Partition did not fit into this narrative of idealistic and Utopian Hindu-Muslim equality. The disparity also had another danger – the retaliation. The moment the rest of India would come to know of the magnitude of the atrocities against the Hindus in East Bengal, there could be retaliation and a chain reaction of communal violence. It might not be an overstatement, if it is said that India owes its secularism to the Hindus of East Bengal, who never got to tell their stories to the world.

Proponents of secularism (or should we call them Hindu-Muslim parity seekers?) often try to underplay the one-sided nature of the violence against the Hindus in East Bengal by highlighting sporadic cases of Muslim killings and violence against them in West Bengal during Partition. There is no denying the fact that there was indeed some amount of violence against Muslims too, but that did not create an atmosphere of mass exodus of the Muslims from West Bengal to East Pakistan.

The present demographics in West Bengal corroborate the same. The proportion of the Muslims in West Bengal during Partition was 25 per cent and now it has increased to 27 per cent, whereas the proportion of Hindus in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) has come down from 30 per cent during Partition to 8 per cent now.

The Bengali intelligentsia including Left leaning writers and poets felt the same about the Hindu-Muslim parity. For them too, the acknowledgement of the plight of the Hindus in East Pakistan would pose a conflict with their Utopian idea of equality.

So, no one uttered a single word, and a big part of the narrative of the Bengal partition was consciously brushed under the carpet. Not surprisingly, India did not sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and subsequently, the Bengal partition escaped the attention of the world.

A Safe Home For Bengali Hindus?

Under Pakistan, the condition of the Hindus in East Bengal deteriorated drastically. When the people of East Bengal, irrespective of religion, protested against the imposition of Urdu on them by the federal government, the Hindus were again at the receiving end of the Pakistan Army’s wrath, as they thought the Hindus, with their India leanings, were instigating, influencing and corrupting the Muslims of East Bengal.

Even a theft of a holy relic from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, in Kashmir, lead to killings of Hindus in 1963. Hindu genocide, on any pretext, continued for years, and it culminated in 1971, during the Bangladesh War of Liberation, when around 2.5 million Hindus were killed by the Pakistan Army.

Unlike the population migration in the Punjab, which happened in one shot, the Hindus left in East Bengal kept on trickling into India continuously, over the years, being constantly under the threat of violence and genocide under the Pakistani administration. They were always unwanted and never accepted properly, or rather legally, by Indian government.

The very tenet of the Partition of India was to carve out a safe “home” for the Muslims. This simply implies, by elimination, that the rest of India should provide safety to the non-Muslims, because otherwise there would not be any “home” for them. So, providing sanctuary to the Hindus of East Bengal was the moral obligation for India.

Here too, the same obsession for a particular form of secularism played a big role. It was as though, accepting the Hindus facing persecution in East Bengal would be tantamount to being partisan to the Hindus, and hence being communal.

Close to 10 million refugees from East Bengal, mostly Hindus, poured into India in 1971, during the final stages of the Bangladesh Liberation War. Violence against the Hindu minorities did not stop even after that but yet again, their plight never evoked any reaction from the world.

It is important to delve into the real narrative of the Bengal side of Partition, not with an agenda to create communal divide, but to know the truth. Suppressing facts to serve a particular agenda, to align everything to one particular narrative, is not secularism. It is perhaps as totalitarian and majoritarian as communalism is.

Sudipto Das, an IIT alumnus, is an author, musician and columnist. His debut novel The Ekkos Clan published in 2013. Trained in western classical music, he is the founding member of a music band Kohal. During the day, he works as the VP Engineering in a semiconductor firm in Bangalore.
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