Had it not been for Syama Prasad Mookerjee, there would have been no West Bengal today. And Bengali Hindus could have faced unending persecution.
Yet Bengal knows little about this stalwart’s exceptional contribution.
The destruction of a bust of Syama Prasad Mookerjee on Wednesday morning (7 March) by members of an ultra-leftist outfit that advocates Balkanisation of India, triggered fierce debates in and outside television studios on attacks on statues in various parts of the country. Some of the debates centred around Mookerjee’s life and works and his accomplishments.
Unfortunately, few of those participating in the debates are fully aware of the contribution of this stalwart in saving Bengali Hindus from either annihilation or becoming stateless. But what is more regrettable is that most Bengali Hindus themselves don’t know this because the post-independence generations have only been taught a white-washed version of history in schools and colleges.
Had it not been for Mookerjee, there would have been no West Bengal today. He was the one who stood like a rock against the Muslim League’s demand to include the whole of Bengal (East and West) in Pakistan and also against a sinister plot hatched by the then prime minister of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, for a United Bengal. Had Mookerjee not opposed the plan to include the whole of Bengal in Pakistan or defeated the game plan of Suhrawardy, also known as the ‘butcher of Bengal’ for his direct involvement in Direct Action Day, Bengali Hindus would have met the same fate as that of Kashmiri Pandits today and would have become perhaps the largest refugee population in the world.
It was Mookerjee who launched the Bengali Hindu Homeland Movement to create a homeland for Bengali Hindus within the Indian Union. This was in response to the Muslim League’s demand for inclusion of the whole of Bengal in the proposed separate country of Pakistan. The League’s premise was that since composite Bengal (East and West) was a Muslim-majority province – Bengali Muslims outnumbered Bengali Hindus – it should therefore become part of Pakistan. Mookerjee and other farsighted Bengali Hindus built up a strong movement opposing this idea and got the Indian National Congress to also oppose the move, as a result of which the League’s plan was defeated.
When Suhrawardy realised that partition of Bengal was inevitable, he quickly floated a proposal for a United Bengal (comprising East and West Bengal) that would be a sovereign and independent entity equidistant from both Pakistan and India. The wily Suhrawardy, his hands still dripping with the blood of thousands of Hindus massacred in the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’, also roped in some unsuspecting and gullible (Bengali Hindu) Congress leaders – primary among them Sarat Chandra Bose (the elder brother of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose) – to back this sinister plot he hatched in April 1947.
Suhrawardy’s justification for the United Bengal proposal was that partition of Bengal would bring economic ruin to both parts of Bengal. The two parts of Bengal were dependent on each other; while the east was the food bowl and rich in agriculture, the west had all the industries and the Calcutta port, and was the economic hub. For instance, while all the jute mills were located in the western half of Bengal, the raw material was mainly produced in the eastern part. Similarly, the paper mills in the western part of Bengal were fed by bamboo grown mostly in the eastern part, while tanneries in west Bengal also sourced their raw hide mostly from the east. Bose and some other Congress leaders like Kiran Shankar Roy saw economic justification in Suhrawardy’s plan and backed it unwittingly.
Suhrawardy presented his plan at a press conference held in Delhi on 27 April 1947. He had then said: “Let us pause for a moment to consider what Bengal can be if it remains united. It will be a great country, indeed the richest and the most prosperous in the sub-continent capable of giving to its people a high standard of living, where a great people will be able to rise to the fullest height of their stature, a land that will truly be plentiful. It will be rich in agriculture, rich in industry and commerce and in course of time it will be one of the powerful and progressive states of the world. If Bengal remains united this will be no dream, no fantasy”.
Abul Hashim, a senior Muslim League politician, issued a similar statement in Calcutta two days later.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah also backed the United Bengal proposal after Suhrawardy met him and explained the purpose behind it. Jinnah is reported to have told his aides that a United Bengal as an independent country would be a Muslim-majority country and, hence, would always be ruled by Muslims. Such a country would be a natural ally of Islamic Pakistan rather than of the Hindu-majority India. And, eventually, such a country could also merge with Pakistan. In fact, say many historians, that was Suhrawardy’s ultimate objective: befool some Bengali Hindu leaders to back his plan for an independent Bengal and, after its formation, bulldoze and terrorise the minority Hindus into accepting a merger with Pakistan.
Sarat Chandra Bose and some other Bengali Hindu and Muslim leaders, including Abul Hashim, met and managed to convince Mahatma Gandhi about the plan. Gandhi endorsed the claim for a united and independent Bengal on 12 May 1947. Mookerjee, who by that time had managed to convince many other Bengali Hindu leaders of the dangerous implications of the United Bengal ploy, held immediate and extensive parleys with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, and the then Congress president J B Kripalani. The latter issued a statement the very next day – 13 May 1947 – rejecting the United Bengal proposal. Nehru and Patel also rejected the plan. Jinnah, realising that the United Bengal ploy had fallen through, also rejected it and went back to his demand for the creation of Pakistan that would include Muslim-majority areas of Bengal. Sarat Chandra Bose also gave up the United Bengal idea after serious disagreement over Suhrawardy’s insistence on separate electorates in the proposed United Bengal for Muslims and non-Muslims.
Mookerjee led the Bengali Hindu Homeland Movement that gained mass momentum after the Muslim League engineered the Great Calcutta Killings and the Noakhali Riots, when it became apparent to Bengali Hindus that they would not be safe in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Hence, they felt, the need for a separate homeland within the Indian Union for Bengali Hindus. Following the riots, atrocities and persecution of Bengali Hindus in Calcutta continued.
According to reports, Suhrawardy got 600 Punjabi Muslims recruited into the Calcutta Police and the force then started indiscriminate arrests of Hindu men and boys, molestation of Hindu women and girls, and looting of Hindu households. Such persecution of Hindus took place throughout East and West Bengal. The Suhrawardy government imposed pre-censorship on news comments criticising the police excesses and, through a special ordinance, the government imposed severe penalties on Hindu-owned newspapers like Amrita Bazar Patrika, Hindustan Standard, Ananda Bazar Patrika, and Modern Review, even confiscating their security deposits.
The persistent and terrible persecution of Hindus at the behest of the Muslim League government convinced the Bengali Hindus that co-existence with Muslims was impossible. Eminent Bengali Hindus like Hemanta Kumar Sarkar, Nalinaksha Sanyal, Major General A C Chatterjee, Jadab Panja, Upendranath Banerjee, Dr Shishir Kumar Banerjee, Subodh Chandra Mitra, Shailendra Kumar Ghosh, and historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar were roped in by Mookerjee to lead the demand for partition of Bengal. The Hindu Mahasabha, led by Mookherjee, organised meetings all over Bengal and built up the movement for partition. He also got the Indian National Congress to join in. Mookerjee was very clear, and said so publicly, that even if Punjab province was not partitioned, Bengal needed to be partitioned to ensure the safety of Bengali Hindus.
Mookerjee not only mobilised public opinion in favour of the partition of Bengal, he also got eminent persons from all walks of life to support the demand. The top 50 jurists of the Calcutta High Court, the chambers of commerce, top industrialists like Ghanshyam Das Birla, and many others backed the partition demand. Most crucially, Mookerjee met Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten and convinced him to formulate what came to be known as the Mountbatten Plan. Under this plan, Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims in Punjab and Bengal legislative assemblies would meet and vote for partition. If a simple majority of either group wanted partition, then these provinces would be divided. To make it clearer, under the Mountbatten Plan, a single majority vote in favour of partition by either notionally divided half of the assembly would decide the division of the province.
As per the plan, on 20 June 1947, members of the Bengal legislative assembly cast three separate votes on the proposal to partition Bengal. First, a joint session of the House voted against (126 against and 90 for) joining the Indian Union. After this, members of the Muslim-majority areas of east and West Bengal held a separate session where they voted overwhelmingly against (106 against and 35 for) partition of Bengal and, instead, inclusion of the whole of Bengal in Pakistan. This session was followed by another by members of the non-Muslim majority areas of Bengal who voted for (58 for and 21 against) partition of Bengal. It is thus clear that had the majority opinion in the assembly been allowed to prevail, Bengal would not have been partitioned and the whole of Bengal would have become part of Pakistan since the majority of the members of the assembly belonged to the Muslim League, which was demanding Pakistan. It is to Mookerjee’s credit that this formula to honour the opinion of the minority Hindu and Sikh population in Bengal and Punjab provinces was devised by Mountbatten.
Had the western part of Bengal been included in Pakistan, or had Suhrawardy’s plan of forming a United Bengal (which he would merge later with Pakistan) been successful, the plight of Bengali Hindus would have been pathetic. Since 1947, Bengali Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) have faced terrible persecution. The community has faced dispossession of properties, social and economic discrimination, forcible conversions to Islam, rape, molestation and abduction of womenfolk, physical torture, and murders in Muslim-majority East Pakistan and Bangladesh since 1947. The major pogroms against Bengali Hindus were the 1950 riots, the 1962 Rajshahi massacres, the 1964 massacres, and the 1971 genocide; even after the formation of Bangladesh, Hindus have faced persecution (major anti-Hindu pogroms in 1989, in 1990, in 1992, in 2012, in Fatehpur, in Chirirbandar, in 2013) that continues till today. Hindus formed more than 28 per cent of the population of erstwhile East Bengal (which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh) in 1947, but due to continuous persecution and atrocities on them, they form just over 8 per cent of Bangladesh’s population today. The exodus of Bengali Hindus fleeing persecution and torture from Bangladesh into India continues to this day.
Thus, the plight of Bengali Hindus in a Muslim-majority United Bengal (or if the whole of Bengal had become East Pakistan) would have been the same as that of Bengali Hindus in Bangladesh today. Bengali Hindus would have suffered the same fate as Kashmiri Pandits and would have had no place to call their own. They would have become the largest population of refugees in the world. That Bengali Hindus have West Bengal today to live safely in is all because of Mookerjee.
History textbooks have to be revised to project the correct history of Bengal, highlighting the contribution of Mookerjee. The fallout of Bengali Hindus remaining ignorant of the contribution of Mookerjee and how he saved Bengali Hindus from imminent annihilation, at worst, or externment, at best, is all too evident today. Had they known about their saviour, the group of Jadavpur University students (irrespective of their ideological leanings) would not have damaged the bust of Mookerjee on Wednesday morning. And none in the television studios would have tried to justify the disrespect shown to Bengal’s saviour.