The Partition of Bengal in 1947, part of the Partition of India, divided the British Indian province of Bengal based on the Radcliffe Line between India and Pakistan. Predominantly Hindu West Bengal became a province of India, and predominantly Muslim East Bengal (now Bangladesh) became a province of Pakistan.
The partition enjoyed the support of most Hindu legislators in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, who voted for Hindu-majority western Bengal to be a part of India, instead of a Muslim majority undivided Bengal within Pakistan. Liberal Muslim leaders had earlier proposed an independent United Bengal, but met opposition from various parties, particularly Muslim and Hindu conservatives.
The partition, with the power transferred to Pakistan and India on 14–15 August 1947, was done according to what has come to be known as the “3 June Plan” or “Mountbatten Plan”. India’s independence on 15 August 1947 ended over 150 years of British influence in the Indian subcontinent.
East Bengal, which became a province of Pakistan according to the provisions set forth in the Mountbatten Plan, later became the independent country of Bangladesh after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
In 1905, the first partition in Bengal was implemented as an administrative preference, making governing the two provinces, West and East Bengal, easier. While the partition split the province between West Bengal, in which the majority was Hindu, and the East, where the majority was Muslim, the 1905 partition left considerable minorities of Hindus in East Bengal and Muslims in West Bengal. While the Muslims were in favour of the partition, as they would have their own province, Hindus were not. This controversy led to increased violence and protest and finally, in 1911, the two provinces were once again united.
However, the disagreements between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal which had sparked the Partition of Bengal in 1905 still remained and laws, including the Partition of Bengal in 1947, were implemented to fulfill the political needs of the parties involved.
As per the plan, on 20 June 1947, The members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly cast three separate votes on the proposal to partition Bengal:
- In the joint session of the house, composed of all the members of the Assembly, the division of the joint session of the House stood at 126 votes against and 90 votes for joining the existing Constituent Assembly (i.e., India)
- Then the members of the Muslim-majority areas of Bengal in a separate session passed a motion by 106–35 votes against partitioning Bengal and instead joining a new Constituent Assembly (i.e., Pakistan) as a whole.
- This was followed by the separate meeting of the members of the non-Muslim-majority areas of Bengal who by a division of 58–21 voted for partition of the province.
Under the Mountbatten Plan, a single majority vote in favour of partition by either notionally divided half of the Assembly would have decided the division of the province, and hence the house proceedings on 20 June resulted in the decision to partition Bengal. This set the stage for the creation of West Bengal as a province of the Union of India and East Bengal as a province of the Dominion of Pakistan.
Also in accordance with the Mountbatten Plan, in a referendum held on 7 July, the electorate of Sylhet voted to join East Bengal. Further, the Boundary Commission headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe decided on the territorial demarcation between the two newly created provinces. Power was transferred to Pakistan and India on 14 and 15 August, respectively, under the Indian Independence Act 1947.
The United Bengal plan
After it became apparent that the division of India on the basis of the Two-nation theory would almost certainly result in the partition of the Bengal province along religious lines, Bengal provincial Muslim League leader Suhrawardy came up with a radical plan to create an independent Bengal state that would join neither Pakistan nor India and remain unpartitioned. Suhrawardy realised that if Bengal was partitioned, it would be economically disastrous for east Bengal as all coal mines, all jute mills but two and other industrial plants will certainly go to the western part since these were in an overwhelmingly Hindu majority area. Most important of all, Calcutta, then the largest city in India, an industrial and commercial hub and the largest port, would also go to the western part. Suhrawardy floated his idea on 24 April 1947 at a press conference in Delhi.
However, the plan directly ran counter to that of the Muslim League’s, which demanded the creation of a separate Muslim homeland on the basis of the two-nation theory. Initially, Bengal provincial Muslim League leadership opinion was divided. Barddhaman‘s League leader Abul Hashim supported it. On the other hand, Nurul Amin and Mohammad Akram Khan initially opposed it. But Muhammad Ali Jinnah realised the validity of Suhrawardy’s argument and gave his tacit support to the plan. After Jinnah’s approval, Suhrawardy started gathering support for his plan.
On the Congress side, only a handful of leaders agreed to the plan. Among them was the influential Bengal provincial congress leader Sarat Chandra Bose, the elder brother of Netaji and Kiran Shankar Roy. However most other BPCC leaders and Congress leadership including Nehru and Patel rejected the plan. The Hindu nationalist party Hindu Mahasabha under the leadership of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee vehemently opposed it.Their opinion was that the plan is nothing but a ploy by Suhrawardy to stop the partition of the state so that the industrially developed western part including the city of Kolkata remains under League control. They also opined that even though the plan asked for a sovereign Bengal state, in practice it will be a virtual Pakistan and the Hindu minority will be at the mercy of the Muslim majority forever.
Although the chances of the proposal seeing daylight without Congress central committee’s approval was slim, Bose and Suhrawardy continued talks to reach an agreement on the political structure of the proposed state. Like Suhrawardy, Bose also felt that the partition would severely hamper Bengal’s economy and almost half of the Hindu population would be left stranded on the Pakistani side. The agreement was published on 24 May 1947. However, this was largely a political agreement. The proposal had hardly any support at grassroots level, particularly among the Hindus.Muslim League’s continuous propaganda on the two-nation theory for the previous six years combined with the marginalisation of Hindus in the Suhrawardy ministry and the vicious riots of 1946, which many Hindus believed was state sponsored, left little room for trust in Muslim League among Bengali Hindus. Soon afterwards, division arose among Bose and Suhrawardy on the question of the nature of the electorate; separate or joint. Suhrawardy insisted upon maintaining the separate electorate for Muslims and Non-Muslims. Bose was opposed to this. He withdrew and due to lack of any other significant support from the Congress’s side, the United Bengal plan was discarded. Still, this relatively unknown episode marked the last attempt among Bengali Muslim and Hindu leadership to avoid the partition and live together.
The second partition of Bengal left behind a legacy of violence which continues to this day. As Bashabi Fraser put it, “There is the reality of the continuous flow of ‘economic migrants’ / ‘refugees’ / ‘infiltrators’ / ‘illegal immigrants’ who cross over the border and pan out across the sub-continent, looking for work and a new home, setting in metropolitan centres as far off as Delhi and Mumbai, keeping the question of the Partition alive today. “
A massive population transfer began immediately after partition. Millions of Hindusmigrated to India from East Bengal. The majority of them settled in West Bengal. A smaller number went to Assam, Tripura and other states. However the refugee crisis was markedly different from Punjab at India’s western border. Punjab witnessed widespread communal riots immediately before partition. As a result, population transfer in Punjab happened almost immediately after the partition as terrified people left their homes from both sides. Within a year the population exchange was largely complete between East and West Punjab. But in Bengal, violence was limited only to Kolkata and Noakhali. And hence in Bengal migration occurred in a much more gradual fashion and continued over the next three decades following partition.Although riots were limited in pre-independence Bengal, the environment was nonetheless communally charged. Both Hindus in East Bengal and Muslims in West Bengal felt unsafe and had to take a crucial decision that is whether to leave for an uncertain future in another country or to stay in subjugation under the other community.Among Hindus in East Bengal those who were economically better placed, particularly higher caste Hindus, left first. Government employees were given a chance to swap their posts between India and Pakistan. The educated urban upper and middle class, the rural gentry, traders, businessmen and artisans left for India soon after partition. They often had relatives and other connections in West Bengal and were able to settle with less difficulty. Muslims followed a similar pattern. The urban and educated upper and middle class left for East Bengal first.
However poorer Hindus in East Bengal, most of whom belonged to lower castes like the Namashudras found it much more difficult to migrate. Their only property was immovable land holdings. Many sharecropped. They didn’t have any skills other than farming. As a result, most of them decided to stay in East Bengal. However the political climate in Pakistan deteriorated soon after partition and communal violence started to rise. In 1950 severe riots occurred in Barisal and other places in East Pakistan, causing a further exodus of Hindus. The situation was vividly described by Jogendranath Mandal’sresignation letter to the then prime minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan. Mandal was a Namashudra leader and despite being a lower caste Hindu, he supported Muslim League as a protest to the subjugation of lower caste Hindus by their higher caste co-religionists.He fled to India and resigned from his cabinet minister’s post. Throughout the next two decades Hindus left East Bengal whenever communal tensions flared up or relationship between India and Pakistan deteriorated, as in 1964. The situation of the Hindu minority in East Bengal reached its worst in the months preceding and during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, when the Pakistani army systematically targeted ethnic Bengalis regardless of religious background as part of Operation Searchlight.
In independent Bangladesh, state sponsored discrimination of Hindus largely stopped. But like India, the two communities relationship remains tense and occasional communal violence occurred, such as in the aftermath of Babri Mosque demolition. Migration to India continues to present day although now it is mostly due to economic reasons and is not limited to Hindus alone.
Muslims in post-independence West Bengal faced similar discriminationstate sponsored discrimination of Muslims occurred, they were shunned by the majority community. While Hindus had to flee from East Bengal, Muslims were able to stay in West Bengal. But over the years, they became ghettoised and they were socially and economically segregated from the majority community. Throughout West Bengal Hindus and Muslims live separately in clear cut defined blocks in cities and rural areas. Muslims lag well behind other minorities like Sikhs and Christians in almost all social indicators like literacy and per capita income.
. Although unlike East Bengal no
Apart from West Bengal, thousands of Bihari Muslims also settled in East Bengal. They had suffered terribly in severe riots before partition. But they supported West Pakistan during Bangladesh’s liberation war and were subsequently denied citizenship by Bengalis in independent Bangladesh. Most of these Bihari refugees still remain stateless.
The 1951 census in India recorded 2.523 million refugees from East Bengal. Among them 2.061 million settled in West Bengal. The rest went to Assam, Tripura and other states. By 1973 their number reached over 6 million. The following table shows the major waves of refugee influx and the incident that caused it.
1951 census in Pakistan recorded 671,000 refugees in East Bengal, the majority of which came from West Bengal. Rest were from Bihar. By 1961 the numbers reached 850,000. Crude estimates suggest that about 1.5 million Muslims migrated from West Bengal and Bihar to East Bengal in two decades after partition.
In Punjab, Indian Government anticipated a population transfer and was ready to take proactive measures. Land plots which were evacuated by Muslims were allotted to incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees.Government allocated substantial resources for rehabilitation of refugees in Punjab. In contrast there was no such planning in the eastern part of the country. Neither Central nor West Bengal state Government anticipated any large-scale population exchange and no coordinated policy was in place to rehabilitate millions of homeless people. The newly independent country had few resource and the Central Government was exhausted in resettling 7 million refugees in Punjab. Instead of providing rehabilitation, the Indian Government tried to stop and even reverse the refugee influx from East Bengal. India and Pakistan signed the Nehru-Liaqut pact in 1950 to stop any further population exchange between West and East Bengal. Both countries agreed to take the refugees back and return them their property which they evacuated in their respective countries. But in practice both countries failed to uphold it. Even after it became clear that refugees were determined not to be sent back, the governments of both countries failed to provide any significant assistance. The Government policy of East Bengal refugee rehabilitation mostly consisted of sending them to ’empty areas’, mostly outside of West Bengal. One of the most controversial of such schemes was the Government’s decision to settle the refugees by force in Dandakaranya, a barren plot of land in central India.
Without Government’s assistance the refugees often settled themselves. Some found jobs in factories. Many took small businesses and hawking. Numerous refugee colonies sprang up in Nadia, 24 Paraganas and Kolkata‘s suburbs.
Tripura’s tribal insurgency
The princely state of Tripura had a predominantly tribal population. But educated Bengalis were welcomed by the King and they were prominent in the state’s administration in pre-independence India. But after partition thousands of Bengali Hindus migrated to Tripura. This changed the state’s demography completely. Tripura’s tribes became a minority in their own homeland and also lost their land holdings. As a result, tribal insurgency began which led violent riots among tribes and Bengalis in 1980. Low scale insurgency continues to this day.