Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Being Minority, Being Migrant: A Note on the Muslims of West Bengal, 1947-1950

Anwesha Sengupta

On August 15, 1947 Calcutta and West Bengal was in a festive mood. Slogans like Bande Mataram, Jai Hind, Hindu-Musalman ek Ho, Allah ho Akbar, were raised in the streets of the city and its suburbs. People of different faiths embraced each other, distributed sweets and thus celebrated the much awaited independence.1 It seemed for a moment that the cloud of communalism had finally passed. It was a momentary relief though. Soon, the Muslims would realize that their lives were no longer safe in this city and in West Bengal. Within a year of independence, the communal situation started deteriorating. On the day of Muharram, 1948 the procession was obstructed near Maniktalla (Calcutta), brickbats and acid bulbs were thrown and on the following day there were chilling reports of Muslims being stabbed in some of the streets of Calcutta. It was also reported that the refugees from East Pakistan played a leading role in this.2

The scene outside Calcutta was no better. Nadia, a border district, for instance, was one of the majorly disturbed areas. Particularly notorious were the villages within the Shantipur Police Station of this district. The Muslims, mostly poor agriculturalists, were often harassed by the local Hindus. Their properties were looted, crops produced in their fields were forcefully taken away, and houses were occupied.3 As early as in July 1948, a riotous situation developed in Shantipur. It started when some Muslims allegedly attempted to molest some Hindu school girls. Whether this was a rumour or not4 is difficult to ascertain. But this (alleged) incident became the excuse for damaging the mosques, attacking the local Muslims and even killing them. Of course, incidents like this forced many Muslims to migrate. The following extract from the secret report on the situation of East Bengal for the first half of July 1948 will give an idea of the situation in Shantipur and the plight of the Muslims:

a serious outbreak of communal fury against Muslims occurred in the Shantipur thana of Nadia district on 19-20 July. Information in the possession of government shows that Hindu mobs with the connivance and sometimes active assistance of the police, attacked mosques and houses. At least 10 Muslims were killed, and scores injured. It is also reported that medical aid was denied to the injured by the Hindu doctors of the area. As a result of these disturbances many Muslims have migrated from Shantipur to Rajshahi, Jessore, Kushtia and Pabna districts of this province and their accounts of oppression endured by the Nadia Muslims has had an exciting effect on the minds of their hearers.5

Nadia, being a border district, received massive refugee influx from East Pakistan. By a warped logic of retribution, the refugees often took leading roles in torturing the Muslims. If they could not stay in Pakistan, they would not let the Muslims stay in India, perhaps, was their idea. The police and the local administration too often were a party to these assaults, either directly or by being mute spectators. The violence of Calcutta, Noakhali and Bihar riots, the reports and rumours about Hindu oppression in East Bengal and the general understanding of partition, made the majority of the people respond to the politics of the time in religious terms. So, in January 10, 1949 when a group of 30 refugees from East Bengal led by Debendra Nath Mandal, assaulted the Muslims of Haldipara village (Hanskhali police station, Nadia), the police did not take action. The same group, encouraged by the indifference of the police, again created trouble on 14 and 15th of the same month and even tried to kidnap a Muslim woman. Even then, the police allegedly refused to register any complaint lodged by the Muslims.6

The refugees needed lands to cultivate and homes to stay. They often forcibly occupied the houses of the Muslims, as well as their mosques and desecrated their graveyards.7 Often the Government of West Bengal had a more direct role in displacing the Muslims. For instance, on December 1, 1948, the West Bengal Government issued a notification to acquire land in twenty two villages of 24 Parganas district for rehabilitating the Hindu refugees. These villages, situated very near Indo-East Pakistan border, were populated primarily by the Muslims. Such a measure made them anxious and was seen as a deliberate attempt to “clean” the border areas off the Muslims.8

Being a refugee was also an equally difficult experience for the poor Muslim migrants. First and foremost, being uprooted from one’s home had deep psychological impact. Settling down in a new place required necessary capital, which the refugees often lacked. So they expected some help from the Government. Muhinuddin Ahmed from a village under Shantipur Police Station wrote the following letter to the District Magistrate of Jessore:

…Lands for construction of thatched roofing houses and lands for cultivation and weaving machines are urgently required for the refugees of Santipore. The refugees of Santipore who came here they left all things in Santipore. We do not want to be a burden on our Government and as such if facilities are offered to equip ourselves with necessary implements for cultivation and weaving, immediately people can start on work and earning. … at present arrangement for the 500 evacuees may kindly be made. For our help your honour kindly arrange for two tube wells in Jadavpore at a very early date and will kindly arrange for C.I. sheets of 10’-0 at controlled rate at a date when available. [sic.]9

There is an absolute lack of any research on the politics and process of relief and rehabilitation of the refugees in East Bengal. The refugee pressure increased in 1950 when there was an outbreak of communal riots in both East and West Bengal. Many, who initially thought of staying put in India, were forced to leave. This article does not have the scope to discuss the anatomy of this violence in great detail. But a quotation from the diary of Tajuddin Ahmed, who later became the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh, would give an idea of the flow of the Muslims from India to East Pakistan. He wrote on February 28, 1950:

After two and a half years of Pakistan’s independence, Dhaka is witnessing communal riot. The riot has affected the suburbs and interior villages as well. Dhaka is also witnessing a massive influx of Muslim refugees from West Bengal [because the communal riots have affected that province as well]. Dhaka for the first time is facing acute pressure of the refugees. A large section of the Hindus are also leaving East Bengal.10

Being a Muslim in West Bengal was a difficult experience during the ‘partitioned times’. This paper tried to shed some light on the woes of being a minority and a migrant, by focusing on the Muslims of West Bengal. Through the study of the condition of the Muslims in West Bengal after partition, it revealed the limitations of the “secular” Nehruvian India in safeguarding the interests of its religious minority.

Notes and References

1 Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Decolonization in South Asia: Meanings of freedom in post-independence West Bengal, 1947-52, Routledge, London and New York, 2009, p-10.
2 Letter to the Editor from Abdul Majid, Azad, 14.11.1948.
3 F.No K.W. 19-199/48, Pol (C.R.);Bundle No 1, ‘B’ Proceedings, List 119, Archives and National Library (ANL), Dhaka.
4 Letter dated 27.9.1948 from the Deputy Secretary, Government of East Bengal to the Secreatry, Government of Pakistan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations, C.R.19-199/48, Bundle No 1, ‘B’ Proceedings, List 119, Bangladesh National Library and Archives, Dhaka.
5 F.No- C.R.19-199/48, Bundle No 1, Pol (C.R.); ‘B’ Proceedings, List 119, Archives and National Library (ANL), Dhaka.
6 From the Secretary to the Deputy High Commissioner for Pakistan in India to the Chief Secretary to the Govt. of East Bengal, Date 29.3.1949, F.No – 3C1-6/49, Bundle No 2, ‘B’ Proceedings, List 119, ANL.
7 Ibid. Also see, Joya Chatterji, ‘Of Graveyards and Ghettoes: Muslims in Partitioned West Bengal 1947-67,’ in M .Hasan and Asim Roy(eds), Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics, O.U.P., New Delhi, 2005.
8 F.No CR 5M-1/50 Pol (C.R.); Bundle No 2, ‘B’ Proceedings, List 119, ANL.
9 Letter to D.M, Jessore dated 22/8/1948 from Muhinuddin Ahmed ‘on behalf of refugees’, C.R.19-199/48, Bundle -1, List-119, ‘B’ Proceedings, ANL.
10 Tajuddin Ahmed, Tajuddin Ahmeder Diary, vol 2, Pratibhas, Dhaka, 2007 (second edition), p-87

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