How long will it take for India and Pakistan to emerge from the shadow of partition, and could they if they wanted to?
It was May 16, 1971, when soldiers from the Pakistan army rounded up all the Hindu men in Jogisu village in the Rajshahi district, about 300km from Dhaka, the capital of what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. There were 42 in total. They were all shot dead and the Muslim villagers were ordered to dig a hole in which their bodies would be dumped. Nine widows in white saris recounted the scene for a show I was filming on the atrocities committed during the Bangladesh war of independence, fought between Pakistan, then known as West Pakistan, and East Pakistan and India.
“The soldiers then urinated on the grave,” one of the widows, 60-year-old Sri Shundar, recalled.
Jogisu was one of the thousands of villages that faced such a fate.
But were the events of that year the product solely of the war of independence or could they be traced back to 1947 and the partition of British India?
In Bangladesh, 1947 is a distant memory, erased by the much fresher bloody ones of 1971. The partition was experienced by India and Pakistan, but for Bangladesh, it is both partition and unification – of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East to make Pakistan – that haunts its national consciousness. It is Pakistan’s birth that pains us.
My father grew up in Kolkata but in 1948 found work in Dhaka, then the capital of East Pakistan.
He was contemporaries with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the Bangladeshi nationalist movement and went on to become the first president of independent Bangladesh, and Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the country’s second president. They all stayed at the Baker hostel for Muslim graduate students in Kolkata in the early 1940s and all came from the rising Muslim middle class, which resented, but also respected, the Hindu elite against whom they had become competitors for jobs.
During the holidays, they would return to their East Bengal villages, where the peasants waited for the day when the British colonial rulers would go away and with them the zamindars (landlords). The peasant and the aspirant middle class shared a common dream: an end to British and Kolkata-Hindu domination in jobs and trade. This was not an issue of Hindu or Muslim identity but of economics.
After the Lahore resolution in 1940, which called for the creation of “two states” in the two majority clusters of Muslims (Punjab and Bengal) the future seemed better for my father. But the political future would not be controlled by Bengali Muslims. It was in the hands of the elite, Urdu-speaking North Indian politicians of the Muslim League and led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.
There were no Bengalis, who were already being marginalised within India’s Muslim politics, in Jinnah’s circle of political friends.
If 1947 was a great tragedy for many as the partition, the unification of Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east to become one Pakistan was an even bigger one for Bengalis. Suddenly, the majority Bengalis – East Pakistan was home to 55 percent of Pakistan’s population – were to be ruled by a distant minority in West Pakistan.
When the two “states” became one Pakistan, resistance began to grow among young Bengali Muslim leaders. In 1947, the Bengal Muslim League leader Abul Hashem proposed the United Bengal Movement, the first independent state of Bengal for both Muslims and Hindus. They received support from Bengal Congress leaders but the powerful Congress party showed no interest.
If India was being partitioned, it was argued, Bengal had to be.
The Kolkata-based Hindu elites, who didn’t intend to live under the Muslims in Bengal, also supported partition in 1947, according to historians Joya Chaterjee, Sheela Sen and others. Nor did ordinary Hindus wish for a united Bengal, having seen so much Hindu-Muslim violence, particularly during the riots of 1946.
The United Bengal Movement collapsed under the burden of unshared history.
My mother would often tell us about how she witnessed a Muslim mob killing a Hindu milkman in Kolkata in 1946. “He is a milkman, not a Hindu, don’t kill him,” young housewives screamed from their balconies, she said. His identity was his occupation, not his religion.
“The police recovered his body from the drain the next day. It was bleached white. I wanted to escape Kolkata,” my mother recalled.
I would mentally compare the fatal wounds on the milkman to the deep scars on the skull of Kalo Chahcha, the male nanny who raised us.
He was also knifed and left for dead in front of the jewellery shop where he worked as a gold polisher. But he survived the attack and escaped to Dhaka.
We would run our fingers across the deep scars on his head, his memento of partition.
When Bengali Muslims voted overwhelmingly for the Muslim League in 1946, they were not voting for Pakistan but for a life free from zamindary rule and famines. Bengali Muslims were mostly peasants, sharing many traditions with their Hindu and Buddhist counterparts. But most of the landlords were Hindus.
Before 1947, Bengal leaders from both communities tried to forge joint political activities and a ruling coalition, including the United Bengal state. It never materialised. But the middle class from both communities, willing to work together politically, had built a tradition. After 1947, it became a major political factor as the large Hindu community of East Pakistan joined the Bangladesh nationalist movement.
When the United Bengal Movement failed, the young radicals of the Bengal Muslim League secretly formed a group to establish an independent Bengal. The man they thought should lead the movement was the popular firebrand Sheikh Mujibur.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) August 10, 2017
Almost immediately after its birth, Pakistan tried to weaken the power of its majority through exclusionary employment policies that used language as a tool. East Pakistan, where the majority of Pakistanis lived, was told that Urdu, which no one spoke there but which was widely spoken in West Pakistan, was the sole national language. That meant that Bengalis would have no access to jobs, the media or policymaking.
The language movement began almost immediately in response, and Dhaka observed its first day-long strike in the summer of 1948. The middle class, being the most anxious about jobs, led the movement. It intensified in 1952, when police fired on agitating Dhaka University students, killing four. The fallen students were hailed as martyrs and language took centre stage in the politics of East Pakistan.
In 1949, Bengali Muslim league leaders had formed the Awami Muslim League and in the provincial elections of 1954, a United Front (UF), led by the Awami League and made up of four Muslim parties swept away all the pro-Pakistan parties. The Hindu parties, though supported independence, were not part of the official UF.
The Hindus and Muslims of East Pakistan had voted together. But for some, it would be a death sentence, as the Pakistan army, which was then running Pakistan, instead of handing power to the Awami League, began to crack down on Bengalis, in general, and Hindus, in particular. Hindus were treated as Indian proxies and, therefore, as fair game. And members of the Awami League were not considered much different.
By 1958, when Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s army chief imposed martial law on the country, Pakistan was on life support in East Pakistan.
In early March 1971, my father, who was the East Pakistan chief of the National Bank of Pakistan, was told he was being transferred to Karachi, in West Pakistan, and was accused of being disloyal. But he went on leave instead, until the Bangladesh war of independence ended in December that year. He would sit for long hours on an unlit balcony, waiting for the dreams he had first dreamed in Kolkata long before 1947 to become reality. Those dreams were never of Pakistan but of Bengal.
But my father the banker didn’t see a professional middle class reign supreme in Bangladesh after 1971. A section of the middle class quickly became a wealthy hyper elite, their alienation from the reality of most Bangladeshis as real as their exclusive upper-class neighbourhoods. Ready-made garments and labour exports have played the biggest role in creating this moneyed class, which was largely based on cheap labour from the villages.
But the villages have changed, too. A new middle class has emerged in the rural areas funded by the remittance economy and positive agro-policies. Their socioeconomic clout can no longer be denied by the political parties, including the current ruling party, the Awami League.
The middle class of the 1940s held many ideals dear, including secularism and socialism, but times have changed and neither has any ideological clout now. Perhaps the curtains fell on this liberal class most symbolically in 2013, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Shahbag, next to the iconic Dhaka University campus, to demand the execution of those accused of committing atrocities during the 1971 War of Independence. The majority of the accused belonged to the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which had supported Pakistan in 1971.
It was the largest display of force by a class who swore by the “values of 1971” – secularism, a touch of liberalism laced with socialism and Bengali nationalism. But it was weakened by a counter-campaign, which accused those in the Shahbag movement, as it became known, of being atheists.
The Shahbag movement had an urban support base and little influence in the rural areas of a country where nearly half of the population is rural. And with no organisation to match its ideals, it didn’t last long.
But it was the second gathering of 2013 that was to have a greater impact. Hifazat-e-Islam, the largest organisation of rural madrassa and mosque leaders, came to Dhaka with demands for an indefinite sit-in. They were backed by Jammat and its ally the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Much to the dismay of their political enemies, the Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina dispersed them without bloodshed. She had found a new ally, an emerging middle class, much larger and more deeply rooted in the soil than the urban middle class that had shown itself incapable of holding the Shahbag movement together, despite her reluctant patronage.
The rural middle class could no longer be ignored.