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Why Bengal, which has faced map-maker's scalpel before, is troubled by idea of 'partition'

The last nail in the coffin of united Bengal was struck in June 1947, when the legislative assembly voted for partition.

Published: 04th July 2021 07:32 PM  |   Last Updated: 04th July 2021 07:32 PM   |  A+A-

West Bengal BJP MP Saumitra Khan

West Bengal BJP MP Saumitra Khan (Photo | ANI)

By PTI

KOLKATA: When John Barla, BJP's Alipurduar Lok Sabha MP, last week made a controversial demand for a separate Union Territory carved out of Bengal's northern districts, little did he realise the storm that would rage with endless hours of television debate, scores of opinion pieces and thousands of social media outpourings against what has been dubbed as "The New Partition Plan".

A demand for another state carved out of tribal - dominated districts of West Bengal, made by another BJP MP Saumitra Khan, merely added fuel to the fire with furious newspaper editorials condemning the move to "balkanise" the eastern state.

Bengal, which has gone under the map-maker's scalpel twice in the last 116 years, finds itself caught in a vortex of emotions as the hated word 'partition' increasingly crops up in coffee house debates and 'addas' (long conversations) at roadside tea shops.

"The word 'partition' evokes strong emotions here as the state has faced two bloody and emotionally exhaustive partitions -- the first in 1905, and then in 1947 when bloody riots followed Sir Cyril Radcliffe wielding his knife through Bengal's body politic," pointed out Aditya Mukherjee, Professor of Contemporary History and Director of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies.

In July 1905, Lord Curzon announced his plan to partition Bengal presidency into two separate provinces -- Bengal which comprised western Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, and a separate province of East Bengal and Assam -- ostensibly for administrative expediency but in reality, to tame a growing nationalist movement based out of Kolkata.

India's first mass movement followed with people from all walks of life -- from Congress leader S N Banerjee to India's poet Laurette Rabindranath Tagore -- taking to the streets to protest the partition.

The uproar which spread to other parts of British- ruled India forced a rethink and the partition was reversed in 1911, but the capital of British India was shifted out of the restive metropolis of Calcutta to the political backwaters of Delhi, then a town with just 4 lakh inhabitants.

However, the attempted partition had deeper consequences for the country, with the Congress splitting between moderates and extremists who favoured more street- based agitations, and secret revolutionary societies such as Anushilan Samiti which advocated an armed revolution, springing up as a force to reckon with.

"Much of Bengal's popular genre of patriotic music and literature was from this period -- Tagore, Dwijendralal Roy, Rajanikanta Sen produced path-breaking songs of this genre -- which are still popular in both India and Bangladesh," pointed out Mukherjee.

The next time the Roman maxim 'Divide et Tempera' or divide and rule was adopted for Bengal was 1947, as the British decided to quit India leaving behind perpetually disjointed twins busy squabbling with each other.

The summer of 1947 saw last-minute hectic parleys to retain some form of united Bengal, but as Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Sarat Bose, Subhas Bose's brother and leader of the Forward Bloc, the Congress leadership including Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru were "very much opposed to it", and the nascent plan for keeping the two Bengals together dreamt by Huseyn S Suhrawardy, Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy remained stillborn.

The last nail in the coffin of united Bengal was struck in June 1947, when the legislative assembly voted for partition.

On July 3, 1947 a shadow cabinet was formed by the Congress party, led by P C Ghosh which would take over the running of West Bengal once partition came about.

The Muslim League which no longer trusted Suhrawardy, till then the League-elected Premier of Bengal, formed a similar cabinet led by Khwaja Nizamuddin, which would take over the running of East Bengal.

The partition carnage which followed and long lines of refugees who fled leaving behind their land and hearth is part of many families' personal history as is the aftermath of life in refugee camps, the struggle to rebuild lives, and to escape the curse of poverty.

Filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak based his award-winning trilogy of movies 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' (Cloud-Capped Star), 'Komal Gandhar' (Soft Note on a Sharp Scale) and 'Subarnarekha' (Streak of Gold) on this period.

The aftermath, historians and political scientists say, find reverberations in political and socio-economic life even today.

"Though the pain felt and remembered is of personal loss, the deeper and longer-lasting impact of the 1947 partition was economic," said Kunal Bose, economist and former India correspondent of the Financial Times.

Bengal was an economically integrated province.

The rich farmlands of eastern Bengal produced the food and cash crops that were processed in the Industrialised west.

The east was also the ready market for foundries and textile mills in and around Calcutta.

The Radcliffe line which used the rivers Padma and Ichamati to divide the two Bengals, rent asunder its economic life.

"The biggest loser was the jute industry which till then was India's top foreign exchange grosser...connectivity with Assam and the Northeast was also strangled raising costs for the tea trade and letting rivals like Sri Lanka and Kenya come up," pointed out Bose.

However, Barla and Khan feel their demand is legitimate given the "neglect" that hill and tribal areas have experienced over the last seven decades since Independence.

Nevertheless, BJP's state unit chief Dilip Ghosh has gone on record to state, "I want to make it clear that the BJP has no such agenda to divide Bengal or create a new state."

Darjeeling, where Nepali-speakers predominate, has witnessed a movement for 'Gorkhaland' focussing on the economic backwardness of the tea-growing hill areas since the late 1980s which the West Bengal government has tried to address by forming an autonomous district council.

The movement for Kamtapur, which too is based on ethnic differences, however, has not made much headway till now.

Others including the Left too concede that there are striking regional variations in development within West Bengal.

"Bengal's Adivasis do have grievances which need to be addressed, though it does not mean separate states have to be created," CPI (ML) Liberation general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya said.

The ruling TMC, off the record, does concede that more needs to be done in both tribal areas and the hills but is adamant against any plans to divide the state and will possibly use such demands to consolidate its own base in the plain areas, given the emotional chord that 'partition' demands touches.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already turned it into a state-versus-Centre issue and stated she would "not allow anyone to divide Bengal" or allow any part of the state "to lose its freedom and be dependent on Delhi".

Ranabir Samaddar, a well-known political scientist and Director, Calcutta Research Group, said, "Partition is the first idea of a lazy statesman...the fact is, history shows that partitions always create more problems than they solve."

Analysts point out that the differences which Muslim League cited besides the religious divide in seeking to partition Bengal was the "backwardness and exploitation" of East Bengal vis-a-vis the industrialised west.

These differences seemed to remain even after Pakistan was born, between West and East Pakistan, and eventually became one of the reasons behind the uprising and subsequent creation of Bangladesh in 1971.



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