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Written by Syed Sajjad Husain   
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! -- Wordsworth

Lord Mountbatten quickly convinced the Indian leaders that he meant business when saying that he would advise His Majesty’s Government to withdraw from India as early as possible. He was a man of action. Having come to the conclusion that independence had to be granted to India and could not be delayed, he resolved to complete the transaction in as short a time as possible. His energy impressed everyone, but his impatience seemed fraught with menace.

Mr Attlee's Government who had originally announced that Britain would not stay in India beyond 1948, surprised many by deciding to quit a year earlier. The speed with which Lord Mountbatten, as Mr Attlee’s principal agent in India, carried through this programme could not but evoke admiration, but it was also viewed with serious concern. Such speed was bound to lead to major violent dislocations; no one could foresee how the entire administrative machinery would be disrupted and how long it would take to put it in order again.

As the subsequent sequence of events made clear, the holocaust in the Punjab and the neighbouring princely states that cost several million lives was directly attributable to the callousness which marked the Government's attitude. Other lapses apart, this unseemly hurry so upset things that public order broke down completely. The way the Government reacted to criticism---(and few dared criticise the time-table for the transfer of power for fear of being dubbed anti-Indian)--- was to shrug their shoulders and declare that having asked for independence and partition, the Indians had no business to object if the British Government proceeded to dismantle their establishment as speedily as possible.

First in this historic sequence came Lord Mountbatten's announcement that the British would definitely quit on 15 August 1947 and that they would hand over to two successor states, India and Pakistan. Pakistan was now within our reach, almost within our grasp. But we were dismayed at the details revealed by the Viceroy. Bengal and the Punjab were to be partitioned; a referendum was to be held in the Frontier Province and in the district of Sylhet. Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah in his 3 June broadcast described the proposed new Muslim State moth-eaten and truncated Pakistan, but he called upon the Muslims not to lose heart, but make the best of a bad bargain.

The demand for the partition of the Punjab and Bengal had been raised at the eleventh hour by the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha jointly to frustrate the Pakistan scheme. They were under the impression that the Muslims would be so unnerved by it as to resile from their demand for Pakistan and accept a compromise. In Bengal the initiative in this move was taken by Mr Shayamaprasad Mookherjiee who belonged to the Mahasabha. But the Congress supported him both tacitly and openly.

To the Muslims of Bengal, who remembered how in the first decade of the century the Hindus had worked to undo the partition of 1905, the Hindu agitation in favour of partition in 1947 came as an eye-opener. Maulana Akram Khan issued a statement opposing the move in strong language, but it was no use. Mr Suhrawardy and Mr Abul Hashim put forward the scheme of a sovereign Bengal. At first, some Congress leaders seemed to approve but they soon backed away. To us in the Azad group the Sovereign Bengal idea, whatever the motives that inspired it, seemed a betrayal of the Pakistan ideology. I wrote a strong editorial in the Comrade attacking the scheme and denouncing Messrs. Suhrawardy and Hashem. We felt that in suggesting a Sovereign Bengal they were repudiating the basic principle of Muslim self-determination and asking us to accept the theory of a common Hindu-Muslim nationality. If one rejected the theory that the Muslims were a separate nation entitled to a separate national home, the principal plank behind the demand for partition was knocked out. How could Bengal demand the right to contract out of the Indian Union when the other states stayed in?

It is said that Mr Suhrawardy and Mr Hashem persuaded the Quaid not to object to the Sovereign Bengal scheme and it is said further that he tacitly approved. To these Bengali leaders a Sovereign Bengal seemed a better alternative to a geographically fragmented Pakistan. I do not know under what conditions the Quaid agreed to waive his objection. One can at the most guess that Mr Suhrawardy must have pleaded that a Sovereign Bengal would not be materially different from the kind of autonomous state envisaged in the Lahore Resolution of 1940, and what was after all in a name? Call it Bengal or Pakistan, what mattered was that this area should be independent and not a part of the Indian Union.

I have no doubt in my mind that this betrayed a serious flaw in Mr Suhrawardy’s thinking and in this lay the germ of Pakistan’s disintegration. Neither the Muslim League nor the Congress had championed the cause of linguistic nationality in India. Yet Mr Suhrawardy thought that Bengal was to be treated as an exception and given the right to contract out of the Indian Union because it claimed to be linguistically homogeneous. I am not at all surprised that the Congress High Command rejected the scheme. If Mr Suhrawardy thought that an independent state in eastern India would be in reality Pakistan, call it what we liked, the Congress from its point of view objected to it on the self-same grounds. They had reason to fear that the principle of linguistic nationality would prove a more fissiparious and centrifugal force than the principle of religious nationality. The Pakistan scheme could at best split India in two; linguistic nationality would have led to fragmentation all over and reduced India to a jigsaw puzzle.

The most serious object from our point of view to the Sovereign Bengal Scheme was that it demonstrated to the rank and file of the Muslin League Party that the demand for Pakistan was after all a sort of bargaining counter and that all they had been told about the Muslims being a separate nation with their separate culture and civilization was hypocrisy. This was the view that the Awami League and the conspirators against Pakistan exploited in later years. The spectre of Bengali nationalism which made short work of the foundations of Pakistan in the period from 1968 to 1971 could not have acquired the divisive and destructive force it displayed but for the Sovereign Bengal Scheme. The shin from religion and culture to language was so fundamental a change in the Muslim position that although temporarily in 1947, it was rejected, it undermined their moral strength like an invisible cancer and exposed them to enormous risks.

The fate of Hyderabad in 1948 clearly showed how a Sovereign Bengal, if it had come into being, would have been treated by India. Isolated from the rest of the world, almost encircled by the Indian Union it would have been swallowed up in a short time upon the pretext that India could not afford to have right in its midst an unstable political entity with a large Hindu population fretting constantly at the control exercised over them by the Muslims. I doubt whether the state would have lasted even six months.

Even supposing that the willing consent of the Bengali Hindus had been obtained initially, the state would have been embroiled in the revival, in a new context, of the old rivalry between the two communities: an advanced Hindu community and an economically and politically backward Muslim community. The Muslims with their numerical strength would have tried to wrest from the Hindus a share in the economic life of the state and that would almost certainly have led to a renewal of inter-communal strife. Muslim peasant against Hindu landlord, Muslim businessman against Hindu industrial tycoons, Muslim clerks against Hindu officers; this had been the common feature of life in Bengal during the first forty-five years of the 20th century. What political magic could possibly resolve these antagonisms?

Mr Sarat Chandra Bose and Mr Kiron Shankar Roy, both. from the Bengal Congress, were reported to be supporting the Sovereign Bengal Scheme. But within a week or so it was announced that the scheme had been rejected by the Congress High Command.

We heaved a sigh of relief. But we felt that the mischief whose seeds were sown now would one day sprout into a positive danger to the new state of Pakistan.

The first signs of this manifested themselves in the articles which now began to appear in the press about the shape of things to come. Hitherto it had been assumed universally that if Britain withdrew after transferring power to two successor states, Hindi and Urdu would be obvious choices as State languages: Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan. Some Bengali intellectuals, Mr Abu Rushd Matinuddin among them, who would not have objected to Hindi if India had remained united, now came forward with the suggestion that the two wings of Pakistan should adopt Urdu and Bengali as their state languages. Mr Matinuddin discussed the issue in an article published in the Comrade, arguing that any other arrangement would be unrealistic. Other writings in the Bengali newspapers in the same vein indicated the turn that thinking among a section of Muslims was taking.

We supposed in all sincerity that this was a legitimate attempt to anticipate and resolve some of the difficulties that the new state might face, never suspecting that these suggestions were part of a grand design. Mr Badruddin Umar, son of Mr Abul Hashem, in his book on the Language Movement has recorded how immediately upon the establishment of Pakistan, the Communist Party of India convened a meeting in a Muslim hotel in Calcutta to plan its future strategy. Some people claim, not Mr Umar, that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was present at this gathering. Be this as it may, it is certain that our enemies were busy as early as 1947 surveying the situation and formulating a scheme as to how to reverse the results of the partition. Mr Umar’s book and the revelations it contains are an effective answer to those who honestly believe--- and there are some even in West Pakistan (which is all that is left of Pakistan now) who thought so--- that the Awami League’s movement for secession represented a reaction against the neglect and indifference shown towards East Pakistan by the Centre. The communists were shrewd enough to foresee some of the problems that would arise in future. Their strategy was so planned that as these problems appeared they turned each to account to sow discord between the various nationalities in Pakistan, particularly between the two wings. They were assisted by the lack of imagination which characterised the politics of the Centre after the deaths of the Quaid-e-Azam and Mr Liaquat Ali Khan. The location of the capital at Karachi was turned into a grievance; an unnecessary controversy was stimulated over the choice of the State Language; East Pakistan’s failure to utilise development funds was interpreted as subtle move initiated by the Centre itself, to perpetuate its backwardness; the use of foreign exchange earnings from jute for expenditure on Central government projects was termed robbery. Each time a controversy of this kind was created; the Central government reacted by saying something which showed that they were unable to comprehend the workings of the East Pakistani mind or had no idea about the real aim of the conspirators.

In 1947 however the conspirators had to be content with the support of an infinitesimal fraction of the population. The overwhelming majority were lined up solidly behind the Muslim League. If the elections of 1946 had swept the decks clear of such dissidents as Mr A. K. Fazlul Huq, the referendum in Sylhet confirmed the popular support behind it. Sylhet was a Jamiat-e- Ulama-i-Hind stronghold. Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani exercised over its Muslim population a degree of influence almost unequalled anywhere else. He was a theologian, was regarded as savant and respected widely for the rectitude of his private life. Politically he belonged to the same school of thought as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad but was much less interested in secular politics than the latter. But his religious influence did not avail to persuade the electorate to vote against Pakistan. The irony of historical processes is thrown into sharp relief by the part played in the Sylhet referendum by men like Maulana Bhashani who subsequently supported the secessionists.

Victory in Sylhet produced a sense of elation shared by the entire nation. About the same time the Muslim League won a resounding triumph in the plebiscite in the N.W.F. Province. But these successes were overshadowed by the tragedy that overtook the Punjab and the neighbouring princely states. A systematic campaign to liquidate the Muslim population was launched in this area under the direct auspices of the ruling chiefs and party leaders. Hundreds of thousands were put to the sword. The Central Government watched helplessly and refrained from effective counter-measures against these barbarities in spite of frantic appeals from the Quaid-e-Azam. The barbarities committed against defenceless villagers were appalling in the extreme. There began now a mass migration of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from east to west and from west to east, resulting in a complete population exchange between East and West Punjab.

Calcutta after being quiescent for a few months after the holocaust of August 16th, 1946, erupted again. Sporadic rioting went on from week to week. Normal urban life was paralysed. People could not move freely. The whole city became divided into isolated Hindu and Muslim zones, regarding one another with distrust and hostility. As the first preparations for the birth of two independent states, India and Pakistan, began, animosities between the two communities became intensified. The Mountbatten announcement of June 3, 1947 made clear that Calcutta would not come to Pakistan’s share of Bengal. This was a sad blow to our hopes, but, as advised by the Quaid-i-Azam, the Muslims decided to make the best of a bad bargain.

A real piece of mischief, from which many evils germinated in later years was the notional division of Bengal announced on the eve of Independence on 15th August. It was stated that the real boundaries would be determined by the Radcliffe Commission and that in the meanwhile to facilitate the transfer of power on 15th August certain areas such as Khulna, Murshidabad and Chittagong Hill Tracts would be notionally assigned to one or other of the two states. It was on this basis that Khulna with a 51% Hindu majority celebrated Independence Day with the Indian flag and Murshidabad with a 56% Muslim majority hoisted the Pakistan flag. A few days later the position of both areas was reversed, Khulna going back to Pakistan and Murshidabad being restored to India. The exercise was wholly unnecessary and only served to sow seeds of distrust and hatred between the Hindu and Muslim populations of these regions. That they were human beings subject to emotional upsets was wholly ignored.

All over Calcutta, Muslim officers and businessmen whose homes were in areas falling within the Pakistan boundaries, began hectic preparations for their departure. Maulana Akram Khan decided to wait for all this hurry to die down before starting to transfer his establishment to Dacca, the capital of East Bengal. He said Mr Bidhan Roy, the West Bengal Chief Minister was a friend of his and he would have no problem sorting things out. In the event, he was cruelly disillusioned. For Bidhan Roy soon issued an order forbidding any newspaper plant to be moved out of Calcutta. The result was that when the Maulana finally quit Calcutta, he had to leave everything behind and start again from scratch at Dacca.

But I am anticipating. To return to the main story--¬Independence Day dawned in Calcutta amid scenes which were unforgettable. There were no rejoicings, there was an air of artificiality in the manifestations of public jubilation over the attainment of independence. The Muslim population, gripped by fear and wracked by thoughts of the bleak future that awaited them, participated in Jai Hind demonstrations. I found small Muslim girls who only a week ago had been shouting Pakistan Zindabad waving Indian flags at Sikhs and Hindus, who occasionally acknowledged their greetings condescendingly. But all the humiliation was offset by the thought that in Pakistan itself, at Karachi, Lahore, Dacca, their friends were celebrating the birth of an independent Muslim state, which symbolised the hopes of the entire Muslim community of India. This was indeed the mood in which the Muslims of the “minority” provinces had hailed the Pakistan movement and worked for its success.

Every train from Sealdah now carried Muslim passengers leaving for Pakistan, the returning trains bringing back to Calcutta Hindu officers who had sought transfers to places in West Bengal. Most Muslim teachers at the Islamia College where I worked left before 15th August. I found myself in a quandary. I had earlier declined to go to Krishnanagore when under the notional division that place had been a part of Pakistan. But no fresh orders having arrived, I was obliged to wait. I spent my time walking about in the streets, watching people’s reactions to the new situations, and of course there was work for the Azad and the Comrade to do.

Finally in September came a letter from the office of the Director of Public Instruction located temporarily in Chittagong, asking me to join the M. C. College at Sylhet. I was relieved. But there was a snag. The letter stated that I was being given a fresh appointment and that the period I had spent at the Islamia College would not count towards the length of my service. To have this injustice remedied I decided to travel to Sylhet by way of Chittagong and seek an interview with the Director of Public Instruction.

I felt terribly excited. This was going to be no ordinary journey. I was leaving Calcutta behind, maybe for good, and embarking upon a new career---it was new for all practical purposes--- in a new country. Sylhet had never since the days of the first partition of 1905 been a part of East Bengal: how would the people welcome a man from outside? Then there was the intoxicating thought of what it felt like to be in a free country. Like everybody else, I was full of dreams about Pakistan’s future, its economy, society, culture and literature. I had no doubt in my mind that Pakistan was going to be an ideal state, utopian in its achievements and that it would avoid the meanness that marked the performance of Congress governments in India. I felt that our attitude towards the Hindu minority in Pakistan must be such as would shame India into an awareness of their lapses and serve thus to protect Muslim minorities in India.

Certainly, we wanted Pakistan to be an Islamic state. But I did not want the term Islamic to be used in a narrow theocratic sense. None of my friends did. There were differences among us over the degree to which theologians should be allowed to have a say in the shaping of the new state. Some spoke vaguely of enforcement of Quranic laws. But we all believed that Pakistan would achieve a reconciliation between the Quranic laws and modern jurisprudence. We certainly did not advocate the rejection of modern science or philosophy.

I realise in retrospect that there was much woolliness in our thinking, much nebulousness, much inconsistency. But we believed that we judged the mood of the Muslim public correctly in emphasising that the state of Pakistan must have Muslim ethos and that it must be a place where the Muslims would not have to live in constant danger of being slaughtered or assaulted on account of the fact that they were Muslims. The masses genuinely identified their vision of perfect political, social and economic bliss with the ideal sketched in the Quran, and they desired a straightforward enforcement of Quranic commandments and injunctions, regardless of whether this involved the rejection of modern progress. But the middle classes and the educated elite were much less clear in their minds as to how modern progress---¬which they had no intention of sacrificing---- was to be made compatible with religious orthodoxy. As subsequent events showed, the vacillations in the mind of the educated classes, their lack of a sense of direction, were to prove Pakistan’s Achilles’ heel.


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