The Partition


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The Partition


India's Independence was accompanied by one of the biggest catastrophies in the history of South Asia, the partition of the country into Pakistan (West & East) and India.
Partition led to a massive loss of lives and forced many to evacuate their lands. East & West Punjab, North West Frontier Province, North India and Sind were engulfed in an orgy of violence for months. Mammoth migrations of Muslims from India and Hindus from Pakistan took place, shattering both communities down to their core. Nearly, 5,00,000 people died in the holocaust and 55,00,000 people were forced to migrate from their abodes. When the `trains with dead' bodies arrived in Delhi due to `train massacres' it further aggravated the situation with narrations of ghastly incidences of the slaughter on both side of the border. What did the partition lead to? The `communal politics' which was meant to be buried by the partition only assumed more menacing proportions in all the three countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh). The breakup of erstwhile Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh buried the `Two Nation Theory'. Relations with Bangladesh, which was born with help and support from India, are not particularly `friendly'. Gandhi's optimism that partition is a temporary phenomenon and the withdrawal of the British, in due course, would restore the old relations, is still a distant dream. Lohia's idea of `India-Pakistan' federation stands rejected by the people of both the countries.

Hindu communal politics has drawn heavily from the existence of the `enemy' country `Pakistan', using it as the whipping boy to arouse communal passions by attributing to it the source of most of the problems which India faces (Kashmiri militants, Bombay bomb blasts, etc.). To justify and rationalise these attributions a number of myths and claims were manufactured and spread about the whole Partition tragedy by these communal forces. These are given immense prominence and with the emergence of the whole communal project of Hindutva they have become highly ominous. It is imperative to therefore not only explode these myths but to expose the communal propagandists and their macabre mis-interpretations and distortions of historical events like the Partition. The belief that Partition would once-and-for-all put an end to communal politics remains a dream. It was finally buried with the Indo-Pak War of 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh, i.e. East Pakistan as a separate, Muslim-majority State separating from the other Muslim majority state, West Pakistan.
Today, despite a rich heritage of shared values, etc., both countries continue to be locked in a state of semi-war preparedness, with mutually reciprocating mistrust and hatred. The ruling classes of these countries have done their utmost to keep their people apart; attributing to the other the cause of most of their internal, domestic problems. They have impeded inter-border movements and prevented the people from visiting each other to exchange mutual good faith and goodwill. Cultural exchanges and scope for trade, etc., have been strangulated despite enormous potential. The Partition tragedy ironically has only vitiated the situation. Communal violence has been errupting with increasing ferocity. The violence reached its acme in the pre-planned demolition of the Babri Masjid, engineered by the dominant arrowhead of Hindutva, the Sangh Parivar. Likewise, in Pakistan, the Jamat-e-Islami has also been spewing venom with equal virulence. Both these communal forces survive and thrive on the division that were the cause and the result of the so-called Two-Nation Theory. The onslaught and virulent propaganda only stifles the democratic ethos of society and terrorises the weak and disadvantaged sections of society. Moreover, the communal propagandists consciously blank out the positive role of the common people among the Muslims who had also shaped the course of national politics with all its limitations. Communal Organisations
The colonial economy had generated multiple trends in politics. "Instances of local conflicts between Hindus and Muslims can certainly be found occasionally in past centuries, just as there are numerous instances of Shia-Sunni clashes and caste quarrels. But communal riots do seem to be rare down till 1880s. That communalism in large measure sprang from elite conflicts over jobs and political favours has long been a truism...". (Sumit Sarkar).

Thus the early phase of communal politics was dominated by merchants and money-lenders. Feudal lords and rich peasants, mostly Hindus, were the main beneficiaries of the placement in the emerging bureaucracy. The reasons for this were: a) a section of Hindu community was in a position to take advantage of modern education, b) the 1857 rebellion against the British under the Muslim leadership of Bahadur Shah Zafar and, c) the existing anti-Muslim prejudices of the British.
The British with their `Divide and Rule' policy decided that the only way they could prolong their supremacy over the country was by dividing the anti-colonial movement. Accordingly, their game plan recognised the communal, Muslim minority elite as the sole representative of their community rather than sections of the Muslim leadership outside the fold of the League but who were members of the Congress opposing the communal politics of the League. The British underplayed the `broad' secular character of Congress and overlooked the presence of Muslim leaders within it. Besides, as and when it suited their interests they over-emphasized the relevance of the Muslim League.

Colonial Machinations and Communal Politics. One of the events that embittered intercommunity relations was Lord Curzon's decision to partition Bengal by dividing it into Muslim majority East Bengal and Hindu majority West Bengal, apparently for administrative purposes. The underlying motive, however, was to suppress the nascent nationalist trend. The move was strongly opposed by Hindu communalists and even the Congress. The Muslims for their part fearing that their community interests are at stake pressed for a separate electorate, which was acceded to by the British. Lord Dufferin had encouraged them to consider themselves as a separate entity. Citing Dr.Ambedkar, Seervai notes that Lord Dufferin even went to the extent of suggesting a separate electorate for the community and a reform of the Councils to wean away the Muslims from the Congress. Meanwhile the Muslim League had already been established in opposition to the Punjab Hindu Sabha and Hindu Mahasabha with similar goals.

The Montague-Chelmsfold (Montford) Reforms which were implemented in 1921 introduced a 2-tier administrative set-up. The Governor and the Council had charge of `reserved subjects' while ministeries responsible to legislators in charge of `transferred subjects', were given to Indians. Constituencies were also of two types: `general and `special'. The former was again split into `general' and `reserved' with far reaching impact since minority groups (`reserved' sections) enjoyed the allocation of specified number of legislative seats in areas where they were substantially represented. Thus, communal representation in the Indian political ethos got institutionalized for the first time.

Meanwhile Turkey sided with the Germans in the War that had broken out in Europe and the Indian Muslims turned away from the British, a development which Tilak took advantage of to influence its leaders to join the Congress. After the Khilafat movement, which brought in large numbers of Muslims in the anti-imperialist struggle,the Non-Cooperation Movement was launched. Differences over reservations for Council seats and other political differences led to communal riots. Meanwhile, Lala Lajpat Rai wrote a series of 13 articles in the Tribune demanding partition of Bengal and Punjab maintaining that Hindus and Muslims can no longer live together.

Yet another important factor in the formation of Pakistan was the effort to draw up the Indian Constitution in the wake of the Simon Commission. Muslim leaders asked for a separate Sind Province, parity of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) with other states, 1/3 representation for Muslims in central legislature, and proportional representation in Punjab and Bengal assemblies. The Congress proposals came in the form of Motilal Nehru Report, which had recommended that India to be a federation based on linguistic provinces, provincial autonomy, elections based on joint electorates, and seats in central and provincial legislatures reserved for minorities in proportion to their population. This Report initially accepted the Muslim demands of a separate Sind Province and reforms in NWFP. But even the two demands which Nehru Committee had accepted were later withdrawn under the pressure of Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu communal leaders within Congress. Deeply perturbed by this turnaround over their demands, Jinnah voiced his displeasure in no uncertain terms. However, under the false assumption that the Muslim League represents all Muslims, he responded by demanding 1/3 representation for 25% of Muslim population to ensure that no legislation can be passed which is against Muslim interest, since 2/3 majority is needed to pass the major legislations.

Clearly, the real issues that exacerbated the divide were the role of the elites of both communities. Jinnah's demands were in favour of the Muslim landlords and merchant class. Moreover, he further expanded the four demands to fourteen demands on similar lines that severely impeded Hindu-Muslim unity.

In the meanwhile the Round Table Conferences held between 1931-32 in London, to consider Dominion Status for India, achieved little. In 1932 Gandhi restarted the Civil Disobedience Movement. At the same time however Gandhi made an effort at reconciliation with the Muslim leaders but it was foiled by Hindu leaders like B.S.Munje and Madan Mohan Malviya who together, according to Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, were responsible for the collapse of these negotiations. Consequently this led to the Sir Ramsay MacDonald's Communal Award towards which the Congress was merely a mute spectator.

The 1937 Assembly Elections
Assembly Elections were another turning point in worsening the divide between the Congress and the Muslim League. Jinnah proposed a joint front of the Muslim League and the Congress for contesting the elections but his proposal was rejected by the Congress resulting in the Muslim League candidates losing severely. Subsequently, the UP Muslim League offered to cooperate and wanted the Congress to let it join the Ministry. Yet again the proposal was turned down by the Congress. In these circumstances, the existing differences and prejudices between the two communities not only hardened but got institutionalized. In "India Wins Freedom" Abul Kalam Azad narrates Gandhi's efforts to form a coalition government which failed owing to the opposition by the Nehru-Patel combine. This was not only a bitter blow to Jinnah but the last straw on the camel's back. He felt deeply betrayed and declared that the Congress cannot be trusted any longer. However, Nehru's reasons for his decisions on turning down a number of such proposals was his priority for land reforms in U.P. and elsewhere which he feared would be opposed by the feudal elements within the Muslim League.

Similarly, differences in the perception of interests and the future led Congress to reject the Cripps proposal of Dominion Status for India and at the end of the World War II the `Cabinet Mission' came to India with another set of proposals. It deliberated on the crucial issues of the interim government and the procedure for framing the Constitution of India. It proposed the Union controlling foreign affairs, defence and communication while the power to deal with all other subjects was proposed to be vested with the provinces. However, amidst widespread strikes and mass upsurge the Congress was keen for the immediate transfer of power. Initially, both the Congress and the Muslim League accepted the Plan but later the Congress expressed many reservations on it. Jinnah construed this as the complete repudiation of the Plan by the Congress and declared his opposition to the British Government and the Congress. Consequently, the Muslim League pressed for the demand for Pakistan as a loose three tier confederal structure in which Muslims would have control of the Muslim majority provinces was unacceptable to the Congress. And so the only option left was Partition, with India having a strong Centre vested with powers much more than envisaged in the Cabinet Mission Plan.

Myth: Indian Muslims are anti-nationals and remain loyal to Pakistan and support international Islamic groups. (contributed by Leslie Rodrigues) FACT: While many Muslims still remain insecure in India and during Partition were tempted by the concept of Pakistan, most of them particularly the common masses chose to remain here on their own free choice. This is largely in line with their religious belief that a Muslim's duty is to be loyal to the country in which they are citizens. This has been amply demonstrated time and again. For instance, * in 1948, Kashmiri Muslims valiantly fought Pakistani troops and marauders. There have been Abdul Hamids achieving galantry awards in the war against Pakistan and Abdus Salaams contributing significantly to India's defense needs;
* For every Muslim who cheered Javed Miandad's winning sixer against the Indian cricket team in Sarjah in 1986, there were many who wept; * Muslim players have always been a very important members in international cup matches against Islamic nations. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was captain of the Indian cricket team and crowds in Calcutta would not allow the game to proceed unless the selection committee reinstated Mansur Ali to open the Indian innings. "No Mansur, No Test" was the chant. Can one think of our hockey team without Sikhs, Christians and Muslims? Indian badminton lost Syed Modi but then there is Zeeshan Ali at one of the top rungs of Indian tennis and Yasin Merchant in billiards;

* In 1965 and 1971 Muslim soldiers in the Indian armed forces fought side-by-side with Hindus, Sikhs, Jats, etc., against the Pakistanis. S.P.Seth in the Indian Express (23-1-1993) records that the majority of the Kashmiri Muslims have actively cooperated with the Indian forces to mop up Pakistani saboteurs when they entered the Valley in 1965. Indian Muslims generally stood by their own country. The 1971 Indo-Pak war took the process of identifying with India a step further. More significantly, it exposed the hollowness of the Islamic factor as a binding national ideology. The Bengali Muslims fought for a sovereign nation based on their distinct cultural identity. And this dampened the Islamic fervour (as a national ideology) of the most diehard fanatic. (Non-Kashmiri Muslims have also shown very little support for secession and terrorism in Kashmir) though their leaders later on became obsessed with religious identity and led their community along sectarian paths. Indian Muslims have thus proved their national credentials. * And Muslims like Vilayat Khan, Allah Rakha, Bismillah Khan and Ali Akbar Khan gave expression to the deepest rhythms of India's Vedic soul-- shastriya sangeet. The TV serial, Mahabharata, that is supposed to have Hinduised India, ought to know the name of the author, the man who wrote the screen play -- the late Dr.Rahi Masoom Raza, the younger brother of Dr.Moonis Raza, Vice Chancellor of Delhi University Celebrating Pakistan's cricket victory by few Muslims must not be construed to be the barometer for the whole Muslim community's patriotism a value which Hindus alone are not the sole custodians or having monopoly over. Identifying with a sports team is not synonymous with patriotism or the lack of it. One has to see the broader outlook of the whole community and its contribution to socio-economic life and try to overcome the problems faced by disadvantaged minorities rather than passing judgments on them on the strength of brute force of commnalised sections of society. Myth: With Independence the Congress became the all- India national organisation characterised by a nationalist and secular outlook unlike other (communal) parties.
Fact: The Congress perspective on issues during the course of the freedom struggle was clearly tainted by orthodox Hinduism. The entire Swadeshi movement in Bengal and Maharashtra was run on the theme of revival of the so-called ancient glorious culture of the Hindus. Often anti-colonial sentiments were sought to be aroused by constant harping on mythicl deeds of ancient Hindu kings and warriors. In the nationalist lexicon Muslims hardly figured. When it did, it was as idol-breakers, oppressors or as villains. Side-by-side, prominent Congress leaders organised "cow protection societies", and national festivals (in honour of Shivaji against Muslim invaders), and opposed social or educational advancement of women.Nor did their action in public life demonstrate any secular ethos particularly during the traumatic period following partition. Suspicion and prejudice against Muslims were rife, with Hindu commnalists insisting on Muslims to prove that they were not a `fifth columnist' and that their sympathies did not lie with the Razakars in Hyderabad. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, free India's Home Minister, assumed that Muslim officials were bound to be disloyal and should be dismissed. Mohanlal Saxena, Union Minister for Rehabilitation, ordered the sealing of Muslims shops in Delhi and UP; Purshotam Das Tandon, president of the UP Congress, was stridently communal. Govind Ballabh Pant, C.M. of the State disallowed Muslims in Government service or to be recruited in police. He discouraged the teaching of Urdu and suspended aid to Urdu-medium schools.In the Congress itself, as Nehru had discovered to his horror, it was difficult for Muslims to secure elective posts. This led him in September 1949 to write to Mohanlal Saxena in reference to P.Tandon, "...Communalism had invaded the minds and hearts of those who were pillars of the Congress...". Nehru himself had invited the wrath of his colleagues -- Patel,Pant,Tandon,K.M. Munshi,B.C.Roy, and Sampurnanand -- and other Hindu communalists who accused him of being soft towards the Muslims. He was also severely criticised for his donation of Rs.10,000 to the Jamia Millia Islamia (Delhi); for patronising Urdu, which "led to the division of India and if pampered will again lead to the same result", according to Khare,in his book, "My Political Memoirs"(p.444). Even Gandhi, as great a personality that he largely was, also claimed to be a "sanatanist Hindu" rather than one who represented Indian pluralist culture. All this obviously was not conducive to instill confidence into minority communities. R.P.Dutt in his book,India Today, commented "the emphasis on Hindusim must bear a share of the responsibility for the alienation of wide sections of muslim opiinon from the national movement". Box 1 : Map

Box 2:
The Morning of Freedom
Faiz Ahmed Faiz
This strained light, this night-bitten dawn - This is not the dawn we yearned for.
This is not the dawn for which we set out hoping that in the sky's wilderness
we would reach the final destination of the stars. Surely, the night's turgid sea will breathe its last on the inevitable shore.
Surely, the boat of heart's agony will somewhere come to a stop.
The enigma of youthful blood - reductive hands - so many forsaken loves - plaintive looks. But irresistible was the radiant face of the dawn even though love and beauty were within our reach. The subtle sorcery of desire, the aching tiredness. They say that the darkness has been severed from light they say that the goal has been achieved the predicament of the grief-stricken
has radically changed -
ecstasy of union is allowed
and the torment of separation forbidden. Torn nerves, glazed eyes, hearts on fire - there is no cure for the disease of separation.
>From where did the morning breeze come
and where did it go?
The earthen lamp shrugs its head in despair; the night is as oppressive as ever.
The time for the liberation of heart and mind has not come as yet.
Continue your arduous journey;
this is not your destination.
- Translated by Daud Kamal


1. Engineer,A.A. `Communalism in India', Vikas Publishing House,New
Delhi, 1995.
2. ---------,`Pakistan, Religion, Politics and Society', Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai, March 16, 96. 3. Chandra,B. `India's Struggle for Independence', Penguin,New Delhi,1989.
4. Khosla, Gopal Das. Stern Reckoning, Quoted by C. Subramanyam `Independence and the pain of Partition'. 5. Partition of India: Living with the Divide, Communalism Combat, Mumbai, August, 1996.

6. Shakir,M. `Dynamics of Muslim Thought', in Political Thought in Modern India (Ed: Bantham & Deutsch), Sage, 1986. 7. Mitra,N.N.(ed.), Indian Quarterly Register, 1927, Vol.1, pg.37.
8. Zakaria,R. `The Truth of Appeasement', in Indian Muslims: Ed.
Rajkishore (Hindi) Vani Prakashan, 1994. (This article draws heavily from books of HM Seervai and Ayesha Jalal.)
9. Sumit Sarkar "Modern India" Macmillan, 1996, pg.59. 10. Swami Vivekanand `Collected Works', Vol.VIII, pg.330. 11. Percival Spear: A History of India (vol.2), Penguin, 1990. 12. Seervai,H.M.Partition of India: Legend and Reality, Emmenem Publications, Bombay,1990

Indian National Social Action Forum Manual


Partition Politics

For historians studying the partition period, the most contentious issue remains that of conflict between Hindus and Muslims, in particular, whether the tensions were always there, or created and aggravated by the British policy of "divide and rule". Of all historical debates that South Asia scholars are engaged in, none are as obfuscated by contemporary politics as this one. In the early Pakistan period, strident nationalism, the 1965 war and other factors combined to encourage adherence to the "Two Nation theory". In the aftermath of the 1971 war, there was a shift to the opposite philosophy: i.e. that Hindus and Muslims were never meant to be separated into distinct homelands. In particular, the two nation theory had always been anathema to Congress and the Hindu middle class in West Bengal. The independence of Bangladesh provided this group with a joyful occasion, the perceived confirmation that charges of discrimination leveled at Hindu society during the partition period were now proven false. After the fall of Dhaka, the leading Indian magazines took out a full page advertisement with a picture of a tombstone-- on the tombstone were etched the words: "Here lies the remains of the Two Nation theory"

In researching the primary material, and interviewing those old enough to remember the British period, I found the truth to be a varied combination of the extreme versions. What was truly revealing for me was to observe how much bitterness towards the Hindu majority the elder generation exhibited. This contrasted sharply with the present generation which, having never had to compete with such a majority, generally regarded Hindus with great sympathy. The official written narratives yielded little of value, but anecdotal references in miscellaneous articles were revealing. Dr. Motahar Hossain's son for example, in describing his father's rise to the top of the sciences, related how, when Hossain finally went to Dhaka University he was told, "Oh, science and all that is not meant for Muslim boys!"

Novels and short stories also contained many interesting insights, especially in terms of documenting perceptions and thoughts that were unconsciously demeaning to Muslims. In particular Bankimchandra, the writer credited with creating the form of the Bengali epic, was a sore point for educated Muslims in British India. The situation became particularly volatile when Congress and other elements took up the slogan Bande Mathorom (Hail to the Mother) from Bankimchandra's Kopalkundola as a nationalist slogan. In the novel, the chant was sung by soldiers while slaughtering Muslims (or "nere's" as Bankim referred to them). Although Congress claimed to represent all Indians, and held no explicitly religious stance, it was in essence, a product of the Hindu middle class' aspirations-- the Bande Mathorom slogan simply made this visible to educated Muslims. Other interesting references are to be found in Swaratchandra Chatterji's epic four volume novel Srikantho. The first volume begins with this sentence: "There is a football match going on. On one side are the Bengali boys, on the other side the Muslims" As MSI pointed out during our first session, "Now you see, these Muslims are also Bengali! Of course they are! But he is making them separate from the Bengalis-- meaning Hindu Bengalis. I don't think he even noticed, because that is the way they thought."

In more recent revisionist literary criticism, Tagore is held up as another example of Hindu cultural hegemony. Although Tagore professed adherence to the "religion of man" and espoused universal solidarity, elsewhere he wrote, "Whether I like it or not, whether I want it or not, I was born a Hindu and I will always be a Hindu." One Bangla Academy researcher pointed out during a conversation that Tagore never wrote a novel with a major Muslim character. In fact, the only Muslim characters in his books were servants and minor characters. Defenders point out that Tagore was reflecting the society he grew up in, one in which Muslims did not play a major, or even any, role. Others deflate this by drawing a comparison with his stories that feature lower caste Hindus, a community from which he was distant at least to the same extent as he was from Muslim society. As one Bengali literature professor put it, "Everyone does not have to be Dickens and serve time in jail in order to write about the working class. That is the power of great literature, to bring to life an experience that many of us, the writer included, may never have in real life. The truth is Rabi babu was not interested in writing about Muslims, it was not an issue for him." Jubeida Khatoon, who in spite of her scarring experiences of going to all-Hindu school in Calcutta, retains a great fondness for the old-style Bengali writers (all Hindu), observed that: "In Rabindranath's work, there was subtle things. He has many novels, many dramas, have you seen that any of the hero-heroines are Muslims? The servants were the Muslims. Guards, servants were the Muslims. Besides there were no Muslim characters, all were Hindus. Almost all the servants would be Muslims. Cowherds, shepherds, these were the Muslims. Rabindranath did not write anything against us, but this also hurt me, that he didn't write anything in favor of us either. None of the heroes are Muslims, people get hurt by this sort of thing. Sharat, Bankim, people would read their work a lot, and it was there. In all the works, in words, jobs, everything the Muslims were made to look small."

The existence of antagonism between Hindu and Muslim populations was referred to repeatedly during the interviews. Almost all Muslims of the elder generation had some negative experience to speak of. This was in marked contrast to the traditional narratives that most Bangladeshis of my generation grew up with, a narrative in which Hindu-Muslim tension is a top-down phenomenon, created and bolstered by the British. The interviews indicated that, the tensions were there before the politicians arrived to take advantage of them. The experiences narrated to me were primarily of two types: overt insults deriving from religious and cultural dogma, and subtle comments deriving from stereotypes and perceptions. In general, few Muslims in Bangladesh seem to have experienced the subtle slight, since this appeared to happen in interactions between educated equals-- which was less frequently the case among Muslims and Hindus in Bengal.

In the village areas, many of the tensions seem to have derived from Hindu conceptions of 'untouchability' and the Muslims' ranking in that hierarchy. Sirajul Islam Bhuiyan's explanation was, "In the Hindu caste system, you have nomoshudra, chamar, thathi, etc. Then you come to the Muslims, and since we are not even from the same religion, we fall outside that, lower than the lowest castes, so to speak." Accordingly, on a social level, there appeared to be little interaction between the two religions at the lower level. In the rural context, the most likely interaction would be around common space, most frequently water from a tubewell. The practice was that, if there was any semblance of a line, the Hindus would go first. In addition, if a Muslim boy's feet were touching the base of the tubewell, the Hindu boys would not drink from the water until he had removed his feet. One particularly bitter interviewee in Rajshahi, Khandaker Abdus Sabur, had this story: "I saw mukhujjo da, he had just taken his bath in the pond. As I approached he quickly got off the road, taking this roundabout path. I was a little confused, so I veered in his direction. What I didn't realize was that, that was precisely the last thing he wanted. So finally he had to shout out, 'Ey, ey, ey, don't come here, don't walk over my shadow-- amar chaya marash ne. Now he wasn't just being rude, he literally believed that if I walked over his shadow, his jyath would go, he would have to bathe again to purify himself, all that.'"

Similarly awkward situations also occurred when Muslims visited Hindu households. In the late nineteenth century, there was little fraternization among the two communities, so these issues did not come up-- nor was the appropriate social decorum established. But by the 1920s, a significant number of Hindu students began meeting their Muslim counterparts in school. As they began to bring their new friends home, resistance came from the elder generation, for whom fraternization with Muslims was a new and unpleasant phenomenon. Many of the subjects told of being invited to have lunch at a Hindu friend's house, and then once they arrived, having to face the humiliation of being made to sit on the porch by the parents, being given food in the clay pots (which would be broken after they left), having ashes scattered across their path, and in particular, the cataclysmic reaction to their entrance into the kitchen: "I walked into the kitchen by accident, but my god you should have seen the reaction. It was as if the dog had just come in urinated in the pot of bhaji. In fact, from the mother's point of view, probably both a dog or a Muslim would make their food unholy. Of course, they had to throw all the food out; probably all the pots and pans as well. Food really was the last frontier." [anonymous interviewee in Chittagong] M.A. Sami, a virulently anti-Hindu Pakistani had this story: "I was the only muslim boy in that school. You know, this dirty, ragged beara, he would be carrying the dal and rooti. He would just pour the dal from that distance, splashing everywhere, then drop the rooti on the plate from that distance. I used to eat and cry. You know there was no latrine in the hostel, we had to go and be at ease in the woods. I saw a dog licking my stool, then I saw the same dog licking their dishes that had been set aside to be washed. They did not drive the dog away, but they would drive me away."

Although the narratives paint a grim picture of Hindu-Muslim relations, it is also worth bearing in mind that interaction between Hindus and Muslims were limited. At the peasant level, much of the oppressive behavior was class-oriented, and the subjugated happened to be Muslim. Unpleasant incidents died down quickly and were highly localized. It was not until the politicization of communal relations that Hindu-Muslim tensions ballooned and began to appear in communities all over the subcontinent. The key question in dealing with this phase is whether the politicians and their rhetoric acted as a crucible for years of frustration, or whether they accelerated and magnified individualistic behavior. In the next two segments, one about the Muslim League, the other about the Congress, I probe these issues in more detail.

Muslim League on the rise:
elite manipulation or mass mobilization?

For subaltern scholars, the great unsolved riddle in partition history remains the causality of the Hindu-Muslim conflict. In particular: did the Muslim League exploit a situation of imbalance that was already in existence, or did they, in fact, create and foment these rivalries from out of thin air? Much of the answer hinges on two parts of the Muslim League puzzle: how it was created, and where it received its support from. The birth of the ML was clearly an elite phenomenon, amply documented by Ayesha Jalal, Hasan Zaheer and others. The ML at its inception was primarily a protest device created by Jinnah and a handful of other Muslim leaders, who feared that when the need for presenting a united front to the British had passed, they would be relegated to token positions in the Congress party. Thus, Jinnah's original vision seems to have been to use the ML as a tantalizing tease, and leverage the threat of Muslim separatism into a greater chunk of the Congress pie. Islam itself was useful to Jinnah as a tool of differentiation, but in private life, he held a vision of a diluted role of religion in daily life. Clearly, when he lent his weight to Muslim separatism, his vision was of the need for economic opportunity, not spiritual space. As things actually proceeded, several pieces of the equation failed to connect. Congress reacted to the ML threat, first in amusement, and then in hostility. Ultimately Jinnah's gamble of ruffling Congress feathers worked a little too well: instead of being hungry for reconciliation, Congress leaders felt pushed into a corner and reacted with hostility, shutting out any possibility of a consensus government. ML leaders also were ambivalent towards this opportunity: some felt that things had gone too far, and it was time to return to the united India concept. Others were overjoyed at the opportunity to go their separate ways, especially those who were mediocre political performers and would never be able to capture majority votes in a united India.

Although, the private musings of the ML coterie were hidden from public view, Jalal and others have done an excellent job of piecing together behind-the-scenes analysis based on varied information sources, including letters, posters, leaflets, and memos. What remains much more of a mystery is the amount of support the ML actually enjoyed at the grass roots level. Even more impossible is the task of dissecting the reasons and boundaries of that support. Given the simplistic dimensions of the only election that the ML participated in (in essence a referendum on the creation of Pakistan), the low literacy rate among the majority of Muslims (and, therefore, limited access to the media), and the prevailing atmosphere of extreme paranoia and retaliation; the events on record-- election results, riot casualties-- paint a deceiving picture of uniform Muslim support for the ML. In this aspect, my interviews broke new ground, reaching beyond the numbers for a wealth of anecdotal information. Particularly interesting were the observations of Ansar Ali Mian. A firebrand ML'er at the time of partition, Ansar Ali never looked for any rewards for his campaigning on behalf of the ML. Therefore, his testimony about the appeal of the ML is considerably more reliable than other accounts I recorded. Ansar Ali was particularly useful to ML campaigners because of his superb singing voice; at each provincial ML meeting, he would open the program by first singing the anthem "Larke leyenge Pakistan [We will fight to get Pakistan]". Besides his official role, Ansar Ali also earned a reputation as a confrontational firebrand, once through his speech which broke up a Congress meeting, and another time through his efforts to guarantee that Muslims were able to sacrifice a cow on the holy day of Eid-- efforts which almost resulted in his dismissal from the army.

Through these narratives, Ansar Ali was insistent on one point: "I was a ML supporter, I am not any more, now I support the Jamaat, because they are the only people that talk about Islam, but, I am not a 'fundamentalist'." With reference to the historians who argue that ML never had grass-roots support (and that this did not matter in the pre-partition chaos), Ansar Ali was equally forceful: in an unrecorded conversation with me, he said, "That is all nonsense. Many people kept supporting the ML after independence, many people got disgusted and moved away to something else. But, if any educated Muslim stands here and tells you that, before partition, when the question of Pakistan had not been decided, they did not support the ML, they are just lying. Later many people realized that the leaders were bad, or they had made a mistake in supporting them, or situation would have been better if India was united, etc. But at the time, with riots going on, and all this fear of what the Hindus are going to do once the British leave-- are they going to make kochu kata [chopped tubers] out of us-- every Muslim, everyone of them, supported the ML."

Gandhi and Congress:
secular saints or pious hypocrites?

Congress' role during all this seemed to be of consistently under-estimating the ML threat. If the party leadership had shrewdly held out an olive branch early in the process, Jinnah and his group could have been bought off very easily. By the time, the ML threat was realized through the referendum results, both ML and Congress leadership balked at a compromise: ML because they saw much more to be gained in Pakistan, Congress because they saw that too much power would have to be conceded at the center. In particular, Vallabhai Patel, with his virulently anti-Muslim rhetoric, successfully organized the 'refuseniks' inside Congress. Nehru's suave manner, rapport with Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and Gandhi's ascetic image, all helped to sway the British to be more partial to Congress' demands. Although, Nehru and Patel were the chief opponents of Jinnah, those interviewed indicated that Gandhi was seen as a target for Muslim frustrations during the partition period. In particular, Gandhi professed love for all religions, but did not allow his relative to marry a Muslim. When Noakhali's Saha family was hit by riots, Gandhi went to visit the area. The local Muslims were furious at this double standard, and gave him a very hostile reception. This new anti-Gandhi sentiment among Muslims was strongest in Noakhali itself. Shafayath Hossain described how attempts were made to block the railroad to prevent Gandhi from advancing. But the Noakhali Muslims' "shining hour" was in the form of a huge affront they delivered to the man who was "revered worldwide as a latter-day saint...To Muslims though, especially after Noakhali, he was something completely different. I mean look, he wouldn't let his own blood marry a Muslim, and he would talk all the time about communal harmony." Gandhi always took a goat with him on his travels in order to drink goat's milk. Within an hour of his arrival in Noakhali, his goat was stolen in the midst of the crowd. The story goes that, the goat was then cooked and fed to the local people. Clearly, Gandhi had not succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of all Indians.

MA Sami had an actual meeting with Gandhi, which was similarly unpleasant: "Gandhi I didn't like at all. An absolute hypocrite. I met him once, in 1940. I went to the nikethan, his secretary was this lady......______. I said my name is Mohammed Abdus Sami, really emphasizing the first part. Because usually I would say Sami, people would think Swami-- they would think I was a Hindu. So I wanted her to know I was a Muslim. Now you know, thakur ghore ke, bole ami kola khai ni. She says, well Mr. Sami, we don't really believe in conversion. Now this meant, they were thinking that I was wanting to get close to Hindu dadas, to walk a little like you, improve myself. So I said, why not, you mean to tell me that you do not want to convert. You talk to someone, you try to make them see your point, that is converting to your views. So you know, she saw that, ore baba, e tho thyador chele [Oh goodness, this is a tricky fellow]. Quickly became very careful. Said to me, oh you want to see bapu, he is about to take his walk, you can talk to him there. So there was a thatch type thing. A very thick white mattress, and there he sat, surrounded by these pretty girls, his apsaris you know. Wearing that nengti and resting on two women, a sight. He started saying, ah yes, you are a Bengali, please be comfortable, speak in your own language. But meanwhile he had already reached inside his dhoti and pulled out his watch. Never mind Bengali, I didn't even have a chance to speak. He said, well now I have to go for my walk. So you know, I understood exactly what was what. I thought, acccha, thik ache-- all right. Oh then I said to one of the others, can I get a glass of water. So he [Gandhi] had already started going away, but he had heard me. He pointed in the distance and said, there is the motka, you can drink it from there. And you know what, not one single person there moved to help me. I had to walk all the way there and get it myself. So I got a very valuable lesson."

Carnage at the crossroads:
endgame and partition riots


As discussed in the previous segments, Hindu-Muslim tensions were apparent at the grassroots level. The narratives I encountered also indicated that the ML did not create issues out of thin air-- rather their rhetoric touched some raw nerves and focused people's anger towards convenient targets. However, at the critical juncture of 1944, the gap between the agitational propaganda of the party and the existing situation in the heartland of India began to grow. Thus, as the party leaders began to realize that their rhetoric was outpacing the reality, they took it upon themselves to correct the situation. This was accomplished through a combination of insidious propaganda and the activities of hired thugs and agent provocateurs. In particular, communalization of religious festivals in rural areas was entirely a top-down phenomenon. Prior to the entrance of the ML and Congress, not only had festivals been free of incidents, they were in fact an area of remarkable syncretism and solidarity. In North Bengal, old Hindu and Muslim families talked of their experiences in the British period, when shared religious festivities were a strong part of their community experience. In particular, the Hindu puja festivals with their festive trappings were a major attraction for young Muslim boys and girls. The exuberance of Holi with its color fights, the vivid imagery of Durga, Kali and other deities, the ceremonial splendor of the ritual immersion of statues -- all of these were in marked contrast to the relatively somber atmosphere of Eid and other Muslim festivals. Besides the ban on graven images, Muslim festivals were also subdued due to the economic hardship of a majority of Muslims. As a result, the Hindu ceremonies were particularly attractive to young Muslims because they offered a welcome stimulus to their lives. In some towns, wealthy Muslim businessmen would even pay for some of the expenses of the float and participate in carrying the statue to the river. Not all saw this mixing of two religions as something positive. Qamrunnesa Begum was particularly harsh in her reaction: "...muslim boys would go to hear Geeta Path. Why? "There is much to be learnt from it." It was a fashion, especially for girls. This was in university quarters. My question was, have you people bothered to read Quran? Mongol Pradeep, etc. brought from Calcutta were elements of cultural subversion."

There were other areas where a fluid exchange between rituals occurred, especially through infusion of Hindu rituals into Muslim households. But, as Jubeida Khatoon points out, "it was always one-sided, we took their things gladly, I didn't see them taking any of our ceremonies." Elements such as the bindi on the forehead of women, shakha bracelets, the practice of touching elders feet in respect ("payer dhula neya"-- taking the dust from the feet), dipshikha lamps at wedding ceremonies-- all these and many other aspects of Hindu culture gradually seeped into and became part of muslim rituals. Only later, as Hindu-Muslim relations became a subject of propagandizing, did these elements come under critical scrutiny. Ultimately, this was one of the biggest impacts of the ML-Congress feud: the destruction of areas of cultural/religious solidarity and tolerance. Muslim women of the 1940s generation, who at one time gladly put on bindis, now rejected them with fury. Salma Chowdhury, at one time a very fashionable member of Dhaka society and now a very reserved, and religious woman, commented on her one-time obsession with "Hindu culture": "At the time I thought nothing of all this. I was very hi-fi, tip-top, always with the latest things. I wore shakha bracelets, had a prominent teep [bindi], wore short sleeve blouses. But later, much later, I came to understand that those were just Hindu-ani, and we were gladly taking it on ourselves to be that way."

In the mid 1940s, ML and Congress turned their focus on several rituals that they considered offensive to the other community. The leaders then proceeded to carry out ruthless propaganda campaigns-- campaigns that were so successful in spreading fear and hate among the masses that, by 1944, truth and fiction had blurred beyond recognition. In retrospect, looking over some of the documents from this period, one is struck by how little effort was needed to spread a rumor. With almost minimal literacy in the rural provinces, the one person in an area who could read a newspaper had absolute, unchecked power to exaggerate events, or fabricate them completely. With minimal communication between provinces, rumors coming in from outside quickly acquired the status of hard facts. The most notorious issue became the Muslim ritual of sacrificing cows at Bakri Eid. Suddenly, reports started coming in from all over India that in Hindu majority areas Muslims were not being allowed to sacrifice cows. The power of the written word combined with insinuation was put in full practice during this period. Ansar Ali described his own experience: "I destroyed this meeting by myself (laughs). I had the magazine in my hand. I went up to the President and asked permission, "I want to say a few words." A lot of people knew me at the time. These days I cannot speak, but in those days I spoke very well. He said, "Who are you?" I said, "I am Ansar Ali". Now I had many fans. They started shouting, "Who? What are you asking? let him speak. You have to give him permission." These were mostly young people. "Since the boy has asked, he has to be given permission." So I was given permission. I took that Muhammadi article, the stories about persecution by Hindus, ban on cow sacrifice, many such incidents, a 2-3 page long article. I said, "Respected President shaheb, respected audience, brothers, assalam u alaikum. I do not have anything significant to say, but I will read something to you, please listen." The President interrupted, "What article?" And the audience yelled, "What do you want to look at the article for? Whatever he wants to read, the boy wants to read, let him." The President was Muslim, but Congress, Hindu minded. They had called the meeting Krishak Proja Party meeting. Other people said, "Mr. President, what are you doing? The boy wants to read, let him read." So I started to read. At the time, I could read very well. Where you needed to put accent, I read with that accent. After I had finished reading, there was a huge yelling and shouting: "Ooosrgh, You haramzadas ['sons of bitches'], Hindus, sons of Hindus! We won't stay at your meeting." The meeting broke up in chaos...After I read the article, Muslims were so furious [goshya]: What! Hindus won't let them sacrifice cows! Muslims can't even do Qurbani in peace! There were many other incidents in that article. None of the party people attempted to catch me later. Muslims getting angry, especially if it is uneducated people, is a ferocious situation. In that situation, there was no question of scolding me. Rather, they took great care not to offend. "All right boy, you have read quite well." The meeting of course did not go on. They did not let anyone protest. The general [shadharan] people's thought was: Since he has read it from the paper, it is correct. They have not made it up."

In reaction to the cow sacrifice stories, those in Muslim majority areas made an extra effort to perform their sacrifices in a more visible and defiant manner. There were also incidents of cow entrails being thrown into Hindu temples in protest. The Muslims then picked on the issue of puja celebrations going past mosques, playing loud music. In the past, such ceremonies turned down their music if they were passing a mosque. But in 1945, mutual hostility was at a peak and the puja organizers made a point of blaring their music even louder than usual. Shi'a muslim celebrants carrying tajia floats also balked at lowering it when passing under the ashyoth tree, held as sacred by Hindus. One resident of Kushtia, Jainab Ali, wryly observed, "Suddenly Muslims were flexing their muscles, going, 'We won't lower our tajia for any Hindu symbol. Muslims will never bow their head to any but Allah', etc. Next thing you know, some Muslims had even gone and cut down the branches of a ashyoth tree so it would not be in the way, which of course infuriated the Hindus in the area, which was precisely the desired reaction. It was all very ridiculous, because this tajia before a tree business, the fuss about music in front of a mosque, all this never happened before, or bothered anyone. But suddenly, it seemed that people were just looking for any, and I mean any, excuse to start a fight. Funny thing: a tajia isn't even Islamic, but the bearers of the tajia now thought they were the saviors of Islam."

Inevitably, the worsening of relations led to the violent riots of the 1940s, climaxing in the fearful riots in Noakhali and Calcutta. In Bengal, the most horrific accounts came from Muslims who were studying in Calcutta and residents of Noakhali who witnessed the retaliation attacks on the Saha families. But prior to the Calcutta riots, although the surface declaration of any incident was one of hate towards the "other", a little probing below the surface usually revealed class hatred and personal vendettas-- a settling of old scores under the guise of communal riots. Abdumamu, a resident of Sylhet, gave a lucid reading of the Noakhali riots: "In Bihar, Hindus were going, kill the Muslims. Result? Noakhali. Two reasons I think for Noakhali: Religious feelings were higher than elsewhere. Also there was the Saha community, paisawalah [moneyed] Hindus, just like the Marwaris-- they were certainly targets of some looting. The mahajans did sud logni [lend-lease] in that area. Now when Gandhi came to Noakhali, it did not go down well. "Why don't you go to Bihar?" people were yelling at him. You've heard the story about his goat being stolen, jobai kore khaoa holo [it was slaughtered and eaten by everyone] (laughs). "Ekhane ashcho keno? [Why are you coming here?]" again and again that question. About the Sahas, [they were killed because everyone owed them money]. I'll give you another example: in 1971, the Kabuliwalahs were picked out and killed--I owe him money, of course if I kill him I don't have to repay that money. Kabulis were big moneylenders in those days. I saw with my own eyes, there would be Kabulis sitting at the gates of the Dacca Secretariat-- to get their money back. Why secretariat? Well, there were a lot of government employees who would loan money from the Kabulis. For fear of having to return that money, when they didn't have the money, they would even enter by back gates to escape the Kabulis. Now, you won't see any Kabulis in Bangladesh. In the past, there were thousands of Kabulis. They have been in the money lending business since British era. When the cries went up, "Finish off the Urdu-speakers!"-- the Kabulis were finished off. Of course, economics is always the hidden reason. But it sounds more [heh] patriotic to say, I killed him because he is a Hindu-son-of-a-Hindu, or I killed that Urduwallah."

However, all this changed after the Calcutta riots. Hired thugs brought in from outside by both parties, the frenzy of the imminent division of spoils, and the pervasive fear of the 'other'-- all this combined to make Calcutta the site for the most bloody fratricidal conflict in the subcontinent's recent history. In particular, these riots, in their all encompassing savagery, sounded the death knell for Hindu-Muslim reconciliation. For the first time since the ML-Congress players started using riots as the mode of confrontation, Hindus and Muslims were attacked solely because of their religion. No mitigating circumstances of class hatred could be uncovered in the madness of the Calcutta riots. As Sultanuddin Bhuiyan explains it: "The Calcutta riots really were the end of all hope. After that, no sane person would even dream of suggesting that Hindus and Muslims could ever live together in peace. Could we have lived together? I would liked to have tried. But after you have seen ordinary neighbors committing extraordinary acts of violence, you lose all faith in human nature. No wanted to take the risk any more. Thus, the riots handed partition as fait accompli to the citizens of India. The few rational minds that could have mustered an argument against the "Two Nation theory" were now too numbed by the scale of the savagery to venture any attempts at reconciliation. In these times of extreme violence, the masses and the leaders ran for the safety and shelter of their "own kind".


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Last updated: October 29, 2000 .