Partition and the post-colonial state | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 14, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:50 PM, August 13, 2013

Partition and the post-colonial state

HAVING failed to resolve the political crisis the politicians of the Indian sub-continent took the decision to divide the country in communal lines and the country was divided into two states: Pakistan and India on 14-15 August, 1947.
The Partition of India was one of the most calamitous events in the history of South Asia which changed the thousand years' political geography of the region, caused series of communal riots in the new states and made millions of people homeless. The partition of India happened with amazingly rapidity -- only within seven years -- after first formal demand for separate state(s) for the Muslims in India was made. Partition not only divided the Indian subcontinent into two countries but the hastily drawn line also created many complexities, problems and sowed the seeds of future ethnic clashes, oppressions and further disintegration. Even today one can observe the harmful impact of partition on the region. In this article I examine the impact of partition on the Bengal delta, particularly the eastern part of the delta which is now independent Bangladesh.
The partition had much greater impact on the areas covered by the Bengal delta than other parts of the subcontinent. Throughout its history, the area was united for most of the time and was seen as one political unit, except a short span of time between 1905 and 1911, when Bengal was divided by the British for administrative, political and other reasons. In August 1947, when India was divided into two states, the delta was also divided into two parts: western part of Bengal joined the new state of India and the other part, eastern Bengal was added to Pakistan, a completely different region from Bengal in terms of geography and culture.
Drawing a border between the two parts of Bengal was very drastic. Even a few days after Partition, the inhabitants of both parts of the delta were confused as to which area had gone to which part. The border drawn by the committee was a random line, which in some cases split a district into two. However, borders in these areas were fluid since historical time. But the new border caused neighbours, relatives and friends, who were living side by side for many generations, to be separated and to migrate to different parts of the two Bengals - now a part of different States. This especially happened to the people who found themselves on the newly drawn border. The new border also created a very strange type of `island' which is known as chitmahal or enclaves. People of Bangladesh are made aware of the misery of the enclaves' people through occasional newspaper reports.
One of the worst impacts of Partition was the spread of large scale communalism in the society. Communalism began to spread immediately before the partition. The notorious communal riots of Noakhali and Calcutta immediately before the partition are well-known. After the partition of India, the new post-colonial states could not eradicate communalism from the society. Or, one can say the Pakistan state was hesitant about the question of communalism.
After the partition of Bengal, communalism was wide-spread in East Bengal too. Almost every year, hundreds of cases of communal harassment were lodged by the victims, including complaints of rape, arson and extortion. For example, it is seen from the confidential political report of the government of East Bengal that in 1950 more than 500 cases of serious communal harassments were reported only in the Barisal district. But the attitude of state towards these communal harassments may interest us. In most cases the investigation of the state agencies termed the harassments as baseless and a, Indian conspiracy against Pakistan.
The inert action of the government also patronised these acts indirectly. In fact the postcolonial Pakistan state was haunted by the ghost of 'Indian conspiracy' and saw the people of Hindu community as the agent of India. The insecurity and the social alienation in Pakistan forced many Hindus to leave East Bengal. Those who stayed back lived an insecure life. It is also true that some Indian newspapers played a role in intensifying the communal disharmony in East Bengal.
The Muslim who migrated from India to East Bengal in the wake of the partition experienced a cultural shock. After the partition many Muslims from different parts of India migrated to eastern Bengal and they had a completely different culture from the Bengali Muslims. Rafi Uddin Ahmed, Richard M. Eaton and Willem van Schendel have shown in their works that the culture and rituals of Bengali Muslims, especially Muslims of eastern Bengal, are different from that of the other parts of India and Bengal. Although majority of the people of eastern Bengal were Muslims their Islamic practices and rituals were not purely Islamic. Many local elements had entered into the religious practices of the Muslims here. These overlapping religious practices distinguish the Muslims of eastern Bengal from the Muslims of North India, Pakistan or elsewhere in the world. Therefore, there was, understandably, a cultural conflict between the Bengali society and the Muslims who settled here from other parts of India. Many of these Muslim migrants from India migrated to eastern part of Bengal with `a separate Muslim state ideology,' that is, their belief in the Pakistan state. Later we would see that when the Bengali Muslims (and Hindu) nationalist fought for an independent state these people would oppose the cause and take the Pakistani side.
Beside these socio-cultural impacts, the partition had a far-reaching impact on the economy and ecology of eastern Bengal which is now Bangladesh. Because of the way the border was drawn, eastern Bengal lost many of its economically important regions. For instance, although it got greater part of the Sylhet district, it lost those parts of Sylhet which were rich in tea plantation. Asfaque Hossain shows in his research that eastern Bengal lost 55 valuable tea gardens because of the new border arrangement. It also lost some regions strategically important to the economy and ecology of the land. For example, going by the makeup of the population, Murshidabad and Maldah should have come to eastern Bengal. But these two districts went to West Bengal instead. Murshidabad was important to keep control on the water sources. Later, it would have a serious consequence for the environment and economy of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has 55 international rivers entering from India which are controlled by India. This controlling of water resources has created a perpetual threat for the ecology and economy of Bangladesh.
Thus, the partition and the way the border was drawn have created a number of perennial insecurities for the postcolonial states of the subcontinent.

The writer is a Historian and Researcher at the daily Prothom Alo. E-mail:

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