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Price of Partition

Bengal, the biggest province of the country before partition lost its preeminence in truncated India after independence, due to its much reduced population.


India is celebrating this year 75 years of her independence and simultaneously observing 75 years of the partition of the sub-continent ~ a tragedy that created perhaps the worst refugee crisis the world has ever witnessed. Two provinces that were affected worst by the Partition were Bengal and Punjab. The Census figures of the two countries for the year 1951 revealed that about 53 lakhs Muslims moved from the Indian side of Punjab to Pakistan in the years immediately after Partition. Around 12 lakh Muslims migrated from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Hyderabad, and other parts of Northern India to Sindh and about 7 lakh Muslims migrated from West Bengal and Bihar to East Bengal. On the other hand, about 34 lakh Hindus and Sikhs moved from the Pakistan side of Punjab to East Punjab, about 12 lakh Hindus and other non-Muslim communities from Sind to India and about 27 lakh Hindus migrated from East Bengal to India immediately after partition. Of them, 22 lakh migrated to West Bengal and the rest to Assam and Tripura.

It is estimated that nearly 60 lakh Hindus migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan to West Bengal before liberation of Bangladesh (1971). In the eastern side, migration of Hindus is continuing and the estimated number of stateless people who migrated to India after the cut-off date of 24 March 1971 (day of liberation of Bangladesh) because of perceived religious intimidation lies somewhere between 76 and 95 lakh. Thus, the State that was worst affected by post-partition migration was West Bengal and the refugee crisis crippled its economy. This, along with the attitude of the ruling dispensation of the Centre in the 1950s and 1960s expressed in the form of equalisation of freight for coal, steel etc. in different parts of India and similar other acts, and militant trade unionism of the State in the following four decades led to gradual flight of capital away from Bengal.

Eventually all importance of Bengal in the financial and industrial scenario of the country withered away. Bengal, the biggest province of the country before partition lost its preeminence in truncated India after independence, due to its much reduced population. Decline of political importance was followed by the loss of its economic stature. Reduced importance of the Kolkata-Haldia Port Complex and Kolkata airport are all reflective of this decline. Since the 1980s, people coming to Bengal in search of a job or in pursuit of higher education or health care declined. Entrepreneurs coming from abroad on business trips reduced in number. Calcutta, the capital of the State, gradually started losing its cosmopolitan character. The change of name of this city from Calcutta to Kolkata is a perfect metaphor for the loss of the international character of the city.

The overall cynicism was reflected even in the field of sports and culture. Preeminence of Bengal in football, field hockey and athletics gradually faded away. The city which in its golden era was one of the two most important centres of Indian commercial films gradually turned out to be a center for ‘regional’ films. While Calcutta was gradually turning to Kolkata, the relative importance of Mumbai and Chennai, least affected by partition, remained by and large the same. The nation’s capital, Delhi, which was not so important till the 1980s in the economic activities of the country, emerged as the new centre of business, particularly after the emergence of NCR in the 1990s. Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Gurgaon and Noida turned out to be the new growth centers of the country. Another city in the sub-continent which lost much of its preeminence after Partition was Lahore. Lahore was the most cosmopolitan of North Indian cities in pre-partition days.

Nearly onethird of the population was Hindu and Sikh, and they formed the backbone of the city’s thriving business activities. According to eminent journalist Kuldip Nayar, Cyril Radcliffe who was the chairman of the boundary commissions that decided the details of partition of Bengal and Punjab once told him that he had planned to give Lahore to India but subsequently decided to place it with Pakistan as the new country was lacking any major city after he had already awarded Calcutta to India. What a tragic consideration of decision-making involving the fate of millions! Lahore was the destination of the maximum number of Muslim refugees migrating from East Punjab, whereas the minorities of the city comprising of the educated middle class and the professionals migrated to India almost in entirety. The Partition impacted badly on the economy of the city and its cosmopolitan character.

Karachi eventually had outgrown Lahore. The centre of gravity of Pakistan’s film industry gradually shifted to Karachi. Partition completely changed the character of Lahore and its preeminence. Dhaka on the other hand, a mufassil town till the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, turned out to be a mega metropolitan city as the capital of Bangladesh. The passenger traffic at Dhaka International Airport in the pre-pandemic year (2019-20) was 18 million against 21 million in Kolkata but cargo traffic at Dhaka Airport (5.17 lakh tons) was much higher than Kolkata (1.63 lakh tons). Cargo handled in Chittagong Port in the pre-pandemic year (2019-2020) was 101.56 million tons as against 61.37 mt in the Kolkata-Haldia Port Complex. In the cultural front of Bengalis, the presence of Dhaka today is as strong as that of Kolkata. Thus, the legacy of the partition of India and subsequent developments of seven decades affected various geographical areas of the sub-continent and various communities in different ways.

West Bengal and its capital are no doubt the worst sufferers. But everything is not lost. Life in Kolkata is much more relaxed as compared to other mega-metros of the country. The city is much cheaper than other metros of the sub-continent. Middle class values are still strong in the State. Civil society here is perhaps the most vocal in the country. The society in Bengal is still inclusive and tolerant. In the world of art and culture, the state still has eminence. Bengal and its capital have all the potentialities to rise from the ashes. We need to resolve to not indulge in the politics that caused the Partition. In Kolkata, we should have a museum on Partition, similar to the Holocaust Museums of the West, which will stand as a reminder of the city’s unfortunate legacy to coming generations.