Many of us in West Bengal are not aware of the long and tortuous chain of events that led to the carving out of this new state out of the erstwhile state of Bengal, which went into Pakistan. Had it not been for the tireless efforts of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the whole of Bengal would probably have slipped into East Pakistan. The partition of the province was not a thing which was to the liking of either Syama Prasad or the Hindu Mahasabha, the organization which he represented at this time. As late as the debates in the Bengal Legislative Assembly on 19 September 1946 following the gory incidents of August 1946, which go under the name of the Great Calcutta Killing, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the president of the All India Hindu Mahasabha, had been looking for “a plan which will enable the vast majority of Hindus and Muslims to live under circumstances which will give freedom and peace to the common man”. He wanted to scrap “the false and foolish idea of Pakistan or Islamic rule.”

During the 1940s, the Hindu Mahasabha had ardently propagated Akhand Hindusthan or the indivisibility of India. But in May 1947 the same Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee had written to the Viceroy that Hindus “must not be compelled to live within the Moslem State and the area where they predominate should be cut off.”It would be interesting to explain this turn around by analysing the political developments preceding this date under the dual scheme of provincial autonomy and the Communal Award of 1932 foisted on Bengal through British imperialist machinations.

The Hindus and the Muslims, the two dominant religious communities of Bengal had been living side by side for several centuries. One obvious reason for this might have been that the vast majority of the Bengali Muslims had not been taught to regard their Hindu counterparts as the “other,” as both the Hindu as well as the Muslim peasants were equally exploited by their rentier landlords in an evenhanded manner. That the economic divide in the East Bengal countryside between the Hindu landlords and their Muslim tenants coincided with their religious divide did not make much difference as Bengali Muslim society at this time was hopelessly differentiated between the ashraf and the atrap. Ashrafs were usually of Persian or Arabic origin, who had come to Bengal in the train of the Muslim conquerors or were posted by the ruling Muslim chiefs in Delhi with administrative assignments. They were usually Urdu-speaking and kept their atrap brethren at a distance. Ashrafs were often paid by jagirs for their administrative services. These estates were later converted into zamindaris. Most of them also enjoyed pompous designations like Raja, Nawab etc. and regarded the low caste peasants, whether Hindu or Muslim, with great contempt. British rule in Bengal did not immediately interfere with this social differentiation till about the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The widespread commercialization of agriculture which came in the wake of British rule brought about a new stratification among the peasants. A section of the peasantry, who could retain their hold over a part of their product after meeting their obligations to the zamindar and the moneylender, could often sell them at a profit. Thus emerged a handful of affluent cash crop cultivators among the peasantry from about this time. Some of them aspired after ashraf status and started sending their children to schools. With it was heralded the dawn of a community consciousness among the madrasa educated literati. Revivalist movements like the Tariqa-i-Muhammadiya, the Wahabis, the Fara’idis and the Ta’aiyyunis created an impact exactly among these people. Although differing in details they all served to promote an Islamic identity among the Muslim peasantry and arrested their assimilation with the local inhabitants belonging to other belief systems.

According to the Fara’idi doctrine a fara’id was to observe the five fundamentals of Islam (bina’ al-Islam) like reading the Kalimah (the article of faith), offering namaz five times a day, fasting during ramzan, paying poor tax (zakat), and performing haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The poor, however, were exempted from the last two. The Fara’idis tried to restore tawhid (belief in one God) and tried to stop unIslamic practices. They insisted that congregational prayers of Jum’ah and Id could not be held except in misr al jami (a city where the city lord or Amir and the Qazi orJudge were appointed by a Sultan, enjoying the sanction of Islamic law). All places other than that were dar-ul-harb, a country of the enemy. The pure way of life, they believed, would help them regain their political power and restore the dar ul Islam (rule of Islam). The Tariqah I Muhammadiah, propagated in Bengal by the Patna caliphs, Maulanas Inayet Ali (1794- 1858) and Wilayet Ali (1791-1835) succeeded in mobilizing a large number of recruits from the Bengal districts like 24 Parganas, Jessore, Faridpur, Pabna, Rajshahi, Malda and Bogra for the purpose of retrieving the holy land from the incursions of Sikh infidels on the Afghan border. This Tariqah movement was sometimes confused with Wahabbism of Shah Waliullah (1703-62) of Delhi. Maulana Karamat Ali’s Ta’aiyyuni movement too had the same goal of winning over the Muslims of Bengal from the mire of local customs. Although the Fara’idis did not support jihad, unlike the Wahabbis, yet ultimately they all converged in propagating jihad to rescue the converts from the evil contact of infidel religion. This urge for uniting against the infidels at one point helped to bridge the gap between the ashraf (elite) and the atrap (plebian) among the Muslims. During his non-cooperation movement of 1920, Gandhi therefore chose to make Khilafat one of the main issues to draw Muslim sympathy against the British. This, however, yielded a bitter crop of communal consciousness and resulted in fostering separatism among the Muslims. Mullas and maulavis from this time were given absolute freedom to talk about politics. The result was widespread communalization of politics.

Chittaranjan Das had rightly identified the sore point of the rising Bengali Muslim educated middle class as “essentially a struggle for power by the marginal sections of the educated classes of Bengal society”. The Bengal Pact of 1923 tried to address their long standing grievances about music before mosques, free performance of cow sacrifice during Eid and opportunities of employment by conceding a quota of 55 per cent of the available jobs. It was also agreed that appointment of Hindus would be put on hold for some time till the communal ratio in employment came at par. But the Cocanada Session of the Congress in December 1923 refused to abide by these guidelines as the swarajists were merely a handful. After Chittaranjan’s death his policies were thus thrown to the winds.

The Communal Award of 1932 was not a big shot in the arm for the Bengal Muslims as is usually made out; if it reduced the Hindus to a statutory minority, it had also put a check on the percentage of the Muslims. The European Group was allowed an edge at their expense in order to keep them perpetually dependent on the Europeans for support. For the Hindus the Poona Pact had done the maximum mischief by taking out a large chunk from their share. The Pact between Sir A H Ghuznavi, a member of the Central Legislative Assembly and an ex-minister of the Bengal Government under the diarchy, and the Maharaja of Burdwan in 1936 took note of all these factors when they agreed upon a 50/50 share. Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Praja Party tried not to lock horns in a bitter fight with the Congress in the countryside. Rather it tried to resolve the economic conflict between the Hindus and Muslims by abolishing the Permanent Settlement which had given such obnoxious powers to the zamindars on the cultivators. Its other agenda was to resist the intrusion of the Muslim League and its communal politics into the Bengal countryside. But the Congress High Command’s decision not to accept office and Sarat Bose’s priority to the release of detenus over the economic programme of the KPP wrecked the possibility of a Praja-Congress government.