In a short essay (Divided Landscapes, Fragmented Identities) in DA Low and Howard Brasted;&’s  Freedom, Trauma, Continuities : Northern India and Independence (Sage, New Delhi, 1998,) Gyanesh Kudaisiya lamented that most writings on the Partition of  the sub-continent have so far had their focus on Punjab and the dislocations and disruptions taking place in the eastern region remained comparatively unexplored. Tathagata Roy&’s book tries to address this ‘historiographic imbalance.’ Roy considered it his ardent duty to draw popular attention to the ‘major case of violation of human rights that has so far escaped the attention of the world.’

Volumes have been written on slavery in America, the German pogrom of the Jews or the Palestine-Israel conflict, but Roy found it intriguing that not much has been written about the persecution of the Hindus in former East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh. Even the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)  was not allowed to take the movement of eight million people from the eastern districts of Bengal (erstwhile East Pakistan) to those of the West into account due to the unwillingness of India to participate in the UN General Assembly Resolution of 1949.

Roy has traced several waves of anti-Hindu pogroms in Bengal, beginning with the Great Calcutta Killing on the Muslim League Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946, which cascaded into the riots of Noakhali and Tipperah soon after. After Partition, 11.4 million or 42 per cent of undivided Bengal&’s  Hindu population were still left in East Bengal. Of these 344,000 entered West Bengal in 1947; 786,000 people crossed border in the following year; 213,000 came in 1949 (Gyanesh Kudaisiya&’s estimate). These were forced by the prevalent atmosphere of insecurity, attacks on Hindu properties and temples and crimes against women. Slogans in favour of an Islamic state and administration based on the shariat alarmed them. They thought their ‘honour, culture and religion’ were threatened.

February and March 1950 witnessed a series of Hindu pogroms in places like Digharkul in Gopalganj, Gournadi in Barisal, Habibgarh in Sylhet, Nachole in Rajshahi and Kalshira (P.S. Mollarhat) on the plea of suppression of Communists. Miltary pickets placed in these areas had already been harassing the local people by picking up young women to satisfy their lusts. Communists from Jhalardanga had been hiding in a house in Kalshira in Khulna and had killed a constable during a raid. Reprisals followed in the form of plunder in the village, the breaking of household deities, rape and forcible conversions with the full connivance of the police. Of a total number of 350 households only three were spared. Congress members in the East Bengal Assembly wanted to move two adjournment motions but were disallowed. Dacca and East Bengal riots followed soon after. While the Chief Secretary of East Bengal was holding a meeting with the Chief Secretary of West Bengal in the East Bengal Secretariat at Dacca, one woman was painted red and taken round the Secretariat to show that her breasts had been cut off in the Calcutta riots. Immediately Government servants struck work, took out a procession and a meeting was held at the Victoria Park at 12 p.m. The crowd swelled and riot started from 1 p.m. with arson, looting of Hindu shops and houses and the killing of Hindus. Innocent Hindus in trains between Dacca and Narayanganj and Dacca and Chittagong were killed. 300 persons were killed in Muladi Badar, 2500 in Barisal and 63 in Kaibartakhali. Hindu houses were looted and burnt, young girls were distributed among ringleaders and all adult males were killed. Bodies lay unattended and vultures were feeding on them. The total number of casualties in the Dacca riots is placed at 10, 000.  

Even this failed to shake Prime Minister Nehru out of his euphoria. An exchange of population and property under the circumstances would have been a sensible solution. But Nehru had other ideas. In April 1948 an Inter-dominion Conference in Calcutta had already taken place, where the Rehabilitation Ministers of two States, KC Neogy and Ghulam Muhammad, made a joint declaration that they wanted to prevent mass exodus and create conditions of security. They proposed to establish minority boards at the provincial and local levels in both countries. This was followed up by the signing of the Nehru-Liaqat Pact in April 1950. The insensitivity of the Indian Government to the plight of the Bengalis was demonstrated in the way the Union Minister for Refugee Rehabilitation Mohan Lal Saxena was expecting that the Pact would create conditions to enable the post-1950 refugees to go back to their native places in East Bengal. Even when the Pact was being discussed in  Parliament, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee argued against trusting the culprits of the Great Calcutta Killing, the Noakhali carnage, the Meghna Bridge, Muladi and Madhavpasha massacres and demanded an exchange of population and property. Nehru dismissed their claims pointing out that such ideas were not compatible with India&’s political, economic, social and spiritual principles. Frustrated with Nehru&’s arrogance, SP Mookerjee and KC Neogy resigned from the Cabinet. NC Chatterjee of Hindu Mahasabha called it ‘the hour of national humiliation’ and ‘surrender to the dark, dismal forces of aggressive anti-Indian and anti-Hindu communalism.’ The Bengal Rehabilitation Organisation of Radha Kamal Mukherjee and Meghnad Saha also criticised the Pact for being totally incapable of creating confidence or a sense of security in the minds of the Hindus. The plight of the refugees of Bengal remained little known outside the province and the Nehru-Liaqat Pact was celebrated in other provinces as a ‘masterstroke of Panditji.’

The resignation of the eminent Scheduled Caste leader Jogendranath Mandal from the Ministry of Law and Labour, Government of Pakistan came soon after on October 8, 1950. Mandal had been co-operating with the Muslim League since February, 1943 with his large flock of 21 S.C. M.L.A.s. He thought that Muslims and Scheduled castes were equally oppressed by the caste Hindus and had chosen to ignore the Great Calcutta Killing as trouble between the Congress and the Muslim League. He had clinched on Jinnah&’s promise on 11th August 1947 for equal treatment of all Pakistanis, Muslim or Hindu. He wanted three S.C. Ministers in the Cabinet, a grant of 5 lakhs for the education of Scheduled castes and unqualified application of communal ratio rules in the matter of appointment to civil service. But Mandal discovered to his dismay that the new government of Khwaja Nazimuddin and Nurul Amin was not at all inclined to fulfil  these promises. The February-March riots proved to be the last straw on the camel’s back and Mandal resigned forthwith to register his protest. His last days were spent in Calcutta in total disillusionment.

The Nehru-Liaqat Pact had had somewhat eased the transfer of movable assets by the refugees from East Pakistan by reducing harassment by enforcement officials. But exchange of property was gradually made more difficult by new legislation. Grabbing of Hindu property had started with the East Bengal (Emergency) Requisition of Property Act 1948 (Act XIII) and the East Bengal Evacuees (Administration of Property) Act 1949 (Act VIII), the East Bengal Evacuees (Administration of Immovable Property ) Act of 1951 (Act XXIV). No Hindu property was to be restored if it had been acquired by government for public purpose. The missing of the holy relic from the Hazratbal Mosque in Kashmir was made an excuse for another spate of butchery on the Hindus of East Pakistan although Srinagar was many thousand miles away from Bengal and it was impossible for Hindu Bengalis to have the remotest connection with the matter. Abdul Monem Khan, the East Bengal Governor under the Martial Law regime of Ayub Khan merely looked on. This was also the occasion for the East Pakistan Disturbed Persons (Rehablitation ) Ordinance 1964 (Ordinance I), which took away the Hindu&’s right to sell his own property. Henceforth the property was to be placed under Evacuee Property Management Board under section 3 of East Bengal Evacuees Act of 1951. 

After the 1965 war several new acts like the Defence of Pakistan Ordinance 1965, the Enemy Property Order 1965, the East Pakistan Enemy Property (Land and Buildings) Administration and Disposal Order 1966 etc. deprived Hindus even of legal equality in the eyes of law. Property jointly owned by an Indian Muslim and a Pakistani citizen was not enemy property. But those owned by a Muslim and an East Pakistani Hindu, who had gone to India before September 1965 was to be considered Enemy Property. Roy quotes the historian Jayanta Kumar Ray&’s citation of the British journalist Taya Zinkin‘s comment in The Guardian after the 1956 Constitution came into vogue that ‘In India Muslims are citizens like the rest. In Pakistan Hindus are second class citizens not entitled to the same justice as other people.

The mass exodus of Hindus created a dearth of competent hands to teach in schools and this began to create a sense of concern among the Bengali Muslims themselves. Communalism remained the only effective weapon in the hands of the administrators in West  Pakistan to smother the persistent demand for the union of two Bengals. It could also divert popular attention from failures on the economic front. Hindu-Muslim antagonism was a handy tool to counter the upsurge of Bengali Muslim vs non-Bengali Muslim antagonism.  They wanted to get rid of the Hindu intelligentsia so that they would not be able to cast their spell on the political, economic and social life of Pakistan. The Awami League of   Mujibur Rahman had a landslide victory taking advantage of  Ayub&’s Khan&’s ‘Basic Democracy.’ But Ayub&’s successor Yahya Khan clamped Martial Law on East Bengal. General Niazi cracked down on Dacca on March 25-26 1971. The Jagannath Hall of Dacca University was machine gunned to flush out and kill middle class students and teachers.  

However, 1971 did not bring an end to state-sponsored atrocities against Hindus. Liberal Muslims like Syed Mujtaba Ali, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Alauddin Khan, Kazi Abdul Wadud, Rezaul Karim were not the rule but exception. ‘A hundred of these well-meaning Muslim intellectuals were not equal to one fire-breathing Muslim Leaguer or Maulavi,’ as Roy suggested, ‘who could inflame passions among the faithful against the infidels.’ Mujib&’s assassination in 1975 spelt the end of the secular experiment. 1992 saw unspeakable horrors against Hindus in the wake of the demolition of the Babari Masjid. The ouster of Hasina Wazed&’s Awami League in September 2001 was the signal for another spell of anti-Hindu pogrom. The Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill  Tracts were forcibly converted during the BNP-Jamaat coalition.

Roy is surprised by the attempt of Bengali intellectuals to keep the goings-on in East Pakistan and later day Bangladesh under cover. He wonders why Bengal did not utter a single word of protest against atrocities against Hindus comparable to the public outcry against American bombing of Vietnam, imprisonment of Nelson Mandela by South Africa&’s white Government, the American embargo of Cuba or British and French bombing of Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956. He would like to create public awareness of the matter through documentation of its history, observing special days to remember the sufferings of Hindu martyrs, films based on these happenings and rewards for the creation of public awareness of such events comparable to the honours conferred on Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela.

While the book is certainly successful in exposing the ‘Indian Holy Ghost of communal harmony and secularism’ as literature on this topic is really few and far between, it should be pointed out that the author has amassed too many facts in one book. His common theme is anti-Hindu pogrom although the character of pre-Partition riots, Partition riots, post-Partition riots, the Punjabi-Bihari-Bengali feud preceding and during 1971 and the relapse of Bangladesh into Islamisation after 1975 deserved to be treated under separate headings. The metamorphosis of a  society for over 70 years cannot be studied under a single rubric of ‘hatred for the Hindus.’ Rather communalism was a cover for the failure of the country on the economic front, the inability to make up for flagging trade and industrial figures and the drowning of agriculture into sub-infeudation and the proliferation in the number of landless labourers. Roy should have gone deeper into the sociology of communalism, which thrives on ignorance, superstition and limited education. Religion often becomes a handy tool in the hands of motivated politicians because of its irresistible appeal to the common masses. It has often been abused by ill-intentioned people. Roy has done well to make us aware of such abuses of religion, which should truly reflect the goodness in man.        

The reviewer is professor, department of history, visva-bharati university.