Haunted by unification: A Bangladeshi view of partition

Haunted by unification: A Bangladeshi view of partition
From Al Jazeera - August 13, 2017

It was June 16, 1971 when soldiers from the Pakistan army rounded up all the Hindu men in Jogisu village in the Rajshahi district, about 300km from Dhaka, the capital of what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. There were 42 in total. They were all shot dead and the Muslim villagers were ordered to dig a hole in which their bodies would be dumped. Nine widows in white saris recounted the scene for a show I was filming on the atrocities committed during the Bangladesh war of independence, fought between Pakistan, then known as West Pakistan, and East Pakistan and India.

"The soldiers then urinated on the grave," one of the widows, 60-year-old Sri Shundar, recalled.

Jogisu was one of the thousands of villages that faced such a fate.

But were the events of that year the product solely of the war of independence or could they be traced back to 1947 and the partition of British India?

In Bangladesh, 1947 is a distant memory, erased by the much fresher bloody ones of 1971. The partition was experienced by India and Pakistan, but for Bangladesh, it is both partition and unification - of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East to make Pakistan - that haunts its national consciousness.It is Pakistan's birth that pains us.

Marginalised Bengalis

My father grew up in Kolkata but in 1948 found work in Dhaka, then the capital of East Pakistan.

He was contemporaries withSheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the Bangladeshi nationalist movement and went on to become the first president of independent Bangladesh, and Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the country's second president. They all stayed at the Baker hostel for Muslim graduate students in Kolkata in the early 1940s and all came from the rising Muslim middle class, which resented, but also respected, the Hindu elite against whom they had become competitors for jobs.

During the holidays, they would return to their East Bengal villages, where the peasants waited for the day when the British colonial rulers would go away and with them the zamindars (landlords). The peasant and the aspirant middle class shared a common dream: an end to British and Kolkata-Hindu domination in jobs and trade. This was not an issue of Hindu or Muslim identity but of economics.

After the Lahore resolution in 1940, which called for the creation of "two states" in the two majority clusters of Muslims (Punjab and Bengal) the future seemed better for my father. But the political future would not be controlled by Bengali Muslims. It was in the hands of the elite, Urdu-speaking North Indian politicians of the Muslim League and led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

There were no Bengalis, who were already being marginalised within India's Muslim politics, in Jinnah's circle of political friends.

The roots of 1971

If 1947 was a great tragedy for many as the partition, the unification of Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east to become one Pakistan was an even bigger one for Bengalis. Suddenly, the majority Bengalis - East Pakistan was home to 55 percent of Pakistan's population - were to be ruled by a distant minority in West Pakistan.

When the two "states" became one Pakistan, resistance began to grow among young Bengali Muslim leaders. In 1947, the Bengal Muslim League leader Abul Hashem proposed the United Bengal Movement, the first independent state of Bengal for both Muslims and Hindus. They received support from Bengal Congress leaders but the powerful Congress party showed no interest.

If India was being partitioned, it was argued, Bengal had to be.

The Kolkata-based Hindu elites, who did not intend to live under the Muslims in Bengal, also supported partition in 1947, according to historians Joya Chaterjee, Sheela Sen and others. Nor did ordinary Hindus wish for a united Bengal, having seen so much Hindu-Muslim violence, particularly during the riots of 1946.

The United Bengal Movement collapsed under the burden of unshared history.

The murdered milkman and the wounded polisher

My mother would often tell us about how she witnessed a Muslim mob killing a Hindu milkman in Kolkata in 1946. "He is a milkman, not a Hindu, do not kill him," young housewives screamed from their balconies, she said. His identity was his occupation, not his religion.

"The police recovered his body from the drain the next day. It was bleached white. I wanted to escape Kolkata," my mother recalled.

I would mentally compare the fatal wounds on the milkman to the deep scars on the skull of Kalo Chahcha, the male nanny who raised us.

He was also knifed and left for dead in front of the jewellery shop where he worked as a gold polisher. But he survived the attack and escaped to Dhaka.

We would run our fingers across the deep scars on his head, his memento of partition.

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