(This story was first published on 14 August 2020. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark India's 77th Independence Day.)
Bengal, once the biggest province of the British Raj was divided on 15 August, 1947, as part of the Partition of India. Predominantly Hindu West Bengal remained with India and a mainly Muslim East Bengal joined Pakistan.
But did you know that Bengal, briefly, had the option of staying independent? As a third nation? We'll get to that in a bit but first let's rewind to when Bengal was first partitioned. Yes, Bengal wasn't first partitioned in 1947 but over 40 years before that.
16 October 1905: First Partition Of Bengal
The year was 1905. The then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal. His undeclared aim was to DIVIDE AND RULE.
In a well-planned move, Bengal was partitioned on religious lines – Muslim-dominated East Bengal was separated from the Hindu-dominated West
The Division Of Bengal Triggered The Swadeshi Movement
The partition triggered a wave of nationalism. Bengalis – Hindus and Muslims, from east and west, launched a boycott of British-made goods. This 'Swadeshi' movement was led by Masterda Surya Sen, Bipinchandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghose and Surendranath Banerjea in Bengal. It soon spread across India, driven by leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Chidambaram Pillai.
December 1911: Bengal Reunited
In December 1911, the British bowed down. Viceroy Lord Hardinge announced that Bengal would be reunited. All districts where Bengali was spoken became a single province, while Assam, Bihar and Odisha were separated.
The first partition of Bengal was a failure but it did sow the seeds of communal mistrust and hatred.
30 Dec 1906: The Muslim League Is Born
In December 1906, the All-India Muslim League was born in Dacca. Its aim - to safeguard Muslim interests in British-ruled India. In 1913, Muhammad Ali Jinnah joined the League, soon becoming its leader.
In 1916, the Muslim League and the Congress agreed on creating separate Hindu and Muslim constituencies in Bengal Province.
29 Dec 1930: Iqbal Proposes A Separate State For Muslims
In December 1930, philosopher-poet-politician, Muhammad Iqbal first proposed the idea of a separate state for Muslims, comprising
- NorthWest Frontier Province
giving birth to the Muslim League’s two-nation theory.
In January 1933, a Cambridge law student Choudhry Rahmat Ali gave this separate state a name - PAKISTAN - that would comprise:
- Afghanistan Province
Interestingly, the idea of Pakistan, at this point, did not include Bengal.
1946: Communal Riots In Bengal & India
Communal tensions rose steadily across undivided Bengal. August 1946 saw bloody riots in Bengal in
Hundreds were killed. The communal violence soon spread to
- United Province (Current Uttar Pradesh)
- North Western Frontier Province
24 April 1947: The 'United Bengal' Plan
In April 1947, Muslim League leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, floated his idea of an independent Bengal state, that would join neither Pakistan nor India, and would not be partitioned.
Most Muslim League leaders opposed Suhrawardy’s idea. Ironically, Jinnah supported the plan.
Bengal Congress leaders Sarat Chandra Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy supported Suhrawardy, but Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee rejected the plan.
In May 1947, Suhrawardy and Bose announced their United Bengal agreement – the last attempt by Bengali Muslims and Hindus to avoid a partition of their homeland.
20 June 1947: The Fate of Bengal In Balance
On 20 June 1947, the Bengal Legislative Assembly met with 3 options before it –
- join India
- join Pakistan
- become an independent nation
3 voting sessions couldn’t resolve it. Meanwhile, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India rejected the idea of an independent Bengal. And ultimately, Bengal’s destiny was the 4th option - PARTITION.
15 August 1947: Purna Swaraj & Partition
On 15 August, at the stroke of midnight, India achieved 'Purna Swaraj, ending 200 years of British rule in the subcontinent.
Bengal province was once again divided on religious lines. A predominantly Hindu West Bengal remained an Indian state. While a Muslim-majority East Bengal became a part of Pakistan.
Mahatma Gandhi, strongly disapproved the idea of independence at the cost of Partition. He chose to stay away from the celebrations in Delhi on 15 August. He spent the day in a Muslim suburb of Calcutta, where all sections of the society - Hindus and Muslims, gathered to hear him. Gandhi declared the day to be one for mourning, fasting and prayer, appealing for peace.
Freedom Came to Bengal At a Cost
Freedom came to Bengal at a huge cost. Hindus and Muslims who once fought the British together, were now ready to loot, rape and kill each other. Lakhs were killed. Crores displaced, becoming refugees overnight. More than 70 years later, the wounds of the Partition of Bengal, are still fresh.