Transforming Memories of Partition into Cooperation: The Case of the Two Bengals | 2017-10-24 |

Transforming Memories of Partition into Cooperation: The Case of the Two Bengals

    24 October, 2017 12:00 AM printer

Transforming Memories of Partition into Cooperation: The Case of the Two Bengals

Meghna Guhathakurta

Memories of the partition of 1947 has left scars in the psyches of the people especially those residing in the regions partitioned i.e. Bengal and Punjab. This in turn has been reflected in the body politic of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even after half a century old wounds have not completely healed. That is partly because much of the traumatic memories still reside in those who make decisions at the national level or have been transmitted to the next generation through socialization, education, nationalist sentiments and ideological fervor. This has impeded the potential for cooperation that exists between the partitioned regions based on the commonalities of culture, language and shared territoriality.

But memories of partition also constitute positive components, which have been vented out in the form of nostalgia and reminiscences. There are happy memories of childhood, religious fraternity, shared communal living embedded in these nostalgic reminiscences. Can we re-engage with these memories and crystallize them into concrete cooperative action between the divided regions, or have they outlived their usefulness and relevance in the contemporary world? This is the question, which I intend to explore paper in the context of the two Bengals. It is my expectation that such an exercise will yield some policy indicators for those who wish to take cooperation between the two regions onto the next level.

The Bengal Partition: the context

Until recently, apart from a few historical accounts, writings about the Partition of the subcontinent have mainly been centred around fictional literature and autobiographical writings. There has also been the tendency to focus on the communal and violent nature of the Partition and the mass exodus accompanying it. This has been more the case of the Punjab frontier where forced migration took place. Along the Bengal border things were different. For some families it was a matter of conscious choice for example those families whose members were in government service and who were given an option to take equivalent work on the other side. It is mentioned by some families however that often one had to decide in a very short period of time, so that people who took the option also had to reach a hurried decision and later regretted it. For others the decision to migrate was taken almost overnight, especially if the family was directly or indirectly hit by any one of the communal uprisings, which succeeded the Partition. But for most families the decision to migrate was deliberated slowly and in waves within the circles of the family a process, which continues even today. This created a curious effect on the social make-up of the region resulting in a ‘diaspora’ of families; Hindus, Muslims, Biharis, Chakmas, Garos etc; separated and divided: living on either side of the lines chalked out by the Radcliffe Award, each part engrossed in their own struggle for survival or achievement and yet still connected to each other by ties, emotional, imaginary and real.

This is not to say that the Bengal Partition occurred without violence or was not stricken by communal forces. Violence is not always to be measured by external acts of murder, loot or abduction, reports of which may be found in pre and post partition Bengal, their intensity in no way less than those in the Punjab, although their occurrences may have been more sporadic. Violence typifies a state where a sense of fear is generated and perpetrated in such a way as to make it  systemic, pervasive and  inevitable. Thus during the nine-months occupation of Dhaka by the Pakistani army in 1971, in what General Yahya Khan called  ‘normal and peaceful’ situation, people went about their daily chores  in dread and fear, not knowing when a tap on the door could mean death or even worse for women, rape. Thus also, in the many communal riots which, preceded as well as followed the Partition, it was the fear of being persecuted, the fear of being dispossessed, the fear of not belonging that caused many to flee rather than actual incidents of violence. In many cases this fear was deliberately generated, for example by leaflets or newspaper reports, in many cases the sources were rumours or mere example (seeing your neighbours leave). As one interviews migrants across the borders one is astounded by the large number of people who said they had not actually witnessed an act of violence, but had fled because they had heard that a mob was coming their way, or that the next village was set ablaze or even by idle chatter which made them believe that this country no longer belonged to them!  It is also not necessary to believe that actual incidents of violence always cause people to flee because there are always those who remain (given the choice of course). Fear is less derived from actual acts of violence than it is from perceptions of violence. People stay for many reasons and nowhere are those reasons more rich or varied than in the case of the Bengal Partition.

The situation in Bengal is different also because the two Bengals enjoyed open borders for a long period of time. It was not until 1953 that passports were introduced and only after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War were visas required. Rail communication also stopped after the ’65 war as also by air, and only very restrictive overland communication was maintained. But people across the border both for trading as well as other social reasons defied these restrictions persistently, so much so that a whole network of underground operators who helped people cross borders without visa or passport grew steadily, a method often colourfully termed in the local language as gola-dhakka passage (taking you by the scruff of your neck and pushing you across). The Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971 and the consequent mass exodus of people fleeing from persecution interrogated the same borderlines and boundaries. But despite all this porousness, ‘illegal’ trade or smuggling has been a primary concern for successive national governments and as such ‘border incidents’ or skirmishes between border forces have also captured front page news. This phenomenon has reached its peak in contemporary times when economic migrants by the thousands, Hindus and Muslims are crossing frontiers in search for better means of livelihood.

But as far as Partition is concerned there has been a further silencing process at work, which is apparent when Partition writing about the two Bengals are concerned. Although in both cases, it is fiction and autobiographical writings, which has primarily dominated the Partition discourse, the voices from Hindu migrants from East Bengal had been more prominent than Muslim migrants from West Bengal. One of the important distinctions between the two ‘migrant’ groups have been created by the political conditions of the country where they migrated. For Hindus the experience has been mostly of dispossession and their nostalgia for their ‘homesteads’ (Bhitabari) has been very pronounced and glorified in their writings. For many Muslims of a particular generation the journey to Pakistan was like a journey to a ‘promised land’ an image, which later became tarnished as Pakistan entered its most repressive stage under the Ayub regime, the brunt of the repression being borne by the people of East Bengal. In the oppressive atmosphere of a Martial Law regime whose favourite occupation was ‘India-bashing’, it was understandably very difficult to write, much less be nostalgic about ones homeland in India. There is therefore a reticence, even now, among Bengali Muslims  to talk  of their ‘desh’ (ancestral home as it is referred to in Bengali), publicly, if it happens to be in India. In recording family histories however one succeeds to a certain extent in overcoming this barrier, for nostalgic memories of childhood, growing up, family ties and accompanying emotions find a space where one can talk about them freely without the direct intervention of nationalist politics.

There is yet another phenomenon which distinguishes East Bengali reminiscences of the Partition from those in West Bengal. This is the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Memories of 1947 or Partition has often been superseded by memories of 1971, or movements which led to 1971, because in the quest for a Bengali identity many Bengali Muslims have had to rethink their positions. Thus sometimes when memories of the Partition are revived, they are often either blocked or coloured by memories of 1971.  Many Muslims came to the East from West Bengal and Bihar in the hope of finding their promised land, and not all of them necessarily believed in the Muslim League ideology. Many progressive cultural activists and professionals came from Calcutta, not spontaneously, but nevertheless with the ambition of constructing a new nation that would give shape and colour to their dreams. But for most this dream was short-lived.  The repression of a Bengali identity and the imposition of a new cultural identity of Pakistan, the imposition of Martial Law brought about spontaneous resistance from the people whether in the form of the Language Movement of 1952, or the anti - Ayub demonstrations of 1969, culminating in the Liberation War of 1971, for an independent Bangladesh. But whereas in the nationalist writing of history these events appear in a linear schema, the personal histories of those involved in or affected by these movements were far from linear.  These events rather foregrounded the contradictions of identity, which these individuals had to confront in their personal lives as they contested the different notions of nationhood in the political arena: one based on the Bengali language and the other on Islam. This is why even in present day Bangladesh, narratives of the Liberation war is still a site for contestation between rival nationalisms: Bangali and Bangladeshi.

Timelines of the future: perceptions of the younger generation of migrants

My earlier works of partition narratives were derived from those who had witnessed partition. Here I have interviewed the younger generation who had been born and brought up in the migrated country about how they identified themselves. Children of Muslim migrants from West Bengal into Bangladesh and of East Bengal Hindu migrants into West Bengal shared some commonalities. Neither wanted to identify themself as being primarily Hindus or Muslims, unlike their forefathers. This did not necessarily mean that religion was no longer important in their lives. Rather because they lived in societies, where one or the other religion served as a dominant paradigm, for those born into majority communities their religious identity became what is often called an unmarked category. An unmarked category can form the identifying mark of the powerful. The powerful comprise those in society with easy access to resources, those who can exercise power without considering their actions. For the powerful their culture seems obvious. For the powerless, it remains out of reach, elite and expensive. Children born in migrated countries therefore may consider themselves more powerful than their parents had been.

But it is also interesting to note with what they do positively identify themselves with. Although the Bangladesh polity seems buffeted by the battle of identities, Bangali or Bangladeshi, Muslim first or Bengali first, the children of the migrants did not necessarily choose their regional (in the case of West Bengal) or linguistic (in the case of Bangladesh) as their first choice. Rather they opted for a more universal generalized category like human and at times, women as their first choice of identification. This is possibly so because in both cases their linkage to their root countries or places were considered problematic. For the East Bengal migrant in West Bengal the word ‘Bangal’ conjures up pictures of rusticity whereas in Bangladesh to have your desh {home district) in India is not the most accepted thing to do politically or socially. It is little surprising therefore that these young people tended to identify more with cosmopolitan cities, Kolkata than with their rural village home. On the other hand, rather than portray herself as a Bengali or simply an Indian to a foreigner, the daughter of a East Bengal migrant will prefer to say she comes from Kolkata, India. The trend of urbanism in the politics of identity is very definite in both narratives, a trend that is more compatible with globalization trends than with perceptions of regionalism. Are these the timelines of the future for South Asia. Does our current day politics reflect such trends or the tensions that they imply? These are all questions, which need further investigation in order to relate them to questions of policies of cooperation.

Towards transforming memories of partition into cooperation

Formal channels of cooperation between India and Bangladesh, local, national and regional exist dominantly within the paradigms of the modern nation-state system. The stories of migration and flux of identities revealed above often interrogate and defy such boundaries and bypass the formal channels. If cooperation is to be understood as a mind-set and not simply as policy then one must engage with it at the level of the psyche and society and hence take the above narrative into consideration. The lessons to be learnt from the above narrative are summarized below. 

Identity in flux

The partition of Bengal and subsequent changes in the Bangladesh polity have left behind a trail of confused and contesting identities among the people of the region, which often impede with cooperative norms and values. On the Indian side we have seen the Bengali versus Indian identity surfacing time and again in the psyches of the people as well as the divide between the East Bengali migrants with the native West Bengal residents. This has impeded the development of a general Bengali identity within West Bengal itself, let alone engendering a cooperative attitude towards building alliances across the border based on linguistic identity. But what has been more bothering for a sustainable cooperation across the Bengal border has been the identity politics, which has racked the body politics of East Pakistan and helped to bring forth the independent nation of Bangladesh and subsequently to engender in the same territory contesting notions of national identity: Bangali versus Bangladeshi, linguistic versus religious. As depicted in the above account migrants across the Bengal borders have been opting for a more cosmopolitan identity than a regional one. This could be a result of both globalizing forces at work e.g. neo-liberal market economy as well as sentiments, which result from the policies of consolidating a modern nation-state, for example nationalist visions of statehood. 

Territoriality and open borders

From the above narrative, it is apparent that people have not been behaving in the way modern nation states want them to. Migration across borders has resulted despite barriers set up by states. This has resulted in cartographic anxieties of policy-makers towards the defense of borders and boundaries.

Every textbook definition of the nation-state is anchored in the notion of territoriality. The defense of its border and boundaries therefore occupies a centrality of focus in national security concerns. Little wonder therefore that borders, especially land borders are often the source of much anxiety and worry for governments everywhere. However irrational or incidental a border might be, whether it be a result of a fluke of history or antithetical to the economic well-being of the nation, it is defended with all the military and ideological might that a state can muster. The statement of the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru replying to the debate in the Lok Sabha on the Acquired Territories (Merger) Bill and the Constitution (9th Ammendment Bill) – to give effect to various agreements with Pakistan on the settlement and demarcation of India-East Pakistan Border may be quoted in this context. “Take another thing which the Hon. Members referred yesterday, and that is the Chittagong Hill Tracts. By no process of logic could I imagine then or now why the Chittagong Hill Tracts were given over to Pakistan by Mr. Radcliffe. There is no logic about it. If the logic is that of content of population, Hindu or Muslim or other, I may say that the Chittagong Hill Tracts hardly have any Muslims or Hindus for the matter of that. They are Buddhists. There it was but clearly and specifically, they gave the Chittagong Hill Tracts to Pakistan.......We commented on it but don’t know what to do about it. There is no appeal from that. We could hardly ask them to sit again in review of their own order. We have to swallow it, whether we like it or not.” (Bhasin, 2003:2761). He further stated, about the Berubari enclave to be handed over to Pakistan by the same award: “.. I was clear in my mind that the whole agreement including Berubari, in spite of certain aspects of it, which were not agreeable to us, was profitable and advantageous to us. That is why I took that step and I remained with that opinion for a considerable time; and I am still of that opinion. But there is a “but”. I did not realise then that there is a certain human aspect of it. It is perfectly true. My mind was not applied to it, nor did anybody tell me what the population was and how many people will be affected. Somehow, it happened. I am sorry it did not come before me and it was not put before me. And subsequently when this aspect has come before me, I have felt troubled in my mind. This fact has troubled me, not in other ways, not about the goodness of the agreement – I think it is a good one; we have not lost something, but we have gained a good deal too, and we have to take it in the balance – but when the fact came before me, that so many people would be affected and so many were refugees from Pakistan, and they will again be uprooted, ever since this picture came before my mind, I have been troubled about it. But I could do nothing about it, except what I said yesterday, that is it is our duty to help them in the best way possible. But still I hold that the advantages accruing from this agreement far outweigh the disadvantages from the point of view of the whole of India, of our border and even from the point of view of Bengal.” (Bhasin, 2003:2767). But more than fifty years down the line in South Asian states, the “human dimension” which had at least bothered Nehru in his later days never seemed to have occurred to successive governments of the region. Rather they have exercised brinkmanship and hawk-eyed vigilance over mountainous regions and hilly tracts or flouted nature by erecting barbed wire fences on floodplains all in the name of territorial defense. Such has been the nature of reality constructed in many defense manuals of the regions Military Academies and upheld by the corridors of power at Defense Ministries and Foreign Offices. The issue of ‘open borders’ which is one of the cornerstones of inter-state cooperation has therefore remained a faraway dream.

Cultural Boundaries and A Place for Minorities

Boundaries are not solely territorial, as again the textbook definitions of a nation-state will reveal. A nation has come to signify an association of people consciously bound together through their common race, language, ethnicity or religion. It is this commonality, which becomes privileged over diversity and pluralism as many constitutions record. This in turn helps to privilege a linguistic or ethnic or religious majority over minorities. For example, despite the fact that there exists a whole range of minorities in Bangladesh, as a result of some of the migration trends narrated above, the Constitution of Bangladesh does not distinguish these groups from the majority population. Art.1  Part 1. of the Constitution declares Bangladesh as a unitary state, and art. 6 (2) states that the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis. There is thus no specific reference to the recognition of the identity of minorities in the Constitution of Bangladesh. (Mohsin,1997). There is thus no protection regime for their security nor is there any pro-active policy, which ensures equal access to resources, both human and material. Absence of a viable minority-rights protection regime in the region has in fact exacerbated tensions both within and between the two countries, which in turn has fortified traditional security concerns at the cost of human security considerations.

Regionalism and globalization

Traditional notions of regionalism have been constructed along the lines of the modern nation state (as inter-governmental cooperation), especially in relation to the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This is inadequate as it fails to capture on the one hand the dynamism of the new international economic order, where economic production no longer needs a national base and on the other hand the dynamism of cross-border people to people interaction in diverse fields such as culture, business and civil society. Failing to take into account these dimensions would definitely ring the death knell for such formal associations as SAARC. At the same time even for a people-centred regionalism to flourish, there needs to be an enabling environment that can only thrive with non-obstructive government measures. To take more specifically the case of the two Bengals, there is a natural bond of language and literature between the two. Yet, although Bangladeshi bookshops are flooded with Bengali Literature from West Bengal, the same cannot be said about Bangladeshi books in Kolkata. Both publications and export import policies need to be reviewed here.

Globalization policies, which may have been embraced by central governments, have only lead to further cartographic anxieties in the Bengal border. The agricultural lands of south-west of Bangladesh has been an area marked with the encroaching of shrimp cultivation, which has degraded the eco-system and rendered agricultural lands infertile. This has led to an increasing labour migration across the border. Illicit border trafficking has not been limited to agricultural labour alone. Trade in human trafficking, more specifically women and children have also increased tenfold.

With globalization has also come the ‘scourge’ of global terrorism. This has had fearful consequences both with the polities of India and Bangladesh as well as had repercussions on cross-border traffic. These developments has led central governments to take up more restrictive border controls, which has made the life of ordinary people who could have benefited from the liberalization of traffic across borders.


We thus see that transformation of memories of partition into areas of cooperation have come up against many challenges. However what needs to be emphasized is that these challenges can be overcome only if at first cooperation is understood as a mindset. If we can successfully work out the traumas of partition that decision-makers and politicians and even ordinary people carry in their minds, then much of the fear and anxiety with which we deal with situations of ‘otherness’ for example ‘other cultures’ other people’ ‘other nations’ will be gone. Only then will region-based cooperation in South Asia bear fruit.

The writer is the Executive Director,  Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, former professor of International Relations, Dhaka University and a member of the National Human Rights Commission Bangladesh