One hundred and eight years after the annulment of the first partition of Bengal in 1911, it is perhaps time to reflect on old dreams and equally old nightmares. For nothing can be more agonizing than the division of history through a vivisection of heritage. In October 1905, when Bengal was partitioned, to create out of the original land a new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, there were surely the reasons why those who inhabited the new province cheered themselves. They were not to be part of the Bengal backwater any more. With poverty being what had till then seemed to be a permanent fixture in life, it was assumed that the Muslim Bengali would have a rebirth, a renaissance as it were, and claim for himself a proper place under the sun. The landlords, Hindus to boot, who had so long had a claim on history, on the richness of the land through their hold on its riches, would no more need to be looked upon with awe. East Bengal would have its own elite, foremost among whom would be Nawab Salimullah and his kind, men who (and this no one suspected at the moment of geographical decapitation) had finally succeeded in convincing Lord Curzon that culture, like politics, could be sundered, could indeed be cast to the winds.
And yet history would hit back, to make the land one whole and wholesome entity once more. The October 1905 decapitation of Bengal was rolled back in December 1911, to inform the world that Bengal had been restored to its pristine form. Bengalis across the religious divide cheered. And they did because once again it was possible to look upon Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, upon Rabindranath Tagore, as their own. Religion went back to its proper place, one of deep respect. And culture, at once indivisible and absolute, came back to reclaim the ground it had lost six years earlier. That was the feeling. It was that putatively sure moment when Bengalis brought a certain certitude into their view of life. Being Bengalis, they reasoned for good measure, they could not stay apart from one another. In 1911, therefore, there was euphoria in the air. What men had caused to break apart God had reason to bring together once again. All the ingredients necessary in a reconstruction of history were to be rediscovered, to inform people that it was possible for their dreams to be transformed into the real and the promising. In 1911, there was once again promise of spring in Bengal.
The promise would not survive, though. Where Curzon had tried and failed to drive a knife through Bengal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah would succeed. He would learn from the Englishman’s mistakes, through deepening and widening the religious chasm between Hindus and Muslims, enough to give politics the bad name of communalism. But, to be sure, Jinnah was not alone in disseminating this message of division across India. Mistakes were made on all sides. Gandhi committed the original blunder (he was to commit more) when he condescendingly described Jinnah as a ‘Muslim’ politician and that at a time when the future founder of Pakistan enjoyed a reputation as a modern, secular lawyer headed for the peaks of politics. There were others. The problem with Jinnah, though, was that where human nature tends to expand into wider dimensions with the passage of time, he did precisely the reverse. His secularism would give way to communalism, as inexplicable as it would be disturbing. When the mad summer of 1947 came round, it was again Bengal, this time in the company of the Punjab, that found itself in the path of political murder. Or call it history’s rampant cruelty. It was a revisiting of 1905 once more. Tens of thousands of Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs would cheerily hack one another to death before Mountbatten and good old Cyril Radcliffe would decide that Bengal needed to go through the cleaver once more. And this time there would be no 1911. Bengal would never come together again.
You are tempted to ask: When the body is dismembered, does the soul break into two equal halves as well? In West Bengal, today’s Paschimbanga, the old songs have always been sung as proof of history’s continuum. In East Bengal turned East Pakistan, those old songs refused to depart, despite the parochial politics that had taken hold post-1947. Sher-e-Bangla travelled to Calcutta in 1954, to be assailed by the sort of memories which keep all of us going, in however fitful a manner. Bangabandhu, a votary of partition in 1947, let the world see the evolution in his political demeanour when he spoke of the essential nature of Bengali secularism in Calcutta in 1972. Jyoti Basu was happy visiting his parental home on this side of the divide. Nirad Chaudhuri missed Kishoreganj, despite his bitterness about life in general. Buddhadeva Bose spoke of Purana Paltan with feeling.
Yes, 1905 happened again, in 1947. For Bengalis, 1911 was but a soothing dream, only to shatter into a thousand pieces slightly over three decades later. And yet there was to be cause for joy. Sixty years after 1911, it was 1971 which gave us back our dignity, in however historically reshaped a fashion. In 1911, Bengalis came together in defence of heritage. Much the same phenomenon took shape in 1971, with the Muslim half of the original nation marching off to war, in a twilight struggle to silence those who lived by war through the intellectual force of Bengali secularism.
That is cause for cheer. It calls for a celebration, of sorts. The Bengali, for all the entrapment he has repeatedly fallen into, feels at home . . . in Dhaka, in Kolkata. Culture is all.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a political commentator and biographer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad.