Partition of Bengal (1947)

From New World Encyclopedia
Map showing the location of East and West Bengal.

The Partition of Bengal in 1947 divided Bengal into the two separate entities of West Bengal belonging to India, and East Bengal belonging to Pakistan. This was part of the Partition of India into the two states, of India and Pakistan which officially took place during August 14-August 15, 1947. East Bengal was renamed East Pakistan, and later became the independent nation of Bangladesh after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

The government of Bengal supported a unified, independent Bengal as a separate third state, rather than joining either India or Pakistan. However, the British vetoed this option since it would lead to other provinces also wanting independence, resulting in too many non-viable states. As Britain was determined to grant independence and to do so as soon as possible after the end of World War II, the government began to see partition as the quickest, most pragmatic solution. The majority of Muslims did opt to join Pakistan but wanted to take the whole province of Bengal with them. They did not choose partition. In 1971, they asserted their cultural difference from West Pakistan to become Bangladesh.

Throughout all discussions about partition, some wanted a unified Bengal. Some Bengalis always stressed their cultural and linguistic identity across the religious divide, asserting Bengali solidarity. There is, indeed, a strong current in Bengali literature expressing human unity, beyond but including the unity of the Bengali people. Partition failed, in the case of Bengal, to respect a people's affirmation of solidarity. A world community that aims to establish global cooperation, that wants to minimize and eventually abolish all conflict, needs to build bridges between communities, not to partition them. The potential for bridge-building resided deep within Bengali history and culture; tragically, circumstances conspired to ride rough-shod over this in the name of political expediency.


As the Indian independence movement gained momentum, Britain also lost her will to govern India. When Clement Attlee's new Labor administration came to power in July 1945, Lord Mountbatten was quickly appointed Governor-General of India with instructions to end colonial rule as soon as possible. He was appointed February 21, 1947. The independence struggle was led by the Indian National Congress, which had originally campaigned for increased Indian participation in governance. However, since 1905, full independence had become the only acceptable goal. The failed 1905 partition was a crucial catalyst in shifting Indian opinion away from limited self-governance towards complete independence.

Failed 1905 partition

Allegedly an administrative convenience in order to deliver better governance to the large and populous province of Bengal, the 1905 partition divided the Hindu majority West from the Muslim majority East, although substantial minorities remained on either side. The 1905 partition was popular among the Muslims in the East, who now had their own province. However, Hindus on both sides of the divided province opposed partition. A series of demonstrations, strikes, and a boycott of British goods began, with support from across India. Partition was seen as an act of colonial arrogance and blamed on the divide and rule policy. "Calcutta," says Metcalf, "came alive with rallies, bonfires of foreign goods, petitions, newspapers and posters." Anti-British and pro-self-rule sentiment increased.[1] In fact, the Swadeshi movement itself emerged from opposition to Partition, which was regarded as "a sinister imperial design to cripple the Bengali led nationalist movement."[2]

Hindu Bengalis were among the most vocal proponents of Indian nationalism. Many of the "Hindus who were considered "unfriendly if not seditious in character" lived in the east and dominated "the whole tone of Bengal administration."[3] By dividing the province, the British hoped to muzzle their voice since they would find themselves surrounded by a Muslim majority. The plan backfired. Instead of muzzling the proponents of independence, the movement gathered momentum across India. The INC began to actively promote swaraj (self-rule), swadeshi (self-sufficiency), and national pride. By adding additional territories to East Bengal, the 1905 partition had also left Bengali speakers a minority in their own province.

The two-nation thesis

However, as a result of partition, the Muslims in the East began to develop their own distinctive identity as a social-economic community, in distinction from their Hindu neighbors despite the fact that previously many Bengalis from both religions had favored Bengali nationalism. Although Partition was annulled in 1911, Muslims in the East had a taste of what it was like to dominate the legislature.[4] In 1906, at Dhaka capital of what was still East Bengal, the Muslim League was formed with the explicit purpose of defending the interests of the Muslims of India should Hindus choose to undermine these, either in an India where Indians had a greater role in governance or in an independent India where they would constitute a majority. By 1916, the League and the INC agreed that separate constituencies should be established to protect communitarian interests. This became law in 1919. as a result, the number of Muslim seats increased in the Bengal Legislature.[5] At the Muslim League conference in 1930, the philosopher-poet-politician, Muhammad Iqbal first proposed the idea of a separate state for Muslims. In that this would consist of majority-Muslim areas, which would have to be partitioned off from Hindu-majority areas, it took its cue from the 1905 Partition of Bengal. Some geographical specificity was given to the nation of a separate Muslim state by Choudhary Rahmat Ali in "Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish Forever?" (January 28, 1933) suggesting that a state called Pakistan could be formed from Punjab, Afghanistan Province, Kashmir, Sind, Baluchistan. As well as being an acronym, Pakistan means the "land of the pure." This became known as the two-nation thesis; Hindus and Muslims were each a nation and when independence came two separate nation-states should be established.

It was unclear whether Bengal was to be included, given the failure of the 1905 partition and the still strong although less strong existence of a cross-religious Bengali nationalism. Later, when it was pointed out to Rahmat Ali that he had not included Bengal, he suggested that the Bengali Muslims should form their own, third state, which might be called "Bangistan."[6]

Bengali: 1947 Vote on Partition

The two halves of Pakistan.

In 1932, a new communal award increased the number of Muslim seats in the legislature again. From 1937, the Muslims were a majority in the Legislature and formed the government until August 1947. Out of 250 seats, 119 were reserved for Muslims; in addition, they won other seats as well. The Muslim League, though, did not form the government until 1946, when Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy became chief minister. On August 16, 1946, the Muslim League's national leader, Muhammad Jinnah called a Direct Action Day after the INC had rejected the two-nation proposal. In Calcutta, this turned into a frenzy of Hindu-Muslim rioting in which upwards of 4,000 people, mainly Hindu, died. Suhrawardy has been accused of orchestrating this in an attempt to engineer the demographics to stack the cards even more in the Muslims' favor. Yet he was also proposing a single, sovereign state for all Bengalis and so was reaching out to attract Hindu support.[7] Jinnah was not opposed to this plan and the British indicated some degree of sympathy. Some Muslims in the West did not regard Bengali Islam as pure enough, being too influenced by Hinduism and they did not really want Bengal included in the Muslim state. Later, Suhrawardy was briefly prime minister of Pakistan 1956 until 1957.

By August 1947, Mountbatten had become persuaded that only by agreeing to Partition could he hope to see a speedy end to British rule. London determined that provincial legislature vote on whether to join India or Pakistan. In those provinces which would be partitioned, separate votes would be taken by each community. A majority in favor of partition from either section would determine the outcome. However, in the Muslim-majority east, the motion was not to "partition" but for the whole, united province to join Pakistan, for which 166 to 35 in voted in favor. However, the vote in the Western region favored partition by 58-21, with the West joining India and the East Pakistan.[8] Almost certainly due to the wedge that Britain's divide and rule policy had driven between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, partition followed more or less along the same demographic lines as it had in 1905, except that only the Muslim Sylhet region of Assam (which had been part of East Bengal 1905-1911) voted in a referendum to join (by a majority of 55,578 votes) what was to become East Pakistan. Mountbatten did not allow the legislature to vote "for independent Bengal," because, he said, "then others would also want independence."[9]

Indeed, the Maharajah of Kashmir would also take the view that his state need join neither India or Pakistan. The British feared that the process of dealing with a series of provinces each demanding sovereignty would take too long and produce too many non-viable states.

The Act of Partition

The majority of people in the province were not in favor of partition. The decision was carried by the vote of the East Bengal section. Partition, though, proceeded. It was agreed that the plan for partition would be drawn up by Cyril Radcliffe and accepted by all parties. The rationale for partition was that only without this division could ensure social cohesion and justice for both communities.

When India and Pakistan became sovereign, independent states on August 14, 1947 and August 15, 1947 respectively, one of the largest mass migrations in history began. Hindus and Sikhs on the Pakistani side migrated to India and Muslims on the Indian side migrated to Pakistan. Movement was both voluntary and enforced. Each side attacked the other in a frenzy of violence, causing Mahatma Gandhi to vow to fast even to death unless the violence ceased. Some three millions people literally went missing. However, a substantial Muslim community remained in India, some twenty percent of the population. Muslims remained some twenty-five percent of the population of West Bengal and some thirty percent in East Bengal, now about fifteen percent.

On the Indian-West Pakistani border, some 7.5 millions Hindus and Sikhs entered India and some 7 millions "crossed the other way."[10] Less violence occurred in the East, arguably because there, despite the Partition decision, "Bengali nationalism" still "crosscut the religious identities of Bengali Muslims and Hindus" and so reduced "the risk of generalized mass violence." While Bengali Hindus and Muslims did "move towards their co-religionists" int "the first two years after partition" these migrations "were either voluntary or relatively minor."[11] In 1947, movement either way across the border may have been about a million but Chatterji says that "no one knows precisely how many refugees went to India from East Bengal during this phase."[10] She estimates that between 1947 and 1964, some 5 million Hindus left East Pakistan, and traces the cause to communitarian riots in different locations, triggered by various events. In 1964, the theft of a relic (a piece of Muhammad's hair by Hindus from a Kashmir mosque was used to whip up anti-Hindu sentiment and some migrated at this time. However, says Novak, this type of violence was losing popular appeal as "secular parties emphasized social and economic needs in combination with appeals to Bengali solidarity in language and culture."[12]

Yet having religion in common with West Pakistan, over a thousand miles away, did not prove strong enough to glue the two provinces of the new nation together. In 1971, after a bloody war of independence, the East became a separate sovereign state for reasons that had to do with culture and language and Bengali nationalism. A nation was born that, although majority-Muslim, declared all its citizens, regardless of religion, equal before the law with "nationalism" as a principle of state. Bangladesh thus became a third state, as some had wanted but truncated, missing Bengal's Western region.


Edwards says that "the 1947 second partition of Bengal continues to baffle historians."[4] Novak comments that "the spirit of the … united Bengal movement continues to haunt the land."[13] The poets of Bengal, Hindu and Muslim, affirmed the principle not only of cross-religious Bengali solidarity but of human solidarity. Although Bangladesh declared the Muslim Kazi Nazrul Islam as its national poet, it adopted Rabindranath Tagore's "Amar Shonar Bangla," written in 1906 as a rallying cry for proponents of annulment of Partition, as its the national anthem. Nazrul wrote, "We Are Two Flowers on the Same Stem We are two flowers on the same stem—Hindu- Mussulman. Muslim its pearl of the eye, Hindu it's life."[14]

Mountbatten claimed that he did not go to India with a preconceived plan, However, he favored Partition from an early point because he became convinced that "Pakistan" was inevitable because of the "intransigence" of the two sides, especially of their leaders and that his own arrival on the scene was "too late to alter the course of events." Within two months of arriving in India, he took a draft partition plan with him back to London "ready to persuade the Cabinet that it was a workable scheme."[15] If Britain had not wanted to leave India in haste, the Partition of Bengal might have been avoided, given the very real possibility that a viable third state could have been created. The issue of opening up a flood-gate of other provinces wanting independence too could have been dealt with as each situation arose. The possibility of a federation of states might also have been explored.

Through all the events involved in two partitions and in a third separation (from Pakistan) the Bengali culture has consistently tended towards a more universal worldview, as seen in the work and lives of some of the most revered Bengali poets.


  1. Barbara Daly Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 9780521630276), 155.
  2. Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London, UK: Routledge 2004, ISBN 9780415352826), 87.
  3. Craig Baxter, Bangladesh: From a Nation to a State. Nations of the modern world (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, ISBN 9780813328546), 39.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Edwards, 85.
  5. Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, A History of India. (London, UK: Routledge, 1998, ISBN 9780415154819), 255.
  6. Kulke and Rothermund, 283.
  7. Kulke and Rothermund, 289.
  8. Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994, ISBN 9780521411288), 20-21.
  9. Mushirul Hasan, India's Partition: Process, Strategy, and Mobilization (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 9780195630770), 311.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Chatterji, 105.
  11. Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen (eds.), Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005, ISBN 9781576077962), 304.
  12. James J. Novak, Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993, ISBN 978-0253341211), 91.
  13. Novak, 215.
  14. Nazrul Islam and Sajed Kamal, Kazi Nazrul Islam Selected Works (Dhaka, BD: Nazrul Institute, 1999, ISBN 9789845551854), 133.
  15. Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (Yale University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0300230321), 87.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baxter, Craig. Bangladesh: From a Nation to a State. Nations of the modern world. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997. ISBN 9780813328546
  • Bennett, Clinton. Muslims and Modernity: An Introduction to the Issues and Debates. London, UK: Continuum, 2005. ISBN 9780826454812
  • Chatterji, Joya. Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947. Cambridge South Asian studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 9780521411288
  • Edwards, Philip. Shakespeare and the Confines of Art. Routledge library editions. London, UK: Routledge 2004. ISBN 9780415352826
  • Gibney, Matthew J., and Randall Hansen (eds.). Immigration and Asylum: From 1900 to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005. ISBN 9781576077962
  • Hasan, Mushirul. India's Partition: Process, Strategy, and Mobilization. Oxford in India readings. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 9780195630770
  • Kamra, Sukeshi. Bearing Witness Partition, Independence, End of the Raj. Roli Books Pvt, 2005. ISBN 978-8174362865
  • Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0300230321
  • Kulke, Hermann, and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. London, UK: Routledge, 1998. ISBN 9780415154819
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, and Thomas R. Metcalf. A Concise History of India. Cambridge concise histories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 9780521630276
  • Mukhopādhyāẏa, Kālīprasāda. Partition, Bengal and After: The Great Tragedy of India. New Delhi, IN: Reference Press, 2007. ISBN 9788184050349
  • Novak, James J. Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water. The Essential Asia series. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0253341211
  • Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0521002508
  • Tan, Tai Yong, and Gyanesh Kudaisya. The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia. London, UK: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0415172977


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