March 23, 1940 versus March 26, 1971: Is two-nation theory dead?

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman declared Bangladesh to be independent on March 26, 1971. There is a long trajectory of events that culminated in this cataclysmic event. Muslim League was born at Dacca in 1906 after partition of the Bengal Province. Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal for a number of reasons including a swollen population of 85 million. The Muslim population was happy at the partition but Hindus started agitation against English raj. They alleged that the partition was the outcome of British divide-and-rule policy.

Hindus’ reaction made Muslims realize that Hindus did not care a fig for the Muslim interests.

Lahore resolution was passed on March 23, 1940. At that time, the idea was to unite predominantly Muslim provinces. No one realized that someday a unified Islamic republic of Pakistan would come into being.

Genesis of Muslim nationalism

Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal in 1905 to split the population, then 85 million, into smaller administrative units. The population was broadly divided into Hindus and Muslims. The British recognized that Bengal (with 85 million people) was too large for a province. The Congress initiated mass agitation that brought the province to the brink of a rebellion.

Congress’s Grievance

The Congress believed that the dividing line cut right through the heart of the Bengali-speaking “nation”.  It deprived Western Bengal’s “respectable people” (bhadralok) of their intellectual leadership. The partition resulted in the creation of a row of Muslim majority province of Eastern Bengal and Assam with its Capital at Decca. The Congress accused the British raj of acting upon the “divide and rule” policy. Congress termed the division as, “Vivisection of Mother province”. ‘Hail to mother’ (Bande Mataram) became the Congress’s national anthem. The Hindus (Congress) began to boycott British goods. Lancashire-made cloth was burnt in bonfires. Lancashire imports began to be shunned. Besides re-unification of Bengal, the Congress raised many other demands besides self-rule, and native system of education. None of the demands cared for Muslims’ sentiments. The partition was abrogated in 1912 by Lord Linlithgow. .

Muslim League’s reaction

The Muslim League of West Bengal (1912-1947) came into being in response to the Hindu nationalists’ violent agitation. The agitation exclusively focused on Hindu identity heritage, education and economic interests.

The Muslims of East Bengal vehemently supported the Bengal partition. Muslims were unhappy at being dominated by affluent Hindus. The Bengal Provincial Muslim League was created on March 2, 1912 at Muhammadan Educational Conference. Its avowed objective was to promote liberal education among Indian Muslims.

The Bengal Provincial Muslim League was a dynamic branch of the All India Muslim League. The party played an important role in Bengal Legislative Council and also in Bengal Legislative Assembly. In subsequent years, the Bengal Muslim League played a vital role in creation of the dominion of Pakistan; particularly in Muslim League’s victory in East Bengal that later became East Pakistan in 1947.

Alas! We lost our Eastern wing for failure in addressing their grievances.

Was Congress’s reaction towards the partition justified?

The turn of events following the Bengal partition (1905-1912) indicated that the Congress was not justified in opposing partition. Unless the Bengal province was partitioned, the Hindu domination of all realms of life would have continued.

The partition strengthened Muslims’ identity. It gave them confidence that they can stand up and fight for their rights. The ugly anti-Muslim face of Congress was unmasked in elections held in 11 provinces of British India. The Congress won a majority of seats in eight of the eleven provinces. Congress began to shout that Muslim League has no grounds to claim that it is the sole spokesman of the Muslims.

The Muslim league was however able to form a government in Bengal province in coalition with AK Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Sramik Party. Later when Muslim League withdrew its support to KSP; AK Fazlul Haq formed a new government in coalition with Congress.

The Congress ministries resigned from provinces after 28-months on plea that Lord Linlithgow had declared India at war with Germany without consulting Congress ministries. Muslim League observed ‘deliverance day’ as during its 28-month rule, Congress did not care a fig for Muslim’s rights. Hindu way of life and education systems was imposed on Muslims.

Bengal partition leads to partition of India

Partition of Bengal laid the foundation for the creation of Pakistan. Conduct of Congress ministries (post 1937) compelled Muslims to realize that Hindus and Muslims are poles apart.

The Quaid-e-Azam did not lose heart at poor electoral performance in 1937. The subsequent 1946 elections confirmed that Muslim League was in fact the sole spokesman of Muslims.

In a way, the Bengal partition was a prelude to partition of India.

How Bengalis became rueful

Bengalis were in the forefront of the Pakistan movement. Yet they developed the impression that West Pakistan treated them just as the British raj. Urdu was imposed on them. And due share in economic resources was denied. Mujibur Rehman was treated as a traitor. Even when East Pakistan had practically slipped out of West Pakistan control, he tried to maintain a semblance of union in the form of a confederation (Rao Farman Ali, How Pakistan was divided).

Two-nation theory still alive

Even after becoming independent, BD has retained its Muslim complexion constitutionally. Indian Bengal is at loggerheads with Bangladesh on the issue of sharing river waters. BD never called for reunification with West Bengal.

Unmasking the India-Bangladesh bonhomie

India welcomed refugees from East Pakistan but now even strongman Amit Shah calls them “termites”. BJP stalwarts openly threaten if Bengali refugees do not go back they would be shot dead. India refused to supply vaccines to BD notwithstanding a written accord. It blocked onion experts in BD.

BD is home to a million Rohingya refugees. But, India refused to accept even 81 refugees stranded in a boat in Andaman waters.

Concluding remarks

India masquerades hostility against Muslim Bangladesh. Even after independence, BD has retained its Muslim identity. There is a need for thaw in Pakistan-BD relations.

Amjed Jaaved
Amjed Jaaved
Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.