History Today, Sep 1997 v47 n9 p28(6) 
Bengal and Punjab: before and beyond. (includes bibliography) Jean Alphonse Bernard. 
Abstract: The provinces of Bengal and Punjab played key roles in the partition of India in 1947. The history of the nationalistic struggles that began with the Government of India Act of 1935 and ended with partition is presented. 

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1997 History Today Ltd. (UK) 

What happened in 1947 was not so much the partition of the whole of Britain's Indian Empire as the partition of two of its eleven provinces: Punjab and Bengal. If one considers the North East, Orissa, the Central Provinces, the Bombay State and the whole of peninsular India, not much happened there between July and October of this fateful year. Assam itself was little disrupted in spite of having lost the district of Sylhet to East Bengal. Violence, it is true, erupted in Delhi on a large scale and vast migrations of people took place in Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar. There it was clearly a reverberation of what happened in Punjab and Bengal. Even the events in the Princely State of Kashmir -- from the rumours running in the Poonch district that Muslims were massacred in East Punjab, to the raid of Pashtun tribes in the Vale -- were clearly an effect of what had happened in Punjab a few weeks before. Why were these two partitions so significant? 

Bengal, with 50 million inhabitants (at the 1931 census) was no longer the seat of imperial power, but was still immensely important in economic, social and intellectual terms. It was home to a range of industries, from jute mills to mechanical engineering and shipyards. Calcutta was perhaps the busiest emporium from the Suez Canal to the Far East, serving a vast hinterland from Tibet and Nepal to Burma. It boasted a large intelligentsia and the oldest college in the country, so that it was perhaps the most lively intellectual centre in this part of Asia. 

As the oldest area of British establishment in India, Bengal society had been submitted to the most thorough process of Europeanisation. This had resulted in the growth of a particular class of men and women known as the bhadralok, `the people of quality', a term which carried complex connotations of elegance, sophistication and arrogance as well as indicating a comfortable income. Living mostly in towns, the bhadralok had kept their roots in the countryside and a good part of the income they drew came under the zamindari system, from their poor tenants. These were mostly Muslims, particularly in the central and eastern districts. 

The zamindari system was therefore a major fault line in the social landscape, which cut across the universal divide between Muslims and Hindus. Meanwhile, a nascent Muslim bourgeoisie was emerging in Dacca as well as in Calcutta, alongside the feudal nawabs of East Bengal and with the moneylenders and businessmen who had flocked to Calcutta from distant Marwar. In workshops, jute mills and industrial plants, most of the workers were immigrants from Bihar and Orissa, often of Muslim faith. 

Punjab stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. It was no doubt fortunate that a thousand miles of land had kept Punjabis and Bengalis apart. When they met, it was rarely felicitous. The proud warriors of Ranjit Singh had certainly resented their defeats at the hand of the East India Company army, in which Bengalis -- brahmins included -- played no small part. Thereafter Punjabi soldiers had had no qualms about enlisting in the British regiments which crushed the mutineers after Meerut. 

In the land of the five rivers the social pattern was altogether simpler than in the delta of Bengal: a rugged peasantry tilled a fertile but dry soil which British engineers had succeeded in turning into a surplus area of wheat, rice, cotton, sugarcane and other plantations. Clans and sectarian conflicts had been fierce indeed until Ranjit Singh had established his enlightened despotism, followed up by the bureaucratic impartiality of British rule. In this traditional setting, the policy of recruiting young males into the army, mostly of Punjabi stock, provided a useful outlet to an energetic nation. As an agrarian and military asset, Punjab was crucial for the British, who were careful to despatch there their best `guardians' to administer a province of 25 million inhabitants, close to the North West gates and to the imperial capital. It was no chance then, that Punjabi politics had evolved during the 1920s and the 1930s into a solid compound of pragmatism and paternal justice based on the conciliation of the landlords' interests, be they Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. 

Consequently, Delhi was conveniently placed in between two regions of great value to itself; on one hand the hectic but still thriving Bengal, on the other the prosperous agrarian republic of the Punjab, guarding its western approaches in the same manner as Rome had been poised between the Aegean world of hellenistic cities and the rustic expanses of Spain and Gaul, a good reservoir of slaves, food and soldiers. 

The strength of the Raj was to be able to rely on both, to balance one against the other as circumstances warranted, making the most of each and ensuring that they could never conspire against itself. Above all, Punjab and Bengal, for reasons which nature and history had provided for, were far ahead of all other entities of the subcontinent in their being well defined in terms of territory, customs and languages, as if they were nations in their own right. Thus, the land of the turbaned Lions and the country of the swift Tigers were the twin pillars on which the British Raj rested. 

The search for origins is the torment of historians but the raison d'etre of history. At what point in time should we begin to make the tale meaningful? The answer depends on what assumptions we adopt. If we consider decolonisation to be the main causal factor, then we may have to start from the Battle of Plassey, or from the crushing of the great Mutiny. If we consider the advent of Islam in the subcontinent as the major factor determining the distant origin of the two-nation theory, we have to go back to Ghazni's raid in 1000 or Babur's victory over the Sultan of Delhi in 1526. But in this case our inquiry is inspired by the quest to understand why and how India is a democracy, as Tocqueville was spurred by the failure of democracy in France to understand its success in America. 

If we choose the Government of India Act of 1935 as a starting point, we can see that the Act set in motion the elections of January-February 1937 which marked the beginning, at least for British India, of modern mass politics. It is wrong to say that before 1937 India was modern. The establishment of responsible provincial governments after these elections marks the transition from an ancien regime, where politics are the business of a few, into the modern era where they become the concern of the many. 

There is another reason for choosing this date: the role of Gandhi in the Indian National Congress changed after the session of October 1934, when the Mahatma declared that from now on he would `cease to shape the policy of the Congress organisation' and devote himself entirely to the task of `village reconstruction'. That Jinnah accepted to take upon himself the presidency of the Muslim League the same year is another pointer in the same direction: 1935 was a year of great beginnings, great expectations and equally great disappointments. 

At the appointed hour 30 million Indians, men and women, went to the polls for the first time in history to elect their legislators and thereby their rulers, albeit in separate electorates. For Punjab and Bengal the results were strikingly different but equally momentous. In Lahore 120 seats out of 175 were won by the Punjab Unionist Party and its allies. The Indian National Congress won eighteen seats, the Akali Dal, ten, the Muslim League, one seat. It was a blow to Jinnah and a defeat for the Congress. In fact the polls gave a clear approval to the work already done by the Unionists to rule over the Punjab in a Punjabi way. The party itself had been founded in 1923 by two lawyers, one Muslim, Mian Fazl-i-Husain, and one Hindu, Chaudhury Chhotu Ram, both equally devoted to what they considered to be the good of their community. The strength of their alliance was that both appealed to the same kind of people: landlords, big and small, but living on, and from, their estate. They belonged to the three communities which made up the Punjab: Muslims (50 per cent), Hindus (35 per cent), Sikhs and others (15 per cent). 

As everywhere in India, religion was an important feature of the community you were born into, as it determined to a great extent your way of life. But in the conditions of peace and relative prosperity which prevailed since the Pax Britannica, the Punjabi ruling elite had more in common to defend than differences to quarrel about. The Unionist Party, strongly supported by the British administration, was the political expression of the will to live together which prevailed in the Punjab. The grand old man of the Unionist Party, Mian Fazl-i-Husain, had died in July 1936, but another notable and a member of the Hayat clan, Sikander Hayat Khan, was elected unanimously as his successor and became premier in March 1937. 

For the bright London barrister who had given up his lucrative law practice to lead Indian Muslim politics, the Punjab situation was ominous. Jinnah had no word strong enough to castigate the rustic notables who had put their own narrow interests before the wider cause of a nationalist and secular India which, no less than Nehru, he dreamed of ruling once the British were out. 

Bengal offered, as usual, a perfect contrast. The polls had given fifty-four seats to the Congress and thirty-nine to the Muslim League out of a total of 250. But a new party, the Krishak Praja Party, had won forty seats and 31.5 per cent of the Muslim vote whereas the old established League got only 27.1 per cent. The new organisation had been founded a year earlier by a Muslim lawyer of great talent, Fazl-ul-Huq, nicknamed the Tiger of Bengal, who had spent many years defending the rights of sharecroppers and tenants against their landlords, Hindu zamindaris and Muslim nawabs. Hence the polls reflected an emerging class warfare within the overall context of the communal polarisation. The Congress Party had put on its platform the abolition of the zamindari rights all over North India. It was only natural, therefore, that the KPP and the Bengal Congress, having concluded earlier on electoral pact not to poach into each other's territory, should now make an alliance of government. However, it was not to be. A decision of the `high command' rejected Fazl-ul-Huq's overture and forced him into the arms of the Muslim League which he had so vigorously trounced. A historic occasion was missed. Why? A young scholar, Ms Joya Chatterji, has given us the answer. She writes: 

By the early 1930s the Bengal Congress 

had become a party of the towns but 

one that still retained its connection 

with landed interests... The politics of 

the Bengal Congress reflected the 

social conservatism of its 

predominantly bhadralok membership ... Even 

after the party retreated to the towns in 

the late 1920s, its leaders had kept 

intact their commitment to their landed 

interests in the mofussil which they 

had left behind but had not 


In fact the Bengal Congress was far from being united: the moderates followed closely the `high command' and were often in tune with the Hindu Mahasabha, whereas the left-wing -- led by the Bose brothers -- tried to impose a socialist and secular line. This brought conflict between the two factions, which was to develop later into a full-scale battle for the unity of Bengal

At this point in history, the political game which the British set into play did not oppose the two great forces; the Congress and the Muslim League, much less two great religions. In Punjab and in Bengal -- the two provinces offering the best reservoir of talents, economic resources and development potential -- the provincial arena presented a promising picture of secular politics: in Punjab around a local party geared to the defence of agrarian interests, in Bengal a more open `market' with three contenders: a Congress dominated by the bhadralok, a non-sectarian party of poor peasants and a pro-zamindari Muslim League. The province of Punjab was neither at the stage of class struggle nor yet a religious battlefield. As for Bengal, class conflicts tended to steal a march on communal antagonisms. 

The next great player was war itself. Its effects upon both provinces were equally powerful if quite different. Bengal came to be close to the Pacific theatre of war after the fall of Singapore (February 15th, 1942), and Rangoon (March 8th). Indian refugees from Malaysia and Burma landed in Calcutta by the boat load. in the summer of 1943 a terrible famine left around 2 million dead among the villagers and the poor. The loss of Burmese rice and the disruption of means of transportation by rivers were the direct causes of the disaster. Above all, the war deepened the divide between communities, increased the ill-will of Hindus towards Muslims and vice versa. It undermined the political leadership of all parties as well as British prestige. The KPP did not survive the trial of governing during the war, even if Fazl-ul-Huq remained personally popular. On the Congress side the Bose faction was badly mauled by the fate of Subash C. Bose and of his brother Sarat, jailed until V-Day. The Bengal Muslim League came to rely on Jinnah, for want of other leaders. Bengal came out of the war divided against itself and more than ever prone to violent means to solve its perennial problems. When chaos had shown its ugly face, it was too late. Leaders such as H.S. Suhrawardy and Sarat C. Bose could find courage enough to plead together the cause of a united Bengal, but the jury was out and the Viceroy had made up his mind. 

If Bengal suffered directly from the miseries of war, Punjab suffered from its aftermath. As a surplus area, food rationing was unacceptable to the farmers, price rises resented by the consumers and war losses among Indian troops abroad felt by many families. Faithful to the war effort, the Unionist Party paid the price, whereas the Muslim League, free of responsibility, made capital gains out of it. If the Lahore resolution had refrained from claiming Pakistan, the League made it its catchword from 1943 onwards, with great effect. When the pirs and mollahs decided to back it up in the run up to the elections of 1946, Jinnah had won and the Unionist Party disappeared. 

The war strengthened the hand of Jinnah at every turn, because he was careful not to oppose the war effort directly as Gandhi and the Congress did, while he could not be associated with its ill-effects in the minds of his people. This was a great opportunity which he played very well. Whatever the real objective he had in mind in promoting the Pakistan idea, he was unable to fulfill it until the crisis of July 1946. Then Congress decided to call for a showdown and chose partition rather than a coalition with Jinnah at the centre. But great leaders seldom achieve their aims. In curbing the lions of Punjab and the tigers of Bengal, Jinnah helped destroy the seeds of political unity in both `provinces'. The sombre irony of history is that he could not achieve Pakistan without the two most important Muslim majority provinces, but that in so doing he undermined the future of the two entities he had helped create for a long time. India, being left with a rump Punjab, and Pakistan, being left with the poorest part of Bengal, were both losers. 

Those who lost the most, however, were the Bengali and the Punjabi peoples. Their forced co-habitation made the one group the masters, the other the servants. Their close encounter made the Pakistan identity collapse almost as soon as it was erected. The sundered pillars had little strength and no purpose, once the imperial structure had gone. Whatever strength was left in them, they turned against each other with a vengeance. 

One can wonder at the enormous pile of books, articles, pamphlets, lectures, which have been written over the last thirty years in places such as Princeton, Harvard, Oxford or Chicago to explain the failure of Pakistan. A sentence such as L. Zirring's `Pakistan has not been successful at nation-building because it failed miserably in state-building' is all the more admirable as it can be reversed and be as true as it is meaningless. The simple fact, known by every traveller in the subcontinent from time immemorial was that Punjabis and Bengalis, as a rule, do not mix easily. Consequently, putting them together in great numbers was a sure recipe for disaster. That it took twenty-four years to dissolve the bond and to generate Bangladesh by war is a tribute to the virtues of Islam or perhaps... to the distrust of Hindustan. 

In spite of all their differences, both states proved to be restive and allergic to the rule of the Congress Party. As a result, both turned to regional parties and leaders, the Akali Dal in Punjab, the Communist Party of India (CPI (M)) in Bengal. For this to happen there was no dearth of twists and turns and violence even, in the political battles of the last forty years. 

Right after independence, at the first Republic Day of India, the Akali expressed their resentment by refusing to take part in the celebration. This was a harbinger of worse things to come: the Akali adopted a strategy of reducing the size of the state in order to rule it as their homeland. Having suffered terribly from partition, they made another partition to serve themselves, creating what they defined as a `punjabi subha'. After protracted agitation they succeeded in 1966 soon after Mrs Gandhi had taken up the prime ministership. She was not averse to letting the Akali rule over a smaller state if they wished it. All the more so since it let her carve a new state, 90 per cent Hindu (Haryana), which would be ruled by Congress. By the same stroke she took away the vast northern lands to create yet another state, Himachal Pradesh, which would be controlled by the Centre, i.e. in her hands. Splitting states was no big worry for someone adept at splitting anything which was an obstacle to her imperious will. Thereafter the Indian Punjab was reduced in size to one seventh of its parent body. 

Such a shrinkage of their homeland went against the spirit of the Sikhs or for that matter, of the Punjabi people. As a nation the Sikhs were much too energetic, bold and enterprising to be happy confined to an area of 50,000 sq. kms. Non-resident Sikhs were never loath to send money to their narrow-minded clerics, but they continued to roam the West and make good for themselves. Khalistan was never a deeply-felt aspiration but a way of expressing their despair at being led by Mrs Gandhi in Delhi and her appointed agents in Chandigarh. 

As for West Bengal, it was run for fourteen years (1948-62) by a well-minded and respected freedom fighter, Dr B.C. Roy, a Bengali of pre-independence political vintage. At the beginning of his long tenure, soon after partition, an episode happened which is worth recalling. While Dr Roy was abroad, a feud developed between three opposed factions of the Bengal Congress. The `high command', anxious to set it right, decided to call for fresh elections in the PCC and in the Legislative Assembly. Upon his return Dr Roy took no notice of Delhi's orders and set about settling the matter himself. Nehru and Prasad sent an urgent cable for him to come immediately to Delhi. He ignored the order until he had secured a vote of confidence from the Legislative Party, with a large majority. Then he came to Delhi, having won the day. The significance of the episode lies in the fact that Roy had always been close to the high command and obedient to Nehru's wishes. But as soon as he became Bengal's chief he knew he had to stand up to Delhi and the local factions knew it as well. 

The period of the 1960s and 1970s saw West Bengal sink ever lower in economic backwardness, urban squalor and rural poverty. The revolutionary Naxalite movement in the countryside and the young urban guerillas of 1968-70 were the products of deprivation and despair as much as of a Bengali nationalism prone to violence. It is only in the last fifteen to twenty years that hope and pride have returned, at least to some extent. Then they came from the least expected quarter: the CPI (M) and its Bengali leader, Jyoti Basu. A variety of reasons explain why the CPI (M) gave up its revolutionary discourse in Bengal, discovered the virtues of parliamentary democracy and took root in the Bengali countryside to carry out the task left unfinished by the Krishak Praja Party of Fazl-ul-Huq. 

Born eighty-two years ago in Dacca to a well-off, educated family of kayastha (a Hindu high caste of scribes) the main fount of bhadralok -- Jyoti Basu commented in the Financial Times in January 1994, with humour: 

I had selfish reasons to welcome the 

gradual delicensing of industries 

because when there was licensing, the 

federal authorities used to discourage 

entrepreneurs from setting up 

industries in West Bengal... 

He spoke pointedly of the federal government, and not as every Indian does, of the central government. West Bengali politicians and CPI (M) leaders have given more thought to the federal issue than any other politicians in India. This is not the result of deep Marxist thinking nor sheer pragmatism on the part of an old politician, but the result of the bitter experience of a divided Bengal

Partition was considered by many as an act of unfinished business or a temporary truce before a final settlement. Thus spoke Nehru, Patel, Acharya Kripalani and many others. Today Kashmir speaks louder to proclaim the same truth. 

Leaving aside Kashmir, the sulking Punjab and a frustrated Bengal, let us go back to the beginning, i.e. to part II of the Government of India Act (1935), entitled `Federation of India'. Every student of the period knows how Jawahralal Nehru as well as Mohammed-Ali Jinnah rejected it outright and in definitive terms. Churchill dismissed it no less categorically, describing it as `a gigantic quilt of jumbled crochet work, a monstrous monument of sham built by pigmies'. But what then, was, the political map of India? Was it not indeed a `gigantic quilt of jumbled crochet work', with its 600-odd Princely States, its border areas under military administration and the eleven provinces of British India, the limits of which were hardly justified on rational grounds? Wasn't it a kind of Holy Roman Germanic Empire with its maze of kingdoms, counties, bishoprics and free cities? By giving it a modern name, part two of the Charter of 1935 gave political expression to the unity created by nature and by culture from time immemorial. 

However two different principles were embodied in the same Act: the plurality principle which demands accommodation from every party to a conflict and the majority principle which requires the submission of the weaker party. The first had a long tradition, the second was the product of modernity and democracy. Between 1937 and 1946, the two principles clashed against one another, up until the eventual demise of the Federation idea. Partition, therefore, was but a temporary settlement in an enduring struggle. Democracy prevailed and with it a spirit of centralisation. Kashmir is the ever present witness that partition continues to work itself out in the Indian world to which it certainly belongs. But majority rule, carried to its extreme, would break the old Princely State, this `ramshackle' entity made by the sword. Perhaps the time has come for the federal idea to be revived and given a new lease of life in the area which was once covered by the Raj. 

Two recent developments may help to bring this about. One is the spread of economic liberalisation which will necessarily decrease the leverage of the Centre vis-a-vis the states and increase enormously the bargaining power of the state governments. The second development, not unconnected with the first, is the regionalisation of the political parties which was the main feature of the last Lok Sabha elections. All parties, nowadays, are regional. Gone are the days when the Congress Party operated as an integrating machine over the whole of India. As for the BJP, it is making a heroic effort to become a substitute for the old Congress, an alternative all-embracing force. In attempting too much it will probably over-exert itself and fail. The rule of the game at the Centre is to make or break coalitions. In India today coalitions represent not only various social forces but also, and perhaps predominantly, regional claims for power at the Centre; demanding proper representation as regional entities. This problem has been left unsolved by the 1950 Constitution. Why should the political parties of today solve a problem which is basically a constitutional issue? 

The one-nation theory was proved wrong by partition. The two-nations theory has been proved wrong by the break up of the old Pakistan. The nation-state option, if pursued too vigorously by the nationalist Hindus, will prove a dangerous enterprise. Recent developments have, in a way, cleared the ground. Who will be bold enough to cast out the devils of the past and rehabilitate the much abused idea of a Federation of India? 

Jean Alphonse Bernard is a retired French civil servant. He served in India in the 1960s. This essay is an abridged version of a paper presented to the XIth European Conference on South Asian Studies (1996). 

Article A19751459