In present day “Right wing” circles, the discourse on Syama Prasad Mookerjee (addressed as SPM henceforth) is usually centred around Jammu & Kashmir. SPM’s opposition to special status for Jammu & Kashmir, his visit to J&K without a permit (in those days one needed a special permit to enter the state), his arrest & subsequent death under mysterious circumstances – this is what he is known for. Often conspiracy theories are floated as to how Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah conspired to eliminate him as he was a political threat for both.
But in the so called Right-wing circles, SPM is rarely discussed in the context of Bengal – his home state, where he was once a political colossus, a stalwart and an immensely popular personality. As a result, he was forgotten both in his home state and by his party before his recent “resurrection” in both places.
Between the Great Calcutta Killings in 1946 and his mysterious death in 1953, SPM was perhaps the most popular mass leader of Hindus in Bengal and certainly a visionary. But many a time, when he clashed with Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhai Patel led Congress party, the latter either emerged victorious or at least managed to frustrate his plans. Had SPM prevailed over Patel and Nehru led Congress establishment during that period, the course of history would have been different. Bengali Hindus wouldn’t have suffered endless misery in the subsequent decades.
The first important intervention of Syama Prasad Mookerjee was the so-called Bengali Hindu Homeland Movement which he started in early 1947, along with leading Hindu intellectuals, public figures and Bengal Congress which was under the leadership of Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy.
The Bengali Hindu Homeland movement was launched after it became quite evident that India would be partitioned and Bengal being a Muslim majority province (Muslims were 55% of Bengal’s population then) would become a part of the separate Muslim majority state of Pakistan. SPM understood that entire Bengal could not be allowed to become a part of Pakistan, as that would mean Hindus living as hapless minorities in a Muslim state, dominated by a Muslim majority. It would have eventually been the end of the road for Hindus of Bengal as witnessed from the condition of Hindus in today’s Bangladesh. Besides the objective of the freedom struggle and the nationalist movement in Bengal since late 19th century was to ensure that Hindus would remain in power and regain control over their home state after the departure of the British. Freedom struggle was dominated by Hindus in the state who sacrificed the most for the freedom of the nation. So the whole of Bengal under Muslim rule and the entire body of Bengali Hindus living as dhimmis in an Islamic state was unthinkable and absurd. So a movement was launched by Bengal Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha under the leadership of Dr. BC Roy and SPM respectively. It sought to partition Bengal into two halves. One half (predominantly the Hindu dominated western side) would be a “Homeland” for Hindus & become part of India; the other half (Muslim dominated East) would be allowed to become Pakistan. Hindus who would end up on the Pakistani side, would migrate to the Hindu dominated Indian side & be rehabilitated. Similarly, Muslims on the Indian side of Bengal would have to migrate to the other side. Basically an exchange of population, as it eventually happened in Punjab.
Hindus enthusiastically welcomed this proposal.
Of course, there were dissenters among Hindus. Sarat Bose along with Suhrawardy floated the idea of “independent sovereign united Bengal”. It was rejected outright by Bengali Hindu leadership since “United Bengal” as envisioned by Sarat would have been ruled primarily by the Muslim League, would have a Muslim as head of the government and much of the administration would have remained under the control of the Muslim majority. Essentially a satellite state of Pakistan; East Pakistan in character if not in name. Above all Hindu Bengalis had civilizational and cultural ties with Hindus of rest of India and there was a large Bengali diaspora in other parts of India. The whole of Bengal as a political entity separate from India, was unthinkable. Some part of Bengal had to be in India. And hence Sarat’s plan was rightly rejected. In fact, Subhas Bose’s loyalists in the Forward Bloc snubbed Sarat Bose’s plan and supported the plan for partition.
But the actual game started on the eve of partition, when negotiations began to decide where the line separating India and Pakistan shall be drawn. It was during this period that the Congress “high command” turned against Hindus, threw them to the wolves and compromised India’s geopolitical interests. They frustrated SPM’s vision for Bengali Hindus.
The Congress mobilised public support by claiming that half of Bengal would become part of India. It even produced maps in the press showing areas that would be claimed by the Congress for India. It included, apart from present-day territories of West Bengal, the entire Khulna, Jessore districts, the entire eastern part of Nadia all the way upto Madhumati river, Hindu majority areas of Faridpur and Barisal, remaining Hindu majority areas of Dinajpur district. Hindu Mahasabha too promised the same. Together both these groups promised to negotiate around 55% of the area for 45% Hindu population. East Bengal had proportionately more fertile lands and hence, could support a higher population with lesser land – compared to West Bengal.
But as the negotiations began, Congress changed its plans. The negotiators who were appointed by the central leadership to negotiate the boundaries of West Bengal, on behalf of Hindus, made very modest claims without the consent of all Hindu Congress members and Hindu Mahasabha. These men appointed by top leadership arbitrarily began negotiations by claiming far lesser territory than what they had promised to gullible Hindus in the press. Hindu Mahasabha under Syama Prasad Mookerjee stuck to its promise and claimed 55% of Bengal’s area. Congress party’s stand came as a rude shock to the political class of Bengal, including many Congressmen and certainly the non-Congress Hindus led by the Mahasabha. Some Congressmen even went to the extent of claiming an area which was even smaller than present day West Bengal! A huge clash broke out between members of the Mahasabha and the Congress. In the end, the Congress prevailed as the British saw them as representatives of Hindus in India. The Radcliffe line was drawn, a new map of West Bengal was carved out which was very close to the demands made by the Congress. Hindu majority district of Khulna, Hindu majority tracts of Faridpur, Barisal, Kushtia, Jessore and Dinajpur were left behind. West Bengal for Hindus ended up with only 35% of the land despite Hindus being 45% of the population. The more fertile lands which could bear higher population density were conceded to Pakistan while India had to maintain a proportionately higher population on less fertile land.
What made Congress concede substantial territory (some of them were Hindu majority tracts, others only had a thin Muslim majority) in the Eastern part of Bengal can only be speculated.
One reason could be that Gandhians in Bengal Congress (led by BC Roy, PC Sen, Atulya Ghosh) who owed their loyalty to the Congress party’s high command had their strongholds in the districts west of Bhagirathi. Whereas the Hindus in Eastern districts were mostly supporters of Hindu Mahasabha, other smaller groups, dissident Congressmen not loyal to Gandhi and even Communists. Perhaps the Gandhian faction of the Congress considered Hindus of East Bengal a threat to their own political prospects post independence.
Whatever the intent, it is certain that the Congress party committed an act of betrayal and treachery. Long term geopolitical interests and the lives of millions of Hindus were sacrificed for the pursuit of short term political gains.
This truncated West Bengal and botched up partition increased problems for Hindus. To begin with, Hindus with 45% of undivided Bengal’s population got only around 35% of Bengal’s Land which were also less fertile. Which means had there been an exchange of population, West Bengal would be overburdened with refugees. Pressure on the Land would be tremendous. Substantial parts of West Bengal (western part of Midnapore, Bankura, western part of Burdwan) were arid and dry, hence could not support the additional burden of refugee population.
However in 1947, there was no exchange of Population, like the one which happened in Punjab. Between 1947 and 1949, an estimated 1.3 million Hindus came from East Pakistan to India. An overwhelming majority of the refugees arrived in West Bengal, others in Assam and Tripura. But this was a small portion of Hindu population in East Pakistan. The Congress, West Bengal administration and the Indian government had made no plans for population exchange and subsequent rehabilitation of the Hindu refugees. So most Hindus stayed back, as their future in India was uncertain. By early 1950, the inflow of refugees began to increase after anti-Hindu violence in Khulna and Barisal. Around 2.1 million Hindus migrated to India that year. Between February and April of 1950, 8 Lakh Hindus left East Pakistan and arrived in India. There were retaliatory attacks on Muslims in West Bengal too; between 1947 & 1950, Lakhs of Muslims left West Bengal and fled to East Pakistan (4 Lakh between February and April 1950 alone).
To put an end to this crisis, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who at that time was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet called for Nehru’s intervention. SPM, along with many other prominent political figures in Bengal including parties like the Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party, proposed radical measures – Declaring war on Pakistan, taking East Pakistan under control of Indian government, enforcing complete population exchange like Punjab in a peaceful manner, rehabilitation of refugees and since West Bengal got only 35% of Bengal’s land during partition, annexing erstwhile Hindu dominated areas of East Bengal (matching Hindu Mahasabha’s original claims during the partition related negotiations).
But Congress under Nehru and Patel turned down these proposals. Instead, they went ahead and arbitrarily signed a pact with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan without the consent of the Bengali Hindu leaders. The main feature of the “Nehru Liaqat pact” was that both Indian and Pakistani governments would “protect” the religious minorities of their respective countries. It was quite a farce, as it was clear that Pakistan would not take care of its minorities. Also, it was quite evident that Hindus in East Pakistan did not trust the Pakistani administration. After the pact was signed, another 1.2 million Hindus (between April and December 1950) left East Pakistan and came to India as refugees within a span of a few months, including Jogendranath Mondal, the only Hindu cabinet minister in the Pakistani government. SPM along with KC Neogy quit Nehru’s cabinet right after the pact was signed.
The reason why Nehru signed a pact (which was destined to fail) can only be speculated. He was certainly not concerned about the safety and security of Hindus. In all likelihood, he had anticipated that the pact would fail, as the Pakistani administration instead of protecting its Hindu minority would rather encourage its Muslim citizens to drive out Hindus, especially the ones with Landed property. The only reason why Nehru signed the pact (and was supported by Patel) was to shrug off the responsibility of the Indian government towards Bengali Hindu refugees and to find an excuse to deport back the Hindu refugees. And indeed that happened. After the Nehru Liaqat pact was signed 1.2 Million Hindus came to India from East Pakistan (as mentioned above) but at the same time, the Congress government forced 5 Lakh Hindus to return back to East Pakistan! Not just that, a few Lakh Muslims who left West Bengal and fled to East Pakistan were brought back to West Bengal. Far from pursuing full exchange of population, Nehru and Patel brought back Muslims from East Pakistan & forcefully sent back half a million Hindus!
[Between 1947 and the end of 1950, around 3.4 million Hindus came to India from East Pakistan, of which 5 Lakh were forcefully sent back after signing of Nehru-Liaqat pact. They probably returned to India later]
Patel even infamously claimed that Hindu congressmen from East Bengal should return back to Pakistan and fight (against Pakistan’s state machinery) for the rights of Hindus there!
By early 1950s it was quite clear that Congress perhaps deliberately botched up the Partition process and conceded land to Pakistan. They promised gullible Hindus a partition which would put an end to all their problems. Hindus agreed. And Congress used the opportunity to botch up the whole process – giving away land (Muslims who were 55% of the population got 65% of the land including most of the fertile lands) in a way that population exchange and rehabilitation of Hindu refugees would become a difficult task and then, not allowing population exchange; finally, denying rehabilitation for Bengali Hindu refugees – all these were done to ensure that about a third of the Hindu Bengali population was kept out of India. Hindu Bengalis remain divided between India & Pakistan, instead of staying united in India.
Of course, many followers of Nehru and Patel would claim that the tracts, which should have been in India, were conceded to Pakistan in order to “surgically remove cancerous body part” and remove League from the picture. If indeed that was the case, the cancerous part would have been removed after doing population exchange (and thereby ensuring the safety of Hindus) and ensuring that strategically important areas remain under Indian control to ensure East Pakistan does not become a base for anti-India activities. (SPM and many other Bengali leaders asking Nehru to declare war on East Pakistan, was not without reason)
There was an ethnic angle too. While Bengali Hindus faced indifference and contempt from the Congress leadership, Punjabi and Sindhi refugees were swiftly rehabilitated. Punjabi refugees were given land, houses, business establishments, properties that were left behind by Muslims. In Delhi, where Punjabi Hindus and Sikh immigrants were substantially more than Muslim emigrants, entire new housing colonies were built by the government. In some cases, even Wakf properties in Delhi belonging to the Muslim community were forcefully taken over by the administration to build houses and other establishments for Punjabis!
Whereas Bengali Hindu refugees hardly got any rehabilitation. In some cases, Bengali Hindu refugees themselves took matters into their own hands, unleashed violence against Muslims, expelled them from their villages and grabbed their land. This happened mostly in Nadia and some pockets of Murshidabad. Elsewhere local units of various political parties, engaged in rioting, forcefully expelled Muslims (but without any backing of Indian government or state machinery) to create space for refugee rehabilitation. In some areas, Hindus grabbed land of big zamindars or settled down in jungles and wastelands on the outskirts of towns and cities, cleared forests, expanded agriculture, set up markets. Even the most prosperous refugee areas in South Kolkata, where the relatively well to do refugees settled, were without any infrastructure, connectivity and basic amenities till the early 1970s and in some cases early 1980s. Not much was done by the central government to rehabilitate Bengali Hindu refugees. A tiny fraction of refugees were settled in Delhi, Dandakaranya, Andaman, Bijnore and places like that; far away from West Bengal or Bengali dominated regions of Assam and Tripura. This was often done not to rehabilitate them (except Delhi, all others were inhospitable for Bengalis, as they were often dry and arid or simply unliveable) but to ensure Bengali Hindu refugees remained scattered and don’t gang up in Bengali dominated regions as an anti-Congress ‘vote bank’.
Now the most important question, what if Syama Prasad Mookerjee had prevailed over Nehru and Patel led Congress? What if Congress had bargained hard and got more territory for India? What if Population exchange had taken place and Hindu refugees properly rehabilitated?
That would have changed the course of history. To begin with, India and West Bengal would have got more land in the districts between Padma and Bhagirathi. Large tracts of fertile land would have become part of India and West Bengal would have been much bigger in size, substantially more prosperous. Fertile jute producing lands would have remained with India – helping the local economy. That would have made rehabilitation of refugees even easier. Had there been a population exchange, West Bengal and perhaps even Assam would have been overwhelmingly Hindu in character and demography. There would be no perennial fifth column living in India – bolstered by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who are helped by their co-ethnics living here. Above all Hindus would have lived in peace and prosperity. The ones in West Bengal would not have had to suffer misery, poverty, alienation in refugee camps and slums. Hindus who could not migrate to India and had to live in East Pakistan (Bangladesh after 1971) continue to suffer at the hands of Islamists. This could have been avoided as well. The genocide, mass killings of 1964 and 1971 would not have happened. On the political front, West Bengal would not have had any Communist movement. Communists in West Bengal, after partition, exploited the grievances of Bengali Hindus. From 1948 to 1977 (especially after the death of SPM in 1953) Communists in Bengal became the de facto spokespersons of the Bengali Hindu refugees and took up the cause of Hindu refugees; in turn, young boys and girls from refugee families joined the Communist parties in huge numbers. Refugee dominated towns became strongholds of Communist movements of all types. Besides, Bengali Hindus would not have been divided between India and East Pakistan post 1947 – for 1951 census shows East Pakistan still had 9 million Hindus. They would have remained united in Indian territory and hence politically more powerful.
Of course, these are all now in the realm of speculation. The damage was done between 1947 and 1950. And Bengali Hindus are still suffering the consequences. Even after 73 years of independence, India needs a Citizenship Amendment Act to address the concerns of Hindu refugees from neighbouring Islamic states. Many Bengali Hindus even today are “foreigners” in their own country.