The book is a pointer on how history needs to be written—factual and concise, analytical and precise.
New Delhi: The partition of Bengal on communal lines was carried out by the British for the first time in 1905. This was rescinded six years later, but the communal divide created could not be bridged and resulted in a second partition in 1947. Who can better understand the pain of partition than those who were uprooted from their homes, where their ancestors had lived for millennia. This book tells the story of the tragic events that unfolded in Bengal since the dawn of the eighteenth century till the partition of India in 1947.
Bhaswati Mukerji is a former diplomat. More importantly, her family, who had strong roots in what is now Bangladesh, were the victims of the unfolding events. She tells the story devoid of rancour and bitterness, the narrative finally coming out as a brilliantly researched and eminently readable book, factual and cogent, clinically precise, and written in a manner that makes history come alive.
The Battle of Plassey and the subsequent sale of Bengal marked a turning point in India’s destiny, setting the stage for the ultimate conquest of India. This epochal battle was fought and decided on one fateful day—23 June 1757. During the course of the battle, Mir Jaffar, a general in the army of Siraj-ud-Daulah, who had been bought over by the British, moved away from the battlefield with his 16,000 men at a critical juncture, which facilitated the subsequent British victory. Mir Jaffar’s name is associated with treachery till the present time, but his deceit was not the only factor which led to a decisive British victory.
The army of Robert Clive had just 3,000 men as opposed to the 50,000 of Siraj-ud-Daulah. Clive had 10 artillery pieces to the 57 held by Siraj-ud-Daulah, all manned by well-trained French personnel. So, despite Mir Jaffar’s treachery, the odds were still heavily stacked in favour of Siraj-ud-Daulah. But the nawab panicked and fled the battlefield, a monumental blunder, as his presence could have rallied his men and resulted in victory. His cowardice was comparable to the treachery of Mir Jaffar. The Battle of Buxar, fought on 22 October 1764, once again was won by the troops of the East India Company, despite being heavily outnumbered. Good battlefield leadership is a prime war-winning factor, as relevant today as it was in the mid eighteenth century. This is a lesson we must never forget.
The decline of Bengal started with the defeat at Plassey. It did not take even a decade thereafter for the East India Company to cement its position through vast swathes of India. Post the Treaty of Allahabad, signed on 12 August 1765, the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II was in effect a mere puppet in the hands of the British. Paradoxically, it was these epochal events which gave birth to the idea of freedom and resulted in the First War of Independence in 1857. Virtually, the entire Bengal Army, which had a strength of about 135,000 native soldiers revolted and while the uprising was eventually put down, it spelt the death knell of the East India Company, with India coming directly under the British Crown.
To maintain its hold over India, the British Indian Army was overhauled, the concept of a martial race was developed and the army was divided on caste and religious lines. “Divide et impera”, the motto of the old Roman empire, meaning divide and rule was to become the motto of the British Empire in India, heralding changes at the political, military and administrative levels. In Bengal, as indeed the rest of the country, the education curriculum was fashioned to create for the British rulers a class of Indians, who would best subserve the colonial interest. They created a middle class and a bureaucracy, convinced of the inferiority of its own culture and the superiority of western systems and thought. Sadly, that mindset still pervades a section of India’s bureaucracy and intelligentsia till date.
This period also saw the revival of Wahhabism amongst the Bengali Muslims and the British were quick to exploit the religious divide emerging in the Bengali population. While language and culture remained the binding adhesive within Bengali Hindus and Muslims, fissures on religious lines started to appear and led to the first partition of Bengal in 1905, based on communal lines. This was rescinded six years later in 1911, in response to the protests launched by the Swadeshi movement. But the divisive process had been set in motion and got a fillip with the communal award of 1932. The Muslim political leadership increasingly utilised the mullah and the mosque to establish contact with their electorate, further exacerbating the fissures created by communal disharmony. The seeds of division thus sown were destined to grow in malignancy, culminating in the great Calcutta killings of 1946, in which over 10,000 Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered and over 15,000 suffered grievous injuries. Suhrawardy, who is considered a hero in Bangladesh, was responsible for inciting his Muslim compatriots to the path of violence. The polarisation on communal lines which had taken place in Bengal, led to the horrendous slaughter, rape and mass conversion of Hindus in Noakhali district, a predominantly Muslim area in Chittagong Division in November 1946. The partition of Bengal in 1947 was thus a foregone conclusion.
What of the future? Can books like this help assuage the hurts of the past? Burying the truth, as many in India are inclined to do, is hardly a remedy for healing past wounds and is akin to an ostrich burying its head in the sand. For nearly a millennia, foreigners ruled over India, but the spirit and soul of India could never be vanquished. Enslavement of a people requires obliterating their roots—changing their culture, their language and their religion. India, for the most part remained resilient and held on to what was most sacred in its identity as a people. That is why history is important: to give us a sense of who we are, what we have become and where do we go from here.
This book is an important addition to the historical works that are already available on the subject. More importantly, the book is a pointer on how history needs to be written—factual and concise, analytical and precise, it grips the attention of the reader from the very first page. Affordably priced, it is a book which should be read by people of all ages from high school onwards, to include teachers, historians and the lay public.
Major General Dhruv C. Katoch (Retd) is an Army veteran.