The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan has been characterized as a “division of hearts,” as the prioritization of communal tensions over shared cultural bonds gave way to the violent formation of two independent nation-states. Punjab and Bengal – provinces with relatively equal populations of Hindus and Muslims – experienced mass violence with legacies reaching into the present.
While the partition of Punjab ended in 1947, Bengal’s experience with the Partition continued as Bengali populations in both West Bengal and Bangladesh witnessed recurrent partitions throughout their history: during 1905, 1947, and 1971, which ultimately produced the new nation-state of Bangladesh.
Bengal’s multiple partitions have reinforced the idea of “othering” on both sides of the border. Precolonial policies of divide and rule have consolidated ethnic divisions over the years with the question of “citizenship” for Bengali Muslims in India and violence against Bengali Hindu establishments in Bangladesh. This process of everyday “othering” of communities based on religion has created complex relationships between Bengalis, who otherwise share the same language, culture, and customs. These events have systematically ruptured the process of state-making in the region; it was only in 2015 when India and Bangladesh signed the historic Land Boundary Agreement, which allowed for the international border between the two states to be formally defined.
If India and Bangladesh want to develop an enduring relationship without succumbing to communal tensions, both states must increase people-to-people interactions and counter extremist rhetoric from both state and non-state actors. Bengalis on both sides of the border will greatly benefit from reduced religious violence and increased economic and political cooperation.
The Multiple Partition(s) of Bengal
The territory of Bengal came under the British crown in 1858. During the near-century British imperial rule (1858-1947) in the South Asian subcontinent, Bengal gained political ascendance as Kolkata – or Calcutta – became the capital of the British Empire in India and remained so until 1911.
Although many English-educated Bengalis eventually accepted British rule and adapted to the “quintessential English way of life,” the 1905 partition of Bengal marked the first time the territory split on religious grounds. The western half had a largely Hindu population, while the eastern wing was predominantly Muslim. While British colonial authorities claimed the partition was necessary for “administrative reform,” the division was opposed by the majority nationalist Bengali population that viewed themselves as primarily united through their culture and not divided by religion.
Although the British later reversed the 1905 partition, the narrative transformed in the following decades until 1947, as the British policy of “divide and rule” came to the fore. The establishment of the Dhaka-based Muslim League in 1906 supported the rise of the Muslim intelligentsia in Bengal that became avid advocates of Banglar Bibhajan, or “separation.” The Muslim intelligentsia had historically competed with the Bengali Hindu Bhadralok for employment opportunities while the economic disparity kept growing between the Hindu-landed aristocracy and the Muslim-majority peasantry. Economic divides between the two groups contributed to simmering religious tensions and foreshadowed the imminent crisis.
Excessive rioting and violence marked the 1947 Partition in Bengal, especially during the infamous Calcutta Killings of 1946, which preceded the call for “Direct Action” and the “Demand for Pakistan.” The Noakhali riots followed later in the same year. These incidents saw abject butchery on the streets of Bengal and convinced political leaders that the partitioning of British India was inevitable. The riots acted as tinderboxes of the 1947 Partition as both religious communities grew fearful and untrustworthy of each other, eventually acquiescing to the idea of partition.
While the 1947 partition reinforced religious differences, its underlying causes lay in socioeconomic divides between communities. Brewing differences between West Pakistan, with a predominantly landowning, Punjabi, Urdu-speaking population, and rural, agriculturally-based Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis created ethnolinguistic tensions that culminated in the Mother Language Movement in East Pakistan. When West Pakistan refused to share power with its eastern flank, Bengal was partitioned a third time as Bengali Muslims chose to separate themselves from their Urdu-speaking counterparts in the west, creating the new state of Bangladesh in 1971.
The 1971 Partition proved the “Two Nation Theory,” which conceived Hindus and Muslims as belonging to two different nations in the Indian subcontinent, principally wrong. However, Indian assistance in Bangladesh’s creation failed to assuage fears between Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The mistrust of the “other” has carried forward to the present, where “othered” communities pose potential threats to opportunities or the right to freely practice one’s faith.
Impact on India-Bangladesh Relations
The distrust of the “other” within Indian and Bangladeshi society is a permanent legacy of Partition and has negatively impacted the India-Bangladesh bilateral relationship. While there have been substantial strides in India-Bangladesh relations in recent years, with the relationship’s strength often touted at the federal level, rising majoritarianism, interreligious tensions, and ongoing disputes over water sharing, continue to make the relationship vulnerable to shocks that can sour people-to-people ties across the border.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed electoral victories in 2014 and 2019, majoritarian forces have attempted to redefine the idea of India: painting minorities, especially Muslims, as “foreign agents” who are not part of a “Hindu” India. This narrative has permeated across caste and class lines, aggravating social relations—and even initiating violence—between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority in India. Indigenous Bengali Muslims have been labeled “termites” by Home Minister Amit Shah, contributing to accusations that they illegally entered the country from Bangladesh and encroached on territory and assets owned by Bengali Hindus.
Bangladesh has also experienced communal violence, as the systematic targeting of Bangladeshi Hindus has led to mass migration and displacement over the years. Political events within India’s borders, such as the debates on laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), have also fueled at times toxic hostility between the afflicted communities in Bangladesh.
These events have provided fodder to the hardwired mnemonic communities in India and Bangladesh who have used the CAA-NRC issue to reinforce parochial ideas within the public sphere in both countries — vitiating the already vitiated politicized and polarized environment further. This induced polarization could reinforce the idea of “othering” of the minority community in either country and then lead to their ‘coerced exit’ from their ‘homes’ to distant lands — thereby triggering another human catastrophe of the magnitude of the partition.
Massive population displacement could be the by-product of this tragedy that would then exacerbate the refugee crisis in both countries – potentially affecting collective regional security in South Asia. This process has already begun with the Bengali Muslim being misrecognised as Bangladeshis in India, while Bangladeshi Hindus facing outright discrimination in Bangladesh due to the spillover effects of Hindu majoritarianism in India.
Similarly, as social media disinformation campaigns against minorities in India and Bangladesh lead to violent flare-ups, factions in domestic politics can hinder further development of political relations. For instance, India sat on the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh for several years as some political factions felt that the agreement would lead to a loss of territory for India. The Teesta water negotiations continue to be in a ‘stalemate’ as the leading political party in West Bengal is unwilling to share the waters of the river as increased access to the river water to Bangladesh may adversely impact farming practices in North Bengal – a region that depends heavily on agriculture.
Although the people in undivided Bengal viewed themselves as inherently Bangali despite their differing religious affiliations, little attempt has been made on the state-to-state level to consolidate ties between Banglar duti chokh (“Bengal’s two eyes”) after Bengal’s multiple partitions.
The 75th anniversary of Partition also comes when the repeated truncation of the collective matrubhoomi (motherland) along with themistrust between sections of the Hindu and Muslim Bengali population has come to impact ordinary Bengalis on both sides of the border – many of whom have regularly called for improving ties between the people at the grassroots level.
While public animosities have prevented cross-border reunions in the past, a more liberalized visa regime that promotes cultural, economic, and educational exchange can be encouraged to continue to promote ties on the people-to-people level. At the grassroots level, the bilateral exchange of boundary enclaves or chitmahals – pockets of land belonging to Bangladesh embedded in India and vice-versa — has made some progress in resolving the border dispute. However, chitmahal residents have still yet to gain greater mobility and access across the border. This is especially true of the people living along the Dahagram-Angarpota enclaves and the “Tin Bigha Corridor”: strategically located territories located at the border. India has leased the “Tin Bigha” corridor to Bangladesh in perpetuity so that Bangladesh can access the Dahagram-Angarpota enclaves. However, despite the concessions, life for the enclave residents is difficult as they continue to be sandwiched between the territorial limits of the two countries.
While reflecting on the lasting legacies of Bengal’s multiple partitions, the Indian and Bangladeshi governments must look at their bilateral relationship beyond the scope of the strategic and economic lens to facilitate greater integration between their respective Bengali populations.
Image 1: Wikimedia Commons