An Extract From Salil Tripathi’s ‘The Colonel Who Would Not Repent’

On a cold winter night, driving through a dark street without lights, we reached a house by the railway tracks of Kushtia to listen to Lalon’s songs. Lalon Fokir is regarded as one of the founders of Baul music. He was a nineteenth-century poet who abhorred religions divisions and, without getting pedantic or philosophical, combined the emotions of the Bhakti movement with Sufi traditions. An elderly man with a flowing beard, wearing a khadi kurta and lungi greeted us. Snacks and soft drinks were passed around as various singers, trained in the Lalon tradition, came before us, singing one song after another, their words simple, their music melodious, their bodies swaying gently, their faces thrust skyward, the moon casting its gentle glow in that little square. Occasionally, a train passed by, its mechanical chug-chug trying to override the music, but the singers disregarded it; their devotion was absolute, their voice continued uninterrupted, their eyes now closed, they were one with their music.

Everyone wonders, ‘What’s Lalon’s faith?’ Lalon says: ‘I’ve never “seen” the face
 Of Faith with these eyes of mine.’

Circumcision marks a Muslim man, 
What then marks a Muslim woman?
A Brahmin I recognise by the holy thread; How do I recognise a Brahmin woman?

Everyone wonders, ‘What’s Lalon’s faith?’

Some wear a garland and some wear the tasbi (prayer beads) That’s what marks the Faiths apart.
 But what marks them apart when
 One is born or at the time of death?

Everyone wonders, ‘What’s Lalon’s faith?’

These songs and emotions that had kept Bengalis together were not able to withstand the whirlwind of hatred that was spreading through the countryside. Gandhi had pleaded in his time to keep India united. But by late 1946, his relevance had declined. The Partition was seen as necessary and considered inevitable. Curzon had carved India first, in 1905. Even though Britain had to bring the two Bengals together within six years, a mere thirty-six years later, another partition became reality.

There was another option—Suhrawardy proposed an independent Bengal, affiliated with neither India nor Pakistan. Suhrawardy realised quickly that if Bengal remained partitioned, it would be economically unviable. The coal mines would be in Bihar in India, and industries and other jute mills in Indian Bengal. But 80 per cent of jute was being produced in East Bengal.

A hard border would cripple trade and commerce. Railway links were intertwined. East Bengal had remained agrarian, with limited industry. Calcutta was the trade and industrial hub, and now in India. Most government offices too were in Calcutta, and most high-ranking officials in the civil administration were Hindus and expected to leave for India. They were replaced by officers from West Pakistan—a stop-gap arrangement which would have crucial long- term consequences.

In late May 1947, Sarat Chandra Bose and Suharawardy announced a political agreement supporting an independent, united Bengal, but the proposal got little support from the grassroots. The riots of 1946 had scared many Hindus, who preferred safety and security under Congress rule. Besides, Suharawardy wanted to maintain separate electorates for the two religions, a prospect Bose disagreed with. The plan failed, as both the Congress and Hindu Maha Sabha, a Hindu nationalist organisation, opposed it.

On 20 June 1947, the Bengal Legislative Assembly had to vote on the proposed partition of Bengal. Of the 216 votes cast, 90 favoured staying within India. Legislators from Muslim areas voted 106-35 in favour of joining Pakistan. Non-Muslims then agreed for the partition. A referendum on 7 July in Sylhet voted in favour of Pakistan.40

The mass transfer of refugees between India and Pakistan on the western border has been well documented. There are the photographs Henri Cartier- Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White took, Khushwant Singh 1956 novel Train to Pakistan, and Sadaat Hasan Manto’s fiction. Stories on the eastern frontier were no less painful. There was bloodshed. In despair, Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote:

Spread your message once more, O Hazrat! From the heavens, your message of equality I cannot bear this cruel bloodbath anymore this strife within humanity41

But the violence subsided soon. While in Punjab, the violence was continuous and widespread in the year before the Partition, leading to an immediate transfer of population, in Bengal, cross-border migration was far more gradual, partly because the violence was largely confined to Calcutta and Noakhali. Until the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the border was permeable.

I have met many Bangladeshis in their fifties and sixties who remember travelling from Dhaka to Calcutta until that war, as though they were travelling within one country.

Once the Partition was announced, many land-owning, upper-caste Hindus and civil servants left for India immediately. Poorer Hindus, many of them sharecroppers whose only property was the piece of land they tilled, stayed back in East Pakistan, as did poorer Muslims in India. The 1951 census of India suggests that some 2.52 million refugees came to India from East Pakistan, of whom nearly 80 per cent remained in West Bengal. The same year, Pakistan’s census showed 6,71,000 refugees as having come to East Pakistan from India.

While India had anticipated a population transfer in Punjab, and allocated land left behind by Muslims who left for Pakistan to Hindus and Sikhs who arrived from Pakistan, such a transfer was not expected in Bengal. Unable to take the burden of continued inflow of refugees on the eastern front, in 1950, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan signed a pact to prevent further population exchange in Bengal. Refugees who had already come would be taken back and their property returned. That did not happen.

Many years later, Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, who would move to India after facing threats to her life in Bangladesh from fundamentalist Muslims who threatened to kill her because she ridiculed them in her fiction, wrote a poem about the Partition:

Residents of Bikrampur landed on Gariahata crossing. Some came to Phultali from Burdwan

Some fled to Howrah from Jessore

From Netrokona to Ranaghat

From Murshidabad to Mymensingh

The outcome was inevitable

As when you release a wild bull in a flower garden Two parts of the land stretch out their thirsty hands

Towards each other. And in between the hands Stands the man-made filth of religion, barbed wire.

From the Indian side, the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak captured the pathos of that era. In his 1961 film, Komal Gandhar (Gandhar Sublime, sometimes also translated as the musical note, E Flat) there is a dramatic scene of a train hurtling towards its destination at great speed, and then suddenly coming to a halt, almost rudely. When you first watch it, you can almost feel the jolt, as though someone has suddenly applied emergency brakes. Bhrigu, the protagonist reaches out his hand, as if trying to touch the other side (which is now ‘Opar Bangla’, ‘the Other Bengal’), and says: ‘That is my country … how near is it. Still I can never reach there.’ Komal Gandhar was the second of a trilogy Ghatak made about Bengal’s division, the other films being Meghey Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) and Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, 1962). In his essay, ‘My Films’, Ghatak writes: ‘When the camera suddenly comes to a halt at the dead end of a railway track, where the old road to East Bengal has been snapped off, it raises (towards the close of the film) a searing scream in Anasuya’s heart.’42

Neither India nor Pakistan fully understood that cry of anguish.

Salil Tripathi was born in Bombay. He is a contributing editor at Mint and at Caravan. In the UK, he was board member of English PEN from 2009 to 2013, and co-chaired PEN’s Writers-at-Risk Committee. In November 2011, he won the third prize at the Bastiat Awards for Journalism about free societies, in New York. He was a correspondent in India from 1987 to 1990 and moved to Singapore (and later Hong Kong) from 1991 to 1999. He moved to London in 1999. Salil has written for many Indian and international publications. Salil's first book was Offence: The Hindu Case, about the rise of Hindu nationalism and its implications on free expression. His book on the Bangladesh War of Liberation, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy was published in November 2014 by the Aleph Book Company. His collection of travel writing will be published by Tranquebar in early 2015.

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