Why Do Bangladeshis Seem Indifferent to Partition?

The author’s grandparents sitting with some of their children, including his mother age 9, second from right, in the courtyard of their East Pakistan home in the early 1950s. Credit Courtesy of K. Anis Ahmed

In 1948, a year after the partition of India, my maternal grandparents moved from Calcutta to Dhaka, crossing from West Bengal in India to East Bengal, or East Pakistan — now Bangladesh. There, they built a tin-shed house in the new neighborhood of Dhanmondi, known before only for its paddy fields (dhan). At the time, the area was so desolate that every night my grandfather would fire his double-barreled shotgun to ward off foxes and thieves.

Two years later, he built the first brick and concrete house in the area, which soon enough filled up with one- and two-story bungalows, each with its own lawn. His house looked no different from the others, but it harbored a surprising secret: He had built it with a foundation that could support seven stories. As far back as 1950, he had told my grandmother, “A day will come when you won’t be able to see anything but people in this city.” And indeed, while at some point other lovely houses in the neighborhood had to be torn down in order to be built back up taller, his children just added new floors.

When I was growing up, such stories struck me as nothing more than proof that my grandfather was eccentric and a visionary. But how we fashion our family history also reflects our collective memory. And when years later I began to examine, for a research project in comparative literature, why Bangladeshis relate to partition differently than do Indians and Pakistanis, I found clues to an answer right in my family lore.

Most Indians and Pakistanis look at partition as an enduring tragedy and with an overwhelming sense of sadness. The event is lamented for its tremendous violence and its deaths, and marks the loss of territory and homes. For Indians and Pakistanis, it also represents the abrupt truncating of a sense of self. British colonialism had hoped to unite regional groups from Afghanistan to the edge of Burma under a broader national, perhaps civilizational, “Indian” identity. The advent of a separate state for Pakistan announced that project’s defeat.

In contrast, Bangladeshis’ response to partition can seem to verge on indifference. For us, Aug. 15, the day of India’s independence in 1947, represents first and foremost the brutal murder many years later, in 1975, of our own founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Our seminal historical event is the Liberation War of 1971, during which up to three million Bangladeshis may have been killed by the Pakistani Army and its local collaborators as they tried to crush the movement for independence.

Some argue that the enormity of that later war suborned the memory of the earlier split. This may be true, but it is not the entire story.

The Liberation War of Bangladesh is indeed the most momentous event for the people who were once East Bengalis, then East Pakistanis and now Bangladeshis: It conferred on us the pride of standing as an equal among the nations of the world. Other subnational groups in both India and Pakistan also chafed at the gross inequities committed by an imposing federated state. Yet only in Bangladesh did rebellion against such injustice and the idea of a distinct cultural identity — in this case, Bengali and secular — lead to a new nation.

But partition had paved the way. So while the importance of 1971 cannot be overstressed for Bangladeshis, to think that partition has only been subsumed here by a bigger and more recent event also misses the point.

To explain, allow me to return to the story of my family — a story similar to that of many other Muslim families who arrived from the other side of the border.

You see, my grandparents, two Muslims living in Hindu-majority West Bengal, did not move to East Bengal out of fear. My grandmother came from a large and prosperous clan in a town adjacent to Calcutta. She recalled that during religious riots in 1946, men in her neighborhood guarded all its entrances, wielding swords. As Muslims who held a dominant position in their Muslim-majority corner of town, my grandparents didn’t face the terrible violence of the time.

A portrait of the author’s grandparents, c. 1950. Credit Courtesy of K. Anis Ahmed

But if they felt secure enough even then, why leave a year after partition? The answer is quite simple: To them, East Pakistan was not a land of exile, but a land of opportunity.

The contrast in the fortunes of my ancestors who moved to Dhaka versus those who stayed back in Calcutta is telling. My grandparents’ children in Bangladesh have gone on to hold high offices at home and even internationally. The ones who entered business have enjoyed tremendous success. Their cousins in Calcutta, who are a minority there today, enjoy prosperous middle-class lives, mainly running small businesses. No one approaches the exalted heights reached by their relatives in the new country, or local Hindus with comparable job qualifications.

Yet to write off the difference simply as a function of a majoritarian advantage is to miss a subtler point about who made the move and why. Many Hindus of East Bengal had good reason to fear for their safety after horrific riots and rapes against them there in the late 1940s. But many of the Muslims of West Bengal, especially the more privileged ones, who crossed into East Pakistan were often the more ambitious members of their families and came into the new country to seek new fortunes.

Of the 15 million people who crossed the borders of Bengal and Punjab, in western India, at the time of partition, only 700,000 moved to East Bengal, most of them from West Bengal, with smaller numbers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Bengali Muslims suffered less violence than other groups. For many of them the move was voluntary, indeed opportunistic. And their hope of a better future, rather than the mere search for a safe haven, has given rise to a different kind of memory about that period: one less laden with grief and often taut with the excitement of new possibilities.

Of course, even those Bengali Muslims experienced some longing for what they had left behind. My grandmother would recount fondly her uncle taking her to the tearoom Flurys, a Calcutta landmark. Some of our relatives from the city swapped homes with the famous Bengali poet Buddhadev Bose in Dhaka. Later in school, I read Bose’s mesmerizing account of the monsoon rains beating down on his tin-roof house, but my relatives who took up residence there remained homesick for Calcutta. Their gentle nostalgia and my grandmother’s and that of other displaced Bengali Muslims is part of our muted history, and part of why our history is muted.

Seven decades on, partition may be a bigger psychic presence for Indians and Pakistanis than it was in years closer to the event. For Bangladeshis, who tend to gloss over its brutality as a pathology of the moment, it is but an echo of the distant past.

K. Anis Ahmed is a writer based in Bangladesh and publisher of the Dhaka Tribune.

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