The Financial Express

Bengali leadership in pre-partition freedom struggle

Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India

It is undeniable that the leaders in Bengal and in Utter Pradesh spearheaded the freedom struggle against the British rule at the dawn of the 20th century. It was in Dhaka; the Muslim League was created in 1906 as a political organization to safeguard the interests of the Muslims in undivided India. Though Nawab Salimullah and other Muslim leaders from Bengal organized the congregation of around 3,000 Indian Muslim leaders in Dhaka that led to the creation of All India Muslim League, the top leaderships of the party did not remain with them. Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah, popularly known as Agha Khan III, became the president of the Muslim League and Sayed Hassan from Utter Pradesh became the Secretary General. The headquarters of the party was relocated to Aligarh and a few years later it was moved to Lucknow, Utter Pradesh.

It is argued that Bengal was undergoing a period of turmoil following its partition in 1905. East Bengal was annexed with Assam and formed a new province much to the content of Bengali Muslims as they gained majority in population. They were able to seek new opportunities in the fields of education, trade and government service. The Dhaka University was set up in 1905 to advance the education amongst the Bengali Muslims. The vivisection of Bengal was fiercely opposed by the Hindus. Prominent personalities including the Tagore voiced support for the unification of Bengal. Political agitation over the years gained momentum. In 1911, the partition was annulled, and Bengal was reunited but the headquarters of All India Muslim League never returned to Dhaka.

The Indian National Congress was created in 1885 in Bombay to achieve the right of self- determination for the people of India. Leaders across religious divide joined the organization. The organization started setting up its units in different provinces and invited the elites to assume the state leaderships. Soon it transformed into the mouthpiece of the people of India.Womesh Chandra Banerjee became the President of All India National Congress. Shubash Basu in mid-1930 was elected as the president of the Congress but left the organization as he developed irreconcilable differences with Supreme leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Chittaranjan Das, a veteran lawyer from Calcutta, rose to prominence due to his pursuit of liberal and non-communal politics but could not ascend to the top position of the Congress. Even after India won independence, noBengali leader could ever assume the presidency of Indian National Congress.

Pakistan Resolution, popularly known as the Lahore Resolution, was passed at the All India Muslim League session in Lahore in 1940. The resolution which for the first time demanded in unequivocal term the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims encompassing the Muslim majority provinces was moved by veteran Bengali leader Abul Kassem Fazlul Huq, then the Prime Minister of Bengal. The historic session was presided over by Sir Mohammed Iqbal who was neither a politician nor a statesman. He was a distinguished poet in Urdu literature and had large admirers in the region. Prominent Bengali leaders including Khawaja Nazim Uddin, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy (both became prime ministers of Pakistan later on), Tamizuddin Khan, Maulana Akram Khan were in attendance of the session, but none got the privilege to preside over the Lahore session of the Muslim League.

During 1940s both Indian Congress and the Muslim League had to negotiate with successive British Viceroys on the question of independence of India and the creation of Pakistan. The demands of the two major political parties were anathema to each other. While the Congress stood for independence of "Akhanda Bharat" the Muslim League would not settle with anything short of Pakistan. The Congress claimed to represent the people of India across religious divide, but the Muslim League repudiated the Congress claim and instead maintained that it represented the overwhelming Muslim population in India. The question of "who represents whom" turned into conundrum when "Jamate Ulamae Hind" led by Maulana Hussein Ahmed Madani claimed that it represented the conservative Muslims in India and that the party opposed cleaving of India along religious divide.

In the political discourse and parleys with the British, the Congress was ably led by M.K.Gandhi, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and the Muslim League was represented by its leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan and Choudhury Khaliquzaman. The Congress high commands were from Gujrat, Bombay and Utter Pradesh. Maulana Azad was a resident of Calcutta. He had excellent command over Arabic and Urdu but had little acquaintance with Bengali language and culture. On the Muslim League side, Jinnah was from Bombay and Liaqat Ali Khan and Choudhury khaliquzaman came from Utter Pradesh.

The high commands of the two major political parties did not have Bengali politicians amongst them, underscored that the Bengali leaderships remained very much at the provincial levels. The high commands of both parties seemed contended at the exclusion of Bengali politicians at the central level.

Members of the high commands were chosen not necessarily on merit - loyalty to the party chief played a decisive role. Maulana Azad, in his book India Wins Freedom, wrote, "Sardar Patel belonged to Gandhiji's inner circle, and was very dear to him. In fact, Sardar Patel owed his entire political existence to Gandhiji. Sardar Patel and Dr. Rajendra Prasad were entirely the creation of Gandhiji………. It was Gandhiji who made Sardar Patel a member of the Congress Working Committee. Again, it was because of Gandhiji that he became President of the Congress in 1931." In case of the Muslim League, situation was no different.

Following the declaration of independence in mid-August 1947, Jinnah retuned to Karachi and declared him as the Governor General of Pakistan. He appointed a seven-member cabinet and Liaqat Ali Khan as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The members of the cabinet were Ibrahim Ismail Chundrigar, Sardar Abdur Rob Nishtar, Raja Ghazanfar Ali, Ghulam Mohammed, Jugendra Nath Mandal and Fazlur Rahman.Liaqat Ali Kahn and Chundrigar were from amongst the immigrants from India; Abdur Rob Nishtar came from NWFP, Ghazanfar Ali and Ghulam Mohamed were from Punjab. Mandal and Fazlur Rahman were selected from East Pakistan. Both Mandal and Fazlur Rahman had poor political profile and were hardly known to people. They were chosen due to their loyalty to Jinnah. They turned out to be invertebrate and incompetent.

Jinnah invited Suhrawardy to join the central cabinet but the latter declined arguing that his stay in Calcutta was pivotal to the security of the Muslims left behind in West Bengal. Jinnah subsequently offered several other portfolios including those of Governor of Punjab, High Commissioner in India, Special Envoy to Europe but Suhrawardy did not accept. Jinnah felt disenchanted and included Khawaja Shahab Uddin from Dhaka when he expanded the cabinet in December 1947. Pirzada Abdus Sattar and Zafar Ullah Khan from Punjab were also inducted in the cabinet.

Suhrawardy could not continue in Calcutta for too long. He found India unhospitable after the assassination of Gandhi and returned to Dhaka and then to Karachi. By that time, his political adversaries had consolidated their positionsand isolated him. Liaqat Ali Khan was uncomfortable with Suhrawardy due to latter's popularity in East Pakistan and applied all means to keep him away from power. Had Suhrawardy accepted Jinnah's invitation and joined the government, he would have emerged as one of the most consummate and unifying leaders of the new nation.

Jinnah was suffering from tuberculosis. His health deteriorated and died in September 1948. Khawaja Nazim Uddin became the Governor General of Pakistan. On the other side of the border, Bengali Hindu leaders Sharat Basu, Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, Dr. Bidan Chandra Roy found no berth at the union government in New Delhi. They had to remain contended at the provincial level.

The writer is a former official of the United Nations.
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