United Bengal Movement a political proposal to solve the communal question on the eve of the termination of British rule in India. In April-May 1947 it became clear that the Partition of India was ineviatable. huseyn
shaheed suhrawardy, the Premier of the province of Bengal, formally launched his idea of a sovereign state for undivided Bengal. Almost simultaneously sarat chandra bose came forward with his proposal for a Sovereign Socialist Republic of Bengal. There had been differences of opinion between Suhrawardy and Sarat Bose regarding the sovereign status of Bengal, but the primary motive of both of them was to resist the partition of the province. While the former wanted a completely independent state for united Bengal outside the union of India, the latter visualised Bengal to be a sovereign socialist republic within the Indian union.
Both, however, vehemently protested the move for the partition of Bengal, initiated by most Congress and hindu mahasabha leaders of the province. Some Hindu and Muslim leaders of Bengal supported Suhrawardy and Sarat Bose in their move. Prominent among them were Kiran Shankar Roy (Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in Bengal Assembly), Satya Ranjan Bakshi (Sarat Bose's Secretary), abul hashim (Secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League), Fazlur Rahman (Revenue Minister of the Province), mohammad
ali chaudhury (Finance Minister in Suhrawardy's cabinet) and others. For a while, the proposal was discussed both at private and public bodies and important negotiations took place among Bengal leaders.
In fact, the concept of a sovereign independent Bengal had its origins in the past. The adoption of the lahore resolution in March 1940 was a significant step towards highlighting the demand for separate homelands for the Muslims of the two Muslim majority zones of India. But the Lahore Resolution remained undefined until April 1946. To the Bengal League leaders, the Pakistan scheme was mainly a proposal for the establishment of two sovereign and independent states in the two Muslim majority zones of India. The majority opinion, represented by Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim, favoured some kind of Greater Bengal consisting of the whole of Bengal and Assam plus an adjacent part of the district of Purnea in Bihar which had a Muslim majority.
khwaja nazimuddin (an influential member of the working committee of Bengal as well as of All India muslim league) and
Maulana mohammad akram khan (President of Bengal Muslim League) were the exponents of the minority opinion. They wanted a more homogeneous Pakistan excluding the Hindu-majority Burdwan Division and including the rest of Bengal, the whole of Assam, and some portion of the Purnea District in Bihar.
ali jinnah came out officially with his views on the issue in the Muslim Legislators' Convention at Delhi held on 7-9 April 1946. His definition of Pakistan led his followers in Bengal to reconsider their earlier stand on Pakistan. They now began to support Jinnah's stand for Akhand Pakistan comprising the whole of Bengal and Assam in the North East and the Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province in the North West of India. But it seems probable that the Hashim-Suhrawardy group of the Bengal League conceived the idea of East Pakistan in terms of an independent and sovereign Greater Bengal since it was fully consistent with the scheme of Pakistan as envisaged in the Lahore Resolution. Sometime later both Suhrawardy and Hashim, being influenced by this ideal, initiated the move for a united independent Bengal through negotiations with provincial Congress leaders like Sarat Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy. Indeed, Suhrawardy was imbued with such an idea long before some Hindus organised a movement for partition and even before the calcutta riot (1946).
After Attlee's February Declaration (1947) and the arguments advanced by the indian national congress for the partition of the Punjab and Bengal following the declaration, a few politicians of Bengal, including Suhrawardy, thought of maintaining the integrity of the province as a sovereign state. They felt the necessity of making Bengal a self-sufficient state with its own constitution. The Premier of Bengal emphasised the formation of a coalition ministry in the province. He further emphasised that Bengal belonged to the Bengalis and was indivisible. One portion of the province depended on the other and all were entitled to participate in its administration. He hoped that all sections of the people of the province would want to live and work for making Bengal a glorious land. Suhrawardy maintained that independence would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in Bengal. Hashim urged upon the Congress and the Muslim leaders of Bengal to make joint efforts for the settlement of their affairs peacefully and happily outside the aegis of the British administration. Among the Congress leaders of the province, Sarat Bose shared the Premier's view on an undivided Bengal.
During the days of April-May 1947, the Hindu press and politicians began an intense movement for partitioning Bengal. The British Declaration of February 1947 clearly foreshadowed the partition of India. As it became clear to the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha leaders that the partition of the country was inevitable, they insisted on retaining the Hindu-majority areas of Bengal and Hindu & Sikh majority areas of Punjab within the union of India. The Bengal Provincial Congress Committee formally declared in favour of partition of the province and the creation of a separate Hindu majority province (West Bengal) which included Calcutta within the union of India. Almost simultaneously, the Bengal Provincial Hindu Mahasabha took a resolution proclaiming its firm resolve that the Hindus of Bengal, at least the ones in Hindu majority areas, should remain within the Union of India and should not be separated from the rest of India. shyama prasad mukherjee was able to win the majority of Bengal Congress and Bengal Hindu representatives in the Central and Provincial Legislative Assemblies to his side. In a press conference held in Delhi on 27 April 1947, Suhrawardy put forward his plan for a united independent Bengal. Following him Abul Hashim declared his views on the same issue through a statement issued in Calcutta on 29 April 1947. A few days later, Sarat Bose put forward his proposals for a Sovereign Socialist Republic of Bengal.
These schemes were launched in an atmosphere of mutual distrust between the two major communities of India in general and Bengal in particular. The Pakistan movement led by Jinnah had become popular among the Muslims of Bengal in the post-Lahore Resolution days. The Bengal Provincial Muslim League began to mobilise Muslim public opinion in support of the demand for Pakistan. Congress and Hindu Mahasabha leaders of the province were alarmed at the prospect of the
'Pakistanisation' of the whole of Bengal. The inevitable increase in communal tensions made it difficult for a Congress-League accord in the province. The situation was aggravated by the All India Muslim League's recourse to the strategy of 'Direct Action' to achieve Pakistan. While direct action day was observed peacefully in other provinces, it turned violent in
Calcutta where the Government was under the control of the Muslim League. It had a major impact on the formation of Hindu public opinion in favour of the demand for the partition of the province.
Ultimately, Bengal Provincial Hindu Mahasabha and the majority of the Congress leaders of the province set aside the scheme of a sovereign Bengal. They mobilised a large section of Bengali Hindus against Suhrawardy's move. They were of the opinion that it was nothing but a political strategy to establish Pakistan in the whole of Bengal. The Hindu press did everything it could to convince Hindu opinion against the united Bengal formula. The Hindu Mahasabha influenced Bengali Congressmen to campaign against the move for an independent Bengal.
While the majority of the Bengal Congressmen were opposed to Suhrawardy's scheme for an independent Bengal, the opinion in the League circles also came in favour of the partion. The majority of the Bengal Muslim Leaguers, led by Khwaja Nazimuddin and Maulana Akram Khan, wanted Bengal to be an integral part of the single state of Pakistan, and not an independent state. Nazimuddin, Akram Khan and their followers were just as adamant as Jinnah about Pakistan. They firmly believed in Jinnah's Two Nations Theory.
In spite of the opposition from most Congress and League
leaders, Suhrawardy and Hashim continued their efforts to reach an agreement
with Hindu leaders of the province on the basis of their schemes. Suhrawardy
met Frederick Burrows, Jinnah and Lord mountbatten,
at different times and had satisfactory talks with them. Sarat Bose raised
a voice of protest against the AICC's March resolution. Kiran Shankar
was convinced that if League leaders were prepared to come forward with
some offer to the Hindus, the province could still be kept unified. From
the beginning of May 1947, the Bengal unificationists thus came closer
to each other. They met Gandhi with their proposals during the latter's
visit to Calcutta and sought his suggestions. They also tried to persuade
the Congress and the League High Commands to accept their views. Finally,
a tentative agreement was reached at a meeting, held on 20 May 1947, in
Calcutta among Bengali leaders who were favourable to the move for a united
and independent Bengal. The following were the terms of the agreement:
Bengal would be a Free State. The
Free State of Bengal would decide its relations with the rest of
The Constitution of the Free State of Bengal
would provide for election to the Bengal Legislature on the basis
of a joint electorate and adult franchise, with reservation of seats
proportionate to the population among Hindus and Muslims. The seats
set aside for Hindus and Scheduled Caste Hindus would be distributed
amongst them in proportion to their respective population, or in
such manner as may be agreed among them. The constituencies would
be multiple constituencies and the votes would be distributive and
not cumulative. A candidate who got the majority of the votes of
his own community cast during the elections and 25 percent of the
votes of the other communities so cast, would be declared elected.
If no candidate satisfied these conditions, that candidate who got
the largest number of votes of his own community would be elected.
On the announcement by His Majesty's Government
that the proposal of the Free State of Bengal had been accepted
and that Bengal would not be partitioned, the present Bengal Ministry
would be dissolved. A new interim Ministry would be brought into
being, consisting of an equal number of Muslims and Hindus (including
Scheduled Caste Hindus) but excluding the Chief Minister. In this
Ministry, Chief Minister would be a Muslim and the Home Minister
Pending the final emergence of a Legislature
and a Ministry under the new constitutions, Hindus (including Scheduled
Caste Hindus) and Muslims would have an equal share in the Services,
including military and police. The Services would be manned by Bengalis.
A Constituent Assembly composed of 30 persons,
16 Muslims and 14 non-Muslims, would be elected by Muslim and non-Muslim
members of the Legislature respectively, excluding Europeans.
After arriving at an agreement among themselves, Suhrawardy,
Kiran Shankar Roy and Sarat Chandra Bose tried to secure the approval
of the Congress and the League High Commands for the terms of the tentative
agreement. But the prevailing misunderstanding between the Congress and
the League leaders and the changing political situation completely unnerved
the authors of the agreement. The majority of the Congress and League
leaders of Bengal denounced the terms of the agreement outright. Influential
Hindu dailies of Calcutta and the press belonging to the Khwaja group
of the Bengal League started campaigning against the terms of the agreement.
While the Khwaja group thought that the agreement would amount to a complete
surrender to the Hindus, Congress and Hindu Mahasabha leaders felt that
it was designed entirely to extend the frontiers of Pakistan. On 28 May
1947, the Working Committee of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League at
its meeting under the Presidentship of Akram Khan denounced the terms
of the tentative agreement and reiterated its adherence to the League
demand for Pakistan and expressed full confidence in the leadership of
Jinnah. The Bengal unity formula received a further setback when, following
the statement of the Congress Working Committee, Kalipada Mukherjee, the
General Secretary of the Bengal Congress discarded it through a statement
issued on 1 June 1947.
In all-India politics, the main opposition to the proposal for a sovereign independent Bengal came from the Indian National Congress. The Congress High Command was frightened of the possibility of permanent domination of Hindus by Muslims in a united Bengal. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were totally opposed to the concept of a sovereign Bengal. Nehru thought that through this scheme the Muslim League in Bengal would force practically the whole of Bengal to join Pakistan. He further held the view that if Bengal were to remain united it should continue to be a part of the Union of India. He made it clear that Congress would regard a separate state of Bengal as an extension of Pakistan. Sardar Patel too offered determined resistance to the move for Bengal unity. His correspondence with influential Hindu leaders of Bengal during April-June 1947 indicates his role in directing Hindus to the partition of the province as well as his fanatical opposition to the idea of a sovereign Bengal. He condemned those Hindu leaders of Bengal who had got themselves involved in negotiations with the Muslim League leaders of the province.
The approach of the Muslim League High Command to the terms of the tentative agreements was also not favourable. True, Jinnah, was not totally opposed to the proposition. It is evident that he had once offered some encouragement to the scheme. Considering the arguments of Mountbatten that in case of a division of India there should be a partition of the Punjab and Bengal, Jinnah initially was ready to agree to the proposal of a united independent Bengal. His primary consideration was to avert the partition of Bengal; the possibility of a potential alliance between an independent Bengal and Pakistan in the future was of secondary importance to him. But he could not finally settle his mind in favour of the issue. Although apparently he had given his blessings to the move, several factors seemed to have been responsible for making Jinnah reconsider his stand. He rejected the idea in the end, perhaps he felt that it was after all a deviation from the creed of Pakistan. He was not interested in offering any concessions such as joint electorate etc, as incorporated within the terms of the tentative agreement.
The Premier of Bengal had sincerely felt that the formation of a coalition Ministry in the province would be an important step towards bringing the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal closer together as well as preventing the province from being partitioned. But Jinnah never considered these issues to be matters of great urgency. His veto to a coalition cabinet in Bengal proved to be fatal to the Suhrawardy-Bose Formula.
The British were never totally allergic to the idea of a sovereign
independent Bengal. Burrows, the Governor of the province, was not at
all in favour of the partition of the province. In fact, he was inclined
to the Suhrawardy- Bose Formula and had tried his best for its implementation
to the last. The Viceroy was also not unwilling to offer united Bengal
the status of a Dominion along with India and Pakistan. He had assured
Suhrawardy that the British would accept any settlement about Bengal approved
by the League and the Congress High Commands. But the British had to look
at the question from an all India point of view. They were not eager to
compromise the safety of the whole of India for the interest of one province.
Hence in the long run the failure of the scheme was inevitable.The final
blow to the concept was given when the Congress and the League High Commands
accepted Mountbatten Plan (the 3rd June Plan of 1947) for partition of
India and for transfer of power to the two Dominions of India and Pakistan.
[Chitta Ranjan Misra]