July 05, 2020
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While Bengal Bled...

Under the mute gaze of the State, millions of umbilical cords were severed

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While Bengal Bled...
THE descendants of Islam Khan, the Mughal subedar of Bengal, were not immune to religious prejudice. And so Dacca, the birthplace of the Muslim League, witnessed severe communal strife in the days leading up to the Partition. Adversity forced Hindus to learn to defend themselves. But they-never believed Partition would actually materialise. When the news came, my grandfather was dumbstruck. After a long silence, he muttered: "Pakistan will not survive long."

Near my house, across the main road, youngsters erected an imposing bamboo gate atop which they placed a huge cutout of Jinnah. They were ready to celebrate the birth of Pakistan. Others reacted to the gesture and dissuaded the youth. The rift marred the celebration. Secularists who sincerely wanted freedom were perturbed.

My reminiscences of the pre-Partition days haunt me. Near my school, the police lines were located in a dilapidated fort, a relic of Nawab Shaista Khan's times. We were often distracted by the sound of their alarm bells. And told that the police were being assembled--to ease tension in some neighbourhood. Classes would be dismissed and we would leave in a group under the supervision of a teacher.

In those days small issues could ignite great tension. Nothing was sacred: the annual fair near the famous Dhakeswari temple, the rath yatra and Janmashtami processions. Once, sitting on a high wall, I saw a colourful Janmashtami procession going by Merry children and stern policemen escorted lively, colourful Krishnas. Suddenly, the processionists and spectators were assailed by brickbats and other missiles from rooftops. The crowd ran for cover, several were injured and there was panic all around. The police failed to disperse the rioters. Rumours spread like wildfire. A mosque located in the court area close to the police superintendent's office was attacked and defiled. The local Congress leaders accused the police of deliberate inaction.

The rath yatra in my locality met a similar fate, but the devotees managed to repel the mischief-makers, Even sober people joined in the brickbats. I saw one of my teachers assisting a group of rioters. The police at an outpost close by seemed uninterested in quelling the violence. A few senior citizens tried to intervene, to no avail.

The morning of August 16, 1946, witnessed a massive confrontation in front of my house. The battle lasted four hours. The rioters carried corrugated tin sheets, placed them upright on the road and from behind this, threw brickbats and other missiles. Several shops were set ablaze. Coaches were dragged out from a stable, and razed. Terrified animals ran helter-skelter. Rioters battled each other with swords, spears and daggers, hurling expletives at each other. A young rioter was injured in the head and began bleeding profusely. Doctors administered oluntary first aid. The frenzied laments of shopowners, the screams of the coachmen, thick smoke and smouldering fires added to the eeriness in the air. Though I was just nine years old, I do recall that fire-fighters and the police, as had become routine, appeared much later--after everything was over. The aftermath was heart-rending. The rioters looted the house of a middleaged woman. After the inmates abandoned the house, she returned in the hope of salvaging some of her belongings. Tears in her eyes, she beseeched an armed constable to escort her But the tears did not move him.

Soon, we migrated to India. As the exodus gained momentum, families camped on railway platforms waiting for a place in the trains. Hundreds of families lived at the Goalanda steamer ghat in Bangladesh, hoping for a ferry ride to the other side. They were bitter and blamed the national leaders for allowing Partition. I remember an old man saying: "Did we struggle for Independence for this? Today, I am a refugee."

The train soon reached free Indian soil. Jaded passengers breathed the air of independence. Cries of Bande Mataram rent the air Sealdah station was packed with uprooted families. They knew no destination; their futures were uncertain. Disease, hunger, pestilence and uncertainty felled many. And those who reached West Bengal met a cold reception. Refugee students coped with merciless ragging and jeering in schools. Even my East Bengali patois was ridiculed.

What I remember of those times is the police apathy in suppressing communal tension. These childhood memories have actually helped me defuse communal situations in my career in the police. To me, indomitable will and administrative resoluteness is paramount in curbing communal tension. A lesson I learnt from pre-Partition days, when the Bengal government under Shaheed Suhrawardy was far from keen to dispel the communal discord raging in the cities and villages.

Today, one requires intensive training to cleanse the police force of communal bias. Arguments for proportionate representation in the force are specious. But this will only divide policemen on communal lines. It is an irony that few today share the feelings of the sizeable population that was forced to be aliens in their motherland.

(The author, an IPS officer ofthe 1963 batch, supervised Sanjay Gandhi's arrest in the Kissa Kursi Ka case and that of R.K. Dhawan and Dhirendra Brahmachari in a fraud case in 1978.)

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