• Book Extract: from The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities

    April 15, 2016

    Debjani Sengupta

    At a time of increasing communal polarisation, we present an excerpt from Debjani Sengupta's The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities (Cambridge University Press, 2016), which looks at the Noakhali riots and Mahatma Gandhi's efforts to placate communal tension.


    The Noakhali Riots and the Mahatma

    The Place

    Noakhali (1,658 sq. miles) and Tippera (2,531 sq. miles) were both in the Chittagong Division; Tippera had 3 towns and 4,007 villages while Noakhali had 2 towns and 1,738 villages. Thus, the area under consideration was largely rural, with a population predominantly Muslim1. The Noakhali District Gazetteer found the Hindu population divided into different castes and sub-castes like Brahman, Kayastha, Sudra, Sunri, Sutradhar, Teli, Jugi, Barui, Kumhar, Napit, Kaibartta, Namasudra and Bhuimali while the Muslims were divided into Sheikhs, Pathans, Saiyads with Nikari (fishdealers), Nagarchi (drummers) and Dai who were all Sunnis of the Hanafi sect. Apart from these main divisions there were some Christians, Jains and Buddhists, as well as tribal people in the two areas2. The country was

    a vast rice plain dotted over with numerous villages, where rich groves of areca-nut and coconut palms rising out from a dense undergrowth of Mandar trees and other shrubs, make every village look like a forest’ while south of the mainland lay a number of sandbank islands or chars "that are constantly changing their positions and boundaries".3

    Studies of this part of agrarian Bengal have indicated some significant reasons why the two districts were engulfed in riots. High prices of food-grains in the post-war years, the demobilization of military men and the abandonment of the rationing system were some economic features that formed the background to a rapidly deteriorating communal situation4. The economic interests of foreign colonial capital had long stunted the development of healthy democratic institutions in Bengal. Educated Bengali Hindus were in the throes of an economic discontent due to rising prices and falling standard of living that in turn increased racial antipathy and dislike of foreign rule. They distrusted the cooperation of Muslim politicians with the government that had brought about a rapid expansion of their social bases and a greater Muslim share in services and professions ate into their traditional privileges. On the other hand, the emergence of communalism became a pervasive political force, especially for the dominating Muslim cultivating families in East Bengal who wanted to wrest control of local administrative boards from high caste Hindus who had customarily dominated them. Long before the onset of the economic crisis brought about by the Inter-War depression, Hindus and Muslims had become aware of their communal identities and often found themselves in opposite camps over questions like the earlier Partition of Bengal (1905), the foundation of the University at Dhaka, the Bengal Pact, the Tenancy Amendment Bill of 1928 and a host of other issues5. This dimension of social conflict went on expanding and the "politics of the province came to be increasingly vitiated by racism, communalism, casteism, provincialism and factionalism"6. In the 1940s, the hardening of Muslim communal identity largely came about during the battle for the control of the predominantly Muslim peasantry of East Bengal by the Bengal Provincial Muslim League who aggressively used Muslim symbols to win peasant support for the Pakistan movement. Rather than challenging the League by taking up the agrarian cause, the Bengal Congress mirrored the League by identifying itself with Hindu landed interests7. Within the violent episodes of communal aggression, the various actors would play out their aggressions and anxieties. The image of Hindu women, abducted and raped by an external enemy, was often deployed in political mobilization through the early years of India’s freedom struggle. Earlier, it was deployed against British managers of tea gardens and jute mills. Later, an anti-Muslim strain crept in, especially in 1873, when it was used against the raiyat uprising in Pabna where the anti-landlord movement was projected as an anti-Hindu one. The campaign swept Bengal in the 1920s leading to a negation of the Bengal Pact and reports of abductions became points of mobilization for Hindu communalists8. From the 1920s, the running campaign by the Women’s Protection League (involving prominent Hindu bhadralok figures) against abductions by Muslims vitiated the communal atmosphere and although this tapered off temporarily after 1926, the mutual distrust between the two communities remained and was aggravated after the proposals of the Nehru Report of 1928 which Hindu communalists saw as granting concessions to Muslims9. From 1939, the Hindu Mahasabha launched its campaign towards the mobilization of the scheduled castes in Bengal. In eastern Bengal, in the districts of Mymensingh, Barisal and Noakhali, mobilization drives were carried out that led to heightened communal feelings as lower caste peasants were inflamed particularly during the 1941 census operations. Both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha traded charges of trying to influence enumeration by swelling their respective numbers against each other. The situation was particularly sensitive in the two Noakhali villages of Dattapara and Raipur that were later to witness horrific violence in 194610. Apart from these underlying frictions and tensions that marked the social and political life in Bengal, the immediate cause of the Noakhali riots was an outcome of the August carnage in Calcutta. Unlike previous instances of Hindu/ Muslim aggressions in East Bengal that had pitted each other over Muslim’s "religious rights" versus the Hindus "civil rights" in the case of playing of music in front of mosques, the Noakhali riots had distinct linkages to organized politics with underpining of economic and class aspirations11

    The Mahatma

    The riots began at Noakhali’s Sahapur Bazar and engulfed the most inaccessible villages in the district. Almost soon after, it spread to the adjoining areas of Chandpur and Tiperra12. The scale of violence was unprecedented and took everyone by surprise. By 22 October 1946, The Times in London was reporting 30,000 refugees in government relief camps and The Daily Mail on 18 October stated that "Eastern Bengal was aflame…with the worst Hindu-Muslim riots India has ever known." Hindustan Standard first reported the riots on 17 October and the headline announced that the earlier Calcutta riots in August 1946 paled into insignificance beside the carnage in Noakhali. On 30 October, in a secret letter from Lord Wavell to Pethick-Lawrence, the former expressed anxiety about the situation in Bengal:

    The events in Eastern Bengal could not have been more unfortunate… I see no prospect of securing a return of confidence in Eastern Bengal for a very long time, and I doubt whether many Hindus will be prepared to remain in their homes there13.

    Mahatma Gandhi had seen in the Calcutta riots a potential for greater violence; when the Noakhali riots broke out he decided that the East Bengal conflagration needed his personal touch. He was repeatedly questioned about why he was coming to Bengal when riots in Bombay and neighbouring Bihar were killing many more; and even after he arrived in East Bengal, he faced hostile queries from Muslim League functionaries about his presence there14. None of his close associates could predict what, if any good, would come of his trip to Noakhali. "All that I know", Gandhi admitted, "is that I won’t be at peace unless I go."15 He arrived on 7 November to that part of East Bengal, which required many days of travel and was "one of the least accessible flatlands of India," but it was a land green and enticing:

    All around us I find huge coconut and betel-nut palms, and a large variety of greens grow in their shade. The rivers are all [big] like the Indus, the Ganges, the Jumna and the Brahmaputra. They empty their waters into the Bay of Bengal.16

    It was a land in which the writer of these lines was to find "indescribable peace in the natural scenery around him" but that peace was "missing on the faces of men and women."17 The lovely verdant landscape and the horrors that unfolded all around was brought together in a contemporary perception of Noakhali: the place that was hitherto the periphery had suddenly come centre-stage:

    I had been ashamed of the insignificance of Noakhali…in the newspapers I often saw Dhaka, Barisal, Bankura, Shilchar being discussed…..but Noakhali – was that a place and was it ever newsworthy?…But now Noakhali had taken its revenge, a terrible revenge. Its name is now known all over in big bold letters, not only in Bengal or in India but everywhere else, in the newspapers of London and New York; its name is etched in blood in the heartbeats of women, in the pulse of mothers…..God knows, one can’t feel envy for this fortune. Gandhi is living there now, and in today’s world what can be more necessary than Gandhi?18

    Gandhi’s sojourn in Noakhali was accompanied by much public attention and his frugal way of life was a cynosure of many eyes:

    The house where we had put up consisted of a few detached huts made of wooden frames, with walls as well as thatches of galvanized iron sheets. The floor was mud…. Gandhiji occupied a spacious hut in the centre of a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by thick groves of areca and coconut. There were other huts nearby, only one having been completely destroyed and burnt during disturbances. Several large tanks also existed within the compound of the houses…During the disturbances, most of the inmates had taken refuge elsewhere; but when Gandhiji came and settled down in their home, they began to return in small numbers. Suspicion and a feeling of insecurity had gone too deep ….to be eradicated at one stroke even it were under the magic spell of Gandhiji’s presence.19

    At great personal risk, Gandhi lived in Noakhali for seven weeks (from 7 November 1946 to 2 March 1947), often walking miles to outlying villages affected by the riots, driven by a sense of a possible failure of his teachings of ahimsa. Noakhali was to be an acid test of his principles because Gandhi wanted to search and find new ways of applying the principles he knew were true. This unfamiliar part of Bengal was the ground where his ideas of nonviolence and ahimsa were to be tried and tested under the most difficult circumstances. Historians see these last months of his life as Gandhi’s "finest hour" when he displayed "his passionate anti-communalism" that was in many ways shaped by his unique personal qualities20. Phillips Talbot, an American reporter who met Gandhi in Noakhali, gives a few answers as to why Gandhi chose to stay in East Bengal.

    Politically, Gandhi has concluded that Hindu-Muslim bitterness threatens to postpone Indian freedom, and perhaps undercuts the role India might otherwise play in Asia. Having failed to bring the two communities together through high-level negotiation, he is testing his nonviolence and seeking a solution at the familiar village level. As a Hindu, moreover, he is incapable of ignoring the threat to his culture that arises from forced conversions. Wherever they occur, he must stamp them out. The first objective, obviously, can be attained, only by winning the support of Muslims. As the primary step, he is working to lift Hindu-Muslim relations from a religious to a political plane.21

    Gandhi was not simply interested in providing temporary relief to people; he was resolved to find a more permanent solution to the communal tensions that had rent the fabric of social and political life of the country at the fag end of his life22. Noakhali was a test case for him: if he failed there, all his teachings would be a lie. Obstinately, in the face of all opposition, Gandhiji refused to leave Noakhali.

    How did Gandhi choose to give form to his teachings in Noakhali? To bring about a turnaround to what he saw as India’s most pressing political and social problem he used himself and his band of satyagrahis as "exemplars," who by choosing the non-violent way, would instill in the fear stricken victims and their aggressors the courage to act differently. He impressed by simply being there, by being authentic to find a solution to communalism with a practical urgency23. He directed the workers to disperse to every village and live there without fear for "we must live in these villages with our small children and be prepared to face any situation even if it is dangerous. If you are not prepared for this, then you cannot ask the villagers to return"24. Gandhi’s idea was to test, in an spontaneous way because the riots presented him with an opportunity to do so, his vision of a "moral man" in a political and cultural circumstance that was most inimical to his philosophy: communal violence and religious intolerance. This notion, of being physical exemplars, to bring hope to the oppressed and the aggressive alike and to set an example through one’s action, was part of Gandhi’s larger philosophical and political method of keeping open, at all cost, a dialogue between Hindus and Muslims, even in the face of communal rioting. For that end, he proposed to establish peace committees in each of the affected villages where one good man, from each community, would work selflessly towards that goal. He also exhorted his workers to "go to villages where the inhabitants are all Harijans. They are still living there with broken spirits. You will have to save them from fear and despair that has enveloped their lives."

    On 13 November, early in the morning, Gandhi announced to his party the important decision that he would live alone in a village to instill in its terror-stricken inhabitants the courage to return to their homes. By this act he also wanted to inspire other workers in his party to go and live in riot affected places so that their examples would inspire confidence and drive away fear. He decided to disperse each member, including the women, to settle down in one affected village and hold himself /herself hostage for the safety and security of the Hindu minority of that village. He insisted that they must pledge to protect with their lives, if necessary, the Hindu population of that village. Creating a field of praxis whereby his disciples would endorse through their bodies Gandhi’s own preparation of living among the riot victims, he announced that he was going to bury himself in East Bengal till the warring Hindus and Muslims learnt to live together in harmony and peace. He was distraught and confused but also determined to do right:

    I find myself in the midst of exaggeration and falsity. I am unable to discover the truth. There is terrible mutual distrust. Oldest friendships have snapped. Truth and ahimsa by which I swear, and which have, to my knowledge, sustained me for sixty years, seem to fail to show the attributes I have ascribed to them.

    To test them, or better to test myself, I am going to a village called Srirampur, cutting myself away from those who have been with me all these years, and who have made life easy for me.

    ….How long this suspense will last is more than I can say. This much, however, I can say. I do not propose to leave East Bengal till I am satisfied that mutual trust has been established between the two communities and the two have resumed the even tenor of their life in their villages. Without this there is neither Pakistan or Hindustan – only slavery awaits India, torn asunder by mutual strife and engrossed in barbarity.25

    The presence of Gandhi, his exhortations for passive resistance to violence and constructive approach to mend Hindu-Muslim relations were embodied in the way he walked through village after village, meeting people in their homes, visiting the ailing and the poor. For many, it was an incredible sight to see the frail old man putting his body to danger walking through places that had seen such terrible violation of bodies:

    The Gandhi march is an astonishing sight. With a staff in one hand and the other on his granddaughter’s shoulder, the old man briskly takes the lead as the sun breaks over the horizon. He usually wraps himself in a hand-woven shawl, as the January mornings are cold enough for him to see his breadth. But he walks barefooted despite chilblains…. As the sun begins to climb, villagers from places along the way join the trek. They come by twos and fours or by dozens and scores, swelling the crowd as the snows swell India’s rivers in spring. They press in on the old man, while their children dance around the edges of the moving body. Here, if I ever saw one, is a pilgrimage.26

    Walking for Gandhi embodied his protest at the most elemental level: at one stroke he could get to know the affected people as well as the aggressors and draw them into dialogue with himself as an interlocutor; in another way he wanted to bring to light the innate configuration between locality and walking because "walking creates the spirit of Swadeshi as caring"27. Innumerable eyewitness to Gandhi’s stay in Noakhali described the absolute ease with which he interacted with people he met, just as he remembered the children ill in the neighbourhood and prescribed remedies for common diseases. In the months that he lived in Noakhali, Gandhi covered 49 villages, walking barefoot, trying to wean the people of both communities away from violence and hatred. Gandhi’s appeal for peace in Bengal was totally self-abnegating. He went there as a servant of the people and he met Hindus and Muslims alike and appealed for unity28. To borrow Vinoba Bhave’s term, Gandhi’s work in Noakhali was "an experiment in applied ahimsa".


    1. The Census of India, 1941, IV (Bengal), Shimla, 1942, 2. The Census stated that in Noakhali the total population was 2,217,402 of which Muslims numbered 1,803,937, Scheduled Castes 81,817, Others 273,130 and Caste not returned 57,314. In Tippera, out of a total population of 3, 860,139, Muslims numbered 2,975,901, Scheduled Castes were 227,643, Others 480,539 and Caste not returned was 171,778, 9 (44–45).

    2.. J. E. Webster, Noakhali District Gazetteer, 35–39. See also Tippera District Gazetteer, 1910 by the same author.

    3. Webster, Noakhali District Gazetteer,1–2.

    4. Sugata Bose, Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics, 1919-1947, 223–24. Renu Chakravartty also stressed the economic reasons when in 1946 rice was selling for Rs 30 a maund in Noakhali. See Renu Chakravartty, Communists in Indian Women’s Movement, 103.

    5. For an assessment of the economic situation during the inter war years see M. Mufakharul Islam, "Bengal Agriculture during the Inter-War Depression" in Mushirul Hasan and Nariaki Nakazato, (eds.), The Unfinished Agenda: Nation Building In South Asia, 509–34.

    6. Rajat Kanta Ray, Social Conflict and Political Unrest in Bengal: 1875-1927, 369.

    7. See Patricia A. Gossman, Riots and Victims: Violence and the Construction of Communal Identity Among Bengali Muslims: 1905-1947, 136–55.

    8. P.K. Datta, "Abductions and the constellation of a Hindu communal bloc in Bengal of the 1920’s," Studies in History, 14:1, 1998, 37–39.

    9. P.K. Datta, Questionable Boundaries: Abduction, Love and Hindu Muslim Relations in Modern Bengal, unpublished paper, 2–6. Datta also gives a detailed survey of the antagonism between the two communities, Hindus and Muslims, as reflected in literature beginning with Rangalal Bandopadhyay’s Padmini Upakhyan (1858) in another article, "Hindu-Muslim Love and Its Prohibition: The Social Importance of Literature in Early Modern Bengal," Studies in History, 18(2): 323–33.

    10. See Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, "Mobilizing for a Hindu Homeland: Dalits, Hindu Nationalism and Partition in Bengal (1947)" in Mushirul Hasan and Nariaki Nakazato, (eds.), The Unfinished Agenda, 161.

    11. Partha Chatterjee, "Agrarian Relations and Communalism, 1926-35", Subaltern Studies, vol.1, 9–38 states the various patterns of the linkages between peasant communal politics and organized political parties or factions especially within a process of differentiation among the peasantry i.e a process of breakdown of peasant communities in times of scarcity.

    12. Letter from Sudhir Ghosh, Assistant Secretary, Bengal Provincial Congress Committee (while forwarding a report by Kalipada Mukherji, Secretary, BPCC) to the District Magistrate, 31 October 1946, AICC Papers, File 53/1946, NMML, 53. See also Hindustan Times, 18 October 1946.

    13. File on Bengal Riots, L/I/1/425, India Office Library and Records.

    14. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. LXXXVI, Publications Division, 469: "In a prayer meeting at Raipura, Gandhi referred briefly to the speech reported to have been made by the ex-Premier Maulvi Fazlul Haq. He was reported to have said that as a non-Muslim Gandhi should not preach the teachings of Islam, that instead of Hindu-Muslim unity he was creating bitterness between the two communities…"See also Phillips Talbot, An American Witness To India’s Partition, New Delhi, 2007, 204: "To test the applicability of his faith, therefore, he went to the heart of the trouble. He chose East Bengal, and when people asked why he had not gone to Bihar province where the damage was greater and the culprits were Hindus, he replied that the people of Bihar had repented. Besides, he could control the government and people of Bihar from Noakhali, but had no special powers over the people of Noakhali." Gandhi himself asserted why Noakhali was so important to him: "If Hindus and Muslims cannot live side by side in brotherly love in Noakhali, they will not be able to do so over the whole of India, and Pakistan will be the inevitable result. India will be divided, and if India is divided se will be lost forever. Therefore, I say that if India is to remain undivided, Hindus and Muslims must live together in brotherly love, not in hostile camps organized either for defensive action or retaliation. I am, therefore, opposed to the policy of segregation in pockets. There is only one way of solving the problem and that is by non-violence. I know today mine is a cry in the wilderness. But I repeat that there is no salvation for India except through the way of truth, non-violence, courage and love. To demonstrate the efficacy of that way I have come here. If Noakhali is lost, India is lost." Talk with Friends, Srirampur, 31 December 1946, (Collected Works, 294). As late as November 1946, Gandhi was receiving threatening letters asking him to leave. See Hindustan Standard, 21 November 1946.

    15. Quoted in Peter Ruhe, Gandhi, 240.

    16. M. K. Gandhi, Collected Works, LXXXVI, 21 October 1946-20 February 1947, 263.

    17. Gandhi, Collected Works, 121.

    18. Buddhadev Bose, Noakhali (1946) in Debesh Roy, (ed.), Raktomonir Harey:Deshbhag–Swadhinatar Golpo Shonkalon, 66–67.

    19. Nirmal Kumar Bose, My Days With Gandhi, 56.

    20. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India: 1885-1947, 437–38. See also David Arnold, Gandhi: Profiles in Power, London: Pearson, 2001, 222–23. The other view seems to be that Gandhi’s sojourn in Noakhali was in a way escapism in which he had left the important political decisions to others in New Delhi: "While he was moving in the villages of Noakhali and then of Bihar, the fate of India was being decided by the leaders in New Delhi." See Bimal Prasad, "Gandhi and India’s Partition," in Amit Kumar Gupta, ed., Myth and Reality: The Struggle for Freedom in India, 1945-47, 112–13.

    21. Phillips Talbot, An American Witness, 207. See also Nirmal Bose, My Days, 100: "Gandhiji dealt with the problem as a whole and explained that we should proceed in such a manner that the Government might be put in the wrong and the struggle lifted to the necessary political plane…..The whole struggle had to be lifted to the political plane: mere humanitarian relief was not enough, for it would fail to touch the root of the problem."

    22. Interview taken by the author in Calcutta, 21 June 2008. This is, in all probability, the last interview of her life. Ashoka Gupta passed away in August.

    23. I am using this word "examplar" after Akeel Bilgrami who sees in the figure of the "examplar" an effort of Gandhi’s integration of an epistemological and methodological commitment to the concept of non–violence and truth. Akeel Bilgrami, "Gandhi’s Integrity," Raritan, 2001, 21(2): 48–67. Towards the end of his life, Gandhi was urgently trying to test his vision of a "moral man" in a political and cultural circumstance that was most inimical to his philosophy: communal violence and religious intolerance. See also, Rajeswari Sundar Rajan, "Postcolonial reactions: Gandhi, Nehru and the ethical imperatives of the national-popular" in Elleke Boehmer and R. Chaudhuri, (eds.), The Indian Postcolonial: A Critical Reader, 245 who sees his authenticity as a non-contradiction between practice and preaching.

    24. Ashoka Gupta, A Fighting Spirit, 64–5.

    25. Gandhi, Collected Works, 138–39.

    26. Gandhi, Collected Works,138–39.

    27. Shiv Viswanathan, "In Praise of Walking", The Hindu, 23 April 2014.

    28. Deshbandhu Tyagi, "Gandhian Alternatives of Communal Disharmony", in Facets of Mahatma Gandhi: Ethics, Religion and Culture, eds Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswamy, 306.

    From The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities, Debjani Sengupta, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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