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Emotions in West Bengal boiled over in 1950. Media was ‘inciting’, so was Hindu Mahasabha

In 'Caste and Partition in Bengal', Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhuri talk about a critical aspect of the Dalit exodus during 1950 in Bengal.

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A recent study has claimed that the official Pakistani policy continued to distinguish between the Dalit who were seen as ‘good Hindus’ and the other upper caste people treated as ‘bad Hindus’. On 19 June 1949, Mandal’s 43rd birthday was celebrated by the state with much fanfare in both Karachi and Dacca, apparently to show solidarity with the Dalit community. However, as secret telegrams reveal, from the beginning of 1950, Mandal was under surveillance by the Pakistani Foreign Service on suspicion of being disloyal to the state.On the ground, distinctions within the Hindu community—the nation’s ‘Other’—were gradually being elided and Dalit peasants too began to feel vulnerable and defenceless. This came to a tipping point in January–February 1950 when at last the Namasudra peasants in large numbers decided to leave Pakistan.

Interestingly, this second wave of post-Partition migration in Bengal was actually triggered by anti-communist counter-insurgency measures taken by the Pakistani security agencies in the wake of a renewal of the Tebhaga movement in 1948. The first one of its kind took place in May 1949 in Nachol in Rajshahi district, where the Santhal peasants were the main supporters of the communists. Brutal police action led to violent Santhal retaliation and more repression. This resulted in the first wave of Santhal migration into the adjacent Murshidabad district, triggering counter-violence on the Muslims in this West Bengal border district. Then on 20 December 1949, another incident occurred in a Namasudra village called Kalshira in Chitalmari Union of Bagerhat subdivision in the district of Khulna. When a police party came to Kalshira in search of a few communists, they were resisted by the villagers and this resulted in the death of one police constable. Two days later, a larger police force, assisted by Ansars and other elements, attacked not just this one but twenty-two other neighbouring villages inhabited by ‘Hindu Namasudras’.They began to flee in panic and by 10 February, there were 13,000 refugees at the Sealdah station in Calcutta recapitulating their horror stories of violence, suffering, and privation for an incensed Calcutta press and an irate Hindu public.


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However, there are multiple narratives of these incidents. According to a press statement of the Pakistani Prime Minister, the Kalshira incident did not immediately lead to any widespread violence; it was well contained by the timely and effective intervention of the district administration. Nothing happened for about two weeks until on 15 January, the Indian Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel came to Calcutta and gave a provocative speech reminding the Bengalis of what had happened to them a few years ago in Calcutta and Noakhali. Then from 18 January, the Calcutta Press and the Hindu Mahasabha picked up the Kalshira story and began to publish inciting reports and statements, which led to
the outbreak of riots in the border districts of West Bengal, leading to the exodus of Muslim refugees. This, according to him, led to violence against Hindus in East Bengal. In other words, he made Sardar Patel and the aggressive Calcutta press responsible for inciting the riots and considered what happened in East Bengal as purely ‘retaliatory’.

The Indian Deputy Prime Minister, of course, rejected this version of the events and also the allegation.32 If we reconstruct the timeline from other sources, the Kalshira incident was first reported in Calcutta by Amrita Bazar Patrika on 30 December 1949. The Deputy Prime Minister, during his Calcutta visit on 15 January 1950, did not mention this incident at all. The Statesman on 21 January reported the arrival of the first group of 500 refugees from Khulna. On 25 January, Ashutosh Lahiry, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Board of the Hindu Mahasabha, issued a press statement describing the incident as ‘something like a “miniature Noakhali” ’, affecting the marshy tracts inhabited by the Namasudras. It was, in his opinion, ‘carefully planned’ and was part of ‘a deliberate conspiracy to wipe out the Hindu population’ of the region. On 1 February, Lakshmikanta Moitra, the MP from the border district of Nadia, reported the incident to the Indian parliament, noting that retaliatory violence had already started in Murshidabad, and Prime Minister Nehru promised to probe into the situation.The press reports in Calcutta hereafter increasingly became belligerent and inciting.

As the stories of atrocities appeared in the Calcutta press and the exaggerated statements of the Hindu Mahasabha leaders, emotions in West Bengal boiled over and full-scale anti-Muslim riots started on 8 February, after a gap of nearly two years. It affected Muslim majority areas in the north and central Calcutta and soon spread to the industrial areas
of Howrah and parts of Hooghly. In Muslim-dominated localities, their lives and properties were targeted. Their houses were set on fire; shops were looted. In Howrah, trains were stopped in search of Muslim passengers, and the violence that was unleashed reminded of what happened in Punjab in 1947–48. The state government quickly deployed the army.


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This saved lives, but properties were lost, as local security personnel was also reported to be complicit in the mass violence. As the Muslims did not feel safe, they began to flee; by the beginning of 1951, about 700,000 of them had fled to East Bengal.

However, what was undeniable about the riots of 1950 was the element of retaliation involved in the assaults—the Pakistani Premier was not entirely wrong, after all. As the Bangladeshi literary giant Anisuzzaman re-called, minorities on both sides of the border believed that the violence had been started on the other side because of causes that nobody knew. The outbreak of riots in West Bengal in February—which was in itself provoked by the incidents in Khulna—soon led to even more serious attacks on the Hindu minorities in large parts of East Bengal. Exaggerated news and rumours of Calcutta incidents first led to anti-Hindu riots in Dacca from 10 February, when the Chief Secretaries of two Bengals were still conferring in the city to resolve the crisis. In Dacca, Hindu properties were looted and destroyed, and then Hindu lives were threatened, allegedly by Mohajirs or Bihari Muslim refugees, according to government reports. But within two days, the violence spread to other districts, like Rajshahi, Noakhali, Chittagong, Faridpur, Khulna, Sylhet, Mymensingh, and then finally to Barisal. In Mymensingh, at Bhairab Bazaar Bridge,
India bound trains were detained and Hindu refugees were singled out and killed- according to some reports, in thousands. The Barisal riot was perhaps the worst of its kind in terms of the ferocity of violence that was unleashed on the Hindus. Fuelled by a rumour that Fazlul Huq, the former premier of Bengal and a popular leader of Barisal, had been killed in Calcutta, angry mobs slaughtered thousands of Hindus. The victims of these riots were not the high-caste bhadrolok, as many of them had already left, but the Dalit and tribal peasants like the Namasudras and the Santhals.

This excerpt from ‘Caste and Partition in Bengal’ by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhuri has been published with permission from Oxford University Press. 

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