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Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s United Bengal Plan That Could Have Changed the Course of India’s History

Suhrawardy, a largely forgotten figure today, was Bengal's chief minister in 1946 and is often mis-remembered as a Hindu-hating communal leader.

Huseyn Suhrawardy, Nehru, Gandhi

The location, Calcutta. The year, October-November, 1946.

A scene from Richard Attenborough’s celebrated 1983 classic Gandhi.

Someone shouts out from the crowd: Death to Gandhi

Nehru responds: Kill me first

The drama subsides and Nehru approaches a reclining Gandhi with Bengal Chief Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy by his side.

Nehru: Bapu, I have brought Mr. Suhrawardy. It was he who had called on the Muslims to rise. He is now telling them to go back to their homes, to lay down their arms.

Nehru looks at Suhrawardy. Suhrawardy gives a consenting nod.

Nehru (to Gandhi): Think what you can do by living that you cannot do by dying.

§

It is understandable that the focus of the film being Gandhi, not much time is wasted on who Suhrawardy is and why he had done what he had done. The screenplay quickly comes back pointedly to Gandhi.

Most viewers don’t know who Suhrawardy is. In the scene Nehru does not introduce him. In fact, it is such a fleeting scene that even if one knows Suhrawardy, they miss his character.

Suhrawardy however, was not just some Muslim leader who had caused a riot. He was the then chief minister of Bengal. The Government of India Act 1935 had granted provincial autonomy to India and that meant some provinces could elect their own chief ministers. A former Swarajist, in 1946 Suhrawardy is a Muslim League man. He came from one of Bengal’s most elite families, had an Oxford degree and a Russian wife. The depiction of Suhrawardy in a suit in Gandhi is accurate.

The scene is significant only because Bapu’s fast comes to an end after this. Suhrawardy’s presence is negligible. Not just in cinema, in historical writing too, national figures get more attention than provincial ones and this is Gandhi we are talking about.

But for the sake of history – India’s history – now that 70th anniversary of its independence is upon us, let us look at the scene a little more closely for some nuanced understanding of representations of our past.

For one, apart from a nod, Suhrawardy (played by Shekhar Chatterjee) is not given a line. Then, when Nehru talks about Suhrawardy asking Muslims to rise, the audience is allowed to guess at least that maybe the reference is “rise” in demand for Pakistan. But quickly Nehru clarifies that the Muslims would now “lay down their arms” as Suhrawardy had instructed, leaving no room for doubt that Suhrawardy had in fact caused these riots to happen.

There is agreement among historians that the kind of communal savagery India witnessed in the 1940s, especially 1946-1947, was unprecedented, because it had gained its own momentum and had no longer been controlled by political parties like the Muslim League or Congress. The riots that form the backdrop to this scene is known by many names – the Great Calcutta Killings, Calcutta 1946 Riots and Direct Action Day – August 16 – are the more famous ones.

More than ten thousand people died in a four-day period. Corpses were lying around in the streets, preyed upon by dogs and vultures. This was not a riot that Suhrawardy could have just stopped by asking Muslims to go back to their homes. Yet, in this short incisive scene, Attenborough chooses to collude with all those Bengali Hindus and conspiracy theorists, in simplistically portraying Suhrawardy as a villainous figure with blood on his hands.

Yet even in this negative portrayal, Gandhi serves Bengal’s political history well. It shows Suhrawardy agreeing to end communal conflict. Suhrawardy has come in person to assure Gandhi that the communal rioting would end. It piques interest in this character and just going by the scene, he is communal enough to start a riot but also nice enough to stop it so that Gandhi can end his fast unto death.

In the absence of a political biography, a diary or sustained secondary literature, Suhrawardy is a largely forgotten figure today and if remembered, then as a Hindu-hating, communal leader. This is why understanding the politics of Attenborough’s scene is so crucial. Ironically, Gandhi, until now, is the best chance Suhrawardy has, of surviving as a historical figure. And the film still enjoys wide viewership, in India and outside.

Interestingly, and perhaps even thankfully, no archival evidence can corroborate the view that Suhrawardy asked Muslims to raise arms against Hindus. He is not more culpable than Gandhi, who asked Indians in his paper Harijan, to take up arms in self-defense during the Quit India movement. So the popular view among those who know about Suhrawardy has no basis in history and neither does the scene from Gandhi.

Few people know what happened to Gandhi and Suhrawardy after that scene. For that though, there is archival record. Gandhi and Suhrawardy maintained a filial relationship ever since Khilafat days in the early 1920s – promising days of Hindu-Muslim unity. In fact two days before partition, Suhrawardy stopped Gandhi from going to Noakhali and stayed with him through August 15, 1947. They put up in Hydari Manzil in Beliaghata, Calcutta. Mountbatten, governor general of free India, commented that while Punjab needed 50,000 soldiers to keep peace, Bengal had a “one-man boundary force,” Gandhi, with his “second-in-command,” Suhrawardy.

Suhrawardy may be remembered infamously for his part in the great killings and as chief minister maybe he even deserves to be blamed, but in his final estimate, it must be remembered that he was also the provincial leader who tried to change the course of Indian history by averting the impending partition of Bengal.

In 1946, Suhrawardy was sworn in as Bengal’s chief minister. For a third time since 1936 (Fazlul Huq and Khwaja Nazimuddin were the first two chief ministers), Hindus failed again to offer leadership or form a coalition. Bengal was of course a Muslim majority province but Bengali Hindus, bhadraloks especially, had been at the forefront of India’s national movement and as a community they were socially, economically and politically more advanced than the Muslims. While Hindus continued to feel shortchanged by this arrangement of Muslim leadership, it was to them that Suhrawardy turned to propose his United Bengal Plan.

In line with Bengali Muslim thinking on the question of Purba Pakistan (East Pakistan) Suhrawardy had wanted more autonomy for Bengal and freedom from the centre. When Bengali Muslims lent their support for the political idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan, it was not a foreign idea that they were learning to embrace. Bengali Muslims, had independently and for years cultivated the idea of a homeland in which both bangla and Islam (Urdu?) coexisted. Journals like Sikha, Saogat, Samyabadi, Langol and the Bangali Mussalman Sahitya Samiti played a critical role in development of this Bengali Muslim identity. As a product of that milieu, the idea of United Bengal was natural except that it was not.

The timing was wrong. A communally charged environment, divided communities and a quick decolonisation schedule threatened the possibility of success of the plan right from the beginning, but Suhrawardy persevered. Sarat Bose deplored Congress’ acceptance of Punjab’s partition and did not want the same for Bengal. The two came together. Suhrawardy officially announced the plan at a press conference in Delhi in April 1947. At its core the plan aimed to keep Bengal united as one entity. So it would neither join India nor Pakistan. Whether it would evolve into a separate country or what its relationship will be with Britain or even India and Pakistan was less clear. Mountbatten was very interested in this plan. On May 20, the United Bengal Agreement was prepared and signed at Sarat Bose’s house in Calcutta.

So why didn't it succeed?

It was one of Mountbatten’s conditions that the high commands of both parties would have to agree to it. Jinnah did not want a Bengal without Calcutta in his “Pakistan” and would much rather see Bengal stay united. Congress did not approve and their vehement rejection of the plan led to its failure. The masses in Bengal, Hindus and Muslims, also did not support it wholeheartedly. There was no time for sustained campaigning either. Suhrawardy, in any case had asked Mountbatten for two months to change Bengal’s mind, but was given only one. By the time Mountbatten read out his statement on June 3, where he changed the date of British withdrawal from June 1948 to August 15, 1947, the United Bengal Plan had officially failed.

The plan was not well thought out. If indeed Bengal would not be partitioned and would become its own country, then why did the opinions of the Congress and the Muslim League even matter? But even then the plan is historic because it stands to show how the years leading to partition and eventual independence of India, were full of possibilities. This very fascinating history will not be well served by willfully mis-remembering the actions of its historical actors, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh.

Dharitri Bhattacharjee is an assistant professor of South Asian history at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. 

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

    The author makes three errors-
    1) There is plenty of archival evidence, including the memoirs of Muslim League Bengali politicians, that Shurawardy lit the spark by his official actions and the speech that he made re. Direct Action Day. However, since Calcutta was Hindu majority and, moreover, had aggressive Bihari and Sikh and Marwari elements, the Muslims got a hammering. Most Cabinet Ministers fled Calcutta. That is why Shurawardy came cap in hand to Gandhi. He’d gambled and lost.

    2) It is not the case that Shurawardy’s plan had any chance of success. The Assamese did not like the Bengalis and would not join. Higher Caste Hindus had seen what life was like under a Muslim League Govt- the terrible famine over which Shurarwardy had presided was fresh in their minds- and wanted nothing to do with the scheme.
    Some Hindus- e.g. Namasudra Dalits under the leadership of J.N Mandal supported Pakistan. Sylhet with about 50 percent Hindus voted for Pakistan because of this. Guess how many Hindus are left in Sylhet. Mandal himself had to run away though he’d been given a Cabinet post.

    3) Shurawardy represented no ‘possibility’ for a different outcome. Neither did Sarat Chandra Bose. Both may have looked promising at an earlier date but by 1946, it was clear they had nothing to offer and had no mass following.
    The truth is Shurawardy- like the Communists and the Dalits- was a fool to support Pakistan- even though he did become P.M for a year. Why? The West Pakistanis despised the Bengalis and dismissed him and chased him out of public life. East Pakistan was pitilessly exploited by the West Wing. Eventually, the Pakistani Army began raping and killing the indigenous people till Mrs Gandhi intervened militarily. Had the East Bengali Muslim politicians chosen India they could have dominated that State to their heart’s content. Instead they paid a heavy price. The Punjabi military proved a rougher taskmaster than the British District Officer.

    The author believes that Shurawardy is ‘mis-remembered’ because he was given short shrift in a film which came out many years ago. This is not the case. He is forgotten because he was a fool and a failure. Anyone who wants to know the truth about him can just look him up on Wikipedia. It is a shame this author does not appear to have done so before writing this article.

    What is this author’s message? Is it that minorities thrive in a Muslim majority country? Can he name one nation where that is true?

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

    What follows is a link to an eye-witness account of Shurawardy’s conduct by a Muslim politician -https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3pIjwRq24YYC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq=suhrawardy+memoirs&source=bl&ots=RQmMOnw5vU&sig=BcpOWqz2Rev6jT7XlZGmHq3hnFQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiM1Pjjm9rVAhVkCsAKHUXVCJ8Q6AEIRDAH#v=onepage&q=suhrawardy%20memoirs&f=false

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Suhrawardy, like any other politician, was a complex character, shifting from one position to another. (Don’t we find his counterparts in today’s Indian politics ?). But mid-way in his political career, he probably tried to make amends (for his earlier acts of commission and non-commission that contributed to the `Great Calcutta Killing’) by joining Gandhi’s mission of peace. Later also, as the prime minister of Pakistan in 1956-57, he tried to meet the Bengali demands of East Pakistan, but was rebuffed by the dominating Urdu-speaking and Punjabi-speaking lobbies which threw him out. Later in 1962-63, he became a part of the anti-Ayub military dictatorship movement under the banner of the National Democratic Front.

    As a point of information – the `United Bengal’ proposal was supported not only by Suhrawardy and Sarat Bose, but also by Abul Hashim, the then secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League. Thus both the Bengal provincial Congress leaders and the Bengal provincial Muslim League leaders were set on a course of collision with the central leadership of their respective parties. As is well-known, during the post-Independence decades, both Sarat Bose and Suhrawardy left their respective parent parties, and formed separate political organizations, the former in India, and the latter in Pakistan. As for the `United Bengal’ proposal, not only Jinnah, Nehru also rejected it. Whether a `United Bengal’ would have survived as a separate dominion is a different question. But why weren’t the political leaders who represented both the Hindu and Muslim population of Bengal allowed to have a separate state and try it out as an experiment ? Similarly, why wasn’t Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and his followers allowed to have a separate Pakhtun state, and was instead `thrown into the jaws of wolves’ (of Pakistan), as he famously complained ? Why weren’t the Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits given a choice to opt for a separate state – instead of being compelled to join either Pakistan or India ? These questions are not merely conjectural, but are still relevant for what’s happening today in the sub-continent, where we are haunted by the divisive legacy left by an ugly Partition, brought about through an opportunist collaboration between the British colonial rulers and the then Indian politicians.