Miscellaneous

The 1950 Bengal Riots

The riots of February-March, 1950 in East and West Bengal were a watershed moment in Bengal’s history. Although the partition of India and that of Bengal had taken place 3 years prior, until 1950, the large percentage of Hindus living in the east had not migrated to the west. Notwithstanding the Great Calcutta Killings (between 5,000-10,000 dead; reported to be mostly working-class Muslims) within the first 3-days following the Muslim League’s Direction Action Day on August 16, 1946 and associated provocations, and the Noakhali-Tippera (now Comilla) riots of October, 1946 (approx. 5000 killed, mostly Hindus), most minorities of the two wings of Bengal stayed put in their homelands. Hindus constituted a significant minority (22%) of the East Bengal population in 1950 (down from 29% in 1947). The reason was that Bengal did not witness communal violence of genocidal proportions like the two wings of the Punjab did. Most of the lives lost in 1947 were in the Punjab due to the near extermination of minorities in West (Hindus and Sikhs) and East Punjab (Muslims) through wholesale killings and forced migration. Despite the exodus of nearly 2 million Bengali Hindus (mostly upper caste and middle class) from the east to the west, by 1950, there were more than 10 million Hindus living in East Bengal (mostly lower class and scheduled caste). However, political dispute over Kashmir, refugee inflows, currency and trade, and related religious, communal and nationalist propaganda were raising tension between India and Pakistan by 1950. During 1948-1949, a number of instances of repression and persecution of Hindus in East Bengal took place in Sylhet (Beanibazar and Barlekha), Rajshahi (Nachole massacre, Puthia), Khulna (Kalshira massacre). Then, things burst out of control in the first week of February 1950 in Calcutta and Murshidabad, West Bengal, based on reports that Hindus were killed, mutilated, raped, terrorized, forcefully converted and driven out of homes in the Bagerhat sub-division of Khulna and in Noakhali, East Bengal. The immediate cause of the tension was economic warfare between India and Pakistan that severely affected the predominantly Muslim jute farmers of East Bengal, who were dependent upon the jute mills of West Bengal to buy their cash crop. Violence flared when refugees from East Bengal and local Hindus started taking revenge on the Muslims of West Bengal. In reprisal, further severe anti-Hindu riots broke out in Dhaka and other parts of East Bengal on February 10, 1950, after intense hate-filled propaganda against Hindus. As is described: ‘In February 1950, Sukumar Sen, the Chief Secretary of West Bengal had travelled to Dhaka to hold the Chief Secretary-level dialogue with his East Bengal counterpart, Aziz Ahmed. On 10 February, at around 10 A.M. in the morning, when the talks were in progress, a Muslim woman in bloodstained clothes was paraded in the Secretariat building. It was alleged that she had been raped and mutilated in Calcutta. The Secretariat employees immediately stopped work and started a procession shouting anti-Hindu slogans’ (Wikipedia). Their shops, businesses and homes in various places of the Dhaka district were looted and set on fire, and Hindu passengers were attacked or killed along the Dhaka-Narayanganj, Dhaka-Chittagong and other major rail lines and at places like Suryanagar (near Faridpur) and Santahar railway station, Bogra, and many others. Things took an especially nasty turn when rumours were spread by vested quarters in East Bengal that Sher-E-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Huq, the 1st Prime Minister of Undivided Bengal (1937-1943) and a prominent Muslim figure, had been killed along with other family members in the riots while visiting Calcutta. The rumour sparked a particularly violent response among the Muslims of East Bengal’s Barisal district – the ancestral home of Fazlul Haq. Mostly between February 13 and 18, but also sporadically into March, indiscriminate rioting, looting, vandalism, arson and raping had resulted in thousands of deaths (of all ages and gender) and hundreds of thousands of displaced among the Hindu minority of the district. Muladi of Barisal district witnessed a very infamous massacre of Hindus when hundreds of them were massacred by a mob inside a police station where they went for shelter and protection. Although Fazlul Haq rushed back from Calcutta to assure people that he had not been assaulted, riot spread to other parts of the Barisal district with comparable atrocities. Rioting and violence also erupted in Chittagong (organized by Fazlul Quader Chowdhury), Sylhet, Noakhali, Mymensingh, Rajshahi, and Jessore districts. In many places, the East Pakistan police, Ansar and other law-enforcement forces were complicit in the atrocities. Fearing for their lives, more than two million Hindus, mostly Namasudras or Dalits (lower and scheduled castes), crossed the border into India as refugees. This pouring in of destitute refugees caused communal tensions to rise even higher in the west, especially, in Calcutta. Rioting went on targeting Muslims, trigging an influx of Muslim refugees in the thousands into the east. During this time, the President of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, Mr. A. L. Cameron, a British citizen, was killed at Chinsurah in the outskirts of Calcutta on 26 March 1950, as he tried, in vain, to save his two Muslim servants, who were travelling with him in a car, from a Hindu mob. Things got so bad that Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru had to make two trips to Calcutta in March to calm things down. Another highlight of this period was the resignation of Jogendra Nath Mandal, the only Hindu minister in Pakistan (the first minister of law and labour), from the central cabinet in October 1950. He had been a leading figure of the scheduled caste Hindus in East Bengal and supported the Pakistan movement in hopes of gaining freedom from oppression in the hands of upper caste Hindus. Due to disagreements with the Muslim League government of Pakistan over its anti-Hindu bias, and in protest of the riots and killings of lower caste Hindus in his home-district of Barisal, he migrated to Calcutta and tendered his resignation; never returning to East Bengal again. By late March and early April, political tension was high enough to produce calls for either attacking and annexing East Bengal into India or for arranging a complete and mutual exchange of all minorities and their properties living in the two wings of Bengal or for transferring of lands from the east to the west to resettle Hindu refugees. The leaders of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party – All-India Hindu Mahashava (e.g. General Secretary Ashutosh Lahiry and ex-President Syama Prasad Mukherjee, who resigned from Nehru’s cabinet in protest) — were especially vocal about these demands. India and Pakistan even started to mobilize their military in fear of an imminent outbreak of hostilities, and there was a fear of communist infiltration among the helpless refugees. However, cool heads prevailed at the top of each country’s political establishments and in April 1950, an agreement was reached by the Prime Ministers of the two countries, Pandit Nehru of India and Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan of Pakistan (Nehru-Liaquat Refugee Pact or Delhi Pact), to stop persecution of minorities and guarantee repatriation and protection of refugees who would choose to go back to their originating countries. After this, a few hundred-thousand Hindus did return to East Bengal. Many of these returning refugees came back only to sell their immovable properties and carry back the remaining movable properties to India. Indian sources put the final death toll of the 1950 riots in East Bengal, also known colloquially as the Barisal riot, to be almost 3500 Hindus, although the Pakistan government disagreed on that exact number but conceded the number would be close to 1000. Nevertheless, this sad and disturbing event permanently dampened the morale and confidence, and the sense of security and belongingness among many Hindus of East Bengal. This set in motion a slow but steady process of the exodus of Hindus to India. Interestingly, in Jogendra Nath Mandal’s resignation letter, some reasons sited behind the Muslim League’s fanning the flames of rioting were, inter alia, disagreement between the Suhrawardy fraction and the conservative Nazimuddin-Nurul Amin fraction of the Muslim League over power, economy, the Bengali language and East Bengal’s provincial autonomy. The Muslim League’s dominant Nazimuddin-Nurul Amin fraction wanted to distract the Muslim masses from issues of economic hardship, mal-governance, exploitation by West Pakistan, and the question of Bengali identity and sovereignty to that of communal tension and violence. Ultimately, the Government of Pakistan under Liaquat Ali Khan, who had proposed to turn Pakistan into an Islamic Republic, and the Provincial Government of East Bengal under Nurul Amin not only failed to protect the Hindus but also would go down in history as at best being nonchalant and at worst being willing participants of the anti-Hindu pogroms.                           

Sources:

  1. Various digitized daily copies from 1950 of the Globe and Mail newspaper
  2. Banglapedia
  3. Wikipedia
  4. The resignation letter of Jogendra Nath Mondal