Background The 1947 Partition of Bengal

Logo Inherited memories
© Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Kolkata

Memories of the Partition of Bengal in 1947 when the British rulers left the Indian Subcontinent after creating two countries – India and Pakistan.

As the world is now gripped with the Syrian refugee crisis and debates rage on their acceptance in various countries in Europe, it may be the right time to look back into some of the biggest refugee crises and human migration in recent history. The debates centre mostly around the broader theme of what impact the refugees would have if they are allowed to settle in a particular society. So it will be pertinent to look at what legacies, previous massive conflicts and the mass movements arising out of it leave in the societies these refugees moved into.

In this context the Inherited Memories: My Parents’ World project, initiated by the Goethe- Instituts in Kolkata and Dhaka becomes extremely relevant as it offers one the opportunity to understand how people uprooted by gruesome violence settled in an unknown land and then passed on their memories on to their next generations.

Catastrophic Violence and Uprooting

Following the second-world war, as the transfer of power became imminent, the demand for a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims gained steam and the politics based on Hindu and Muslim divide became vicious. This ultimately led to a series of inter-religious riots and killings between Hindus and Muslims starting from Calcutta – the capital of the undivided province of Bengal on 16 August 1946.

The scale of violence was unprecedented, taking lives of at least one million civilians – mostly in the provinces of Bengal and Punjab and uprooting about 15 million people who crossed the newly created borders on 14 August 1947 when Pakistan was created (the “West-Pakistan” became todays “Pakistan” and “East-Pakistan” became todays “Bangladesh”). This period witnessed the largest ever forced migration in human history.

Even though the two countries were formed on the basis of religion, not all Muslims migrated to Pakistan and not all Hindus from Pakistan moved to India. This flow of refugees continued for a few years after Independence as it took a while for religious strives in both countries to ebb.

The newly formed Pakistan fell apart in 1971 when its eastern wing – East Pakistan seceded away, demanding a separate nationhood. This way, the partition process of the region that begun in 1947, was completed with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. But the process that started in 1947 and ended in 1971 left a deep scar in the political landscape of the Subcontinent and its impact is palpable till date.