Gandhi in Noakhali: The Bloody Battle for East Bengal
‘You must visit him,’ Jharna-di urged—this diminutive, five-foot-tall lady, who was ten when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi visited Noakhali, went about the business of peace-making, and even made a show of learning Bengali. ‘Ask him about his father.’
‘Jharna-di has sent you, has she?’ Hakkani-shaheb chuckled, after I introduced myself and my purpose. ‘She is always trying to get me into trouble.’
It was a little joke between the two—it was clear I wasn’t the first visitor curious about those times that Jharna-di had sent the Pirjada’s way. There was an easy camaraderie between them, and mutual respect. It was a pleasant interlude to revisit an unpleasant subject: the reason for Gandhi’s visit to Noakhali in eastern Bengal--south-eastern Bangladesh of the present day. He stayed there and toured the region for four months, from November 1946 to February 1947 even as it was beset by communal frenzy.
Jharna Dhara Chowdhury ran the Gandhi Ashram in the village of Jayag, in the heart of Noakhali. She was secretary of the trust that managed the ashram. Pirjada Syed Golam Hakkani Husseini’s father, Golam Sarawar Hussaini, once a member from Noakhali in the undivided Bengal Assembly, was the man credited with triggering riots in this area. I had read about the elder Husseini, heard stories about him.
That cycle of violence began in Calcutta on 16 August 1946. It was intense enough for history to inscribe it in capital letters: ‘The Great Calcutta Killing’.
Between four and five thousand are estimated to have died in Kolkata after a call to ‘Direct Action’ by the Muslim League headed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah on that day. The ‘action’, a large-scale, general strike in Calcutta, was born of a desire to ensure the so-called Cabinet Mission Plan—for a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan—went through.
The Indian National Congress resisted the plan. Direct Action was projected by Jinnah as a shutdown protest that Bengal now knows well. But in Kolkata, a large gathering of League loyalists soon turned to arson, then to Muslim killing Hindu and Hindu killing Muslim in an orgy of violence that lasted several days before some semblance of government intervention lessened the controlled disorder.
Some historians hold Jinnah and the head of the Muslim League government of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, responsible. Suhrawardy also held the home portfolio, which controlled the police. Even some pro-Suhrawardy observers (who hold Jawaharlal Nehru responsible for rejecting the Cabinet Mission’s suggestion, thus forcing Jinnah’s hand) maintain that Suhrawardy ‘tacitly supported’ rioters as part of a larger game plan.
It was inevitable that attacking Hindus and Hindu-owned businesses and homes in Hindu-majority Kolkata—the hub of western Bengal—would bring an overwhelming response. And, when violence spread, as it did in a seemingly seamless way in East Bengal’s Noakhali, among other places in that Muslim-majority region, which now inevitably killed more Hindus, it would seal more than just expedient religious enmity.
The deaths and fearful displacement of people in their hundreds of thousands—over time, millions—would seal the deal of Partition. It was a sordid second chapter to the sordid first chapter in Kolkata. And it would continuously play out in Bengal, a pivotal province over which the Muslim League had control in both nuance and numbers, as the subsequent creation of East Pakistan from Bengal’s geographically larger eastern aspect would prove.
Reverses against Muslims in Kolkata after Direct Action did not immediately lead to a bloodbath in eastern Bengal. A few Hindus had been killed, many more attacked and injured. Some temples had been desecrated by the placing of dead calves in them, some idols broken or stolen. Looting of Hindu households had begun.
Into this river of hate waded the elder Husseini. His family’s hereditary estate centred at the Diara Sharif shrine in Shyampur, once a place of pilgrimage for both Muslims and Hindus, became a platform for propaganda. The incendiary elder Husseini was the voice.
Structured killings began around mid-October of 1946. The best known of the stories was about how the head of a local leader of the Hindu Mahasabha and luminary at the Noakhali bar, Rajendralal Roychowdhury, was presented to the elder Husseini. The author Benoy Bhushan Ghosh wrote of how Roychowdhury’s daughters were gifted to the elder Husseini’s key lieutenants as ‘trophies’. Rape, forcible conversion, killings, destroying of food stock, everyday looting and intimidation targeted at displacing the area’s Hindus continued.
Along with the family estate, the younger Husseini, as Pirzada or Pirjada in Bengali, son of the pir—guide, teacher, spiritual master—had inherited this family history.
I had made my way to his vast estate in Shyampur village, an hour from Jayag, over dirt tracks turned to slush with rain, snaking through fields of paddy, in a part of Bangladesh long known for conservatism.
‘I wasn’t even born then, but in 1952,’ the Pirjada told me in Bengali.
He was once known as a theatre personality in Dhaka. He often sunned himself by the pool of the local Sheraton—as he told me with a smile. ‘They used to call me a playboy.’ Hakkani-shaheb then switched to fluent English. ‘I have inherited a pirhood, but not my father’s politics.’
‘The past is a fact,’ he continued in a rush, staying with English, giving the impression that he enjoyed the opportunity to speak it. We were seated in a room where Gandhi spent some hours all those years ago, come to make peace with another politician.
‘It was a moment of anger. A lot of people were not even clear about why they were doing what they were doing. But I believe it was good that Gandhi came. Things cooled down after that.’
‘There,’ he pointed to the low settee on which I sat cross-legged. It was large enough to double as a bed. ‘Gandhi sat exactly where you’re now sitting.’
I had come looking for Gandhi fifty years later, amidst the detritus of a history that had displaced and ruined millions of Hindus and Muslims alike, in India’s east.
My first destination had been the Gandhi Ashram in Jayag. A two-storey house contained the ashram’s offices, souvenirs of Gandhi’s visit, a dining hall, prayer room, and Jharna-di and her handful of female colleagues. The men of the ashram lived in an adjacent dormitory block. That’s where I stayed.
It was an appropriate location from which to consider the savage death that has so often come to Bengal from nature, as well as the nature of man.
The Partition years were like that. There is no exact record of how many people died in Noakhali and in adjoining Tipperah district from October 1946. Estimates range from 500 (Muslim League sources) to 50,000 (other sources). Jharna-di related it with chilling simplicity when I visited the ashram in 1997: ‘More Muslims died in Kolkata; more Hindus died in Noakhali.’
Things got so bad that Gandhi came to East Bengal in November 1946 by way of Kolkata to cool the fires. Retaliatory riots had already begun in Bihar—where in revenge for Noakhali, Hindus butchered Muslims—even as he arrived on 6 November in Noakhali at the eastern edge of deltaic Bengal.
At one stage, he even declared himself to be a Bengali, although it isn’t clear how far that went to assuage the entrenched ill will that many Bengalis maintained towards him—maintain towards him to this day. Hindu communalists accused him of giving away too much to Muslims. Muslim communalists saw him as pro-Hindu. And many Bengalis loathed him for humiliating Subhas Chandra Bose in the Congress party, a mix of undeniable history and untiring legend that holds him responsible for sabotaging Bose’s tenure as president to ultimately favour the person they view as Gandhi’s pet, Jawaharlal Nehru. And, of course, consequently tipping Bose into a radical side-street to practice his own doomed version of Swaraj.
The violence caught up with the ageing Gandhi. Even before he reached Noakhali on his way from Kolkata, Gandhi was emotionally battered. Gandhi was fasting, as he said in an appeal issued to the people of Bihar on 6 November 1946, ‘as a penance after the knowledge of the Bihar tragedy’. The ‘low diet’ he had placed upon himself after reaching Kolkata ‘will become a fast unto death, if the erring Biharis had not turned over a new leaf’.
He was particularly conscious of how ‘the misdeeds of Bihari Hindus may justify Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah’s taunt that the Congress is a Hindu organization in spite of its boast that it has in its ranks a few Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and others. Bihari Hindus are honour bound to regard minority Muslims as their brethren requiring protection, equal with the vast majority of Hindus.’
He asked of his colleagues: ‘Is counter-communalism any answer to the communalism of which Congressmen have accused the Muslim League? Is it Nationalism to seek barbarously to crush the fourteen per cent of the Muslims in Bihar?’
He was distressed over the magnitude of killings in Bihar (the number of dead, mostly Muslims, range from two to thirty thousand, if one believes the Congress or the League) in response to the magnitude of killing in East Bengal. And though he confessed that he hadn’t fully realized just how far things had gone in Noakhali, Gandhi sensed it was as bad as it could get.
On 5 November, Gandhi had written to Nehru: ‘My inner voice tells me “You may not live to be a witness to this senseless slaughter. If people refuse to see what is clear as daylight and pay no heed to what you say, does it not mean that your day is over?”’
From Sodepur near Kolkata, Gandhi embarked on a train to Kushtia, where he addressed crowds before moving on to Goalundo Ghat on the Padma—as the Ganga is known in eastern Bengal. He then boarded the steamer SS Kiwi to another jump-off point before reaching Noakhali district.
‘Let us pray,’ he addressed crowds from the deck of the steamer, ‘that the Hindus and Mussulmans of Bengal should become one in heart. But to be of one in heart does not mean that all of them should be converted to a common religion.’
At nearly every point of his whistle-stop journey into Bengal’s darker side—at Kushtia, Srirampur, Dattapara, and a string of places where he collectively spent nearly four months across Noakhali and Tipperah—the man who found his way out of numerous problems with fasting and steadfastness gave in to feelings of helplessness.
‘There is terrible mutual distrust. Oldest friendships had snapped,’ he wrote in a dispatch. ‘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 ascribed to them.’
His chronicler at the time, Nirmal Kumar Bose, wrote later of seeing the Mahatma mutter to himself in Hindi: ‘Main kya karun?’ What can I possibly do?
I read a paraphrased Gandhi in a book by Nirmal Bose, My Days with Gandhi, in a passage redolent with naïveté, staggering in its ignorance of just how rent society in Bengal had become at the time, and remained so for several years afterwards, before the fires stoked by Direct Action and fed by the cycle of response finally cooled to embers.
‘His object in coming to Noakhali was to ask the Hindus never to run away from their homes even if they happened to be in a microscopic minority,’ Nirmal-babu wrote of Gandhi’s speech in Goalundo. ‘They should try to live with the Mussulmans where they were. Both had been nourished by the same corn which grew in the fields and both had quenched their thirst with water from the same river. Even if their brother came to slay them, they should refuse to run away, but make every effort to live with him in peace, without sacrificing honour.’
Not many would hear this gloriously idealistic, seemingly tone-deaf Gandhi, even though what he also asked for was that keeping the peace would first require the government of Bengal to reverse the nearly-absent administrative and police protection to vulnerable citizens—and the unsaid, implicit part—now that the political point about a separate nation for Muslims had been made. While a utilitarian peace returned with the carving of Bengal and India, blood would repeatedly be spilled in Bengal, in the east and west, for decades afterwards.
And yet, even as a frail, tired man only two years from the end of his life at the hand of a politically motivated Hindu assassin embittered at Partition, Gandhi was also breathtaking. He won hearts and a grudging respect after arriving in Srirampur village in Noakhali, where he declared, ‘I have become a Bengali to all intents and purposes.’
That was courage not dissimilar to the courage of the angels of humanity among both Hindus and Muslims who sheltered those of the other faith from rape, torture, and the vilest death. Those among Muslims who sheltered Hindus against conversion. Or even those among Muslims who, in some cases, married Hindu widows and orphaned young women to prevent them from being raped and slaughtered—not to gloat over their conversion but as a care.
Gandhi’s presence in Kolkata had reduced the flow of blood there. His presence in East Bengal did the same, though the Muslim League leadership that ruled Bengal at the time, and several local Muslim community leaders in East Bengal publicly spoke out and wrote against his presence in the east for the adverse publicity it would bring to the community.
This ‘brief Bengali’, as I like to call Gandhi’s Noakhali avatar, perhaps did more for Bengal at a time when the region’s linguistic and cultural links were being resoundingly broken. This man in a loincloth who had begun a mutual admiration club with Rabindranath Tagore—to Tagore’s ‘Mahatma’, Gandhi offered in response an equally enduring honorific, ‘Kobiguru’, the guru of poets, the first among poets—each day, symbolically, resolutely, took lessons in Bengali.
I wandered through old Noakhali district, now broken up into three. The past clashed with a slice of modernizing Bangladesh—itself created from the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims. In places where some of the worst atrocities against Hindus took place, Karpara, Dattapara, Ramganj, Haimchar, there were remnants of buildings, many with still wary squatters.
I visited one such in Baruipara village. It was a red brick mansion of a zamindar built around a courtyard. Clothes and shoots from insistent seedlings of banyan and peepul that so easily take root in worn buildings as do parrots and pigeons, lent colour and a certain purpose to the moss-stained bricks, kept from absolute ruin by the several families who now called it home.
Mohammad Lakiutullah, a farmer who had lived in the house of the zamindar since that family fled in 1946, became quiet when I began to ask questions about the time. He withdrew and gently shut the door. The incongruity of asking questions of the old man these many years later struck me when his son, Mohammad Shahabuddin, a forest department official in Chittagong, reopened the door, welcomed me into a cluttered room and, as if it was the most natural thing to do, started to discuss Malthus with me.
Mrinal Krishna Majumdar of Dattapara, among a handful of Hindus who remained in Noakhali after 1946, still hadn’t recovered from the horrors he had seen. But I saw his son, Jiban, whose name means ‘life’, build his electronic item repairs shop and a house next to the destroyed one his father refuses to leave.
Not far away, I got an earful from Mahbub-ur-Rahman, a former professor, a sprightly eighty-five at the time we met, who claimed to have argued with Gandhi about unity and disunity. I began to speak excitedly in Bengali but received a torrent of English in reply. By then I had stopped being surprised.
‘I told him, if Pakistan was being created for Pakistanis, then Muslims staying in India wouldn’t be safe or united. And if Muslims were so strong that they got the British to create a country for them, then how could they be weak in India?’ The old professor delighted in a prolonged cackle. ‘Gandhi had no answer.’
Do you have an answer for why it happened? I asked, seated in his hut of mud, thatch and aluminium sheeting ringed with bushes of hibiscus, shrubs of chilli and a lime tree. Young children played with marbles in the courtyard, a busy hen and her chirping brood nimbly sidestepped that jolly chaos. Wasn’t it easy for landless Muslim farmers to go after wealthy Hindu landlords, let the weight of all the years of paying to them taxes and giving up a large share of crop and yet, of being looked down upon as lesser beings, be conveyed so seamlessly into incendiary hatred, of a settlement of self-respect claimed with destruction and death?
‘Yes, it was easy,’ Rahman nodded, now serious again. ‘But the riots were not consequential, they were created.’
In Dattapara, at the site of one of the largest refugee camps in Noakhali—a school for girls when I visited—I discussed Bangladesh’s movement for independence with H B M Shamshul Basher, a twenty-four-year-old sociology graduate with no interest in a past beyond 1971, the year the only country he had ever known, Bangladesh, was born. We carried on our conversation in a tea shop, the walls crowded with revealing posters of local female stars Samira, Saabnoor and Mou. A tape recorder blasted the Bengali version of ‘Macarena’ from Explosion, an album of remixes by Sylvia Khan and Jewel Mahmud.
‘The past is over,’ Basher said. ‘I want a job. That’s all that matters.’
Noakhali lived as much off the land as some of its people once killed for, but also on remittances from countries in West Asia. In my conversations during that time with some officials among the relatively moderate government in Dhaka, they worried about the conservative bastion of Noakhali. Here, the need to own a cell phone stood out as much as a school to practice sword craft.
Meanwhile, there was the Gandhi Ashram and its seamless syncretism. I saw Muslim children attend a school run by the trust that managed the ashram. I saw Muslim farmers buy fish seed from its hatchery. The trust provided for tube wells and toilets in the area. The Bangladeshi flag fluttered in front of the ashram.
I joined the indefatigable Jharna-di and her small band of ashramites as they sang Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’ every morning and evening. When that was done, Jharna-di led her colleagues and visitors to intone: ‘Bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim.’ In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.