ABUL HASHEM HAD A POINT - The state of permanent insurgency must be overcome

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By Ashok Mitra
  • Published 22.06.09

Sixty-two years ago, summertime 1947, everything seemed hunky-dory to decision-makers at the top. The viceroy and governor general, Mountbatten, had already sorted out matters with both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The country would be partitioned but made independent at the same time; the districts of the two big provinces, Punjab and Bengal, would be divided between the two new countries; a referendum was being arranged in the North-West Frontier Province and the Muslim-majority district of Sylhet in Assam to know the mind of the people there; a commission was to work out the cartographic details of the partition. The Congress bosses were happy; although it would be a truncated India, they would at least be rid of the nuisance of Jinnah breathing down their neck all the while. The Muslim League leaders, too, were in the seventh heaven of joy, they were getting the coveted trophy of Pakistan, something they could not even dare to dream of even a few months ago. The killings and other bestialities later in the year were not on their panorama of prospective events. Such, in brief, was the formal 1947 agenda written down by the last British viceroy. It looked neat and smooth, and no hitches, either major or minor, were anticipated.

Abul Hashem, a person now totally forgotten by history, suddenly proposed to disturb this set agenda. Hashem came from a well-known landowning Bengali family with extensive real estate, particularly in the district of Burdwan. His father, Abul Kasem, was a noted philanthropist; while a member of the provincial legislative council in the 1920s, he had initiated a number of measures to provide relief to the debt-ridden, impoverished peasantry. Abul Hashem inherited his father’s broad liberal outlook, but there was a bit more in his attitude to life. Many of his generation were infected by radical ideas which had their genesis in the success of the revolution in Russia and, subsequently, in the splendid Soviet resistance to Nazi aggression. Quite a few of his cousins, nephews and other near relations subscribed to some version or other of Marxism; some of them had even joined the communist party. In fact, for decades on end, quite a number of offices of the Communist Party of India in both Burdwan and Calcutta were located in buildings gifted by relatives of Hashem.

Hashem thought the more appropriate course for him would be to join the Muslim League and radicalize it. He infiltrated into the party and, given family connections, could get elected as the general secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League in 1943. (In his memoirs, Hashem mentions that at the meeting where he was elected to the post, he was clad in a dhoti.)

His hopes of transforming the League were short-lived. The fervour and frenzy of pro-Pakistani sentiment did not leave the Bengali Muslim masses unaffected either. Hashem soon found himself without much of a following. Even so, he thought hard about the likely plight of Bengali Muslims, economically awesomely backward and mostly without letters in a Punjabi-dominated Pakistan. He was, at the same time, a firm believer in the ethnic and cultural affinity between the Muslim and Hindu communities in Bengal. He therefore decided, almost single-handedly, to try to change the Mountbatten agenda. By that time, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy too had lost his footing in the Muslim League and was more or less in political wilderness. The situation was not dissimilar to that of Sarat Chandra Bose. He had also been sidetracked in the Congress and squeezed out of the interim cabinet. Hashem discussed his proposal of an independent sovereign Bengal with both Bose and Suhrawardy. They endorsed it, and publicly demanded that Bengal be allowed to opt out of the Mountbatten scheme and allowed to emerge as a third entity out of the corpus of British India. The proposal got known as the Bose-Suhrawardy formula; its real author was, however, Abul Hashem.

Great resentment spread in establishment circles at what was described as the Bose-Suhrawardy pipedream. How dare this couple of yesterday’s men, reduced to political insignificance, challenge the blueprint of Independence agreed to by the two political parties that mattered and already in the process of being implemented? Jinnah repudiated it with scornful silence. The Congress high command got in touch with Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader; together they launched a ferocious campaign against this ‘conspiracy’ to prevent the infiltration of the Hindu-majority districts of Bengal with independent India. The Bengali press foamed in the mouth; such knavery must not pass, the idea of a sovereign Bengal was ludicrous, they wanted Bengal to be divided, and with despatch.

The move for an independent sovereign Bengal died a quick death in 1947. That meant no dishonour though to Abul Hashem, for within the next quarter of a century Bangladesh made its entry as a sovereign republic in the subcontinent, as much a reality as India and Pakistan were. The bulk of Bengali Hindus were, however, no part of it; they had already chosen their destiny.

Hashem’s only fault was, it would appear in retrospect, that his idea was ahead of the times. When Bangladesh became free in December 1971, he was still alive and in Dhaka. By then, he was a nobody. He was a nobody despite the fact that not Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, but he, Hashem, was the authentic creator of independent Bangladesh.

The formation of Bangladesh proved an important point. History sometimes sets aside a sheaf of preconceived agendas and replaces it with an innovative item. Come to think of it, no item in Mountbatten’s 1947 agenda is left unresolved apart from Kashmir, which has been troubling India as well as Pakistan — perhaps more India than Pakistan — continuously over the long decades. But there is seemingly light at the end of the tunnel. Both Pakistan and India now firmly belong to the American hegemony. The possibility is high, signs suggest, that under American mediation, a bilateral agreement would be reached soon between the two countries over Kashmir. A harassed Pakistani regime, under siege from the Taliban, might well agree to accept the line of control as the permanent border. The political parties in India would go along, happy that the Americans have succeeded in persuading the leaders of Pakistan to see reason.

This, then, is this year’s American agenda for India and Pakistan. The parties concerned are expected to put their seal of approval on it in the course of the next few months. But, again, a hacker could be at work. Passion over Kashmir has died down in Pakistan; at least that nation has, at the moment, other, graver issues to grapple with; if the suggestion to convert the LoC into the permanent border is formalized, no searing protest is likely to ravage Pakistan. Will that, however, be the case on this side of the border too? Doubts accumulate. The Yasin Maliks will not melt into thin air just like that. Whatever the outcome of the Lok Sabha and state assembly polls, separatists continue to provide evidence of their commanding influence over considerable sections of the valley’s population; they nurse grievances that run deep, they will not be cowed down by the provisions of any India-Pakistan treaty solemnized under the auspices of the United States of America. The valley will therefore remain in a state of permanent insurgency. The trouble-makers will keep thronging parks, thoroughfares and highways and bring life to a standstill whenever they wish. The Indian army, police and para-military personnel will, therefore, continue to be needed to maintain “law and order”. The scenario will hardly change from what it now is. Confrontations will take place with unerring regularity between the agitators and Indian forces, resulting in casualties, which in turn will provoke more agitations. Peace will appear to elude the valley for ever.

Bangladesh and Abul Hashem clinched the point: sometimes certain things happen without their being a part of the official agenda. Kashmir could well follow the Bangladesh precedent. The strain on India’s overall resources to keep Kashmir on leash could be so severe that public opinion in the country might, in the not so distant future, be forced to re-do the emotional arithmetic: holding on to a piece of property infested by a hostile populace which costs an annual expenditure of thousands and thousands of crores of rupees might be a proposition looked upon with increasing disfavour. The agenda could then shift.

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