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Inadequate Analysis

Communalism in Bengal: From Famine to Noakhali by Rakesh Batabyal; Sage, New Delhi, 2005;
JOYA CHATTERJI The 1940s were a hugely complex and significant period in India

Inadequate Analysis

Communalism in Bengal: From Famine to Noakhali

by Rakesh Batabyal; Sage, New Delhi, 2005; pp 428, Rs 750.


he 1940s were a hugely complex and significant period in India’s history, perhaps nowhere more so than in Bengal. The key themes of the 1940s – the aftermath of provincial autonomy, the impact of the second world war, the transfer of power, Partition and the coming of independence – had implications for Bengal quite different in their character and order of magnitude from those for most other provinces. After the fall of Burma, Bengal found itself at the frontline of an imperial war against Japan, whose impact a succession of unstable Muslim dominated ministries and unpopular British governors signally failed to manage. One consequence of the wartime government’s efforts to feed the army and to supply the industries of war was to plunge the province into a famine of unprecedented proportions. War, hunger and the death of millions were the grim backcloth for mounting popular unrest and deepening conflict between Hindus and Muslims, culminating in the horrors of the Calcutta killing in August 1946 and the Noakhali riots in the following winter. This growth of communal conflict during four critical years from famine to Noakhali is the subject of Batabyal’s book.

Batabyal suggests that communalism was an ideology which flourished in this turbulent context, and he has a point. Whatever the deliberately imprecise demand for “Pakistan” meant to Jinnah himself, the idea attracted many Bengali Muslims who understood little about the complex games being played in the high politics of the nation. There is also little doubt that Hindus were drawn increasingly to parties and pressure groups – whether the Hindu Mahasabha, the right wing of the Congress or to more extreme outfits such as the Bharat Sevashram Sangha and the Arya Rashtra Sangha – which sought to defend “Hindu Bengal” against “Muslim tyranny”. Many scholars have sought to explain why communalism became the hallmark of Bengal’s politics in this period. Of course their answers are partial and sometimes flawed, not least as a consequence of the fragmented and frequently unreliable nature of the available sources. Batabyal’s book launches an attack on these arguments – fair enough, since the subject can only move forward by challenging existing historiography before offering a new and more convincing thesis. Sadly, Batabyal offers little which is constructive or fresh in their stead. Communalism, for him, is an ideology “located in a concrete historical plane”, but his book fails to

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006 advance the analysis either of the ideology or its context. Indeed it is difficult even to summarise his thesis because so much of the book is devoted to laying into the propositions of others instead of advancing his own. If there is an overarching argument to be found in this work, it is the proposition that communalism was able to spread unchecked between 1943 and 1946 because the incarceration of the Congress leaders during this period gave “communalist forces” free rein to propagate their message. But Batabyal leaves us no wiser about what that message was or how it was propagated. We learn little about the differences or similarities between the communal messages of majority groups as compared with those who claimed to speak for a beleaguered minority, and we are not told how these messages were received and understood by different sections of Bengali society. The most striking impression left by this tangled tale is familiar but depressing: in order to propagate their message, those who claimed to speak for “Hindus” and “Muslims” alike exploited – in equal measure and with a cynicism bordering on the obscene – the terror and tragedy of ‘bhookha Bangaal’ to spread hatred between people who once lived with one another in relative peace.



Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

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