How Did Partition Change the Religious Map in Bengal?

The Punjab gets most of the attention when it comes to Partition, probably because of how disastrously everything went there, but on the other side of India, the British divided another major province along religious lines. Partition in Bengal was more orderly, although not without some violence, and simpler, because of the binary Hindu/Muslim split, as opposed to the Hindu/Muslim/Sikh mess in Punjab. As in my earlier look at Partition in Punjab, I used the 1941 British Census data and this excellent map as my basic template. And just like last time, I’ll do a quick rundown on Bengal on the eve of Partition, as well as neighboring Assam, which was also subject to Partition (although India got all but one district).

In 1941, a total of 70.5 million people lived in Bengal and Assam combined, 62 million in Bengal, the rest in Assam (which encompassed all of northeast India at the time, not only the modern state of Assam). There were a few small princely states, but 96% of the population lived in British India. The religious breakdown in Bengal was 53.4% Muslim, 41.7% Hindu, and 4.8% other, mainly people practicing tribal religions. In Assam, 41.5% were Hindus, 31.8% were Muslim, and 26.7% were tribal. That may sound like a lot of people who were not Hindu or Muslim, perhaps a Sikh equivalent in Bengal, but the followers of tribal religions were not united in the same way the Sikhs were in Punjab, and most of them lived far away from the heavily contested areas.

The 1941 Census summary that I found doesn’t have language data, but it is safe to say that Bengali was the most widely spoken language in the area. Assamese would have been second, followed by all of the Tibeto-Burman (related to Burmese and Tibetan obviously) and Austro-Asiatic languages (related to Vietnamese and Khmer) spoken by the tribal peoples.

Despite a population twice that of Punjab, Bengal and Assam didn’t that many large cities. Calcutta was, of course, British India’s largest city, home to 2.1 million inhabitants. The only other cities with more than 100,000 people though, were Howrah with 379,000, Dacca with 213,000, and Bhatpara with 117,000. Hindus were the largest community in all four cities: 72.7% in Calcutta, 81.8% in Howrah, 60.7% in Dacca, 69.2% in Bhatpara, with Muslims making up almost all of the remaining share of the population. Three of these cities went with India at Partition, the other, Dacca (now Dhaka) eventually became the capital of Bangladesh. Below is the map of religion in Bengal and Assam as it was in 1941, six years before Partition.

Bengal and Assam Religion, 1941

In my post on Partition in Punjab, I divided the province into five clear zones based on religious composition. Unfortunately, Bengal cannot be so neatly divided. Nevertheless, I identified a southeastern, heavily Hindu zone centered on Calcutta, a central Muslim majority zone, and a northeast zone that was a mess of different religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and tribal religions (the later three are all classified as “other” on this map). Below is the map with my zones drawn in:

Bengal and Assam with zones

I would have given Zones 1 and 3 to India, and 2 to Pakistan (remember Bangladesh was originally part of Pakistan). Interestingly, according to this map, that is exactly the partition proposed by the British Parliament in the Indian Independence Act of 1947, which was passed in June 1947 before the boundary award, and probably represented Parliament’s best guess at what the final division would look like. That isn’t what actually happened though. Below is the final boundary award:

Bengal and Assam Religion final boundary

The final boundary isn’t really pro-India or pro-Pakistan. It’s just very…eccentric. India ended up with large chunks of Muslim-majority territory on the west, and one random Muslim-majority slice of Syhlet in the east (Syhlet was the one district in Assam that went to Pakistan). Pakistan however got the overwhelmingly Buddhist Chittagong Hill Tracts in the far east, and the Hindu-majority district of Khulna, which was contiguous with Indian West Bengal. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for any of this. I used to assume it was because India wanted West Bengal to be contiguous, but it wasn’t immediately after Partition. It was made so later by transferring part of Bihar to West Bengal.

Maybe there was concern about breaking up areas that were economically interdependent. That hypothesis doesn’t pass muster though because Bengal’s economy was famously crippled by Partition. The jute-producing East was cut off from the jute-processing West, and the tea plantations of Assam lost the quickest route to the sea, and a major port in Chittagong. And remember that Calcutta was the largest city in British India? In part due to the economic stagnation brought on by the severing of Calcutta from its supply of jute, Calcutta has fared badly in the last 65 years. It is now the tenth largest city of the former Raj behind Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, and Chennai in India, Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan, and Dhaka in Bangladesh. The British obviously didn’t give a damn about wreaking economic devastation on Bengal, so their strange partition can’t be explained by some kind of commitment to reducing the fallout.

Interestingly, the British also partitioned Bengal in 1905, publicly for administrative reasons, but it was actually a ploy to reduce Bengali influence. That partition, which was quickly reversed, electrified the independence movement and prompted the British to move the capital of the Raj from Calcutta to Delhi. So clearly there was no love lost between the British and Bengalis. Finally, the arbitrary way in which the British partitioned Bengal also makes me doubt that my theory that the boundaries in Punjab were part of a plan to spare the Sikhs undue suffering. The British just didn’t care enough about India to think up something like that. Or rather, perhaps they cared about India, but they certainly did not care about Indians.

Now, we reach the comparison section of the post. Below is the 1941 Bengal and Assam map again with no lines drawn:

Bengal and Assam Religion, 1941

Below is a map of Bangladesh, West Bengal, and northeast India as it looks today, using 2001 Census results for India and Banglapedia for Bangladesh:

Bengal-and-Assam-Religion-Today

Note that I added Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, which weren’t on the 1941 map. Also, there are some areas on the west of the map that have been added to West Bengal since Partition. Here, we have a tale of two Bengals. The western half (or third really) is basically unchanged since Partition. The Muslims of West Bengal stayed in India. Bangladesh however, is a different story. I really don’t even need to trace it out on the map, because the bright green of Bangladesh stands out from the muddled browns of West Bengal. The Hindus of East Pakistan/Bangladesh didn’t leave during Partition in large numbers, but instead steadily trickled out of the country over time, with a large spike during the 1971 War. There are still many more Hindus in Bangladesh (around 10% of the population) than in West Punjab (about 0.5%), and the province was spared the apocalyptic cleansing faced by the Punjab.

A few other features to note include how much more Hindu the eastern end of Assam has become. I don’t know what caused that. Another major shift in this region, which I didn’t show because I only have three colors to work with is the transition from tribal religions to Christianity in the far eastern states of India. That story isn’t relevant to Partition, but maybe I’ll revisit it at a future date.

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35 thoughts on “How Did Partition Change the Religious Map in Bengal?

  1. “Pakistan however got the overwhelmingly Buddhist Chittagong Hill Tracts in the far east, and the Hindu-majority district of Khulna, which was contiguous with Indian West Bengal.”

    Why Khulna became part of Bangladesh is explained in Joya Chatterji’s book, ‘Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-67″.

    One of the reasons was that the Bengal Congress leadership wanted Bengal to be partitioned in such a way that it would be easiest for them to retain power in the truncated state of West Bengal. The idea was that since the Hindus were the main vote bank of the Congress Party in Bengal, and almost all the Muslims did not vote for the Congress, districts which were narrowly Muslim majority were not sought by the Bengal Congress. However, their plans totally failed because they did not anticipate the mass migration of peoples after partition.

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      • Congress needed to have control of head waters in the rivers flowing through Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda districts in order to keep on going navigation in the port city of Kolkata. More over , West Bengal did not like to lose the important central agricultural districts like Nadia, Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur. These districts were important for connectivity with North Bengal and Assam.

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          • The question why Khulna district was included in Pakistan in 1947 may be explained in the following way. Khulna district was comprised of three subdivision-Satkhira, Khulna , and Bagherhat. Among these only Khulna division was hindu majority mainly due to overwhelming hindu population in the city of Khulna. Because of this , the district as whole was slightly hindu majority. The Bagherhat subdivision in the east and Satkhira subdivision in the west was muslim majority. Therefore, the muslim majority Satkhira subdivision was contiguous to 24-Parganas of West Bengal
            and this made it diffiucult to include the district of Khulna in India. More over, Congress did not show much interest in Khulna , because it was thought to be mostly swamp area and British also could show some excuse to include vast areas having muslim population, namely Nadia, Murshidabad, malda ,and Dinajpur in India.
            The story of Chittagong Hill Tracts was different. This was a hilly district very thinly populated mostly by Bhuddists. This area was remotely dislocated from West Bengal and at the same time , Congress did not make a claim on it. On the other hand, not only it was contiguous to East Bengal , but also its all the communications and economy was dependent on East Bengal. Therefore, Muslim League also demanded this area because it was a hinterland to Chittagong and hence, was important to East Bengal. Conclusion: According to Jaya Chatterji, Congress got more than they wanted.

            AA

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      • As I know,The upper castes Hindu Zamindars of Murshidabad Dist. of United Bengal, specially Brahmins and Kayasthas, Suggested Nehru that if,Murshadabad will go to Pakistan, then Pakistan must strengulate the Kolkata Sea Port by making Water Barrage on Farrakka and the whole ganga water will be Dirverted to Padma River. Then they convinced Mr.Redcliff to exchange Murshidabad in India, in lieu of SC Hindu Majority Dist. of Khulna to Pakistan. Raja Tridiv Raiof the Princely State of Chittagong Hill Tracts was falsely convinced byJinna, to join Pakistan, to save his kingship.The foolish Tribal Raja signed the aggrement of unification with Pakistan and now the once Majority Buddhist Chakmas are facing accrocities continiously there, which is now in Bangla Desh. Many Chakma Refugees fled in India and rest are in Minority there.Hindus are now about 20% in Khulna, rest fled in India.On the other hand, The Muslims of Murshidabad are increasing their population in peace and properity in India. Shouting Jehadi slogans. The Hindu Rajput areas of Tharparkar and Amarkot of Sindh gone to Pakistan, and no Voice raised against this due to save Muslim Majority Rampur of U.P to join Pakistan.Pakistan captured Mirpur and Bhimber Dist. of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 and large scale Hindu popilation were fled from those areas to Jammu. Pakista claimes Kashmir Valley, which is now atleast very few Hindu popilation of several thousands. So Why not We claim our those once Hindu/Buddhist populated areas? My Hindu Friends, Raise your loud voice..Help me. Join my movement. Vandey Mataram.

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      • Priority was to have a seamless west Bengal, to do that Murshidabad and Maldah were needed. As a trade off Khulna was given to east Bengal

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  2. Just imagine the mighty united Bengal which is independent! The Bengali people have rich cultural heritage which will make it the greatest nation on earth.

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  3. Partition of Bengal was disastrous for the people of Bengal. The Indian part of West Bengal suffered due to the loss of its rich hinterland. Calcutta could barely keep up with its population and became an isolated eastern metro. Assam and the Northeastern states were completely disconnected from the rest of India. They share very few characteristics with the rest of the country. Bangladesh is only now starting to recover from the economic destruction that Partition forced upon it. It’s HDI is gradually improving and its population is somewhat under control. The best option was to split Bengal and Assam into a separate country and let the Bengalis have room to grow in the sparsely populated Northeast.

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  4. My Muslim Bengali Friends of Bangla Desh, You want Greater Bangla Desh, including Hindu Majority- West Bengal, Assam And Tripura- very good idea.Now say me that what what will be the position and status of 10 crore Bengali Hindus in your Sonar Bangla Desh.

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      • My dear Muslim Bengalis, Are you free from your jehadi Mentalities now and became Secular like us? If no, then how We can trust you? Our boundries are broken and our heart and trust also.The Buddhists of Chittagang Hill Tracts,are now suffering, due to their wrong decision to join Pakistan, now Bangla Desh.Once hindu majority khulna has now only 20% hindu population. Very ironical thing, You once driven out our fore fathers from East Bengal and You are now invading our boundries. Coming not only in West Bengal and Assam, but in Mumbai, Delhi and other far cities to serve Non Bengali Hindus and you are now speaking Hindi or Marathi. Then Why you demanded Pakistan. THe muslim western Pakistanis massacared you in 1971.you Massacarred us from 1947 to still today and We are giving You shelter in our country. tHe partition of bengal was a disaster, full of sorrow, but now it is a reality and till Muslim and Hindu religion exist, the division must exist. Alas.Sorry, very sorry.

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      • Absolutely agree with you. Dark story of this area, people won’t talk much. By the way it started from kalkata. Then spreaded to Nokhali and other places in east Bengal and as a result Bihar was also effected no one is talking here. Then Pakistani gov welcomed Bihari muslims to east bengal not in western part, though their language and culture is very much similar. Now Bangladesh have to allow those Biharis. Their population is increasing rapidly. We also have to deal with Rohingas.

        Who are wishing about Greater Bengal and also wisher of Bangladesh becomes part of India both are day dreamer. Trust me nothing is going to happen. Unless Modi Sarkar becomes more kind and say “enough is enough, don’t battle with tista farakka anymore let make Bengal united country. Like gifted chit mohol. Lol

        British will not come either to remape bengal.

        Last part is war. No one wants the war. Neither India nor Bangladesh. I believe if India wanted to grab Bangladesh they had a good chance in 1965 in Indo pak war. West Pakistan was too much busy to protect their ass and East part was unprotected. India could easily takeover East Pakistan. They had a chance in 1971 too. Pakistan wanted to express the world that India is capturing her lands. India proved that wrong too. We were very friendly and we will be, though we have lots of problems. and Bangladesh is neither fool enough to attack India. So united bengal is not going to happen like we saw in East Germany and west Germany. But is is true we have an emotional connection with each other. That will remain. And yeah if there was independent country for all Bengali people starts from west bengal to asam, Bangladesh to Arkan that would be great. Bengali would have been a great nation like Germans, Japanese or Chinese. They can mark their identity, nationality more bold in the world.

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    • First of all, I advise you to let go of your BJP Hindutva mentality, then we can all live together in peace. You are confusing us with Pakistan.

      If we compare Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus, the Muslims are more peaceful, there are more Hindus in violent groups and who espouse Neo Nazi BJP Hindutva ideology. They have massacred the Bengali Muslims of Barpeta relentlessly as well as in Nellie. However, I will say Bengali Hindus are more peaceful than North Indians/Pakistanis of whatever religion.

      In 1971, it was PAKISTANI Muslims who massacred many of the Hindus and INDIAN Hindus who also spread violence in the land to discredit Pakistan further.

      In one greater Shonar Bangla/Bengal. We will have unity as the stable land of the Bengal delta, we were always deemed a rich, stable country because of the fertility and co-operative nature of the land and people. People can be Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, whatever. We would CAST out the Indian/Pakistani mentality of communalism and violence and corruption and theft. Say no to this corrupt use of our religions as a tool for them to achieve economic hegemony over us. What should Bengal, Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka have to do with Delhi or Islamabad? We are simply their neighbours.

      In short to answer your question, if you can leave behind violent BJP tendencies and stop transplanting foreign jihadis into Bangladesh, we can be one prosperous nation. We can then start to forgive you for the massacres of Muslims in Silchar, Barpeta, Goalpara, Nellie, Upper Assam, Bhagalpur etc.

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    • You are depressing @Bhaskar Kumar Choudhary. Muslims of Indian Bengal and Assam are mired in complete poverty with complete dependence on leftist parties like CPM that continue to keep them poor. The other options are right wing Hindutva parties like BJP. Muslims have suffered tremendous massacres in Assam and continue to suffer under the guise of “Bangladeshi migrants”. If Bengal and Assam were a separate country, there would be greater self-government and less reliance on the government in far-away Delhi. You also wouldn’t have to compete with Punjabis, Gujaratis and Marwaris who are clearly better businessmen than you.

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    • You can not speak for all of wast Bengal my friend I have many friends from India that are from the districts of West Bengal who want to unite and have both Bangladeshi and Indian citizenship and the friends from assumes Bengali Muslim populations and northeast tripura

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  5. This is very well researched. I agree with the conclusion here as well. Ultimately it would have been good for both India and Pakistan/Bangladesh to end up with the districts as demographics demanded instead of other short-term tactical things like river waters or ports. The economic damage happened irregardless. The province of West Bengal was conceived mainly by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee last minute when plans for both united India and united Bengal (as its own country) got scuttled. I don’t understand what was the point of retaining districts that were heavily Muslim like Murshidabad and Maldah and Nadia when the reason for carving out West Bengal was to keep a strongly Bengali Hindu area within India. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh by Bengali Muslims is easier because in India they can easily say they are Indian Bengali Muslims. I believe even the Ghoti-Bangal dialects transition somewhere within erstwhile West Bengal, so it is impossible to tell if a Bengali Muslim is truly from WB or migrated from Bangladesh. Indian Punjab on other hand could never have its demographics under assault in the way West Bengal is reeling because of near-complete population exchange in 1947 and the fact that a Punjabi speaking Muslim from Pakistani Punjab would stick out by dialect and religion in Indian Punjab.

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    • Completely agreed – though I don’t think the British were fair on the eastern or the western front. You have 9-10 Muslim majority subdistricts in Punjab go to India instead of Pakistan. And in the east, so many of Muslim majority districts also went to India instead of Bangladesh. And then, Khulna and CHT went the other way.

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  6. The point about Kolkata is wrong, it is the 3rd largest city of India with a metropolitan population of around 15 million and a GDP of $150 billion. Agreed there has been a tremendous decline, but right up to the 1960s Kolkata was either at par or ahead of its economic contender in Mumbai. Delhi and Chennai was nowhere near either of these cities in the economic map of India till the ’90s. You can refer this link :: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Kolkata

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  7. I think It is very good that Bangladesh is a independent country with good life standard. I mean bangladesh has the 2nd best HDI after srilanka among the south asian countries. It is quite ok . Bangladesh will run quickly. Now many Indians also are working in Bangladesh . India s 5th remitance are coming from Bangladesh it is good for India also. Bangladesh is developing and Indians are getting jobs also in Bangladesh . It is good for indians also.

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  8. thank you for this good article.
    dear friends
    partition of any society will never bring happyness to any of the society. what is nation ?????? there is no nation but a united culture, but now we forgotten our culture and stick to our false national ideology.
    what is the difference between west bengal and bangladesh , …..nothing.
    india (including bangladesh) is great union of different language ,culture religion and many more ,if we just look it
    india from our religious glass then we will never understand our society(nation) and all the debate is a kind of chutiyapa!!!!!! so friends don’t be narrow minded…….
    thank you

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  9. It isn’t really mystifying that the Brits would be more considerate while drawing lines in the Punjab while treating the Bengal partition with utter callousness. It was well known and documented that they hated Bengalis and liked Punjabis (relative to most other Indians)

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  10. Interesting comment. Why do you think British hated Bengalis more? I also find it surprising that while Bengal had almost a fifth of India’s population at that time, there is so little written about the Bengal partition.

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  11. I saw many comments about a separate Bangladesh with West Bengal and East Bengal. Even in that case I hardly doubt Bengal will prosper. Also no Hindu wants to live in a Islamic Country. However if Bangladesh join India, Bengalis will have the most political clout in whole India (like UP enjoy in India). Bengali will replace Hindi as the official language. When Bengali can rule India, why settle for Bangladesh.

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