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.
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:
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:
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:
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.