Two Bengals in two nations: How West Bengal got its current shape

Avik Sarkar
Avik SarkarJun 17, 2020 | 15:05

Two Bengals in two nations: How West Bengal got its current shape

The ‘Final Award’ in dividing Bengal was in the hands of an Englishman who was hesitant to come to India because of the ‘scorching heat’ and had no interest in the task assigned to him.

On June 20, 1947, the legislators of the Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas of Bengal decided to partition the province on the lines of religion by a majority vote. A ‘Boundary Commission’ was established by then Governor-General Lord Mountbatten, on June 30, 1947. British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe was appointed as the Chairman of the Commission.

Four jurists were appointed members of the Bengal Boundary Commission: Bijan Kumar Mukherjee, CC Biswas, Abu Saleh Mohamed Akram and SA Rahman. The former two were appointed by the Congress, while the latter two were appointed by the Muslim League. It is interesting to note here that there were two Hindus and two Muslims in the Commission. It was obvious that taking into consideration the prevailing political circumstances of that time, the Muslim members were to decide for demarcation in favour of Pakistan, and the vice versa for the Hindu members with respect to India. This meant that the final verdict rested in hands of Radcliffe himself, who was to appropriate the deliberations of the Commission through his casting vote.


Though Radcliffe made brief visits to Calcutta which was the seat of the Bengal Boundary Commission, he spent most of the time in Delhi. The four members of the Bengal Boundary Commission sat in two sessions — one from July 18 to July 24 and the second one from August 4 to August 6. Therefore, determining a territorial demarcation of more than 2500 miles, encompassing a vast stretch of land expanding across the length and breadth of Eastern India, was completed in two sittings in a span of only nine days.

The ‘Final Award’ lay in hands of Sir Cyril Radcliffe who showed a complete lack of interest in the task that was assigned to him. (Photo: Getty Images)

It is noteworthy that Radcliffe was unfamiliar with Indian society and had not visited India before. His only briefing for the tedious task of partitioning the two mammoth provinces was a 30-minute session on a map with the Under Secretary of India Office. The Commission members regularly briefed him on the deliberations and he took the charge of resolving the bilateral conflict prevailing within the Commission with his prerogative. In a situation where unanimity was practically impossible between the warring native members, the ‘Final Award’ lay in hands of an Englishman who was hesitant to come to India in the first place because of the ‘scorching heat of summer’ and then showed a lack of interest in the task that was assigned to him.


The Muslim League, and Jinnah in particular, had claimed that the whole of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal should remain intact and a referendum should be held in the two provinces to decide their future. The League desperately wanted the city of Calcutta in Pakistan, and their supporters started believing that the province would be partitioned along the Hooghly River. Bengal Governor Frederick Burrows proposed that the Calcutta be excluded from both the Bengals and instead be administered by a council. This proposal was rejected by Mountbatten.

Bhabatosh Dutt mentions that Muslim professors of Islamia College, Calcutta (now Maulana Azad College) who wrote in their opinion forms, “Pakistan, preferably Calcutta”. One of them tried to console Dutt by saying, “At least you are going to have Howrah.” However, even before the Radcliffe Award was out, it became clear that Calcutta was to remain in India.

Jinnah had urged Mountbatten of not partitioning the provinces, citing references to common history and common ways of life that the people in those provinces bore, irrespective of religion. However, Mountbatten was adamant on the partition of Bengal and Punjab as a mandatory criterion of the scheduled transfer of power. Had he been swayed away by the diatribes of Jinnah and the Muslim League, then the concerted Bengali Hindu campaign of a separate homeland within India would have borne no fruition at the end. The condition of the Bengali Hindus would have been akin to that of their Sindhi counterparts.


The Bengal Pradesh Congress, Hindu Mahasabha, Communist Party and Scheduled Caste leaders unequivocally espoused the inclusion of Hindu-majority areas into India. Leaders of the Depressed Classes Association and Depressed Classes League had already met government officials, registering their consent to their natural habitats — Jessore, Khulna, Faridpur and Bakarganj districts be kept in India. The Buddhist-majority district of Chittagong Hill Tracts had only three per cent Muslim population at the time of partition. Therefore, if the claims of the Bengal Congress and other Hindu claimants were to be taken into consideration, then at least 55 per cent of the area of the erstwhile Bengal province was to be transferred to Hindu-majority West Bengal.

It must be noted here, that the ethnoreligious geography of Bengal was such that the Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas of Western and Eastern Bengal could not have been demarcated based on the contiguity divide. This was because, the districts that lay in the western banks of the Hooghly river — Barddhaman, Hooghly, Medinipur, Bankura, Birbhum and Howrah districts — were overwhelmingly Hindu. Same was the case of Calcutta and 24 Parganas which had a clear Hindu-majority. The district of Khulna which was situated in contiguity with the district of 24 Parganas, had a Hindu population of 51 per cent. As already mentioned above, the district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts that was situated contiguous to present-day North-Eastern India, had an overwhelming Buddhist-majority where the major ethnic group were the Chakmas.

The territory within the blue line (which included Khulna and CHT) represented the state of West Bengal in India, on August 15, 1947. The Radcliffe Award was not yet to be announced. (Photo courtesy: Avik Sarkar)

The districts of Dacca (Dhaka), Tippera, Noakhali, Chittagong, Sylhet, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Bogra, Malda, Rajshahi, Pabna, Murshidabad, Nadia, Jessore, Faridpur, Bakarganj were Muslim-majority districts of Bengal. All these 16 districts were located in the Central and Eastern regions of the erstwhile Bengal province. The immediate question that arose was that where will the Hindu-majority thanas (police stations) of these districts be? In districts like Nadia, Malda, Murshidabad, Jessore, Dinajpur, there were numerous Hindu-majority thanas which were situated contiguous to the proposed state of West Bengal. The districts of Dinajpur, Murshidabad, Jessore and Nadia had a sizeable Hindu population of 49 per cent, 43 per cent, 39 per cent and 38 per cent respectively.

Radcliffe argued that the demarcation of a boundary line between East and West Bengal depended on the answers to be given to certain ‘questions’. The questions were pertaining to the considerations on which state would the city of Calcutta be placed in, or if there were any means to divide the city between the two states of West and East Bengal. There were similar considerations on the statuses of the Hindu-majority district of Khulna and the Muslim-majority districts of Malda and Dinajpur. The statuses of the Buddhist-majority Chittagong Hill Tracts and that of the two northernmost districts of Jalpaiguri (having a Muslim population of 23 per cent) and Darjeeling (where Muslim habitation was less than three per cent), which were in no way contiguous to the Hindu-majority areas, were also put to question.

With respect to the city of Calcutta, Governor Burrows argued that there was a possibility of ‘riot’ in case, it was handed over to West Bengal. Radcliffe, who was not aware of the importance of Calcutta, proposed that the city be divided between the two states. Calcutta was not just the largest urban conglomeration of erstwhile Bengal, but also served as the commercial and geopolitical centre of the province. The mills of Calcutta industrial area were depended on the raw materials that came from the agrarian bowls of East Bengal. However, Calcutta was in no way contiguous to the Muslim-majority areas of proposed East Bengal. The shortest distance between the city of Calcutta and a Muslim-majority district of eastern Bengal was not less than 80 kilometres.

Radcliffe Award of 17 August 1947; West Bengal in India (shown in orange) and East Pakistan (shown in green) in Pakistan. (Photo courtesy: Avik Sarkar)

The Radcliffe Commission came up with the proposal of demarcating the territories of East and West Bengal, based on the principle of contiguity and that the unit of demarcation would be a thana. On August 15, 1947, all the eight Hindu-majority districts of Bengal, including Calcutta, were constituted into a new state of ‘West Bengal’ and placed within the Union of India. The Buddhist-majority district of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) was also placed in India. Chakma leader Sreya Kumar Chakma hoisted the Indian Tricolour at Rangamati, district headquarters of CHT, on the eve of independence. The two northernmost districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri (with the exception of the thana of Patgram and all other eastern and southern thanas), were to remain a part of West Bengal. Thus, the new Hindu-majority state was carved out by constituting the northern and southern parts with non-contiguous borders. The southern districts were totally separated from the northernmost districts by a non-territorial borderline with East Bengal of Pakistan lying on its right and the province of Bihar of India on its left.

On August 15, 1947, the district of Nadia was awarded to Pakistan. Pre-independent Nadia had five subdivisions — Krishnanagar Sadar, Meherpur, Kusthia, Chuadanga and Ranaghat. All these areas except Nabadwip were given to Pakistan. It was not a diplomatic decision but a mistake on Radcliffe’s part. The news led to widespread protests in Nadia. Women observed a blackout by not lighting their stoves for two days, and a complete blackout was observed throughout the district. ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans were chanted by Muslim League activists and the Pakistani flag was hoisted near Krishnanagar Rajbari and Public Library. When the word reached Mountbatten, he ordered Radcliffe to make changes to the map. As a result, two days later Hindu-majority subdivisions of Ranaghat and Krishnanagar Sadar were placed in India. The Pakistani flag at the Public Library was taken down and Indian Tricolour was hoisted on August 18, 1947.

The Muslim-majority district of Malda and Dinajpur were similarly awarded to Pakistan on the eve of independence. However later, on August 18, the Hindu-majority subdivisions of Malda Sadar and Chachal were given to India as parts of Malda district, while the Muslim-majority subdivision of Nawabganj was severed from erstwhile Malda and was added to Rajshahi district of East Bengal in Pakistan. The Hindu-majority Balurghat region was severed from the Muslim-majority district of Dinajpur, and was merged in the province of West Bengal as the new district of ‘Paschim Dinajpur’. Later in 1957, with the Linguistic Reorganisation of States, the Paschim Dinajpur was enlarged by the inclusion of Bangla-speaking regions of Bihar’s Purnea. Thus, with the process of enlargement and subsequent merger of Malda into India, the southern districts Bengal were no more disconnected to the northern districts of West Bengal.  

On August 15, 1947, a Muslim-majority district of Bengal, Murshidabad was awarded to Pakistan. However, with the lobbying by Bengal Pradesh Congress leader Atulya Ghosh and famed industrialists of that time, the district was transferred to West Bengal a few days later. The district of Murshidabad served as a bridge that connected the southern districts with northern West Bengal. The headwaters of Calcutta Port were situated in Murshidabad. The inclusion of Murshidabad in Pakistan implied a complete disconnect in the inland shipping route between the Upper Ganges of Bihar and the port of Kolkata. 

This also meant that in event of a war, Pakistan could have mobilised its control over Murshidabad and headwaters of Calcutta or notoriously used it to build a dam to control the flow of water to the districts of southern Bengal. Cossimbazar, situated in the district, was a commercial port and a rich zamindari. The estate’s baron, Maharaja Srishachandra Nandy had voted alongside the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha in partitioning the province and proactively endorsed the demand of Bengali Hindu homeland. Thus, the award of a Muslim-majority district to West Bengal was purely on strategic and commercial lines. The Hindu-majority subdivision of Bangaon of undivided Jessore district of eastern Bengal was also transferred to India on 18 August 1947. Bangaon was made into a subdivision of the 24 Parganas district.

The territorial jurisdiction of West Bengal was increased with the addition of the State of Cooch Behar on January 19, 1950. On September 19, 1949, the King of Cooch Behar, Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan had signed the Instrument of Accession. Cooch Behar, originally inhabited by both Kamtapuri and Bengali communities, was made into a district. In 1956, the jurisdiction was further increased with the addition of the Bangla-speaking thanas of Bihar to West Bengal. The merger of the Bengali areas of Manbhum in southern Bihar to West Bengal as the new district of Purulia came after a long-drawn historic and non-violent ethnolinguistic struggle by the Bengali community of Manbhum from 1948 to 1956.

The district-wise map.of the present-day West Bengal. (Photo: mapsofindia)

The Radcliffe Award was made public on August 17, 1947. The non-Muslim-majority districts of Khulna and the Chittagong Hill Tracts were traded off to Pakistan. It came as a surprise to Hindu and secular organisations like Congress and Hindu Mahasabha who were disappointed by the fact that West Bengal was given only 36 per cent of the land of erstwhile Bengal. Between 1947 and 1948, there were posters all over Dhaka in East Bengal against Durga Puja, and the Dhamrai Rath Yatra was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Upper-caste alarmist Bengali Hindu professionals, gentry folk and government employees fled East Bengal en masse due to fears of a fledgeling Islamic nation and settled in India.  After the brutal crackdown of the Nachole Tebhaga Uprising in 1949-1950, Khulna was the first district to witness anti-Hindu violence. Hindus fled Khulna in large numbers and took refuge in West Bengal. In February 1950, several parts of East Bengal like Dhaka, Barisal, Khulna, Mymensingh and Chittagong witnessed anti-Hindu pogroms sponsored by the Pakistani state and Ansars.

The horrors of 1950, 1964 and 1971 are evidence of how Hindus of Pakistan have been made to suffer under the insidious mechanism of hostage population theory as devised by Jinnah. India, being a civilised nation, has always adhered to the principle of pluralism and rule of law. It has extended the widest possible benevolence towards its domiciled minority population. India needs to be constitutionally recognised as ‘Universal Homeland of Hindus’. India should neither remain an idle spectator to the sufferings of the religious minorities of Bangladesh nor should it turn its back on the persecuted religious minorities of Bangladesh who have sought refuge. Justifying India’s moral obligation towards the Hindus of East Bengal, Bharat Kesari Dr Syama Prasad Mookherji had rightly said in 1950 on the floor of the Parliament, “The Hindus of East Bengal are entitled to the protection of India, not on humanitarian considerations alone, but by the virtue of their sufferings and sacrifices, made cheerfully for generations, not for advancing their parochial interests, but for laying down the foundations of India’s freedom and intellectual progress.”

Last updated: July 06, 2020 | 14:20
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