Who's Who

Bengal and Punjab - Before and Beyond

Jean Alphonse Bernard considers the two key provinces and how they became touchstones and then powderkegs in the nationalist aspirations of both sides.

What happened in 1947 was not so much the partition of the whole of Britain's Indian Empire as the partition of two of its eleven provinces: Punjab and Bengal. If one considers the North East, Orissa, the Central Provinces, the Bombay State and the whole of peninsular India, not much happened there between July and October of this fateful year. Assam itself was little disrupted in spite of having lost the district of Sylhet to East Bengal. Violence, it is true, erupted in Delhi on a large scale and vast migrations of people took place in Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar. There it was clearly a reverberation of what happened in Punjab and Bengal. Even the events in the Princely State of Kashmir – from the rumours running in the Poonch district that Muslims were massacred in East Punjab, to the raid of Pashtun tribes in the Vale – were clearly an effect of what had happened in Punjab a few weeks before. Why were these two partitions so significant?

Bengal, with 50 million inhabitants (at the 1931 census) was no longer the seat of imperial power, but was still immensely important in economic, social and intellectual terms. It was home to a range of industries, from jute mills to mechanical engineering and shipyards. Calcutta was perhaps the busiest emporium from the Suez Canal to the Far East, serving a vast hinterland from Tibet and Nepal to Burma. It boasted a large intelligentsia and the oldest college in the country, so that it was perhaps the most lively intellectual centre in this part of Asia.

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