How Bengal was divided – Part-1

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Partition of Bengal first took place in 1905. It was carried out by the British viceroy in India, Lord Curzon, despite strong Indian nationalist opposition. The second division happened in 1947 and 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.

By Avik Sarkar

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 favor 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.

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 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 center 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 kilometers. ((Courtesy:

[To be continued]


The author writes on the rights of persecuted Bengalis. He is a post-graduate student of Political Science.


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