– Shasiniya Sagolshem
(This article has secured second place in Sriti O Chetona’s Paschimbanga Dibas Essay Writing Competition.)
“Had it been not for Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Bengali Hindus would have been destined to
live the lives of the Rohingyas in Myanmar or the Uighurs in Xinjiang, China.”
Hardly has a man with such caliber been born into this world who, in a short lifetime of 52 years has achieved as much as Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee. None can imagine what greatness he would have had achieved had he lived longer.
Dr. Mookerjee, a much-revered educationist and a selfless patriot, who founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the predecessor of Bharatiya Janata Party), was born as the second son of Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee and Jogamaya Devi Mookerjee on 6th July 1901 in the erstwhile Calcutta, Bengal Province Today’s Kolkata, West Bengal). We all have seen how West Bengal has become one of the most prosperous and developed states in India today. Has anyone ever wondered what would have been the fate of the state had Syama Prasad Mookerjee not fight for it? It would have been a part of East Pakistan (Bangladesh later) or an independent state wherein the Bengali Hindus’ houses would be looted, their women
molested, raped, abducted, and their men either forcefully converted or killed mercilessly.
However, Bengal was gifted with an eloquent and competent leader like Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who was willing to give up everything for the welfare of his people. Be it the Dacca Communal Riots of 1941; the Great Bengal Famine of 1942-43; the Great Calcutta Killings and the
Noakhali Carnage of 1946 or the Muslim League’s endeavor to merge a united sovereign Bengal into Pakistan, he had always been there, fighting relentlessly to save the Hindu Bengalis. Indeed, his entry into politics outside the educational sphere itself was due to the plight of the Bengali Muslims under the rule of a communal government in Bengal. Although the contributions he made for the country is manifold, most of the time, his stories have been swept under the carpet.
This essay aims at providing an insight of one of his most remarkable contribution in the country, that is, his role in saving the lives of the Bengali Hindus.
How did Syama Prasad Mookerjee save the Bengali Hindus?
The answer to this question may be much more perplexing than it seems because throughout his career as a politician, he had always been there to fight for the cause of the Bengali Hindus and for the country as a whole. The first phase of his life as a savior of Bengali Hindus began when he entered into politics during 1939-41. His political career had already begun as a congress candidate from the Calcutta University Constituency in 1929, however he worked only as a watchdog of the affairs of the Calcutta University by then. He entered into real-time politics when Bengal was run by the rabidly communal coalition of Muslim League and Krishak Praja Party under the ostensible leadership of Abul Kashem Fajlul Haq, which committed unconscionable acts against the Bengali Hindus such as the defilement of Hindu images, suppression of better qualifications vis-a-vis Hindu, encouragement of riots and attacks on Hindu women, the passing of laws jeopardizing the Hindus and provided for preferential treatments in favor of the Muslims in both education and services. For instance, in 1939, the Bengal Assembly introduced the Calcutta Municipal Bill which provided for a separate electorate. Calcutta’s population comprised
of roughly 70% Hindus however, the bill reduced the representation to about 46% seats in the Calcutta Corporation. Syama Prasad Mookerjee pleaded for rejecting the bill altogether while other Hindu Ministers like Nalini Ranjan Sarkar and Sir Binoy Prasad Singh Roy refused to even
censure it despite being pressured by Dr. Mookerjee among others.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee along with other prominent Hindu leaders of that time, initiated measures to mobilize the Bengali Hindus and make them aware of their precarious conditions through a huge Hindu Conference conducted in December 1939 in Deshbandu Park, Calcutta. This was perhaps the first such public gathering through which the Bengali Hindus were brought to be attentive towards the danger they were facing from the aggressive communalism of the Muslims. As a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, Dr, Mookerjee toured Bengal extensively to stir up the Hindus to organize themselves and to do away with all the petty differences existing among them in the name of caste prejudices because it is only when the Hindus are united that they will be able to fight against
Muslim communalism. As a part of this effort, a local temple was opened to all Hindu castes in late 1939 in Tipperah in eastern Bengal.
On 22 March 1941, Governor Sir John Herbert call for a conference regarding the improvement of communal relations. While the conference of the party leaders was going on, the Dacca communal riots broke out with the whole city of Dacca being put into flames. Fazlul Haq, the Nawab
of Dacca and Shahabuddin went to look into the matter in a chartered plane, which took off before Dr. Mookerjee reached the airport although he had asked for a seat there. That time, he risked his life first by traveling in a tiny private aircraft piloted by a friend of his called Lohia and
second by being the first Hindu non-official from outside. There he visited the pitiable riot-affected rural areas to inspire confidence among the suffering Hindus. After his return to Calcutta, although the press was gagged under the Defense of India Rules, he sent a wire to Congress
President Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to support him for moving an adjournment motion.
When the latter declined the proposal, he sent a wire to Mahatma Gandhi who ordered Azad to direct Bengal Legislators to support Mookerjee’s move. As a result, the country was made known of what was done to the Hindus in Dacca and the government was forced to restore calm and punish the guilty. Next turns out to be the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. Dr. Mookerjee became the Finance Minister of Bengal in 1941 but he resigned in 1942. The next year, Bengal was hit severely by famine, because of which 2 to 3 million people died. During the crisis, Dr. Mookerjee set up the non-partisan Bengal Relief Committee for reprehensive famine relief throughout the province and collected donations. A parallel organization called Bengal Provincial Hindu Mahasabha Relief Committee` was also set for the relief of both Muslims and Hindus alike.
In the meantime, a Muslim Communal Party called Khaksar Party started a relief camp where Hindu destitute children were attempted to convert to Muslims. Dr. Mookerjee contacted the leader of that party instantly and demanded that they return such children to the Hindu Mahasabha. He also managed to put enough pressure on the government to halt the transportation of children altogether, thus saved several Bengali Hindu children from being converted.
Right before the Great Calcutta Killings and the Noakhali Carnage of 1946, Dr. Mookerjee had an ignominious defeat in the Central Assembly Election in December 1945. Although he entered the Provincial Legislative Assembly through the University constituency, he was technically helpless because of the lack of support of most of the Hindus who believed (although falsely) that the Congress was necessarily a Hindu party.
It is estimated that somewhere from 5000 to 25000 Bengali Hindus were killed in the Calcutta killings and probably around a lakh were injured. Shortly afterward, widespread molestation, kidnapping, and rape of Hindu women were reported from Noakhali. As for the Noakhali carnage, it is estimated that around 5000 Bengali Hindus were killed by the Muslim majority who accounted for 80% of the population.
It was indeed impossible for an individual to take any concrete action against the Muslim League in such a scenario. However, Dr. Mookerjee did whatever he could in ample measure. Firstly, he provided relief to the victims whenever he could. Secondly, he lambasted the inciters of the pogrom viz., Suhrawardy (the then Prime Minister of Bengal) and his cohorts with words as well as the resident Whites of the city for their irresponsible self-centeredness.
Here he also came up as a social reformer. The social custom of Bengal had a rule that if a Hindu consumes beef, he ceased to be a Hindu. Likewise, any Hindu woman would either become a Muslim or a prostitute or commit suicide if she had been touched by a Muslim, even if it was against her will. Dr. Mookerjee set to rectify this state of affairs by approaching the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, established by Swami Vivekananda and leading Sanskrit scholars and religious Gurus from all over India such as Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, Jagadguru Swami Yogeshwar Ananda Tirtha of Goverdhan Math among others. Thus, dicta were issued that none of such Hindus should consider themselves converted nor should the women consider themselves violated.
He toured the affected areas of Noakhali and Tipperah district and made a statement to console and consolidate the Bengali Hindus there. After his return to Calcutta, he formed a volunteer group called the Hindustan National Guard to protect the people affected by the riots. Thus, he restored the confidence and morale of the Bengali Hindus, who would rather have had considered themselves converted or committed suicide.
The most remarkable effort of Dr. Mookerjee to save the Bengali Hindus must, however, be the partition of Bengal. Here a statement by Tathagata Roy in his book ‘Syama Prasad Mookerjee: Life and Times’ may be quoted, “But for Dr. Mookerjee, the city would have begun its journey
post 1947 as the capital, not of West Bengal but either of the independent sovereign state of Bengal or East Pakistan. Then, in the first case in all probability, very soon united sovereign Bengal would either have merged into Pakistan or declared itself an Islamic Republic, and the non-
Muslims of that Republic would have been consigned to hell, or something pretty near it, as the bulk of the East Pakistani were. It was because of Dr. Mookerjee today that it is a part of India and the capital of a state where it’s 73 percent Hindus and 27 percent Muslims live holding their heads
high and in reasonable amity.” The objective of Suhrawardy and Jinnah was to include Calcutta, a prize-catch to Pakistan. However, the city consisted of a Hindu population accounting to 70%.
Therefore, if Pakistan was to have Calcutta, it inferred that it must have Bengal as a whole. Earlier, Dr. Mookerjee had been campaigning to prevent the partition of the country with all his might but eventually, he realized that partition was inevitable. He was also aware of the fact that if the whole of Bengal became a part of Pakistan, the condition of the 47% Hindu would be worse than miserable. He therefore began to put all his resources to mobilize the Bengali Hindus to support the partition of the Bengal province. His perfectly reasoned and impelling advocacy could bring congressmen into his favor. In a letter addressed to Mountbatten on 2nd May, 1947, Dr.Mookerjee clearly explained why the partition of Punjab and Bengal was necessary by providing reasons related to the large area (&8,00 square Miles) and population (60 million people) of Bengal and the loopholes in administration; the sufferings of Bengali Hindus on account of not only riots but also in other spheres such as education, economy, politics etc. among others. This convincing advocacy not only convinced the British about the inevitability of the Partition and the rejection of the dream of a united sovereign Bengal, but also made the Hindus of Bengal support the Partition.
All his efforts led the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Hon. Clemet Attlee to announce the partition of Bengal and Punjab on 3rd June 1947. A large majority of the members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly also voted for the partition on 20th June 1947. Thus, Dr. Mookerjee saved the lives of those Bengali Hindus who would otherwise have had to face inhumane atrocities in a communal Muslim-majority country.
To conclude, it would not be an exaggeration if it is said that Dr. Mookerjee has remained the most important figure who worked to save the Bengali Hindus with so much dedication. His effort did not end with the partition. He even resigned from his cabinet position in the aftermath of independence disagreeing with the way the Government under Nehru dealt with the issues of Bengali Hindus in East Pakistan. He demanded the implementation of a comprehensive plan of action for the relief and rehabilitation of refugees from East Pakistan so that they would be
able to serve the cause of the entire population of West Bengal. He dreamt of building a healthy, prosperous, and powerful Bengal but the Prime Minister did not pay any heed to him.
As a result, after his resignation, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 which rejected the appeasement of Muslims. He continued to work for the entire nation and also for the Hindu Bengalis. Humanity lost a gem on 23rd June 1953 when Syama Prasad Mookerjee passed away in Jammu and Kashmir where he was a prisoner from May 1953 with the charge of entering the state without prior permission, although he was told by the Deputy Commissioner of Gurdaspur that the Government of India had instructed the later to allow Dr. Mookerjee to enter the same.
Nothing could be more melancholic when one comes to know that his intention for entering the state was to have a talk with the local leaders of the state and get to know the issue existing there better, so that a peaceful settlement could be brought in the perilous state of Jammu and Kashmir. Nothing is known with certainty regarding his death as no inquiry was ordered to be conducted by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, however, what this man did for the Bengali Hindus shall remain written on stone till eternity.
About the writer: Shasiniya Sagolshem is a student of Political Science (B.A.Hons) in Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi. She is originally from Manipur.