Book Review : Bengal Divided – The Unmaking Of A Nation 1905-1971

BENGAL DIVIDED – THE UNMAKING OF A NATION 1905-1971
By Nitish Sengupta


Image result for bengal divided the unmaking of a nationThere are some books which can honestly be classified as yearnings, or – in the reflected light of reality, as forlorn hopes & a deep yearning. This is one such book, which is from start to finish a softly melancholy yearning, and a deep sigh for what could have been. I don’t begrudge the author that yearning, that is a human trait – and given the power of cultural similarity, or should I say, perceived cultural similarity,  the author’s view can be accepted.


This is the story of United Bengal; the sad and tragic story of the division of a people that were once one in almost every way except religion; this is the story of a time when the ties of culture and people were stronger than the ties of religion for some people. And this is also the story of how precisely the one people became two for a part of their community, of how external forces brutally played havoc with cultural unity and drove a rift into the community along religious lines, tearing asunder a land into two.


However, this didn’t happen with Bengal alone – it happened with India, of which Bengal is but one part; a nation was split into two, as some Indians up and decided they didn’t consider themselves Indians, that Religion was more important than nation… but that is another story. What is relevant to us is that this is a story with deep current ramifications on our Western Border; and that we need to, as a people, understand how this happened. The current book goes a long way in filling the gaps.


The book starts from the 1905 partition and its aftermath, and the unity that was displayed across belief systems for a united Bengal. What follows, from Page 1 almost, is a pathetic, tragic and shocking series of events that rent asunder the unity that Bengal displayed in and around 1905. While the book is debatable on several counts, one or two of which I mention in this review, I would rather readers ignore the errors or presumptions / assumptions made by the author in some instances. I say this as subsequent discoveries have laid bare the reality of the British Role in no uncertain terms.


The book traces a malignant and brutal British policy of Divide and Rule, specifying how they played this ugly game which had far-reaching ramifications for us as a people long into the future {looking at it from 1905 perspective}. This ugly game, which rent friend from friend, successfully befooled many an Indian, and created a sordid tale of unmitigated disaster. The way in which existing raw spots were masterfully used by the British, of how ambitions and desires were manipulated by the Empire to attain their own ends has been exposed thoroughly in this masterpiece of a book, its several clear weaknesses notwithstanding.




The best part of the book is the succinct manner in which the facts have been presented, making for a very fast, rapid and highly engaging read. The complete absence of deep analysis in some parts, though a clear problem, is actually a great benefit for those readers like self  {who are avid readers of partition, and are aware of the full facts} ; it helps create a sequence of events in your mind, without having to read reams upon reams. This style of presentation also has the added advantage of creating a panoramic image of that time in your mind; you can quite literally see the years passing by and feel the emotions building up towards a sad and tragically thundering climax.


However, this absence of deep analysis, and in my opinion, presentation of interpretations that can be called the opinion of the author, is deeply troubling, as it seeks to inadvertently downplay some vital leaders of the freedom struggle, which is both sad and, I feel, inaccurate. This, in my opinion at least, presents an incomplete picture before the audience. I accept that the author is entitled to his opinion as much as I am to mine, but the overall approach in the first part was deeply troubling, and offensive to me in many ways and instances.


The overall portrayal of Suhrawardi, for one example; the man who was an intergral part of the Direct Action Day 1946 events; whose role has been questioned by several people; the 22 August 1946 report by the British Governor Mr Frederick Burrows {For me - not Sir – Mr. I don’t recognize colonial titles} is damning and almost incontrovertible; and yet, later parts of the present book are much softer on this person, Suhrawardy, which is stunning to say the least. Those interested can read the relevant sections on this sad day on pg 222-225 of Partition –The Untold Story


Or the yearning for a lost hope -  that meaningless cheque on a failed bank – the Cabinet Mission Plan, which has been justifiably crucified as a disastrous answer to the problem of independence. Given that the plan contained a time-bomb, that of reconsideration after ten years, this was bound to create problems later on, which could have been disastrous for Independent India, as has been revealed on Pg 211-212 of the book referred in the paragraph above; in it, Woodrow Wilson has been shown on record saying he convinced Jinnah to say yes only on that ten year point, I quote from the book : “though the statement announcing the plan ruled out Pakistan, it was the first step on the road to it


The most surprising statement, one which I cannot understand, talks of “Bengalis in India having to balance their trans-national Bengali cultural Identity with the very powerful force of Pan-Indian identity, of which they are also partners”, as stated in the epilogue. Being a Maharastrian who has no problems of any kind in any balancing whatsoever, and a person who clearly sees a Marathi-speaking non-Indian as an alien, and not a common whatever, I neither understand nor accept this statement, which I find surprising, and stunning to put it very mildly.



All in all, this is a good book; not great-  but definitely good. As all things in life, there are some things and aspects about it that will tend to rub some readers the wrong way; but the question is whether it has sufficient good points and learnings contained within it to help its classification as a must-read book on Indian Independence. And in that there can be no doubt : it is a good book, its weaknesses notwithstanding. Rated 2.5 to 3 stars overall, but a must read, 

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