India lost a major part of Bengal, with terrible consequences for Bengali Hindus, in 1937, when the Congress Party made a historic blunder. Despite emerging as the largest party in the 1937 election for the Bengal Legislative Assembly, the Congress Party refused to form a government. The tally was: Congress Party, 54 seats; Muslim League, 40 seats; Krishak Praja Party, 35 seats.
Sarat Chandra Bose, the leader of Bengal Congress, wanted to form a joint government with Krishak Praja Party and some independent candidates. He pleaded with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru that they should allow him form a government. The Congress Party failed to act on his proposal.
At that time, the Congress Party was a divided house, and a cold war was raging between Nehru and the Bose brothers (Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose). It is said that Nehru feared that if Sarat was allowed to form a government in Bengal, then the power of the Bose brothers within the Congress Party could surpass his power. It was important for Nehru to maintain his pole position in the Congress; his ambition was to be India’s first prime minister. He told Sarat that the Congress would sit in the opposition.
The failure of the Bengal Congress to form a government allowed the Muslim League to grab the opportunity. They formed a government in coalition with the Krishak Praja Party. Abul Kasem Fazlul Huq, the leader of the Krishak Praja Party, became Bengal’s first prime minister. Immediately after acquiring power, the Muslim League started using the government’s machinery to strengthen its supporters, and weaken the Hindu communities.
Sitting in the opposition benches, the Congress Party did little to stop the Muslim League from misusing the government machinery. This led people to believe that the Muslim League was the party of power in Bengal, and they started moving away from the Congress Party. In a letter (dated April 4, 1939) to his nephew Amiya, Subhas Chandra Bose wrote: “… Nobody has done more harm to me personally and to our cause in this crisis than Pandit Nehru…”
By the end of the 1930s, the Muslim League’s position in Bengal had improved considerably and the Congress had suffered a decline. In 1943, the Muslim League was in a position to form a government on its own, with Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin, a close confidant of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as the prime minister. In 1946, H. S. Suhrawardy took control of the Muslim League in Bengal.
In the election held in 1946, the Muslim League, led by Suhrawardy, won 113 seats, while the tally of the Congress, led by Sarat Chandra Bose, was 86. Thus, in the decisive period when India was hurtling towards independence, Suhrawardy was occupying the powerful position of prime minister in the crucial frontline region of Bengal. He moved decisively to promote his supporters in key positions in Bengal’s bureaucracy and police.
In July 1946, Jinnah announced that August 16 would be the Direct Action Day. With this call for direct action, he had stirred the communal fury of the Muslims. This was a call for violence against the Hindus. It was clear that Suhrawardy’s government was with the groups which were planning large-scale violence in Bengal, but the British government did not deploy its military.
August 16 is often described as the start of the “The Week of the Long Knives.” Most historians have blamed the members of the Muslim League, Suhrawardy in particular, for the mass killings which began on the Direct Action Day. Sir Frederick John Burrows, the British Governor of Bengal in this period, condemned Suhrawardy for misusing the police force for directing violence against Hindus. More than 10,000 people were slaughtered within four days following the Direct Action Day. Thousands of women were raped, mutilated, and murdered.
A day after the violence had commenced in Bengal, the Hindu groups in Calcutta mobilized under the leadership of Gopal Chandra Mukhopadhyay (Gopal Patha) to defend themselves. There was large scale killing and destruction of property by both sides. When Suhrawardy saw the violent response from the Hindu groups, he sued for peace. A peace was negotiated but it did not last. The killings spread to other parts of the country; the violence continued till August 1947.
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