How a Bengali Book Series Is Attempting to Make Partition History ‘Real’ for Children

History, as a subject of study, has traditionally been dreaded by school goers in India. It is either thought of as a subject too wieldy to be completed within a stipulated time frame, or as not scoring enough to reflect well in the yearly progress report.

The other worrying trend in history lessons has been the blurring of the human and the divine, where myths and legends are passed on as history. It is no wonder then that the textbooks very often remain silent about the location of common men, women, children, and at times, even animals, within the broad contours of world history. Such an absence renders history not only partial and incomplete, but also far removed from the lived realities of the young readers.

The fact that history is not a metanarrative, that it is not merely about remembering names and dates of kings and political leaders and their great deeds, never trickles into the everyday classroom discussions. Since history books are a crucial tool used by the educational apparatuses to shape the understanding of the future citizens about their self or identity, it becomes a potent battleground for competing political ideologies too. The history textbooks, therefore, present a unidimensional narrative of the past, which besides propagating intolerance and breeding animosity, has the potential to deepen the fissures in an already fragmented society.

For years it has been an uphill task for both educators and parents to make history inclusive and ‘real’. Even though the history textbooks nowadays carry visuals such as illustrations and photographs, and classroom teaching is often complemented by museum visits, heritage walks, and educational tours to historical sites, children still remain hesitant to explore the subject beyond the dominant framework.

It is amidst this persistent crisis around the study of history that contemporary children’s literature in India is silently taking long strides in remoulding the existing perceptions. The last couple of years have witnessed a surge in the publication of a large number of biographies and stories of ordinary people with extraordinary talent and courage, who either remained unsung heroes in the annals of history or became victims of a particular historic decision or moment.

Bengal Partition in school textbooks

Besides the well-known publishing houses, researchers are also coming together to contribute towards retrieving the lost voices of individuals and their stories for the young readers.

One such endeavour has been the series titled Itihashe Haatekhori (Introduction to History) in Bangla. Divided into three parts – Deshbhag, Desher Manush and Desher Bhasha, the slim series focuses on the least taught and talked about event of Partition and its aftermath.

The books have been conceptualised keeping in mind the dearth of Partition histories for the young readers. In most history textbooks, Partition is a historic event like many other, and was a consequence of a political tussle in which one political party was unwilling to compromise, whereas the other wished to avoid it at any cost.

Though one finds mention of the violation of human rights during and after one of the worst mass displacements that the world witnessed, the pedagogical history books hardly emphasise the immensity of the humanitarian crisis and how lives of ordinary men and women were disrupted. Instead, they reestablish the binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’/the ‘celebrated’ and the ‘demonised’.

It is in this context that the publication of Itihashe Haatekhori requires our attention. It is one of the first set of books in Bangla for school children which both questions and provides counter perspectives to the prevalent mode of reading Partition history.

The series, though not numbered, traces the history of Partition – focusing on the Partition of Bengal, its impact on the common people, and how it led to the emergence of language politics. To make the series rich and informative, the editors have not only drawn references from academic sources to elaborate and enrich their arguments but have also complemented it with the emerging oral history archives and interviews of individuals who/whose families witnessed Partition.

Also read: How the Dalits of Bengal Became the ‘Worst Victims’ of Partition

Deshbhag (Partition)

Deshbhag sets the background for the other two books. It begins with a brief history of the Mughals and the colonial rule, and how on the eve of India’s independence, two nations were created out of one.

Itihashe Haatekhori: Deshbhag. (Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, 2022)

At the very outset, the narrator foregrounds the amity and friendship that had existed between Hindus and Muslims for centuries. The rulers, irrespective of their own religions, treated members of both the communities equally, even though there were instances where one community may have enjoyed certain extra privileges than the other, depending upon the ruler’s identity.

Within a span of three sentences, the narrator succinctly sums up the debates which had existed from time to time around the superiority of one religion over the other and how only Hindus were considered as original inhabitants of the county unlike the Mughals and the British who were labelled as ‘invaders’.

The narrative of Deshbhag, though not strictly chronological, sifts through Partition history almost in a sequence with a clear interpretation of each event backed by existing academic interventions. To ensure that children understand the complex nature of the history of the divisive politics in the subcontinent, the narrator begins by mentioning how in undivided Bengal, the ‘zamindars’ were mostly Hindus, who exploited the poor Hindu and Muslim peasants.

However, even though all peasants, irrespective of their religion, protested against the oppressive ‘zamindars’, it was the Muslim peasants’ protests which were seen as a conflict between the Muslims and the Hindus and not as a peasants’ struggle.

The British secured their rule by instigating such conflicts, for they knew that as long as the Hindus and Muslims remained divided, they would not come together to oppose the colonial rule. Again, nowhere does the book conceal the fact that there was always a tension between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress (INC), yet the narrative makes it very clear that none of the leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru or Fazl-ul-Haq of Bengal ever supported riots or violence in the name of religion.

According to the narrator, Partition had its roots in the direct election introduced in the Government of India Act, 1935, and the already existing separate electorates. It even provides an explanation that since during the colonial rule, the Muslims lagged behind the Hindus socially, economically and politically, leaders like Muhammad Ali Jinnah strongly felt that only Muslim leaders understood the problems of the Muslims and they should be elected through a separate electorate.

On the other hand, for the INC, it was the British who were the real enemy and a united opposition to it was of utmost importance. Eventually, when the INC won the 1937 elections, the Muslim League realised that no further negotiation with the INC was possible and a separate nation was the only solution.

Through such arguments and explanations, the book offers multiple perspectives regarding the causes of Partition, which include the INC’s refusal to share power with Jinnah, who in reality never wanted a separate nation. Jinnah’s desire to control and the worsening Hindu-Muslim relationship, a lack of plan and foresight on the part of the British about sharing of powers between the INC and the Muslim League, as a consequence of which the disastrous decision to divide the country on religious lines was taken.

While mentioning how not everyone was happy with the Partition, the narrator adds that despite the turmoil, many on both sides of the border – Hindus in Muslim majority East Pakistan and Muslims in Hindu majority West Bengal – stayed on for the sheer love of their birthplace, homes and neighbours, hoping that soon things would improve, the leaders would keep their promises and they would be able to return to their pre-Partition life of peace and brotherhood.

The anxiety and uncertainty which loomed large in the minds and lives of the common people and the conflict between the two religious communities which lasts even to this day set the tone for the rest of the chapters and books in the series.

The following chapters shift towards discussions on the complex administrative and financial arrangements that occurred due to Partition. The narrator once again turns the young readers’ attention to the fact that Partition did not conclude with drawing few lines on the map! In reality, it meant further boundaries in terms of distribution and sharing of resources, people, places, and even animals.

An interesting story of an elephant named Jaimani figures in the second chapter. Jaimani was a state elephant who belonged to the district collector’s office in Malda, West Bengal. During the distribution of resources and assets between the two countries, it was decided that Jaimani would go to East Bengal (now Bangladesh). However, due to administrative tussle between the two governments and the subsequent delay, nobody knows whether Jaimani could finally undertake its journey from West to East Bengal!

The subsequent sections carry heart-wrenching stories of a little Sikh boy, Deshraj, from Punjab, who, with his family took the train to India, a land now unknown to him, leaving behind his friends and relatives on the other side of the border; Nasir, a Muslim peasant from Assam who, for years lived as a ‘foreigner’ in his own birthplace, India, had to eventually leave for Mymensingh (Bangladesh) – his ancestral home; Bithi, a teenage school girl who belonged to a ‘zamindar’ family in Mymensingh had to migrate to Kolkata as girls, irrespective of their religion, became targets during the riots between Hindus and Muslims in East and West Bengal.

The series challenges the notion of a unified nation and reiterates the arbitrary nature of borders which are only ‘shadow lines’. What would perhaps stay on in the minds of the young readers and the educators are the poignant tales of those for whom the ‘nation’ – India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh – had no meaning at all, what they longed for and mattered to them was their ‘home’ – their birthplace.

Stories of those who moved from one place to another in search of their staple food and not what was offered in the refugee camps would remind the readers that during times of crises, people hold on to their identity through signs – food, language, culture, and all that connects them to their ‘home’ and the familiar.

Also read: The Pain of Partition, as Seen in the Literature of Many Languages

Desher Manush (People of the Country)

Both Deshbhag and Desher Manush make the readers aware of citizenship and how Partition led to labelling of citizens as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.

Desher Manush emphasises that though the governments of both India and Pakistan had ensured that Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan would return to Punjab (India), and Muslims from Punjab would move to Pakistan, no such decision or plan for the exchange of people was made in the case of Bengal, the fallout of which is still visible and deeply felt in Assam and West Bengal.

The porous borders that West Bengal shares with Bangladesh and the phased nature of migration that Bengal witnessed post-Partition have also been touched upon.

Itihashe Haatekhori: Desher Manush. (Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, 2022)

Besides the differential treatment that the people of Bengal received, the fates of the refugees in Bengal were also decided based on their identity – their social location/class/caste/religion. For instance, refugees belonging to the marginalised communities were sent to the Andamans in the name of rehabilitation, instead of being allowed to stay on in or around Kolkata.

The readers are repeatedly informed that proving one’s citizenship became a mammoth task, people had to face multiple hardships and the laws were (and still are) not uniform for all. For example, those who were living abroad at the time of Partition had no clarity about how they would prove themselves as citizens of India; Muslims who had initially migrated to East Bengal and later returned to India found their homes occupied by unknown people, thereby becoming ‘illegal migrants’ in their own country of birth; those living in the princely states faced similar troubles.

One of the striking aspects of the discussions has been the merging of the past with the contemporary at various junctures in the narrative – be it Bengal, Kashmir or Assam, thereby emphasising that Partition continues till date.

Desher Manush also looks at the traumatic experiences of proving one’s citizenship in their own homeland. It concludes with a long section on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens which would certainly resonate with children who witnessed the massive protests against the CAA and NRC just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also read: CAA+NRC Is the Greatest Act of Social Poisoning by a Government in Independent India

Desher Bhasha (Language of the Country)

Itihashe Haatekhori: Desher Bhasha. (Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, 2022)

Desher Bhasha, as the title itself suggests, is a brief historical sketch of the language conflicts which occurred in post-Partition India and Pakistan, particularly in the two Bengals and Assam. If the first drawing of borders was based on religion, the subsequent ones were on language.

This book clearly exposes the irony of creation of boundaries on the basis of language. It begins with how Kolkata being the capital of the British became the economic and educational hub of undivided Bengal, benefiting those living in and around Kolkata as they prospered, leaving behind the rest. Kolkata gradually emerged as the cultural capital and the polished Bangla of the city became the language of power and the elite, and outdid all other existing dialects.

The narrator here mentions that when a language remains unrecognised or loses importance, its speakers too are relegated to the margins. The remaining sections discuss how people in Bangladesh sacrificed their lives during ‘Bhasha Andolon’ in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) while resisting the imposition of Urdu as the official language by West Pakistan (now Pakistan).

In addition to this, the readers are also made aware of the similar incidents in Silchar, Assam, when Assamese was imposed as the official language in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley.

The narrator connects the complex language politics in Bengal, Assam and elsewhere with competition for resources; wherever the dominant groups felt/feel threatened by the entry of the speakers of a different language or dialect, the language of the majority asserts its authority to oust the ‘outsiders’.

Why Itihashe Haatekhori?

Written in a conversational tone, the narrators’ presence is felt throughout. To avoid making the account monotonous, the narrators address the readers with interjections like ‘think’, ‘just as you see’, ‘what is desh?’. They have also taken immense care to explain complex terms like ‘refugee’, ‘d-voters’, ‘detention centre’, ‘border’ and ‘illegal migrants’ in a language intelligible to the young readers.

However, the language in some portions of the series, particularly, in Desher Bhasha is too emotional and is more appropriate for adults than school children. Similarly, the concluding lines carry ideas which are adult-centric and the final statement lacks clarity and may leave the young readers in a lurch.

At the same time, what strengthens the narrative in Itihashe Haatekhori is the repeated incorporation of experiences of innocent men and women, and even an animal, who became victims of partition. Such tales will not only strike a note of familiarity in the minds of the child readers but also invite them to empathise with the powerless citizens. The logical progression of the narratives would also encourage children to perceive Partition as more an ongoing problem than an event of the past.

To make the descriptions and meanings more concrete the text has been complemented by ‘pat’ paintings. It is very thoughtful on the part of the editors to use ‘pat’ paintings given that ‘pat’ paintings and the Muslim identity of the painters speak of the strong bonds that Hindus and Muslims in Bengal shared and which was in fact responsible for the growth and maintenance of the syncretic culture of Bengal.

Itihashe Haatekhori is indeed an introduction to a more compassionate history of Bengal Partition. The confusion, the loss, the everyday struggle of the refugees in the refugee camps, the ill treatment meted out to them as they set up colonies on the fringes of the city and the dangers of being a refugee woman have all been woven into the narrative. Though brief, partition has also been viewed through the gender lens. The narrator remarks that as much as women were now completely exposed to the whims of men in new and unknown spaces, there were also women who for the first time stepped out of the comfort and protection of the family and took up odd jobs to contribute towards their meagre and often unstable family incomes. The narrator seems to suggest that despite the trauma and the irreversible damage, partition of Bengal was also a moment when ordinary men and women showed extraordinary resilience, and for many women it became a moment of liberation.

Thus, history books like Itihashe Haatekhori are likely to empower the child readers who, as future adults, would be equipped to search for histories within history and open up possibilities of a society where communal prejudices would give way to solidarity. They would have the courage to question the rationale and validity of a political decision and judge it based on the extent of the common citizens’ agency and not solely on the basis of the official records.

The series, therefore, allows one to look forward to a future when there won’t be another Nasir despondently looking back at the paddy fields on the other side of the border – his own birthplace.

Sponsored by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Itihashe Haatekhori has limited print copies, which are meant to be circulated among underprivileged children free of cost through government schools, NGO-run schools and community libraries.

Devjani Ray teaches at the English Department, Miranda House, University of Delhi.

Featured image:

A mass meeting of Muslims held at Dhaka on September 4, 1906 in favor of the partition of Bengal. The photo was published in ‘The Sphere’ on October 27, 1906. Photo: Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published on The Wire.