Suhrawardy and Bangabandhu : Communal harmony05 December 2019
H.S. Suhrawardy (middle) with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Professor Anwarul Karim, PhD :
By communal harmony we understand a peaceful society where people belonging to different religious beliefs live in a harmony without encroachment on any other's religious faith. Suhrawardy was indeed a great son of the sub-continent and a life-long fighter to the cause of people, both Hindus and Muslims for their unity to build a strong united Bengal. Abul Mansur Ahmed, the noted politician of his time once commented that both C. R. Das and H.S. Suhrawardy had the same vision and mission of serving the cause of the people. Suhrawardy was devoted towards the wellbeing of the people, both Hindus and Muslims when he joined politics after returning from London to the sub-continent in 1920-21. He it was who saved the lives of thousands of people of both the communities when a riot broke out in Calcutta on August 16, 1946. Calcutta riot was engineered by a section of Hindu Congress leaders including Shyama Prasad. Jaswant Singh in his book on Jinnah made it clear that Jawaharlal Nehru had knowledge of Calcutta riot before-hand.
Bangabandhu was then a student at Islamia College in Calcutta and an eye witness of the Calcutta riot. He stated the incident in a very explicit manner in his historic book, 'The Unfinished Memoirs'. According to him Muslims in Calcutta did not apprehend anything like gross violence leading to riot between Hindu and Muslims. They took it as a protest meeting and it was directed against the British. The Muslim League expected a support from the Congress as the British undertook a dilly-dallying tactics in regard to partition of India. That Suhrawardy was non communal, it was quite evident from the fact that Mahatma Gandhi rushed to the spot when Suhrawardy was about to be killed by the Hindu militants and intervened the situation. Mahatma Gandhi loved Suhrawardy so much for his non-communal attitude that both lived together in a house in Calcutta during the riot. Chittaranjan Das and Sarat Bose, the elder brother to Netaji Subhas Bose always supported the effort made by Suhrawardy to the cause of both Hindu and Muslims in uniting them under a united Bengal. It was Nehru, Shyamaprasad and Vallabbhai Patel who had been seriously opposing this plan for United Bengal. They apprehended that it would be under Muslim domination. They looked for Calcutta under Hindu control.
Jaswant Singh on Calcutta riot as detailed in his book on Jinnah
Jaswant Singh highlighted the instigators responsible for Calcutta riots in his book 'Jinnah' (2009) released after sixty years of its first publication by Rupa Publications in Delhi. The book made it clear that Jawaharlal Nehru had knowledge of Calcutta riot before- hand. He also put the blame on Nehru for partition of India in 1947. In his book, Jaswant Singh evokes momentous episodes that caused the movement for partition of India besides the "epic journey of Jinnah from being the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, the liberal constitutionalist and Indian nationalist to the Quaid-i-Azam of Pakistan". Jaswant Singh was later expelled from BJP for writing this book. It was evident that the Muslim League had no intention to go for any kind of violence. Muslim League called for a Direct Action against the British and not against the Congress and the Hindus. Suhrawardy government made the day holiday so that all shops would be closed and there would be no conflict with the program. But Hindus kept all shops opened as they were instructed to do so by their leaders. Although the British Governor of West Bengal endorsed and ratified the holiday declaration of the Suhrawardy Government, the British Army in Calcutta did not cooperate when Suhrawardy asked for army intervention. They considered the program was against them. They came much later. Suhrawardy had been fighting for keeping Bengal united for the benefit of Hindus and Muslims and he had intention to make Bengal a strong power with a communal harmony. He tried till the last moment. In fact it was a conspiracy against Suhrawardy and his government. The riot however quickened the partition.
Political career in India
Suhrawardy, in fact, had a long chequered political career over 43 years beginning in 1920 and ending in 1963. During this period, C.R. Das and Suhrawardy moved towards the quest for the unity and the wellbeing of the people. Suhrawardy never hesitated to sacrifice his life to the cause of his people for restoring communal harmony. He was also a member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1937 through 1947. He joined the Government of Bengal in 1937. He was the General Secretary of Bengal Muslim League and after winning the general election in 1945 assumed the only Muslim League-led government as the Chief Minister in 1946. He made desperate attempts to keep Bengal undivided, but failed because of extreme communalism in both Congress and in Muslim League.
Suhrawardy was the Chief Minister of the United Bengal in 1945
In 1945 general elections Suhrawardy was elected successfully securing a huge political endorsement from the Muslim League and others and became the Chief Minister of United Bengal in India in 1946. The Indian Congress did not cooperate with him. Suhrawardy fought for United Bengal when India was on the verge of getting divided on the basis of two nation theory. Finally he failed to achieve his goal because of non-Cooperation of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress leader. Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League initially supported Suhrawardy but Suhrawardy faced strong opposition from Khawaja Nazimuddin and others in the Muslim League.
August 16 declared Direct Action day against British and not against Congress
Meanwhile, All India Muslim League under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared August 16, 1946 as a Direct Action Day against the Congress for partition. The Congress Chief Jawaharlal Nehru decided to resist this move of the Muslim League. The Muslim League organized a meeting in Calcutta on the day to press home the demand of partition of India and while the meeting went on there appeared serious communal violence in different areas of Calcutta city as the Hindus attacked the Muslims living in Calcutta.
Calcutta riot and Suhrawardy's role in saving lives as Mujib witnessed it
In fact, Suhrawardy who braved death when he moved day and night as the Chief Minister of Bengal towards saving the life of the people when communal violence broke out in Calcutta following declaration of August 16,1946 as Direct Action Day by the Muslim League. Bangabandhu was then a student at Islamia College and was a follower of H.S. Suhrawardy when he was the Chief Minister. He witnessed the communal riots in Kolkata on August 16, 1946. In his 'Unfinished Memoirs' Bangabandhu points out that Suhrawardy asked his supporters to observe the day in a peaceful way so that no blame could fall on the Suhrawardy government. He declared the day as a 'holiday.' This annoyed the Hindu leaders. And unfortunately, communal riots did break out in Calcutta and later spread to Noakhali. The 'Unfinished Memoirs' gave a detailed picture of Calcutta riot. Bangabandhu saved the lives of both Muslims and Hindus visiting every nook and corner with his people facing risk on his life. Suhrawardy too spent day and night at Lalbazar police station guiding the law enforcing agencies to help protect the lives of the people from acts of communal violence. Bangabandhu was always by his side. Bangabandhu writes; "Mr. Suhrawardy was the Prime Minister of Bengal at that time. He asked us to ensure that the day was observed peacefully. He said, 'if there is any violence on the day the Muslim League will get a bad name.' He declared that 16th August would be government holiday. This infuriated the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha even more.' (p.67). Bangabandhu was given the charge of looking after the communal harmony and take measures for prevention of any violence, by Suhrawardy as Chief Minister. He was also concerned of his own relations, his brother Sheikh Naser and sisters living in Calcutta.
But by that time, the riot broke out. Muslims were helpless. Bangabandhu writes: "Calcutta city streets seemed to be strewn with dead bodies. Neighborhood after neighbourhood was in flames. It was a horrible scene! That people could treat each other in this was too frightening a thought. I tried to find out where my loved were….. It was obvious that people had lost their human sides in the violence and had regressed to their animal selves…." (p.69). Had Suhrawardy and Bangabandhu not been there at Calcutta, huge number of Muslims in the city and elsewhere in and around Calcutta would have been crushed to death mercilessly. Suhrawardy's steadfast attempt to end communal violence forced even his critic, Hassan Ispahani to say, "I have not seen a man work so hard and act so swiftly to try and control conflagration as Suhrawardy did." During the entire mission, Suhrawardy received constant threat to his life. On one occasion, when a crowd of 20,000 people came to kill him, he said, "If you want to kill me, kill me now, but before you kill me, you've got to give me your word that after killing me you'll kill no other Muslims." Hearing the commotion, Gandhi who was then in Calcutta rushed to the scene and asked the crowd to kill him first, before killing Suhrawardy.Upon hearing from the Mahatma, the crowd dispersed. Such was Shaheed Suhrawardy during communal violence in Calcutta. In fact, it was his leadership quality along with his love for the people, and his willingness to sacrifice everything at their behest, earned him name and fame. Yet, it was he, against all those forces; his perseverance finally won him the day, when Suhrawardy, as the opposition leader signed the first Constitution of Pakistan on February 29, 1956.
Suhrawardy government was in direct clash with the Congress
The Suhrawardy government was in a very critical condition as none of the Congress members joined his government. And moreover, the Indian Congress together with Hindu leaders looked very offensive against Suhrawardy because of the communal violence in August 1946. Suhrawardy was fully blamed for all these. Yet Suhrawardy moved on with support from Sarat Chandra Bose, and few other non-communal Hindu and Muslim leaders. They tried to prevent the communal violence, riots and long term border disputes. Suhrawardy and his colleagues were all out for preventing the demand of second partition of Bengal and fought for United Bengal. Bengal Congress headed by Sarat Chandra Bose joined the coalition government of Suhrawardy's Cabinet. Mahatma Gandhi extended his full support to him.
Suhrawardy did not leave the Muslims in Calcutta during the Calcutta violence in 1946-47 when he helped create Pakistan and sought out the great Mahatma Gandhi and went on a peace mission with him in his attempt to stop communal violence risking his life. Such was the magnanimity of Suhrawardy who cared more for his people than enjoying a life of position.
(The writer is presently Executive Director, Bangabandhu Research Center, and Northern University Bangladesh. Formerly he was the Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Social Science and Humanities, NUB (till May 2019) and was a Visiting Scholar at Divinity School, Harvard University, 1985. He was also the Guest Professor in 10 Indian Universities in 1983).