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A ‘Secular’ Hindu…

It seems that majority of the people in eastern Indian Province of West Bengal have forgotten the multifarious roles that were played by noted Politician, Barrister and Academician Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee (July 6, 1901 – June 23, 1953), in the last five-six decades. Those, who still remember him, is mainly because of his father, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee (June 29, 1864 – May 25, 1924), a prolific Bengali Educator, Jurist, Barrister and Mathematician who was often called ‘Tiger of Bengal‘ for his high self-esteem, courage and academic integrity. At times, it is somewhat felt that Dr S P Mukherjee is one of the untouchables in the Political History of Bengal.

Interestingly, Dr Mukherjee was one of the leading political figures in undivided Bengal (West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh) from the 1930s to early 1950s. The Colonial British Rulers had divided India communally in 1932. Later, this division became a part of the Government of India Act, 1935. As expected, the British Rulers started applying the Act in the electoral processes in Bengal. As per the Act, only 32% or 80 seats were allocated for the Province’s 45% Hindus, including the Scheduled Castes, in the 250-seat Provincial Legislative Assembly. The Bengali Hindu community staged protests against this Act, as they were not ready to accept the Divide and Rule policy of the Imperialist Government.

Dr S P Mukherjee

The Great Indian Poet and Philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861 – August 7, 1941), had presided over a huge meeting at the Town Hall in eastern Indian city of Kolkata (then Calcutta) on July 14, 1936. Among the conveners were Acharjya Prafulla Chandra Roy, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Ramananda Chattopadhyay, Sarala Devi Choudhurani, Dr Nilratan Sarkar and other such personalities. Tagore, who was not physically fit at that time, had told the audience: “I am attending a political meeting after a long time. Initially, I was hesitant to attend the meeting. However, I could not ignore your call as I am worried about the future of my country…

In an article, titled Vice Chancellor Syama Prasad – A Reassessment published in on July 15, 2018, Professor Lipi Ghosh mentioned: “Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee appointed Rabindranath Tagore as a ‘distinguished professor’ in the Department of Bengali, University of Calcutta. It is pertinent to mention that Tagore was inspired by Dr S P Mukherjee to render his convocation address in Bengali. Calcutta University Syndicate decided to invite Tagore to this position.” Professor Ghosh wrote: “Though not willing at the beginning, the poet had to concede defeat before Syama Prasad’s logic and sincerity and accepted this particular post.” In his special lecture, Tagore had said: “That Bengali was not the medium of instructions in an University of Bengal is extremely shameful and unfortunate… the late Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay had first initiated efforts to make Bengali as a medium of instructions, now that road is being expanded.

R N Tagore

The All India Muslim League Party had come to power in Bengal in 1937, due to the division of seats on communal lines, and also because of short-sighted decision by the leaders of Indian National Congress Party. It may be added here that the Communal Cards, played by the British Rulers, not only prompted an ailing Tagore to attend political meetings, but also somewhat forced an otherwise apolitical member of a famous Bengali Brahmin family, which had come to be recognised because of his illustrious father, to join Politics. Although Dr S P Mukherjee was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Bengal from Calcutta University Constituency in 1929-30 as a Congress candidate, he was not very serious about his political future. During his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of University of Calcutta from 1934 to 1938, he realised that communalism also started influencing students. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Bengal from the same constituency again in 1937 as an Independent candidate, and became one of the leading Bengali political leaders in the next few years.

As the Acting President of Hindu Mahasabha, Dr S P Mukherjee triggered the fall of the Communal Government run by the Muslim League. It may be noted that the Hindu Mahasabha was formed in 1915 to protect the rights of the Hindu community, after the formation of the Muslim League in 1906 and the British India Government’s creation of separate Muslim electorate under the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909. Abul Kasem Fazlul Huq (October 26, 1873 – April 27, 1962), leader of the Krishak Praja Party who served as the Prime Minister of Bengal from April 1, 1937 to March 29, 1943, left the Muslim League at the end of 1941 to form a new Cabinet with the help of Dr S P Mukherjee and a section of the Congress. It is to be noted that Dr Mukherjee was chosen as a member of his Cabinet by Fazlul Huq because of his secular outlook. It has been mentioned in the memoirs of Abul Mansur Ahmad, the acting PM of Pakistan (during Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy‘s foreign tours). However, Dr Mukherjee resigned as the member of Legislative Assembly in mid-1942, due to Non-Cooperation of the British Administration. He accused the British Government of appeasing the Muslim League.

Riots in Kolkata, 1947

The horrific communal riots in Kolkata in 1947 and the massacre in Noakhali (now in Bangladesh) forced Dr S P Mukherjee, a preacher of a United India, to think of creating a safe haven for the Hindu Bengalis. Later, he stood by the idea to divide Bengal so that Hindu Bengalis could stay safe in West Bengal, otherwise, the entire Bengal could have been a part of Pakistan. At the same time, he said that Hindus from eastern part of Bengal should live in western part and Muslims from eastern part should settle in the western region.

Dr S P Mukherjee, a nominated member from West Bengal in the Constituent Assembly formed on the eve of India’s Independence, went on to become a member of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru‘s Cabinet after Independence, and had served as the Minister of Commerce and Industry of India from August 15, 1947 to April 6, 1950. He, it was evident, could not get over the pathetic experience due to the refugee crisis in West Bengal… and even after becoming the Minister of Industry and Supply, he repeatedly raised this particular issue at the Lower House of the Indian Parliament.

Undivided Bengal

Thousands of Hindu refugees started arriving in West Bengal from then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1950. On April 8, 1950, Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, signed the infamous Nehru Liaquat Pact, a treaty between India and Pakistan in which refugees were allowed to return to dispose of their property, abducted women and looted property were to be returned, forced conversions were unrecognised, and minority rights were confirmed.

As per the Nehru Liaquat Pact, Hindus, arrived in West Bengal from East Pakistan after the Partition of Indian Subcontinent, would return to East Pakistan, and Muslims, who left West Bengal for East Pakistan, would return to West Bengal. Dr S P Mukherjee and Kshitish Chandra Niyogi of the Congress, the two ministers of Nehru Cabinet from West Bengal, immediately resigned, opposing the Pact. They knew for sure that the Hindus would keep coming to West Bengal, and no one would go back to East Pakistan. Later, History proved that they were right.

Dr S P Mukherjee was re-elected to the Parliament in the 1952 General Elections, defeating his Congress and Communist rivals from the South Calcutta Constituency by a huge margin. He passed away mysteriously in the custody of Jammu and Kashmir Police on June 23, 1953. He was provisionally diagnosed with a heart attack on June 22, and was shifted to a hospital, but died there a day later. In 2004, former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee had reportedly claimed that Dr Mukherjee was murdered in a “Nehru conspiracy“!

After his demise, Dr Mukherjee was somehow obliterated in the Political History of West Bengal. Of course, this has been successfully done over the last five decades by Leftist and Secular historians, intellectuals, artists and writers. The Bengali Secularists have assimilated a lot of Organisations that had their respective bases in Hindu Revivalism… Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Sebashram Sangh, etc. However, Dr Mukherjee is an exception! Had he been just a Hindu religious leader, there would have no problem for the Bengalis to accept him. However, he was a Political Hindu, with a secular mind. He was worried about the future of Hindu Bengalis in West Bengal and Bangladesh. As a politician, parliamentarian or leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, the main essence of his Political Ideas was safeguarding the Rights of Hindus, which could ensure the existence and progress of the Indian culture. Here lies the problem of the so-called Secular Forces to accept his views.

A caricature in Hindusthan Standard dated May 17, 1947, showing the various demands regarding the Partition of Bengal. Dr S P Mukherjee emphasised on the Partition of Bengal, if possible without the Partition of India

However, no one can deny the fact that Dr S P Mukherjee was a person who had shown, in hindsight, a fair amount of farsightedness. He had played an important role in protecting the Hindu Bengalis after the Partition…

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