Sylhet’s own Brexit – Partition referendum of 1947

Jinnah with Muslims League leaders in Sylhet, March 1946

One of the untold stories of Partition is the Partition referendum in Sylhet. 

Very unusually for partition along the borders of the proposed two-states of India and Pakistan, the Sylhet region (within Assam) at the time had a public poll to decide whether the district would fall into either India or Pakistan. And while it was hotly contested it did mean it had a mandate and as a result a major explanation of why we had a lot less communal violence in Assam than in Punjab and Bengal.  

The Public Poll

 

On the 6th and 7th of July 1947 the Sylhet Division of Assam under the British Raj held the most momentous poll for the future of the district and its inhabitants – whether it wanted to be in the future state of Pakistan. The referendum simply asked “Should Sylhet join East Bengal?” and for many this would be the first time they voted. So in many ways it was a more important referendum than the BREXIT one held in June 2016 in the UK to leave the EU, as it involved potential joining a new state altogether.

Interestingly the Government of British Raj only declared on the 3rd of July 1947 that a referendum would be held to decide the future of Sylhet and H.C Stock was appointed the commissioner of the referendum. That is only a few days before the poll itself!

Why the Poll?

 

It was clear Assamese wanted to hand back Sylhet anyway as it once belonged to the Bengal province. Essentially as Sylhet was seen as a Muslim majority division within a Hindu majority province like Assam and its people did not speak Assamese but Sylheti and Bengali. The government of Assam believed removing Sylhet would make it more homogeneous and stronger as a result.  This was encapsulated well when the Assam’s Prime Minister Gopinath Bordoloi said in 1946 that his wish was to “hand over Sylhet to East Bengal”

Furthermore, Sylhet as a colonial province of Assam was little known other than for tea production and a religious centre but was eventually included into Jinnah’s demand for six province Pakistan – Jinnah was clearly lobbied by Bengali Muslims and indeed made a visit to Sylhet in March of 1946 for its inclusion within Pakistan, as Muslim League leaders entertaining him in their tea plantations, in the photo above.   

Memories from the Grave

 

My late father Mushtaq Qureshi wrote quite extensively about the poll just before partition in his autobiography (in Bengali) and it is  a useful example of the verbal history his generation of Bangladeshi’s have of the partition and the poll itself.  Many of his contemporaries are still alive in the UK and Bangladesh and could give verbal histories of those events in Sylhet during their childhood.  I quote extensively from his book, to illustrate the insight you can get from this verbal history amongst the remaining members of his generation who were witness to the events around the poll at Partition.

Build up to the Poll

 

There was a lot happening in Sylhet in the years before the Poll was declared –  the famine in 1943, the ending of the second world war and of course the campaign for the British to quit India. These were just the things my father’s generation of school children in Sylhet Town were observing, for example he states;

“When I was a primary school student, the Non-Cooperation Movement was going on. Almost every day there would be a demonstration of students in front of the DC’s office. The Congress activists would have meetings and processions. The police would beat them black and blue; we used to observe silently as some town dwellers would assist the police in beating up Congress Activists, some of whom were Hindus. Later, I realised that it had been a mistake to take every Congressman for a Hindu.”

He remembers the build up to the poll very well, high lightly the political activity around the poll, as the quotes below illustrate well from his book:

“ There were all sorts of rumours in the air: India and Pakistan would definitely be separated; there would be a united Bengal; Punjab would become a separate country.Amidst all this, the question that was troubling the people of Sylhet was, ‘What will happen to Sylhet?’ ‘Would it be a part of India along with Assam, or would it be a part of Pakistan?’ We learnt that this would be decided through a public poll. Although Sylhet was a stronghold of Congress and Hindus, the Muslim League built a powerful team which started a rigorous campaign for union with Pakistan. We later learnt that they were funded by the central branch of the Muslim League. We also learnt that Hossain Shohid Sarwardi was most enthusiastic about including Sylhet in Pakistan and played the most active role in this respect. He sent a team of around forty students to Sylhet to campaign for Pakistan. Arrangements were made for this team to stay at Bakhtiar Bibi School in the Rainagar area of Sylhet where we went in groups to meet them. We were hardly thirteen or fourteen years old then. “

He continues;

“ On one particular day, the students of our school pulled down the Union Jack Flag from the court building and hoisted the flag of the Muslim League in its place. They brought the Union Jack Flag to Govinda Park following a scuffle with the Assam Rifles Jawans. When the District Commissioner of Sylhet arrived at Govinda Park, demanding that the flag be handed over, Bari Bhai (Dhola or ‘White’ Bari) thrust his thumb into the D.C’s mouth. To this day, his bravery in performing such an action amazes me. Compared to the brutality with which the Bangladesh police treat politicians nowadays, especially the women activists, the police force of the British Government and the members of the Assam Rifles appear to have been much better. However, one day there was a clash between the police and the students, as an attempt was made to retrieve the Union Jack from Sylhet Kotoali Thana. A student called Alkas died and others were injured when the Assam Rifles fired at them. Having witnessed all of this with my bare eyes, I can claim to be an eye-witness of the anti-British movements.”

And he remembers the political leaders who came along and campaigned in Sylhet as well

“ Around this time, most probably on 3 March 1946, Jinnah came to Sylhet and spoke to a large audience in Eidgah Maidan. Then he attended a students’ meeting in which I was also present. I still remember what he said: ‘Today is the third day of March. Students, you march forward.’ Around this time, perhaps before or after Jinnah’s visit, Liakat Ali Khan also visited Sylhet a couple of times. Many of the All-India leaders also visited Sylhet at that time.”

He also remembered the days of the Poll very clearly;

“ Finally, the day of the public poll came. On the first day of the two day long poll, Muslim women were prevented from voting by the female activists of Congress. The next day, however, Muslim leaders fetched the female voters from their homes and arranged for them to vote. While it drizzled throughout the day, people waited anxiously for the results. As far as I can remember, 51% of the votes were in favour of Pakistan. Congress’ election symbol was ‘house’ and the Muslim League’s, that is Pakistan’s  was the ‘axe’. We used to chant slogans like ‘Strike the box of the house with the axe”

And the involvement of some of the characters involved in mobilising the woman vote:

“ All the members of our family, even the women and children, worked hard to persuade people to vote in favour of Pakistan in this public poll. Our mothers, aunts and grandmothers worked especially hard in teaching people how to cast their votes. Jobeda Khatun was the most prominent of the women leaders. Sherajunnesa and Hajera Mahumud also played important roles. Jobeda Khatun was the Begum Rokyea of Sylhet in the field of women’s development. Despite being the daughter of a high-ranking government officer and the wife of a public prosecutor, she worked as one of the leaders of Congress without any hesitation. The women of Sylhet worked for the Pakistan movement under her leadership.”

Begum Rokyea of Sylhet was also to play a critical role in the 1970 General Election in Pakistan in the lead up to the liberation of Bangladesh, something l saw for myself.

The Result

 

Over half millions people voted in the referendum of which 57 per cent voted in favour of Sylhet joining East Bengal and 43 per cent against. The majority of the population had voted in favour of joining Pakistan. The first instance of electoral irredentism, at least in the Indian sub-continent.

Interestingly there was just over 22 per cent of votes were invalid or left blank on their ballot.. Not surprising as for many it would have been their first time of voting. The result was then implemented in the Article 3 of the Indian Independence  Act of 18 July 1947.

Karimganj misses out

 

Karimganj ( blue area outside red boundaries along Assam border in the map above ) was left out of the transfer of land to Pakistan. Even though there was a majority vote across Sylhet to join East Bengal, the published Radcliffe line gave some areas of Sylhet to India like Karimganj, while the rest of Sylhet joined East Pakistan. It had a majority Bengali Muslim population which had opted for Pakistan ( East Bengal ) unlikely some other areas in Sylhet like Moulvibazar which had not. There has never been an adequate explanation for this from the government of the British Raj and would later have an important bearing on the inhabitants of Karimganj and their ability to migrant to the UK.

This botched handover was also highlighted by the number of enclaves we had both within India and East Bengal of Pakistan which has only recently been sorted out by the Bangladesh and Indian respective governments in 2015 and has referred to as the the world’s craziest border.

Quite honestly it is a bit like the solicitor of the purchase of your home getting their conveyancing wrong for you and it not being appreciated till well after you had moved into the property but involving tens of thousands of life’s. As within the main body of Bangladesh there were 102 enclaves of Indian territory, which in turn contained 21 Bangladesh counter-enclaves, on of which contained an Indian counter-counter-enclave – the world’s only third-order enclave. Within the Indian mainland were 71 Bangladesh enclaves, containing 3 Indian counter enclaves. A joint census in 2010 found 51,549 people residing in these enclaves, of which 37,334 were in Indian enclaves with Bangladesh and 14,215 in Bangladeshi enclaves within India.

Independence Day & Aftermath

 

Finally my father remembered the day of independence well;

‘ On 14 August 1947, the District Commissioner of Sylhet, Mr Khurshed, formally raised the flag of Pakistan in front of his office. Although we were still very apprehensive and unsure as to whether the mighty British really had left India and whether we were really free, our happiness knew no bounds. Little did we know that we were being freed from one master only to be ruled by another. Soon, we came to realise that we had fallen out of the British pan into the Pakistani stove.’

Incredibly the precise borders of the partition of Bengal & Assam were only revealed two days after partition as in the rest of country which added to apprehension of whether the British had left or not.  It would also have added hugely to the tension of the migration between the two states as no one really knew precisely which side of the border there were on. It strikes me as criminally negligent on the part of the authorities not to have at least announced the borders before partition itself.

Conclusion

 

Though the poll was rushed and the implications of the poll result were only made apparent after independence, having the poll at least legitimized the move of Sylhet division into East Bengal, Pakistan. Given that it was done under the Indian Independence Act of 1947, why were not similar polls undertaken in provinces like Kashmir? While Kashmir had another dimension – Princely head of states had the option of either being in India or Pakistan – a poll of local views then would have been a much better means of dividing up Kashmir with possible transfer to the present day unsolvable mess.

Finally these and many other instances of maladministration during partition like the creation of enclaves creating problems along the India & Bangladesh border; giving the princely states the option to opt in or out of joining India & Pakistan; declaring borders of the two nations two days after independence makes my case for criminal negligence by the last government of the British Raj as partition displaced up to 15 million people and caused the killing of over one million.