A reminder of what Bangladesh tried not to have

Amena Mohsin

MEMORIES and amnesia are an essential part of the growing up process of an individual as well as nation to its selfhood. Indeed there is a big ethical question when one resorts to academic research based on memories. It is a question of intruding into the privacy of the individual concerned; and also the extent and the nature of the probe. But as a researcher, what is important for me is what the individual remembers or is willing to remember in front of me, this process of remembering is critical for her/historicising a nation through what the people experienced during the birth pangs of a nation. The knowledge given down to us is the statist version of ‘leaders’, which somehow encapsulates the nation into a ‘leaders’ history devoid of her story and the voices of many of the unknown fighters and survivors. The following is the tale of Jharna, a survivor of the Noakhali riot in 1946.
I bring in this interview quite consciously, which was taken by me as part of a larger project on partition memories, undertaken by CSDS, Delhi, under Ashis Nandy, in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The work revealed to me the madness and frenzy that was unleashed in the name of ‘nation’ in the then undivided India. ‘Minority’ was constructed by both the Congress and the Muslim League in the name of ’nation’ and nationalism.
But then more than six decades ahead, and having fought another liberation war, have we liberated ourselves of the ‘minority’ question? No, we have not, this write-up is not about why we have not, or where we faulted; by ‘we’, I don’t mean the general people of this country, I mean the political elites. This interview is a recall to our past, just to remind us what Bangladesh tried not to have.
Jharna Dhara Chowdhury, trust secretary of Gandhi Ashram, Chatkhil, Noakhali, was ten years old in 1946. She distinctly remembers that in that year when mangoes were ripe in trees, they used to see Muslims holding meetings in different places. Everybody seemed very agitated. The elders looked worried and talked of these meetings in the house. Then in the month of October (between 10 and 20) on the night of Lakshmi Puja, the Korpara Chowdhury Bari in the Ramganj Thana was attacked. It was the most influential house of the Hindus; they were the zamindars of the area. At around 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, hundreds of men shouting Allah ‘o Akbar thronged the house and put it on fire. They were slaughtering the inmates with khorgo (a sharp curved knife). Jharna’s house was attacked 2-3 days later.
Around 7:00 in the morning, their house was put on fire. They hid themselves in the betel nut garden behind their house. Jharna’s mother had typhoid and her elder sister was in the advanced stage of pregnancy. From her hiding place, Jharna could clearly see that the Muslim villagers who were their neighbours and with whom they had good relationship for years, and many of the villagers who had worked for them took part in that carnage. The men, however, left after putting the house on fire; they did not attempt to take away anything from the house. They came out of their hiding around 12:00pm. The house was still on fire, everything had burned down to ashes. They did not even attempt to salvage anything. They were too tired and dejected for that. They took shelter under the roof of the burnt house. The next night a son was born to Jharna’s sister. They had no clothes to even wrap the newborn baby, so her sister wrapped the baby with her own sari. The next day from the Moulvi Bari (a Muslim household), two kathas (quilt), salt and tea leaves were sent for the new baby and Jharna’s sister. The family did not have food for four days. They were living just under the roof and none of their neighbours who were all Muslims (except for the help from the Moulvi Bari) either offered any help or even visited them.
On the fourth day, the Muslim families of the neighbouring village invited them. They said that it was a dawat (invitation). The elders did not go, but since the children were very hungry, they got excited at the thought of food and so they went with one of their uncles. There they found that other Hindu families of the area had also been invited. The thatched walls of the kitchen had been removed and khichuri was being cooked in a large utensil. Everybody was stirring it. Then they heard that cows would be slaughtered. It dawned on them that it was a process of converting them into Muslims. At that point, Jharna’s uncle shouted aloud that he was going to ask the Moulvi sahib if he had authorised the Muslims to do so, and if they had to eat beef in order to become Muslims. Jharna clearly recalled that after that all the Muslims along with the food disappeared. So they came back without having any food, but by that time, Jharna’s brother had managed to get some food for them.
On Friday, the Hindus were called for the Jum’a prayers. The male members of Jharna’s family had to go to the mosque. There they were converted into Muslims. Jharna’s elder brother whose name was Anil Chowdhury was renamed Anwar Hussein. The Moulvi sahib was a nice person. His name was Ibrahim. He called aloud the name of Jharna’s brother as Anwar, and asked him to call out the names of all the Hindu families that had been converted. Then lungi and toopi were distributed among the converted persons. The same day Muslim rioters came to Jharna’s house and asked her mother and sister to wipe out their sindur. They also broke their shakha with sticks that they were carrying. They also asked the girls to observe purdah. Then Jharna saw Moulvi Ibrahim coming to their house. He asked the girls to recite Kalima with him. The rioters were still there in an agitated state. They shouted that in order to become Muslims, the girls would have to touch the Muslims. They asked them to touch their lungis. At that point Moulvi Ibrahim stopped them and offered the girls his own shawl to touch. Then the rioters said that marriage had to take place between the Chowdhury family, i.e. Jharna’s family and the Muslim families. They suggested those Muslim male members from the neighbouring villages, who mostly used to work for them, should marry into this family. Moulvi Ibrahim again intervened and said that it was the Chowdhury Bari (house) and if girls from this house had to get married into Muslim families then he himself would arrange it between the Moulvi and Patwari Baris or some other respectful Muslim family of the area. The rioters then went off. Jharna believes that Moulvi Ibrahim was thus trying to manage the situation. It was his attempt to save the Hindu families of the area. She still remembers and respects him; and maintains relations with his family. After 18 days, Jharna’s brother-in-law dressed in an army uniform came into the village. He had posed himself as a doctor and had also brought along a compounder with him. He took them to Assam. The family came back to their own village in 1947. She maintains that they had to come back; after all, it was their home, their janmabhumi (birthplace). So they came back from India. But yet they could not live in their house. Today no one lives there. The family could not ever settle down after the riots.
According to Jharna, the Hindus were not in a position to put up any resistance; they were so outnumbered by the Muslims. But she recalls that when the Korpara Chowdhury Bari was put on fire, 24 men and women had climbed on the rooftop. They fired at the rioters from there. But they were all brought down and slaughtered. That was her grandmother’s house.
Jharna pointed out that Golam Sarwar, who was a local pir (saint), had organised the riots. He belonged to the Muslim League and was the MLA of the area. Jharna had seen him later on, but she maintains that she did not feel bitter towards him; only looked at him in surprise that such a handsome person could incite such hatred. She later on went to see his son Mr Hakkani, who is the local pir now.
Hakkani was very polite towards her but did not talk about his father. On being asked about the riots, he said he was born in 1951 and so he was not in a position to comment on his father’s activities.
Jharna sees it as an extension or consequence of Jinnah’s ‘two-nation’ theory. No particular incident triggered it. It happened first in Calcutta, then in Noakhali. She categorically blames the politicians for the riots. According to her, ‘poor people do not kill other people; it is only the politicians who indulge in these activities for their narrow interests’. In this context, she also pointed out that the rioters who had put their house on fire were their neighbours who had all along worked for them, and they continued to do so once the family had settled down again. Later on, they however denied that they had participated in the riots. Jharna maintains that they not only worked for them but also had good relations with them. This, according to her, suggests that the local politicians through the use of religious slogans roused the poor people into the bloodbath.
The Hindu affluent families were affected by the riots. The poor families did not suffer much. Jharna’s family was shattered economically and psychologically. They did not get back much of their land. The Muslims during their stay in Assam had occupied these. Jharna’s grandmother became mentally imbalanced. She died in 1958. As long as she was alive, she talked about their house as it was before the fire. She would always ask her grandchildren to get the food that she had specially prepared for them. Jharna’s father became very quiet after the riots. He got into the habit of writing all the time, but those were all destroyed in 1971. Jharna never saw the writings. Her elder sister was sent to Rachi to join her other sister for her parents did not feel quite secure to keep a grown-up girl with them. Her brother left for Sylhet and settled down there. Only Jharna stayed with her parents. Her mother always talked of her household things, her paintings and embroideries. She also talked about her jewelleries; even on her deathbed, she talked of her five-tola beechha (ornamented waistband). Her parents had become very depressed after the riots; they always talked of the riots and what they had lost. They never regained their normal lives.
Life changed altogether for Jharna. In 1960, she left the house and joined the Gandhians. Ever since then she has dedicated herself to the cause of religious harmony and oppressed women. She maintains that today’s Jharna is a creation of the 1946 riots.
Jharna often dreams of fire. She sees that she is running and panting. Then she sweats a lot. She also has sleeping disorders. Even now, when she talks of riots she gets smells of burnt things. Even now when she hears Allah ‘o Akbar something freezes inside her.
Jharna maintains that 1946 did not make them communal; rather, due to the arrival and work of Gandhi, the family embraced Gandhism. Her grandfather was a social worker and this had a positive impact on her mother. Though her mother would not allow the Muslims to touch their food, she gave up the practice around the mid-50s. Jharna does not distrust the Muslims, nor does she regard the 1946 riots as a communal violence. According to her, it was a political act. She, however, finds it difficult to trust people; she maintains that since their own neighbours had put their house on fire and denied it later on, somehow she feels deep inside that we all have two faces.

Author’s reflections: Yes, Jharna is right, we indeed have two faces. The state of Bangladesh based on a non-communal basis has yet again proved that politics continue to be a game of numbers devoid of idealism. Bangladesh continues to be haunted by the ‘minority question’. Jharna could explain and blame the 1946 riots on the ‘two-nation’ theory of Jinnah, but how do we explain the violence against the minorities today. Jharna is right not to attribute the violence to the people, but to the politicians and their distortion of religious values and symbolisms. She is also right to suggest that religious people are non-communal; her reference to the role played by the village Moulvi sahib is testament to this. But then do our politicians understand this? I guess yes, but then in a system where democracy is devoid of democratic practices, our politicians neither have the will nor the wisdom to answer the above. We, the citizens of this country, must keep raising these questions, to turn this polity of ours into a humane communal citizen centric state.

Amena Mohsin is professor of international relations at Dhaka University. The interview was taken on October 10, 1998.

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