In pursuit of a forgotten nationalist and fading memories of East Bengal
Bipin Chandra Pal's statue, Bipin Chandra Pal Memorial Bhavan, New Delhi (Photo: Raul Irani)
SOON AFTER he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2006, Bangladeshi banker, economist and social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus found himself in south Kolkata, about to address an auditorium packed to capacity one humid evening. The event was organised by the Bijoygarh chapter of the Chattagram Parishad in Kolkata, with most of those assembled tracing their roots back to Chattagram (or Chittagong), a province in the far-eastern flank of today’s Bangladesh. The aisles too had quickly filled up, as members of civil society, journalists and dignitaries jostled for space among the hoi polloi.
As Yunus walked up to the dais and pronounced his first few words, the overcrowded hall roared back in outrage, demanding “Chatgan-er bhaasha”. Yunus had begun in the spoken standard of Bengali but his audience was now asking him to switch to the dialect of Chittagong. He obliged. “Maremma!” he began, bemused by that outpouring of tribal loyalty to the curious dialect of a faraway place in a now foreign country. Satisfied, the public settled down to hear Yunus, their brother from Chittagong who had made his mark in the world. I had not been present there but my colleagues later informed me that the rest of the evening was uneventful, the only whispers coming from the press corps, requesting translation of what sounded like an unintelligible torrent to an average Bengali speaker. Maremma it was for one and all—a dialectal exclamation roughly translated as ‘ Wow!’ Late last month, on a rare overcast Delhi morning, I walked through the portals of the Bipin Chandra Pal Memorial Bhavan, an expansive, dun-coloured structure whose twin entrances flanked an imposing statue of the eponymous revolutionary. I was looking for someone, anyone, to speak to who might know enough about the Bipin Chandra Pal Memorial Trust’s work to enlighten me on the efforts to preserve, in the national capital, the memory of a man who in his day had supplied the third name to the Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate. I was told I could speak to the executive trustee, but he wasn’t in and I’d have to wait. I waited, dwarfed by two wide and empty corridors, at an unattended reception, exchanging a few polite words with a couple of the staff. After half an hour, I was told that the trustee was not likely to come in that day, unless he’d already come and gone and nobody had noticed. I went back the next day.
Seated behind his desk, RD Choudhury, the executive trustee, appeared intrigued on learning the purpose of my visit. Another journalist had called on him recently, only to ask about “how we remember”. Remember Bipin Chandra Pal? “No. How we remember life in East Bengal… Do we have happy memories or bitter… Is our memory tormented by what happened to us… I told her that memory, for the sake of preservation, must be happy,” said Choudhury.
Indian Independence, the rebirth of an ancient nation, was also a moment of loss and suffering. In the aftermath of Partition, the people crossing the newly demarcated international border were not losing a country. They were losing their ‘desh’; when Bengalis use that term, it invokes a welter of associations, from their home district, the town or village, or even a familial plot of land surrounded by a clump of trees inherited by each new generation. Desh was home. What these people lost in 1947 was a way of life, the sacred ground that rooted that life, and the continuity that gave meaning to it.
In many instances, it would also involve a subsequent loss of language, the first marker of identity. East Bengali dialects, with their distinctive accents, inflections and speech patterns, had played a dual role in India—an anchor to the life that was, an armour against the life that was found. With each generational switch, those functions have dwindled and yet their role cannot be overstated. To recognise this fact is to begin to understand the insistence of the old guard of the displaced of Chittagong that Muhammad Yunus speak of the world in the language of his desh. In any linguistic assessment of Bengali, the dialects of the outlying districts—Purulia in the west or Chittagong and Sylhet in the east—begin to stand apart almost as distinct languages. That outlier has to be a lost life for you to understand Yunus’ audience.
CR Park, Delhi’s Bengali ‘ghetto’, is mapped by the names of three freedom fighters with roots in East Bengal: Chittaranjan Das, Bipin Chandra Pal and Surya Sen. Public remembrance of each differs from that of the other two. CR Das is ubiquitous: the locality is, after all, named after him. The Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Memorial Society and Chittaranjan Bhawan are located, not without irony, on Bipin Chandra Pal Marg at the heart of CR Park. (The Trust’s office is on a side-street off the Marg, on the periphery.) The Trust and the Memorial Society are known for their clinics and medical facilities. It ensures visitors and listings on Justdial.com or Docprime.com. The Chittaranjan Memorial Society regularly organises cultural events, often graced by public figures, including former presidents. Its debates and panel discussions on themes of national history often feature eminent historians. Deshbandhu, as CR Das was known, has persisted beyond academic circles to enter everyday life. You don’t need to go looking for him because you can’t miss him.
Sitting in Choudhury’s office and recalling the Yunus event in Kolkata, my thoughts strayed to another master of Chittagong, Surya Sen, the revolutionary who led the 1930 Chittagong Armoury Raid. I live in a street in Delhi named after him, but he is a ghost I can’t chase here. But Bipin Chandra Pal I could pursue. Born in Sylhet in 1858, the other eastern extremity of Bengal (which was transferred to Assam in 1874), a pioneering figure in reimagining the freedom struggle, a gifted literary stylist and orator, Pal was one of the chief architects of Swadeshi. He was also a freedom fighter with a difference.
“We have an auditorium, a library and a medical centre… all of these would be important to Bipin Pal. There are all these young boys and girls… who can’t speak English well but you can tell that they are intelligent, that, given the opportunity, they would do well. So we develop their soft skills, their spoken English being one. Education, as you know, was very dear to Bipin Chandra Pal… a man history has confined to its dust heap,” said Choudhury, almost out of breath. “We hear of the other two [Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak] of the triumvirate Lal-Bal-Pal, but not of him… during his lifetime he got nothing. It was the same story after his death… Bipin Chandra Pal has been forgotten.”
“We’re trying to survive [as a memorial trust] and keep his memory alive. And we’re not paid for that. We can’t even pay our employees properly or even employ good staff.” He sounded forlorn, quite belying the size and solidity of the Trust building.
In 1921, Bipin Pal addressed the Bengal Provincial Conference with the words: “You wanted magic. I tried to give you logic. But logic is in bad odour when the popular mind is excited. You wanted mantras. But I am no Rishi and cannot give mantras”
Pal had joined the Brahmo Samaj, had been rejected by his father and, while in Europe, had come under the influence of Fabianism. “His thoughts got muddled for a while,” admitted Choudhury. “But in certain areas he was very clear… for instance, today, he would be against what we call protectionism.”
But that’s not the reason why he isn’t remembered so well, is it? Choudhury was candid about that too: “He could not keep pace with the public sentiment of the time. Those who could, became famous. Not him.” Pointing at a plaque on the wall behind him, Choudhury rested his case: “Bipin Chandra Pal was a mix of honesty in work as well as honesty in personal life. That’s how he should be remembered.”
After 72 years of independence, we may not need to reinvent CR Das. But to re-educate ourselves about Bipin Pal, to establish the imprint on public memory of a marginalised revolutionary, is a tall order. What happens to memory through the lifelong act of remembering? At the Trust’s office, I chose not to contest the argument that memory, for preservation, must be happy. Yet, the instant we say that, we cross the thin, and dangerous, line between memory and nostalgia. Reinventing the past is quite different from inventing a present (and future) for oneself—as the refugees of 1947 and then again of 1971 had to do.
Arun Kumar Guha, president of the East Bengal Displaced Persons (EBDP) Association in Delhi, was hardly eight years old at Partition, migrating to Calcutta in 1949. Too young to remember much of life in East Bengal, he didn’t personally witness any of the killings. But he vividly recalls the cry, ringing through night and day, that invariably ended with ‘Ladke lenge Pakistan’.
“Things were very bad. My relatives had to flee their village and take the steamer from Barisal to Khulna, leaving everything behind in the village which was raided. They were given the choice to abandon everything they had and run or be killed,” reflected Guha, among the few who still have personal intimations of that tumult in history. As they settled in different parts of West Bengal, his large, extended family soon disintegrated. Guha had stayed on in Barisal with his maternal uncle, who eventually got a job in Calcutta. Moving from Barisal to Dum Dum (in suburban Calcutta), the reality hit him: “Thousands of displaced persons, refugees you may call them, were all over West Bengal… everybody searching for food, jobs, etcetera… trying to just… live.” Fortunately for himself, Guha moved to Delhi with his uncle’s family in 1950.
Guha’s story was typical of the Partition-displaced in the east. But for the peculiarities of his own circumstances and the quick move to Delhi, one could have substituted his tale with those of a million others. Yet, in that familiarity of the narrative resides the essence of the collective memory of life before and life immediately after 1947. Guha’s generation is the last to have lived to tell the tale.
The struggle to preserve the memory of one forgotten nationalist, no matter how big in his day, would appear to be subsumed under the struggle to preserve the collective memory of a cataclysm (Pal died in 1932, almost a decade and a half before Independence and Partition). But the acts of remembrance are not identical. If one is compounded by the political nature of all history-writing and how it impacts leading personalities, the other is complicated by generational gaps that widen as the living memory disappears. But there’s a danger with the collective memory of loss, when that memory mixes with longing. I remember a man at a railway station in West Bengal, in the late ’90s or early noughties, telling a neighbour about his old, unhappy father yearning to go back across the border. The old man wanted to return to the family’s long-lost home in Bangladesh where he’d be looked after by the locals (“desher lok”, connoting people of one’s own village/desh). The son was having a tough time explaining to his father that neither the “bhite maati” (roughly, home and hearth) nor the “desher lok” existed anymore, certainly not the way the father remembered them. The old man had forgotten what he had escaped, remembering only what he missed. Longing had triumphed over reality.
AN ESSAY in a recent issue of Purbachaler Katha (Tales of the East), published by the EBDP Association, provides an illustration. Titled ‘Amar gram: Desh Bhaager Purbe o Chhoe Doshok Pore (My village: Before Partition and six decades later)’ and written by Rameshchandra Chanda, the essay recalls the changes the author encountered on revisiting his ancestral village, once in 1990 after a nearly four decade-long gap, and again in 2010.
Chanda was born in a village called Dhamod in Dhaka-Bikrampur district. Although his parents finally migrated to Calcutta in 1959, his regular visits to the village (from Calcutta) had already stopped in 1955. Returning in 1990, he found the once bustling streets of the neighbouring Bajrayogini village empty, the houses abandoned and looking haunted, not a single instance of Durga Puja left in a village where, before Partition, at least 18 households had their individual pujas. His own village had been taken over and was run by a single family that had filled the ponds and turned the adjacent plots of land into its kitchen garden. Almost every house in the area had its own mango trees, among other kinds, before Partition. Chanda could not see a single large tree on any of the plots in 1990, all big trees having been cut and sold for profit. By the time he returned in 2010, Bangladesh’s politics had changed its trajectory. From improved roads to institutional development, a new reality was already trying to erase the previous two layers of history—pre and post-Partition.
Chanda’s account is important not merely because it offers the antidote of reality across the border to memory leading itself astray on this side. He is categorical that a world was lost in 1947, but the severity of the truth cuts deeper. The physical grasp of memory, the abandoned or snatched plot of familial land and the house on it, will be gone too. Nothing will be left but memory. And with the memory fading, nothing will be left at all.
Guha’s organisation, known initially as EPDP (the word ‘Pakistan’ was later replaced by ‘Bengal’), had played a prominent role in compiling lists of displaced persons and submitting the same to the Department of Rehabilitation, thereby laying the foundation of CR Park. Today, its role is limited to welfare activities and assisting people in matters of practical import. Cultural events, and efforts at memorialising past giants, had been left to the memorial and cultural societies under its umbrella, including the two concerned with CR Das and Bipin Pal as well as the Bangiya Samaj and Mahila Samiti.
“But they too have not been able to preserve and nurture the old traditions of East Bengal. And the blame does not lie with them. It’s a generation gap. Newer generations have not known the ethos of East Bengal… but they aren’t to blame either. They were nurtured in what they saw here. Society and culture change. The environment plays a big role in developing the personality of the individual,” said Guha, summing up seven decades of attempts, in the capital of India, at preserving the memory of a distant life and a lost, faraway land.
On my way out of Choudhury’s office, I had stopped to read the plaque on the wall. It featured an extract from Bipin Pal’s presidential address to the Bengal Provincial Conference in March 1921: “You wanted magic. I tried to give you logic. But logic is in bad odour when the popular mind is excited. You wanted mantras. But I am no Rishi and cannot give mantras…”
Sometimes, neither magic nor logic works. A logician cannot offer one-stop solutions. But a soldier can only go on fighting. There is no escape from remembering, even as we wait for an absolution that never promised to come.