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  • Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India 1947–1967
  • Ian Talbot
Joya Chatterji, Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India 1947–1967. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 332 pp.

Scholarship on the 1947 division of the Indian subcontinent and its aftermath has largely focused on the Punjab. This reflects both the regional intensity of the partition-related [End Page 244] massacres and migration and the significance both Indian and Pakistani nation-building discourses attached to the successful resolution of the monumental Punjabi refugee “problem.” Concentration on the Punjab has, however, obscured the variety of partition experiences, especially with regard to the timing of migration and the effectiveness of state responses. This book by Joya Chatterji is an important reflection on the partition process and its implications for the social, economic, and political development of West Bengal. The book contains excellent case-study material, thereby serving as an antidote to Punjab-centric approaches. Chatterji also provides insights into the wider understanding of state downsizing as a policy tool in situations of ethnoreligious conflict.

The book takes up the narrative from Chatterji’s earlier monograph, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalsim and Partition, 1932–1947 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). The two works should be seen as companion volumes. In the earlier study, Charrerji challenged the conventional understanding of the Bengal Congress Party’s role in the demands for Bengal’s partition. The Spoils of Partition similarly challenges established views, especially regarding the boundary award process. Chatterji questions the easy assumption that Sir Cyril Radcliffe determined the whole process. Instead she sees Indian politicians actively engaged in shaping its outcome. They were activated, she argues, by seeking the kind of boundary that provided the best prospects for their power after independence. Such considerations led some Congress Party officials to want a compact West Bengal state that would maximize their influence. Political considerations of this nature outweighed the desire to gain a boundary that would best preserve economic resources. Chatterji also tellingly reveals that the maneuverings were based on the assumption that large-scale movements of population and economic dislocation would not follow partition.

The East Bengal bhadralok community saw partition as a way of reversing its declining political influence after the introduction in 1937 of provincial autonomy. Chatterji reveals why such expectations did not materialize. The downsizing of Bengal after the creation of Pakistan severely limited Bengal’s ability to influence post-independence Indian politics. The region was marginalized as power gravitated to the large states of the Hindi heartland. Changes in resource allocation redounded to West Bengal’s disadvantage, and the politicians there never secured the degree of financial support from the center that they had anticipated. This limited the state’s ability to respond to the ongoing refugee influx. The harsh conditions of refugee existence opened the way for the eventual eclipse of the Bengal Congress Party by the Communist Party of India.

In addition to providing fresh insights, Chatterji also covers the more familiar ground of the different patterns of partition related to migration in the Bengal and Punjab regions. In the latter, a concentrated exchange of populations occurred, creating immense and unforeseen problems for the fledgling state but also galvanizing responses. Bengal lacked Punjab’s tsunami of migration in 1947, but continuous waves of migration transpired throughout the 1950s and beyond. These coincided with communal conflict both in the region and elsewhere in the subcontinent. The Indian and Pakistani states tried to limit migration rather than assist it as they had done [End Page 245] through the Military Evacuation Organisation in the Punjab. They constantly hoped that migrants would return home. Thus, no exchange of refugee property took place in Bengal to assist the process of rehabilitation for a cash-strapped state government.

Chatterji sheds crucial fresh light on one important aspect of migration: internal migration by Bengali Muslims following the upheavals of partition. Partition-related migration is usually understood as a cross-border phenomenon. Chatterji highlights the movement by Muslims from urban to rural areas and in particular to their clustering along the border regions with East Pakistan. This flow of population was linked with their marginalization and paralleled the difficulties that Muslims faced in Uttar Pradesh...


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pp. 244-246
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