In December 1923, after securing a resounding win in elections Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das (C.R Das) led Swaraj Party signed a pact with Muslim leaders of Bengal. It must be noted that Swaraj Party was a breakaway faction of Indian National Congress (INC) led by Motilal Nehru and C.R Das. Gandhi and his followers wanted to boycott the elections while the Swarajists were of the opposite opinion.
According to the 1921 census, the population in Bengal comprised 54% Muslims and 44% Hindus. For political reasons Muslims were discriminated against more since the Battle of Plassey. Hunter in his book in 1871 noted that only 92 Muslims served as government officials in Bengal against 681 Hindu officers. Till 1923, things have changed negligibly for the Bengali Muslims. As noted by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, C.R Das was a realist who understood that the communal problem in Bengal was economic. To overcome this economic gap and win over the apprehensions of Bengali Muslims, Das entered into what was known as Bengal Pact, 1923.
Prominent provisions made in the pact were:
- The number of members from Muslim and Hindu communities in the legislative assembly and council would be decided by their respective proportion in Bengali population.
- In the local self government institutions, Muslims would have 60% seats while 40% would be reserved for Hindus.
- 55% of the total government jobs would be filled by the Muslims. Moreover, till they reach this proportion there would be 80% reservation for the Muslims in jobs.
- Playing music outside the mosques during processions would be banned. Since, it was the most common excuse for riots.
- Cow slaughter for rituals like Id would be allowed but sentiments of the communities should be taken care of.
- If a bill, in legislative assembly, was tabled regarding religious practices 3/4th of the members of that community should vote in favour to make it a law.
The Bengal Pact was also adopted by the Bengal Provincial Congress but the Congress leaders outside Bengal accused C.R Das of acting against the national interest. Gandhi, Nehru and others believed that Das behaved in an autocratic manner and the move is solely to appease Muslims in order to win elections. Several Muslim leaders accused Das of trying to break into their Muslim vote bank by winning the confidence of Bengali Muslims. At the 1924 Cocanada session of Congress when Das was again accused by the Congress leaders and asked to set aside the Bengal Pact. He retorted, in an emotional speech;
“You may delete the Bengal Pact from the resolution but you cannot delete Bengal from the Indian National Congress. Bengal demands her right of having her suggestion considered by the National Assembly. What right has anybody to say that Bengal has to be deprived of her right? Bengal will not be deleted in this unceremonious fashion. I cannot understand the argument of those who cry ‘delete the Bengal Pact’.
“Is Bengal untouchable? Will you deny Bengal the right of suggestion on such a vital question? If you do, Bengal can take care of itself. You can’t refuse Bengal the right to make a suggestion.”
In spite of opposition from Nehru, Gandhi and many other leaders, the Bengal Congress kept endorsing the Bengal Pact, 1923 till C.R Das died in 1925. After his death under the pressure of central leadership the pact was annulled in 1926.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad later regretted that many of his comrades in Congress launched a violent campaign against Das and after his death his followers repudiated his declaration. Azad opined that with the annulment of the pact Bengali Muslims moved away from the Congress and the first seed of the Partition of India was sown.
Maulana Azad further wrote, “The way he solved the communal problem in Bengal is memorable and should serve as an example even today.”
(Author is a well known Historian and political commentator)