Political exclusion in the run up to partition, 1933–47
The Government of India Act, 1935 was instrumental in bringing the politics of Bengal countryside into the political mainstream. As Joya Chatterji has argued, by expanding the electorate to mofussils, the Act created avenues for country folk to voice their demands and lend support to the political parties that now claimed to speak in their name.1 Until this point, no party in Bengal had made a serious and sustained attempt to win over the rural population, or to set up organisational bases in the hinterlands.2 But the Act changed this, not least because the vast majority of both ‘general’ and ‘Mohammedan’ seats in the Legislature were now located in mofussils. Yet, while the 1935 Act was a watershed moment in Bengal politics, it hardly had any effect in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Tracts remained outside the imagination of Bengal’s political elites, and they made little or no attempt to reach out to its hill communities. This lack of interest in the ‘aboriginals’ was in part due to the fact that the Bengal literati harboured their own sense of a racial hierarchy, in which they perceived themselves to be far higher on the civilizational ladder in comparison to ‘pre-Aryan aboriginals’.3 Subho Basu has pointed out that their knowledge system used the categories of ‘geography, ethnicity, race, space’ to ascertain that hierarchy, which placed the Hindus at the top of the ladder of civilisation and ‘others’ as outsiders.4 The ‘tribals’ of the Hill Tracts were seen not just as situated on the geographical periphery, but also as wholly peripheral in terms of ethnicity and race. The Tracts inhabitants’ ‘backwardness’, as viewed from the perspective of Bengali elites, might have been enough to ensure that their concerns carried little significance in the provincial debates of the 1930s. The influential political parties took little interest in the affairs of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Despite claiming to represent all Indians, the Congress in Bengal shaped their politics to speak for only some of Bengal’s minorities, particularly the ‘depressed classes’ i.e. lower castes,5 who had been awarded reserved seats under the Communal Award. They did not reach out to tribes. Neither did the Muslim League or Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Proja Party become involved, and neither made any effort to mobilise the hill people. Hence, the Chittagong Hill Tracts did not experience the political winds of change that were blowing through the rest of Bengal at this time, and went unrepresented by all the major parties that dominated Bengal politics.