Benode Behari Chowdhury, the last warrior of the Chittagong uprising of 1930-34 passed away last Wednesday night (April 10) at the age of 104 in a hospital in Kolkata. The passing of this legendary figure comes at a time when Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan are facing a renewed wave of persecution and West Bengal is witnessing the growth and expansion of Islamist forces which feel a greater connect to the razakars and the Jamaat of Bangladesh than to their own fellow citizens in the state.
Throughout his long, active and eventful life Benode Behari essentially fought against such disruptive forces and indefatigably championed the cause of the Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh. Till the very end he remained concerned and disturbed at the fact that the Hindus of Bangladesh were being squeezed out by radical elements and that pro-Pakistan elements were on the ascendancy in the country. Around a decade ago, when the BNP-led four-party alliance of which the Jamaat and its rabidly anti-Hindu leaders were the leading lights, was in power in Bangladesh, Benode Behari, at the advanced age of 93, had protested their treatment of the minorities in the country.
As early as 1972, when anti-Hindu attacks rocked newly liberated Bangladesh, Benode Behari’s advise to Sheikh Mujeeb was indeed crucial, he had warned the President that “he would not remain in power if Pakistani elements were not checked.” He clearly saw that these elements would never reconcile themselves to the emergence of a new Bangladesh which wanted to be free from the asphyxiating yoke of a wahabised Islam while yearning to forge a new religio-cultural identity for itself. Bangladesh today remains locked in an epic struggle between these forces of destruction and betrayal and those who yearn to go back to the original vision and ideals of the liberation movement.
When not yet 20, Benode Behari had thrown in his lot with Surya Sen – Masterda – the leader and ideologue of the Chittagong uprising. Passionately moved by the “golden dream – the dream of a free India” as his leader described it, Benode Behari braved British bullets – a bullet pierced his neck – and participated in raising the banner of armed revolt against the mighty Empire in far off Chittagong by declaring it liberated territory. Young Benode was transported to prison in distant Rajputana and then incarcerated in a deserted camp. The prolonged episode which had galvanised the entire area and other revolutionary movements across the subcontinent had badly shaken the Empire, till then firmly ensconced in its belief of invincibility. Yet the episode is neither remembered today in India – where empty chairs at the screening of Chittagong demonstrated the general apathy towards such riveting episodes of our history, nor in Bangladesh were Benode Behari would lament that in some quarters Surya Sen continued to be described “as a dacoit, a Hindu leader!” In fact, Bangladesh and India are yet to erect a suitable memorial to the martyrs of that uprising.
After partition, Benode Behari stayed on in East Pakistan and during a particularly dangerous time emerged as a rallying point for the minorities of that half of Pakistan. Steadfastly remaining in Chittagong, which over the years developed into a hotbed of radical elements including the Jamaat, Benode Behari remained unscathed and succeeded in organising the Hindus of the district. One of the then leading papers in Chittagong Azad had, pouring vitriol, proclaimed in early 1950 (February 8-9) that the “Real enemies of Pakistan are Hindus” and that “Hindus are not reliable.” It was against such odds that Benode Behari struggled for the rights, protection and dignity of his co-religionists and of other minorities of East Pakistan. Eventually, it was largely due to his efforts that Hindus in Chittagong became an important bloc in the region’s local politics.
Each time a compromise was made with Islamic fundamentalist forces, Benode Behari came out openly condemning the turn. He did not spare the Awami League either which had its phases of infatuation with the “Khelafatists”, as happened in 2006 when it came to an agreement with the fundamentalist Khelafat Majlish and agreed to support the issuance of fatwas by alems when it came to power.
Benode Behari Chowdhury’s life thus had two distinct parts, both of them revolutionary and full of struggle. The early part was a struggle against the idea and manifestations of an empire and the second was a ceaseless battle against a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalist consolidation and in support of efforts for protection of the Hindu voice in a continuously shrinking religio–political space in the land of his birth. He never considered the option of migrating, for a warrior that option was not even the last one, it never existed.
His example needs urgent and dedicated emulation across all parts of Bengal today, but does the Bengali Hindu bhadralok have time and tenacity for it?