The New Stuff

Did Bengali nationalism ever exist?

1971 was a violent and brutal year which ultimately resulted in a new land. It also changed the route of history, making it less predictable and routine producing situations not usual in conventional South Asian history including democratic and institutional space of the state while societal strength has grown as people tend to flock to them when governmental institutions are not strong. But what was the major achievement of 1971 and its impact?

Some call the 1971 war as an ‘unfinished revolution’ arguing that it was meant to establish a socialist state and the conditions were ripe for that. But no evidence was provided for this since no Left party was remotely a contender for the mainstream party and its formal representative, the Mujibnagar government in exile.

What did happen was a more simple victory, of the middle class aspiring to be the upper class. If there was any ‘unfinished’ business of history, than it began in 1947, when the United Bengal Movement failed. It was to lead to a new state called Bengal and was to be led by the Bengal Provincial Muslim League in alliance with the Bengal Congress, a great reference to inter-communal aspiration though not necessarily pragmatism. That dream failed in 1947 but ran home in 1971. It is this victory that had some interesting consequences.

Several political leaders supported the United Bengal Movement including Gandhi and Jinnah but Nehru and Patel of the all powerful Indian National Congress opposed it as did the majority of Bengal’s Hindus. Upper caste politics of course fed the discord but the fact remains that Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus did not share common political spaces. They came from two different streams of history. This is not communalism as some ‘inter-communal/secular’ historians make out to be but much more about protecting the perceived threat to livelihood and managing it which politics has been or is always about.

Livelihood search or protection or expansion of the same is a dominant expression in the historical stages which leads from the self to community to national identity. The identity stages crisscross one another but they also produce their own histories. These in isolation also produce habitats/societies/states where such ideas can reside. Sometimes all these layers of identities come together to produce a new thread which is composed of parts of each of these identities.

To argue that such histories are exclusive of the other would not be correct as people do not live in only one history. There are many categories and sub-categories and they all form histories. Of these categories, class is a prominent one as is religion though they differ on who is included/excluded in that identity. But identities are also fluid and multiple so there are almost no examples of one exclusive identity-based politics that churns the waters of history.

In 1947, we see two communities in action, coming together and separating over a period of nearly 100 years of activism, which first marked its sharp rise in 1905 when Bengal was partitioned. It was a multiple partition — of geography, culture, economy, religious identity, class to name a few. So the multiple identities of the Bengali people crated multiple conflicts as well. So what became East Bengal produced a number of multiple but conflicted identities.

1905 and the rise of Bengali Muslim identity
EAST Bengal was dominantly home to peasants and raiyats who were ruled by zamindars who mostly came from West Bengal and dominantly Kolkata. Most of the East Bengali peasants were also Muslims. Thus class, geography and religious identity were all arrayed on one side giving a strong impetus to form a community who were East Bengalis + Muslim peasants. Hence geography, religious and class identity coalesced to form a combined political identity that later could aspire for a nation state.

Although Bengali Hindus also lived in East Bengal, their political loyalties could not be the same because with the rise of the Bengali Muslim middle class, they were separated socio-economically and became contestants with each other. After the 1905 partition of Bengal, this separation issue was raised and by 1919, in anticipation of local government elections, became formal and official through the establishment of separate electorate. Separate development became a legal entity. Separate electorate meant that Bengali Hindus and Muslims were already living in two separate political histories. Thus, a community that came into being only during the 16th century in Bengal due to agricultural intervention of the Mughal — East Bengali peasants who drifted to a Muslim identity — had become a contestant of the dominant group in India. It was not birthed by linguistic or ethnic identity which were common community producers but by religion and economics — agriculture.

Bengalis split into two non-hostile groups during Akbar’s rule as agriculture made great inroads and many peasants of East Bengal turned to new faith practices and not due to theological or social reasons. Over time a group, mostly from East Bengal where the agro-revolution took place identified themselves as ‘Muslims’ more out of homage towards the Mughal ‘agro-pioneers’ who were called ‘Charismatics’ who used religion as a mobilising force. Rather than theology or impressed by Islam, they shifted due to the creation of livelihood opportunities. Bengal has experienced similar faith introductions before and such changes in their life were always linked to their livelihood. Great wealth was created in Bengal but a very small part went to the peasants though the legendary Bengal’s wealth was created.

But over time, this new division was real and the two communities began to lead increasingly separate lives. Obviously, Muslims and Hindus could not marry each so the exogamy was a major contributor to this separate growth. That the two were separate but not necessarily isolated is observed in the faqir-sannyasi movement against the Company rule that was peasant-based. Faqirs took tax from the Muslim peasants while the sannyasis took tax from the Hindu peasants. So, though living together, they followed different beliefs and socio-religious structural systems. Perhaps it was more parallel than separate.

By the time Company rule was established, Kolkata-based Bengalis (Hindu) had emerged as the major player in the collaborationist economy that emerged — the first time Bengalis had a major role in the trading economy. The Permanent Settlement of 1793 which created the zamindary system also created a trade-based aristocracy, a new phenomenon and ensured the communal divide through an unintended communal arrangement of the landlord system. Most zamindars were Hindus of the trading communities and most raiyats or tenants in East Bengal were peasants, majority of who were Muslims. Thus two identities were lined up that ultimately became rivals long before the partition of Bengal in 1905 gave it a political face. It was somewhat determined by the economics and livelihood patterns of the region.

If the Company rule inaugurated the Bengali Hindu ‘middle class revolution’ that began in 1757 and was strengthened in 1793, it was inevitably of an exclusive band because the British avoided the same relationship with Muslims who barely existed as a middle class because they were either peasants or aristocrats, not educated men who wanted jobs or trading licences or could be trusted to do so as they, religion-wise, belonged to the deposed Muslim Turko-Afghan aristocracy. Of course, this meant the rise of culture and values centred on education which Bengali Hindus accessed. The Bengal Renaissance was funded by the collaborationist economy with no competition from another community till the next 100 years after 1757.

The Bengali Muslims were dominantly peasants and it is from this group came the new middle class in the shape of zamindari intermediaries, the pattanidars, taluqdars, etc, who acted as estate agents where they got an opportunity and some become jotdars or rich peasants. This group also took to education as the family disposable surplus increased. Thus the failed experiment in agro-capitalism zamindari, which the Bengali Hindu trading class invested but failed in, generated a new class, the Bengali Muslim middle class, but no doubt a small community. It also created the first instances of peasant rebellions in Bengal making armed resistance a practised form of livelihood protection.

The fractured attempts of inter-communal politics
IT IS this combination of identities that helped create alliances too and not just differences. Each identity was strong so each could generate aspirations including nation-state or sub-state formations. As it happened in 1905 (partition of Bengal), 1911 (Swadeshi movement), 1937 (first election and failure in inter-communal alliance), 1947 (United Bengal Movement and birth of Pakistan) and finally in 1971 (birth of Bangladesh).

For example, a Muslim in Bengal could be an all Indian Muslim in which the Bengali identity could be incorporated, sublimated, submerged or lost, depending on how one looked at it. By the same logic, he could also be a Bengali and form a political alliance with a fellow Bengali who was a Hindu.

For the Hindu, the situation was the same and he could be an all Indian Hindu (1947) or a fellow Bengali with a Muslim (1947–1971).

These identities were, therefore, fluid. And depending on the political circumstances, these identities could change and shape history. However, the Bengali identity under the British rule rapidly lost its strength once Muslims also began to claim this identity as their economics rose.

In general, in India, a Bengali meant a Hindu Bengali at that time but Muslims started to be Bengalis too upsetting the monolithic Bengali political bullock cart. The history of Bengali literature never referred to such a common identity before the late 18th century and for the right reason which is that the Bengali Muslim community was still not a realised one. It was first claimed by the Bengali Muslim writers themselves and 1905 changed the situation and the struggle to establish a bi-religious community identity began.

But the partition of 1905 was also the most important challenge by an emerging middle class to an established one sharing the same geo-culture. It was inevitably interpreted in ethno-communal terms and ‘British conspiracy’ etc of divide and rule. While such factors existed, the fact that Kolkata-based groups were being challenged by Dhaka-based groups — peasants versus landlords, lawyers versus tax givers, educated versus the semi-literate, etc — were also expressions of the intra-class conflict that was about to inaugurate a new type of conflict not seen before. It was, therefore, the conflict led by the aspirant middle class drawing their strength from religious identity against an entrenched one — linguistic — reaching for the same class booty.

There were several attempts to form a class-based alliance between the two communities but the chances of success were obviously dim. The fabled Bengal Pact of CR Das (1924) failed because the Hindu middle class resisted. The proposed seat sharing arrangements of 1937 also failed and so did the United Bengal Movement because the Bengali Hindu middle class found no reason to dump their advantages accrued over time and give in to the Muslim middle class aspirations.

As always, the livelihood issues determined the political direction. To call the Bengali Hindu middle class as communal makes little sense because there was no perceived advantage for them in giving their advantages up. So why should they? The Muslims were a majority in Bengal and the history of active hostility with Hindus was already many decades old. Self-preserving instincts motivated the ordinary middle class voters to vote for partition and not the elitist idealism of the Bengal Congress leaders.

So the Bengal Muslim League leaders failed to achieve their goals through 1947 when the UBM failed and Pakistan emerged. Pakistan was a completely different reality and the battle to establish middle class Bengali victory began anew. The party that led this movement was the Pakistani version of the BPML birthed in 1949 and christened Pakistan Awami Muslim League. The new enemy was the central Pakistan.

Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim political positions
BECAUSE the middle class of this region had multiple identities, it was relatively easy to construct a new alliance of Bengali Muslims with Bengali Hindus of East Pakistan who were unable or unwilling to migrate to West Bengal/India. Thus it was a political front of the Bengali Hindu-Muslims but it was totally led by the Bengali Muslims in whose history Pakistan was not a new reality but the interruption of an old struggle. In this struggle Bengali Hindus had few political options except to support this front and this support was not one of choice.

They never had the chance to control their own political destiny in an ‘Islamic’ Pakistan. Nor could Bengali Muslim political leadership afford to be seen in a space where Hindu interests were considered at par with Muslims. They were distant political neighbours in the same geography. Plus in Pakistan, law and society both preyed on Hindu resources.

The major milestones of the nationalist movements are 1948–1952 language movement, 1954 United Front election led by the BAL, the 1966 declaration of six points of the AL, the Agartala conspiracy and subsequent 1969 movement, the electoral victory of 1970 elections by the AL and the 1971 war formally fought under the leadership of the exile government of Mujibnagar led by the AL. In each case, the Hindu minorities supported but never played any significant role in such struggles as they were always ‘proxy Indians” in Pakistan. The lower class supported and participated in the nationalist movement too led by a middle class interest bearing party but as expected without leadership roles or inclusion of the economically marginalised.

Thus, while the middle class Bengali Muslim, the overwhelming aspirant group, took the highest risk and gained the highest rewards, the ethno-compatible Bengali Hindus had no option but to support and to an extent, nor did the poor classes. They also supported the grander politics of nationalism rather than the impossible and ineffective Left politics which was so obviously marginal and even its most significant leader Maulana Bhashani lent support to Sheikh Mujib more than many times.

The delayed achievement of the unfinished revolution 1971 was, therefore, the finishing of the unfinished revolution of the Bengali Muslim middle class which peaked in 1947 and flopped but ultimately triumphed in 1971. There is no betrayal, or taking advantage of another as the rise of this class was in a sense pre-determined by its history. What was not possible in the much larger and more complex demographic geography of India could reach its goal in the much simpler East Pakistan.

Like all states seeking nationalist movements of multi-class multi-ethnic variety, the contours were wide enough to include as many as possible but during and soon after 1971 the plight and later flight of the Bengali Hindus show the complex impossibilities of linguistic Bengali nationalism through power and resources sharing. What the Bengali Hindus did in 1947 was to deny Bengali nationalism a state and say that a United Bengal was an unrealistic project though Bengali Muslims supported it.

In 1971, Bengali Muslims displayed that their Hindu counterparts were perhaps right that a common Bengali nationalism did not exist but took them along to increase their support. The divisions were deeply entrenched into perceptions of livelihood and even life and one community had no confidence in the other in realising such goals.

Just as in 1947, Bengali Muslims had no choice but to accept UBM loss, the Bengali Hindus had no option but to accept the state and its new leadership which never treated them fairly in 1971. The political process that produces inter-communal democracy has never existed in Bengal.


Afsan Chowdhury is journalist and researcher.

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