CONTRARY to what Ghulam Murshid suggests, Bengali language got its proper name earlier to the era of Bharatchandra. The language was called Bengali or Bengala in the works of 17th century Christian priests and Bengali Sufi authors as a regular practice. The ethnonym ‘Bengali’ initially derived as a nisba or identification of a local community by its patria rather than a national identity in the proper sense. As Momtazur Rahman Tarafdar aptly notes, in pre-Mughal era, a Bengali-speaking ‘people’ emerged and in Mughal era this popular community consolidated. Emergence of a Bengali ‘nation’ is a more recent development.
Bengali nationalism was first developed as efflorescence of 19th century Bengali renaissance by an intelligentsia composed mainly of members of Hindu community, which was buried along with the United Bengal proposal in 1947. The second phase of Bengali nationalism took root in East Bengal and strengthened in the Pakistan era, with a broad popular base among all communities. In Tarafdar’s terms, the ideology of Bengali nationalism remained ‘partial’ for one community, the Hindus, and ‘disorganised’ for the other, the Muslim community.
In early modern Bengal, kingship, Sufism, Vaishnavism were among the high institutions around which religious tolerance coalesced. In modern era, the middle class intelligentsia is the putative harbinger of secularisation. Bengali society saw expansion of an English-educated middle class at first among the Hindu community, followed by their Muslim counterparts in the twentieth century. The history of nationalism and secular ideas are held to be roughly coterminous with development of middle class. However, an emergent middle class can be as much a vanguard of anti-clerical bourgeois republicanism and humanism as they could become the base of reactionary communalism. In the hands of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, nationalism was cast in a communal mold. The first batch of English-educated Bengali Muslim middle class, driven by a sense of competitive disadvantage with their compatriot Hindus, first adopted a line of collaboration with the British. When it eventually moved for independence, the demand could only be articulated in the form of Pakistan.
The Praja or tenant movement of 1920s to 1930s was the first manifestation of large-scale Bengali Muslim political activism, and on a separate platform for that matter. The progressive content of this movement lay firstly in its political program of ousting the political leadership of feudal class headed by the Ahsan Manzil in the case of Muslims, and its socio-economic program of abolishing landlordism and gaining status equality against feudal and caste privileges. Yet, the politics of Krishak-Praja Party boomed and fizzled out in a matter of years during 1930s. Both Krishak Praja Party and the Bengal Muslim League were parties only in name, in real terms these were platforms for bringing together a ragtag alliance of Muslim landed notables and an aspiring educated intelligentsia against their twin targets. These parties lacked coherent ideologies, effective discipline or strong allegiance from members. The lines would shift as often as would the contingencies of their relations with the British, Congress, and the pan-Indian Muslim leadership. In late 1930s, chief minister AK Fazlul Huq was the head of both Krishak Praja Party and Bengal Muslim League. A decade earlier, the writer and politician Abul Mansur Ahmed was the vice president of district Anjuman-e Islamia, vice president of district Congress, president of district Muslim League, and secretary of district Praja Samity. The result of such loose and conflicting allegiances was that when Bengal’s politics became polarised in communal lines in late 1930s-1940s, these parties’ relationship with all Indian parties became the decisive factor. Regional parties were quickly cannibalised by Muslim League in Punjab, Bengal, and Sindh.
Secularisation of politics in East Bengal in 1950s — as first manifested by 1952 language movement — had its roots during 1920-1940s, when a relatively firm network of progressive political activists coalesced on the basis of anti-feudal, nationalist, and democratic ideology. This broad medley of political activists did, by and large, support the Pakistan movement at its heyday, and they were the ones instrumental in the undoing of Pakistan. In the tense political vicissitudes of Bengal during 1937-1947, the progressive Bengali Muslim activists were left juggling the twin goals of (1) non-communal democratic nationalism and (2) Muslim interest defined by a class-community nexus. The Praja activism could be called subjectively secular but objectively placed on an inextricably communal footing. In this juggling, Fazlul Huq — the Bengali nationalist ahead of time— at one point lost the plot. Stacked against him were the several odds of arbitrary power of the British, the centralised and Urduphone politics of ML, communal politics of Bengal Congress and so on. Activists like Abul Mansur Ahmed and Kamruddin Ahmad lent their allegiance to Pakistan demand.
The disorientation of the progressive trends of Bengali Muslim middle class in late 1930s-early 1940s lies in its socio-political basis. Despite the fervid anti-feudal rhetoric, the Praja movement remained to some extent reliant on Zamindars — mostly Muslim — for patronage. When Fazlul Huq won provincial elections in 1937 with his demand for abolishing Zamindari without compensation, he had to form a cabinet composed of Zamindars.
Secondly, the communal content could not be exhausted in the Praja movement. As a formative experience, Abul Mansur Ahmed cites his childhood experience of confronting Hindu zamindars and estate officials who invariably considered themselves superior to Muslims. He cites an incident: as he was fishing in a local pond, the local Hindu Nayeb would call him as tui, and the same man would call elderly Muslims with Tumi. Kamruddin Ahmad, on the other hand, describes a contrasting incident of 1924. During a drought season, ordinary villagers were suffering due to dearth of fresh water. Ahmad, as a young boy, allowed them to take water from their pond. One of the co-owners of the pond, an elderly kin of Kamruddin, was enraged by this. Kamruddin stood his ground and made sure that the ‘lowly’ masses (Chhotolok) could take the water. The local landlords of Bikrampur — big and small — were Muslims and the thriving Hindu professional and bourgeois class — though more educated and moneyed — were their Prajas. Kamurddin then goes on to clarify that ‘in those days, Zamindars — Hindus or Muslims — would treat the people alike’, i.e. Zamindari oppression would not depend on the creed of the landlord.
Abul Mansur Ahmed would rehearse an argument during his Praja activism: the landlords, usurers, and lawyers of Bengal were Hindus while their peasants, borrowers, and clients were Muslims. While Mansur appreciated the generosity of Hindu landlords like Jagat Kishore, when a Hindu landlord pointed out to him that donors of Mymensingh relief committee for Brahmaputra flood in 1933-34 were Hindus, he attacked him with the counter-argument that it was socio-economic deprivation that prevents Muslims from posturing as donors. Yet, Mansur knew that rich Muslim landlords and notables would not donate for the relief of their poorer compatriots and coreligionists, but would lavish their resources for helping the distressed Muslims of Anatolia or Iraq. Kamruddin Ahmad mentions that during Bengali famine, as Dhaka relief committee sought donations, Khwaja Shahabuddin of Dhaka’s Nawab House gave Tk 10 and Khizr Hayat Khan, CM of Punjab gave Tk 1,000. So much for the Hindu or Muslim character of landlordism in Bengal. Moreover, while the Praja activists would sometimes posture to be rabid anti-feudalists, many of them were no less vitriolic in denouncing independent peasant movements, and a good many of them would go after the social ladder of Muslim aristocracy by marrying into Ashraf families. The right-wing section of the tenant movement would posture as highborn descendants of immigrants from the Middle East and would embrace West Asian languages or Urdu over Bengali.
It was thus not surprising that Pakistan inspired the vanguard of a community whose principal motivational force at that conjuncture became religious identity. Pakistan became a ‘well-embraced least-evil’ that was such an empty and polysemous signifier that one could project one’s fancies into it to rationalise it to oneself and to others willing to listen. Thus, Abul Hashim would write a manifesto for a socialist and democratic dispensation without endorsement from his party top-brass; Abul Mansur Ahmed, the publicity secretary of Bengal Muslim League, would write progressive slogans for Muslim League rallies while he had no role in drafting of the party’s actual program; and the writers who composed Abul Kalam Shamsuddin or Mujibur Rahman Khan would justify the vision of Pakistan as a solution of all minorities in British India, as if flaking off one minority after another from the majoritarian monolith of Congress’ undivided India. Minoritarian secessionism justified Pakistan in their view. Habibullah Bahar posited a vision of voluntary confederation, which found an echo in the views of the Communist Party as well (Bose, 2014). Muslim League top leadership — at all India or Bengal level — did not have to consult with this differentialist and locally-grounded ideas about Pakistan, and the latter were a fencing exercise in the air. It was unelected Urdu-speaking influential like Hasan Ispahani or Khwaja Nazimuddin who had Jinnah’s ear.
To be continued.
Tahmidal Zami is an author and researcher. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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