Being Bengali: the myth of single identity

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 01:50, Feb 21,2017


I WAS leaving the residence of JN Dixit, India’s retired security adviser to the prime minister in 2000, when he said with some regret and sadness, ‘The problem with you guys is that you can’t decide whether to be a Bengali or a Muslim. It’s not a problem here. We are all Indians.’
I didn’t want to have a bahas with him standing at his gate. So, I smiled and left. I just had a good interview for my BBC series on 1971 and departure times are not for complex debates. But I wanted to tell him that we, like Indians, have several identities. And just like he had felt that that he was an Indian and, hence, neither a Hindu or a Muslim or a Tamil or Bengali, we too have an identity under which we all live and it is called Bangladesh. We are all Bangladeshis under which sky everyone lives, now obvious but always in existence.

SOME of the confusion lies in not knowing how our history has shifted and how we imagined ourselves over time. Identities are not produced by choice but as response to historical challenges, largely social and economic, not cultural ones. Political aspirations decide which our dominant identity at different points of history is. That is why there is a conflict regarding which identity is the main among various groups.
Each group that upholds one identity over the other is batting for a particular cause and insists on being correct. However, if we accepted that we are a mix of several identities and each time there has been a challenge to our socio-economics, the nature of identity became a process and not a fixed one, a kind of fait accompli. It becomes a changeable essence, an evolution rather than a permanent feature. However, that idea is not a popular one as contentious identities have formed the basis of politics and polemics and the endless debates that are spawned by such fundamentalist positions of single never changing identity.

Are we Muslims or Bengalis or Hindus or Babus?
WE ARE all of them. At different times of history, class and community identities spike up or go down depending on historical experiences. Identity is not a cultural product but depend on many factors. But they are dominated by socio-economic challenges. Economic experiences of a people help to form community identities as well.
The most significant experience of the majority of the people of Bengal is the rise of zamindary which was dominated by the Bengali Hindu community while most peasants were Muslims but Hindus were there, too. But the social identity of the majority of the peasants who were Muslims formed a class alliance with Bengali Muslim middle peasants and small landlords to form a new and distinct identity. Both were affected by the revenue policy of the British and the rise of the new zamindars.
Once the petty landlords died out, the intermediaries filled the space. This is very interesting that the Permanent Settlement of 1793 also generated the pattani —intermediary-class and many were Muslims. It is they who took to education and, later, jobs and ultimately became competitors of previous privileged groups, the babus of Kolkata. It became a struggle between old and aspiring babus.
Through the partition/birth of East Bengal in 1905, this identity took a political shape. It is interesting that the pro-peasant Wahabi movement clashed with the landlords for the last time in 1907 and the baton was passed to the middle class led by Fazlul Haque and other members of the emerging middle class speaking on behalf of the peasants and the Muslim babus. This class also held hands with the all Indian Muslim middle class led by the Aligarh movement. Later, Haque departed from this narrow band and focused more on the East Bengal peasant base rather than the aspirations of the All Indian Muslim League. Thus, we see an amalgam of several identities and aspirations which gained strength from peasant representation, in general. It is important to mention that the most invisible suffering community were Hindu peasants for whom no one stood for. The joint movement as we see during the pre-Permanent Settlement days never recurred.

Did the Bengali identity end for Bengali Muslims?
NO, BUT it became a contested and compound identity as it was shared between two competing groups. Once faith and economic identity became usable markers for economic negotiations, the division widened. 1905 exposed the wide fissures within the so-called Bengali nation which the British exploited but the divide was real. There were three attempts to bring them closer but they all failed. The Bengal Pact of Chittaranjan Das in 1924 was the first attempt at an affirmative action by offering greater job opportunities to Bengali Muslims and generating communal harmony through a community pact but it failed. Neither the Congress nor the Bengal Hindu population, in general, supported it.
After the election of 1937, Fazlul Haque with his Krishak Praja Party tried to form a coalition with Bengal Congress to keep the Muslim League out of power but Delhi forbade it, allowing the Hindu-Muslim Bengali alliance opportunity to fade and the ML in Bengal rose to the top.
The final attempt was in 1947 when Jinnah slashed ‘states’ into State creating a centralised one Pakistan in violation of the Lahore Resolution. Bengal Muslim League leaders joined hands with Bengal Congress leaders to propose the United Bengal, the first state making attempt by Bengalis of both faiths. However by then, inter-faith hostility was so high that Bengali Hindus rejected the proposal under a Muslim majority and Bengal was split along the East Bengal and West Bengal line.
Once both became part of two states and, hence, politics after 1947, politics also changed. And identities began to transition as well.

What happened after 1947 to identity that KPP and Bengal Muslim League, even Bengal Congress, had?
THE Bengali Muslim — whether peasant or aspirant babu — was not a fundamentalist identity but one of responses to the challenge of economic oppression of the poor and class aspiration and competition of the middle. For the poor peasant, it meant freedom from oppressive zamindars and the end of the system in 1950 was an expression of how popular ending zamindary was.
Meanwhile, central Pakistan put the same middle class which was fighting Kolkata babus for jobs into a new battlefield and this time with Pakistani babus. They insisted that once the two-nation theory war was won, there was only one nation which were the Muslims and that meant Pakistan was synonymous with that. Thus the insistence on being Bengali only was replaced with being Pakistani only, both built around the idea of a mono-identity for all.
So, the middle class now reinvented as East Pakistani began another battle. The identity was once again under threat and within months he had switched it by expanding the terms of reference of the same. He was no longer the East Bengali Muslim but East Pakistani Bengali, who was also a Muslim. And his erstwhile enemy/competitor, the Bengali Hindu, became his ally in an unusual twist and both faced Pakistan. For that to happen, it took only eight months as the first language-based hartal was held in April 1948.
Dhirendranath Dutta spoke for the Bangla language claiming national status and was celebrated in Dhaka although he was a Congress, the once competitor, now ally. In fact, this alliance was historic as removed from the influence of Delhi, The Bengal Congress of Dhiren Dutta could do what it tried but failed in 1937 and 1947.
Tamaddun Majlish held the Bangla language fort for the first few years but a host of radicals, militants and Muslim League old hands joined the fight and by 1949, the party of East Bengal/East Pakistani Muslims had been formed called Awami Muslim League before it became the party of the region. ‘Muslim’ was used technically as the separate electorate system still existed which ended in 1955 and the Awami Muslim League became the Awami League.
By 1952, when the language movement led by the middle class peaked, the new identity was already constructed. The coalition of 1954, which was the widest ever with the 21 points spelling out the principles, displays the process of concretisation of the inter-communal identity, its political mobilisation of the new politics had been concretised by the overwhelming victory of the United Front. Pakistan never had a chance of establishing itself.
How could a people which voted so overwhelmingly for Pakistan in 1946, in effect, vote so overwhelmingly against Pakistan in 1954. It is in the contrast of results lies the fiction of fundamentalism in the nationalist identity of a people. In 1946, they did not vote for a separate state of Pakistan and in 1954, they did not vote for language rights influenced by Ekushey of 1952 but socio-economic rights of all the classes. What faith they followed or which language they spoke was not what constructed their identity but the perception and experience of socio-economics of denial. If anything, it is their enemy — East India company officials, babu Bengalis of Kolkata and Pakistanis of Karachi — who defined which identity was suited for them to resist which shifted over time as they struggled to reach their own objectives.

Is idea of Bengali identity different from Bangladeshi identity?
CULTURAL, social and political identities all co-exist and at certain times in history one becomes stronger than the other because of the challenges of the moment. When we say Bengali or Muslim, we assume linguistic or fait identity being paramount and everything as additions or supplements but this is a misleading process as community formations are a mix of many identities. Mono-identity in any sector, whether ethnic or linguist or religious or socio-economic, stems from earlier and, perhaps, colonial versions of simplifying identities to ensure easy domination.
Bangla as a language has always been a critical element of identity and even during the formation of the Muslim League, this identity element was stated by East Bengali scholars and politicians. But the elite construction of Bengal saw Hindu Bengalis dominate, which created a critical divide and bifurcation of the identity scheme.
Once, the non-existent Bengali Muslim middle class emerged around the late 18th century, this identity gained strength which peaked in 1905 in the first phase. It saw the politico-cultural birth of the Bengali Muslims who aspired to become elite as well with Bengali Hindus. Hence, this set the political race in motion. That both were divided is proven by the construction of the anti-East Bengal Swadeshi movement built around Bengali Hindu cultural ethos after 1905 and opposition to it by east Bengali Muslims. Subsequent failure of political projects to bring both Bengalis together also show this divide.
The Bengal Muslim League/KPP were parties of the poor before 1947 of a community which, after 1947, became parties of both communities almost instantly. This shows the transitional nature of the multiple identities of the eastern delta. The identities are, therefore, interchangeable and can be shrunk or expanded to suit political objectives. It is this flexibility that forms the socio-economic argument of identity formation.
There could be no official Bangladeshi identity from 1947 to 1971 as it was under Pakistan but a variety of terms were used including Bangla/Bengal. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman used this even in his last interview on March 25, saying ‘my Bengal.’ Thus ‘Bengal’ was actually the political geography of what was about to become Bangladesh. In effect, therefore, several terms were used to mean Bangladesh and it was a territorial reality signified through Bangla-Bengal term, etc. It was not about all the Bengali people but that of East Bengal and their struggle against Pakistan, a continuation of their earlier struggle against Kolkata and Delhi.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email