ALL history hitherto known is one of seeking class advantages through various alliances and combinations. These alliances are formed in response to challenges posed to their collective livelihood — whether of survival or of flourishing — posed by another alliance often similar in construction. These conflicts and alliances constitute the basis of the historical narrative of a state’s birth or people’s identification.
Class and cultural identity under colonialism
WITHIN such narratives live a variety of identity markers — some cultural such as language, religion, etc and some more concrete like territory and zones. Others are much more functional in nature such as the socio-economic centres and margins. Together, these combinations form what can be defined as a ‘historical identity’. This identity becomes the biggest force in producing or determining the nature of the state going by Bangladesh and South Asian history.
Bengal’s pre-colonial peasantry was not confrontational in the final crumbling stages of feudalism in the 16th century. They were relatively left out or alone as the feudal system had little power left. Meanwhile, a mercantile capitalist class had reached a high peak facilitated by a patronage-based relationship with the East India Company which held sway.
The Mughals had ceased to be a major contestant in the politics of Bengal by that period. The conflict was, therefore, largely between two foreign companies, the French and the East India Company, both vying for supremacy. Both had local supporters. However, the English had a much better relationship with the trading community mostly from West India — Marwari and Gujratis — the group that mattered.
The French were left with a few options except to side with the nearly over the hill Nawab of Bengal. It is not an accident that everyone wanted Bengal. It was the maximum/only revenue-surplus province in the late Mughal era. The peasantry was not part of any power equation at this stage of history.
Upper-middle-lower class alliance
THE English company was largely into trade but after 1757 and more so after gaining the Diwani right to taxation, it began to mix both trade and taxation streams. The villagers experienced a high taxation and earlier tax collectors were also replaced. This led to a multi-class alliance — peasants and ousted landlords tax collectors-based resistance against the company.
The first such instance was the Fakir-Sannyasi (religious mendicants) movement (1760). The Fakir-Sannyasins were a rural tax collecting class who operated in the name ‘religious tax’. However, the British took away this right as they claimed to be the sole tax collector. The mendicant groups were threatened by livelihood loss and resisted the ruling. But in this conflict, the main role came from the peasantry that was already both suffering and angry under colonialism.
The Fakir-Sannyasi movement died out and some leaders even became friendly with the colonial rulers. But the peasantry continued to resist as land taxation and agro-capitalism became the major sources of colonial income directly affecting the villagers. Thus, both the class conflict between the peasantry and colonialism began in earnest and so did the class alliance between the peasantry and the ousted tax collector class. In various stages and forms, they were both negatively affected by the colonial rule. Meanwhile the traders, officials and the new zamindars patronised by colonialism — the Kolkata babu elite — formed the bastion of collaboration with colonialism.
Traditions of resistance and collaboration
THUS resistance and collaborationism began almost immediately after colonial rule had been established. Resistance in the first stage came from an alliance of the ousted upper and middle class tied with the peasantry. The resistance intensified after the Permanent Settlement of 1793 which had created the landlord class. That in turn also funded the cultural products manufacturing groups often identified as members of the Bengal Renaissance.
This period and event may be cited as the birthing of the ‘lumpen’ middle class surviving on collaboration and connections with the English/ruling class. They soon lost the trading stream to the established trading communality of the Jagat Seth school and focused on professions such as law, bureaucracy, clerking, etc.
As zamindars, they, however, failed and by 1812, estate management had been given to a new ‘pattani’ class, the middle managers who were much better at the job. The zamindars did better at cultural production and providing loyalty to colonialism. This was best evidenced by the events of 1857, when unlike in north India, the Bengal aristocracy was quiet largely and did not join the revolt.
By this period, the Bengali Muslim middle-class community had openly declared their intent to collaborate along the lines of the role model of Rammohan Roy, the founder of colonial collaborationism. The Anjumans and the Mohammedan Literary Society were two such Bengali Muslim collaborator groups. They subsequently grew and formed the alternative to the exclusive Bengali Hindu middle-class collaborationism. The party of descent from this stream was the All India Muslim League just as that of the established collaborators community party was the All India Congress.
The peasant as anti-colonial historical force
JUST as the British promoted the Rammohans after the establishment of colonialism, they now promoted Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his Aligarh movement. Meanwhile, the peasantry in Bengal continued to resist. As the zamindars were not effective in keeping the tenants at bay, colonial rulers had no option except to introduce peasant reforms to manage the situation.
As stated, after 1857, there were some changes in British policy of collaborationism. Instead of depending entirely on one/majority faith community, it began to promote the minority contestant/aspirant community. This resulted in greater opportunities for Muslims across India. It also created a conflict between the established and the aspirant elite which the British hoped would help in continuing with their rule. This was to be achieved through a policy of dividing favours amongst multiple groups who would then compete for favours from the British.
To this was added the increasing pressure from a militant peasantry and the rise of the middle peasantry. This conjunction of forces created alliances cutting across class, community and even territorial markers. The partition of Bengal in 1905 was an accumulation of these markers which the British hoped would benefit their cause. So did the peasant which made the event far more complex beyond an administrative act for convenience. It even went beyond playing communities and territories against each other. It helped to concretise peasant imagination around a sub-state that ultimately led to a state in making and then birthing.
The middle class and peasant politics
IN ONE aspect, however, the two parties — the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League — are different in their Bengal edition. The Bengal Muslim League was connected to the majority that is the peasantry — vote for peasants came in 1909 — while the Congress were closer to the babu class, including the landlords. After votes had come in, the matter was simpler as political parties could not ignore the peasantry and survive politics in Bengal.
And the majority prevailed
THE elections of 1937 and of 1946 which led to 1947 changed the ‘national’ history of India. It led to a state from within India to emerge through this election, challenging the Indian monolithic imagination. The votes that made it happen came from the peasantry while the vote was mobilised by the pre- 1947 Bengal middle class largely rooted in the erstwhile East Bengal.
The East Bengal-based Muslim middle class was not drawn from the collaborationist construct but were aspirants. They grew out of two contests, one with colonialism and the other with the established local colonial elite. Many of the aspirant elite were from outside Kolkata, the centre of colonialism in Bengal. As Kolkata died and north India grew in importance, the clout of the middle peasantry-based followers of the Bengal Muslim League increased. This was very different from the All India Muslim League which was north India-based Muslim landlords and other collaborator class-based led by Jinnah.
The historical identity of 1947 and 1970
THE two parts of Pakistan came from different streams of history though they formed a multi-class alliance to gain different objectives as a minority player in a majoritarian colonial state. They were different in the context of both class and multi-class alliance composition. They aspired for states of different nature before 1947. Not all were within Pakistan either, as the United Bengal Movement of 1947 shows. The objective was to set up a third dominion state of Bengal but it failed due to the Congress’s reluctance.
The momentum to construct their own states continued with the peasantry as the most reliable force of history as the middle class had conflicting trends. The language movement icon year of 1952 saw the rise of the urban middle class as a force in history. The glorification of the language movement served to legitimise the leadership of the middle class. It also translated the wider national movement through cultural construction lenses of ethno-linguistic state movement befitting their class origin. However, in each of the stages, the peasantry played the most significant role but its dominant marker was not cultural but socio-economic.
The history-changing vote of 1954 and 1970 were peasant-driven but the focus on 1952 and 1969 helped the middle class to consolidate its claim as the leader of history. However, in 1971, the role of the peasantry as the saviour, protector, sufferer and activist balances this assertion. In post-1971, as in post-1947, the middle class did gain power and marginalised the peasantry as expected but the conflict and the struggle of both have gone on.
The ‘lumpen’ middle class after 1971
THE middle class claimed credit for the 1952 movement as the trigger of ‘nationalist’ state-making but the events of 1971 are described as a ‘military/armed’ war by the very middle class which was self-marginalised by this definition. It became a war of soldiers only, not that of all people. The rest were portrayed as victims.
By this exclusive militarisation model of a people’s war in both formal and informal narratives, it did not just marginalise the peasantry but also itself. Within the category of warriors, they were also informal and not at the top which was occupied by the formal official army. Martial law was another factor which helped to strengthen the grip of the armed segments at the top. As a result, the civilian middle class could not claim much power beyond a point and was forced to adopt a collaborationist strategy for its own livelihood sustenance.
It had to learn to be semi-blindly loyal to any regime in power and in return gain benefits. This strategy was not new and went back to the colonial-era roots. The class became dependent on the convenience of the upper class/ruling class. The babu class under colonialism was historically powerless as its dependence created a situation under which the colonials ignored them when convenient.
The peasants were a historical force without a pay-out package including after 1971 but the situation in the current round has begun to change as its dependence on agriculture has lessened. Instead of agro-products, off-farm activities and remittance income have begun to change rural society, culture and politics. While the urban middle class continues to depend on the upper class for its socio-economics, the peasantry has become far more independent using the risky migrant worker route and non-farm work.
The ruling class’s new alliance partner?
THE result has been a new alliance between the upper class/urban-based ruling classes that can no longer ignore the peasantry as was done before. The peasantry’s lack of interest in conventional party-based ‘democratic’ politics has also helped the ruling class. The middle class hankers for that as it is the only governance model in which it can have a significant role to play but as it is a wholly dependent class, it is ignored.
The pet projects of this class such as ‘secularism’, ‘socialism’, etc have no space in Bangladesh now. Instead, a peasant-friendly ‘Islam’, perhaps symbolised by the Hefazat, dominates. The kind of liberal values which the middle class stands for, including a critique of religion like the bloggers did, has no presence now and the constitution has ‘Islam’ as a state religion.
It did not make any difference before or later but it symbolically is a rejection of middle class values. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has the Hefazat as an ally even after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was so comfortable with it because it represents a force which is located in rural values and the peasantry is much more independent of ruling class dispensation. Channels need to be kept open.
Remittance class and ruling class alliance compositions
ALTHOUGH the remittance culture has also led to a considerable disruption in traditional and to some extent social and family stability, that is balanced by new equations of autonomy. Risky behaviour, whether sexual or narcotic, is higher than ever before in rural areas. Simultaneously, the rise of evangelical Islam through waz mahfils and the internet are common now.
The Dhaka middle class cannot celebrate its secular festivals freely, Pahela Baishakh being a symbolic one, as it did before. Several factors are responsible including pressure from religious groups. Another is funding dependence on the wealthy segments of the ruling class and its reluctance to patronise as its stake in the dependent middle class is low. It would much rather keep the alliance with the current peasantry with all its contradictions intact.
In terms of class, the upper is strongly in power in Bangladesh but its weak economic management has led to its own limited capacity. The alliance of the upper class has the armed forces at the top and the rest is occupied by politicians and bureaucrats and money-makers. They have not proved to be stronger because of a weak economic stability generated by their limited efficiency and network capitalism, making them internally weak.
Remittance has remained steadfast in growth unlike banking, making the upper class more beholden to sustain an alliance with the remittance class feeding its own livelihood needs. It means that the rural elite and middle class are more economically secure than others. Many of the rural poor have shifted to the cities, hence 35 per cent of the urban population is largely rural in origin.
Between class and alliances
HENCE, two multi-class alliances have formed a third alliance of a sort right now which for the sake of convenience can be termed a ‘rural-urban’ alliance. Or it is a ruling class/upper class alliance with the remittance income-based social conservative-influenced majority-based alliance. As the rural poor are also with them, they constitute a powerful majority which is yet to become a politically aspirant alliance/class-cluster, but may.
The traditional middle class appears to be disappearing as a mediator and its best days may be over. It continues to battle a world that is very difficult to cope with as no one feels the need for an intermediary class in the current make-up. And neither of the two alliance clusters appears to need the role of a mediator as it did before.
What next awaits.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Ekushey Special 2020