Sheikh Mujib: Class, community and decolonising historical analysis

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 00:00, Mar 17,2020 | Updated: 23:24, Mar 16,2020


CONCEPTUALISING an independent Bangladesh struggle located in socio-economic realities expressed through both class conflicts and class alliance is not common in historical research.

History has been reduced to cultural icon identifications and the rights of an educated few to sit for civil service examinations in their mother tongue. Or it is defined as a question of the right to faith practices. That society as a whole may have aspirations beyond such issues of culture has long been denied.


Colonial assumptions of history

THE idea that states are produced often after massive bloodbaths simply to be culturally free signifies both political innocence or its lack. But within this equation production also lies the surface theme of cultural liberation while underneath lies the spirit of class control. The socio-economic aspiration of the people and the academic analysis of the same by academics have in essence served as a new form of internal ‘orientalism’ whereby the world exists only as the urban babu class sees the peasant world.

The intellectual sources of this babu world has been dominated by modernist — read colonial — ideas and values. The Kolkata-based collaborationist class was the intellectual leaders of Bengal who had developed lumpen characteristics almost from birth. To survive, they had to depend on the colonisers. Hence, it is only natural that their ideas would follow the same line.

They were different from the Marwari collaborators and their descendants of the mid-18th century who had been cooperating with the British for long and been traders from even before. When the British arrived under Aurangzeb, Turko-Afghan feudalism was high but it soon declined. By the 18th century, the British could manipulate most Mughal policies by bribing the various Delhi emperors and other sundry nawabs.

Two bribery-based milestones are very important. One, the Nishan tax granted by Emperor Shah Shuza and later conformed by Azim us Shan which gave undue advantage to the British, particularly against the French.

The other was the granting of nizamat in lieu of bribes by Emperor Shah Alam in 1765. This allowed the East India company to take over both revenue collection and administration of Bengal. It is interesting that the Mughals in Delhi were one of the great facilitating forces of establishing colonialism in Bengal and later India.


A race to collaborate

THERE seems to have been a race among most members of the privileged classes to collaborate with the British, both before 1757 and afterwards. While the mercantile capitalist class like the Jagat Seths and Rai Ballavs had a material base, the post-1757 Kolkata babu class had none, depending on colonial munificence for survival. Hence, no independent intellectual movement took place and collaborationism in the name of Modernism was promoted.

To some extent this was similar, if not parallel, to the ‘national Integration’ thesis linked to the Basic Democracy movement under Ayub Khan of Pakistan (1958–1969). It could survive only as long as promoted by the foreign rulers.

These Basic Democracy members briefly rose again in 1971 but died as soon as the Pakistani occupation was over. That way, they were the close cousins of the zamindar class who were birthed by the British to ensure both taxation and loyalty.

However, they soon proved inadequate in estate management and were supplanted by the pattani — intermediaries — class. The zamindars continued to provide loyalty even during 1857 — Sepoy revolt — going against what became the first all-Indian movement against the colonisers. This was done to prove their loyalty along with emerging Bengali Muslim collaborator class like the Anjumans.

However, as it was obvious that they had no material base of their own, the British soon ignored the landlords and spent more time on cultivating other eager collaborator class, particularly the North Indian Muslim group like the Aligarh movement under Syed Ahmed Khan, the counterpart of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. It is from here that the Pakistan movement began.


The peasant counter history

AGAINST this collaborationist narrative which produced two states — India and Pakistan — lay the third state Bangladesh, in creating which the peasantry had a much bigger and dominating role. India and Pakistan were both produced by negotiations based on collaborations of the colonial elite variety.

However, Bangladesh is significant because it was produced by a war in which the peasantry played the most significant role as the player and sustainer of the same. It was, therefore, located firmly in the long and somewhat violent conflict -based history participated in by the peasantry.

It began as an existential crisis to the peasantry defined as a village-based, multi-class agriculturalist group that resisted colonialism once taxes and regimes became very oppressive. Hence, for the peasantry, it was a class conflict against the upper.

The other part was the issue of class alliance with the discarded elite. Significantly, these people were no longer elite and from 1760 — Fakir Sannyasi movement — to 1857 — broadly the same ousted Turko-Afghan-based ex-elite became their allies.

Many mention their leadership role as significant and most of the peasant resistance is identified by these marker groups as historians discovered them from British archives. Hence, for example, the Shah community is somewhat glorified as anti-colonials although they actually had no power and no option except to participate in such movements to restore privileges. They died out by the middle of the 19th century as new classes began to emerge.

It is this cluster of people ranging from Kolkata-based elite aspirants to small-town elites who were also loyal to peasant aspirations that played a more significant role in state birthing. This history is the alternative mainstream and rarely recorded. It is also a fact that a similar situation arises when discussing the history of 1971.


Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s location in history

COMING from peasant domains, not the class, he was part of the mature peasant contest of colonialism which was located in Kolkata and later Delhi and finally in Karachi and Islamabad. These were the centres of peasant oppression and the fight, in the final analysis, was always between the forces of the margin and the centre, the peasantry and the central elite.

Modernist ideas do not identify such historical locations as they operate along markers that are used in western societies. Hence, it is easier to locate people within cultural markers such as race, religion, language, etc rather than governance and historical experience.

It is understandable if the western analysis does it but may seem puzzling when local analysis does. It means that the intellectual source of such analysis is not indigenous. Which is why the concept of ‘nationalism’, fundamentally a western history-based one, has been used so frequently. It is also followed by Marxist ones which has served as an outstation of the Eurocentric understanding of the ‘East.’ The result has been the continuous marginalisation of such interpreters from politics and even history.

Sheikh Mujib grew up through protest and his initial world — Goplaganj — was part of the margin. It is here that he first defeated Swaraj forces who would not allow a meeting to be held by the Muslim League and Fazlul Haq who had come to power through peasant votes. Neither their role or personality was a factor in this but the historic moment was the attempted denial of the default spokesperson of the peasantry. It, thus, become the reality of the history of the peasantry and the collaborator.

From the Gopalganj incident of 1949 to the Kolkata riots of 1946, Sheikh Mujib’s politics was inevitably for the margin or the peasantry. Even the slums which he guarded in 1946 were largely residences of East Bengal peasantry that had gone to work in Kolkata jute factories.


From post-1947 to 1971

In post-1947 politics, the resistance by the middle class was more robust but the peasantry was even more strident. Not only did peasant votes ensure the 1954 elections which veritably ended whatever little presence Pakistan had in Dhaka, but it began to crumble the political structure of Pakistan, which in 1958, more or less ended as military politics took over. Subsequent years saw more of the same.

It was not possible for the centres to control the margin and it ended in 1971. What remains constant is Sheikh Mujib’s political position always non-ideological, always practical and wiling to make alliances including with the Leftists as in 1962 or 1968, as records show.

However, the orientalism-influenced analysis using cultural markers has been unable to locate Sheikh Mujib within the context of the peasant resistance with which only alliances are the corridor through which entry into history is allowed.

The signifiers of history can be found in the longer narrative which shows how at different stages of history, many forces combine to mount initiatives. The conventional political history analysis cannot locate the class in conflict and the same class in alliance for a common cause.

It happened in Bengal but many historians have looked elsewhere for historical parallels due to unfamiliarity with peasant political trends. The paramount need is to decolonise historical research, including those peddled as anti-colonial, if one is to understand the prime force in terms of class and the individuals that birthed Bangladesh.


Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email