OF THE three states that emerged out of colonial rule, the history of two states — India and Pakistan — is rooted in invading others. This particularly applies to invading Bengal which has been overrun by North India-based rulers from the second century onwards. Both India and Pakistan are invaders of Bengal/East Pakistan and Bangladesh at different points of time in history. They cannot, therefore, share a common history. This historical route is independent of the other two’s history. It is the third historical reality.
The Aryan invaders
THE perennially invaded region of Bengal was overrun by North Indian forces under the Aryans from the second century onwards. Historians say that by then, social structure and culture generated by rice cultivation-based civilisation had set in in Bengal. Most invading influences were not significant enough to overwhelm local cultures. There was mixing, but no absorption. It means that resistance to external forces was in the cultural space rather than military as indigenous states did not exist. This state finally emerged in 1971.
The Aryans considered the region to be outside the ‘Aryavarta’ — the Aryan circle — so an inferior region and, hence, an inferior people. Some references were made to Asuras (demons, monsters, etc) but essentially it was a low surplus peasant society that worshipped pre-Vedic pagan deities with whom the invader Aryans did not mix socially.
Over time, the North India-based Aryans established feudal fiefs and principalities, ‘samanta chakra’-/feudal circle-centred, initially in Varendra (North Bengal). However, these feudal lords were all Aryans and their link with Bengal was that of invaders and the invaded. It is from this cluster that Shashanka, the first Aryan ruler, rose who was trying to distance himself from Magadha centre of North India.
Some have cited him as ‘independent’ because of this. But his ‘independence’ was that of a samanta from an invader overlord, not a people’s independence. He also began military adventures and, at some time, had occupied parts of North India for a while. He was, however, part of the same ruling class that ran North India.
After his death, conventional historians claim that a period of anarchy reigned which is termed as ‘matsanyayam.’ It basically means anarchy. This was, however, a matter of the samantas and kings not of society, of ordinary people. The reason this was dubbed as ‘anarchy’ was because North Indian dynasties were in a crisis and also faced invasion from inside and externally by Tibet, among others.
The life of the peasantry was unaffected and the kind of ‘grand chaos’, which some historians imagine existed, never did. It was an upper class chaos. Apart from that, the source of this description was Lama Tarananth, a Buddhist monk who was writing a homage of sorts to the first dynastic ruling family of Bengal, the Palas, who were great promoters of Buddhism.
This was, of course, not a religious or pious choice by the Palas but a political one as the monasteries were powerful and the Palas got their support from them in becoming kings. It is either lack of knowledge or lack of identity with indigenous historical identity that makes some consider the Palas and the Senas locals/’Bengalis’ as they lived in Bengal. By that argument, Pakistani rulers in Bangladesh would qualify as Bengalis, too.
The Central Asian invaders
THE North Indian Aryan rule ended in 1206 when the Sena ruler was dethroned by Bakhtiyar Khalji, a representative of the Central Asian invaders headquartered in Delhi. From then on, through different variations, Central Asian invaders had ruled Bengal till they were overthrown by the British, another invader. Some also consider phases of the Central Asian regime in Bengal as ‘independent’ of Delhi, hence local.
This is false independence as the so-called ‘Independent Sultans’ were independent from Delhi, the reigning Central Asian empire, but local people were not independent of foreign rule. The reason for promoting certain local culture was not ‘liberal’ values but to create support from the locals in their anxiety over invasion by Delhi Central Asians. It was produced by an internal conflict of invaders, not any sense of identity. As invaders, it is impossible to identify with the invaded.
Central Asian regimes were ultimately replaced with the British. Sirajuddowla was as much of invader’s blood and attitude as was Robert Clive. It was a question of replacement than loss of freedom.
British rule and rise of peasants as a historical force
COLONIAL rule was supported by a large section of Indians and Bengalis. In Bengal itself, the emerged mercantile class — Jagat Seth, etc — formed an alliance with the colonial power for class gains. They had no identity link with the invader-ruled Bengal/India and wanted to progress as capitalists against the ramshackle feudal regime represented by the Central Asian, particularly Mughal, rule. Hence, an alliance against a common enemy was inevitable. The peasantry did not matter.
The peasantry did not matter during the previous Central Asian era either and they suffered silently so to speak. There were no stated peasant resistances during this regime because the rural middle class that is facilitator of rebellions was missing. This class grew after the British rule had dispossessed many of the older elite, most of whom were linked to the Central Asian regime, too. The British ousted them and, thus, earlier repressors became the unusual allies of the peasants during the first phase of the British colonial rule in their common fight.
Peasant sufferings grew enormously under colonialism through activities in taxation as well as experiments in agro-capitalism, including promoting cash crops such as opium and indigo. The most violent result of the British policy was in the famine of 1770 when both taxation and trade combined to create a murderous scenario that killed millions in Bengal.
The first resistance against taxation was in 1760 when religious mendicants —fakirs and sannyasins — who collected tax from the villagers were forbidden to do so. Although the ban did not affect the peasantry, they had already been suffering under the British regime and the mendicants were able to mobilise the peasantry whose anger could be channelled into resistance.
By themselves, the mendicants had limited power but with the peasantry as allies, they became a formidable force. These mendicants were later more a spent force as new forms of religious network-based resistances grew such as the Faraizi resistance, Pagol Panthi resistance, etc. But the peasantry rose as a force through this encounter with violent protest which changed the nature of colonialism and politics, including counter-colonialism politics, also.
The establishment of the Permanent Settlement in 1793 as a revenue collecting system by zamindars and promoting ago-capitalism was a water shed in the socio-economic management of colonialism. It shaped the system of colonial governance and a group that was directly loyal to colonialism for their existence was formalised. It basically ‘legitimized’ collaboration as a pre-condition for economic gains. This model had held sway for long as it suited an invaded culture’s dependent class. This trend is noticed in 1971, too, as another group of rural elite collaborated with the invading Pakistan army for gains. A key objective of the Permanent Settlement was the creation of a loyalist class as in the case of the 1971 peace committees.
Two things, however, went against the British. One, the zamindar class showed no serious competence in managing the estate forcing the British to change their tax collection and management policy. To cope, they created a rural middle class on whom colonial dependency was higher but who were not beholden to the British rule, the pattanidars. Over time, they began to promote rural politics successfully, too.
Two, the Permanent Settlement created a militant peasantry who allied with the rural middle class to become colonialism’s principal contestant. Many of the policies in Bengal after 1811 were geared towards appeasing the peasantry and managing the militant resistances which calmed down a bit only after 1905. By then, the peasantry had got rights to vote (1909) and that changed the landscape of Indian politics, not just Bengal. After 1905, the Kolkata-based colonial collaborator class became even closer to all-Indian Delhi-based politics just as North India-led Muslim politics made a landfall in eastern India in 1906 through the founding of the Muslim League in Dhaka.
The annulment of East Bengal in 1911, the rejection (by the Bengali Hindu community) of the Bengal Pact proposed by CR Das which offered inter-faith community-based politics through economic equity, collapse of the Swarajist movement of Gandhi and other issues more or less made the political future largely inevitable.
Two conflicts dominated Bengal. On one side were the peasantry and the aspirant middle class whose party was the Bengal Muslim League and the Krishak Praja Party. Its contestant was the old, established colonial elite represented by the Kolkata babu class whose party was the Congress. This conflict ended in 1947.
The other conflict was between the Bengal Muslim League and the All-India Muslim League which ended in 1971. Both these Delhi-based parties upheld the ideas of internal imperialism expressed through One Bengal, One India and One Pakistan.
Internal imperialism and theory of One
THE experience of having invaded large swaths of South Asia by North India-based powers, whether Aryan or Central Asian, has greatly influenced the imagination of politics later on under colonialism and post-colonialism. While Indian leadership proposed ‘One Nation/India’ theory, Pakistan floated the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ as a counter. Within it, lay the idea that all Muslims were one nation.
Both the Congress and the Muslim League were led by the same genre of people, elite from North India with a very similar form of education. The similarities among Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah or even Subhas Bose and Suhrawardy are clear — western educated liberals — with intellectual sources in colonial epistemology.
Hence, that they would think along internal imperial lines is also inevitable. Any imagination outside the invaders’ imagination becomes treason spelt out as ‘separatism’ as it threatens the imagined imperial domain. Anyone who challenges the imperial imagination of ‘one’ is, therefore, seen as separatist/traitors/enemy. India did that to both Muslims and East Bengalis; Pakistan did that to East Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
The Kolkata regime is an interesting combo as its growth was due to colonialism and, therefore, forced to take on its mantle in cultural construction. Based in Kolkata, the colonial capital, it became an extension of colonial mindset, too, as the events of 1857 showed when it supported the British rule against much of India.
Located within colonialism but having failed to make a mark in the mercantile capital, agro-capital and other economic space after some early achievements, its primary role moved from being a top dog to a member of the pack. It fell back on jobs, professions and low-paying zamindaris and money lending as the British depended on the rural middle class — pattinadars or intermediaries of tax collection — more than them for tax economics.
They began as collaborators and ended up as a compliant community. Hence, its historical identity was not the same as that of the resistant community which continued to be so to 1971. The language based ‘one nation’ of Bengalis is located in the sub-imperial domains and imagination of collaboration produced after 1757.
India was a conglomerate of many regions and principalities which in the past had been invaded and incorporated under several North India-dominated kingdoms. It was how the idea of One India grew when many of these regions were not even in statehoods as, for example, Bengal.
This ‘internal imperialism’ idea was adopted by the Central Asians who also invaded similar swatches of land as the earlier Aryans and claimed Unity of One. The notion of having a faith-based justification for the invasion of foreign land was not contradictory to the ideas of One Ummah idea either. Hence, the elite descendants of the two historical invaders by claiming One Nation status, whether Indian or Muslim, were doing so on the basis of their invader past.
One India and One Pakistan and even One Bengal were unificationist ideas produced by the desire to demonise separatism, the imagination of the invaded which reflected the aspiration to be free of domination.
Two-nation theory of one Pakistan
PAKISTAN began as a ‘Two Nation’ meaning the Muslims were a single nation very different from Hindus/India as a nation: hence, a faith identity-based political equation. It was a contest of the dominant elite identity. In 1940, the Lahore Resolution was for two states/Pakistan, not one Pakistan. On the basis of this resolution, politics developed in Bengal but in 1946, this was changed by Jinnah arguing, when challenged, that it was a ‘typing error’.
But the source of this one state lays in the centrist/imperial imagination of the North Indian elite running the All-India Muslim League. They used the One Muslim Nation identity to first gain leverage but after the 1946 election, when Pakistan became certain, exposed their intention to dominate.
It was, of course, most visible in Jinnah’s speeches after 1947 as he swiftly ditched his ‘inclusive state’ rhetoric after August 14 and became the ‘Musalaman’ Pakistani leader. During his 1948 visit to Dhaka, he was haranguing East Pakistanis for their lack of loyalty and claiming ‘provincialism’ was akin to separatism. His almost paranoid fear about East Pakistan seeking its rights is obvious, a threat to the centre. He also threatened to act against people who espoused the cause of provincialism which automatically qualified them as India’s friend, hence traitors.
What is interesting is that this is the common strain in the Pakistani mind right from Jinnah in 1948 to Yahya Khan in 1971. It is not the individual that matters but the state ideology of imperialism that turns the person into whom they become.
Pakistan sought the one through a centralised imagination of the core in West Pakistan focused on its conflict with the other one, India. It was an echo of the old imperial rivalry between the Aryans and the Central Asians. As an imperial state, its relationship with East Pakistan/Bangladesh could only be as that of a ruler of a colonised or subject state. In fact, Pakistan saw itself as a contender of India and as two imperial contenders shared that identity. Their conflict is long term and inevitable.
Bangladesh and the indigenous state
BANGLADESH rose as an indigenous state which is fundamentally driven by non-elite imagination. Invaded in sequence by what is India and Pakistan, it has no history of invading others and its structures are pre-state-based even as it inter-acted with invaders. Largely peasant-driven, it grew through a fundamentally different process that began to take shape through its resistance to colonialism.
Its first phase was from 1760 to 1857 — fakir-sannyasi revolt to the Sepoy revolt. It was a phase of social resistance. The second phase was from 1857 to 1905, when socio-political networks grew amidst heightened peasant resistances and the rise of the aspirant middle class. Together, this alliance put enough pressure to birth the sub-state of East Bengal in 1905. It meant that the indigenous sub-state identity had begun to concretise through its socio-economic indicators. The difference from the past was that this imagination had found a territory to become concrete.
The third phase is from 1911 to 1947, when East Bengal was annulled but politics was sharpened as peasant forces grew in power, particularly after achieving vote power in 1909. There were several phases but conflicts between the multiple forces sharpened. The election of 1937 in which East Bengal votes became the determinant factor in government forming led to the Lahore Resolution of 1940 that formalised the state-seeking aspiration.
In 1946, the central Muslim League junked the independent indigenous state of East Pakistan. In 1947, the Kolkata Congress pushed by the central Congress ended the United Bengal state move. It was the first proposal to form an indigenous state of the zone of Bengal. The Bengal Congress initially supported it but later the Delhi Congress put pressure. Plus, enthusiasm to live under East Bengal leadership was not high. It means that the Kolkata Congress had already assumed a new identity, closer to Delhi than that of an independent state.
The final phase began in 1947 and ended in 1971 as the subsumed state in 1947 began its trek to become a formal reality in 1971.
The 1971 history is not just about politics but the historical journey of the three states. They were different from each other, two being imperial invaders and one being indigenous and invaded. They did not grow out of each other’s history nor do they have the same historical narrative. The politics of 1971 can, therefore, be described as multi-layered.
The India-Pakistan conflict is a historical reality that goes back long before 1947, to the days of Central Asian invasions of the Aryan-dominated land. Bangladesh’s history is independent of this stream and its emergence is the product of the dominated and indigenous imagination of the largely peasant state, birthing itself in stages. It is a continuous journey that began in peasant resistance and which goes on.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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