The peasant existed as far as history goes back but the middle class is largely a colonial product. The kings of Bengal were outsiders being loyal or produced by North Indian politics, be they be the Palas, the Senas or the rest. The invasion of North India by Central Asians produced a new set of rulers often called Muslim rule to justify their legitimacy. They arrived to displace a set of rulers of South Indian origin, the Senas. Neither the so-called ‘independent’ Shahi Sultans of Bengal nor the nearly independent feudal kingdom of Sirajuddowla were indigenous. Bengal was everyone’s favourite space to loot due to its agro-wealth and access to trans-regional trade. This tradition continued till Pakistan in 1971 after which wealth appropriation was internalised.
Once colonialism replaced the dying samanta system, a new middle class rose which initially was exclusive to the Bengali Hindu community. They, after centuries of subjugation, found the freedom to be elite. They went for colonial trade and generated the wealth that created the new economics. Trade- and, later, land-based economy also produced the inevitable middle class that is needed to sustain the system.
From then on, the construction of socio-political identity began. Later, the counter to a dominant community took birth and competition between two communities developed. This produced both collaboration and resistance which peaked to produce new states. The leadership was in the hands of the elite who duly swore by the peasant, permanent provider of muscles and votes and subjected to regular denials by the ruling class.
But where was the peasant all through history?
THE appropriation of history by the middle class bhadralok narrator of the colonial era has been one of the great successful intellectual coups of history. The narratives are used to fit in with the aspirant babu class ambitions of any community. One great example was the production of identity of rebellions. Thus, the fakirs and sannyasins (1760–1800) are stripped of their role as collectors of religious taxes from rural people and turned into heroic ‘rebels’ punished for carrying arms by the British. Bankimchandra’s own salvo was intended to establish the role model of Bhabani Pathak in Ananda Math forgetting that both communities participated, but separately. What is also not mentioned is that both groups of mendicants represented their own faith groups, not any universal peasantry.
It is true that the peasants were willing payers to the armed mendicants as per tradition but it was certainly an unfair form of traditional extortion in the name of faith practice. It also indicates that two distinct communities already existed and the fiction of one Bengali community was a much later imagination. For the British, the main issue was not to let anyone except themselves collect taxes. Arms were a minor issue. However, the peasant as represented in middle class history of the movement is almost invisible.
The ousted zamindar and the peasant
THE next stage of anti-colonial rebellions began as the British changed the system of rent collection, sparking a series of resistance and rebellions all over Bengal. They were almost entirely led by the older zamindar class, which was about to face an ouster. In the Rangpur revolt of 1783, both community peasants joined together to fight an oppressive rent collector installed by the British. It was led by an older member of the zamindar class, Dhiraj Narayan. Another older landlord declared independence in Bakerganj — Jiwan Shah in 1792 — and such resistances became commonplace as the regime change began through the Permanent Settlement of 1793.
These rebellions were possible because the peasantry-supported such insurrections as oppressive tax collection for them was a matter of life and death. Under the new zamindary arrangement, the brutalisation of the peasantry was extreme. It came in the wake of the famine of 1770 which was produced by the grain traders of the East India Company and their favoured few. It killed by some estimate 7–10 million people by starvation, almost one-third of Bengal’s population. Yet, the deaths scarcely left a scratch on the psyche of the middle class which celebrated the Bengal Renaissance as the middle-class beneficiaries of colonial rule flourished.
Its in this intersection of historical framing that one may locate the transition of the peasant as the legitimiser of the bhadralok’s role in politics and society. Much of the wealth that funded the 19th-century ‘Bengali’ explosion came from zamindary coffers which included profits made from money lending, drug trading and other semi-criminal activities. But this money making was soaked in peasant blood.
Laws were passed that allowed the zamindar to forcibly take away a peasants’ land, cattle and other resources held by him under customary law for centuries if they failed to pay taxes on time. Yet, this extortive measure was not enough to help the zamindar survive and the sub-infeudation — pattani — system was introduced. This allowed sub-contracting the zamindary to other rent collectors and adding an extra layer of tax collection from the peasant. It is only natural that the excluded middle class of the rural variety, including the descendants of the Turko-Afghans, resisted as they no longer were zamindars of the poor they themselves had exploited.
Titu Mir, Faraizi and Wahabis as ‘peasant liberators’
THE resistance of this group began through the Wahabi movements which was inspired by the idea of the ‘obligation’ — farz — to resist a repressive regime. The idea was imported from tribal wars of Saudi to fit resistance against the British, exposed to Indian Muslims during Hajj. This was, however, an exclusivist and segregationist movement which made a distinction between the Hindu and the Muslim peasants, but both suffered equally.
Yet, peasantry was excluded by Titu Mir or Hazi Shariatullah from their cause list which makes these movements more a sectarian than a peasant movement aimed to help the poor. In a way, had these revolts been successful in dispelling the British rule, the regime would hardly have been equitable or fair. Yet, Muslim babu historians have glorified these middle class revolts as egalitarian, pro-poor resistances for all poor when they were only meant to help only one community.
Later, political developments also took the same shape and we notice that while peasants provided the excuse, the elite was successful in using their plight to further their cause and later though narratives.
The challenge of appropriated history
HISTORIANS are the devisers of narratives and usually follow their class line. So, most histories become narratives of convenience, often changing nuances or more to suit interest of a class or a sub-cluster of the ruling class. In all cases, the writing class decides what the narrative is as it is the legitimiser of its claim to post-war benefits.
Hence, historians follow the ‘interpretation’ school which allows the opportunity to ‘interpret’ what happened rather than fact-based historians, a tiny minority, who state facts as it happened. Once state power is captured, history become the primary source of control and debate is discouraged or disallowed. While the socialist countries did or do it crudely, others are smarter.
Essentially, the ruling class uses ideology to assert control over historical narratives and it serves the ruling class interest. No single narrative can exist for any history. However, resistance to such a position is common and that includes Bangladesh.
To create a space where various strains of fact-based history can exist must begin by accepting the fact that history is multiple and split along class, community and territorial lines, to name just a few markers. A few try the multiple approach as it interferes with access to ruling class benefits. Promoting the marginalised to write their own history is the only legitimate resistance possible to the appropriation process of their narrative by the ruling class historians.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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