Sheikh Mujib and historical identity of the margin

by Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 00:38, Mar 26,2019


Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

THE Indian India National Congress peddled its One-Nation Theory, the Muslim League counter-produced the Two-Nation Theory as a negotiating tool with British colonialism and everyone is expected to follow either of them. The use of ‘identity’ theories to dominate politics by the centre is common. In Bangladesh, which actively fought Pakistani centralism, it is thought that as Jinnah’s theory is wrong so by default the Congress theory must be right. It forgets that as a margin, Bangladeshis had its own interpretation of identity.
Many Bangladeshi analysts say that after 1947, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman realised that his earlier politics was wrong. He changed and became a ‘secular’ Bengali after 1947. His Muslim identity politics does not fit in with the metropolitan idea of a ‘liberal’; so, it is vanished and more polite ones are added.
This process of thinking, of course, makes Sheikh Mujib what the Kolkata babu class has always thought him to be. It depicts him as a half wit of sorts, a Muslim League rustic thug, chasing the Muslim League for gain and a toad of Bengal’s chief minister of 1946, Suhrawardy. It is the description by the metropolitan Kolkata babu of a typical marginal militant — uppity? — who dares to challenge the centre’s politics and, in the end, wins a state which they failed to.

Concept of one, two and marginal nation
PRE-1947 politics is seen as a conflict between the One- and Two-Nation theories which conveniently falls into the Muslim-Hindu paradigm of hate. It is the ‘either us or them’ matrix that defines politics of that era by Indians and Pakistanis. It refuses to recognise the supremacist aspect of both the theories which cancels all identities that does not suit these two narratives.
A review of pre-1947 politics shows that Bengal was already developing new idioms countering those ideas held by the dominant All Indian Muslim League and the Indian Congress. It is not a coincidence that both parties were located in the colonial headquarters of Delhi, that is North India.
The Central Asians/Turko-Afghans replaced the Aryan/North Indian rulers and the British replaced the Turko-Afghans. Essentially, it was a conflict between and against these three ‘imperialisms’ — Aryan, Mughal and British — produced by the rigid and exclusivist nature of the ideas.
Yet, within this framework, a variety of other identities existed which were less simplistic and self-serving than the Jinnah-Nehru paradigm. The expulsion of all ‘regional’ ideas of the Congress is rooted in the rejection of ‘regions’ by the Aryan One-India vision.
Similarly, the Two-Nation Theory expresses the Islamist ideas of the Central Asian rulers who could admit only one idea as ‘pure’ and rejected diversity. This was at its purest expression in 1947 and peaked in 1971.
In effect both nation-theories rejected multiplicity. This was responsible for Pakistan’s troubles and disasters, right from the beginning, and is now affecting India, too. The denial of diversity and multiplicity is the core.

Nature of the margin’s identity
SHEIKH Mujib’s politics faced two threats in his pre-1947 world. One came from the Kolkata elite — the historical babu class — which spawned the zamindars, and the lawyers, whom the peasants most hated. The Muslim middle class also spawned from lumpen landlordism — intermediaries/pattani; they over time became contestants of the established Kolkata-based community.
This newly emerging Muslim middle class faced pressure as the 18th century ended and so did long-standing peasant movements. These movements were once led by the older replaced Turko-Afghan landlords or the middle class like the Faraizis and the Fakirs. But the peasants joined all of them even though they were led by the older oppressor class. Later, peasants initiated several movements by themselves, headed by the leftists in the 20th century.
Community identity played a role too. During the Fakir-Sannyasin movement, the Hindus followed the Sannyasins and the Muslims followed the Fakirs. It means that the sense of separate communities was already in existence but they were not a state of communities in conflict. Subsequently, this sharpened with the Permanent Settlement when the Kolkata-based elite, mostly the Hindus, bought the zamindaris, grew in trade and education and translated colonial collaboration into capital for community growth.
However, while the Muslim peasantry began to resist under the affected older order, the Hindu zamnidars naturally sided with the colonial rulers, leaving the Hindu peasantry bereft of any allies. By the middle of the 18th century, the historical experience of both communities had begun to sharply bifurcate. The Bengali Muslim middle class was rising and beginning to compete with the established Bengali Hindu middle classm particularly located in Kolkata. It was this conflict that led to such resistance by them to the partition of Bengal in 1905. The partition meant losing control of a major, if not the main, economic resource-providing zone of Bengal for the Kolkata bhadralok.

Rise of Delhi politics in Bengal up to 1947
WHEN the partition ended in 1911 under pressure from the Indian majority, a sea-change occurred in politics. Bengal politics was no longer in Bengal’s hands but located in Delhi, where the colonial capital had shifted. The All India Muslim League was born creating a political platform for Bengal’s majority.
The All India Congress fought against the partition in alliance with the Swadeshi movement led by Hindu bhadraloks and regional politics and its control now lay with Delhi. Meanwhile, the middle class, the children of peasants, began to make demands in the wake of the annulment of the partition which had been seen as an affirmative action to improve the lot of Bengali Muslims.
It is from here that Kolkata began to use Bengali and Hindu cultural symbols to turn identity politics into the cultural space which they controlled as they tried to hold on to a hundred years of privilege. But separate electorate, rise of the Muslim League and the emergence of a newly politicised community which the British encouraged created new configurations.
Conflict intensified as the minority refused the proposals of the Bengal Pact floated by CR Das in 1924, an attempt to create economic balance between the two communities. It was rejected by the Congress, too, which ended most hopes of an alliance. In reaction, the disappointed educated Bengali Muslims took to their own road. As votes belonged to the majority, the electoral victory of 1937 led by the Krishak Praja Party and the Muslim League was inevitable. Yet when the Krishak Praja Party and the Bengal Congress tried to form a governing alliance in Bengal, Delhi shut it down as it did not suit the central politics.
Politics after the 1937 elections was dominated by the Delhi Muslim League and Congress conflict. It prevented a Bengal alliance in 1924, 1937 and later in 1947 during the United Bengal Movement. The insistence on the partition of Bengal was not triggered by the Bengali Muslim League but the Delhi Congress; and Bengal Congress was never strong enough to withstand pressure from
Jinnah’s support to the United Bengal Movement was tactical but Nehru’s rejection of one Bengal was the same. Bengal did not matter to them, but Delhi did. The Bengali Hindus who did not share a common historic experience with the Bengali Muslims in the end decided to join India. By then, young activists of the Bengal Muslim League, including Sheikh Mujib, had decided to form a ‘new state’ having seen the Lahore Resolution switch from ‘states’ to ‘state’ to suit Jinnah’s politics.

Sheikh Mujib and politics of the margin
SHEIKH Mujib came from the hinterland of Bengal, Faridpur, who was considered rustic and far away by Kolkata. His family was lower middle class, economically. He had flirted with the Swadeshis earlier but did not join. His experience of the rural Hindu elite was negative like most of his kind. By 1937, he had met Suhrawardy and soon vaulted to Kolkata to Islamia College student politics to ultimately politics of Bengal.
Soon, he was challenging the metropolitan centre though coming from the margin. This margin is an amalgamated identity of many elements. It was this flexibility/multiplicity that allows the marginalised to put on whichever armour suits his history. Just as his people had fought under their own oppressors, the Turko-Afghans, to get rid of the colonial zamindar, this alliance with the upper class-led Muslim League suited their history at that point of time.
He was working for the Bengal Muslim including the peasantry as politics was ‘separate’ but increasingly it was in conflict with Delhi Muslim League allies in Bengal led by the Dhaka nawabs and other elite loyal to Jinnah. Meanwhile, the conflict with the Kolkata/Delhi elite of the Congress continued. Thus the struggle of the marginal was against dual centres, as Bengal history shows. In 1947, the margins lost as Bengal was partitioned and split under India and Pakistan.
Yet even by then, the activists which Sheikh Mujib ultimately came to lead with others from 1947 on and exclusively from 1957 had adjusted their strategy having got rid of one centre, Delhi/Kolkata. The margin had changed with new alliances based on class, community and territory. Thus, the Hindu peasantry found a non-metropolitan leader who was willing to fight for a new state based on the margin’s territorial identity, not community. None had ever done this before for them.

Post-1947 margin and politics of alliance
IN 1947, the Kolkata elite chose India and partition. Sheikh Mujib had not chosen either. It happened due to a combination of factors but he stood where no Bengali ever stood. He led Bengal which became East Pakistan and later the Bangladesh state, a recognition of the marginal’s identity.
Bangladeshi historians who follow the Indian Congress line explain Sheikh Mujib by stating that Pakistan was based on Two-Nation Theory and Sheikh Mujib fought against it, proving that it was false and, therefore, the other must be right. By doing so, they legitimise the One-Nation Theory of the Congress and Jinnah’s version after 1947, which Sheikh Mujib both actively opposed. He supported neither and was never comfortable with any centres.

Tagorean problem of analysing Sheikh Mujjib
BUT many of his followers are brought up in the Tagorean tradition/Swadeshi school of history which Sheikh Mujib had rejected. He was from the class above the peasantry representing their interest as any East Bengali affected by 1905 and 1911 would. He was of the majority who had not progressed, found getting jobs difficult and social exclusion high. What they had was demography and it was used to leverage benefits from a reluctant ruling class and a colonial centre.
Sheikh Muijib and, by extension, the Awami League began to espouse Bengali nationalism after 1947 which allowed the Awami League to form an alliance with the demographically significant Hindus for mutual benefit. This coalition helps to understand the marginal identity best. It is an amalgamated identity — Hindu, Muslim, Bengali, peasant, class, territorially contiguous, a touch of the middle class etc — which people combine to produce the best possible mixture at a time to allow negotiation or resistance.
It is not a fundamentalist identity but a syncretistic one and is more effective as a historical tool than any rigid unchangeable ideas of faith, ethnicity or language loyalty. No one dominates forever as changes as history does.
It is this flexibility that Sheikh Mujib represented and that is why the Tagoreans and the Pakistanis both fail(ed) to read him. The Pakistanis knew this better as he was up in arms almost from its birth. That is why handing power to him after 1970 was impossible. He was never a Pakistani at all.
The Tagoreans find it difficult as his loyalty did not belong to any constructed elitist idea of identity bereft of history or tied to collaborationist cultures. The margin’s reality was social, economic, cultural and territorial. Each has its place in constructing the struggle that had begun long before the so-called babu led identity politics began in Bengal.
The marginal identity is denied or not understood as it challenges all metropolitan concepts of the same. It was the identity that peasants adopt as they struggle, as they survive, as they resist and as they won in 1971. Sheikh Mujib led the margin.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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