Bangla and Urdu language movement: brothers in nationalism?

by Afsan Chowdhury

ek02LONG before the February Bhasha Andolan happened in our country (1948–1952), the Urdu speakers had initiated a language movement in British India and achieved more or less the same political goal which was nationalist mobilisation. If the Bangla language movement can be credited for the movement leading to Bangladesh, Urdu did the same for Pakistan. Nationalism production tools are identities.
The British government replaced Persian as the official language with local languages (vernacular) officially ending the linguistic supremacy of the Mughal empire in 1830. This move gained more momentum in 1867 when the British government decided to accept the demand of the Hindu communities of the then United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar to change the Perso-Arabic script of the official language to Devanagari and adopt Hindi as the second official language as demanded by Hindi language activists. It was seen as a tussle between the entrenched Mughal/Muslim leftover and emerging elite groups of North India’s Hindu/Hindi heartlands.
The Urdu language movement was led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who was also the leader of the Indian educated Muslims. He saw Urdu as the natural language of the Muslims and the upper class in general and fought for its status. It was to him both a cultural and a political issue. His advocacy was also scented by imperial elitism of the Mughal culture which saw itself as automatically supreme, a notion that dominated the Pakistan movement mentality too.
While the Hindi-Urdu conflict deepened, the British government also initiated educational policy framing. At the meeting of the Government Education Commission, Sir Syed said that Urdu was the language of the ‘shareef’ and aristocracy — people of high social standing — whereas Hindi was of the vulgar class. This sums up both the attitude and the roots of a major aspect of the conflict.
The Hindu/Hindi reaction was natural to this kind of stance and it united them and the Hindi cause was won. But it pushed Sir Syed to insist that it was the national language of all Indian Muslims which did create a sound platform for the growth of Muslim/Urdu nationalism putting both identities in the same basket. But this also alienated and ultimately marginalised the largest group of Indian Muslims, the Bengalis and the other language groups who were language majorities in their region but not Urdu-speaking such as Punjabis Sindhis, Pathans, etc. The one-nation theory — One India — which Congress supported was in principle the same as the two-nation theory which assumed one Muslim identity for all Indians.
The Muslim = Urdu equation dominated Pakistani thinking and, thus, all other languages other than Urdu effectively became the language of Hindus.
Another factor in the mindset formation of Sir Syed was the pressure from professionals coming from outside UP and Bihar who were not Urdu speaking. These were mostly Bengalis and they made major inroads becoming teachers and lawyers in the UP and adjoining areas. Anil Seal in his book, Emergence of Indian Nationalism, informs that Sir Syed even formed an organisation with Hindu landed gentry to battle this non-Urdu immigration as it was an economic threat to UP elite. To him, the term Bengali was synonymous with Hindus and this influenced the thought of the Muslim League leadership, who were largely Urdu speakers. But they were stuck with Bengali Muslims, whose vote clout they needed but whose identity they rejected. The Lahore Conference of the Muslim League was called to discuss why the Muslim League was not winning in elections and Bengal as a victorious region was the star. The suspicion of anything which was not Urdu, hence against Muslims, must have influenced his decision to insist that Urdu alone would be the national language of Pakistan.

Bengali Muslim classes
THE method of developing a nationalist framework does not change much over time because identity construction relies on the sense, notion and experience of denial. They cannot be manufactured out of thin air and will always have a foundation in discrimination The Muslims who identified with Aligarh resented the loss of the Mughal empire and rise of the Hindi-speaking elite. The British also supported the Hindus as they could not trust the just overthrown Mughal elite though as a group they had become quite impotent. After the 1857 revolt, the British needed to expand their friendship base and include Muslims as a community, which saw the rise of the Aligarh group under Sir Syed and others. But that idea of a single monolithic Indian Muslim group was false and beyond the intellectual capacity of British and Indian elite, both Hindu and Muslim, to understand.
In Bengal, the Permanent Settlement or establishment of zamindari-based agro-capitalism created several groups and sub-groups within the Muslims community, who had hitherto not existed in such a complex formation. In gentry-driven Uttar Pradesh, the Muslim was the upper class and a minority but in Bengal, particularly East Bengal, Muslims were a majority and poor and they shared a language with the Hindus as a community.
Muslims of Bengal were divided roughly into several clusters. The Anjumans were the loyalist group of Muslims who wanted to follow the Raja Ram Mohan Roy model and collaborate with the British rule as they felt that they were left out of favour vis-à-vis the Bengali and Indian Hindus. After the British had suppressed the revolt of 1857, members of the Anjuman sent congratulatory letters to the British crown. They also initially opposed the Partition of Bengal but later joined in when the all Indian Muslim League was formed in Dhaka largely led by the Aligarh followers and the Anjuman and Aligarh group sort of merged.
The second group — educated rural based Muslims — emerged out of the Permanent Settlement management system. The Muslim jotdars and their children were part of this group and their archetype leader was Fazlul Huq who led the entry of this group into national politics. In 1907 when Hindu-Muslim riots first broke out, Fazlul Huq wrote for communal harmony.
The third group were the peasant-based Wahabi and other extreme militant groups who fought the upper and even middle classes, mostly zamindars, British rulers or hybrid groups. This was the Wahabi-inspired peasant resistance that began in India but more specifically in Bengal in the early 19th century though resistance to British rule began as early as the 1760s. These were peasant movements driven by religious fervor. The Permanent Settlement laid the foundations of communal hostility as most zamindars were Hindus and most peasant were Muslims making the economic repression equation be interpreted as a Hindu-Muslim conflict scenario. To the Muslim peasantry leaders linked to their agricultural roots but educated enough to read and interpret religious texts and go to hajj. They were inspired to resist the crown after encountering Wahabis at hajj who had fought their kings too. In an environment where most middle- and upper-class were worshipping the Brits, the rebellious Wahabis were a contrast. While Tipu Shah, Majnu Shah, Titu Mir, Haji Sharitaullah and others were the leaders, most followers were Bengali Muslim peasants, filled with hatred of the zamindar and the British. However, the communal hatred had moved from communal separation and the rural riots began by the early 20th century.
During the 1857 resistance, the Hindu and Muslim upper classes in Bengal were displaying their loyalty to the crown but the peasantry revolted in four parts of Bengal — Keraniganj (Dhaka), Jalpaiguri, Sherpur, and Tripura which was supported by the raja of the region. In many of these, the Wahabis and similar groups were involved.
But neither the peasants except as ‘vote cargo’ or the rural middle class played a significant role in the construction of the Indian Muslim identity. Fazlul Huq and his Krishak Praja Party were the closest to the peasants but were kicked out by the Bengal Muslim League coalition. Its leadership passed much more into the mostly Kolkata-based Urdu-comfortable Suhrawardy and the West Bengali zamindar class elite led by Abul Hashem. In 1946, Muslim League swept the votes in Bengal.

After 1947
THE United Bengal movement of 1947 initiated by the Bengal ML and Bengal Congress was the first inter-communal effort to set up a Bengali nation state. But though it had both Gandhi and Jinnah’s blessings, it did not have the central Congress support led by Nehru and was, thus, doomed. Bengali Hindus also did not have any enthusiasm for living under majority Muslims.
East Pakistan was in many ways United Bengal Movement and West Bengal soon began to construct its Bengali identity with a loose nod to the Islamic political identity. Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims did not have the same aspirations, challenges and politics but in the post-1947 phase, it served the purpose similar to what Urdu did for Indian Muslims under Aligarh. It created a unity across faiths and cultures against a common enemy, Urdu-speaking Pakistan. Aligarh aspired to admit all Muslims and the Bengali language movement allowed all Bengali to gather together. When Separate Electorate ended in 1955 in Pakistan, the Hindus became a major vote bank similar to Bengali Muslims before 1947. The Hindus were not given political participation but the choice to vote and in 1970, they delivered just as Bengali Muslims delivered for the Muslim League in 1946. Instead of religion, linguistic identity became the glue.
The identity politics of Urdu and Bengali are similar as both produced a prescriptive mono-identity for a community of multiple identities. In case of Urdu, it helped reach Pakistan but also hid the fault lines within. In case of Bengali, it also successfully produced Bangladesh but again the Hindus and other minorities and the majority of the Bengali Muslim population were left out from the spoils of victory. But the leaders of the nationalist movement in both cases used language as a social mobilising tool for a political objective successfully.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist
and researcher.

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