Was there ever one Bengal?

To Indians, the only country which is equal to them is Pakistan and not Bangladesh. We are sort of half of an India province. Indians admire Pakistanis as equals while Bangladeshis are the impoverished illegal migrants who populate the streets of India. If religion didn’t make us and Pakistanis brothers, why would language make us and West Bengalis the same? Afsan Chowdhury asks

MOST people are not shocked at the crushing defeat by Pakistan as much as they are by the cheering support of Kolkata Bengali crowd supporting Pakistan. Most seem to have been expecting that this is One Bengal — and a large section of the media fed this idea — and that the Bangladesh cricket team represents that spirit. That would mean several things including that the Bengali identity is a monolithic singular and unchanging one which has existed all along and is still present amongst most Bengalis. But historical evidence for such an idea is not high. Actually, there are many overlapping identities within the Bengali people. Some of it is linked to other identities, including geographical and religious one. For Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus, religion has always been a major matter and the fact that they are not part of one nation-state is not an accident or the result of a conspiracy alone. There are many things we do share between East and West but many things we do not share, particularly our political identity and its history. At one level we are one like the Punjabis of South Asia and at another level we are many like the Bengalis of the same region.

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THE multiplicities are many within the Bengali and there is nothing good or bad about it. They are produced by history and to deny them is to deny history. So cultural, religious, occupational, social, economic and, ultimately, political differences are common even though the ethno-linguistic similarities are very much there. As of today, while both are Bengalis, one belongs to the western part and the other to the eastern which leads to different livelihood patterns and social practices apart from the nationalism that birthed the state.
Agricultural policy under the Mughals brought Islam to the peasant. This peasant saw agriculture as positive and began to adopt ‘Muslim’ names and ultimately married within the same ‘Muslim’ community and gave it a sense of identity. The nature and range of this ‘one-society two-community’ situation is observed even when the first British resistance took place, known as the Fakir-Sannyasin resistance. The term shows that although the enemy was common — the East India company — the people resisted as two communities within one peasant society. Muslim peasants supported fakirs and Hindu peasants supported the sannyasins. As the British favoured the Bengali Hindus, the first group of Western liberals as well as the largest group of early collaborators, inter-community alienation increased.
By 1793, Permanent Settlement was established which brought in a new group of zamindars who were largely Hindus. In East Bengal, most peasants were Muslims and although there is nothing more ‘secular’ than exploitation of the poor by the zamindar, Hindu or Muslim, the relationship began to become a conflict between the dominantly Hindu zamindars and the dominantly Muslim peasants due to their socio-religious identity. Economic relations took a communal identity form.
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Peasant resistance
PEASANT resistance from the early 19th century onwards was largely limited to Muslim peasants. Since Hindu peasants also suffered under the zamindars, it’s not an easy answer to give why they didn’t resist as much. But Muslims began to organise, mostly under the largely rural peasant — religious leadership inspired by the Wahabi resistance many saw in Saudi Arabia against the Saudi Kings. These people clustered as Wahabis were led by Titu Mir, Haji Shariatullah and others fought the British in Bengal.
But this was not an inter-communal effort in most cases, partly because Bengali Hindu leadership, the great beneficiary of the British rule, saw no reason to upset the gravy cart by taking the side of the peasants, including Hindu peasants. In 1857, soldiers, mostly from peasant stock all over India rebelled but the Bengal middle class stayed put. The Bengali Muslim upper class group — Anjumans — supported the British crown against the Indian rebels. Bengali peasants, however, rebelled in four places — Jalpaiguri, Dhaka, Sherpur and Tripura — in Bengal often headed by the Wahabis. While Bengali Hindus didn’t participate, the Tripura Maharaja family did. By the time the Indigo movement rolled in — after 1857 — the Bengali Hindu middle class began to look upon the British rule not as entirely positive. Meanwhile, after the initial colonising and consolidation was over, the Brits felt leaning on only one group was risky. Soon after, the British began to court the Indian Muslims led by the Aligarh movement and a new phase of collaboration and competition set in. Part of the earlier loyal group also leaned towards protest and then resistance.

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Partition of Bengal
THE zamindari system of 1793 created a new middle class from amongst the middlemen — Pattanidars — and in East Bengal also arose the Jotdars — rich peasants — whose children got educated and began to enter the ‘modern’ professions. It’s these people, who wanted advantages and jobs, who became the new contest to the Bengali Hindu professionals, almost 125 years after British arrival. In 1905, when Bengal was partitioned, the Bengali Muslim middle class welcomed it. The Muslim upper class initially opposed but ultimately welcomed it and later the political product of the 1906 Muslim League-led to a new element that changed the power balance.
Suddenly, Muslims of all sorts had a political party that altered the equation with the Indian national Congress which claimed to be the sole representative of the Indian people. The Muslim League now claimed to represent a significant part. This was followed by the announcement of separate electorate which was Hindu-Muslim voting separately. Muslims argued that an Indian Muslim could never win any electoral seat due to their smaller population compared with the Hindu. This formalised the division between the two communities that had existed for several centuries.
But the division of 1905 also involved realities of multiple identities. It was the first political emergence of East Bengal and that created the footprint of the new country. East Bengal was a delta, home to peasants, overwhelming majority of whom were Muslims and the very antithesis of Kolkata-based West Bengali sophistication. That Bengal as one was an inadequate description of all the people living in this geographical zone, the world’s largest delta, became obvious in 1905–1911. The Bengali Muslim middle class led by the jotdars and pattanidars became prominent as politics shifted to include them while the militant Islamic peasantry movement which had their last hurrah of sorts faded. In 1907, they became involved in anti-Hindu riots while Fazlul Haq in his paper Dibakar advocated communal harmony. The transition within the Muslim community took place during the partition as well.
The Muslim League also came in and lent political support to the still disorganised Muslims as the Hindu backlash through the Swadeshi movement aimed against the partition of Bengal further alienated both from each other. When the partition was annulled in 1911, it made Bengali Muslims bitter while Bengali Hindus saw it as a triumph. Separate electorate, which was proposed in 1906, soon became a reality; so, even the opportunity of a common identity in politics ceased to exist.

The failed Bengal Pact
CHITTA Ranjan Das, better known as CR Das, tried hard to change the relationship but failed. In 1924, he proposed the Bengal Pact so that affirmative action could bring Muslims at par with Hindus in Bengal while suggesting measures to reduce Hindu-Muslim conflicts and confrontations; but while naturally Muslims supported it, Hindus naturally turned it down. Barring this effort there has been none to deliver a practical formula for common politics.
But there is a conflict between Bengali Muslims of West and East Bengal too which is not much noticed. Fazlul Haq, who largely represented peasant interest, rich and poor, was a member of Nikhil Banga Krishak Samity but left it after failing to gain leadership. The people who left with him were almost all limited to East Bengal. He later founded the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) which contested the elections of 1937 and the seats he won were all except two in East Bengal. The Muslim League, on the other hand, was led by West Bengalis such as Suhrawardy — an upper class Urdu-speaking person and Abul Hashem, a zamindar scion from Burdwan.
Both were involved with the United Bengal Movement, the first attempt to birth a Bengali state based on multi-nationalism but it didn’t get party support and later Bengali Hindus also rejected it.
Interestingly, both came to Dhaka three years after 1947. In a way, their absence helped the formation of the Awami Muslim League in 1949 which had significantly middle and lower middle class roots as most of the founders had peasant roots. In 1950, Permanent Settlement was ended in East Pakistan.
After 1947, we travelled towards 1971 and West Bengal was not part of that journey which led to Bangladesh. So although Bengali, we belonged to two separate historical and existential realities. Most West Bengalis think 1947 was ‘partition’ while East Bengalis think Kolkata should have been added to East Bengal.
Both do have cultural, social and other ties but both have grown up as part of two independent countries for the last half of a century and have had our own struggles and identity. West Bengal is part of India, a huge political identity and matter of pride these days for all Indians, and we are of another identity and it has hardly much to do with being a Bengali.
To Indians, the only country which is equal to them is Pakistan and not Bangladesh. We are sort of half of an India province. Indians admire Pakistanis as equals while Bangladeshis are the impoverished illegal migrants who populate the streets of India. If religion didn’t make us and Pakistanis brothers, why would language make us and West Bengalis the same?

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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