RELIGIOUS POLITICS: Ram Mohan Roy, Titu Mir and others in 19th century Bengal

by Afsan Chowdhury

spo02BENGAL and India in the middle of the 18th century presented a phase when decaying feudalism represented by Sirajuddowla was overwhelmed by the emerging capitalism represented by Robert Clive’s East India Company supported by the local trading community of Jagat Seth, Rai Ballav, and others. In this fight between two foreign rulers — Turko-Afghans and the British- Indian — merchants mattered but not the peasants. It is interesting that none of the important players of the 1757 transition of Bengal were Bengali. Subsequently, as economic policies affected the Bengali society, they became more involved either as colonial collaborators or resistors. But class and community politics was closely linked to the use of religious ideas for or against the British. This applied to the Bengali liberals like Raja Ram Mohan, Wahabis like Titumir or the Sufi orders like the Pagalpanthis. The adivasis reacted along community-ethnic lines but often collaborated with the Muslims radicals.

THREE cultures came together to produce Kolkata and its babu culture after 1757. Colonial supremacist ideas often termed as European liberalism, Mughal feudal decadence and the rising urban Bengali middle- and upper-class aspirations tinged with amorality. The end product of the babu culture was the Bengal Renaissance, the intellectual peak of Bengal and even perhaps India. It continues to influence Bengali thinking of the middle class.

JUST as British colonialism took root and Kolkata began to flourish, the 1770 Famine hit Bengal, killing around 10 million people, one-third of the population by some estimate. While natural causes were responsible for the famine, so was the (British East India) Company policy.
Land tax and trade tariff which were the main sources of the company income were raised five times even when famine was peaking. Opium cultivation was a major source of the company revenue and it was forced upon farmers in many cases in lieu of grains, reducing food availability in lean seasons. Trade, including food trade, was monopolised by the company.
Although the famine was over in a couple of years, its impact continued to haunt Bengal for long. To this was added the cultural initiatives intended to weaken the hold of the previous socio-religious establishment, both Hindu and Muslim. It was easier to contest the Muslim establishment as it was a defeated forced and the Hindus were themselves against them but the Hindu establishment had a firmer footing in the Bengal society as traders and clerks, the necessary locals. It is here that Raja Ram Mohan Roy played a major role.

THE famine of 1770 showed that land tax collection in Bengal was an uncertain business and this ultimately led to the ‘Permanent Settlement’ of 1793 meant to organise the sector and promote agro-capitalism directly led by the locals. It established a new zamindar class, made up largely of moneyed Kolkata traders interested to make a transition to aristocracy having benefited from access to the company trading. This class supported the British rule and also its reforms largely of the colonial liberal variety. It is from this arrangement that Raja Ram Mohan Roy and other Bengal cultural leaders emerged which ultimately peaked with the birth of the Brahmo Samaj. It fused economics, religion and support to colonialism in a very long-term way that showed that the company colonialism had three specific streams that worked together in Bengal, particularly with local support

RAM Mohan Roy, born two years after the 1770 famine, founded the Brahmo Sabha in 1828, which later became the Brahmo Samaj. He was militantly pro-British for personal, practical and political reasons. He was against ‘satidaha’ — widow self-immolation, child marriage, education in Sanskrit and Persian, and other remnants of the past rule. Ram Mohan, who first introduced the word ‘Hinduism’ into the English language in 1816, was in many ways the central figure of the Bengal Renaissance. If the Bengali and Marawari traders were the face of colonial collaboration in finance, he was its cultural and religious face in social life.
Basing his arguments on the Vedanta school of the Upanishads, he was an effective propagandist rather than a scholar. He translated Vedic scriptures into English, co-founded the Calcutta Unitarian Society, founded the Brahmo Samaj and was keen on Unitarian Christianity. But Ram Mohan was also an agent of Christian missionaries and employed by the East India Company to battle its enemies in the social space. He served the missionary William Carey who wrote An Enquiry of the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of heathens, a discussion on how to promote Christianity. He came to India in 1793 and met Ram Mohan in 1795.
During 1796–97 Christian missionary Carey, a tantric scholar called Vidyavagish and freelance pro-colonial Roy wrote a book called Maha Nirvana Tantra (or ‘Book of the Great Liberation’) but passed it off as an authentic ancient Hindu religious text. It was a book promoting ‘the One True God’, basically the Holy Spirit of Christianity which was presented as Brahmo. It was extensively used, also in courts, and became the core of Brahmoism but was later considered a fake.

RAM Mohan continued to serve the East India Company and after a brief career as a money lender and worked for them till 1815. His social, economic and religious activities were interlinked. This included his battle with the Barhmin Kulin caste that still ran the temples and the still entrenched Muslim aristocracy, both considered to be company foes.
Just as Ram Mohan agitated against the Muslim aristocrats, it was his actions against the Kulins which gave him the reformist image. The Hindu Kulin caste practices — sati, polygamy, idolatry, child marriage and dowry, etc — were all opposed by the company as useful targets to establish social and, thus, secure economic supremacy, too. They were genuine reform objects but the objective suited Roy’s mentor Carey’s Christian objectives, too.
By 1815, Roy had made enough money to retire and he started the Atmiya Sabha which was about ‘Vedantic monotheism’. But he soon faced many law cases including some filed by his mother and for embezzling money made from opium trading. His lack of deep knowledge of Vedanta was now exposed but the primary company objective which was to weaken Hindu traditional classes had been fulfilled.

HOWEVER, he fell into financial difficulties and it was around this time that he met Dwarakanath Tagore who convinced him to shut down the Atmiya Sabha in 1819 and become Tagore’s agent. In 1828, he set up the Brahmo Sabha, a movement of reformist Bengali Brahmins which included the Tagore family as members. It became the most influential cultural partnership of Bengal and continues till today. The space in which this was played out was religious reform. It might not be that Brahmoism was proxy Christianity, but the objective of the company which morally justified the takeover of Bengal in the name of modernising Christianity, had no disagreement with his and the ideas of the Samaj.

RAM Mohan represented the rising local zamindar and baniya class who formed the core of Bengal liberalism. It was essentially funded by the company sources since they were its prime partners. On the other hand, Majnu Shah and Titu Mir and others were closer to the peasants, those who were at the receiving end of the new economic arrangement under robust tax collection that denied the earlier beneficiaries. Peasants were also deeply affected by the famine of 1770, the new farming policies of the company — focus on opium and indigo —and installing a new revenue system led mostly by the new zamindars — the Permanent Settlement — that pauperised them effectively.
But the Turko-Afghan minor aristocracy and landholders were affected by the new arrangement, too, and they began to resist taxation measures by forming alliance with the desperate peasantry.
While the Kolkata middle class collaborated and were rewarded, the Bengal aristocrats were pounded by the company, the poor fought back or had to survive and became the great resistors of colonialism led by the rural middle class which had also been affected by the new revenue policies. This stream was also like the Kolkata liberals steeped in religious culture and loyalty. Thus in resistance, both class and community identity played roles.

RESISTANCE in the first 100 years shows a society and communities in transition. They were Fakir-Sannyasin resistance — 1760–1770 — where religious mendicants fought for the right to collect taxes from peasants who also considered this tax a religious duty. Peasants also joined the movements as peasants considered it their religious duty to pay the taxes.
The Rangpur Peasant Rebellion of 1783 was against ‘zamindar’ Devi Singh led by a small landholder, Dhiraj Narayan. The government suppressed the rebellion but also removed Devi Singh and reduced rent.
In 1787, the Chakmas revolted against cash levy by the company on jhum cultivation led by the Chakma raja. It continued until a peace accord recognising the autonomous status of the hill areas was signed. Adivasis continues to resist in different parts of Bengal and collaboration with other resisting communities are noted.
In 1792, the peasants of Bakarganj (Barisal) declared independence from the British rule, drove away the zamindars and began tax collection led by Balaki Shah who declared Jiwan Shah as the king. The movement collapsed later that year.
The Sylhet revolt of 1799 was led by Syed Aga Muhammad Reza Beg of Sylhet, a religious leader and aristocrat, against the company government with multi-class support. After a series of battles, Beg was captured and sent to jail for life.
Wahabi/Faraizi movement in Bengal (1820–1870) involved Titu Mir, Haji Sharitullah and Dudu Miyan. Titu Mir (1782–1831) or Syed Mir Nasir Ali, a rich peasant who returned from Hajj in 1827 and started preaching to the Muslims in the districts of 24 Parganas and Nadia, now West Bengal. With over 5000 followers, he controlled 24 Parganas, Nadia and Faridpur and built a fort in Narkelbaria which fell in November 1831 to the British.
Pagalpanthis —1830–1850s — were a Sufi religious sect of Majnu Shah’s lineage who resisted high taxation imposed to meet the cost of the Burma-Bengal war in the Sherpur-Mymensingh area. Tipu Shah, their leader, set up a mud fort in Sherpur but it fell in 1833.
In 1852, they rose again and were led by Janku and Dobraj Pathor, who attacked Sherpur town, looted government offices and forced officers to flee. They held control for almost two years before negotiations led to a better deal for the peasants. Adivasis also joined the resistance.
Faraizi movement — 1812–1840s — was led by Haji Sharitullah who argued that the Brtish rule was against Islam and so fought it and the zamindars. Faraizi movement spread in the districts of Dhaka, Faridpur, Bakerganj, Mymensingh, Tippera (Comilla), Chittagong and Noakhali as well as parts of Assam aimed against Hindu zamindars and indigo planters.
In 1837, Shariatullah was accused of setting up a kingdom and other lawsuits followed. After his death in 1840, his son Muhsinuddin Ahmad alias Dudu Miyan took over and it became more militant. It spread as an anti-landlord movement and some Hindus and local Christians also sought protection under the Faraizis. After his death in 1862, it continued but weakened as the Muslim middle class began to emerge who had greater interest in becoming mainstream middle class and compete with Hindus and collaborate with the British.
The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 saw the last active involvement of the militant Bengali Muslim peasantry resistance during which they fought in Bengal and Tripura where anti-British resistance was led by the Maharaja. The Kolkata-based Muslim upper middle class who set up the Anjuman in copy of the Amtiya Sabha of Ram Mohan supported the British as did the entire Hindu community of Bengal.
Soon after the rebellion came the Indigo Revolt of 1859 and the Bengal middle class of Kolkata also supported the peasantry. Given the reluctance of the Bengali Hindu middle class to support peasant movement this is unusual but perhaps it was a reaction to the rise of the Indian Muslim’s rise as a competing community. Hindu community, in general, was in collaboration with the company as they were an emerging class and this relationship guaranteed wealth and status. The minor rural aristocracy had their roots in Bengal and they mostly belonged to the Muslim community tracing their link to the previous rulers. One was rising and the other was dying. As Muslim peasant movements become increasingly constructed along communal lines, it is the Hindu peasantry, left unrepresented by its middle class, who were basically collaborators, who suffered most. It was only after 1857 that this situation changed.

AFTER 1857, the Hindu population of India, in general, and Bengal, in particular, was no longer the only population group which the British supported. The crown looked to north India particularly, its Muslims for loyalty and Sir Syed and his all Indian Muslim movement — again paid for by the British — began to take root. No longer had the only privileged Indian community, Indian Hindus moved away from total collaboration as a community to selective arguments and contest of British rule. The Hindu-Muslim elite conflict also grew as the middle class from both communities began to battle each other more than battling the foreign rulers.
It seems that both collaboration and ‘liberalism” of Ram Mohan and Tagore were centred on religious discourse just as was the resistance of Titu Mir and the Pagalpanthis. The social construction of politics made religion the prime social language inevitable. Thus the secular roots of the Bengal Renaissance may be a limited assessment and perhaps not as factual. Class and community identity expressed often through religious motivation determined the nature of historical development for everyone.

Afsan Chowdhury is journalist and researcher.

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