When did the 1971 war begin: History and identity fundamentalism

by Afsan Chowdhury

fundamentalismThe big fight over 1971 is about who declared independence. It is one of the least meaningful of all discussions as it reduces the liberation movements to a bureaucratic gazette notification with time, date and printer’s line added.

Bangladesh, even in its immediate past, was the end result of an evolving nationalist movement that began even before Pakistan was born and changed several times in its journey before many years.

It is difficult to say when the movement of a people began but the resistance to British rule as well as collaboration with it created a complex series of search for identities which changed depending on the oppressor and the oppressed. The idea of one ethno-linguistic ‘Bengali’ identity throughout history is a fundamentalist concept ignoring both context and contest within land, people and class. Geography, community and class have all played a role which together formed and fragmented the identities in different stages of history as they matured into political objectives.


What began in colonial Kolkata?

Kolkata, East India Company’s capital, dominated the political economy of Bengal after Plassey. From this town also rose a new edition of the older professional Bengali middle class linked to trading and service with the Company. Their leaders such as Ram Mohan Roy or Dwarakanath Tagore and others also developed a new cultural idiom which forms much of the later ‘Bengali’ middle class culture. Ethnically different from Ray Ballav and Jagat Seth, but functionally they were all allies of or served the East India Company.

It is from this new class that many, if not most, zamindars came and this relationship was formalised in 1793 through the Permanent Settlement. The zamindar class, almost entirely based on colonial goodwill, was poised against the peasant class entirely savaged by colonialism. But what began as the relationship between two economic groups ultimately became a variety of other identity markers including class and community ones as new identities and conflicts emerged.


Several phases of political identity formation

In the pre-British era, the dominant identity was economic, that of a peasant. The socio-cultural identity was of a Bengali-speaking villager who had inter-lapping faith community identities of Muslim/Hindu or in-betweens. The adivasi identity was a more comprehensive package and, like most horticultural societies, dominated by distinct ethnicity markers.

The colonial era changed the rural economy dramatically as it moved to control taxation, grow cash crops such as opium and indigo and introduced agro-capitalism through several measures.

The peasants were from two religious communities — Hindus and Muslims — but lived as one socio-economic community as well, the village-based peasantry. While in certain spaces they were separate, there was no antagonism since the village society dominated and the ago-economy was without livelihood-related competition.



While the Hindu community, in general, including the urban population, had three clusters — a kulin upper-caste class who controlled culture through the temple network, the kayasthas — middle-class caste that had also served the Turko-Afghans as professionals and the majority lower caste-class farmers and fishermen. Villagers paid religious taxes to the travelling sannyasins as part of their holy duty based on traditional rural customs, earlier animist ideas and adoption of popular Vedic rituals but without much theology.

The Muslim villager also had a mixed faith identity, paid alms to the travelling fakirs and, other than a formal faith identity, had similar behaviour with the Hindus, Islam sans theology. Muslims of Bengal had almost no middle or professional class with an alien upper class and the indigenous rural poor.

There was a rural aristocracy who were perhaps in the middle but more in between rather than middle/professional class. However, they played a significant role in resisting colonialism when affected by British tax policies.

When the Company stopped the fakirs and sannyasins from collecting religious alms/taxes, they rebelled against the colonial rule. The resisted as two religious communities but sharing a common peasant identity, faith practices and a common enemy. Subsequent identity formations can be explored taking this as a baseline for later formations.

The colonial era was bad for the alien upper class aristocracy as they were replaced with a new alien group, the Company. It was terrible for the poor as they were starved, tortured and mutilated to death. Famines alone cost more than 81 million lives under the British rule but the middle class was bred by the British as the greatest beneficiary as is the case with collaborative colonialism, locals and invaders working together.


Anti-British resistances and new identity frontiers

Between 1757 and 1793, several resistances occurred which were led by petty landlords but fuelled by peasant muscles. These petty landlords came from both Hindu and Muslim communities; the Rangpur resistance being a significant example. The leader was a Hindu landlord leading mostly Muslim peasants.

But the class identity became weaker as the community identity strengthened under colonialism-distributed class benefits. The Permanent Settlement created a fundamental change in the character of the rural aristocracy, the new zamindars with one foot in Kolkata and the other in rural Bengal. Mostly from middle Hindu classes, they began to abandon the Bengali peasant — Hindu or Muslim. As zamindars and traders and friends of the company, they looked after their class interest obviously. This desertion hurt the Bengali Hindu peasant the most as peasant resistances become more Muslim community and adivasi-based as time progressed.

As the middle Hindu retreated, the rural small landlords, mostly Muslims and leftovers of the previous regime, began to lead the resistances. Class and community began to mix to form a new identity based on community-based interpretation of a class or economic relationship, in this case the zamindar-raiyat equation. Peasant resistances also began to become community resistances. Adivasis too rebelled as a community, both becoming the prime movers against the colonial rule and zamindary.

The character of the political challenge to economic oppression began to change the nature and relationships of the three community identities — Hindu, Muslim, adivasi — though they were also class constructs. By that time the militant Wahabi and Faraizi movement began, 1812 onwards, the Muslim peasant and the adivasi political identity both began to concretize along exclusive community lines. Economic and political identity began to converge from this scenario.


1857 and third phase of identity creation

The third phase began with 1857 when all-India politics emerged following the all-Indian insurgency against all-Indian colonialism. But Kolkata-led Hindu Bengali socio-economic leadership which was close to the Company remained aloof from this. The elite had no reason to complain against the British rule. Resistance occurred under Muslim and adivasi leadership in four major areas — Keraniganj, Jalpiguri, Sherpur and Tripura. The last named resistance saw Muslim rebels joining with the rebellious adivasi king of Tripura.

After 1857, the British began to promote Muslims to balance growing Hindu power and this began the Aligarh project under Sir Syed, the new collaborator. Thus the North Indian identity conflict between older and emerging elite along Urdu-Hindi- Mughal-indigenous-conflict lines became a vehicle for a new identity, the All Indian Muslim.

Although Bengalis were all considered Hindus and Bengali Muslims as proto-Hindus by Urdu-speaking Muslims, the Urdu speakers created a political movement successfully to regain economic space all over India, including in Bengal. In 1857 Bengali Muslim upper class organisation — Anjuman — which wanted to mimic Ram Mohan Roy’s ‘Antio Shabha/Brahmo Samaj’ formally congratulated the British monarchy for crushing the 1857 insurgency. Competition between two the elites now began in earnest, straddling class and community identity.


The Muslim middle and politics of ‘Bangals’

In this stage, the Muslim middle class began to emerge in India, including in Bengal. Here, intermediaries of the zamindary system and related groups had by then gained enough money and aspiration to go for education and professions. It is this group where both class and community converged that became competitors of the older professional class and community, the Hindu middle class. If the Company boosted the Hindu Bengali middle in its first century, the Crown generated the Bengali Muslim Middle in the next, both produced by the colonial system. Professional opportunity seeking brought them in clash with each other.

In 1905, came the Partition of Bengal or the Birth of East Bengal, depending upon which class and community one belongs to. However, 1905 established the criticality of the territory as a factor in identity and sub-identities forming. East Bengalis were poor peasants, ex-anti-colonial now collaborationist, culturally rustic, majority Muslims, less influenced by North India, etc. It produced what is a cultural term but helps to understand the Bangal, the deltaic identity newly concretizing which strengthened over time to become political in nature.

So East Bengal became increasingly a nascent ‘nation’, in waiting. It also became part of the all-Indian Muslim ‘nation’ based politics symbolised by the birth of the Muslim League in 1906 followed by the separate electorate or community-based voting after 1919. Simultaneously, its distance from the ‘Bengali’ nationhood led mostly by Hindu Bengalis symbolised by the anti-East Bengal Swadeshi movement also began to grow. In 1911, East Bengal ended and the antagonism between East-West Bengal, Kolkata-Dhaka, Hindu-Muslim, peasant-zamindar, sophisticated-rustic, etc also began to sharpen dramatically.



Between 1911 and 1937, two major efforts were made to work politically together but both failed as the all-Indian political structure and conceptualisation began to grow, reducing regional equations. In 1924, CR Das’s Bengal Pact, an affirmative action formula to bring Bengali Hindu-Muslim middle class at par to form a joint political platform failed as the already advanced Hindus saw no reason to sacrifice existing advantages for an increasingly belligerent competitor-community.

In 1937, the first elections were held and the majority Muslim parties — Muslim League and East Bengal-located Krishak Praja Party (KPP) led by Fazlul Haque won most seats but not absolute majority. The anti-Muslim League party KPP tried to form a coalition with the Bengal Congress to keep the Muslim League out of the government. The Bengal Congress was also willing but the Indian National Congress at Delhi led by Nehru shot the proposal down, citing all-Indian political strategy. Both Congress and Muslim League central leadership — read north Indian — had taken over national politics and Bengal mattered less and less.

In 1940, the all-Indian Muslim League passed the Lahore Resolution declaring the intent to form ‘Muslim majority states’ and the final phase to 1947 began.


New identities, new states, now identity coalitions

In this final lap before 1947, two streams worked in Bengal. Bengal Muslim League politicians were convinced that they were getting a separate independent ‘states’ based on the Lahore Resolution though their hostility grew with both Bengali Hindus and Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims. When the ‘states’ of Lahore resolution became a centralised Pakistan under Karachi in 1947 proposed by Jinnah, many were deeply disappointed which included Abul Hashem, the charismatic general secretary of the Bengal ML.

He proposed to Bengal Congress leaders to form a United Bengal and prevent the splitting of Bengal. It was the first and last attempt to form a Bengali state but the general Hindus of Bengal were not interested in this proposal and sought the protection of a wider India in the hostile communal environment, particularly the riots of 1946. More fundamentally, there was no history of common politics between the two communities after 1793.

As the United Bengal movement failed, some young cadres of the Bengal Muslim League formed the ‘Inner Group’, the first clandestine outfit to birth an independent state away from Pakistan. It was still a few weeks to Pakistan.



By April 1948, the first language hartal was held in Dhaka, Jinnah was booed in 1948, by 1949, Awami (Muslim) League was formed, and people openly contested Pakistan as a governance unit. Within a year, East Bengal/Pakistan had moved into a new edition of an identity frame which already had a history of sorts. Community identity of one kind replaced another. From dominantly Muslim and Hindu Bengali, it became dominantly Bengali but Muslim and Hindu community-based. This meant that the identity markers had changed for the fourth time to suit community mobilisation against a common enemy, Pakistan central instead of earlier colonialism and inter community elites.

Bengali Hindus and Muslims had three identities between them and depending on history, economic competition, social reality and state-making objectives; these were switched on and off. No identity is final and in each stage, new identities have emerged for them. To assume only one identity as final is fundamentalism of the religious variety and history does not support it.

1971 is not an event, it is a historical process. It never began at a date, it always was, will always be.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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