Historical Growth of the Muslims of Bangladesh
Dr Mozammel Haque
The political commentators and analysts observed recently that Bangladesh is divided into two camps; even the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh Dr. Dipu Moni said in the presence of foreign diplomats that Bangladesh is divided into two forces. In 'Talk-Shows' both in India and Bangladesh TV channel, there were discussions on the two groups in Bangladesh – 1947-sentiment and 1971-sentiment.
I think, in order to understand the present crisis of identity, i.e. the divide of Bangladeshi population into different camps or forces, it is essential to understand the trend and growth of the Muslim community of Bangladesh in its total historical perspectives.
In the growth of personality, sentiments and identity of the people of Bangladesh, following milestones such as Partition of Bengal (1905-1911), Lahore Resolution of 1940, United Bengal move and Direct Action Day of 1946, Pakistan movement, Language Movement of 1952, Education Reform movement and constitutional movement of 1962, and autonomy and self-determination movement 1969-71 – have great contribution in the formation of the sentiment or identity of the people of Bangladesh.
Muslims of East Bengal
In the 12th century Muslim Sufis converted most of the people of Bengal to Islam. Bangladesh was an impoverished second-most populous country of 42-Muslim nations. The density of Muslim population in the area, particularly Eastern Bengal (present Bangladesh) is attributable to the activities of Muslim saints and Sufis among the cultivators and tribes in the region. The natives, the lowly social groups, the untouchables, were attracted by the spirit of democratic brotherhood and equality in Islam. The pious Sufis found their greatest response among the untouchables. The democratic liberalism and equality in Islam reinforced the untouchables' desire for social equality.
In the 16th century, with the ascendency of Akbar to the Delhi throne as Mughal ruler, Bengal became part of the Mughal Empire until the British took over. In the early seventeenth century, 'rice swamps' districts such as Bogra, Rajshahi, Noakhali, Pabna, Bakerganj, Tippera and Mymensigh, were areas of no particular strategic importance in the maintenance of Muslim rule. From two-thirds to more than three-quarters of the population were mostly poor Muslim cultivators.
Muslims of Eastern Bengal were essentially agricultural community. They were illiterate and unfitted for clerical and administrative works. N.K. Sinha said that nine-tenths of Zamindaris in Bengal were held by Hindus. Of the 15 biggest zamindaris only two were held by Muslim. In the Eastern and predominantly Muslim region of Bengal, only thirty-nine persons who engaged in 1774 for the payment of revenue in the settlement of Chittagong district, only ten were Muslim. Nine-tenths of the Zamindaris in Bengal were under Hindus while Kanungo department was manned exclusively by them. Professor Hardy has shown that only two of the fifteen biggest Zamindaris were under Muslims and in the Muslim majority region of Eastern Bengal one-tenth of the managers were Muslim.
The land tenure system, known as the Permanent Settlement and established in March 1773 by Lord Cornwallis fortified the hold of Zamindars, who were for the most part, as mentioned earlier, Hindus. Professor Hardy rightly concluded that “the Permanent Settlement meant, in the circumstances of eighteenth century Bengal, the virtual closing of door to landlordism to Muslims.”
By investing proprietorship of land in the Zamindar for perpetuity the Act of Settlement placed the cultivators at the formers' mercy. The peasants were virtually reduced to a state of semi-slaves. The majority of the cultivators being Muslims, it was they whose economic ruin was brought about by this Act. Peasant indebtedness became rather a telling feature of the rural economy of Bengal.
On the other hand, in East Bengal, Hindus serving as agents of the British became quickly effective and competent leaders of that community. The Hindus, quickly adapting themselves to British rule, outdistanced the Muslims in education, commerce and government service. Muslim peasants stood aloof from the Western-oriented educational system established by the British. The forward press of Hindus in East Bengal deprived the Muslims of valuable political experience.
While Calcutta was the hub of the British Empire for nearly 200 years, the people of East Bengal lived an isolated rural existence. East Bengal was an economic, social, and political backwater. East Bengal was known as the hinterland of Calcutta. The Hindu landlords and the educated members of their families formed the elite of East Bengal and overshadowed its Muslim leaders until the 1920s.
These two were thus the main economic grievances of the Muslim community in Bengal: the impoverishment conditions of the Muslim peasantry who were under the thump of Hindu Zamindars and mahajans and the limited job opportunities available to English educated Muslims in contrast to Hindus.
As a result some of the factors discussed, Bengali Muslims suffered from a crisis of identity.
Partition of Bengal (1905-1911)
The deprived and poor conditions of the Muslims were highlighted in W.W. Hunter’s report – Indian Mussalmans and consequently Lord Curzon, the then Governor General of India took decision to partition Bengal into Eastern Bengal and Assam in 1905. He believed that the interests of the Muslim majority in East Bengal and Assam had been neglected. The creation of the new Muslim-majority province of Eastern Bengal and Assam provided Muslims of one Muslim majority area of India. Once the Muslim majority province was established, the leading Muslims began to see its advantages to them. Local Muslims of the new province was delighted. The people of Eastern Bengal and Assam were benefitted both economically and educationally during this period. During the administration of his immediate successor, Lord Minto, government offices were built and Dacca took on a new lively air for the first time in centuries. The Muslims of Eastern Bengal and Assam celebrated the first anniversary of Partition on 16th October 1906 as a day of happiness and rejoicing. They strongly opposed and protested against the Swadeshi movement.
The Hindus in Bengal regarded Lord Curzon's establishment of a Muslim East Bengal as an unjustifiable restriction of their interests. They saw themselves outnumbered in the provincial legislature of East and West Bengal and launched a political drive against the partition. Hindu commercial, landed and professional groups living in Calcutta feared that the 'partition' would threaten the city's shipping supremacy, if Chittagong was made a rival port. Hindu lawyers believed they would be displaced by Muslim attorneys. The Hindu Indian Congress, a political propaganda organisation, launched an acrimonious propaganda campaign against Lord Curzon's decision.
But because of the opposition and the chaotic situation in Bengal led by the other community, the British government had surrendered to the Hindu pressure and announced the annulment of Partition of Bengal in December,1911, while from the same venue, the Delhi Durbur, the capital of British Indian Empire was transferred from Calcutta to Delhi. Rabindranath Tagore wrote another poem eulogising and praising the King George the V which is now the national anthem of India.
In December 1911, Governor General Lord Hardinge, to appease the Hindu wrath, reversed his predecessors order and reunited East and West Bengal. Muslims in Bengal believed that the British had surrendered to Hindu pressures. The reunion of divided Bengal and the removal of the capital of the British India from Calcutta to New Delhi during the following year quickened Muslim leaders' political consciousness.
The Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the formation of Muslim League in Dacca in the following year and the annulment of the Partition within less than a decade had a far-reaching consequence on the shaping of Muslim consciousness and identity. The creation of the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam not only created a new consciousness among Muslims but also stimulated a new hope in them because as a majority community in the new province they benefitted most from the British administration.
The subsequent annulment of Partition in 1911 made by King George V at the Delhi Durbar in December 1911 gave a rude shock to Muslims in Bengal and shattered their hopes and aspirations. Muslims, therefore, by and large, regarded the annulment as “the deprivation of those splendid opportunities at self-improvement” of a community that was clearly in need of help. They now felt indignant. The first event fostered political consciousness among them and the second further strengthened it.
Though for centuries, Hindus and Muslims in East Bengal had lived peacefully in the same or adjoining villages, each following their own way of life, the reaction and response to the Partition led to the emergence of Hindu-Muslim tension in Bengal. For the first time, Hindus and Muslims became diametrically opposed on political issue and economic grievances of the Muslim community in Bengal got a political outlet.
Muslim awareness of their socio-economic backwardness which also inspired their search for an identity, led to polarisation in the Bengali society, i.e. the minority Hindus as socially and culturally dominant and the majority Muslims as socially and culturally backward and feeling subjugated. This considerably influenced the growth of Muslim politics in Bengal. This transitional period could well be described as a period of confusion in Muslim society. Muslims suffered from a crisis of identity. Their attempt to maintain a balance between regional identities, i.e. their attachment to Bengali language and culture and their identity as Muslims and their consequent attachment to the Islamic cultural tradition.
The reunion of divided Bengal and the removal of the capital of the British India from Calcutta to New Delhi during the following year under the Hindu pressure quickened Muslim leaders' political consciousness and pushed the Muslim community of East Bengal to the greater political movement of India, the Muslim nationalism.
Thus we see in this early decade of the 20th century, the first free independent political entity of Eastern Bengal was destroyed by the Hindu opposition which led to the reunion of the divided Bengal.
Muslim political leaders in Calcutta rose to position of authority in what been West Bengal. Two of the most prominent of them, A.K. Fazlul Huq, the founder of the Peasants' and Workers' Party, and H.S. Suhrawardy of the Muslim League, fought for Muslim in a united Bengal and stirred the political perceptions of the peasants of East Bengal. In 1937 Fazlul Huq became the first chief minister of the presidency and in 1946 H.S. Suhrawardy took over the same office.
Another milestone in the shaping of sentiment and identity of the Muslims of East Bengal (present Bangladesh) is the Lahore Resolution in 1940. At the Muslim League's 1940 Conference in Lahore Fazlul Huq introduced the principal resolution of the conference. The Resolution read: “No constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to Muslims unless.... the areas in which Muslims are numerically in the majority, as in the Northwest and Eastern zones which should be grouped in constituent States...shall be autonomous and sovereign.” The Bengalis cited the Lahore Resolution in justification of their demand for provincial autonomy. In 1946 a Muslim League meeting at New Delhi adopted a resolution demanding a unified Pakistan. It was said to 'supercede' the Lahore Resolution. Muslims in Bengal presented virtually no opposition to the idea of a Muslim state.
United Bengal move in 1946
The people of India including Bengal were divided into two camps and the Muslims of India developed the Two Nation Theory- Muslims and Hindus of India. There were two communities or Two Nations of India who were separated by their religion, culture and tradition and the movement for the Independence of India – which was spearheaded by the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League which was founded by the Muslims of India in 1906 in Dacca during the Partition of Bengal (1905-1911) period. The British government decided to partition India into India and Pakistan. The Muslims of Bengal decided to join with the Muslim League for the creation of Pakistan.
Before the partition of India in 1947, there was a move for united Bengal by H.S. Suhrawardy in 1946, which can be regarded as another milestone in the growth of identity of the Muslims of Bangladesh. Bengal was one of the provinces for whom partition was demanded, but the newly formed coalition government of Bengal have asked for their case to be reconsidered.'
The alternative to Partition would have been a plan for a united and independent Bengal negotiated and agreed upon by Bengali Congress leaders, Sarat Chandra Bose and Kiran Shanker Roy and Muslim League leaders, Husain Shahid Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim. Bengal would be a Free State with a Constituent Assembly of its own. But still Bengali Muslims wanted to remain independent out of India and Pakistan. Shahed Suhrawardy and Sarat Bose wanted a Greater Bengal, both of them approached leaders of Congress – Gandhi, Patel and Nehru and the leaders of Muslim League, Jinnah, who said, “Go Ahead. I have no objection.” The proponents of the United Bengal Plan were also able to secure the support of Gandhi. It was the veto of the Congress High Command that wrecked the possibility of preserving the Unity of Bengal as a political entity.
Partition of Bengal in 1947
In March 1947 Suhrawardy again proposed a Muslim-Hindu Coalition, this time to establish a united Bengal, separate from India, but the Indian National Congress would have none of it. Its members wanted control of Bengal as part of an independent India.
On August 16, 1946, Direct Action Day. On the eve of the Direct Action Day Suhrawardy declared that if power were transferred to the Indian National Congress by the British, Bengal would declare its complete independence and set up a parallel government. Sarder Patel, an Indian businessman and a leader of the Congress vetoed any proposal that would establish joint Muslim-Hindu control of Calcutta. On 27 May 1947 Nehru had announced Congress's formal rejection of the United Bengal Plan. Fazlul Huq and Suhrawardy thereupon supported the union of all Bengal in Pakistan.
But again it is interestingl to find what happened at that time. On June 20, 1947, the Bengal Legislative Assembly met and in a 126 to 90 vote agreed that if Bengal remained united, it should join Pakistan. Representatives of West Bengal's Hindu majority, however, voted 58 to 21 to partition the province between India and Pakistan. But in accordance with existing rules requiring majority Hindu support for Legislative action, the vote of the Assembly for a United Bengal as part of Pakistan was nullified.
Sugata Bose in her article, “A doubtful inheritance: The Partition of Bengal in 1947) wrote: “Cold and narrow calculations of power by the Congress leadership and the Western-Bengal Hindu elite had more directly to do with the political and administrative decision of partition, as it came about in 1947, than two decades of social conflict in agrarian East Bengal.”
Today’s Muslims of Bangladesh is the product of this historical growth from the late 19th century when they were in general peasants, cultivators, deprived and disadvantaged poor people passed through the low middle class stage during the Partition period (1905-1911) to the Muslim middle class (professional, elite and businessmen) in the 20th century. This they have achieved due to the far-sighted decisions of their leaders, whether it was during the period of the Partition of Bengal (1905-1911) or the Pakistan movement on the basis of Two Nation Theory.
(To be continued...)