Tuesday, September 15th, 2020
History of socio-political Alliances in Bengal
September 15th, 2020 at 8:44 pm
For every class, the granting of votes to most peasantry was a major political issue. It was even more significant for the peasantry and the politics of alliance focused on East Bengal.
History of socio-political Alliances in Bengal

(The book Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Bangladesh: The Quest for a State 1937-1971)  by Afsan Chowdhury. This is the fifth episode as being serialized by newsnextbd.com )

Chapter 3

History of socio-political Alliances in Bengal

History of Bengal is largely pivoted upon formation of alliances by different classes, groups and communities to achieve objectives which are being hindered by other contesting alliances. Instead of inter-class conflicts, history is constructed on inter-class alliances and inter-alliance conflict. The alliances are multi class and inclusive of other cultural identity markers. However, the conflicts emerge when one alliance becomes more powerful and can access more resources of the state than the other. They are also less interested in a more equitable resource distribution mechanism. The established power holders constitute the Centre and those denied similar access to power and resources are defined as the Margin.

British colonialism arrived in Bengal before taking over the administration as traders in a region ruled by descendants of invaders of India (Central Asians, Turko- Afghans) who were in their last stages of power in the mid-18th century. Local people were not part of the ruling elite but Turko-Afghans were. This gap between the locals and Turko-Afghans created a space which was very advantageous to the colonizers. Historically, a major change in the economic system and power equations were also on. The ruling feudal aristocracy was fading while an emerging mercantilist community was making a run for power. An alliance between local mercantile and colonial capital therefore against a common obstacle of feudal aristocracy became logical. The aristocracy was an impediment to the development of both.

The main players in the economy apart from the locals were the English East India Company (BEIC) and its trade rival, the French East India Company (FEIC). They took up sides against and in favour of the Nawab of Bengal, who was hanging on to power by a thin thread. The Mughal rulers were allied with the English largely facilitated by bribes (Ray, English, The). The local mercantile class allied in ending feudal rule of Turko-Afghans- through an alliance with a foreign trading company English East India Company, already the most powerful political force in alliance. The opposition to the English was led by the Nawab which was also led by an alliance in which the French East India Company was a member.

The British got the right to collect tax through several rules and made major adjustments to the revenue administration after obtaining the Diwani of Bengal from the titular Mughal emperor assisted by bribes (Islam, Diwani). The British were not only introducing new methods of taxation but also were mixing this with their main business of trading. In this effort the locals played an important role as field level operators. This foreign-local alliance was very effective and laid the foundation of colonialism in Bengal and India.

The idea that the Company had to fight a war all by itself without local support from any important group within Bengal is misleading. On the contrary, colonialism is a process that began long before 1757 and grew over time helped by declining feudalists who often helped it along having lost most of their state power (Islam, Colonial Period).

In this process of progressive power transfer from the feudal rulers to the foreign company, collaboration between local and foreign powers was the key. That is why it may be described as collaborative colonialism. Collaboration played a bigger role than force.

The colonial landlord collaboration

All alliances are not created equal. Just as in the Permanent Settlement in 1793, zamindari establishment required local collaboration that is rooted in several socio-economic spaces; resistance to it also required the same. Peasantry as the biggest victim of this new land revenue system resisted. But in this rebellion, their allies were previous landlords or those also facing economic difficulties due to colonial taxation issues. The socially better off led the alliance in case of both colonial and anti-colonial. In history, peasants have not laid out the path of any resistance entirely on their own barring a few marginal ones.  They operate within the alliance configuration created by the middle class or socially better off who act as alliance leaders.

Alliances have life histories of their own. Depending on the circumstances, the strength and status of alliance members shifted and adjusted as well. For instance, the power of peasants in relation to other alliance members was positively enhanced by the granting of votes in 1909 under Separate Electorate which made them a force to reckon with more than before. It also created space for a coalition with the aspirant Muslim community of Bengal (Islam, Bengal Legislative Assembly).

Political parties in existence or emerging who were negotiating for power and the elite who ran the parties also took much greater notice of the peasantry as vote power belonged to them, the majority. The colonizers also hoped to balance opposition to its rule by the all Indian middle class by introducing peasant relief measures to gain their support as they now had votes. Thus, the peasantry was indirectly part of power politics between the colonizer and the local elite who were part of the state making process. It was an obvious objective for many alliances including ones in which the peasantry was part of particularly after the Partition of Bengal in 1905.  Prior to that period, the alliances were more reactive in nature and in the form of resistances. It changed with the votes as the peasants now had a stouter and decisive role to play.

The peasantry as a member of an alliance also continued to be both militant and negotiating, often simultaneously, through agitations or non-violent forms of protest as it suited them and the alliance. This was observed very intensely between 1905 and 1947 when state birthing took place. Thus, the functioning nature of alliances also shifted with such trends. It was always fluid with peasantry choosing or feeling convinced to play specific roles which it felt suited their objectives/needs. The Margin based alliance changed its role form from resistance to negotiations in 1947 and finally in 1971 to fully fledged armed struggle.

Alliances are not permanent in nature or in its structure. It depends on a set of conditions to be fulfilled for its sustainability and success. There are many instances of alliances that had the potential but did not work. The wider Bengal based Kolkata Centre and Dhaka Margin- alliances forming were tried but did not work. In 1937, Bengal Congress and Krishak Praja Party (KPP) got close but not enough to form a joint ministry. KPP later left the alliance with Muslim League and made an alliance with the Hindu Masabha from 1941 to 1943. But the KPP led alliance collapsed as peasantry withdrew support.  In 1947 Bengal Muslim League and Bengal Congress tried to push the United Bengal Movement but other players and factors intervened over which they had less control. It did not take off even after a tentative start.

However, these alliance attempts were also more political party than social force based though these parties did represent socio-economic momentums. The most expansive and extensive alliance was of course during the Bangladesh vote of 1970 and the war of 1971 which showed the power of cohesive force than ever before in Bengal. But not all alliances are positive and it is possible that an all Bengal political alliance before 1947 was perhaps never on the cards. They may not have worked out even if put together given their lack of shared historical experience. 

Victoria Memorial Kolkata

The Kolkata elite leadership, both in 1937 and 1947 was interested but not committed to Bengal as a socio-political reality.  History shows that their greater loyalty lay to the all Indian Alliance to which they ultimately became part of.  Perhaps their long history of being an elite in Bengal may have influenced this but in the end, they felt closer to the Delhi dominated India alliance and parted ways with the Margin based alliance that proceeded on to form East Pakistan in 1947 and then to Bangladesh in 1971. In the post 1947 scenario, the new and wider inter-faith identity based peasant based alliance was reformulated and ultimately succeeded in establishing the state through Bangladesh in 1971.

Nature of Alliances

As historical objectives and needs changed in time, alliance membership also changed. The peasantry constituted the largest social force in the country by its population size and habitat occupation. They faced oppression in every phase of history but this intensified during the colonial phase. Since then, peasant resistance began with greater energy and desperation and continued till 1947 and later though lesser in degrees as zamindari came to an end in 1950 in East Pakistan. 

British land taxation policies were much wider during the colonial time than before. It affected groups other than the peasantry; some adversely and some positively. By 1760 several resistances are noticed which were led and participated by ousted or in difficulties zamindars (tax collection intermediaries at various levels). The Fakir-Sannyasi movement in 1760 and the sporadic resistances by various landlords under pressure by the colonial regime are such examples (Islam, Peasantry). The conditions for alliance were created by two widely different classes suffering at the hands of the common force/enemy. Thus the peasant- elite alliance in the rural areas was produced in response to the taxation policy which was also present in every peasant resistance.

The middle class also resisted but they also had to depend largely on the peasantry supporting them to have any significant impact in achieving their demands. In the history of Bengal, the peasantry had always been the constantly denied group and it is the elite or middle class who would form an alliance with them or the colonizers depending on the purpose it served their own class interest.

In the post partition of Bengal period and annulment, (1905-11) there was a rise of Violent Extremism particularly in the urban zones but such resistances had comparatively low impact though individual violence was high. This includes the Chittagong armory raid (Shah, Surya Sen, Mastarda). They did make the colonial power in decline anxious but it was seen as a political violence issue rather than a social matter that required policy changes unlike the peasant resistances (Islam, identity Revolutionary Terrorism).

Depending on circumstances, the power of the peasantry also shifted in colonial Bengal. Initially they were into armed resistance as were the affected upper and middle class who allied with the peasantry. Afterwards, the upper and middle class faded away as a class cluster or gained privileges and moved away from resistance. As they shifted out of the historical resistance frame, new groups entered the scene including the middle peasantry and rural evangelical groups.  The peasants however remained the constant factor as their conditions improved far too slowly for them not to resist.

For every class, the granting of votes to most peasantry was a major political issue. It was even more significant for the peasantry and the politics of alliance focused on East Bengal. It greatly empowered the peasantry and made the elite more accommodating of peasant issues and also helped in broad basing this alliance’s socio-economic objective that led to 1947 and ultimately 1971. 

Colonial Identity constructions

The Permanent Settlement of 1793 which established the zamindari system in Bengal produced an economically ravaged but an angry peasantry forced to resist often violently due to its oppression. Peasants were an overwhelming majority of the population but as a binary Permanent Settlement also produced a small band of privileged elite. They were land, trade and profession based and located at the colonial capital, Kolkata. Many of the socio-economic markers of later political and other conflicts were set by this intervention and contingent political sociology.

Colonialism gave this elite-local Bengali Hindus an opportunity and space to stamp their indigenous cultural which was largely denied during the previous Muslim Turko-Afghan rule (Copf, Bengal Renaissance). These identity markers later transformed into political and historical ones too. The peasants fought the Permanent Settlement elite but the elite, split into factions divided by class, faith and other markers as established and aspirant elite groups, fought each other as well. Both groups tried to make alliances when it suited them, sometimes all Bengal or all Indian. They also fought over territory as the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and 1947 show. Intra and inter class conflict and alliance were both at work. Ultimately, the rise of peasantry as a political force particularly in the 20th century as voters changed the idiom of negotiation which made a decisive difference. Following chart of socio-political alliance explains the alliance relation between different groups and their conflicts in Bengal:

The peasant aspiration was largely for freedom from socio- economic repression. Cultural liberation or creating safe economic zones for less job competition like the middle class was looking for, was not a peasant priority.  The middle class aspirant elite wanted jobs from the colonizers but the peasantry sought relief from colonial taxation. Though critically different, they could form an alliance due to the existence of common needs.  

Like all classes the peasantry was a politically amoral group which made alliances with whoever supported their cause just like the elite. The peasant history is therefore of shifting alliances irrespective of class, community or territory markers of any group. It did not matter much to the peasantry who its allies were. They were ousted or displaced elite of the previous Turko-Afghan rule in the early colonial period including the Faraizi leaders or leaders of the Sepoy revolt of 1857 who were their past oppressors.

The upper and middle peasantry later in the late 19th and early 20th century and middle class political groups as Swaraj/Khilafat, Krishak Praja Party or Muslim League during partition of 1905 and 1947 were other examples (Ahmed, Khilafat Movement). After 1947, as the state making constructed had largely matured by then though aborted in 1947, they became more organized around political parties as representative in elite to elite negotiations. Hence, the search for an ally was not cultural identity marker based as the peasant does not suffer from identity conflict. The peasant or Village identity is very concrete as it was noted even in 1971 as well which had been documented (Chowdhury, 44).

However, the peasant community had to depend on the middle class to lead them in battles against metropolitan centers of the state. Forming alliance was therefore a key to any political activities that promised any success to them. No standalone peasant movement has had any significant success in Bengal. (to be continued…)