Bengali Muslim Collaboration
September 25th, 2020 at 10:35 pm
A review of the history of two clusters of Muslim provinces show that they had two very different histories including its path to community based identity politics.
Bengali Muslim Collaboration

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

Politics till the early 19th century was relatively simple with only one set of elite. However, by the 1820s this had begun to change as Bengali Muslims, looking for upward mobility took to education. Hence, expressions of loyalty to colonialism or collaboration became common. The formation of the Anjumans, role of Kolkata Madrassa (Islamic educational institution) and individuals like Nawab Abdul Latif and others signified this trend (Ahmed, Anjuman). The period from 1857 to 1905 saw a great rise of the newly confident urban and rural elite of the aspirant groups contesting the Kolkata elite. Many were educated in the cities looking for jobs while the middle peasant, benefitting from Pattani and other arrangements were active in the rural areas (Khaleque, Mohammedan Literary Society).

In 1858, the Kolkata based groups of Bengali Muslim particularly the Anjumans, were actively declaring their support to colonial rule by congratulating the British Crown for suppression of the Revolt of 1857. Loyalty to the Crown was equated to greater acceptance of the colonials, hence more jobs and other benefits as payment. This aspiration of collaboration bore fruit rapidly creating the economic foundation that led the Muslim upper class to become a competitor of the Kolkata Hindu upper class more robustly. British policies on dealing with promoting new elite groups were also probably influenced by the Revolt of 1857, which was not a Bengal based resistance like the ones peasants mounted but cut across much of colonial India.

In Bengal, this revolt was somewhat muted, with local landed elite steadfastly staying away from joining the revolt.

Nevertheless, the Muslim population including of Bengal was considered more suspect because of the perceived leadership by the supposed Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar of the revolt (Chakraborty, Sepoy Mutiny, 1857). Post 1857 policies saw an all Indianization of colonial policies than before. More attention began to be paid to North Indian players where the Revolt of 1857 was highest from both the contesting communities. The pre-colonial elite –post Mughal Muslims- who felt neglected, now sought attention and the British also encouraged it. Thus grew the Aligarh movement, the socio-spiritual root of the Muslim League movement.

This movement was also based on the principles of collaboration and loyalty for gain through jobs in return for it. It was an echo of the role of the Kolkata pioneers led by Ram Mohon Roy and others. Middle class politics and its organizations whether Congress or Muslim League were both located in the politics of collaboration. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan promoted education, English proximity and cooperation. Bengali Muslims were just waking up to the loyalty in return for jobs equation. Nawab Abdul Latif was close to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan too. Mohammedan Literary Society of Kolkata was established in April 1863 in Kolkata to promote Western education, the first such association for Muslims in India (Khaleque, Mohammedan Literary Society). Sir Syed Ahmed came to Kolkata in 1866 and delivered a lecture on patriotism and the necessity of growth of knowledge in India. This also began the process of all Indian alliance of Muslims led by its all Indian elite aspirants.

Old and new collaborators and elite alliances

Both push and pull factors were at work in establishing this new collaborator class. The new elites (Muslims) could be an effective competitor of the established elite (Hindus) which would help British rule last longer and new collaborators would also expand the support base of colonialism. This policy culminated from the British point of view in the partition of Bengal in 1905 (Ahmed, Partition of Bengal, 1905). The established elites were wrong footed by the decision though this was long in coming. The period from 1905 to 1911 was the beginning of the extreme period when the established elite were threatened by the aspirant elite most robustly as the British plan to leave India became clear. This contest saw polarization down to the grassroots level which fundamentally changed power equations in Bengal.

Initially the traditional Bengal elite seemed to have thought that they had won the battle after the partition was annulled in 1911 but the long term impact went directly against it.

Swadeshi activism which was aimed against the Partition of Bengal (1905) won its battle in annulling the decision in 1911. Thus, the Kolkata based elite may have felt successful (Roy, Swadeshi Movement).  They in the process lost the support of Bengal majority; the Muslim peasantry and the Margin alliance.  The peasantry, mobilized by pro-partition activists began to clash with Swadeshis violently. With the annulment, the chances of field level grassroots alliance were thus significantly reduced as they had taken opposite positions.

The vote for peasants in 1909 under Separate Electorate and the establishment of Muslim League in 1906 created a political mechanism which was aligned with Margin based alliance.  The Swadeshi based old elite located in Kolkata could not overcome this joint force. The conflict was no longer an informal social one but had moved into the formal structure to which both the contestants and antagonists belonged.

It was a formal challenge which was linked to the colonial structure itself unlike the earlier revolts and resistance.

Politics of All Indian Centres

The other impact of the annulment of the Partition of Bengal was the rise of Delhi/ North Indian influence on Bengal politics as pro- and anti partition became an all-Indian conflict. And all Indian politicization removed Bengal itself as the centre of Bengal politics. The impact of this was high on Bengal Congress as two major decisions, post- election government formation move between KPP and Bengal Congress in 1937 and the United Bengal Movement in 1947 could not work despite interest by Bengal Congress initially due to pressure from central Congress. The Bengal Muslim League lost its right to an independent state which was gained in 1940( Lahore Resolution)  and lost in 1946 ( Delhi Resolution) die to All India Muslim League’s decision.   

The rejection of alliance proposal by the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) in 1937 to form government jointly with the Bengal Congress led to the absolute domination of Bengal politics by the Muslim League as KPP weakened and ML grew and later obtained official government power. The other event was the rejection of the United Bengal Movement in 1947 to which both Bengal Congress and Muslim League had tentatively agreed to support. But in the end, Bengal Congress voted for partition of Bengal to join India as pressure to split Bengal was high from All Indian Congress political positions (Misra, United Independent Bengal Movement).

Bengal Congress had a history of somewhat unhappy relations with central Congress and during the crunch time, the Centre prevailed. Both in 1937 and 1947, the issues of uniting with traditional anti-Congress parties like KPP and Bengal ML was discouraged and disallowed (Mukhopadhyay, Bengal Provincial Congress).

Bengal Muslim League was also always in conflict with All Indian Muslim League (AIML) and never gained the space they needed or thought they deserved. The change from “independent sovereign states” as stated in the Lahore Resolution of 1940 to its shift to a one centralized “state” was done at the behest of the All Indian Muslim League by the Delhi Resolution of 1946 (Shah, Lahore Resolution). Meanwhile, the relationship between Congress and Muslim League declined rapidly exposing the fault lines of a single Indian nationalism covering the contesting groups.

However, if a single Indian nationalism was a “myth”, single Muslim nationalism was also the same. Muslims of India were part of completely different histories and their response to various events were rarely the same. The source of Bengali Muslim identity was different from North Indian Muslims. In Bengal it developed under the Permanent Settlement by people who had lived under multiple foreign rules. They were fundamentally a peasant society which became a community as the peasants suffered under the majority Hindu zamindars and began to resist. Unlike the North Indians who had lost ruling supremacy and were loyal to the Turko-Afghan cultural sources.

 The Muslim landlord class was not close to the middle and lower class Bengalis either and the relationship was hardly of a common identity. Conflict between the provincial and central Muslim League was the best indicator of this increasingly uneasy relationship which exploded into open conflict after 1947. The all Indian Muslim League leadership needed Bengali Muslims but did not identify them as part of the same stream. Bengali Muslim elite had a patchy history of trying for alliances with Bengali Hindu leaders as well. The rise and fall of the Holwell monument removal movement led by Subhas Bose and its collapse however also showed the potential that was not explored by Congress leadership (Misra, Bose, Subhas Chandra).

Subhash Chandra Bose was admired by the Bengal Muslim League youth and various attempts were even made to follow the Subhash Bose model to “liberate” Bangladesh after 1947 (Chowdhury, 2017). The formal shift of the colonial capital from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911 showed where the centre stage lay. The marginalization of Kolkata was thus completed with the ceremony of Delhi durbar when George V, the Emperor was present. Bengal’s politics became All Indian and Kolkata itself became a sub-centre of Indian politics (Islam, Delhi Coronation Durbar).

The process of power sharing partly due to peasant agitation and partly political opportunism on all sides ate into the traditional elite domination of Kolkata. The elites were hoping to be the sole rulers but once peasants were given the vote, politics could only function as a product of various alliances based on multiple markers, all shared with the majority members of the peasantry, the majority voters.

The Kolkata traditional elite did not seem to have read the rebellious signals coming strongly from the majority in Bengal. The partition of Bengal in 1905 was a game changer and the contest between the two elite groups, one established and located in Kolkata and the other emerging and aspiring and located of sorts in Dhaka began to intensify.

Bengal Pact: The short life of inter-community elite alliance 

The Swadeshi movement of 1905-11 was an indicator of change in politics as communities used vote power to leverage advantages. Separate Electorate system of 1909 legitimized this challenge of the all Indian minority but paved the way for marginalized majority in Bengal to reach for power in Bengal. However, the traditional Kolkata elite probably did not see this coming nor were ready to think along alliance lines. The established elite alliance was built on a single identity elite based model of collaboration of over 100 years not an inter-elite alliance. Funded by landlordism money, traditional access to jobs and legal work, it dug in to preserve privileges which was inevitable but ultimately self destructive. Thus when Chitta Ranjan (CR) Das, perhaps the most pragmatic among all pre 1947 elite declared the Bengal Pact, it was opposed by the old Kolkata elite and its political infantry.

Chitta Ranjan Das floated the Swarajya Party built along inter-community lines and won the Bengal elections in 1923. He was supported by Motilal Nehru and H. S. Suhrawardy who became the Deputy Mayor of Kolkata (Rashid, Suhrawardy, Huseyn Shaheed). Das was both against Delhi domination and a practical anti-colonial politician. He believed that unless there was inter-community economic parity no joint movement or alliance against the British could be launched. He suggested a 6 point formula of which two were very critical. Among the six points, two very important and crucial points were:

a.        Representation in the local bodies would be on the proportion of 60 per cent to the majority community and 40 percent to the minority community.

b.        Regarding Government appointments, it was decided that fifty five percent of the appointments should go to the Muslims. Till the above percentage was attained, 80 per cent of posts would go to the Muslims and the remaining 20 percent should go to the Hindus (Misra, Bengal Pact, 1923).

However the proposal was resisted by the Bengal minority community though Das’s supporters included many prominent Bengal Congress leaders. It was defeated at the central Congress meeting which effectively sealed its fate. The rejection by the Bengali Hindu community of the pact in 1923-24 largely dampened the future of long term inter-community political alliance in Bengal. The rejection made rural areas angry too which meant that the metropolis actions were now impacting on the Margin alliance dominated by the peasantry.

Chitta Ranjan Misra writes, “The defection of the Muslims was marked by the formation of the Independent Muslim Party in 1926 by some prominent Muslim leaders of the province like Moulvi Abdul Karim, Maulana Abdur Rauf, Khan Bahadur Azizul Huq, M Abdullahil Baqi, Maulvi Asrafuddin Ahmed, Dr A Suhrawardy, AK Fazlul Huq and others. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy became the Provisional Secretary of the Party. Indeed, from this time on, the Muslims of Bengal began to reconsider their stand in Bengal politics” (Misra, Bengal Pact, 1923).

The Bengal Pact measures were perhaps too radical for consumption for any established elite. At the same time, this also showed how irregular the situation had become as far as the majority-minority sharing of resources went. And it showed how difficult it would be to even plan a solution given the conflict between the entrenched and the aspirant community. The minority elite in 1924 seem to have used the same position which the Pakistani elite used forty years later using Pakistani and Islamic identity. Economic advantages to achieve parity were not available for the majority population and in both cases the population ratio was more or less the same. The consequences were the same too. The Bengal Pact failure could only mean the situation would become more hostile in general as far as both socio-economic rivals went who were faith identity based communities as well.

Inter-sectionalism in identity politics of Bengal

Several classes and communities were at work and politics was formulated by the inter-sectionality of these forces. The ethno-religious analysis of the politics of contesting communities leaves out the role of the peasants in the Margin and their identity politics.

They held the traditional markers but their identity was equally defined by their political choices based on perspectives of economic gain or loss as peasantry.   They were not part of this emerging or established elite equation politics. They were part of elite politics as a member of the wider alliances of the Margin not by sharing a common cultural identity.  

The ousted landlords in the early colonial era who allied with the peasantry were not pro-peasant, but formed an alliance with them for their own benefit. On the other hand, the bhadralaks of Kolkata formed an alliance with colonialists as it benefited them too. As benefits declined after mid 19th century more or less, they began to protest to retain their old and claim new space. Thus, the competition between the established and aspirant elite grew to influence this situation too reflected in politics of alliance making.

Similarly communities disadvantaged by colonial policies such as the previous era upper class Muslims and the middle peasantry allied with peasants to resist their own ouster or disadvantages. They led resistance and rebellion in the first stage by various peasant groups but later moved into collaboration by early to mid 19th century or made new alliances often with groups like the Aligarh movement of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan cluster.

It is this mix of aspirations, survival instincts and hope for economic development that drove the various classes to different kinds of politics of opportunism and survival based on shared histories. During the Partition of Bengal in 1905 when it was being overwhelmingly supported by the Bengali Muslim community as a positive opportunity to gain a stronger foothold by both peasant and elite, a small section from within the community were in disagreement too. In the same way, the Kolkata elite class was against the partition and resented the resultant rise of the Bengali Muslim community, C.R. Das and few of his Bengal Congress followers saw in it the political awakening of a new inter-community alliance that could join hands to fight the British.

The monolithic linear narrative does not always apply in the history of Bengal. The fight against the colonizers also meant internal fights for supremacy or exclusion of groups from current or future alliances. Politics was therefore, built around more than one conflict and every era produced fresh conflicts and opportunity for alliances.

The Lahore Resolution and the politics of multiple identities 

In 1937 when All Indian Muslim League (AIML) was in power as an alliance partner in Bengal, Muslim League (ML) was not in power in its own heartland located in what is currently Pakistan. In 1940, the AIML chief Muhammad Ali Jinnah called a meeting to discuss strengthening the party in most parts of Muslim India. Even in Bengal, KPP had won huge number of seats and almost prevented ML from coming to power by trying to link up with Bengal Congress. Therefore, it was clear that a new strategy was required and this was the imagination of the “States” for the Muslims in the two majority cluster.

A review of the history of two clusters of Muslim provinces show that they had two very different histories including its path to community based identity politics. The idea that all Muslims of India constituted “One Nation” was as questionable as the Congress idea that all Indians formed ‘One Nation’. Muslim League of the All Indian variety was at best a collection of political organizations that had large Muslim constituencies in various regions. They had no common history and social context not to mention socio-economic challenges. It was odd to call everyone belonging to “one nation” when they already had different enemies, different friends and different ways of dealing with them.  There could be an alliance which it was but to call them all as part of “one nation” and hence State was forcing the matter far too much that had deadly consequences as later history shows. (to be continued …)