Peasant and elite politics of alliance
September 4th, 2020 at 4:35 pm
Peasant and elite politics of alliance

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

Post 1857 Bengal saw the rise of the Muslim middle class as the circumstances for their growth became positive as a result of the change in British policies. The British were keen to promote more than one faith based community (both Hindu and Muslim communities) as that served their interest more. Increased inter-faith community competition became a usable socio-political issue for them. It was a demand of the newly grown aspirants but also offered an opportunity to balance the clout of the established Kolkata-rooted elite.

In the mean time, peasant resistances continued along with alliances and sometimes without alliances. In Santal Pargana (1855) and the indigo districts (1859-61), resistances peaked again in the 1870s and early 1880s, particularly in the areas of what later became East Bengal/ Bangladesh (Islam, Peasantry). Professor Sirajul Islam says, “Peasants made alliances among themselves to assert their rights in land and minimize extraction of surpluses by zamindars. The most remarkable of the peasant uprisings in this period were the Tushkhali (in Bakerganj) peasant movement (1872-75), Pabna peasant uprising (1873), Chhagalnaiya (Noakhali) peasant movement (1874), Mymensingh tribal peasant movement (1874-1882), Munshiganj (Dhaka) peasant movement (1880-81) and Mehendiganj (Bakerganj) uprising (1880-81)” (2015). The zamindari system had by now been significantly weakened as reports mention. 

However, the transition was the rise of a new intermediary class based on Pattani. A pattanidar is “an affluent and assertive agrarian middle class in the persons of intermediate tenure holders, jotedars, hawladars and other rich peasants was emerging steadily since the first quarter of the nineteenth century” (Islam, Peasantry). This new agrarian elite could not be ignored by any. The Sepoy Revolt and the closely followed Indigo disturbances made the colonizers aware of the dangers of ignoring the peasants. Furthermore, “saving the loyal zamindar class was an imperial need and saving the protesting peasantry was at the same time a political dictate” (Islam, Permanent Settlement).

The exclusion of the Hindu peasantry

In this Bengal, divided by class, community and territorial boundaries, the impoverished Hindu peasantry suffered the most as there were none to pick up their cause. After the establishment of Permanent Settlement of 1793, they became an ignored class based community who suffered greatly. This community was seen active in 1855, during the Indigo resistance movement. The ousted Muslim/Central Asian land elites turned to resistance due to economic loss and found the peasants as their allies. But the Hindu elite were on the British side.

The Wahabi and Faraizi movements were built along faith identity as a social mobilizer which meant Hindus were excluded from it. Therefore, they did not become a regular part of resistance though they were present in the Indigo and Pabna uprising among others. The distance between the two communities increased largely due to the nature of the alliance they had become part of. The Kolkata elite could not align with the Margin as that would mean strengthening the aspirant elite who were at its top layer.

The Bengali Hindu elite, primary beneficiary of colonial rule was caught into collaboration. Occasionally, noises were made such as around the Indigo disturbances but it was not before the 20th century that a section of the elite linked alliance members began to resist actively (Islam, Revolutionary Terrorism). This largely came after the Partition of Bengal and was culturally sourced in both Hindu faith identity cultural streams and was urban in nature.

The support of the peasants for Muslim League after 1906 or Krishak Praja Party (KPP) in 1937 was part of a long tradition of alliance making. What could be dubbed as militant resistance movements became political agitation and disobedience action over time as voting came in. Some of the methods were even learned from middle class agitators like the Swarajists of Gandhi from 1919 to 1924 during the Khilafat movement (Ahmed, Khilafat Movement). Multi class, multi faith and even inter- alliance coalitions are also seen such as the Lucknow Pact between Muslim League and Congress.

This was obvious among the peasantry. Supporting the middle class or even the upper class including in 1857, to gain relief from oppression is one. Linking with members of the same class who belonged to another counter alliance is also observed though not frequently such as between Hindu and Muslim peasantry. Peasantry supports economic causes and also identifies friends and enemies over a longer period of time. Juggling enemies, allies and cultural identities is common as history of peasant politics shows.

From Khilafat to 1947

Peasants had no idea about “Khilafat” but only of a ‘Peasant Utopia’. They were desperate enough to resort to violent acts of intimidation and boycott of their foes and adversaries within their own villages. The elitist middle class understanding of Indian nationalism had little attraction as the peasant world is often limited to the village or its wider boundaries.

The failure of the Khilafat movement saw them return to class conflict activities once more making an active alliance between peasant aspirations and all Indian aspirations a contradiction. 

Photo courtesy INC website

Nevertheless, participation in the movement exposed the peasantry to their own clout and had shown them the tools of expressing it. Rural Bengal was in great turmoil around this period in the post annulment of the partition of Bengal (1905-11).  All the historical conflicts along class, community and territorial lines were at work. There were many enemies of every kind but the common enemy was the one who exploited the peasantry (Ahmed, Khilafat Movement).

The Kolkata based bhadralak community which supported Congress had two contradictory political roles to play. Already hampered by weak links with the peasantry, they could not support many pro-peasant moves as this strengthened their contestant political party, the Muslim League, who enjoyed the majority support of the Bengal peasant.

The other part was as the local agent of All Indian nationalism. Reselling Indian nationalism was also difficult to a crowd which was also anti- non-Bengali as rural literary evidence shows and this was sourced in non-Bengali lands like Delhi, Gujarat and so on. When the government organized the Bengal Tenancy Act amendment Bill in 1923 and the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1926, it was opposed by the Kolkata elite as “anti-nationalist” as they feared it would affect their links with their supporting community (Islam, Bengal Tenancy Act 1885). However, this reduced their brand value to the minority community even more as pro-peasant. Many forces began to coalesce in the final run up to 1947. The alliance was gaining momentum beyond simple class conflict. A broader coalition of the Margin appears to have been at work.

Peasant politics: The final round (1905- 1947) 

By early 20th century, it was obvious that in the local collaborators led colonial world, the peasant had become the stronger force of political history even though it did so indirectly. In a remarkable twist of history, everyone from the colonial rulers to the elite to the rich middle peasants, all courted the peasantry. Their clout as a demographic reality made them a major change agent. The political price for contesting the new peasant based alliance and their clout was first seen during and after the Partition of Bengal during 1905-1911.

The peasants of East Bengal, who were mostly Muslim, supported the Partition of Bengal in 1905 (Ahmed, Partition of Bengal, 1905). They were mobilized by the aspirant elite of the same community identity as an alliance partner. The partition of 1905 promised the peasantry freedom from landlords and loan sharks that had blighted their life. As conflict between supporters of Bengal partition of 1905 and its opponents grew, many encounters became violent (Hashmi, Peasant Movements). Swadeshis or anti-partition forces clashed with pro-partition forces which were obviously Muslim at Jamalpur, Comilla and elsewhere in 1907. The peasants had turned into activists who were impacting politics at the elite level.

The East Bengal Muslim aspirant elite also took advantage of British policy which was aimed to help peasants as it went against the interests of the landlords; their main contestant. The British offered support to peasantry in order to ensure a more functional ruling, a matter that had now become a crisis for the Crown in India. This soft policy towards peasants also helped to counter the pressure from Indian Congress which was supported by the established elite which were mostly Hindus.  In 1909, Separate Electorate provided even greater clout to the majority population of Bengal Muslim peasantry as voters (Islam, Separate Electorate System). It came even as agitation against Partition of Bengal was on. 

Rural intermediaries leading the peasantry were naturally interested to lead Bengal politics in general. It made the prospects of a political alliance with peasants lucrative. And the partition of Bengal was popular with the majority of the Muslim peasants. Thus, when Bengal partition was annulled in 1911, Muslim peasants were angry and alienated even further from the Congress and Swadeshis. Congress could not offer anything to the peasantry that would lead to an alliance with them, particularly after the 1911 annulment. Muslim League formation in 1906 further strengthened the peasant alliance with the aspirant elite of the emerging Margin as a cohesive political cluster. 

 By 1914, Muslim rural elite had started organizing praja (peasant) conferences which became a major source of politicization (Hashmi, Peasant Movements). Lower peasantry was looking for economic security while the middle peasants had emerged as a major political intermediary. Religious leaders also joined the process making the alliance even stronger. The Swadeshi narrative of Hindu iconographic patriotism was contested by the rural Muslim religious leaders as expected.

The peasant as voter in 1909 became a legitimate and official political force which in the 20th century was more effective than armed resistance. The Tenancy Act in 1914 which the British proposed to provide relief to peasants became a new political test of loyalty seeking between the contesting communities.

In 1917, Fazlul Huq and a group of Muslim lawyers and journalists founded the Calcutta Agricultural Association. In 1920 the ‘Bengal Jotedars and Raiyats Association’ was formed which made the middle peasantry organized even further.  Fazlul Haq advanced peasant issues into the mainstream though often retreated as well. However, it was through him that peasantry took centre stage in state making politics which was later taken forward by others (Hashmi, Peasant Movements). He founded the Krishak Proja Party, largely based on East Bengal peasantry in 1936, just before the elections of 1937 (Islam, Krishak Praja Party).

Hostility had heightened once more and by 1930 there were violent conflicts again. By then, class conflict had taken its toll on the capacity to make alliance along faith community lines at the grassroots level as the boundaries sharpened.  In 1941, conflicts erupted again.

In view of the above, the “praja-ashraf” and raiyat-elite-alliance was inevitable. By 1921, the bulk of the Muslim peasantry had been largely alienated from the Congress and other organizations under “Hindu” leadership. The marriage of convenience between the ashraf and praja, which was essential for mutual political benefit, grew stronger meanwhile.

In December 1941, Fazlul Huq alienated himself from the bulk of the Bengali Muslims, including peasants, by forming a coalition ministry with the Hindu Mahasabha as one of the partners having lost support of the Muslim League. His failure in 1946 elections despite his peasant agenda was therefore predictable. By 1943, “famine had struck Bengal making the political polarization even more intense.  For the bulk of the Bengali Muslims, including peasants, the concept of Pakistan emerged as the only choice for improving economics. The Calcutta Riot in 1946 precipitated by the Direct Action Day of the Muslim League, made Pakistan inevitable” (Das, Calcutta Riot, 1946).

The peasantry was also maturing as a political force in their interaction with the alliance seeking classes. They wanted curtailment of moneylenders, zamindaris and in 1920 even founded a few organizations by themselves for anti-zamindar mobilization (Islam, Peasantry). This peasantry was increasingly an activist member of the Margin cluster. Zamindars were meanwhile at bay. Estate management was not paying and Permanent Settlement as an economic project had dried up even before. Intermediaries, once saviours of landlords had become more powerful who now supported the peasants to further their own interest. The middle and rich peasants’ aspiration to become bhadralak was the dominant theme as they grew in clout and aspiration.

However, peasant life was in trouble too particularly in East Bengal where jute was linked to an unstable global market. Politics was determined by poverty and aspiration as well as historically hostile relationship with the weakening landlords as the hate figure of the peasants. More than 80 % people were farmers in 1921 and there was not enough land for all (Hashmi, Peasant Movements). Agriculture was the only means of livelihood for almost every rural being. Out of the total population of 30 million people, most were Muslims. Given previous conflicts, the chain of further conflict was already set in motion.

As the peasant elite entered local government offices they knew that the ticket to their power lay in lower peasant hands, the voters as the majority. And the faith community identity gave them an extra/added clout. It was a clout which the Indian nationalist couldn’t counter offer lacking any link with the majority of peasants. There are some instances of limited success in alliance building such as a brief period during the Khilafata and Swarajist movement (Ahmed, Khilafat Movement). The peasant however, has rarely been interested in ideology or cultural markers unless it addressed their belly.

The nature of the peasant state  

In the dominant discourse around cultural marker identity based state, there is less observation on the type of the state which the peasant quested for. Essentially the state imagination that grew over time largely as a response to the rural taxation regime of colonialism that operated through the landlords.

As repression grew which probably peaked with the haftam act in 1799 when even the body of a raiyat who had failed to pay taxes was put under zamindar control following the first signs of the Permanent Settlement of 1793.  Thus, the imagination of liberation was not one of ideology or cultural identity but that of survival at the hands of an economic exploiter. It was an imagination born out of reaction in many villages often delinked from each other but united through the common purpose of livelihood pursuit and common experience of landlord exploitation. Traditional villages were poor and wretched but did not experience repression before what they did under colonialism. It made many relationships and alliance making of political nature deeply difficult.

Peasants appear to be largely shaped by the village culture rather than metropolitan definitions based on cultural markers. The middle class aspirant even the one emerging from the villages will have links to the villages and the cultural construction remains rural. In Bangladesh the Margin which was multi-class and cultural, fundamentally held common views perhaps at different layers and levels. But the aspirations of freedom were based on sufferings including inputs from historical memory around the peasant experience.

 Like villages, the state therefore was multi-class in nature. As long as the village elders, the higher class leaders treated them fine there was no problem. Hence, this multi-class alliance was fundamental to the understanding of the peasant state. Therefore, this peasant state which emerged in 1971 as Bangladesh was fundamentally different from others as it was based on historical experience of inter-generational peasant suffering.  The push of the 1947 state-producing elite came from past history of ruling, both drawing upon imaginations that produced Centric hegemonic notions as far as Bangladesh was concerned.

The peasantry basically wanted to be left alone to plough the rice fields metaphorically speaking where traditional village institutions managed its survival. This village being a socio-economic as a construct was devastated after 1757 and resulted in many forms of resistance, negotiations and interrogations. Afsan Chowdhury in his book “Gramer Ekattor” (Villages in 1971) analyses that ultimately after stumbling once in 1947, it did manage to fight for what they thought would be a peasant friendly village- state (32). One may assume presence of elite ideologies in the 1971 war but there is no evidence of that in any history of the peasants at war in 1971. It was personification of this long quest for a peasant state based on values natural to almost every village. 

It could be that the person who understood this equation best was himself a person from and for the Margin. Coming from the small towns close to villages, he chose to identify them as the “oppressed people” and not by cultural markers. The peasant seeks an oppression free state from all, not for a people as defined by the idioms of “culturally defined nationalism” or other cultural identity markers.  That man in 1971 was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. (to be continued)