A blood stained Durga Puja concluded in Bangladesh some days ago. Violent religiously motivated mobs in several parts of that country invaded pandals and desecrated, even destroyed, the murtis of the Devi. Simultaneously, these marauders attacked and set on fire the homes of the Hindus – many were killed. They raped Hindu women, not sparing even a ten-year-old girl. The poor child later succumbed to her injuries. The rioters even attacked an ISKCON temple and killed a devotee. They did not care that ISKCON is equally charitable towards Hindus and non-Hindus. I shall not mince words here – what we witnessed in Bangladesh over the course of roughly one week was an orgy of violent Islamism. It was nothing but an explosion of hatred against the idol worshipping ‘malaun’, a pejorative commonly employed against Hindus in Bangladesh.
Many Bengali intellectuals on this side of the border tend to have very romantic notions about Bangladesh. They consider it a country supposedly born out of a secular linguistic nationalism. For them, 1971 was the historical moment when Bengali jatiata, or nationhood, triumphed over the Hindu-Muslim divide and negated the ‘two-nation theory’. How, then, has Bangladesh come to this pass? Its Hindu minority has been progressively diminishing since that country was established. And now Bangladesh’s extremists seem to be bent on purging their country of this minority altogether. What happened in Bangladesh during Durga Puja was after all nothing very unusual. It was yet another, albeit more spectacular, instance of the persecution and violence that Bangladeshi Hindus frequently suffer. Has Bangladesh deviated from its purported founding principle of secular linguistic nationalism? Or could it be that fringe elements, the ideological descendants of the razakars who collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971, are earning her a bad name with their fanatical ways?
Bangladeshis passionately adore the Bengali language, there is no doubt. But, at the same time, Bangladesh is an officially Muslim country with Islam as its state religion. Do not think that the Islamic credentials of Bangladesh are something nominal, a matter of mere legal or constitutional rhetoric. If the social media behavior of Bangladeshis is anything to go by, the militant Islamist outlook has considerable traction among them. Islamism, thus, it seems, is widely diffused, and rooted in, Bangladesh’s society and body politic. It is clearly not an outlook of a mere lunatic fringe which draws inspiration from the razakars of fifty years ago. Bangladesh is a country which is as firmly and unambiguously Muslim as it is Bengali. This is because, in my view, secular linguistic nationalism was never foundational to Bangladesh in the first place, in the sense of being the primary inspiration behind its liberation struggle (irrespective of the rhetoric deployed). No, Bengali-Muslims did not choose to be more Bengali than Muslim in 1971. The birth of Bangladesh was not a negation of the ‘two-nation theory’, it was a mere modulation thereof. Let me try and tell you how.
In terms of its historical evolution, the peculiarity of Bengali-Muslim society is that it first acquired Islam and then the Bengali language (as a generally accepted medium of literacy and literature). If we understand conversion as a longstanding process leading to a different religious and cultural subjectivity, it was quite incomplete in Bengali-Muslim society at the turn of the nineteenth century. A lot indeed of their pre-Islamic religious outlook and cultural ways still survived among the Bengali-Muslims. They were not even monotheists in the properly Islamic sense yet and, besides Allah, venerated super-human agencies such as Zindah Ghazi, Khwaja Khizir, and Satya Pir (presumably, a barely Islamised form of the Hindu deity Satyanarayan). Bengali-Muslims also commonly bore surnames like Pradhan, Pramanik, Mandal, etc., betraying their undoubtedly Hindu ancestry. They were gradually oriented towards scripturally pure Islam in the early decades of the nineteenth century by certain proselytizing movements called Tariqah-i-Mohammadiya (literally, the path of Mohammad) and Faraizi (from faraiz, Arabic for basics, or fundamentals). The former emphasized correct Islamic piety with reference to the Quran and Sunnah, while the latter educated Bengali-Muslims in the observance of the fundamentals of Islam – namely, namaz, roja, zakat, etc. Almost simultaneously, the Islamic instruction of Bengali-Muslims was advanced by Titu Mir, an insurgent who briefly led a peasant jacquerie of sorts in rural Bengal. Before meeting his end at the hands of the British in 1831, he constantly exhorted his coreligionists to assume proper Arabic names, keep beards, and resist the various cesses demanded by Hindu zamindars for the performance of religious ceremonies. In the second half of the nineteenth century, large numbers of itinerant Muslim activists and preachers, graduates of sundry madrasahs, fanned out in the Bengal countryside and continued to promote scripturally correct Islamic piety and observances among Bengali-Muslims. Bengali-Muslims also acquired greater knowledge of Islam from the many religious manuals, or nasihat namahs, produced in this period. Concomitantly, there emerged a culture of religious debates in Bengali-Muslim society – audiences of hundreds or thousands would gather to listen to scholars representing different interpretations of Islam take on each other. Termed bahas or waz mahfil, attending these public theological debates must have lent Bengali-Muslims a greater awareness of everything that Islam stands for.
As the twentieth century dawned, Bengali-Muslims had been largely purged of their pre-Islamic manners and practices. They had been, so to speak, purified and refashioned as ‘correct’ Muslims. This is also the historical turn when Bengali-Muslims began to vigorously assert their linguistic identity as a society. There had been of course Bengali-Muslim poets in the medieval times, but they could be often apologetic about versifying in Bengali. They had, apparently, perceived an incompatibility between their religious and linguistic identities and wondered if it was proper for good Muslims to express themselves in what they thought to be a Hindu tongue. These qualms of the bygone centuries were now put to rest. So were staggered attempts at creating a distinct Bengali-Muslim idiom or Musalmani Bangla (in which the nasihat namahs were composed). A consensus developed in Bengali-Muslim society that Bengali as it was could indeed be the language of Muslims. There was, by now, a Bengali-Muslim reading public which was addressed in poetry and prose by the likes of Mir Mosharraf Hossain, Mohammad-Kazem-al-Qurreishi (known by his nom de plume ‘Kaikobad’), and Mohammad Mozammel Huq – all very talented litterateurs. At the same time, there mushroomed many societies dedicated to the promotion of Bengali language and literature in Bengali-Muslim society. A few examples would be the Muhammedan Society for Vernacular Literature (est. 1900), Kohinoor Sahitya Samiti (est. 1905), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Samiti (est. 1911), etc. Primarily two factors were behind this enthusiastic embrace of the Bengali language by Bengali-Muslims. First, the realization that competing against Bengali-Hindus in education and for government jobs was to be impossible without a good knowledge of Bengali. Secondly, and very importantly, a concern for Islam was why the Bengali-Muslim notables(who patronized the above societies) were advocating the case of Bengali. They knew that Bengali was the only feasible medium for the dissemination of the right knowledge of Islam in their society. Thus, one of the reasons why Bengali-Muslims chose to lay claim on the Bengali language was because of their heightened commitment towards Islam. Bengali-Muslims, through certain sociological processes, had become Muslims in the real sense of the term and wanted to remain so. That is how, to a great extent, they discovered their love for Bengali.
Meanwhile, political awareness had considerably advanced in Bengali-Muslim society. There had emerged, by 1920, in the Bengal chapter of the All-India Muslim League (henceforth AIML), several young Bengali-Muslim leaders like Fazlul Haq, Abul Kashem, Akram Khan, etc. Later, in 1929, this group formed the Nikhil Banga Praja Samiti (NBPS). Unlike the AIML in Bengal, which was dominated by the Urdu speaking urban ashraf (Muslims claiming a foreign ancestry), the NBPS leadership had its roots in the agrarian economy of rural Bengal. It was also Bengali speaking and did not, apparently, identify with the ashraf much.
The Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935 enfranchised significant masses of rural Bengali-Muslims by reducing the property qualifications. This served as a shot in the arm for a politician such as Haq who primarily had his base in this demographic. His Krshika Praja Party (KPP), which he had formed breaking away from the NBPS, put up a stellar performance in the 1937 provincial elections. He struck an alliance with the AIML in its aftermath and became the Prime Minister of Bengal (provinces had ‘Prime Ministers’ in British India). Not long afterwards, Haq formally joined the AIML. By 1941, however, relations between him and Muhammad Ali Jinnah had soured. Haq found Jinnah ‘dictatorial’. Consequently, Haq was expelled from the AIML. He then resigned and formed a fresh coalition that included, along with the KPP, Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha. By 1943, he was talking about the need to ‘modify’ the Pakistan idea (mooted by the AIML in 1940 at its Lahore session) so that the Muslims of Bengal may exercise their ‘right to self-determination’.Probably, Haq now thought that Bengali-Muslims ought to have their own independent Pakistan in the East where the Urdu speaking ashraf, dominant in the AIML,would not dictate terms. The same very year his government was dismissed and replaced by an AIML ministry headed by Nazimuddin. The Pakistan idea, as also the AIML and Jinnah, had acquired widespread popularity in Bengal by this time. But the Pakistan idea was also being given a local inflection. The Bengali-Muslim intelligentsia were visualizing ‘Purba’ or East Pakistan as a sovereign Bengali-Muslim state. For instance, we come across this intellectual named Zahur Hussain in Sheila Sen’s monograph Muslim Politics in Bengal. He declared that the official language of Purba Pakistan must be Bengali and not Urdu. Husain also made it clear that Peshawar and Chittagong cannot be parts of the same state. And then we see one Abul Mansur Ahmed announcing that Purba Pakistan is a distinct nation and cannot form a unity with the rest of Pakistan (I am paraphrasing his words here). Ahmed was associated with the Purba Pakistan Renaissance Society and Purba-Pakistan Sahitya Sangsad. Even the Bengal chapter of the AIML, apparently, was stirred by these ideas. It could be because of the influence exercised in its ranks by Abul Hashim, a Bengali-Muslim lawyer, who had the expedient support of Suhrawardy (he had fallen out with the League high command). Hashim, it seems, had no doubts that Purba Pakistan had to be a sovereign entity. In 1945, he even went to the extent of enumerating the fundamental rights of the would be Free State of Eastern Pakistan. Later, when Suhrawardy sought to establish a United and Sovereign Bengal in 1947 (in my opinion, a euphemism for sovereign Purba Pakistan) with the help of Sarat Bose, Hashim gave him his complete support.
To conclude, my submission is that the founding of Bangladesh was the realization of the vision of Purba Pakistan that had been developed by the Bengali-Muslim intelligentsia and politicians back in 1947. Purba Pakistan, as understood by them, sounds like the natural culmination of the evolution of Bengali-Muslim society over roughly one-hundred-and-fifty years. As we saw, it first became staunchly Muslim and then, to sustain this religious outlook, enthusiastically took to the Bengali language. Purba Pakistan was meant to be a Bengali-Muslim state which, one imagines, accord equal dignity to Islam and the Bengali language. Today’s Bangladesh embodies this vision, not some bogus departure from the ‘two-nation theory’. Bangladesh did not secede from Pakistan because Bengali-Muslims discovered the nullity of this theory, but because they fell under the thrall of the same very Urdu speaking ashraf(the West Pakistani elite) whom their politicians in pre-independence Bengal had sought to resist and sideline. Did Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ever denounce the ‘two-nation theory’ from any platform? To my knowledge he did not. So, do not be surprised when Bangladesh brutalizes its Hindu minority. It is, after all, nothing but a Bengali version of the ‘land of the pure’ that lies to our north-west.
Dhurjati Prasad De, Bengal Muslims in Search of Social Identity, 1905-47(The University Press Limited, 1998)
Harun-or-Rashid, The Foreshadowing of Bangladesh: Bengal Muslim League and Muslim Politics 1906-1947(The University Press Limited, 1987)
Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity (OUP, 1981)
Sheila Sen, Muslim Politics in Bengal. 1937-47 (Impex India, 1976)