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pages 210 and 211 are missing. Based on the author's thesis (M.A.--University of London, 1955) with title: Some as
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An innovative cultural history of the evolution of modern marriage practices in Bengal, Marriage and Modernity challenge
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"Ahwal Gaur wa Panduah" by Munshi Shyam Prasad: p. -42 (4th group) In Persian.
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In a series of legal battles starting in 1882, South Asian Muslims made up of modernists, traditionalists, reformists, S
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In Visible Histories, Disappearing Women, Mahua Sarkar examines how Muslim women in colonial Bengal came to be more marg
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Revision of the author's thesis (Ph. D.--Jadavpur University).
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Table of contents :
Preface: Ways and Means of the Narrative
Introduction: Threads of Memories!
1: Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories
2: A Family Maverick: Existential Slog and Identity Encounters!
3: Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own!
4: Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity and Dress
5: The Incredible Rezu Chacha: Quest for Sufism in a Rural Community?
6: Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites: Rai Sahebs/Khandans/Beparis?
7: Muslim Identity Imaginations: “Never Apologize for Being a Muslim!”
8: Eclectic Historiography: “Demise of Memories Is the End of History!”
9: Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History!
Identity of a
Muslim Family in
Colonial Bengal Between Memories and History
Weaving personal remembrances with diverse sources including the author’s academic research and field works, this book is an intriguing rural Muslim historiography in Colonial Bengal, a largely ignored swathe in South Asian history. The gripping true-life account is built around real people—not imagined characters. Between the twilight of the 19th century and nearly the first half of the 20th century, the Muslims in Colonial Bengal in India were haunted by their misgivings about an alien rule and its cohorts. The religiosity and identity questions, conflicting existential urges, the spiraling Hindu-Muslim discord, the feudal constraints, and marginalization by the bhadraloks swirled around them. Wracked by religious, cultural, social, and political conflicts, the old British Indian Bengal comes alive in this book’s intergenerational narrative. With its 9 main chapters plus a preface and introduction, this volume seeks out average individuals’ life amidst such turmoil while it amplifies the larger challenges of the Muslims in undivided Bengal. Not rigidly structured, the multi-layered recount has utilized variable ways and means of research and innovative analysis. Authored by a well-published scholar on South Asia, this extraordinary study of a rural Muslim family in pre-partition Bengal addresses scholars, students, and specialists as well as the general readers. Framed by the known historical milieu and backed by reliable oral narratives, qualitative interviews, authentic memoirs, and scholarly sources, this is not a chronological memoir. Pertinent to the academics and refreshing to avid readers, this recount touches a range of disciplines from history, culture, and politics to anthropology.
Mohammad Rashiduzzaman, M.A., Ph.D., a retired academic and Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, USA, is a recognized scholar with a range of publications on British India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Durham, England in 1964; he taught at the University of Dhaka, now Bangladesh for a decade before he came to Columbia University for post-doctoral work from 1970 to 1973. His previous works include The Central Legislature in British India, 1921–47: Parliamentary Experiences Under the Raj (Peter Lang, 2020), Politics and Administration in the Local Councils: A Study of Union and District Councils in East Pakistan (1968), and Pakistan: A Study of Government and Politics (1967). He also authored numerous peer-reviewed articles on Pakistan, Bangladesh, Muslim identity, and political Islam.
Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal
This book is part of the Peter Lang Political Science, Economics, and Law list. Every volume is peer reviewed and meets the highest quality standards for content and production.
PETER LANG New York • Bern • Berlin Brussels • Vienna • Oxford • Warsaw
Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal Between Memories and History
PETER LANG New York • Bern • Berlin Brussels • Vienna • Oxford • Warsaw
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Rashiduzzaman, M., author. Title: Identity of a Muslim family in colonial Bengal: between memories and history / Mohammad Rashiduzzaman. Description: New York: Peter Lang, 2021. Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2020033409 (print) | LCCN 2020033410 (ebook) ISBN 978-1-4331-8319-5 (hardback) | ISBN 978-1-4331-8320-1 (ebook pdf ) ISBN 978-1-4331-8321-8 (epub) | ISBN 978-1-4331-8322-5 (mobi) Subjects: LCSH: Rashiduzzaman, M.—Family. | Muslims—India—Bengal—History—19th century. | Muslims—India—Bengal—History—20th century. | Bengal (India)—History—19th century. | Bengal (India)—History—20th century. | Bengal (India)—Ethnic relations. Classification: LCC DS485.B4512 M8735 2021 (print) | LCC DS485.B4512 (ebook) | DDC 929.20954—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020033409 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020033410 DOI 10.3726/b17464 Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the “Deutsche Nationalbibliografie”; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de/.
© 2021 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York 80 Broad Street, 5th floor, New York, NY 10004 www.peterlang.com All rights reserved. Reprint or reproduction, even partially, in all forms such as microfilm, xerography, microfiche, microcard, and offset strictly prohibited.
Dedicated to the memories of my parents and grandparents
Preface: Ways and Means of the Narrative Acknowledgements Introduction: Threads of Memories!
ix xv 1
1: Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories
2: A Family Maverick: Existential Slog and Identity Encounters!
3: Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own!
4: Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity and Dress
5: The Incredible Rezu Chacha: Quest for Sufism in a Rural Community?
6: Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites: Rai Sahebs/Khandans/Beparis?107 7: Muslim Identity Imaginations: “Never Apologize for Being a Muslim!” 133 8: Eclectic Historiography: “Demise of Memories Is the End of History!” 161
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9: Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History! Bibliography Index
185 199 203
Preface: Ways and Means of the Narrative
Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History is a hybrid narrative that innovatively melds history with personal reminiscences, oral anecdotes, identity imagination, religiosity, scholarly studies, and grassroots encounters over three generations in united Bengal before 1947. A sequence of records and interviews in this volume were, indeed, the remains of my earlier academic research, sweeping over larger British India, undivided Bengal, and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) accomplished since the 1960s. My data collection and analytical strategies mirrored this tome’s variegated character. Diverse informants, intellectual probes, and the book’s protracted growth, concentrated in the Preface and Introduction, are further trickled in nearly all chapters. Such flexible ways and means were the realistic approaches for this multi-layered narrative. Triangulation of old materials including documents, comparative memories, religiosity and identity, open conversations, random village surveys in former East Pakistan, and peripheral but original resources are amongst the inclusive methodologies of this work. The observations and data assembled from their hybrid sources are, however, rooted in social sciences and historical research. In the light of Benedict Anderson, identity lies in the realm of imagination; not always built on tangible realities, the distinctiveness is more about the ways people perceive themselves, and also about who got what in the course of history.
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Notwithstanding the religiosity ascribed to it, Muslim identity has a relaxed posture here—Muslimness, as demonstrated through lived experiences, was not a monolithic countenance in rural Bengal of the interval delineated here. Chapter 7 (Muslim Identity Imaginations: “Never Apologize for Being a Muslim!”), more focused on the subject, steers with a quotation from A.K. Fazlul Huq (Fazlul Huq) in its sub-title: he was indeed an illustrious Muslim leader, the first elected premier of Colonial Bengal in 1937. The Bengali Muslims were, in their identity imagination, more likely inspired by such impulses than any academically fashioned theory. As a result, the account, at times, blurs the lines between personal recollections and the prevailing discourses on Muslim history, religiosity, and politics in South Asia. Not a hagiographical account here, I relied heavily on what my father and family elders reflected upon their experiences and their historical recalls. Countless of my father’s verbal observations were not the neatly spelled hypotheses ordinarily preferred by historians and social scientists. Added to the Preface and the Introductory wedge, there are nine major chapters in this volume. Chapter 1 matched personal and family reminiscences with parallel memories including select autobiographies; other chapters too hosted the key premises with their motley underpinning. Further than the events and individual experiences covered here, I also scanned a few diaries, old letters, and the timeworn books from the extended family. Likewise, I surfed magazine articles, old political pamphlets, and a few exclusive books to get a feel of the time and society I entrenched here. Dispersed resources too included several Bengali fictions, non-fictions, classic Bengali movies, folklore, devotional songs, ghost/Jinn stories, art and architecture, morally infused rural parables, Sufi shrines, Hindu temples and puja festivals, punthi literature, allegorical tales, humorous anecdotes, informal adda (gossip), old coins and family wares, Sufi/sadhu discourses, and, occasionally, also family cuisine to trace how it reflected the Muslim lifestyle and traditions in rural Bengal from the past. A precious slice of this account came from my old interviews with several senior political leaders in Dhaka in the 1960s; they were active in Bengal’s Muslim politics in the 1930s and 1940s, which stretched into the early years of Pakistan. This was part of my post-doctoral research, later carried at Columbia University from 1970 to 1973. Those informants in the late 1960s included Maulana Akram Khan, a senior Muslim League leader and a prominent/writer/editor in Colonial Bengal and East Pakistan; Nurul Amin, former chief minister of East Pakistan; Yusuf Ali Chowdhury and Azizul Huq, both former provincial minsters; Kamruddin Ahmed, political writer, social thinker and a diplomat; and Tajuddin Ahmed, then a prominent Awami League leader who, later in 1971, pioneered the
Preface: Ways and Means of the Narrative | xi independence struggle for Bangladesh. A couple of them gave me a few political pamphlets and unpublished materials from the 1940s. This volume additionally carries the snippets of my prior study on the Muslim League’s demise and the rise of the opposition parties in former East Pakistan. Sections of those post-doctoral research projects were published in Asian survey and Pacific Affairs; this narrative is indeed enriched by those relaxed but rare voices decades ago—now they are lost forever as those information-providers deceased over the years.
A Few Primary Questions Germane to This Work My father’s invigorating idea that originally inspired this work —“if you add your own memories with those of your father’s, you get one hundred years’ of history,” is further enhanced in my Introduction. Added to that bracing, the sprawling story has four essential affirmations: (a) the village based recount here was, in several ways, a microcosm in the bigger panorama of undivided Bengal and British India (See Introduction, Chapters 1, 8 & 9); (b) the ancestral recalls including the supernatural tales and family nostalgia that seeped into identity formulation deserved a niche in the domains of history and social sciences (see Introduction, Chapters 1, 7–9); (c) the Muslims largely identified with the Jinn-stories, embedded in Islamic theological discourses (see Introduction and Chapter 3); and (d) the housewives like my grandmother and later my mother had their own voices in their respective families, but their historical contributions in social development were generally overlooked by the acknowledged chroniclers (see Introduction and Chapters 1 & 3). Two interweaving reflections in this recount are: (i) a broad Muslim identity vision dappled the Muslim community of Colonial Bengal’s villages that possibly had regional and theological diversities (see Preface, Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 4, 7 & 8), and (ii) the marginalized rural Muslim ryots were in the midst of the pioneers of the educated Muslim middle class in old Bengal; later, they flourished even more in post-independent East Pakistan/ Bangladesh (for details of this issue see Chapters 2, 3, 6, 7 & 8).
Virtual Hypotheses of This Narrative Sufi eclecticism largely stamped my father’s interactions with his friends, colleagues, and occasional visitors (see Chapter 5 for a friend who came to learn
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from my father’s Sufi dispositions: the mystic inclinations are inferred in a couple of other chapters as well). Not in any strict sequence though, a few of my key assumptions, substantively gathered from diverse sources, are resurrected below:
1. The replacement of Persian by English as the official language had an enormous social and intellectual impact on the Muslims in Bengal/British India (see Chapters Introduction, 1, 7 & 8). 2. The locally prominent Muslim ashraf/khandan (aristocratic scions, sometimes called the kulins, a term also used to describe the well-bred brahmins) fell behind the Hindu bhadralok in education, power, status, professions, and leadership: they had limited interactions with the rest of the Muslim community in Colonial Bengal. (see Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6 & 8). 3. Largely drawn from my father’s observations and widespread contentions: the contemporary Muslims were not accountable for the presumed historical guilt of anti-Hindu wrongdoing by the Muslim rulers in the past; nor should they be exclusively blamed for the 1947 division of India (see Chapters 1, 7, 8 & 9). 4. The marginalized drift of Muslim experiences in historical treatises, textbooks, and popular writings encouraged the Hindu-Muslim gap in Colonial Bengal (see Chapters 1, 7–9). 5. Modern Bengali genre of literature commonly ignored the Muslim encounters and their vibrations of life as a part of the larger civil society— the giants among Bengali literary figures did not deconstruct the pre-existing anti-Muslim stereotypes and prejudices (see Chapters 1, 7 & 8…). 6. The so-called Choa-Choi (touching/not touching) practice between the Hindus and Muslims became a virtual social distancing between the two largest communities that eventually foiled a sustainable and intercommunal civil society in old Bengal (see Chapters 1, 4, 7 & 8). 7. Sidelined as the “others,” average Muslims became more conscious of their own identity and religiosity, which gradually empowered them through their numerical majority and leverage in Colonial Bengal’s quasi-parliamentary institutions and elected local councils (see Chapters 1, 4, 6, 7 & 8). 8. While divided along their religious and identity lines, people could still live in peace and coexistence through shared survival needs, language, culture, literature, education, and mutual respect as significantly demonstrated in the pre-British centuries (see Chapters Introduction, 1, 7 & 8).
Preface: Ways and Means of the Narrative | xiii
9. The roving Sufis, mystics, sadhus, fakirs, and dervishes, a fragment of rural Bengal’s spiritual tradition, provided a social equilibrium by espousing messages of mutual love and reverence (see Chapters 1, 5, 7 & 8 …).
Throughout the last years of the British Raj, the emerging rural leaders in my ancestral place, mostly not college educated, were more enterprising, and they pushed over the old bhadraloks and khandans’ customary grip in the local power structure (see Chapters 1, 6). Chapter 9 indeed compared the intergenerational memory voyage with the fluorescence of a Cherag on the edge of history—the Sufi metaphor for insight, love, and understanding that I want to share with my readers (see Chapter 9). The British Indian Legislative debates that mirrored the subtle Muslim identity throbs and the Hindu-Muslim divergences are echoed in Chapters 1, 7 & 8 of this book. My clench of Muslim identity voice at the British Indian highest legislative body came from The Central Legislature in British India, 1921–47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, Peter Lang, 2019, originally my Ph.D. dissertation from the early 1960s. I have also drawn from my three rural studies peripatetically conducted in three projects from the mid-1960s to the second half of 1970s (for further citations, see Chapter 6). Their colonial and pre-colonial roots have been adequately identified in Chapter 6 (Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites: Rai Saheb/Khandans/Beparis?) as well as in endnotes and bibliography. I matched my parental remembrances with Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s renowned memoir, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, (Autobiography) and a Bangladeshi writer and politician Abul Mansur Ahmed’s autobiographies/memoirs. I circulated several earlier draft chapters to a few of my old colleagues, friends and former students who too had rural upbringing in their respective districts in Bangladesh. It helped me in assessing the relevance of my father’s recollections and other reminiscences that I gathered. My grandparents’ old rural life, discerningly revived in Chapters 2 and 3, endowed the creative setting of the volume’s nine main chapters shuttled back and forth in times and circumstances. Going back in time, those two intervals give a feel for the kind of village life that the Muslims experienced in Colonial Bengal. Joya Chatterji’s Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932– 1947, Cambridge, 1994 is one of the few meticulously written scholarly works that went deep into the social dynamics behind the 1947 Bengal division. She presented the all-Bengal (macro) narrative of the urbanized bhadralok while this account is more built around a rural family’s trajectory in Colonial Bengal. Not really tied to the leading historical discourses, my father’s own historiographical
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insights are highlighted in Chapter 8 (Eclectic Historiography: “Demise of Memories Is the End of History!”). He further held that the modicum of intercommunal give-and-take accomplished by the Muslim-influenced Farsi literature and the Sanskritized Hindu literature in Bengal were not enthusiastically acknowledged by the Colonial and post-Colonial chroniclers (see Chapters 1, 7 & 8).
At the opening, I acknowledge the published and unpublished sources, most of which have been recorded in the book’s main contents, the endnotes, and the bibliography: Notwithstanding with his contentious views, I respectfully recognize Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s (Nirad) two outstanding volumes: The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951) (Autobiography) and Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (Thy Hand), 1987. Abul Mansur Ahmed was a well-respected politician though I have detailed him (in the contents, endnotes, and bibliography) more as a celebrated author whose autobiography and other writings touched back to the early 20th-century Bengal. I highlighted Joya Chatterji’s Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932–1947, Cambridge, 1994 that stirred me to enhance this work. Chapter 1 of this book has partly drawn from Holiday, a Weekly Magazine in Bangladesh, which in 1999 published a five-part account of comparative memories of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, my father, and mine with splinters of other recollections as well. In addition, I call back Holiday’s founding editor late Enayetullah Khan, an old friend, who originally invited me to write a commentary on Nirad C. Chaudhuri after his death.
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Among several autobiographical/biographical publications cited in this volume, I would make exceptional mentions of Abul Mansur Ahmed, Dr. M. O. Ghani, former Vice-Chancellor, University of Dhaka; Mahbubur Rahman, a senior civil servant in Bangladesh in the 1970s; Dr. R. H. Khandaker, a respectable Economist; Akbaruddin, a reputable playwright; and Dr. Habibuz Zaman, a Global Health Specialist, all of whom passed away over the years. Except two, I knew them individually for many years and we informally discoursed about their experiences in the pre-partitioned Bengal before 1947. A reputed writer/ journalist from a town near my family home, Abu Jafar Shamsuddin’s autobiography and a couple of his books helped me in remembering several people, events, and places that my father narrated to me. For my post-doctoral research project, I interviewed a number of senior politicians in the late 1960s whom I have listed in the Preface: I wish to mention their valuable information about the pre-1947 Bengal, which has enriched this volume. I talked leisurely and informally to several of my relatives, family members, neighbors, and friends even when this specific book was not in my mind. I have seen old letters, diaries, dress, prayer beads, family heirlooms plus the historical, literary, and religious books of my father’s collections and his published articles. Azizul Haque, my youngest maternal uncle, was always forthcoming to talk about my father. I wish to make a posthumous recognition here to a former student (late) Faizul Huq (Faizul), son of A. K. Fazlul Huq (Huq), the celebrated Muslim leader of Colonial Bengal, who gave me his father’s diary from the early 1940s. I have corrected a few of my ancestors’ biographical background from my younger brother Dr. Waheeduzzaman’s Amar Guru Dakkhina (2014), a booklet commemorating my father’s services to the Kaliganj High School, when it celebrated the 125th year of its founding. Dr. S. Serajul Islam, Professor in Political Science, Lakehead University, Canada read several chapters and offered me fresh ideas of comparative social history of South and Southeast Asia. Dr. Ruth Anne Baumgartner copy-edited the earlier drafts of the first three chapters of this volume; her comments helped me in tidying up the manuscript. Those who helped me in shaping my book cover ideas included Tania Amin, Alvina Ehsan, Adaline Zaman, Orlando Almonte and Jacqueline Pavlovic (Peter Lang) I wish to profusely thank Michelle Smith, Editor, Peter Lang, my publisher, for all her initiatives and support toward this book’s publication.
Acknowledgements | xvii And now I wish to recognize those who read the manuscript, full or in parts, and assisted me with precious input and inspiration: Dr. Mir Monayem Chowdhury of Cheney University, Cheney, Pa. USA enthusiastically read all the chapters and offered animated encouragement for the work in progress. Another pal was Dr. Sultan Ahmed, a retiree from the World Bank, who read most of the earlier chapters and tendered tips for fixing the typographical errors and the lack of clarity creeping in numerous pages. Among the friends and peers who read a few sections of the manuscript and extended constructive ideas included Dr. Alamgir Sirajuddin, a reputed historian and former Vice-Chancellor of the Chittagong University, Bangladesh; Dr. Barrie Thorne, Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, a specialist in family sociology; Dr. B. Doza, a sociologist-demographer; Professor Mahfuzul Huq Chowdhury, Professor in Political Science and Vice-Chancellor, Independent University, Chittagong, Bangladesh; Dr. Taj Hashmi, a well-known historian, formerly at the University of Singapore, Austin Peay State University, Tennessee and the APCSS, Honolulu, Hawaii; Mumtaz Iqbal, a history enthusiast working on the 1905 Bengal Partition and a freelance writer; Dr. Ahrar Ahmed, Professor Emeritus, Black Hill State University, Spearfish, S. Dakota and currently Director, Gyantapash Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka; Dr. Iftekhar Iqbal, Professor, Brunei University, Professor Nizam Ahmed of Chittagong University; Dr. M. Waheeduzzaman, Professor, Austin Peay State University, Tennessee; Dr. Dilara Chowdhury, formerly Professor of Political Science, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh; Dr. A. Masud Hasanuzzaman, Professor in Political Science, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Bangladesh; Dr. Q. M. Jalal Khan, an author of two recent books on Bangladesh; Tayeb Hossain, an independent commentator on Bangladesh and Bengali literary history; and Mrs. Raihana Mahbub, an autobiography author from Bangladesh currently in London. I also wish to thank Orlando Almonte and Rachel Mancini, former students at the Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey for formatting the manuscript, along with the end notes preparation, as the main writing progressed. At the family level, my wife Maliha and my three children—Lilya, Faria and Asif—were amongst the first readers of the bumpy drafts of this volume. My wife happily encouraged me to go ahead with writing although she was now and then edgy when the manuscript was stuck without an end in sight and when I cluttered our living room with numerous books, draft chapters, and various reading materials! Indeed, my references to her parents, grandparents, and relatives in Calcutta and Dhaka, her father’s two notebooks and personal letters going back in the late 1920s mostly came from her and her mother’s recollections of Calcutta in the
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1930s and 1940s. Lilya, my eldest daughter, is continuously interested about the family legacies. Faria, my younger daughter, read a few of my earlier drafts and tendered useful comments from time to time. Asif read a couple of my earlier drafts and helped me in the manuscript preparation. Dr. Andrew L. Thorne-Lyman, my son-in-law, a public health/nutrition specialist at the John Hopkins University, Baltimore, is my computer guru: he was a great help in structuring my typing where I habitually falter! Sultana Khanam, a grandniece with English literature background, was a sharp reader who detected the missing links in a couple of earlier chapters. Samara, my granddaughter, also pitched in when I was shaky with my computer in the middle of my writing. Jasper and Rizwan, the twin grandsons, are now too young to read the manuscript, but I hope, someday, they will read the book and remember their Nana and Nanu, and, of course, their yore. I wish to acknowledge Jacqueline Pavlovic at Peter Lang and Sarath Kumar at Newgen for their help during this book’s production.
Introduction Threads of Memories!
“… If you add your own memories with those of your father’s, you get one hundred years of history!” That was from my father, an intellectually curious educator, a history enthusiast, a family, and community chronicler and, indeed, a virtually “unknown” witness of the tumultuous decades in Colonial Bengal!
While my family recollections aligned with the larger story of Colonial Bengal’s Muslim experiences, this narrative is wedged in the grim and jaded twilight of the British Raj before the Indian sub-continent’s freedom in 1947. It has new voices about identity, existential struggles, and Muslim encounters in old and united Bengal under the alien rule. Many from that generation are no longer with us. Their unrecorded memories, religiosity, oral narratives and living experiences, except a few autobiographies, historical fictions and non-fictions, and family reminiscences, have all but disappeared for good. This story, however, renews those long-departed voices. Identity imagination was, then, like a fracturing chrysalis—growing out of the British Indian subject status. A way out of the colonially foisted individuality, people, in my local village community, hosted themselves more as Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. One half of old Bengal became the eastern wing of the newly created Pakistan and the other half turned out to be the (West) Bengal province of India as the subcontinent was divided in 1947 with the demise of the British Indian Raj. People became either the catastrophic sufferers or
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the undeniable beneficiaries following that division—all that mattered was their religion and geography, largely determining their future location, national identity, and fate in the old provinces of Bengal and the Punjab. Periodic communal tension and rioting in Dhaka and even in the no-too-distant villages still stroll down the memory lane. Now and then, the Hindu-Muslim rioting was spiked by such rumors in Dhaka that a few miscreants had thrown slaughtered pigs at a mosque or a Hindu temple was desecrated by tossing cow carcasses into its premises. On a few instances, arson and looting were not too far from our home—once I saw the slain body of an elderly schoolteacher at the local railway station. One Muslim student leader Nazir Ahmed was brutally murdered in 1942 in Dhaka; his death anniversary was observed in our school throughout the late 1940s. And during such occasions, rhetoric overshadowed facts, and sporadic Hindu-Muslim rioting cropped up in Dhaka and in its bordering areas. I still retain the shifting demographics in the school and the adjoining villages and towns—sections of the Hindu students and teachers in the school were leaving for the Indian part of Bengal. But there were also the fleeing Muslim refugees coming into the newly created East Pakistan, that is, East Bengal; Kaliganj, our nearby town, barely 24 miles from Dhaka, surely felt the waves of the bulging migrant population. When my mother was in a pleasant mood and when rice was plentiful after the harvest, heaps of spicy fried rice, naru1, or home-made sweets as well came readily during the story sessions in my childhood. Customarily, those were the evening or afternoon sessions in rainy and lazy days: in the after-dinner evening sittings, scantily lit by a kerosene lamp or candles against the spooky darkness outside, we were not hungry for nibbles. When the crowd of my cousins and visiting nephews and nieces was sizeable, we huddled on the pati2 spread on the cool, unpaved floor. It was like what is called Adda in the classic Bengali culture—an open-ended gossip exchange from the past, all about who did what. They were seasoned with wistful yearnings, intergenerational jealousies, or the fearsome ghost or jinn stories passed down the family trees. I am still unsure how to connect my mother’s supernatural anecdotes with my real life and where to consign such stories in our memories or in our world of appreciation. I cannot help feeling that the jinn and ghost stories, fairy-tales, folklore, a string of popular vocabularies and anecdotes blended in the family’s narratives and identity imagination. Seldom those anecdotes were about religious bigotry; however, the jinn stories, tied to the Islamic theology, were more exclusive to the Muslim households since my non-Muslim friends at the school were more hooked with the ghost, demonic, and the Hindu mythological stories largely told by their grandmothers.
Introduction: Threads of Memories! | 3 Occasionally I went fishing in the nearby canal that coupled the river on the south and the Belai Beel, a huge marshy land a few miles toward the north. I always went with a friend or two in such fishing outings, during the rainy seasons. One of them was a few years older than me; he taught me the skills of fishing, but also told me who was doing what in our neighborhood and which parts of the village were believed to be ghost infested. A few masrangas3 sat on the tree branches, barely above the rippling water, on the rim of a vanishing bush bordering the village pathsala4. I was a student there for a year until I dropped out after a hard thumping by the head pandit5. It was for some transgressions that I no longer recall, but I remember that my father was mad with that teacher though being spanked by a school instructor was a part of growing up in our childhood in old days. And those stalking birds traversed the flooded canal preying on fish. In my elusive writing bursts, I wished I were one of those masrangas—flying in from all directions and swooping down on the fleeting recollections in my memory river. My parents’ family anecdotes, particularly those of my father’s, had a notso-hidden motive—to inspire me to do better than my forerunners. And yet, his commemorative cloudbursts habitually fell like a heavy weight on me—pointing out my own slips, or to vent his own regrets in his life. Maybe, that was the way my parents transported history to their children—an insight that later dawned in my matured years. Those reminiscences were indeed the genesis of the volume; they gave me a better handle for the trajectory of my neighborhood, Colonial Bengal, and the subcontinent over a swathe of history. They helped me to come of age; even the parents’ whacks from days long gone are among my memory treasures now. Those ponderings, the entrenched layers of my identity and personal historiography, still flicker like the fireflies that glowed in our front yard and the nearby paddy fields throughout the late summer and cool autumn evenings. They are, in a way, like the coming and going of the relatives, or the wandering Sufis or kalki-smoking sadhus breaking their journeys at our outer house, off a dirt road by the rolling rice fields. My mother’s Arabic-Persian-Urdu-loaded Bengali (what was once known as “the Muslim Bangla”) gradually withered away in her colloquial and written Bengali. I had a feeling that Muslim relatives of my mother’s ancestral villages, the old Maheshwardi Pargana, on the eastern side of our river, had a slightly different dialect—it was replete with Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu words. She often used two apparently Arabic/Persian (or Urdu) words—“Suleh-e-Kul,” (also spelled as Sulh-i-Kull): literally meaning peace for all irrespective of sectarian differences. Nevertheless, I remember it was occasionally utilized in casting an aspersion on those who claimed a selfish one-sided gain without sharing it with others. Trailing
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back, it was an example of Indo-Persian culture of northern India stretching into rural Bengal. Later, I learned that Suleh-e-Kul was the Mughal ruler Akbar’s Sufi and syncretistic ideal for intercommunal peace in India that gradually collapsed through calculated socio-cultural erosions during the British Raj. To my father, such non-Indian vocabularies, metaphors, fairy tales, literary concoctions, Muslim adab (manner/sophistication), cuisine, and the decaying architectures from the Sultanate/Mughal periods were the remains of the once-flourishing Persianized culture in Northern India that also traveled to Bengal. My mother, an exceedingly beautiful and kind lady, would possibly have been pleased if someone would have written a Persian-flavored verse for her. If I were an artist, I would paint her face with soulful memory strokes! Besides her family saga, my mother told stories about the parees6, and the imagined land where the jinns and parees lived. Her jinn scoops—though a little scary—evinced a human touch. My wife picked up parallel tales from her grandmother as a child; stories of the imaginary Kokab Sahar7, where all the jinns and parees8 lived. Whether it was my mother’s or my wife’s grandmother’s story, all the tales claimed that the jinns liked sweets. Around midnight, when fewer people were in the streets, they posed as human customers to buy sweets! I came across such stories of jinns shopping for sweets at night in those parts of Dhaka that had old mosques. Such tales though creepy in message bonded the family and served the social commitment for entertainment and fellowship through a time long before television, cell phone, computer, and Internet. Jinn/ghost stories, anecdotes, ghost tales, and folklore are not the staples of mainstream chroniclers, but they too are worthy of a slot in history as the peripheral sphere of experiences; not necessarily factual and unbiased. Yet, those verbal recounts connected people with mutual ties by casting a spell on their beliefs, identity, and spiritualism: they are very much the elements of popular memories and genuine experiences. I enjoyed returning to my roots and I modestly maintained my father’s legacy of helping a few poor students in the local school where he taught. Even at the height of communal tension in the 1940s, the school was virtually the only intercommunal nucleus of the town and during the earlier decades: the Hindu and Muslim students and teachers assembled under one roof for the purpose of learning. Over decades, I have gone back and forth gathering information embedded in this book; in my rumination path, sometimes, I felt like a crazy man crying for food in the middle of night. In fact, I did overhear such screaming nearly every night during my college days, from a hovel in a neglected lane of old Dhaka.
Introduction: Threads of Memories! | 5 *** *** *** A coalescence of diverse sources, this recount now veers more toward a narrative of identity and culture ensconced in Colonial Bengal’s social history. I sensed that I could draw on my extended family and personal memories to produce a non-fiction narrative within the known social, political, and historical parameters of the pre-partition Bengal. This exposé layers destiny-changing political events, although this is not a conventional wrap of a history or a government and politics book. I did not import structural-functional analysis to depict the rural power structure in Colonial Bengal: the trail of my informants—their narratives, however, exposed the authenticity of the time. The multifaceted description appropriately recited in the first person, I hope, goes far beyond a family’s anecdotes. As a political scientist, my earlier research included aspects of this storyline going back to British India and what was East Pakistan, but this book, of course, carries elements of the larger historiography of what was Colonial Bengal, currently Bangladesh and the remains of old Bengal in modern India. The saga innovatively fuses cultural and identity facets of old rural Bengal, an overlooked corner of South Asia’s tumultuous history. However, this is a ruptured narrative—very much like winding recollections—memories are generally short lived: they are more often forgotten, but not always lost forever. Already stated, I employed a triangulated methodology to deal with the intertwining memory-weaves, real-life experiences, and an assortment of written and unwritten resources resonating through history. I allowed my memory to recall my bygone events at its own whimsical pace, so it was indeed a slow course. That flexibility transported intervals to the story’s memory constituents. Every so often, a small incident, a cuisine that someone liked, a popular book from the past, a classic song, an old movie, a political dispute, family quarrel over land, religious events, or a forgotten vocabulary and a hilarious metaphor or an entertaining humor that passed through generations drove me to remember my parents, other long-gone members of my family, and a few of the contemporary acquaintances too. Different from the hardcore research methods, those “memory devices” facilitated a refurbished look at the seismic episodes of Colonial Bengal: to be sure, they delineated the Muslim identity dialectics in the pre-partition Bengal. A deeper analysis of what I have narrated here was accomplished through a comparison of my story with equivalent memoirs and several academic history books on old Bengal. Such an absorbing quest between memory and history is often a convulsive undertaking that usually constructs as well as deconstructs.
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My father was the keeper of our family stories, mostly about his parents, personal encounters in his school, and interactions in his younger and adult life. With an eclectic historiography of his own, he was not tired of recalling his family anecdotes or local history whenever he had an opportunity of doing this. To him, every historical event had a socio-cultural backdrop without which historical knowledge would remain incomplete. His simple narratives, accompanied with side stories, were sporadic, and yet they were the real-life occurrences, not imaginary tales. In the long sequel of this book, I dreaded that my manuscript fragments might perish like withered buds falling on the ground as portrayed in abundant Bengali poems. In lashing frustration, I mumbled the opening line of a favorite ghazal9: Tasbir banata Hoon, Tasbir nehi bante … (“I am drawing a portrait, but its image is not forming …!).” But memories of what I gathered from my family, what I experienced myself, and what I pulled together from diverse sources including my previous works did not fail me entirely. Indeed, they lifted me from my rash of frustration and out of my writer’s block, and then tugged me back to my writing—again and again, and year after year through this odyssey! The images here are largely the family-centered wrinkles and configurations of ordinary men and women during the painfully shifting politics and society of what was united Bengal. And the speckled landscape opens doors to those who want to grasp history at its micro as well as the macro backdrops. Assorted religiosity, identity, spirituality, cultural beliefs, and values in the same extended family dotted the setting; this narrative might, in the future, spur reappraisals of the pre-partition Bengal’s history. From their rural cores, I bring up the century-old Muslim encounters with the British Raj, its oppressive zamindari10 structure, the overwhelming bhadralok- dominance and the alien hegemony buttressed by the “steel-frame” bureaucracy as it was widely perceived in British-ruled India. My father’s spiritual universe was richly textured though it also carried plausible contradictions even amongst his own family members. A seriously practicing Muslim, his Sufi inclinations nourished non-sectarian and eclectic penchants. His Sufi drifts blended with village practices and beliefs from the pre-British days. Every individual was a distinctive entity, and the failure of a person should not be attributed as the collective fault—be it a community of Muslims, Hindus, or Christians—those were among his unflinching beliefs and historiographical instincts. The battle between the Sufi mystics and the Wahhabism-inspired Islamic fundamentalists was, however, very much alive during my parents’ and grandparents’ time. However, it was then more tacit in expression; well-known as it is, the old identity politics has become more violent in contemporary times.
Introduction: Threads of Memories! | 7 Set in the waning years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in what is Bangladesh now, ordinary men and women, illustrated here, are the main characters of the tale. The pathway of the Muslim ryots (peasants/ tenants) was stemmed by social undercurrents, identity diversity, religiosity, spirituality, and, of course, politics of the long-lost time. The book may fall short of a conventional history volume; even then, the academics as well as the incisive readers will have something to haul out from what I characterize as my father’s (also a few others’) largely “unwritten history”—the oral narratives and recollections. The range of recollections, comparable autobiographies, and reliable published materials here offer an out-of-the-ordinary narrative of the pre-1947 social history of Bengal largely from its rural foundations. The volume’s sensitivity, adaptable research methods, cross-cultural references, intellectual and spiritual encounters, wit, metaphors, hopes, and despair will, I hope, jolt the readers across the frontiers. The wealth of personal narratives and recollections here, both analytical and informative, hopefully reclaim a part of South Asia’s overlooked narratives. Beginning with my grandparents (whom I never met) in the latter years of the 19th century, this account navigates across the furor of the 1905 Bengal division, the slow stirring of the disadvantaged Muslim ryots11 and peasants accomplished through larger enfranchisement and quasi-parliamentary institutions of the 1920s and 1930s, the sprawling communal tragedies in the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, and the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. Then the story rolls toward the 1947 splinter of Bengal that went with India’s freedom from the British in that year. The story is a litany of fortitudes with which my grandparents, and then my parents held a family together: thy crafted difficult solutions while they retained their subtly different postures over their respective religious and spiritual values. Few available accounts, except the fictional volumes, go deep into the rural backdrop of the 1947 partition while the debates on that division’s appalling consequences never had a finality. Besides their diverse Indian sources, there are numerous (Bengali) movies and TV serials touching on this subject. Conversely, their Bangladeshi counterparts remained largely passive about the chaotic dissection of 1947 while a small band of liberal intellectuals and politicians occasionally questioned the wisdom of that rupture and the pain that it accompanied the dislocated men and women. In history, this book focuses how the Muslim community haltingly emerged from their cocoon of self-denial and ordeals between the last half of the 19th century and the first phase of the 20th century. The Muslims were initially reluctant to go in for modern education or take government jobs, considering it as an unmitigated capitulation to the British Raj, the foreign hegemony over them. By sending their sons to the modern schools, my grandfather
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and a few of their fellow villagers chose pragmatism when most Muslims in the subcontinent, still caught in a humiliating sense of loss to a foreign rule, were in alarming disarray. Here, I have glimpsed multifaceted history frequently through my family’s prism, but this is not an exposition of personal admiration and a periodized life-story. Besides, the aggregate narrative spans religious lines, differing but resilient Muslim identities, conflicting values, shifting rural leadership, and the lingering social separation between the ashraf12 and non-ashraf among the Muslims. The book’s novelty is its gaze at the rural forces at work preceding the 1947 partition of Bengal. The turbulent decades of Colonial Bengal from 1905 to 1947 could possibly be rivaled only by the genocidal killings, torture, persecution, and the fierce revolt in 1971—during the independence struggle of Bangladesh. However, the cluster of unparalleled events between the 1905 and 1947 partitions of Bengal—evidently caught in a national downgrading—are still exceptionally relevant to present Bangladesh’s history that needs to be told. Few Bangladeshi historical narratives are about the pre-1947 politics and society, and who got what in that era. Amongst the three history-shaking events of Bangladesh—the (two) partitions of 1905 and 1947 and the 1971 violent struggle for independence from Pakistan—the post1971 narrative has undeniably overshadowed the previous stages of history. But this is not an unusual phenomenon: patriotic and nationalist tumult typically try to restructure the past narrative to suit contemporary political opportunities. Amnesia about the past is often a negative fallout of intense national partisanship; however, such exclusionary and divisive positions eventually fall through and hurt national harmony. The pre-1947 epoch, according to a few schools of thought, foretold the nation’s eventual separation and independence from Pakistan down the road. Without acknowledging the past, the future generations would remain “strangers” to their own history. The polarizing Hindu-Muslim reaction after the first Bengal division (1905) and the unprecedented roil against it did not wilt away from Colonial Bengal; the next hiatus marked a steady political empowerment of the Muslims—hitherto powerless and sidelined. My father experienced a tad of the Hindu-Muslim disparity in his school days, but as an adult observer, he witnessed such contentious humming since he was a college student in Dhaka from 1915 to 1919. Going back to his life, he was indeed proud of what he had achieved! I, my kith and kin, my cohorts, our successors, and the remainders of the society in existing Bangladesh (also West Bengal) are the offsprings of our ancestors’ struggle and perseverance in Colonial Bengal. Yet, what the dominant discourses, time and again, miss are the social and political subtleties at the rural base of the old
Introduction: Threads of Memories! | 9 Bengal’s society. Lately, a bunch of Indian historians ventured a fresh peek at the circumstances that led to the 1947 split of the sub-continent’s two old provinces (Bengal and the Punjab), though for Bengal, the 1947 partition was the second division since the earlier short-lived one (1905–1911). If the old British Indian Bengal, with its politics, history, and society, was the macrocosm of those forces, my family (along with its rural community) was credibly the microcosm of those undercurrents. What I did know about my grandparents was a twine of stories—what they did, where my grandfather relaxed, what they liked, whom they liked, what issues were irritable for them and whom they fought with. Interestingly, my father and my eldest uncle—uncle Ismail—had told most stories about my grandfather’s time, and Uncle Ismail died in 1947. But his eldest son was a storyteller to me whenever he visited home from his job in the military in the 1950s and when I briefly stayed with him in the Dhaka Cantonment area when I was freshly admitted to the College. I could have assembled an imagined family account, but what fictional characters could be as interesting to me, and as distinct, as those experiences narrated by my own relatives were? My eldest uncle, who dropped out of high school, at the very end of the 19th century, was a gifted man; an artist, engraver, composer of folk songs, and organizer of jatra13 groups. Once I joined one of his sons (of my age) to search through his attic, and I saw his old diary/folder, which had a couple of Sanskrit mantras of exorcism, and a few of his drawings—including sketches of nude fairies. Once my father had told me that my grandmother did not like my uncle drawing naked fairies; she believed that such pictures were forbidden in Islam. In fact, she assumed that my uncle had failed to prosper in life because he indulged in drawing naked fairies! Such faiths are embedded in the Muslim theological beliefs and identity imagination spread across this story. Still, my father had respected his elder brother while his own inclinations for folk songs and music had their origins in my uncle’s artistic talents. My grandmother lived over 16 years since her husband died, but she and my grandfather were vividly remembered in the stories told by their aging children and young grand children in my boyhood. Since he was in poor health in his old age, my grandfather preferred to retreat in the outer house—the “Windy Bungalow,” as his friends called it. He was very fond of the Lakhya14, the river that could perhaps be traced back to his heart, as his wife told others. His favorite spot outside the house was the lugubrious banyan tree at the river bend; in the spring, he enjoyed looking at Krishnachura15 blooms on the riverbank, and in the rainy season, he enjoyed the sight of monsoon clouds hovering over the Lakhya. Drawn in the surroundings of the late 19th century and early 20th century Bengal, I have
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reimagined a bit of my grandparents’ lives as well as their identity comprehensions and religiosity built on the family remembrances: it’s a little image of a rural Muslim family in Colonial Bengal. By way of oral yarns, the older people in those days offered history lessons to their younger scions; they were anecdotes from the past—few of them were textbook stories. My maternal great-grandfather died in 1956 at the age of 116, when I was doing my M.A.: I was also temping as a part-time sub-editor for the Millat, a local daily that no longer exists when I had the honor of writing an obituary for him. He was the epitome of the etiquette, dress, traditions, and good food of the declining Muslim khandan16 of his younger years. Above all, he was the classic storyteller—about himself, the prevailing society, and those whom he considered as the “real” Muslim khandans in his area. Beyond the material possessions, a khandan should demonstrate adab, a civility in manner and even literary talents as he gave examples of numerous pre-British Muslim rulers in Bengal and in Delhi/Lucknow who were acknowledged poets and patrons of songs, music, poetry, good food, and graceful architecture. He was himself well versed in Persian (Farsi) and Urdu. While we visited him in his house, he took pride in showing the empty decanters of attar that he, in his youth, mail-ordered from Lucknow; some of them were used for flavoring his aromatic khambiri (also known as ambiri) tobacco in his flourishing years. To my father, however, the strikingly old man gave eye-witness accounts of the post-1857 (Sepoy Mutiny) hanging of several Muslim rebels in Dhaka—it was like the “unrecorded journal” unfolding for my father. He seemed eager to know more about the past from the elderly people’s wisdom, folk lore, popular fables about long-standing mosques, shrines, temples; even the ghost stories about the old trees and the woodlands in the nearby villages did not escape his attention. I knew more about the popular versions of that (1857) upheaval from a few elderly people when I moved to live in Dhaka—a couple of them claimed to be the descendants of the 18th/19th century Muslim aristocracy in the city. They reminded young people that during the (1857) failed revolt, the so-called kuttis, the presumed successors of the Mughal legions in Dhaka dared the British. Numerous of those mutineers suffered cruel reprisals at the hands of the East India Company forces. While the text books tailored by the British Raj nearly made us forget the 1857 “Mutiny,” my maternal great grandfather as well as a few other elderly relatives explained to the younger generation that the past rebellion was an exalted event of the sub-continent’s history that, for a while, united both the Hindus and Muslims.
Introduction: Threads of Memories! | 11 Typically shackled by the abusive zamindars17 and moneylenders and downgraded by the bhadralok, the Muslim community in Bengal was alive with a range of frustrations, reactions, and tensions, as well as contentious questions, which ordinarily don’t surface in the typical history books on South Asia. This narrative would supplement the restricted textbooks on the earlier social and political recounts of Bangladesh and the contemporary Indian part of former Bengal. Hopefully, this volume will enhance ties between the early and succeeding generations not only in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, but it would also be a learning resource for the growing South Asian expatriates, many of whom are nearly sealed off from the knowledge of their core. Both Bangladesh and today’s West Bengal (Bangla) are the heirs to the two Bengal partitions—1905 and 1947 though the Muslim and Hindu versions of those epoch-making episodes are still shadowed by sharp disagreements. Neither the 1947 partition nor the 1971 Bangladesh independence from Pakistan could, so far, change those historical legacies. Over recent years, I have read numerous fictional and non-fiction narratives together with scores of YouTube/TV serials and Indian movies on those divisions; they still echoed the old differing views of the two turbulent experiences of Bengal history. The earlier (1905) Bengal divide was annulled in 1911–1912 when the Muslims were perceptively weak in most spheres of life—beyond a privileged group of urbanized Muslim leaders who were less than astute in hardline political campaign. The strident opposition of the Indian National Congress (Congress) and the overwhelming Hindu intelligentsia’s poignant defiance toward the 1905 partition revealed their lack of compassion for the Muslim community’s substantial support on behalf of that history-changing event. Later in 1947, the tables turned—the Muslims overwhelmingly supported the demand for Pakistan. Three of my first cousins were then working in Calcutta since the early 1940s, and two of my uncles wanted Calcutta to be a part of anticipated Pakistan! My father and the known elders guessed the local bhadralok18 insight: to them, a divided Bengal in 1947 would be a better choice than living under a Muslim-dominated political entity. In and around our town, most educated families who had personal and professional contacts with Calcutta were Hindus; they were more troubled about Calcutta’s future if the looming split of Bengal really happened. The Hindu elite’s rising trepidation of the Muslim demographic preponderance in Bengal has been detailed in a couple of forthcoming chapters of this book. I gathered from my family’s recollections and the available historical sources that whispers of communal apprehension had begun even much earlier as the Hindu-Muslim distrust did not melt away since 1905. This is a village-level account of the Hindu-Muslim
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differences that imprinted the history of Colonial Bengal until its second split in 1947. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, in his Autobiography, weighed up the Hindu elite’s fright of the Muslim ascendancy since the early 20th-century Bengal, which the Hindu bhadralok resented. While the Indian National Congress Party and most Hindu leaders looked upon the Muslim boldness as little more than an unfair claim with a religious angst, the Bengali Muslims were already emboldened by their steady political gains in the moderately parliamentary institutions since the 1920s. Surely, their hopes, aspirations, and even fears including those of my ancestors that reached a new bend are described in the ensuing chapters. Abul Mansur Ahmed, a writer and activist since the 1920s, has written profusely about Bengal politics and Hindu-Muslim relations in undivided Bengal. I took the liberty to compare his recollections with those of my father’s experiences in Colonial Bengal (more discussion on him will follow in Chapter 1 and the consequent segments). The sidelined Muslim grievances patently bubbled in the Bengal Legislative Council since the 1909 separate electorate increased Muslim representation in the legislatures. Notwithstanding the controversies about it, the “communal electorate” gave the Muslims a breathing space in Colonial Bengal’s political process—the issue will return later in this narrative. The Hindu-Muslim tension increased throughout the 1920s and 1930s, which soared in the 1940s: those emerging issues are largely described in this volume from a rural stage. In her, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932–1947, Cambridge, 1994, Joya Chatterji surely pointed out that the 1947 division of Bengal was, by and large, the result of Hindu bhadralok’s fear of a Muslim majority in united Bengal. My father believed that he got his teaching job in 1920 at the local school while that institution sensed the need for more Muslim teachers and adding more Muslim students to the school. What the Headmaster and the school board saw as a new dilemma since the 1920s was really the emerging Muslim clout in the elected rural councils and the new Bengal provincial legislature. In the interim, religion had already gained a toehold in politics of those days. And still, my father was the only Muslim teacher with a university degree in his school until the 1940s. The Hindu bhadraloks were distinguished by their social, cultural, and political pitch, but the newly perceived Muslim self-assurance fostered their anger and foreboding that echoed in Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s multiple volumes. Covered in this recount, the new-found Muslim buoyancy did not surface unexpectedly. In my town as well as at the all-Bengal platform, most privileged Hindus took the new-found Muslim influence as a threat to their vested interests. Outlined in the Chapters 2 and 3 of this book, my grandfather had just a glimpse of those
Introduction: Threads of Memories! | 13 subtle political changes in his days through gossips from neighbors, rumors in the bazaar, and hearsay carried by friends and acquaintances from Dhaka and Calcutta. My father’s life was marked by the forces unleased by the 1905 Bengal partition, WWI and WWII, the political turmoil between the two World Wars, unprecedented Hindu-Muslim confrontation and violence, the devastating Bengal Famine, and, of course, the 1947 division and independence. His experiences and observations run through several chapters of this volume. ** ** After the Preface with aspects of methodological tools and Acknowledgments, the Introduction to this volume (Threads of Memories!) carries the stamp of a few of my family elders, their recollections, a general idea of varied contents in their historical settings and their surroundings. Chapter 1, Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories, balances several memoirs, with a concentration on Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography and a few other randomly chosen life stories of several individuals, some of whom were personally known to me for many years. I have as well added my experiences and observations since the 1940s. I also differentiated quite a few of my father’s recollections (and several other comparable remembrances) with those of Nirad C. Chaudhuri ’s in Chapter 1 (spanned in other chapters too) in reviewing and expanding the contents of my 1999 Holiday posts on the subject. Reconstructed from the original drafts, the Chapters 2 and 3 A Family Maverick: Existential Slog and Identity Encounters! and Nuri: A Virtuous Women with a Voice of Her Own! are about my grandparents. I excerpted my grandfather’s resilience, achy marginalization, powerlessness, and even a feeling of inferiority before the Hindu bhadralok-dominated local community. The recreated account gives an accent to those who are long forgotten through the rural peripheries. Its resonance virtually brings back the intricacies of rural family life of the long-gone days. One of the most intriguing feelings, portrayed in Chapters 2 and 3, was the subtle but continual variance between my grandfather, perhaps, a languidly religious Muslim, and my grandmother, a more rigorously devoted Muslim who, time and again, urged her husband to earnestly pursue the prescribed obligations under Islam. The grandmother’s jostle pinched here is that of a courageous rural woman from the bygone Bengal. Additionally, Chapters 2 and 3 reflected the Muslim society’s religious and identity contentions as they existed in the past as much as they are alive in the contemporary Muslim world. Besides, those two chapters poignantly demonstrated that even the rural folks who were not formally educated in those days were still substantially aware of the tangible and intangible concerns that affected their personal and public lives.
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Chapter 4, Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti: Identity and Dress, brings up the dress and identity debate for the Muslims in Bengal, with a concentration on my father’s delicate attachment to the traditional Muslim attire since he ditched his dhoti, more commonly used by the Hindus. Chapter 5, The Incredible Rezu Chacha: Quest for Sufism in a Rural C ommunity? is a tale of Sufi leanings in old Bengal: a rendering of a human soul in spiritual quest based on a real person besides my family members. Two of the succeeding chapters in this volume are Chapter 6, The Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites: Rai Shaheb/Khandans/Beparis and Chapter 7, Muslim Identity Imaginations: “Never Apologize for Being a Muslim!” The trend of the sons of ryots and peasants slowly replacing the old bhadraloks and khandans in Colonial Bengal continued in former East Pakistan throughout the 1960s. In part, Chapter 6 has been drawn from my research article published in 1966 in an academic journal and my 1968 volume on local politics and government in what was then East Pakistan19. Chapter 7 seizes the Muslim unease of being “othered” while they were inspired by a historical sense of pride of being Muslims in Colonial Bengal. Chapters 3 and 7 have a few references from my book The Central Legislature in British India, 1921–1947: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, Peter Lang, NYC, 2019. Chapter 8, Eclectic Historiography: “Demise of Memories Is the End of History!” narrates my father’s obsession with history and legacies though his personal historiographical views did not necessarily tally with the known historical theories. Chapter 9, Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History is the concluding segment which analyzes and sums up the key questions of this narrative. Chapters 1, 7, 8, and 9 have featured the historical footsteps between the Muslim identity tremors in Colonial Bengal’s rural community and the occasional voices on the Hindu-Muslim questions in the British Indian Legislature in New Delhi20. *** *** *** The insights and information here could attract those ethnographers, sociologists, historians, and general readers who are interested in South Asia and in a historical micro narrative of Muslim identity disputes that periodically explode on the global stage. Under the spell of my earlier works on the British Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi political and social history, I have, in a way, streamed myself into this chronicle. Identity politics has incorporated a new spectacle in Bangladesh—lingo-national-secularism, or more popularly known as Bengali nationalism—since its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Secularism is one of the fundamental state principles of Bangladesh. And yet, much to the chagrin of the liberal
Introduction: Threads of Memories! | 15 secularists, Islam continues to be the “state religion” in the country’s constitution, evidently to accord with the Muslim sensibility in a Muslim-majority state. Memories, entrenched in human history, are possibly larger than the conventional journals that we are familiar with. My father was a chronicler of cultural history, and his unrecorded narratives went beyond a typical memoirist roll. I am inspired by my father’s favorite saying (quoted above and already touched in the Preface): “If you add your own memories with your father’s, you get one hundred years of history.” It conveys a universal message for human experiences entrenched in history. In fact, I have mingled more memories than just mine and his—I have brought in several other narratives in the makeup of Colonial Bengal’s larger history. The readers will, however, find that the yarn does not spin out family memories only—like a larger social memoir, they are pragmatically connected with equivalent remembrances and allied academic works including a few of my own. Brimming with numerous ideas of understanding the past, this narrative offers a contribution toward grassroots historiography.
Notes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.
Coconut-sugar balls. Mat made with laced canes or grass. Kingfishers. Primary school. Teacher. Fairy land. Kokab’s City. A Jinn is a spirit that can take human or animal form; a paree is a fairy. Ghazal is a distinctive style of romantic lyric poetry in Urdu, Persian, or Arabic. Feudalism. Tenants. Aristocratic. Open-air theatres, a popular sight in Bangladesh. A river in central Bangladesh, also called the Sital Lakhya River. Delonix Regia. Aristocracy. Landlords. Gentry. “Election Politics in Pakistan Villages,” Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies, Leicester University Press, November 1966 and Politics and Administration in the Local Councils: A Study of Union and District Councils in East Pakistan, Oxford, 1968.
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(Based on a survey of 129 randomly selected Union Councils (rural councils) in most districts of former East Pakistan from 1965 to 1966). 2 0. Besides my book The Central Legislature in British India 1921–47, ibid, I have also pulled ideas from my “Bangladesh at 26: Encountering Bifurcated History and Divided National Identity,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Villanova University, Pennsylvania, Spring 1998 and “The Liberals and the Religious Right in Bangladesh,” Asian Survey, University of California Press, Berkeley, November 1997.
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories
The stories told by and about my parents, grandparents, uncles, and cousins hazily lived on in my memory, and in the early 1990s I started writing them down in two old unused diaries, while I was still younger in age and my retention too was clearer. I recorded my mother’s recollections as well; bits and pieces of my own reminiscences from childhood too slowly but surely found their space in my journals. They were more like drifts of fallen leaves from several trees! And there they stayed—until 1999, when the legendary Bengali-English writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri died1. His Autobiography, (as I indicated earlier), had fascinated me since the early 1960s, and that volume brought back a spate of my father’s observations about the same time and the experiences where Nirad C. Chaudhuri had revealed his own childhood recollections. Those thoughts were the catalyst for a five-part article I wrote in 1999 for Holiday, a political weekly in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In those postings, I matched varied memories against the larger landscape of Colonial Bengal and selected peer remembrances during the corresponding times. My own recalls here and in other chapters are the ancillary kernels since the mid1940s; and yet, they are among the pedigrees of this book. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s superb intellect was like an “inexhaustible Roman candle” to his admiring peers; his Autobiography, first published in 1951, catapulted him into international fame, but, on the other, he had virtually become the most
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hated Indian writer in India. To a multitude of his critics, he was biased on a host of religious, political, and social issues. I bought a copy of his book in early 1962 at the suggestion of my mentor at the University of Durham, England, Professor W.H. Morris-Jones; when I returned home, I gave it to my father. He read parts of it at least, and he reminded me that he had already shared with me his own parallel recollections going back to the 1905 Lord Curzon’s breakup of Bengal into two separate provinces. Not unexpectedly, Muslim depictions of the 1905 Bengal division generally favored the split while the counter-narratives, critical of that history-making event, usually resonated the Hindu bhadralok voice; indeed, the conflicting accounts of that controversial partition still trickle through the academic and popular genre of Bengal’s Colonial history. More on the contentious Bengal split would follow in Chapters 7 and 8. Over the years, I had read Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Thy Hand, Great Anarch! India 1921–522 (Thy Hand ….): it picked up his story where the Autobiography had left off. A huge book of 1000 plus pages mostly spanned politics and society of (undivided) Bengal (1921–1950), with enormous personal details of pre-1947 Bengal’s political history. There was an added reason for my interest in his Thy Hand …: it corresponded with the era hemmed in my Ph.D. thesis on the pre-independence Indian Legislature (1921 to 1947). I detected that the author’s Autobiography, though intellectually stimulating, carried contentious and one-sided observations—they will resurface later in this account—which did not readily meet with what I had learned from my father, whose adult life spread over the same historical track. One of my concerns was Nirad’s opinionated spectacle of Muslim politics in Bengal, reflections unfolded with the same energy in his subsequent works too. I could not help feeling that the celebrated writer evidently failed to dive deep into the complexities of Hindu-Muslim relations in Colonial Bengal beyond his personal opinions and experiences. As I read (and re-read) his Autobiography and a few of his other books, the nearly forgotten reminiscences of my father and those of several aged relatives and neighbors, the tales of my teachers, my own observations, and books I had read, researched, or heard had woken from their hibernation! Memories are more like a neglected and worn-out Kitab3 whose pages are no longer lucidly readable or even its remnants could be missing; possibly such remembrances are close to a palimpsest whose old writings are still flimsily readable under the new text. In his Autobiography, Nirad C. Chaudhuri strolls down his chronicles and insights, and then rows back to his boyhood in Kishorganj, his birthplace, only a small town far from Calcutta4, the Indian capital during his early childhood. His hometown is about 30 miles from my own village. The multiple
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 19 strands in his woven memory cannot be neatly separated from each other; I found the same bent in my father’s and my extended family elders’ oral remembrances of their individual lives and the larger community. My family recollections were poised with Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography in my Holiday articles, many years ago—the diverse memories, oral recollections, anecdotes, and imaginative trickles—were this narrative’s bedrocks unfolded backward in what was called Bengal, a good chunk of which became East Pakistan, now (since 1971) Bangladesh. Throughout the British period, the Muslim-majority villages near Dhaka that shaped the backdrop of my family’s life were as well the home of the socially, economically, and politically dominant Hindu minority led by the celebrated bhadralok, (literally meaning gentle folks). By and large, they represented the emancipated higher-caste Hindu middle class; most members of the perceived class were small talukdars—moneylenders, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and a host of lower to mid-level officials. All of them were, however, not uniformly wealthy, and influential; only a small segment of them were amongst the rent-receiving elites or their scions. They were mostly the brhamins, baidys, and kaytasths by their caste values. There was no Hindu bhadralok in our village, but they lived in two to three exclusive segments of the nearby Kaliganj town. On the other hand, the remnants of Muslim khandan5, fixated on their lost opulence and influence, had a certain equivalency with the Hindu bhadralok though they fell behind in education and professional achievements. Those were the grassroots dynamics of Colonial Bengal’s political history. Plainly, the Muslim ryots6 and peasants were far beyond that level of power and education. In the closing years of the 19th century and early in the 20th century, a handful of Muslims sent their sons to modern schools instead of madrassas, the traditional Muslim educational institution. They wanted to be the equivalent of (Hindu) bhadralok. My grandfather was one of such Muslims to take a bold step in a village near Dhaka; Chapters 2 and 3 sought to recreate the personal and social interactions of my grandparents. What I had gathered through my ancestral and personal roots were still not outside the conventional history of the time and place. My storyline, based on real-life experiences, are not built on “high politics” of Colonial Bengal—the recount offered voices from the subaltern7 that often went unnoticed in mainstream and politically endorsed history. My father’s recollections along with those of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, I feel, captured the spirit of their generation in a region not different or remote from each other in the past. The insightful author’s retrospections coupled with my father’s riveting recounts
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here and my own stroll through the tales fill up a few gaps of social and political history of what was once called the undivided Bengal. Born and raised in a small town in East Bengal, Nirad C. Chaudhuri was loyal to what was the Calcutta-centric “bhadralok culture” which flourished in the wake of the literary resurgence that had begun in the 19th century. He did not like the initial Muslim ascendancy that he had watched in the early years of the 20th century in Kirshorganj. He essentially perceived Muslims as different, the “other”—and, the author, to the best of my understanding, did not go deep into the Hindu prejudices against the Muslims that was hard to ignore during his time in Bengal. His Thy Hand’s historical focus was on the 1920s and 1930s, the years that manifested the undeniable Muslim clout and legislative empowerment—in reality, it was the critical epoch when the Hindu-Muslim discord spiraled toward its crest. In that work, he blamed the Muslim demographic majority for the presumed political decline of the Hindu bhadralok in the 1920s and 1930s and censured the British-initiated political reforms that propelled the Muslims into prominence in Bengal politics. Nirad C. Chaudhuri realistically noticed a “breakdown of the bhadralok” privileges as the Muslims were emboldened by the drip by drip legislative and electoral reforms in India from the second half of the 19th century. He recollected that his father moved the women and younger family members to safer towns to avoid dangers from the likely Hindu-Muslim rioting, and in desperation he bought a pistol from the local underground arms market. But our neighborhood villages did not see many Hindu-Muslim violence until in the 1930s, with more violent communal flareups in the 1940s and in the early 1950s in a few instances. There was a noticeable tension in my school in 1946 and in our sub-district town when the news of the “Great Calcutta killing” reached our villages, and for many years, the family elders talked about great tragedies in Calcutta, Noakhali, and Bihar. Three of my first cousins who had worked in Calcutta narrated their experiences during the 1946 Calcutta killing. One of them shared that the Europeans were too scared at the height communal butcheries; he remembered that during the Hindu-Muslim rioting, the Gora (white) police officers did not respond to the desperate calls for help, and, on several occasions, he saw a few of them fleeing the troubled spots in motor cycles. I also heard about the large Muslim attacks on Hindus in Noakhali in 1946, which is still cited as a critical communal carnage that shaped Bengal’s subsequent history. Gandhi visited Noakhali district appealing for peace between the Hindus and Muslims; his visit was discussed by the students and teachers in our school and he was respectfully remembered when he was assassinated in 1948. There were a few known followers of Gandhi in our
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 21 neighboring villages: one of them was a Muslim, I remembered from the family tales; his name was Sundar Ali from Narsingdi, but people added Gandhi after his name. On the eve of August 14, 1947, the day of Pakistan independence and immediately after the historic day, I remember that most Hindu students and teachers were time and again absent from their classes. A bunch of senior students barely continued for their school final examination; in those days, the local goons and even a few senior students were reportedly involved in the intermittent looting and arson in the nearby villages. Nirad C. Chaudhuri was possibly correct about the beginning of communal tensions in early 20th century in a few districts of what is Bangladesh presently, but they were, I believe, still mild compared to what my generation witnessed later in the 1940s and 1950s. Although the Muslims were in the majority in the towns/villages where my extended family lived, the Hindus had the general, but not always certain, protection of the police and bureaucracy, both of which were still largely in the hands of the non-Muslims until 1940s. Whenever a new officer in charge (O.C.) of the Thana (police station) came to Kaliganj, the first question people asked if he was a Muslim or Hindu; I heard in scattered ruminations from two uncles and neighbors, one of whom was a member of (village) Union Board. Older than my father, the family members and neighbors were aware of what had been happening in the Hindu-Muslim relations since the 1905 Bengal division—most of them recalled few sustained communal rioting in our region before the 1930s. By and large, the Muslim students dropped out of high school while a limited number of young men and few women went to colleges until the 1930s and 1940s. After his B.A. in 1924, my father did not complete the Master’s in History that he had pursued as a private candidate for a couple of years. With his avid interest in history, his reflection of the Muslim society was insightful. Since I have been a learner of the sub-continent’s political history going back to British India, I had the opportunity to compare my father’s personal views and the contemporary recollections with an assortment of scholarly writings on the stretch of events that my father remembered (to be thrashed out in the forthcoming chapters). He passionately urged the Muslim parents in our village and the nearby ones to send their children to school. He dreamed more about an educated, confident, and sensible Muslim community—when he was young, he was not a political activist of any of the known stripes. He was, nevertheless, convinced that the British Raj could not afford to rule indefinitely over an educated and united population in the subcontinent. When my father was happy to see a rising number of Muslim students in his school in the 1940s, he was then not too far from his retirement
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and the country was indeed free from the British rule in 1947. Not surprisingly, the younger generation at the school and beyond was more positive and confident than my father’s cohorts though many among my contemporaries could not afford a college education; it was later in history, indeed after 1947, when more Muslims went for higher education. The horror of the Great Bengal famine (1943) stayed through the rest of that decade, and food scarcity was among the worst fears of those who were between the poor and rich since rice was, at times, not available even when one could barely pay for it. Whenever an elderly visitor stopped in our outer house, they discussed old shrines, historic mosques, and temples—the prevailing food crisis did not dampen my father’s interests in local anecdotes. His passion for social history is further portrayed in the forthcoming chapters; he pursued his identity search through local legends even though they were not always the verified chronicles. The anecdotes of Sonargaon, the Sultanate capital of medieval Bengal, down the river Lakhya fascinated my father. He was enthralled that Sonargaon was a meeting ground of the Muslim rulers, scholars, Sufis, foreign traders, globe travelers like Ibne Batuta and religious preachers of different streaks. But he was more drawn toward the Sufi shrines in and around Sonargaon that he visited in his younger days. With help from his students and friends he once excavated the shrine of Shah Karforma, the Sufi saint who, according to prevailing legends, preached Islam in the 14th century and had settled in Chaura, a neighboring village. In addition, my father explored the ancestry and family history of our neighbors. He conjectured lineage by the facial and physical features of our neighbors, relatives and students: he sought to discover the roots of such families, which might have come from outside Bengal and those who were presumably locally converted to Islam. For instance, our town was not far from Dhaka, and there were traces of the Mughal and pre-Mughal empires in our neighboring villages. There are several villages still named Paikpara, which were believed to have been recruitment and training centers for soldiers. He guessed that numerous families were the conceivable descendants of the Pathan soldiers, who likely stayed back and received small freeholds (jagir) from the pre-British rulers in recognition of their previous services. A segment of our village, by the side of the canal, was known as the patni para (neighborhood of Hindu boatmen who were also seasonal fishermen and farmers); they were believed to be the remnants of the professional boat paddlers who served the pre-British regimes of the region when rivercrafts were the most viable means of communication for trade and military campaigns. Barely three to four miles from our house, there were two villages called Bakhterpur and Fuldi where a few khandani families lived; my father believed that they
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 23 were the remainders of pre-British prominent families. A couple of students from one such family lived with their relatives in our village when they came to our out house for private coaching from my father. I observed that my father spent time with them discussing their family roots. He believed that in those areas, Isa Khan, the challenger to the Mughal campaign in Bengal, had his allies who fought with him against the Mughal soldiers. Those marshy areas of our region were connected by the tributaries of the old Brahmaputra when boats, small and large, were the main transportation modes. Without solid historical documents, however, my father speculated that a few of the old aristocratic families in those villages were the likely derivations of Isa Khan’s allies in the area. More in contemporary times, social media and a few historians have claimed and identified that Isa Khan was buried in Bakhtarpur where he suddenly fell ill and died while he was visiting his associates. Such claims, however, have also been disputed; the descendants of Isa Kha still, according to different claims, live in Kishorganj district. His identity quest through history did not rest while he was travelling. About 12 miles from our house, on our way to Dhaka, there was the so-called Tongi Bridge built when Mir Jumla, the Mughal governor of Bengal, marched to conquer Assam. About 30,000 soldiers, from all different religions and races, presumably marched toward Assam most likely through our proximity; my father guessed that the posterities of the lingerers of those legions were feasibly spread across the region. When I accompanied father in the train journey to Dhaka, he would point his finger through the windows toward the ruins of the old bridge and narrated a bit of its history. Sporadically, he talked about a non-descript village called Katrabo—several miles down the river, it was a small but strategic fortress town first established by Isa Khan (1529–1599) and its existence continued well beyond the 16th century possibly under his successors. Halfway through this book, I ventured to verify a few of my father’s past tales about our region when I came across a scholarly book on Sonargaon and its nearby historical ruins. It was Habiba Khatun’s, Iqlim Sonargaon: History, Jurisdiction and Monuments which corroborated elements of my father’s local history legends about Sonargaon and its adjacent areas8. The remnants of the soldiers, the traders, religious leaders, landlords and prominent families of that period gradually blended with the local communities, my father guessed. Furthermore, father’s supposition that the socalled khandan families in and around Dhaka, Comilla and old Mymensingh districts presumably related to those ancestors obviously carried a few anecdotal approvals. He believed that the immigrants coming from what is currently Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran, with the Muslim rulers and soldiers, created a fusion of culture, customs, rituals, spiritualism, food, and even architecture with
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what was known and available locally. My father never forgot the history of nearby Chaura, which was the known hub of the Ghazis, one of the 12 legendary (or more) “war-lords”9 (bhuiyas) who ruled a large track of what is now Bangladesh until the Mughals conquered Bengal (1576). A few families with Kazi (judge) title in Dhaka and nearby villages claimed that their forefathers were judges during the pre-British days. A small number of families in the neighboring villages had Mongoloid features, and some of our acquaintances had distinctively sharp features and light complexions. I remember one of my mother’s aunties who could easily pass for an oriental lady! My father therefore submitted that our region’s population possibly represented a “genetic consommé” of different races and places of origin while his conjecture could as well be projected beyond the immediate surroundings draped in this narrative. However, he did not carry any authoritative baggage of history. To me, father’s ancestry inquest was more a search for the cultural mixture in the neighboring villages, not a serious genetic study on the subject: it was his way of identifying himself with the region’s history. I remember his occasional wrangles with his colleagues when they disparaged the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb10 for his alleged harsh treatment of the Hindus. Indeed, this question continues to divide historians in contemporary India welded by the rising Hindutva11 doctrines in politics, and elements of the intellectual community who treated the controversial Mughal Kings as virtual hate figures. My father seriously disagreed that Muslim history in the subcontinent was mainly defined by plunder and forced conversion. He challenged allegations that Aurangzeb was only a fanatical ruler and nothing more: however, he agreed that Aurangzeb was likely an orthodox Muslim in his personal life, and, evidently, he brutally eliminated his contending brothers including Dara Shaku (Dara), and imprisoned Emperor Shah Jahan, his father. I saw Indian history books authored by Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1870–1958) and R.C. Mazumdar (1888–1980) in my father’s collection: in course of his arguments, he sometimes quoted from those scholarly tomes. Of the two famous historians, he was not comfortable about Sarkar’s writings of the Mughals, particularly his volumes on Aurangzeb. I have a distinct recollection that my father thought that Sarkar perceptively glorified Shivaji, the Maratha soldier while demeaning Aurangzeb, which, in a way, contributed to the widening Hindu-Muslim frictions later in British India. Such controversies are still alive in trendy historical discussions in social media as well as in the academic forums. In her more contemporary scholarly work, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, Audrey Truschke has raised a fresh debate about the contentious Mughal emperor by challenging the old allegations against the
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 25 king12. There is a growing academic interest in Mughal rulers in India and their ruling paradigm: the emerging writers underscore a de facto synthesis of Persian and Sanskritized cultures under the Mughal rulers that my father periodically implied to his local cohorts. What my father debated with his colleagues about Indian history was his plausible way of connecting with the pre-British Muslim rule, apparently a form of identity exercise. Such controversies have a wider audience now, but the Muslim observers are generally defensive about the past Muslim rulers in India. My father’s historiographical views have been further discussed in Chapter 8 of this book. Of the pre-British rulers of Bengal, my father’s favorite was Shaista Khan (Governor of Bengal 1664–1688) who apparently brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the province and clutched parts of the Chittagong region from the Arakan rulers. The old ruins of forts, mosques, tombs, and bridges in and around Dhaka are amongst the undeniable remains of the Mughal Governor’s remarkable achievements in Bengal, but my father regretted that the history textbooks barely mentioned him except his battles against Shivaji, the Maratha contender who persistently fought the Mughals. He was fond of repeating that during Shaista Khan’s time, one could buy seven maunds (roughly one maund was equal to about 40–42 kilos) of rice for one taka although, according to the historians, it was not always true during Shaista Khan’s mostly prosperous rule. The prosperity of Bengal during that Mughal Viceroy has been fictionalized in Shazia Omar’s Dark Diamond, Bloomsbury, 2017, a historical novel13. For some reason, Shah Jahan was my father’s favorite Mughal emperor; he was fascinated by his esteem for art, architecture, and on account of his profound respect for the Sufi shrines. He named two of my younger sisters as Jahanara and Raushanara respectively, two historically known daughters of Shah Jahan. In retrospect, I feel that it was possibly his way of recognizing the Mughal past of India; it was a kind of his historical sense of belonging. By the way, it was once a common practice among the Muslims to name their children after a few of the Mughal names (like, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Alamgir); I came across this phenomenon in my school years. My father was convinced that the Mughal emperors were unfairly treated by most Western and Indian chroniclers and popular writers in Bengal. I wonder if my father had a mystic bond with the Mughal history, and Delhi and Agra, two splendid cities from that era. Neither before nor after the 1947 division of India, my father accepted the “partition-guilt”14 that was time and again showered exclusively on the Muslims by a large strip of Hindu elite, and by a few liberal Muslim leaders and intellectuals as well. He believed that the British had conveniently exploited the prevalent
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Hindu-Muslim “understanding gap,” a mindset that steadily spread in Bengal since the 1905 division, which ultimately rolled into the 1947 Indian division. Whatever happened in the past could not be changed, the Hindus and Muslims should live together, make peace with history instead of seeking vengeance on one issue or the other with capriciously scooped charges from the past. That was his line of summation about history. Meanwhile, the Hindus and Muslims continued their finger-pointing against each other that fomented the ubiquitous communal antagonism. My father felt that the British Colonialism had not been totally destructive though he hated figures like Robert Clive15 and Warren Hastings16 who, he argued, had not only ushered a foreign colonialism but also pillaged the country and exploited ordinary people—an acknowledged observation validated by numerous historians in contemporary years. He spotted the signs of British Colonial exploitation scattered in local history and indeed visible in the countryside. A few of the region’s colonial relics included a Nilkuthi17 in Palash, about 8 miles from our house whose ruins survived until several industrial plants were built there in the 1960s. There were also Nilkuthi remnants in Sonargaon and Dhaka; Narayanganj, the river port by the Lakhya, was an important shipping facility for exporting indigo and later jute. The owners of indigo plantations were hated among the villagers. Local legend relayed that the European indigo planter in Palash had been killed by a lightning while he was walking in his farm; in my childhood I heard that villagers still saw his apparition, not only at night but sometimes in the middle of the day! While I was at school, I read the book Nil Darpan18, originally published anonymously in Dhaka in 1860. The dramatic portrayal of that book confirmed what was recounted in the family lore; its main character was a Muslim farmer. My grandfather was, I presume, on the edge of his teen when the indigo protest reached its peak, and he related those stories to his family members. Indigo farming in Bengal dated back to late 18th century, but in 1859, a peasant movement unfolded into an effective revolt against the European indigo plantation owners. Sporadic hit and run attacks on the indigo business owners were carried out according to folk lore and a few historical studies. Written during a time of rioting by indigo farmworkers, the theatrical account depicted the miseries of the indigo farmers at the hands of the plantation owners, most of whom were Europeans. Its author, Dinabandhu Mitra, made a lasting mark in India’s intellectual and political history: the book’s popularity continued to rise since the 1940s. I remember it was staged at the Dhaka University in 1953 or 1954, with its lead character, a Muslim farmer, played by a well-known student leader.
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 27 Now I would turn to my father’s spiritual inclinations apparently drawn from the wellsprings of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism—herein rested the difference between Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s and my father’s basic comprehension of the Hindu-Muslim questions largely shaped early in life by their local experiences. He read the Quran every morning, and I have numerous memories when my father highlighted the Sufi influence on Bengali folklores and poems; he was also well read in Hindu history, society, culture, and religion. What he usually discoursed was the equivalent of contemporary “interfaith movement” hyped by numerous Muslim and non-Muslim leaders. Normally, my father avoided sensitive political and religious comments that could offend his Hindu colleagues and students: he sidestepped touchy political remarks, if any, by saying “Never trust a king, a fire, wind, and water! They are all potentially dangerous and stay away from them!” It was possibly a quotation from an Arab-Persian poetry; by “king,” he obliquely referred to politics. I liked teasing my father’s Bengali essays by saying: “Your Bengali is a resurrection of Ishwar Chandra Biddaysagar!”19 Well into the 19th century, Biddaysagar’s Bengali essays were influenced by Sanskrit, the language of old Hindu literature and liturgy while Arabic, Persian and Urdu words were also then prevalent in Bengali literature. I have two observations on the linguistic style of my father’s essays written while he was a school student. First, if he had written his articles using numerous Arabic, Persian (Farsi), or Urdu words, which was common among the Muslims at that time, his teachers might have rejected them for publication in the school magazine. Second, my father’s writing stints came at a time when a new breed of Bengali writers—apparently with official backing—tried to develop a “standard” Bengali language by deleting most words from “foreign” vocabularies (largely Arabic, Persian, and Urdu). The new-fangled “shudda” Bengali was more tuned to the Bengali prevalent in certain districts of what is West Bengal now but largely avoided the Bengali vocabularies in what was then known as the East Bengali Bangla. In my school, I felt that my colloquial Bengali had certain Persianized terms for water, meat, favorite meals, to name a few, which were not identical with those of the Hindu students and teachers’ vocabularies for the same items. But that did not seriously affect our communication or conventional friendship with each other. Whatever I wrote in Bengali in my early youth was too different from what was known as “Musalmani Bangla” or East Bengali Bangla! One of the books my father gave me while I was still in school was Folk Tales of Bengal, written by Lal Behari Dey20, a Bengali academic who became a Christian and who reputedly had a legendary command of English language and literature. Time and again, my father told me that Rabindra Nath Tagore21 was
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not only influenced by the folk songs of Bengal but he was also inspired by the great Persian poets; Hafez was a favorite poet of Tagore and also some of his family members, my father occasionally added. However, the Sufi poetic touch of the Nobel Laurate was not cheerfully acknowledged in popular appreciation of the literary giant of Bengali literature. Muslim contemporaries of my father, however, had reservations about Tagore’s opposition to the 1905 Bengal division, supported by most Muslims in East Bengal (where Tagore had his largest landholding interests, in several districts of what is now Bangladesh). The Bengal Mohammedan Provincial Association, an immediate predecessor to the Muslim League (ML), celebrated October 16, 1905, the day the Partition of Bengal was launched. Coming in the wake of the partition of Bengal, the founding of the ML was a political response to the Indian National Congress that opposed the partition and the Hindu bhadralok successfully launched a robust opposition against it. However, my father did not remember his father talking much about the ML except a couple of visiting friends bringing the news to them. According to a few claims, Tagore was associated with a group of Calcutta-based bhadralok who plainly opposed the establishment of the Dhaka University in 1921. I heard from the schoolteachers and my seniors that several eminent Hindu leaders (from Calcutta) teased that the Dhaka University should better be called the Mecca University (possibly implying the Muslim majority in East Bengal)! To me, the communally blemished founding of the Dhaka University reflected the swelling Hindu-Muslim tension in Bengal. And that resentment of the past resurfaced later in the catastrophic Hind-Muslim conflicts, which will return to Chapter 7 of this volume. My father liked Nazrul’s22 Islamic poems, as well as his devotional songs, or kirtans. However, he thought that the kirtans sung by the local Vaishnab/Vaishnabis /Bauls23 were the original sources of modern Bengali poetry, and in their turn, different poets were inspired by the style and Sufi contents of the Farsi literary genre. Those devotional songs, blended with the mystically inspired murshidi songs, my father’s favorites, were still popular during the early 1950s in my college/university years. What is more, my father felt that their vocabularies were simple and, unlike the modern poems, appealed directly to ordinary men and women in the villages. His deep spiritual attraction came from the Chishty tariqua of Sufism24, while he revered Moinuddin Chishti’s (1142–1236) Sufi teachings: he visited the revered Sufi’s shrine in Ajmer in 1927. Unlike a typical Sufi-looking pir, my father did not grow a beard: every so often, he gibed, “Love for Allah cannot be measured by the length of your hair!” He believed that there was an underlying common and humanitarian ground in all the religious faiths, a view which was
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 29 not gracefully acceptable to those who centered Islam on a much more restricted understanding. I barely remember that he subscribed to the Amrita Bazaar Patrika25 that came from Calcutta by mail, although he occasionally complained that it had a strong anti-Muslim tenor. And when I was a student of class VIII or IX, he would pull out the old copies of the Modern Review26, an intellectually respected monthly of his younger days. Occasionally, he admonished me for not reading such magazines or any classics of English literature. I did look through one or two English literary works, but I found them strange, and difficult to comprehend. English was taught in a bizarre manner in my school years—most of my teachers did not know much about the language except memorizing the grammar. Millions of gods and goddesses that the Hindus worship are the representations of Brahman, the ultimate creator and power that guided the universe: my father explained those Hindu beliefs to me before I finished my seventh grade. To make a short cut to the bazaar, sometimes, we passed through the local Kali Mandir’s compound when my father explained what the Hindus believed about their goddess Kali. Early in my life, I understood the diversity of language, religion, identity, and culture in our local community. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s contention that the world of culture that flourished in Bengal under the British Raj was more a synthesis of the West and Hinduism had been an exclusionary avowal. On the other hand, the Muslim literary genre that flourished during the Sultanate and Mughal period had a blending of Persian and Sanskrit as well as the regional linguistic and legendary traditions. Perceptively, the Muslims were excluded from 19th-century Bengali literary renaissance partly because of the known Muslim resistance to the British Raj: the issue has been further elaborated in Chapters 7 and 8 of this book. With a few exceptions, a combination of “blame it on the Muslims” and their social marginalization sustained the Hindu-Muslim estrangement in Colonial Bengal. My father, however, did not speak in a vacuum. The relegation of the Muslims in social and political spheres motivated them to assert their demography through the expanding franchise and separate electorate, despised by the Hindu elite. That was my father’s overview of united Bengal’s earlier history. Barrister C.R. Das27, leader of the Swaraj Party in the 1920s, tried to bridge the gulf between the Hindus and Muslims, but his efforts died with his own death in 1925, which my father regretted because of his own experiences in the Hindu-Muslim interactions. Notwithstanding the share of the criticism that he faced from the Congress Party, many Bengalis honored his memory in various ways; there was a sugar mill named after C.R. Das in about 12 miles from our house. Our school had a bit of personal connection with C. R. Das and his
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memory in the neighborhood: our Headmaster claimed that he was a cousin of the esteemed leader. My father was less inclined to accuse the entire Hindu community for occasional humiliation that he encountered. In 1912, when he was in the 9th grade, he wrote admiring articles in the school’s journal, Chatra Surhid, about one of his Hindu teachers who had been kind to him. He also wrote about a naib28 of the Bhawal Raj zamindari estate in Kaliganj, a great patron of the local school. He was not comfortable about the way the Hindu bhadralok generally treated the Muslims, particularly those who were ryots and peasants under the sway of the local talukdars. He heard many of those stories from his father, and in his turn sometimes he told me about similar personal experiences. One such example: when he was in the 9th grade, a senior teacher had taunted him when he said that he would like to go to college. “You are the son of a Muslim; why do you need so much education?” the teacher teased. The Hindu teachers and students were more and more uncomfortable as Muslim political activism heated up, although there was no tragic communal massacre in our village and the neighboring areas except in a few rural communities where the Muslim disaffection against the local talukdars were well known. He recollected the pronounced Hindu-Muslim strain in Morapara, about 15 miles by the river from our house—tensions lingered between the local zamindar family and the Muslim ryots who alleged that the landlords restricted cow slaughter in their villages. I had a slim childhood memory (1946–1947) that once a few Muslims from that area met my father to lobby against the local zamindar’s cruel actions against his Muslim tenants. My father regretted that mutually respectful two-way interactions between the Hindus and Muslims were meager at the grassroots; as a result, a common Hindu-Muslim civil society did not cross beyond the corridors of business, administration, and education. The 1947 partition brought many unprecedented changes to our region; nevertheless, my father did not become more of a fundamentalist Muslim in anticipation of Pakistan while he did not vent any revenge against his, not so palatable, (Hindu) colleagues. Pakistan would be a Muslim-majority state, but he did not feel that the new state would be an orthodox Islamic State that would exclude the other religious minorities. After the partition, numerous Hindus fled the adjacent villages, but he never bought any of their property: it was a grave sin to take advantage of people in distress; he counseled my mother once when she wanted to buy a bit of prime land going rather cheap! When he was for a while the headmaster of the local High School, there was a move to change the name of the institution. The Kaliganj Raja Rajendra Narayan High School had been founded by a group of lawyers, sub-judges, clerks, and the
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 31 officials of the Munsef Court once located there. Initially, it was a middle school. Most of them were caste Hindus working in various layers of the local government. The school had later been named after the (Hindu) zamindar of Bhawal—I believe that the school land and several other residential plots had come as a gift from the zamindar’s estate. After the 1947 division, however, a faction of local Muslim politicians did not feel comfortable with the Hindu name of the school; my father’s attachment to the institution led him to resist their efforts to change its name. Our outer house was a regular rendezvous of religious fakirs29 as well as the Bauls, who did not hesitate to eat vegetarian cooking in a Muslim household although some of them preferred chira and muri30. My father collected prayer beads from different places, and he bought many such beads from the visiting fakirs and dervishes. He also collected Baul and murshidi folk songs, and the outer house was occasionally open to the singers of such songs. None of those activities were cancelled after the 1947 partition! Sometimes in the early 1960s, my father gave a chunk of his folklore collections to the Bangla Academy, Dhaka. He liked to sing in his own rhythm, though; he owned most of the traditional instruments used in folk songs. Outside home, I remember him always dressed in black achkan, pajama, and Turkish-red Fez most of his adult life. (Details of identity and dress sensitivities are discussed in Chapter 4.) Nirad C. Chaudhuri saw the 1947 partition of Bengal and India as rather inevitable in view of the parting of ways between Hindus and Muslims that he had watched in his rural district since his teens. And yet, my father was possibly not quite ready for the turn of events that came so rapidly in the 1940s in the shadows of the British Raj leaving India. However, the dramatic spike in Muslim politics in the 1940s had not surprised him much; it was undoubtedly a new Muslim identity sweep toward a new state. In this youth, there was no populist Muslim demand for the division of India along religious lines although Muslims wanted more educational resources and employment opportunities during a period when they demonstrated a definite self-consciousness. What he had later noticed in the 1940s was an explosion of Muslim demands for a separate state, while occasionally we also heard the slogan “Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai” (Hindus and Muslims are Brothers!)31. I envision that the 1940s marked a period of great geopolitical uncertainty. The communal violence, political turmoil, the accelerating demands for Pakistan and the fear of another division of Bengal came in the wake of the twin specters of WWII and the Great Bengal Famine (1943)—they had stalked my village and the nearby precincts. The family members and neighbors preferred to travel as a small group instead of being a lonely visitor to the Dhaka city. I heard
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stories that some tough-minded individuals liked to carry small knives to defend themselves against any attacker. On occasions, a few senior students escorted their Hindu teachers to their residences in the town. My father had no ties with the Muslim League; nevertheless, he acknowledged that “Larke Lenge Pakistan”32 became the most popular slogan of those days. Most those young men and women, later in their adult life in 1971, backed an armed struggle for an independent Bangladesh. Early in his life, my father remembered a bit about the 1905 partition of Bengal, but he had more direct observations of street protests during the Khilafat movement. Later he had contacts with a bunch of his contemporaries and former students who were active in Pakistan movement. The election of 1946 brought the Muslim community closer to the reality of Pakistan; I retained that he knew Fakir A. Mannan, a lawyer-politician who had been elected as our member of the provincial legislature on a Muslim League ticket in 1946. While returning from the bazaar one afternoon, my father greeted Fakir Mannan on the main road that linked the town with the railway station. They chatted briefly while he urged my father to vote for him. I remember the widely discussed slogan in those days: “vote for the nominee of the Muslim League, even if it is a banana plant.” He voted for the Muslim League in the legislative election—I accompanied him to the polling booth in 1946, my father reminded me years later. I was then too young to vote, just as I vaguely remember the excited crowds both before and after the Muslim League victory. The school students occasionally took out processions and marched through the town and ended up at the railway station: sometimes, a few students threw rocks at the signal lights on the railway track. Students, friends, and the neighbors in our village, from time to time, asked my father to explain what Pakistan was in the early 1940s though he was not clear about the new state envisioned by the Muslim League then. It was a common topic of debate among the students in the school; such discussions were, however, avoided by the Hindu students and teachers. In fact, most pro-Pakistan campaigners could not bid much beyond that it would be a Muslim-majority state, and they would benefit in the new country. Subsequent scholarly narrators (Ayesha Jalal, for example) of the 1947 partition as well hinted that even M. A. Jinnah and his top associates did not clearly spell out the full details of the prospective Pakistani state evidently because they were still in their negotiating stages with the British Raj and the Congress Party or they were uncertain about their claim for a separate state. In those days, people apparently lost faith in traditional government officials since police and local bureaucracy were helpless before the mob and communal rioting—individuals were driven more by rumor and fear
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 33 on such occasions. It seems that the villages further away from police stations or schools or government offices were more vulnerable to anti-Hindu fierceness. I barely recall that most Hindu residents of the town had visiting relatives who took shelter with them; such family matters were occasionally divulged by my friends in the school. The village politics and the civil society were then no doubt divided along religious lines even though the local people were seemingly not in a mood for an all-out violence. Like many others, my father was surely affected in his workplace by the Pakistan movement. The headmaster, a Hindu gentleman from Bikrampur region, was a good administrator, still he habitually kept a distance from his colleagues—both Hindus and Muslims. As the 1947 partition loomed, the headmaster started consulting my father, partly to avoid the pitfalls of being isolated at a time of political tumult. My father was then the most senior teacher since a couple of elder teachers had already left when the Hindu-Muslim friction gripped the country. He gave my father some administrative responsibilities he preferred not to do himself. I recall that two or three new Muslim teachers were hired; one of them possibly had a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the Assistant Headmaster was spending more time out of town—in fact, once he left his house key with my father. A few times, my father sent me to check on the house just to see if everything looked okay from outside. I liked to take a couple of my friends along because the house was at the corner of a lonely neighborhood not far from the riverbank. There were several mango trees in the backyard of that house; the mangoes (green as well as ripe) hanging from the branches attracted me and my friends. We helped ourselves with mangoes and took a few for our parents. My father was angry because evidently, I was stealing from his colleague’s unoccupied house! Later, when the headmaster also left, my father had to take the responsibility of running the school. Meanwhile, local politics crept into the school management that my father did not like. Soon, he helped recruit a younger (Muslim) MA, BT as the headmaster—possibly his former student! But hard times awaited the new headmaster. The steady departure of the senior Hindu teachers and local leaders after the partition created a vacuum in the small town; soon personality conflicts and factional rivalries took over the school administration. I was a student at that school for over three years after the 1947 partition when I was disappointed to see that the well-respected Hindu teachers were leaving. Those instructors enjoyed a professional reputation; as a result, the community had a sense of loss when they steadily left for India. I can recall nasty rivalries among the teachers and local politicians; while my father was running the school, he did not hide his frustrations with the deepening school management crisis.
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The first group of Hindus who left our area after 1947 included the government officials, clerks, doctors, teachers, and lawyers, many of whom were working outside our town, and those who had a measure of occupational or personal connections with Calcutta and other districts that became parts of India. Several of those persons already had sons or younger brothers working in those areas; on the eve of the partition, a few of the local bhadraloks had daughters married to young men who were employed in West Bengal, Assam, or Tripura. My father was confident that such educated bhadralok would have little difficulty in resettling themselves in West Bengal and other parts of India. Assam and Tripura usually attracted those Hindus who were not among the better-off bhadraloks, since those places were cheaper to live than in Calcutta, which was already crowded by Bengalis leaving East Bengal in anticipation of its impending division. The family of a classmate whose father was employed in Calcutta left in 1946 in such a fear. Among the affluent talukdars and businessmen, their real estate became a noose around their neck; they were unable to migrate to India until they could exchange or sell off their property and business. There was one Dhar family; I believe they took several years to find an exchange for their property, with a Muslim family migrating from West Bengal to then East Pakistan. Several of the younger sons, nephews, and daughters of that family—including one gentleman who was our school clerk and physical instructor—left Kaliganj. Among other Hindus who hurriedly left our area were the Marwaris, the non-Bengali businessmen who owned jute trading and money-lending enterprises and a sugar mill about two miles from our house on the banks of the Lakhya. Shortly before the partition, the sugar factory was closed, and we could see that river barges were moving the heavier gears of the factory to unknown destinations and those who worked for the plant were unhappy about such transfer of resources on the eve of the partition. Gradually, all the Hindu traders except one or two of them left the town—although their public posture did not indicate that they were in a rush to leave; their properties were bought by local Muslim traders and politicians. There was one shop that sold the best rasagoolah in the town: we missed him when he closed his business. In one part of our village there was a barber family; part of that family did not leave for years, I believe. A carpenter in the neighboring village, whose son was my schoolmate, left as well in a few years—I do not remember exactly when. By 1950, an influx of non-Bengali Muslims from India was a new demographic composition in our region; they were commonly called the Bihari refugees, as many of them had fled from the province of Bihar since 1947. They did not usually speak Bengali, and they were not accustomed to agriculture—the main source of livelihood in the villages they moved into. Subsequently, I gathered that
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 35 most migrants from Bihar were workers in the mines, railways, and factories. The government temporarily relocated them in the abandoned sugar mill premises, which had big empty spaces where the non-Bengali refugees camped for months. Soon several Muhajir33 men opened hair cutting saloons in the town: we were accustomed to Hindu barbers who came to our house to give us haircuts, or barbers in the bazaar who sat on piles of bricks or stones or the oversized tree roots under the shade of a big banyan tree by the river bank and gave open-air haircuts. A few other migrants opened small shops to sell dried sweets and cookies; some of them also started tea stalls or tailoring and clothing shops. A few of them married local girls; I noticed a remarkable feature among the new group of people: there was hardly any Muhajir beggar. But there were occasional frictions between the unfamiliar outsiders and the local people; slowly, most of the so-called Biharis were transferred to urban areas. Compared to its pre-partition period, Dhaka had changed much in terms of its religious demography by the early 1950s. The Nawabpur, Wari, Sadarghat, and Patuatuli neighborhoods in Dhaka had been predominantly Hindu areas during the British period. I remember that when I accompanied my father to Dhaka between 1945 and 1947, we avoided passing through neighborhoods where Muslims feared to be attacked during sudden communal rioting; we did most of our shopping in Chawkbazar and Islampur, the Muslim-majority areas. But by the early 1950s, Nawabpur did not have many Hindus left; once my father and I stopped at a pharmacy to buy medicine—and the owner was my father’s former student, who had moved back from Calcutta, where he ran a small business. I saw new faces among the book sellers in the Sadarghat area where the students habitually flocked to the bookstores and watch movies in the nearby cinema halls. Strangely, a couple of popular movie houses changed their names too since their ownership obviously changed. I knew that a few of the movie theatres were the investment properties of Hindu landlords and businessmen. Why did the Hindus leave immediately before and soon after the 1947 partition? My father theorized that most members of the Hindu bhadralok community would leave the Muslim-majority Pakistan where the Hindu elite would no longer command the old power and prestige—a socio-political transition that was hard to ignore from the early 1940s. Few doubted that the residues of the old zamindari system would soon be gone. Moreover, the typical rural areas had less security in the chaotic pre-partition years and during the early post-partition period. Numerous among the big landlords from East Bengal (later East Pakistan and then Bangladesh) had already been buying properties and relocating themselves in Calcutta or in comparable urban areas since the late 1930s. In place of the old
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Hindu elite, new Muslim leaders gained control in former East Pakistan—at both the local and provincial levels. The fact that my area did not have widespread bloodshed was of little comfort to the Hindu bhadralok—a growing panic prevailed in the Hindu community since the dawn of the 1940s. Erupting communal violence in the early years of independent India and Pakistan scared both the Hindus in Pakistan and the Muslims in India, but violence across the Punjab borders was much more brutal. The narratives of the Bihari refugee sufferings in India likewise provoked communal hatred among the Muslims in East Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the Hindus worried that their properties would be forcibly expropriated by the Muslims; time and again, the property-grabbers allegedly created communal tension to scare the Hindus into selling their properties. Later in life, I heard similar stories from Muslim friends whose families had fled Calcutta and other places in West Bengal for East Pakistan. The so-called Bihari refugees narrated that even though they hailed from the heavily Muslim-populated districts bordering East Pakistan, the anti-Muslim strife was so severe that they just ran for their life abandoning their properties behind. Such accounts added to communal tension in East Pakistan during the first few years after the partition. My father did not look upon Pakistan through spitefully communal lens; as a separate Muslim state became a real possibility, he visualized Pakistan more as a new opening for the Muslims who wanted to be educated and succeed professionally. Sometimes, I saw him talking to himself: will Pakistan solve the Hindu-Muslim issues in the forthcoming two separate states—India and Pakistan? I feel that several of my father’s Muslim friends and colleagues were too caught between two loyalties—a kind of all-Muslim fidelity and a new stance of Pakistani Muslim allegiance territorially loyal to the prospective Muslim state. However, he was confident of a few benefits for the Pakistanis because of the likely patronages and fresh opportunities in the new state. Those expectations were generally truer for those Muslims who hailed from the Muslim majority districts in former Bengal that became the eastern wing of Pakistan and those who did not suffer the burden of leaving their birthplaces, jobs and properties for moving to another country. For the Hindus in our area, the projections of a divided Bengal implied catastrophic fears for them—the haunting potential of migrating from Pakistan to India. My father was happy later that new schools, colleges and university were being added in Dhaka and other districts, and that Muslim enrollment in schools increased rapidly since the 1940s and well into the 1950s. He was positive that I should be able to get a good job when I would finish my education, and such hopes on the eve of 1947 independence and immediately after that were familiar in those days. The commonly deprived Muslims in old East Bengal were in the proximity
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 37 of a plethora of educational, professional, and economic openings in the eastern wing of Pakistan after 1947 even while disparities between East and West Pakistan became a growing and unyielding dispute in the not-so-distant years. In my father’s youth, the only realistic way for most Muslims to get a fairly good job was to have some backing from prominent Muslim families—like the Nawabs of Dhaka, Nawab Nawabl Ali Chowdhury (1863–1929) (or, later, political leaders such as Fazlul Huq). Even institutions like the Calcutta University could nominate a few good students for civil-service jobs, but such breaks were available only to the brightest graduates—both Hindus and Muslims. In the early 1960s, I knew an elderly gentleman in Dhaka who had gotten a Bengal Civil Service cadre job on the nomination of the Calcutta University after he received his master’s degree, with distinction, in 1917. I heard of another locally known gentleman who got a deputy magistrate job on the recommendation of the Nawab of Dhaka in 1923. But my father had no such connections when he was in the job market in the 1920s, although he granted that the Nawab family had got numerous jobs like sub-registrar and police sub-inspector for various young Muslim men. Seemingly, the sub-registrar’s job was a sort of patronage position in those days, as I heard it on numerous occasions: my father knew one or two sub-registrars who did not even finish their college degrees. A couple of professionals, with outstanding academic credentials in the late 1930s and early 1940s, recollected that it was difficult to get government jobs without the backing of distinguished politicians like A.K. Fazlul Huq, who had the reputation of helping young Muslim boys while he was still in power and influence. No matter what sort of benefaction gave them jobs; however, such (Muslim) government officials marked the small steps for the rising Muslim middle class, my father pointed out. When one adult son was educated and productively employed, it was indeed a trickling benefit for the whole family and its successors. Such counsels came from his long experiences and observations. Nirad C. Chaudhuri mentioned the Nawab of Dhaka several times in his Autobiography though he noted that the Hindus were not particularly fond of him. The Nawab’s presence in Comilla had created communal disturbances in 1907, according to that author; still he did not go intensely into the causes of the Hindu aversion to Nawab Salimullah, who died in Calcutta in 1915 at the age of 44. At the time, rumors abounded that he had been secretly poisoned (or shot to death), during a visit to Calcutta, outwardly because of his enormous support for the controversial 1905 partition. This century-old hearsay still surfaces in Bangladeshi newspapers celebrating his birth and death anniversaries in Dhaka. Contrary to Nirad’s observations in his books, at least two of the well-known Nawabs—Nawab Salimullah and Nawab Nawab Ali
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Chowdhury—were popular among the Muslims in what was undivided Bengal and what is Bangladesh now. They built madrassas, hospitals, schools, and orphanages in their respective areas although those were not adequate for Colonial Bengal’s entire Muslim community. Nirad C. Chaudhuri remembered that Nawab Ali Chowdhury of Mymensingh, a prominent Muslim leader, had to cancel his 1907 trip to Kishorganj when people feared a communal stirring in that town. He further added that the Nawab’s subsequent visit in 1908 was a great event “mainly for the Muslims” in his hometown. Of course, he skipped the reasons behind such parting of the ways between a prominent Muslim leader and the local Hindu community. Why was the Nawab so popular among the Muslims in those days? Nawab Ali, though a prominent Muslim leader in Bengal since 1906, was rather a small zamindar compared to the Nawab of Dhaka and the bigger Hindu zamindars of the old Mymensingh district. But he made his mark by speaking on behalf of the Muslims at a time when they had few leadership choices. I am aware of a couple of allegations that Nawab Ali Choudhury did not encourage education of the lower ranks of the Muslim society. However, I came across several other sources, including my father and my relatives; they eloquently acknowledged the Nawab’s patronage and generous contribution toward Muslim education while he held high government positions in Colonial Bengal in the 1920s. Once I read that he lost an election in Mymensingh; based on a couple of personal recollections, the Nawab maintained a house in Calcutta to provide free board to several poor Muslim students. To help students with free board was an old tradition of the wealthy Muslims in Dhaka and several district towns in undivided Bengal. According to my father, he was one of the main architects of the University of Dhaka (established in 1921), but he was not a populist leader like the younger and charismatic Fazlul Huq. However, his encouragement for Muslim education and his support for establishing the Dhaka University are well known in Bangladesh; he helped numerous Muslim young men with jobs including two of my elderly relatives from the extended family. Even the Hindus could not get jobs without some influence-peddling, either through a big, politically visible local zamindar or through the discretion of some senior officials. Interestingly, the tadbir34 pattern was too communally divided— the Muslims expected sponsorship from the Muslim zamindars/talukdars and the Muslim bureaucrats or even head clerks, and the Hindus usually got help from the influential Hindus. In one of his narratives, Nirad C. Chaudhuri mentioned that he got a clerical job in the 1920s through an official whom he knew through his family connections. My father described that the Muslim middle class was a
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 39 late starter in education and the professions, but their subsequent push for more jobs exacerbated the Hindu-Muslim disputes in Bengal; this subject will revisit in a couple of subsequent chapters of the book. The delineation I envisaged from several sources, including my father’s occasional reminiscences, was different from that in Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s observations. It was not so much of historical wrath or civilizational differences that accentuated the Hindu-Muslim conflict, as the author implied; nor did it come from the much-maligned Ulema35. Immersed in the well of Wahhabism36, the “purist” Islamic leaders overtly wanted to “keep the Muslims on the right religious trail.” The Tabligh movement37 avoided politics since its followers campaigned for the Muslims to be strict observers of their religious obligations. Both of those campaigns challenged the Hindu revivalist movement to “reconvert” the Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism. For all practical purposes, the Muslim articulation of worldly grievances became a sectarian expression in the eyes of several distinguished Hindu leaders. Beyond those narratives, I found a little validation of my family-influenced perceptions of the Hindu-Muslim disagreements in J. H. Broomfield’s critically appreciated book Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth Century Bengal38. Nirad C. Chaudhuri claimed in his Autobiography that Bengal was already divided long before M.A. Jinnah partitioned it—he maintained that it started in school classrooms where Hindu and Muslim students were in the habit of sitting separately, keeping a little distance from each other! Long before I read his Autobiography, I had come face to face with an outrageous separation like what the provocative author moaned about: in 1944, decades after that writer and my father were students. I found it offensive when a Hindu classmate repeatedly avoided sitting next to me on the bench. One day I asked the student why. He said, “Because you Muslims smell like onions!” I felt humiliated and took the matter to my father, who patted me on the back and said, “The Hindus don’t eat beef, but the Muslims do! So, an orthodox Hindu avoids coming into bodily contact with a Muslim. When I was a student like you, I had the same experience that you had. Do not feel so hurt! That is a virtually accepted practice!” I never totally forgot that discourse of my father! It was for the first time I realized that I was the “other” in my class, school and even in the larger community. Slowly, it dawned upon me that my father’s generation had internalized such belittling treatment in their social interactions with the Hindu bhadralok. Later in life, I shared that experience with a class friend who was in the same class with me and the reason for such “segregation” was outright insulting to us, in retrospect. Such stories circulated for years among the Muslim students in my school. Abul Mansur Ahmad, Mahbubur Rahman, and Dr. R. H. Khandker—the three well-known Bangladeshis already
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acknowledged in this book—as well narrated such discriminatory experiences in their respective classrooms while they were students, in different intervals under review (1905–1947). The tradition of the Hindus not touching the Muslims or the caste Hindus not even walking the shadows of the lower caste people, immortalized in classic Bengali fictions, was commonly known as the choi-na-choi (touching and not touching)—it was this old custom that socially divided the Bengal society long before the 1947 partition. My father upheld that the Hindus and Muslims, except in schools, business, and occasional cultural activities, mostly stayed away from social interactions like dining, voluntary socialization, intermarriage, and sharing the same neighborhoods. Since the episode in 1944, I knew that I had a somewhat different identity from most of my class friends, not only because I was a Muslim but also on account of certain components of my food, which were despised by my Hindu class fellows! I found that not only the Hindu students but also, especially, the Brahmin teachers kept a “safe” distance from the Muslim pupils. In 1946–1947, two friends and I had a private math tutor who was also our teacher at the school. The three of us always sat on the bare Chowki39 in the verandah, and we were never allowed to step inside the living room. By that time, I knew why two of us (Muslims) were not allowed to step inside the house; but it took me some time to figure out why the third friend did not have the privilege of walking into our teacher’s living room either—he was a Hindu, but belonged to a lower caste. It’s well beyond seven decades since I had that experience with our teacher, but I am still unsure if we had to stay outside the teacher’s main house just because the Muslims were different by faith and certain food contents, or if it was because Muslims were inferior in the eyes of the caste Hindus! Was it a kind of “Hindu separatism?” If I understand Nirad C. Chaudhuri properly, the Muslims were possibly both separate and lower in the eyes of most of the Hindu bhadralok community. A reputed physician who worked in an international health organization, late Dr. Habibuz Zaman (no relative of mine), recalled in his autobiographical book40 that even the educated high-caste Hindus refused to eat off plates previously used by Muslims. He implied that the practice continued even in former East Pakistan, shortly after 1947. Our paths never crossed in his younger days, but it seems Dr. Zaman’s experiences and my memories meet at a reputable confectionary shop in Islampur, old Dhaka, where the Muslim patrons were not allowed to drink water from the glasses! In my college days I relished rasagolla41 in those sugary retailers whenever I had a little money in my pocket. He remembered (and I do as well) that in the early 1950s the drinking water was poured in the hollow of the two palms folded together! I had a foggy childhood recollection of
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 41 an incident when, unable to check my temptation, I dipped my finger into a pot of kheer42 ferried by a Hindu Ghosh43. My father bought the whole pot of kheer, because he knew that the Ghosh would not be able to sell it anywhere else! Nor could he take it home, since a Muslim had touched it; my mother enjoyed making fun of me by telling that story, even when I was a grown man. Few recollections of Colonial Bengal would be complete without remembering what was widely called the anti-British terrorism. In India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857–194744 Bipan Chandra implied that the most major political trends of the Indian national movement carried traces of their origins in the radical campaign. And in his Autobiography, Nirad C. Chaudhuri made several observations about the anti-British Swadeshi movement after the 1905 partition of Bengal, where, over and above the boycotts widely associated with the movement, anti-British terrorists carried out sporadic bombings and shootings of British officers and their loyalists among the Indians. Dhaka and Chittagong were the acknowledged hotspots of such terror activities from 1905 onward, which are accredited in the history of extra-constitutional movements against the British Raj. In his Autobiography, the author strangely remarked that the Swadeshi radical activities, ostensibly the anti-British campaigns, were also designed to fight the feared Muslim attacks on the Hindus, and the Swadeshi actors conducted self-defense physical training to meet such contingencies. I reckon that his observation of what he experienced in Kishorganj, his birthplace, might enlighten why there were no more than a handful of Muslims involved in Swadeshi terrorist movement. My father recollected that the anti-British terrorists were largely the offsprings of the Hindu bhadralok, and, personally, he did not remember any one from the lower Hindu caste, in his neighborhood, who was active in the violent anti-British drive. I gathered multiple recollections, however, about one Muslim member of such an anti-British radical group—he was operating, I heard, from the late 1920s to early 1940s. In 1949–1950, when I was in the 9th grade, the Bengali literature textbook included an inspiring poem about the Muslim Renaissance, by a poet called Benazir Ahmed. My father knew about the poet from the 1930s, when the writer was commonly alleged as the Swadeshi Benazir “dacoit”45 because, with his comrades, he, purportedly, robbed rich households in villages across several districts—robbery was one of the recognized means of collecting funds for their anti-British terror campaign. The only other information my father had about the poet was his khandani46 Muslim family upbringing near Sonargaon. Anyway, from 1949 I had a classmate who was a cousin of Benazir Ahmed; he proudly told us that while under arrest and possibly being taken for trial, Benazir Ahmed had jumped from a moving steamer near Chandpur, one of the
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biggest river ports in Bangladesh, and, with his handcuffs on, he swam the big convergence of rivers for several miles until he was saved by a bunch of fishermen, who handed him over to the police. He was jailed for several years at different stages of his revolutionary career; I came to know from different sources later. And then, after more than a decade, I came to know Benazir Ahmed, the insurgent-turned-poet, and an entrepreneur, when he was possibly in his sixties; he happened to be my mother-in-law’s uncle. He recollected his frustrations with the Swadeshi factions; members were, according to different tales, required to take an oath in the name of the Goddess Kali47, a practice that discouraged the Muslims to join their struggle. Poet Benazir told me that in fact he knew of only one other Muslim who was, for a while, an active anti-British Swadeshi radical. Once in the mid-1960s, I met a Hindu gentleman at the poet’s house, an old comrade from his revolutionary days. He told me that the revolver he had used for his terrorist activities was preserved, with his name on it, at a Museum in Calcutta—I had no way to verify his claim. The anti-British terrorist activities were again on the rise in the 1930s, which drove the British Raj to pass the Bengal Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1932 that met sharp resistance from the Bengali politicians. Most likely, poet Benazir was also active in Calcutta in that period. My mother-in-law said that, for a while, her uncle had lived incognito as a milkman on the outskirts of Calcutta in the late 1930s or it could also be possibly in the early 1940s. She had seen a revolver in his cow shed, and what looked like hand bombs48. To avoid the suspicion of police and spies, I heard, he sometimes, dressed as a non-Bengali Hindu, speaking in Hindi; at other times, he was immaculately dressed like a European. Benazir Ahmed gave up his revolutionary life in the mid-1940s when the Pakistan movement brought Muslim nationalism to the fore. But he was disappointed when he failed to get the Muslim League nomination in the 1946 Bengal Provincial Assembly election; he gave up politics and began a private life in Dhaka just before the 1947 division. However, he became a member of the Pakistan National Assembly in 1962; later, he received the Bangla Academy Award for Poetry in 1964.
Notes 1. Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1897–1999), the author of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (McMillan, 1951), did not like the withdrawal of British colonial rule from the Indian subcontinent. He was a member of a Hindu family in Kishorganj, now a district in Bangladesh.
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 43 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15.
17. 18. 19. 20. 21.
Published in London in 1987. Kitab—a book or religious pamphlet. Calcutta—currently spelled “Kolkata.” (I have used Calcutta in this narrative). khandan—aristocracy. ryots—tenants. subaltern—in post-colonial scholarship, the term subaltern designates populations socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland. Habiba Khatun, Iqlim Sonargaon: History, Jurisdiction and Monuments, (Academic Press, Dhaka, 2006). 12 “war-lords”/Zamindars (landlords)—the baro bhuiyans, who ruled several parts of Bengal until the Mughals defeated the Sultanate rule in Bengal in 1576. [According to some estimates, there were possibly more than 12 such warlords in pre-Mughal Bengal.] Aurangzeb—one of the four sons of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled from 1658 to 1707. His full name was Aurangzeb Alamgir. Hindutva—“Hinduness,” the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India. Audrey Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, Stanford, 2017. Shazia Omar, Dark Diamond, Bloomsbury, 2017. After India was divided for the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Hindus largely blamed Muslims for causing that Partition. Robert Clive—Major-General Robert Clive, (September 29, 1725–November 22, 1774), Commander-in-Chief of British India who established the military and political supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal. Warren Hastings—(December 6, 1732–August 22, 1818), first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal), the head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and thereby the first de facto Governor-General of India from 1772 to 1785. He was accused of corruption and impeached in 1787 but later acquitted. Nilkuthi—indigo plantation house. Nil Darpan—“The Indigo Planting Mirror,” a Bengali drama written by Dinabandhu Mitra in 1858–59. Ishwar Chandra Biddaysagar—also written “Vidyasagar.” An early Bengal Renaissance writer (1820–1891). Lal Behari Dey—(1824–1892). Tagore—Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Bengali poet, short-story writer, song composer, playwright, essayist, and painter who introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit and also purging the language of Arabic, Persian and Urdu words. He became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
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22. Nazrul—Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976), a Bengali poet, writer, musician, and revolutionary. The national poet of Bangladesh: he produced a large body of poetry and music with themes that included religious devotion and spiritual rebellion against fascism and oppression. 23. Vaishnabis/Bauls—wandering mystic minstrels from Bengal. 24. Chishty tariqua of Sufism—a path of Sufism that rejects material possessions and seeks a deep understanding of the Unity of God. 25. Amrita Bazaar Patrika—published from Calcutta, it was one of the oldest daily newspapers in South Asia. 26. Modern Review—Modern Review was the name of a monthly magazine published in Calcutta. Founded by Ramananda Chatterjee in 1907, the Modern Review soon emerged as an important forum for the Indian Nationalist intelligentsia. 27. C.R. Das—Chittaranjan Das (1869–1925), a leading Indian politician, a prominent lawyer, an activist of the Indian Nationalist Movement, and founder-leader of the Swaraj (Independence) Party in Bengal. 28. naib—manager. 29. fakirs—in this case, Dervishes. 30. chira (flattened rice) and muri(fried rice)—two plain rice dishes. 31. Hindu Muslim Bahi Bhai—Hindus and Muslims are brothers! 32. Larke Lenge Pakistan—we will fight for Pakistan! 33. Muhajir—a term for refugee. 34. tadbir—lobbying for jobs. 35. Ulema—A body of Muslim scholars who are recognized as having specialized knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology. 36. Wahhabism—an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. 37. Tabligh movement—founded in the late 1920s by the Deobandi cleric Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi in the Mewat province of India. Maulana Ilyas put forward the slogan, ‘Aye Musalmano! Musalman bano’ (O Muslims! Be Muslims). It is a non-political movement. 38. J.H. Broomfield, Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth Century Bengal. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968. 39. Chowki—wooden bed. 40. Dr. Habibuzzaman, 70 Years in Shaky Sub-Continent, Janus, London, 1999. 41. rasagolla—sugary cheese balls. 42. kheer—milk pudding. 43. Gosh—member of the Hindu caste; they were known as the makers and hawkers of sweets and milk products. 44. India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857–1947, by Bipan Chandra (New Delhi: Penguin, 1989). 45. dacoit—armed robber.
Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories | 45 46. khandani—aristocratic. 47. Kali—Hindu goddess of death, time, and doomsday, often associated with sexuality and violence but also considered a strong mother-figure and symbolic of motherly-love. 48. Hand bombs—probably hand grenades.
A Family Maverick Existential Slog and Identity Encounters!
Admonishing me in my early school years, my father had occasionally recited one of my grandfather’s sayings: “Na Jane Bidya Pashur Jiban, Jane Bidya Debater Saman”—a man who has no education has the life of an animal; and one who has education has the life of a god! Quite an insight for education from my grandfather who had little formal schooling beyond the early childhood Islamic instruction! His milk business, sometimes, brought him face to face with the local professionals—his regular customers; they were his apertures to the world beyond his family and neighbors. How much schooling one should get to become a government official was, for example, his common query. He even asked how much land they owned. Such people whom he encountered in the bazaar were mostly the Hindu bhadralok. Except the scions of a few local talukdars and traders, most of the Hindu teachers, lawyers, officials, clerks, doctors, revenue collectors, deed writers and pundits, who lived in the nearby towns, originally hailed from the Bikrampur region of the old Dhaka district. That belt was the quintessential abode of the educated Bengali bhdralok of modern Bengal. Their livelihood was largely contingent on their respective professions, which scattered them all over Bengal and beyond. My grandfather easily grasped from such educated people that a good living was possible by modern skills and gainful employment alone, without the burdens of land ownership or the farming drudge. Those ideas possibly enthused
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my grandfather to send most his sons to school though the tough-minded father did not win his goals for all his sons—three of them eventually went into farming and small business. My grandfather, Alauddin (1847–1912), died long before I was born—when my father was still in the 9th grade at the local school. Nuri, or Nur Jahan (1858– 1928), was my grandmother. Grandfather’s full name was Sheikh Alauddin (in some records, Maulvi Alauddin) though his family members and friends called him Alabdi. I also saw his name as Sri Alabdi in a few land records: I would call him Alabdi in this narrative or my grandfather. My father, Badruzzaman (1893– 1975), was listed in a few old school publications as Sri Badruzzaman; in the family and among the neighbors, he had a couple of nick names while his students remembered him as B. Zaman Sir. Numerous of his village cohorts called him Master Saheb. For this recount, I would use Badru, as a condensed forename, but in bulk of the narrative, I covered him as my father or just father. I remember his name with a Sri before it when he pulled out the old school magazines decades ago; I was then at my teens—he did not quite relish the Sri before his name. Sri is a typical Hindu foreword of the full name of a male and putting it before a Muslim name hurt the Muslim sentiment, although this practice was not unknown at the time. More on this subject will follow later. My mother’s maiden name was Barzenda Akhtar Khatun, but in this recount, I have called her simply “my mother.” Moving out of the old parental homestead and, over the years, Alabdi built new houses on the adjacent land, where he raised his family. In fact, his thatched cottage contiguous to his main residence—still known as the bangla ghar (bungalow house)—continues as the modestly enhanced outhouse to accommodate guests or a free student boarder that maintains the family tradition from the past. Over the decades it was an occasional hangout for my uncles, their sons, and the neighbors: once upon a time in the early 20th century, the space was, for a while, used for the village pathsala. One of my uncles was a good punthi-reader, I heard; and when he recited the punthi1 in that house, neighbors came to listen. He was popular for reciting the Sunaban punthi, Saiful Mulluk, and Yusuf Zulekha—the punthi literature was full of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu words. Maximum number of the old punthi books that I found in our family collections mirrored the famed Muslim heroes and heroines of ancient times; one of my cousins, I recall, had a melodious tone of reading punthis. As a contrast, I found that kirtan songs and recitation from the Ramayan and Mahabharata readings were common in the Hindu households that I occasionally visited to meet my class friends.
A Family Maverick | 49 My grandfather grew up in the early 1850s, when there was hardly any coherent school system in Bengal’s villages except some madrassas or maktabs mostly taught by the village Maulvis2. Seemingly, he went to a local religious outfit, where he learned to read the Quran and acquired the basics of prayers. Rudimentary literacy was provided at the village pathsalas3 too. My family’s patriarch had not been lucky enough to go to an appropriate school, but he fantasized about a good education for his sons for gaining the bhadralok status. However, he kept track of his hard cash and investments by using small cowry shells for calculating his cash and then remembered his clients according to the amount of money he had lent them. He memorized his cash deals by correlating them with the Hindu festivals that took place virtually every month; moreover, he also transacted moneylending with his clients in weekly bazaar or in seasonal mela (celebrations). I saw my grandfather’s cowry shells in my boyhood. Nifty though he was, he was only a middleman for the landlords and mahajans4 who controlled the rural money-lending business in those days. Besides moneylending, grandfather earned cash from a milk business and sales of surplus rice and jute in good years. He kept his silver rupees in small brass pots, called lota, with secret markings for incoming and outgoing cash flows; it was indeed an inventive book-keeping system for the time and circumstances! One of our area’s large and influential talukdars, the Dhars, trusted my grandfather for periodic revenue collections from a vast number of Muslim tenants. Instead of cash remuneration for his service, the landlord allowed him to cultivate a few acres of his land; but he did not enjoy full tenure rights over those assets. In addition, he had a few bighas5 of land under multi-year leases from those who borrowed money from him. Prosperity was, in those days, measured by self-sufficiency in food: are you able to harvest what you need? Other indicators were the commodities one procured from the bazaar. Someone who bought only those items that could not be produced domestically (such as salt, sugar, clothes, and kerosene oil) was marked as financially self-reliant, or perhaps even a little prosperous—unless a son or two in the school stood for a different kind of drain on the family resources. Those were the measuring sticks to assess the quality of rural life in Bengal of the era outlined here. When my father was in the 9th grade, Alabdi, not long before he passed away, conjured that when his son would pass the matriculation (high school graduation) he would slaughter seven cows and throw a dinner party for the entire village. Such a feast would have been prohibitively expensive for him in those days—still, even to think of such a celebration showed his excitement for his son’s prospective educational feat; it was another clue of his love for education. His son did pass the
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matriculation in 1914, but Alabdi’s sudden death prevented him from seeing his dream fulfilled—his “audacious hope,” however, became real later when my father passed his matriculation and eventually got his BA degree. Still, an occasion like this deserved a rejoicing for a rural family then: even graduating from high school was a rare feat among the Muslims in those days. Heeding back to my grandfather’s time, an educated middle class was yet to emerge among the rural Muslims. What was known as the Muslim Asharf/Khandan/Kulin6 class in the urban areas habitually disparaged the peasant Muslims while they were put aside as the local converts to Islam. The Hindu bhadralok ordinarily looked down upon the Muslims as a kind of “oxymoron”—their roles were limited to the “drawers of water” and “hewers of wood,” according to W. W. Hunter, the celebrated author of the 19th-century Indian Muslims. They were generally the ryots7—doing the agricultural work; I believe that my grandparents passed through the Muslim society visualized by W. W. Hunter8, who feared the potential for anti-Colonial anger among the Muslims, and he recommended government policies to alleviate their depressed economic status. After the collapse of the 1857 Indian Sepoy rebellion, the fundamentalist Muslim remnants of the anti-Colonial Faraizi movement and the scattered Jehadi9 activities covertly lingered as the dissident offshoots in the eastern districts of old Bengal—they also campaigned to end the purported Hindu cultural sway on average Muslims. During my grandfather’s period and my father’s student years, there were a few families in the neighboring villages who had presumed connections with such underground anti-British campaign. Before the Faraizi activists emerged in rural Bengal, Alabdi heard from his parents that a Madari Sufi saint called Majnu Shah (died in 1787) launched a guerilla-style revolt against the East India Company’s offices and their garrisons that sustained through his disciples until the early 19th century. And occasionally their hit-and-run attacks were carried out from their hideouts in the Bhawal forest areas, not far from where his forefathers earlier lived. I gathered such tales from my father’s periodic sequence of what he heard from his father and family elders. Together with family anecdotes, bazaar gossips, common sense, and instinct, Alabdi weighed that neither the anti-British Fariazi Muslims nor the emerging Swadeshi agitators among the Hindus could throw the British out in the foreseeable future. He was already instinctively drawn to what he saw in the educated and professional Hindu bhadralok in the nearby town. However, Alabdi could not convince a few of his own relatives, including Ashraf, his favorite brother-inlaw, about the utility of the British-initiated modern education. A few among the relatively affluent Muslim farmers were sending their sons to schools. Likewise,
A Family Maverick | 51 he heard that the Nawabs in Dhaka encouraged education and helped the educated Bengali Muslims with jobs. The Bengali Muslims were then not yet in the spell of populist leaders like A.K. Fazlul Huq (1873–1962) of the 1930s and 1940s. One Muslim boy—who had once stayed at Alabdi’s home as his son Badru’s private tutor—later got a police sub-inspector job after graduating from the Kaliganj High School and barely starting college in Dhaka. In his era and even much later, Sub-Inspector of Police was a substantial job for a Muslim. Coincidentally, this young man later married into my mother’s family and, after retirement, lived in a fancy river-side bungalow next to my mother’s family home. Once I visited that elderly gentleman with my father, who wanted to pay his respects to his former tutor. No matter retired or active, individuals like him, with educated and productive sons, marked the beginning of a Muslim educated class in rural Bengal in the early part of the 20th century; most of them were not the implants of the old Muslim elites. I believe that my grandfather spontaneously wanted his family to be a part of the transformation: it was such insight at personal levels at the grassroots that slowly transformed the otherwise stagnant Muslim society in those decades. My grandparents, their contemporaries, and even my father’s generations gathered the real-life comprehensions by watching the successful villagers, and by observing others and talking with people whom they met at the bazaar, at land-registration office, or intermittently from local talukdars and their tax collectors. Of course, meetings with friends and relatives and the floating tales and gossips too were hefty information resources in those long past days. Huddled in the sluggish corners of the weekly bazaar, the unhurried traders and customers smoked hookah and chatted with each other about what the government officers or the zamindars were doing in their neighborhoods; such hookah-nooks, not tea stalls/restaurants, were the popular information-exchange and adda-spots in Bengal during my grandfather’s era. The nearby Land Registrar’s office (since the early 1880s) was an important location where my grandfather met people who had been to Dhaka or as far as Calcutta; they brought stories and rumors about what was happening in the country—often the same stories drifted for months! Beyond buying and selling properties, it was also a social communication hub. Except the Sub-Registrar, most of the clerks and deed writers were local people—several of them were Muslim. Alabdi wanted Ismail, his eldest son, to be a deed-writer (the real estate deed writers were called Mukhters). Uncle Ismail worked for a time as a deed-writer in the local land-registration office; unhappily, he did not stick to any job for long: it
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was another spell of discontent of my grandparents: father and son had barely been on speaking terms. Alabdi’s house was just a mile from the Lakhya; when the river rose in the rainy season, he could see the multicolor sails of the country boats and hear the majis10 singing bhatiali11 songs. Paddled steamers ferrying passengers and goods were the new attractions on the river edge. The huge barges of the British shipping companies stopped at the river jetty too—they were transporting jute and other goods to the Calcutta factories and distant ports beyond the horizon. Watching the steamers plying along the country boats in the river and listening to the bursting railway train whistles in the north of his house, Alabdi felt that changes were coming to his quiet neighborhood that he was familiar with. The northern riverbank, visible from Alabdi’s house, was part of the long track of the river-shore running between Kaliganj and Shoom Khali, the neighboring town on the west, the other side of the canal. To the east of the steamer ghat12, the main road ran through Kaliganj, the seat of a police station, a Munsef court (until transferred to Narayanganj in 1897), a post office, a high school, and a charitable dispensary of the Raja of Bhawal, the revenue collector’s office, and a bazaar where such daily necessities as fresh vegetables, fish, and meat were bought and sold. Kaliganj, an old river port, was the center of trade, education, and administration in a region of 20 square miles. Several warehouses, a jetty, a couple of jute buyers’ offices, and a string of big, old trees dotted the bank of the Lakhya. On the west, there was a burning ghat for Hindu cremations, a few sweepers’ houses, and, nearby, the dwellings of palki (palanquin) carriers and chamars (skinners)13. Neither the bhdralok nor the girasth14 lived by the river; there was also an Abgari house that sold liquor, opium, and ganja to addicts; after sunset, local addicts swarmed into the Abgari house and some of those visitors sneaked to and from the local whorehouses. Alabdi had two main reasons to go down to the river curve. First, a few of his long-delinquent borrowers somehow had the cash to go to the Abgari store and occasionally visit the prostitutes in that neighborhood. The only way to get hold of those nonpaying clients was to apprehend them during their habitual jaunts by the river. As he was growing older, he did not like moneylending anymore, but above all, Nuri hated the usury business, forbidden for a Muslim. Of course, Alabdi humorously and unconvincingly argued back to his wife, “Look, Islam forbids only the big usurers, not a small money-lender like me!” My grandfather’s stroll to the river front was really his passion for the Lakhya. Sometimes Nuri asked her husband, “Ismail’s father, why do you go to the riverbank instead of relaxing at home?” Habitually a dry workaholic, my grandfather
A Family Maverick | 53 was also given to sporadic humor. Smilingly, he would reply, “Ismail’s Mother, you know that I go to the riverside to meet the three-headed old man for his counsel!” Nuri knew the familiar story narrated by the village elders; I came across vestiges of the folktale from my father in my teens. After laughing briefly, my grandmother would say, “That man is dead—you can never meet him, and you know it!” Sitting under his favorite banyan tree by the water, Alabdi often mulled over his ancestors’ stories, and he sometimes imagined the presence of someone, whom he fantasized about meeting—an old folk yarn. Long ago, his father recited: an affluent head of a family summoned his sons and told them that he would die soon. Concerned, the eldest asked: “Father, how would we keep our wealth and survive in life? And whom should we consult for wisdom when you are not around?” The aged and ailing father paused and said: “To stay wealthy and healthy, eat fish with their heads on; and for knowledge, go to a three-headed man sitting by the river.” And then the old patriarch died. But Alabdi’s story did not end there: the fictional sons followed their father’s tips in the literal sense, he said—they bought only whole large fish and enjoyed the feast. Although they were healthy, they gradually became poor, and desperately looked for the wise old man their father had mentioned. Finally, one day a friend showed them an old man sitting by the riverbank with his head sunk between his two knees—yes, from a distance he did look like a three-headed man! So, the sons went to him and explained the purpose of their visit. Now the aged man raised his head and told them: “You are fools! When your father told you to eat fish with their heads on, he meant that you should eat only minnows; that would have saved your money.” The sons returned home and ate only small fish from then on, and slowly their wealth returned. But when they went back to the river bend to thank the “three-headed man,” he was not there. Since Alabdi was frugal in spending but still not wealthy, he fantasized about meeting the three-headed wise man for his counsel, whom he never found! Now, contemplating his own death, he thought about telling his sons the same story so that they should lead a thrifty life and consult their elders for insight. During my grandparent’s time, people identified with local fables, and their moral lessons were sources of inspiration. He liked to learn from such morally infused rural allegories; they were like the collective compendiums of knowledge to be shared by the members of the community across the gamut. Alabdi had enjoyed being bonded with nature. During the winter months, migratory birds crowded the river and the nearby marshes. When the Kirishnachura15 bloomed in the spring, the river edge had a new look—it was like a blooming garden. My grandfather was, however, less attracted to the railway station, a mile or two north of his house. He did not like the shimul16 flowers much; when
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the mature cotton shells opened, millions of fibers floated in the air like hundreds of thousands of tiny insects! It made him sneeze and cough. It was the biggest but serious-looking banyan tree that attracted him most—he loved sitting under its cool shade and enjoying the flowing river; the old tree reminded him his past: it was like his storyteller to him. Further west of the Krisnachura trees, the kulus, badhaykars, dais, and majis17 lived in their exclusive sectors; most of those people did not own enough land and made a living practicing their ancestral professions. The girasth had limited comings and goings to the kulus, badhaykars, and dais on the outskirts of the village: they were looked down upon as the virtual lower castes among the Muslims. On the one hand, Alabdi knew that Islam did not have any caste system, but, on the other, what he saw in practice was a de-facto breach of his faith, which was rarely challenged by his fellow Muslims. Even in his younger days, he seldom went to those paras except when he needed the service of a dai. Rarely, he visited the kulu para to have his mustard seeds pressed into cooking oil. But he remembered a romantic yarn about that neighborhood habitually shunned by most villagers: a local talukdar fell in love with a girl of a kulu family. He was initially warned and asked to avoid visiting his mistress, but when he continued his secret jaunts, the elders of that para apprehended him and tied him up with a tree when in his frustration, he told them: you can tie me up but not my mind! Most of his life, Alabdi had worked long hours at several occupations. Nuri, in her angry moments, would throw away the lotas where he stored his silver coins for money-lending; but occasionally he buried a lota full of silver rupees to thwart the thieves, dacoits, and even his eldest son—who, in his teens, pinched Baba’s money to indulge his appetite for made-in-England biscuits, a rare luxury for a rural boy of that time. In old age, my grandfather insisted on smoking hookah, which his wife resented and his ruminations in the outer house were, time and again, interrupted by my grandmother’s yelling. One or two of his friends stopped by to share a hookah puff in the outer house and apportion each other’s gossip about what happened to them in the past and what was happening currently. One day, after spending all morning cooking, Nuri was in a bad mood, and she did something unusual that struck her sons and the daughters-in-law: she came to Alabdi and bent to come face to face with her husband on the chauki. Then she raised her voice and said, “Ismail’s father, do you have any compassion for others? Look at the sun which is going down over the trees and we have not had our lunch yet! Do you want us to fast for the rest of the day?” Then she quickly disappeared behind the privacy screens, as if her speed were an additional expression of her anger and frustration. No more excuses, Alabdi realized; he stood up and slowly
A Family Maverick | 55 went to the kitchen, where Badru and Ismail’s daughter were eating their midday meal on a torn mat rolled out for lunchtime. Then Alabdi began complaining: “There is too much salt in the curry, Ismail’s mother! I can’t eat this staff; you know what the kabiraj18 said about salty food!” My grandmother knew well that it had become Alabdi’s habit to grouse, especially since his illness. She reminded her husband that the kabiraj had also advised him not to smoke hookah. When Alabdi returned to the verandah after his half-hearted lunch, the early-autumn sun was slowly setting, radiating a glow over the paddy fields. Soft sunlight was filtering through the leaves of the nearby trees. Neither his sharecropping nor his moneylending had made him rich; but in a good year he could bring in a solid amount of cash by selling jute, rice, and Rabi19 crops. He did not have pucca20 houses—a mark of prosperity in the villages of Bengal in those days—but he had couple of south-facing chauchala21 houses, a sign of success in his time that was envied by neighbors. He was a little proud of what he achieved among his village cohorts. Grandmother was happy with what she had, although she complained about her husband dodging the daily namaz22: this was a running issue between my grandparents; grandmother did not like his on-again and off-again practice of daily salat and Ramadan. But the neighbors and friend liked Alabdi for his honesty and hard work. Once he offered his outer cottage to be used for a village pathsala for a while where Afsaruddin (Afsar), a local Maulvi, briefly taught. My grandfather rightly guessed that the local judge enjoyed the highest status in Kaliganj: he knew when the Munsef talked, others listened; he saw that people who met him on the road said “Salam, Huzoor.” Sometimes, he asked his friendly customers: “Can the firangis (Christians) rule us long from beyond seven oceans and thirteen rivers?” This was perhaps his only political question as I heard occasionally from the elders; time and again, his friends teased him for such seemingly juvenile questions! The day Alabdi heard that his eldest son, Ismail, had dropped out of the school, he nearly collapsed in sorrow, anger, and frustration; it was an old story that my father repeated like a broken record, possibly as a counsel for me. Deeply disappointed, he came home and started screaming: “Oh, Ismail’s mother, listen, give me some poison! I want to die!” Nuri knew something was terribly wrong. She held her husband’s hand, made him sit on a mora23 and brought him a glass of water. “Tell me what happened!” she kept asking. Alabdi sat there for a while; he looked bewildered and sobbing, he told his wife everything. Indeed, Nuri had high hopes for Ismail, and now all her dreams were shattered. Slowly, he recovered from the shock, only to fret over the rest of his sons’ future: “The sons are like the
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bulls which pull the plough; if the first bull on the right breaks down, the other will follow the suit!” Uncle Ismail dropped out of school; his parents did not appreciate his artistic gifts. As a writer for the village theatrical groups, he traveled to numerous towns and cities—once to Calcutta, as I came to know where he acquired reading and conversational skills in Persian and Urdu. Those were among the presumed proficiencies of an accomplished Muslim in those times. However, Nuri was deeply concerned about Ismail’s theatrical activities; the Hindu festivals were embellished by such entertainments. When she heard that Ismail was visiting the dancing girls by the river, she cried and besought her husband to look for a suitable girl to marry Ismail. After he got married, Uncle Ismail tried to make some money by designing printer’s blocks and doing decorative woodwork, but none of those pursuits brought enough money for the family. He had potentials for clerical jobs in Dhaka or Calcutta, but he was never serious about such career possibilities. It was a rare prospect in those days to make a living with artistic skills. My eldest cousin, Ismail uncle’s son, inherited a bit of his father’s talent—in the military he was the army’s painter for pictures, signs, and road markings, but, unlike his father, he was not interested in drawing human figures as he knew the Islamic restrictions against sketching human characters. Disappointed with most of his sons, Alabdi, as the family story ran, transferred all his hopes and dreams onto Badru, my father, who showed serious motivation as a student. But he suffered from bouts of illness; occasionally irritated with his parents’ high expectations about him, he wondered: “Am I up to it?” He often recited the Persian couplet “Delhi is far away!” And Alabdi knew exactly what his son meant: it was a dream even further away than Delhi to become a judge or a deputy magistrate or a lawyer in those days without extraordinary merit or access to patronage of influential persons. My grandparents’ younger years were the golden days of the British Raj in India—the bumper era of the British-bolstered zamindars, landholders, big moneylenders, the nouveau riche, and the growing educated middle class, all firmly saddled with visible and invisible command over resources. Alabdi had a limited knowledge of the world; yet, his perceptions of power, politics, and society at that time were not out of touch, and even the unconfirmed anecdotes and folktales gave him a sense of history—mixed with both pride and a sense of loss. Yes, he had seen, from a distance, the British District Magistrate, usually with sholar hat on the head, who visited the area once a year; sometimes the steamer company’s European officers also visited the town. When the British District Magistrate came to Kaliganj, he was like a king visiting his subjects! Even the Raja of Bhawal’s
A Family Maverick | 57 representatives came to Kaliganj to welcome the district officer. So did the petty zamindars and talukdars from the entire region. The local officers brought chickens, goats, and big carp fish to feast the visiting government officers; an Anglo-Indian family from the adjoining village, I heard, supplied a cook to prepare European dishes for the visiting British officers. The officials in the town ordered their subordinates to collect flowers of the season for garlands for the visiting District magistrate and accompanying entourage. Alabdi recognized the difference between the Europeans and himself: they were white (people called them Gora); and they had a different religion—they were Christians, the firangis from distant Europe who believed in Jesus and Mary Ma. He knew that English was the language of the white officers, who visited the area annually. He was familiar with the two old Catholic Churches not too far from his house; however, the local Christians were very much like him: they did not speak in English. So much more was from Alabdi’s political world—for his civic perceptions, it did not matter terribly that he did not go to school or read books or newspapers—he gathered a bundle from the small world around him and listened to the oral recounts from people whom he knew. To him, the bazaar stories were not always just gossip and innuendo; the spoken versions were, possibly, the equivalent of the modern social media—those were virtually the only information reserve he had. All those, however, blended with his consciousness about himself and others; they melded him with shared memories and the social milieus. The Raja of Bhawal was the biggest zamindar in the area, but Alabdi had heard legends that his forefathers, originally Bikrampur area, were once Tehsildars24 for the Ghazis, the Muslim landlords who ran the entire pargana25 before the British came. In the last decade of his life, Alabdi, like most others of the local community, was engrossed in the swirling story that the Raja died mysteriously in Darjeeling while he was there for medical treatment. The episode lingered when the “dead king reappeared” later and his claim to the estate was challenged by his wife (Rani). All those happened long after Alabdi had already died. What started as an incredible story became the longest legal battle in Indian history that ended with London’s Privy Council’s decree in favor of the Raja in 1946. My father heard the news on our way to the bazaar; people did not pay much attention to the news that the Raja had won, as the old feudal grasp was already dwindling fast in those days. He believed that his father would possibly have been happy if the Raja had lost the case. To my grandfather, the Bhawal Rajas were mostly harsh to their renters.
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The neighboring village Chaura was important because of an old Sufi shrine of Shah Karforma, one of the Muslim Sufis who evidently brought Islam to the area. I saw the ruins of the shrine of the Sufi saint-preacher and a big lake, and the circuitous canals that presumably protected those rulers’ fort and residence. Traditions had it that the Ghazis were of Pathan origin—they were one of the twelve (or more) Bhuiyas26 who reigned over Bengal before the Mughal invasion. And they had presumed connections with the rulers in Sonargaon, once the flourishing capital of the region—barely 25/30 miles from my grandfather’s home. The Ghazis, according to local legends, supplied the Mughal legions in Dhaka with food, boats, soldiers, and other logistics, according to the family elders’ stories of local history I had overheard in my childhood. When the East India Company (EIC) had put the old zamindari estates up for auction under their new land tenancy laws, most of the buyers were the Hindu banyas27 who had cash from their trade with the Europeans. For Alabdi, this was not distant history; his forefathers had given him the outline from the past, not necessarily drawn from written texts. Of course, he knew that few among the surviving Muslim landholders and khandans (landed aristocrats) from the old time had enough wealth or power to command extraordinary prestige amid their co-religionists. Alabdi’s coarse comprehension of the social and political dynamics around him were not too far from the acknowledged local history. What really incensed Alabdi was the treatment of the landlords who hauled out whatever they could get from the peasant ryots; however, he felt powerless against them. Even when the ryots built a nice house or dug a pond, they had to pay additional tax and from time to time, the Hindu zamindars/talukdars asked the tenants to evasively contribute to the Hindu pujas that the Muslims did not like. My grandfather had a way with trees and had planted a variety of trees on his properties; among them were several Bajra trees, which yielded oil seeds that were good for different purposes. Such trees were, however, subject to local taxes levied by the landlords. His neighbors reported to the tax collectors that Alabdi was evading taxes, and he was arrested, beaten, and fined. Young and rebellious then, my grandfather successfully appealed to the local Munsef (sub-judge) court and family legends had it that he initially won the case. But pressure was mounting from the big landlord’s loyal men; they warned him: “you would lose, and the whole family will go down with you!” Alabdi reasoned that the Raja of Bhawal and the smaller talukdars in his area were at the heart of British government’s sway of the rural areas and his anger against the biggest zamindar of the region was like hitting his head against a big wall. Eventually, he withdrew the case. And yet, the
A Family Maverick | 59 family episode vividly reflected the plight of common Muslim ryots between the last decade of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century. I was still a school student when once my uncle chopped down one or two of the surviving Bajra trees, possibly to be used as firewood for cooking. My father was angry with him; he was sorry that the trees, my grandfather’s legacy, had been felled for no big gain. And my grandfather, who had dared to challenge a big zamindar in a court of law, would merely be a forgotten ryot. True, his legal challenge against the biggest zamindar of our area was rather trifling compared to the Naxalites’ bloody acts of terror periodically carried out against the big landlords in parts of India in more recent times. Still, his resistance against the powerful landlord was no vain gesture, as we will see—the small footprint of a subaltern resistance transformed later in the 1930s as a formidable pressure to put an end to the old zamindari system. The government officers and babus28 in town then were mostly Hindus; there were only one or two Muslim teachers in the school. Only a handful of Muslim students graduated from the high school every year. In those days, I heard that only two or three constables in the police station were Muslims who were mostly from outside Bengal. None of the senior tax collectors of the Raja in his town was Muslim, as far as I remember the family experiences. The postmaster was usually a Hindu, and the mailmen were either Hindu or Christian in those decades. Excepting a few supportive staff, the sub-registrar was presumably the only Muslim among the local government officers whom Alabdi encountered in Kaliganj; possibly, all the sub-judges he saw were Hindus. The virtual absence of Muslims in the local power hierarchy hit Alabdi with a sense of inferiority; probably, that was one of his likely motivations for sending two of his sons to modern schools, not madrassas. Hence, his occasional whining about the Hindu-dominated local elite exhibited an emotional sense of deprivation, not a burst of religious zealotry. He gathered bits of Muslim viewpoints as well as current affairs from random conversations with two individuals: one was Ashraf, his brother-in-law, and the other person was Afsar, a younger Maulvi teacher at the primary school run by the Church in the neighboring village. When he raised any political question, Ashraf habitually ended with his familiar line: “Brother, Muslims are going through a dark time of history! We must fight the firangi-Hindu alliance through non-cooperation against the British.” Nuri liked her cousin Ashraf ’s religious convictions but did not participate on other issues. “Is it possible to fight the Great Queen Victoria?” Alabdi was unconvinced. My grandfather, it seems, had an obsession about Queen Victoria—by the time he was talking with his brotherin-law, friends, and sons about the futility of fighting Her Majesty, she was no
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longer alive! Alabdi’s conversations with Afsar, his younger friend, were different. Though a Maulvi with a traditional Madrassa education, he did not belong to the uncompromising Islamic factions who opposed western education. “The best way to fight the firangis is to get the knowledge that made them so powerful. Getting a good education is the only way to compete with the Hindus who occupy most government positions,” Afsar preached with confidence. Occasionally, he stopped by on his way to or from the bazaar; my grandmother offered him some food and drink with accompanying betel leaves. I knew later that two of his sons were educated professionals: one was a lawyer and other one was a civil servant. One thought bothered Alabdi: personally, he had a modicum of ideas about Hindus, their gods, and goddesses; but Hindus generally knew little about the Quran and Islam, even though they had been living side by side for centuries. He felt sorry that virtually one obsession defined the Hindu treatment of the Muslims: they ate beef and therefore were unclean and unacceptable! More seriously, Alabdi had a low feeling when the bhadralok kept him at a certain distance whenever he met any such person for business or other purposes. Occasionally, he attended the Hindu puja celebrations, as did his sons and the neighbors; but few Hindus, in those days, visited him during Muslim festivals. The barbers who lived just at the outskirts of the village were the only Hindus who visited him and his sons several times a year—to give them haircuts. They were paid in rice, not cash. Beyond the western periphery of his homestead, there were Hindu boatmen, but they were in the process of being driven out by a shrewd Muslim neighbor bent on grabbing their landed properties. They were boatmen during the monsoon months, but for the rest of the year, they were small farmers. They interacted with Alabdi caring little about being touched by a Muslim; a couple of Hindu carpenters and blacksmiths who lived on the west bank of the canal too worked for him when he needed them; but they did not eat food cooked by Muslims. Why did the Hindus rarely visit the Muslims? One day, Alabdi raised this question when Afsar, his friend, was visiting him. It was a sun-splashed cool morning in December or January, with a soft, chilly breeze blowing while they sat on two small chaukis. Afsar took a few seconds to swallow the savory rice pita, gazed toward the west, and said, “Look at those two big old banyan trees standing side by side.” Alabdi was puzzled: those trees stood on his neighbors’ property for over a century! Afsar continued, “Those trees are hugging each other at the top, but the two trunks remain separate from each other. That’s all about the Hindu– Muslim relationship in our country.” Before he left, he reminded Alabdi, “Don’t forget to say your prayers every day!” Afsar repeated the same tree metaphor to my grandfather—sometimes sitting on the verandah, my father recalled. The last
A Family Maverick | 61 time I remember seeing that gentleman, during my high school days, he was about 90 years old: on his way to the bazaar, he would stop for a few minutes and tenderly remembered my grandparents and their hospitality. My father was very respectful to him. Afsar was not the only one who asked Alabdi to pray. His wife reminded him and reminded him, until conjugal persuasion became a harangue and he exploded into a rage, and Nuri retreated to the kitchen. This was a running family account about my grandparents that I heard in my childhood. Although Afsar married the offspring of a khandani family, his own roots were girasth29. He was a good family man, and a practicing Muslim. He did not cheat or fool anyone—Alabdi liked him for that. My grandfather could not, however, make out the conceited posture of Afsar’s in-laws, who were apparently reluctant to take him as one of their own. Bhadralok was not written on your face, Alabdi mumbled; you were a bhadralok by what you did and how you behaved toward others. He told his sons this, and my father said the same to me. “The khandans think that being a bhadralok is something you can inherit in your blood,” my father groused when he talked about the insolence of any member of the local khandan family. There was a relative from my mother’s side; he was a khandan (also called kulin) scion from a village only three miles away from our house: my father did not like when he bragged about his khandani ancestry. Possibly, my father inherited that posture from his father. “It’s a stereotype reinforced by certain dress, cuisine, mannerisms, lineage, and life-style,” Alabdi speculated and shared his thoughts with his sons. He was fond of saying that there were two types of such gentlemen: Hindu bhadraloks and Muslim bhadraloks. Hindus, he noticed, were usually thrifty, while the Muslims were generally extravagant, especially with food and weddings. Alabdi enjoyed telling this to his sons: “Hindus own houses; Muslims have only cooking pots!” It was an old cliché! And now and then, my father would add: “The Muslims could learn a thing or two from the Hindus!”
Notes 1. punthi—a special literary genre of epic war or romantic episodes, written in a mixed language of Bengali, Urdu, and Persian, well-liked by the Muslims in Bengal for centuries. 2. Maulvis—religious teachers. 3. pathsalas—primary schools. 4. mahajans—money lenders. 5. bigha—roughly one third of an acre. 6. Asharf---khandan … kulin—aristocratic.
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7. ryots—tenants. 8. W. W. Hunter, The Indian Muslims, London, 1876 also available through Amazon. com. 9. Jehadi—radical. 10. Majis—boatmen. 11. Bhatiali—river song traditionally sung by boatmen. 12. Ghat—jetty. 13. Chamars—cobblers or leather workers. 14. Girasth—farmers or peasants. 15. Kirishnachura Delonix Regia, a flamboyant flowering plant of the bean family. 16. shimul—Bombax Ceiba, a large and spiny tree native to monsoon areas that typically matures to 60–75’ tall and to 40–60’ wide. 17. Kulu, badhaykars, dais, majis … oil pressers … drum beaters … midwives … boatmen. 18. kabiraj—ayurvedic physician. 19. Rabi—spring crops. 20. pucca—brick-built. 21. chauchala—(a spacious house) with four roofs made of grass or corrugated iron. 22. Namaz--prayer, salat. 23. Mora—wicker stool. 24. Tehsildar—manager of or tax collector for a Tehsil, or large estate or sub-district. 25. pargana—region or revenue unit. 26. Bhuiyas—landlords sometimes they were also known as warlords. 27. banyas—traders. 28. babus—petty officials. 29. girasth—farmer, cultivator of land.
Nuri A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own!
If Nuri, my grandmother, had her way, she might as well have trailed her parental tradition—she would have sent at least one of her sons to Madrassa instead of modern schools. But she was really the spiritual and religious voice of her family throughout her life; her husband valued her for this, although he rarely confessed it openly. Nuri said her prayers five times a day, fasted the full month of Ramadan, and gave alms to the poor. She diligently supervised the household affairs whilst her husband left most domestic matters to her, but she was a good crisis handler too. She had seen the worst of her life in the early years of her marriage: she had five miscarriages in a row. Her husband and other members of his family feared that she was under the spell of a vicious jinn1 which, according to popular beliefs, drifted at certain hours of the night between the huge trees at the river bend and the two giant banyan trees on the brink of the neighbor’s house. Nevertheless, Nuri had solid faith that her prayers to Allah would save her from the curse of the flaming specter; and, in course of time, she became the mother of five sons that helped to restore her status in the family. Surely, it had strengthened Alabdi’s respect for her courage, and her faith in Allah was her spiritual anchor in life. Delegating the household management to her was one of my grandfather’s strategies to maintain domestic peace, not necessarily spelled by religious faith, but the two
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had differences as well—in both spiritual and mundane affairs. Her sons knew it, and it was an open secret in the family. Her grown-up sons too had acknowledged her weight as the family’s matriarch. Her husband remembered, for example, how his wife had once bravely dealt with a scary juncture. One day, returning home at midday from visiting the Christian talukdar on the other side of the canal, Alabdi had passed through a strip of a vanishing forest with no houses nearby except a few boatmen families at some distance. There he believed he saw something unbelievable—two women were sitting on a branch of a Gab2 tree with their hanging hair almost touching the ground. He was terrified, possibly recalling ample stories that this tree-sheltered para of the village was haunted by ghosts and the lonely villagers avoided that vicinity even during certain hours of the day. Spirit-related stories were in abundance among rural people across the religious band. Gripped by a severe fear, Alabdi ran until he reached the edge of his home and stumbled on the ground; he tried to scream but could only gasp. Ismail, his eldest son, ran to his father, crying “Baba, what happened? Are you hurt? Did anyone attack you?” Alarmed, Nuri dropped the fresh-caught fish she was cleaning in the kitchen, wrapped her sari firmly around her waist, and ran toward the hue and cry—she took the bati3 with her for protection. In those days, it was not uncommon to be attacked by roaming dacoits4 or zamindar’s gangsters even in broad daylight; in the meantime, a few neighbors, thinking Alabdi was being attacked, had rushed over to help. Seeing all those people around him, Alabdi overcame his fright and looked at his wife: “What are you doing with this bati, Ismail’s mother? Get me a glass of water; I am dying of thirst!” Nuri ran inside the house and returned with a jug of water and a goblet: Alabdi gulped three glasses of water and then told everybody what had happened. In my childhood, I heard this story from my father and one of my aunties, who had already heard it from my uncle and my grandmother: that ghostly anecdote was part of my family’s intergenerational growing up. Alabdi’s failing health worried Nuri; she urged him daily to say his prayers at home and go for jumma5 at the village mosque. She believed in a kind of spiritual healing—it was nearly her daily ritual to admonish him on this matter! “Prayer is good for your health and soul,” she reiterated endlessly to her husband and sons. She had learned to say prayers and read the Quran from her maternal grandfather and uncle, who had raised her, and she tried to pass that tradition to her own children. But her husband’s house, she frequently exclaimed in frustration, was a different family! She gave alms to the poor; still the neighborhood beggars knew that the lady of the house scolded the able-bodied drifters by yelling: “Don’t you
Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own! | 65 know that the Quran forbids me to give alms to those who are physically fit and can earn an honest living?” She also refused to give alms to those who begged for rice or money to offer puja to goddess Sitala, who is the presumed Goddess to counter smallpox and Ola devi, the folk-deity that ostensibly protects people against cholera. My grandmother told such donation seekers bluntly that she was a Muslim and could not, in any way, contribute to idolatry. I remember that during the months when smallpox and cholera diseases broke out, a couple of young girls came to our house and asked for alms for offering such puja in the 1940s and possibly until the first couple of years of the 1950s; my mother also turned them away on the same ground as my grandmother offered while she was alive (my mother was married to my father several years after my grandmother passed away). Grandma felt that it was her duty to bring her husband into the strict religious fold, to improve his spiritual life, and make him a firm believer in Allah. She feared that time was running out to do this. One day while Alabdi was lying sick, Nuri sat near him, holding his hands, and urged: “Call a Maulvi and say tauba6 to Allah for all your sins. Humans sin, but Allah forgives.” Her gentle tones were meant to bend her stubborn husband. Nevertheless, Alabdi did not have much faith in the ulema7 as the intermediary between Allah and humans; he yelled at his wife, “Stop bugging me about tauba! I have not done anything hideously wrong. I never harmed anyone, and I never cheated anyone! Allah knows that!” He was not a disbeliever as his predecessors came from a religious background; he was able to read and recite the Quran from his early childhood. With his deteriorating health, he had been thinking more about Allah and the afterworld, although he did not fulfill his wife’s desire to call a maulvi for ritual beseeching for Allah’s mercy. Alabdi was occasionally reluctant to go to the nearby mosque for the jumma congregation, which had little to do with his religious inclinations. He nursed old grudges against the benefactor of the mosque who founded that house for prayer. Slowly, he came to see that the mosque was, after all, dedicated to Allah, where people went for namaz8; it mattered little who had built it. Now and again, he joked with his wife: “Ismail’s mother, if I go to mosque now, Allah might angrily ask—where have you been all these years when the muazzein’s azan9 invited you for prayers?” Whenever he forgot the sura, he made his apologies in Bangla, which, he reassured his wife, should too reach Allah who knows it all. But Nuri was less than convinced. Alabdi did go to the Eid namaz twice a year unless he was sick, although in his younger years, he had skipped those prayers since the Eid days were the best time for his milk business. But now those days were gone; he
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took pride in being a Muslim and had never wished to belong to any other faith. He was confident in his iman10, albeit less than steadfast in practice. Apparently, his inner Muslimness did not erode though he was lax in its practices. I believe he tried to a draw a distinction between faith and practice—a posture seemingly unacceptable to the strict observers of Islam. When my mellowing grandfather agreed to meet a maulvi for tauba, he did it on one condition: he did not want any of the local maulvi; he really wanted a learned Sufi willing to make him a murid11 in pious wisdom. There was a respected Maulana about half-a-day’s journey away by boat. He was too old to visit disciples; people went to him for his blessings; Alabdi made the trip with Nuri and Badru, his son. Ashraf, who knew the Sufi, also went with them; they stayed with the spiritual teacher, prayed with him, listened to his advice, and received blessings from him. Meeting with that Sufi was a spiritual epiphany for my grandfather, I heard from my father. He had known about such spiritual teachers but had never cared to get close to any such person. While the two sat together, the Sufi said: “You are a Muslim, you should live like one; but to get closer to your Allah, you must do even better than that. Only deep faith and love for Allah will bring you closer to Him; you can communicate with Allah all the time, any time, because He is with you all the time. The Quran says: Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein!” The Sufi touched his own throat to show where the jugular was; occasionally, my father recollected that spiritual encounter. And Nuri’s idea of begging a formal tauba for God’s forgiveness for all his past sins dawned upon Alabdi: he folded his hands before the Sufi and asked, “Baba, can you help me with a tauba?” The Sufi replied, “My son, you don’t need me for your tauba; you can do it yourself, directly to your Creator. The Quran does not allow any middleman to work on Allah’s behalf.” Sensing Alabdi’s bewilderment, the Sufi tried to make it even simpler: “My son, look at your gamcha12, which has different patterns on two sides; you can use either side of it to clean your face!” For Alabdi, the Sufi’s counsels were like a lamp illuminating a dusty, cobweb-filled cowshed that he was familiar with. Filled with emotion, he implored Sufi’s blessings for Badru: “Baba, Badru is my son, my only hope and dream in this world; he is a student at our school, and I want him to be an educated person. I want him to be a bhadralok, and above all, a nice human being. Please say a doa13 for my son.” Alabdi emotionally appealed to the Sufi. Prodded by his father, my father stretched his right hand to touch the Sufi’s feet, but the Sufi stopped him: “My son, do not touch any human’s feet. This is against the teachings of Islam.” Then he put his right hand on my father’s head, recited a verse from the Quran, and blessed my father.
Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own! | 67 When they were ready to leave, the Sufi said, “Badru, you will finish your school, and you will go to college; when you conclude your education, you will grow in life. You will be the cherag14 in your family!” My father remembered that experience in his adult life. That encounter with the Sufi was a spiritual turning point for Alabdi, Nuri, and their beloved son. Nuri rejoiced that at last her headstrong husband had changed the course of his life, but she silently lamented, “I wish he had listened to me all these years!” Alabdi was now saying most namaz, although he was still skipping his prayers at times; he fasted randomly during Ramadan; and when he did it, he still smoked hookah. Nuri noticed a change in Badru, who had learned the basics of Islam from the school Maulvi teacher but now promised to find someone to teach him how to pray properly and read the Quran. Alabdi could not help feeling that the learned Sufi’s teachings were unlike the thundering sermons he had heard about from his friends visiting their respective pirs. Nuri, at times, followed up her husband’s instructions about family matters. He implored Ismail and her other sons: “Inside me I feel your father will not live long; you don’t know what it will mean not to have your father around. When you have your own good teeth, you don’t know what toothlessness means!” She also tried to reconcile the old feud between Alabdi and his cousins in pubbari (eastern household) beyond the hedges and fences in the east. Without telling her husband, once she sneaked out of the house and went to her cousins-in-law to urge them to make up the old feud: “Even Allah forgives people; why don’t you forgive each other?” But Alabdi felt that he had never been unfair to his cousins and owed them no apology. “Allah has a strange way of doing things! Come and listen, Ismail’s mother!” Alabdi suddenly called this out when he had returned from one of his rare trips to the bazaar since he was in poor health. “Why? What happened? Why are you suddenly such a believer in Allah, now?” Nuri snapped—a reaction she avoided in his poor health. With an aura of satisfaction, Alabdi said, “Let me tell you the story, which you will like.” Curious, she responded, “All right, go ahead. Tell me what it is.” “Oh, Ismail’s mother, I hear that the local talukdar family lost the prolonged land dispute with his neighbor. What a great lesson! Now our shrewd neighbor will get the land from which I was unfairly dispossessed. Ismail’s mother, this is Divine Justice coming from Allah!” Alabdi paused, but soon, he resumed: “You know I could not do much against the injustice!” Alabdi breathlessly repeated the old story. Nuri stood up: “For God’s sake, what that guy did to you was dead wrong; he will pay for this on the Day of Judgment when Allah summons him.” Alabdi did not reply, but he was less content to wait until the Day of Judgment;
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he relished the defeat of his enemy. Several years after my grandfather died, there was a physical fight between the talukdar and his rival over that property: badly beaten, the talukdar ran to our house (the nearest homestead) and begged for a glass of water that one of my uncles provided. That anecdote circulated in our family in my childhood: it was an illustration of divine retribution for being unfair to someone! In his fading years, Nuri noticed many changes in Alabdi’s likes and dislikes. Her husband had earned more than money from his tiny money-lending business: he gathered much more about human nature that he sometimes shared with his wife. He counseled his sons by saying that once money goes out of your hand, you cannot be sure about getting it back in full! It is like oil spilling on the ground—you cannot scoop it out unadulterated! But his religious inquisitiveness had increased, too, in the years before his death. He watched Ramayan- Mahabharata dramas at the Hindu talukdar’s house in the neighboring town during the puja festivals; still, he was lost about who those characters were—humans or gods? Or both? Alabdi wanted to know a little more about those mythologies, and he knew whom to ask: Badru was in the eighth grade, and those stories and other characters in Hindu epics were part of the school curriculum. Once or twice Badru read aloud to his father about the Hindu gods and stories about them, and then he broke off: “Baba, Hindu gods are different from the Muslim God. They are old and complicated stories—teeming with magical and supernatural powers. Even my teachers are not sure if this is only a mythical tale or real. What do I tell you, Baba?” Alabdi reached the height of frustration when he felt that without being able to read and write, humans were less human! “Do they teach you anything about Islam in your school?” Alabdi asked his son sporadically. “Not really; only Arabic and Persian were taught by the school Maulvi.” Nuri was not so curious about other faiths; she was satisfied with the teachings of her own religion. “Was Rama a God or a human?” once Alabdi asked a pundit. The pundit tried to make the subject a little easier for him: “Look, nobody can give you real proof of God—it is a matter of belief. The Hindus trust that Rama was God, but he came to the earth as a human to help us. However, Hinduism also teaches that God is everywhere—in every human being, in every temple, tree, river, mountain—but you have to look for it.” After making this homily, pundit asked: “Did you understand?” My grandfather became more curious about religious questions as he grew older; when he brought up such conversations at home, Nuri wondered about her husband’s different dispositions. Once Alabdi asked the local pundit: “My Maulana says that Allah is with you, very close to you: What’s the
Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own! | 69 difference between Hindu and Muslim beliefs?” Obviously, he was unwilling to get into a theological debate with my grandfather, but said, “Yes, there are solid differences between a Hindu and a Muslim; but at the end you can reach your Creator only by an abiding faith and following His directions. And it is true that your Creator is inside yourself, but you have to fathom it spiritually.” Alabdi liked what the pundit said, still, he was confused. However, he did not forget Nuri’s simple message: follow the straight path of Islam; pay little attention to all the religious debates. In old rural Bengal, roving ascetics, tantric15, devotional singers, naked Sad16 hus , Sannyasis, the Sufis17, Pirs18 (real or fake), and whirling dervishes19 were common sights of the larger social and cultural landscape. Some of them pleaded for rice, food, shelter; others sang in the bazaar or solicited money along the riverbank. Among them were Muslim dervishes, merfati fakirs20, bauls21, and vaishnavas22. Without much to do at home with his infirmities, Alabdi developed a taste for listening to the songs of the dervishes, fakirs, and bauls: it was indeed another facet of spiritual quest among the rural people in Bengal. One day a merfati fakir was singing, “Oh, my Lord, I am tired of boating; take my oars; I cannot row anymore …” (a popular theme in mystical folk songs in Bangladesh and West Bengal). Old and burdened with family worries, he felt an empathy with the “tired” boatman. Rich or poor, girasth or bhadralok, all will die one day; there is no escape, Alabdi sensed. He ought to be prepared for the other world: it was true of all faiths, Alabdi counseled himself. My father recalled such stories about his father. Every so often, Afsar brought upbeat stories collected from his relatives who were clerks in the District Collector’s office in Dhaka and in the Writers’ Building in Calcutta; the Christian Missionary School near his village, where he was an Islamic instructor, was his additional source of information. Once Afsar visited my grandfather and merrily announced: “Brother Alabdi: there is now good news for the Muslims! More jobs will soon come to educated Muslim boys.” Skeptically, Alabdi enquired how it was possible. Afsar went on excitedly, “Bengal has been divided by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India: you heard that. New buildings and offices have been going up throughout Dhaka, the new capital of East Bengal. And there is a new lat saheb (governor) in Dhaka exclusively for East Bengal.” Alabdi’s eyes lit up, and exclaimed: “Brother, this is good news. It means our boys will become Darogas23, judges, deputies, lawyers, sub-registrars, and teachers! It is good for my son and your son; when they get an education, they will become bhadralok!” Some of those ideas appealed to Nuri as they implied a good life for her family: it was part of her storytelling to the younger family members.
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In a happy mood, after his lunch one day, Alabdi looked around to see if Nuri was near her and took a quick puff at the hookah; then he started off toward the riverfront: he did this from time to time. A teenage boy who helped out at the homestead rushed out after him and said: “Dada24, I will go with you. You are not well enough to walk alone.” Through the winding rice-field aisles, they walked sluggishly to the riverbank and then Alabdi sat under the canopy of his favorite banyan tree and looked vaguely at the river, the sailboats crowding the jetty against the background of the late-afternoon sun. Abruptly, he become conscious that he had not told his wife that he was going to the riverside (since he had not been well, he always told Nuri where he was going, and someone always accompanied him). He was in no mood to digest his wife’s uproar over his excursion to the riverbank, so he rose and turned toward home. Suddenly a bearded sadhu in tattered loincloths appeared before him. There was a funeral pyre by the river visited by the itinerant sadhus, who likewise frequented the Abgari house there for buying ganja. Alabdi was not particularly fond of half-naked and naked sadhus, and none were ordinarily allowed in his house; superstitiously, he wondered why he had run into a sadhu at this odd time. The sadhu extended his hand and said, “Give me a four-anna25” (his other hand was holding the kalki he was smoking). Alabdi hardly gave anything to such people, but this was a chance encounter with one like him. He had his share of his gullibility, which, combined with that superstitious feeling, prompted him to give a four-anna piece to that ascetic: he knew that his wife would not like this. Then the sadhu offered him the kalki: “Have a puff, my son.” A sadhu was revered by many in those days; but Alabdi felt belittled when this one, so much younger than he, called him “son.” Irritated, he said: “I am a Muslim; I don’t use that ganja. You go ahead and enjoy it!” Then Alabdi sat on a huge crooked root under the big tree; there were dozens of such tree trunks: people sat and relaxed on them, and on the weekly bazaar days, shopkeepers used them as improvised counters for transacting business, as I recollect from childhood. Alabdi was again gazing at the river, musing, when the sadhu asked, “Why are you here on the riverbank? Are you troubled?” He was not in a mood to talk to the sadhu while he was recalling his old days touched by the river. Still, he responded: “sadhu, I am an old man and getting ready to die soon, so I have been doing a lot of silly things like looking at the old river.” “Good,” the sadhu said; “There is no place like the river. But remember, a river today is not the same river that you saw in your younger days.” Alabdi was puzzled and still irritated, and he lashed out: “What do you mean when you say that I am not looking at the same river that I saw earlier? I have been coming here since long before you were even born!”
Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own! | 71 The sadhu smiled; he moved a little closer to Alabdi, and said, “You misunderstood me, my son! The river you bathe in today is not the same water that will be here tomorrow; our life is also like a river: today is different from yesterday, and tomorrow will be different from today. And you go on.” The sadhu came even closer to Alabdi and said: “The river you call Lakhya is called by other names upstream; and it was indeed a branch of even a much bigger river. But where and when the river meets the sea, it does not end there! The water in the sea goes up as vapor, forms the clouds, and then becomes the rain.” And he continued, “The water then comes back to the river; that is life: your life and my life! You were a child and then entered youth, midlife, and ultimately old age; then you will die, but you will come back through reincarnation—a rebirth! Your body and life are driven by a soul; most importantly, the soul is indestructible!” While the sadhu continued to talk, eyes closed, Alabdi looked at him and wondered: “Will he reincarnate?” What the sadhu said was not entirely new to Alabdi, but Muslims did not believe in reincarnation—he knew that. He knew a bit of the Hindu theological version of life and death cycles from folklores, the pundits and the wandering sadhus frequenting the village bazaars preached those spiritual messages. However, he did not fully believe in all those versions of life; ironically, he did not entirely reject those either. He stood up: “Sadhu, I must leave. I have learned something from you though I am not interested in the cycle of rebirth; one life is enough for me! Pray that I die in peace and never return to this earth!” It was dusk by the time Alabdi reached home; Badru, with a nephew, met him, on his way to look for him. Nuri was angry: “Where have you been? We were scared about you!” Alabdi did not want to prolong the conversation and rushed off for Maghreb26 prayer plausibly more to avoid his wife’s scolding! But I heard that he narrated his encounter with the sadhu to his wife that recycled in the extended family tales and my father never forgot such anecdotes of his parents. Adding to that story: my father surmised that what the sadhu plausibly told my grandfather stemmed from both Hinduism and Buddhism, and I feel that he narrated such stories so that the next generation would recall the cultural and spiritual encounters of its ancestors. Alabdi was in poor health, but his sudden death was unexpected, and it was traumatic for the whole family. For my father, the loss of the head of the family could not have come at a worse time. On the seventh day after his father’s death, my father had a wonderful dream that he did not forget for the rest of his life and repeated that experience many times over. In the dream, his father appeared, in a white dress, touched his head, and said,“ Son, father and mother do not live forever. My blessings will always be with you!” My father’s greatest regret was that
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his father died before he could see his son pass his final school examination, and later receive a bachelor’s degree that he wished so fervently for his son. Her husband’s death left a lasting gap in Nuri’s life: she squatted on the floor of her bedroom and sat mourning for hours, neglecting food and drink until awakened by a son or a daughter-in-law. Nevertheless, life continued. Alabdi had not left much except his houses and a few acres of land; he had buried some silver rupees, which Nuri now dug up; she gave some to Ismail to feed the poor on the fortieth day after Alabdi’s death. She observed the traditional Muslim rituals as the last gesture of respect for her dead husband. In no time, however, Badru deeply felt that the protective net of his father had vanished with his departing soul. It was his mother who was the driving force and kept on pushing where his father had left off. The local school cost him only a few rupees in tuition per month since there was no expense for room and board as he was commuting from home. Nuri insisted that the four sons should pitch in; it was only a question of a year or a little more when he would pass the school final exam. Nuri thought to herself, “If nothing else, my son could become a clerk in some office after his high-school graduation.” But that is not what she wanted, and that is not what her husband had dreamed about, Nuri thought. And after the loss of his father, Badru became closer to his school Maulvi and sought his help in learning how to pray and read the Quran: his teacher wanted him to stay after school to read the Quran and work on memorizing the suras27. There was a mosque nearby; the Maulvi took him there and showed him how to say the namaj28. But he was still behind in reading the Quran—he did not have enough time, with examinations knocking at the door. Nevertheless, he had started praying regularly and fasting during Ramadan; those practices stayed with him for the rest of his life. Nuri became more of a recluse; and one remarkable highlight of that time was Nuri’s spiritual metamorphosis: she not only prayed most of the day but also became a believer in the spiritual power of pirs and their dargahs29 in and around Dhaka. Though forbidden in sharia, she, like many others, made numerous wishes for her son—she solicited divine blessings for Badru’s future examination and his anticipated college education. She heard about the 300-plus year-old dargah in Mirpur, where people made mannats30. Islamic sharia31 and strict monotheistic theology rejected the extraordinary magical power of the Pirs and their shrines; but in the everyday world, people had abiding faith in miracles through supernatural intervention by the pirs though purist Muslims did not tolerate any form of devotion to shrines or tombs. Reverence for dargah still continued among the Muslims of the subcontinent even though the saintly shrines have, in recent years, been the frequent targets of violent attacks in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own! | 73 When my father passed the school final examination, it was indeed an incredibly happy news; it meant that he had taken the first step toward a college degree and possibly a good job and a good future for himself and the family. His mother too rejoiced the good news she had been looking forward to for so long. Both she and her son keenly felt the absence of Alabdi, who had longed for nothing more, during the last years of his life, than to see this happy occasion. They knew that the overjoyed father would have gone to the neighbors and to his friends in the bazaar to share the good news. It was then certainly something to be proud of in the entire village and the neighboring villages; there were only a handful of Muslim school graduates, and no college graduates at that time. My father and his mother went to Alabdi’s grave and prayed for him; then Nuri invited a Maulvi for a milad32 to celebrate her son’s passing of the matriculation exam. Pressed by their mother, the five sons worked out an agreement amongst themselves; a few bighas33 of land were mortgaged to raise enough money for college admission and supplemental expenses. But they did not commit beyond that. Obviously, this gesture made my father happy since he knew the financial straits of his brothers and the rest of the family. He went to Dhaka, enrolled at the government college there, and began packing; several neighbors, relatives, and old teachers came by to congratulate him. On the eve of her son’s departure for college, my grandmother must have suffered from a strange combination of hopes and fears—she dreaded that her son’s departure for the College was the beginning of her family’s breakup, as her Badru might not return home to live with them. Such thoughts crowded her mind like the dark clouds of kalbaishaki34 that sometimes prevented her from getting a wink of sleep. She was, however, excited that her son had been admitted to the Dhaka College, and bothered little about what she would get in return. She was confident that after earning his college degree, her favorite son would find some job. Still, “What kind of job?” she brooded. She did not want her son to be a daroga35 or any kind of bribe-taker. After Badru had left for college, Nuri remained introverted, tied to her inner world. One auntie, uncle Chandu’s wife, told me about grandmother’s restless murmurings while my father was away to his college: “I want my son to be an honest man … I have not been rich but never greedy … I want my son to make money, but only honestly ….” Sometimes she said those things to her grandchildren who listened but could not make sense of what they heard. My father knew that his mother had her own list of commandments based on her values: “Don’t cheat anybody, Badru. Never! Don’t become a predatory man like one of our neighbors; don’t become rich with ill-gotten wealth!” Those morals were bonded with her identity comprehension.
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My father did not make many friends in Dhaka; in fact, I think my father had an aversion for city life. I heard that after his class hours he would spend time at the neighborhood mosque, not only for his prayers but also for reading books in the lonely corners or the mosque’s outhouse. I have gathered from my father’s contemporaries that the mosque premises were the quiet and preferred places for homework for those students who did not have a comfortable living accommodation in the city’s student hostels or in their residences. In my teens when I accompanied my father to Dhaka, he would show me the Chowkbazar mosque where he spent hours reading books in his college days; it was a place where he would bring banana-leaves-wrapped food prepared by his mother and eat in the peaceful spots of the mosque. Of course, he also reminded me that Shaista Khan, the Mughal Governor of Bengal (1664–1688), came to that mosque, on elephant back, to say his Friday prayers. My father interrupted his B.A. studies at the Dhaka College in 1919 for financial reasons; he worked for two schools as an assistant teacher and then, in 1920, took a tenured teaching position at the Kaliganj High School, his alma mater. To my grandmother, my father’s apparent break of college studies came as a shock even if she could do little to reverse it. However, he was determined to complete his B.A. as a private examinee, which at that time was an option offered only by the Calcutta University to those who had been in a full-time teaching job for at least three years. Although he missed at least one examination because of a sudden and serious illness, he finally got his B.A. degree in 1924, while he was still teaching at that school. He did not marry until 1933. A few of his classmates did not pursue for college degrees, and they took clerical jobs in the government offices; in my younger days, I met the children of a couple of his classmates during his Dhaka College days. In the extended family circle, I knew about two such gentlemen who had to discontinue their B.A. studies for financial constraints way back in the 1920s: one of them was a brilliant student who spared a bit of his scholarship money for his elderly father while he was still an Intermediate college student. Nuri did not ask for any help while her son was still a student. Until her death in 1928, Nuri had continued to oversee the remainder of her combined family—a break from the rural tradition of joint family. My uncles divided their properties and lived separately with their wives and children. When my father got his teaching job, he built a nice house for my grandmother. He did not care for farming his share of land—he left it to the supervision of two of his brothers and received a portion of the harvest. Grandma moved in with my father and lived happily with him and a couple of Ismail uncle’s children—meantime, he had lost his first wife and then remarried. Grandmother had the full control
Nuri: A Virtuous Woman with a Voice of Her Own! | 75 over my father’s household, with no daughter-in-law to rival her authority! Her sense of morality was unflinching, even in her old age. And with his mother to look after the household, my father liked to travel; he visited the historical sites in Delhi, Agra, and Ajmer in 1927, including the Sufi dargahs in those cities, and several places in old Bengal. His passion for spreading education among the young Muslims continued, but he could not offer them much cash support; as an alternative, he provided free board to one or two students every now and then, and was well known for that service to his students—hostel accommodation for Muslim students was then limited and expensive. My father had a feeling that by helping a few Muslim students’ education, he was sponsoring a professional middle class among the Muslims. Nuri looked after them as her own sons or grandsons. I knew at least three of those former students who enjoyed my grandmother’s and father’s hospitality; one of them was in a senior government position when I met them in the 1950s. Two other of them were also successful professionals as they rose to senior positions during the post-1947 East Bengal/East Pakistan periods when bulk of the Hindu officers left for India, which created vacuums in the bureaucratic hierarchy, schools, and different service sectors of the new state. By the time my father received his bachelor’s degree, he crossed the age bar for government jobs. His employment options were limited although I believe there was some age flexibility for Muslim candidates in certain professions: it was because the Muslims were known for starting their schooling late. In his old age, he regretted that his private-school job did not earn him any government pension after retirement. At one time he had had the possibility of getting a position as an Assistant Inspector of the government’s Excise Department in the 1920s, which supervised alcohol, opium, ganja, and certain drug sales. But because that department suffered from steady allegations of bribery, my grandmother vetoed that prospective job for my father, I heard. To the best of my understanding, she wanted her son to make an honest living as a teacher! Furthermore, the episode surely demonstrated a sense of personal and family morals cherished by grandmother.
Notes 1. jinn—in Arabic mythology, a supernatural spirit below the level of angels. 2. Gab tree—Diospyros discolor, a tree of the family that includes ebony trees and persimmons, with velvety russet-skinned edible fruit, dark bark, and hard wood. 3. bati—a curved knife used for cutting fish.
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4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.
20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25.
26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35.
of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal
dacoits—roaming bandits. jumma—Friday early-afternoon prayers, to be said by Muslim men in congregation. tauba—repentance. ulema—body of Muslim religious scholars. namaz—the ritual prayers prescribed by Islam to be recited five times a day. azan—ritual call for Muslim prayers. iman—faith. murid—a disciple. gamcha—thin woven cotton towel commonly used by Bangladeshi villagers. doa —blessing. cherag—lamp, light. tantriks—practitioners of devotional methods described by Hindu scriptures, including yoga. Sadhus—ascetic mendicant Hindu or Jainism monks. Sufis—Muslims seeking the truth of divine love through direct personal experience of God. Pirs—Sufi teachers or spiritual leaders. Whirling dervishes—adherents of a Turkish Sufi sect who seek to free their souls and connect with Allah by means of a dance in which they induce altered states of consciousness by whirling to face all the directions in which God is present. fakir—a Sufi holy man or woman who lives by begging. Bauls—mystic minstrels from Bengal. Vaishnavas—followers of a Hindu tradition in which the god Vishnu is revered in distinct incarnations, called avatars. Darogas—police officers. Dada—Grandpa. four-anna—a coin worth 1/4 of a rupee at the time of my grandfather. An anna was a currency unit formerly used in India and Pakistan, equal to 1/16 rupee. The term “anna” belonged to the Muslim monetary system. It was demonetized as a currency unit when India decimalized its currency in 1957, followed by Pakistan in 1961. maghreb—Muslim prayer at sunset. Suras—chapters of the Quran. namaj—also called salat, the required daily Muslim prayers. Darghas—shrines. Mannats—prayers or wishes made to shrines and supernatural powers. sharia—Islamic religious law. Milad—special religious thanksgiving practiced by Muslims in many countries. bigha—a measure of land used in Nepal, Bangladesh, and several states in India. One bigha is equivalent to about 0.4 acres. kalbaishaki—a nor’easter storm. daroga—police officer.
Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity and Dress
In the 1950s and 1960s, I occasionally ran into a few of my father’s former students at different events, places, and in various occupations. Even before they told me when and where they were my father’s students and which schools, they remembered him by his dress: the achkan, pajama, and the red Fez with a black tussle at the top. In 2005, I was invited to give a lecture at the Bangladesh Institute for Strategic Studies, Dhaka where a senior gentleman came to see me at the end of the lecture. He was, I believe, the Secretary of a Ministry of the Bangladesh Government; before I could ask his name, he said: “I was your father’s student first and then I was briefly your student at the Dhaka University!” My father’s classic dress, even when it was no longer so trendy, gave him a distinctive appearance, both at home and outside in the school, public gathering, or in the bazaar. It was his formal dress outside the house, but he would wear that outfit even when he visited relatives. Admittedly, black achkan and pajama with his Turkish red cap (it was also known as the Moroccan Fez hat) was his strict attire beyond his own house. My cousins called him Lal Kaka (red uncle)! Possibly, it was because of his red Fez. Or was it because of his reddish skin color? I was never sure about it. At home, he would put on his lungi, a vest with or without a shirt: as an avid gardener, lungi was seemingly the realistic dress for working in the garden. By the late 1950s, it was difficult to find a trained tailor and even the good quality of
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black fabric for achkan was in short supply. Collectively, the entire family urged him to give up that dress and wear something else—a pajama and a kurta (long shirt) for his teaching and other activities outside home. Those outfits were readily available at that time. But he did not listen to us. “This is the classic dress for a Muslim gentleman in this country! I chose this clothing for my workplace since the 1920s; and I will continue to wear this.” Ever since I started living in Dhaka from the middle of 1951, and from earlier experiences, I knew where I could find the specific fabric for my father’s outfit. When he wanted a new achkan, I went in search of it in old Dhaka, and I was lucky to get it in one or two places. The black achkan or sherwani was no more popular except a few senior politicians of certain political stripes. I saw a few of the older Muslim League leaders, active in the Pakistan movement in the 1940s donning the black achkan and Red Fez in political gatherings, and even in private get-togethers and wedding receptions. It was rather too formal an attire to attract many buyers by the late 1950s—so only a handful of fabric retailers sold such special clothes. Moreover, the young and ordinary tailors no longer knew how to cut the fabric and stitch an achkan or sherwani: I remember that my father went to an old tailor in Dhaka’s Chowkbazar, to make black achkan in the 1940s and 1950s. I knew that there were a couple of good tailors in Islampur and Nawabpur areas, but they were rather expensive for my father. I heard several stories of the Dhaka University teachers and students running into hilarious predicaments for trying to get sherwanis/achkans tailored on the cheap in the 1940s. One anecdote was funny and cruel indeed! A Dhaka University faculty—diminutive, stocky, and noticeably dark in complexion—wanted to get a black sherwani sewed by a Chowkbazar tailor, and he haggled to cut the price. Mad with the client, the tailor, apparently a member of the so-called (Dhaka’s) Kutti community, branded for their witty jokes, looked straight at the client and jabbed him: “You don’t need any clothes for a black sherwani! Go and buy a few buttons—I will set them up on your skin without any charge!” Those were way back in the 1930s and 1940s—the achkan/sherwani tailors were in great demands those days. There were numerous bookstores specialized in Islamic books and punthi books in Chowkbazar. The neighborhood was the preferred shopping area for the Muslims: really it was the hub for classical Muslim dress, and mouthwatering Mughlai cuisine and street food. It was virtually an all-Muslim neighborhood of Dhaka going back into centuries. The old mosques of the vicinity bore witness to the Muslim legacy of the old segment of Dhaka City still brimming with activities. My memory of Chowkbazar goes back to 1945 or 1946 and later most of the 1950s and 1960s. My father did not care much for
Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity & Dress | 79 eating outside the house—he feared such food was unhealthy. He visited that shopping quarter primarily for stitching his Achkan, when he needed it, and he liked to say his prayer at the old historical mosque nearby. And he reminded me that hundreds of years ago, the Chowkbazar was a big shopping area—not only the ordinary merchandise like clothes, food but even slaves were once bought and sold in the bazaar. Walking with him in the old streets of Dhaka or passing by an old shrine was like walking with a living history signifying different relics. My father’s red Fez had a long history of Muslim identity and culture; the red topi carried political messages depending on the time and circumstances. It was also frustrating for me since I could not find a Fez for him anywhere, not even in Karachi: once I searched for it in London in the early 1960s. We suggested that he should wear a regular topi like most other Muslims—and there were many choices of prayer caps in Dhaka. The cottage industry of making prayer caps continued in Bangladesh, which, at this writing, exported those throughout the Muslim world. But he liked only that Fez cap for going out to school and other places. I remember that when my mother went for her annual naiar, the once-a-year ritual for the married women to visit their parents, my father was dressed in black achkan and a Fez covered his head. I recall one of my mother’s younger cousins teased him for his dress. Why was he stuck on this dress? I wondered! Those caps were widely called Rumi topi. He fell in love with the cap because, I presume, it was named after Maulvi Rumi, the great Sufi poet remembered all over the world. Was it really that? My father was fond of Maulvi Rumi’s poems. The red color was the symbol of Rumi’s Divine love—like the red roses immortalized in many Sufi poems. Still, I am only stretching my imagination! My father was not the only one I saw in achkan and the red Turkish cap. In the school, I saw the Maulvi (instructor for Arabic/Persian/Urdu) teacher wearing such a Fez when he was occasionally dressed in sherwani or achkan. He did not always wear that dress in the classroom as my father did. When the Maulvi teacher came to the class, he would first take off the Fez and then sit on the chair before he started with a story as an introduction to the lessons. However, there was another teacher—Misri Mia, a little senior to my father. His achkan/sherwani was not in black; it was cream color and even white. He had a short graying beard, and with the classic dress he surely looked notable: he too had his red Turkish cap covering his head whenever I saw him, in or out of the classroom. He was full of affection for his students; to the best of my remembrances, Misri Mia did not have any children of his own. He hailed from a village about 6 miles from our town. Once he called me near him, and told me, possibly out of warmth for the son of his colleague: “Rashid, you too should dress
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like your father when you grow up! This is the Muslim dress! Remember this as the son of a Muslim.” I saw one or two other gentlemen in my student years—one was a senior civil servant in Dhaka, the father of a contemporary friend. He was my father’s student in the earlier years of his teaching career. That gentleman got a Bengal Civil Service job at the Calcutta Writer’s Building. When he moved to Dhaka after 1947, he became the Secretary of our Kaliganj School Management Committee. When he came for the School Committee meetings, he was often dressed in black sherwani. While I was a student in Dhaka in the early 1950s, I went to see him in his office. He was also dressed in black achkan there. My father took me to his house in Dhaka as well as in the outskirts of Kaliganj in the late 1940s and the early1950s. In that gentleman, my father possibly saw a role model for me. Rumors had it that he was a high salaried civil servant and people wondered what one could do with a huge sum of money every month! Village people called him deputy sahib—as a sign of respect. I saw some pictures when he received his Khan Sahib title from the British Governor of Bengal: he was dressed in sherwani. It was possibly black, but I am not sure now! My Nana (maternal grandfather) also wore red Turkish cap’ but only when he used achkan or sherwani, on special occasions like weddings. I saw the pictures of several All-India Muslim leaders in the 1920s and 1930s; most of them were dressed in sherwani, and a few of them had red Fez on their heads. During the pan-Islamic anti-British Khilafat agitation (1919–1923), the Fez became popular among those who, I was told, supported the Ottoman Sultan against the British Government. In the 1940s and 1950s, a cap called Jinnah Cap became popular among the Muslims; it was easily available everywhere. Both the young and old bought the Jinnah Cap—they wore it for Eid celebrations and social occasions. But my father did not care for that new style of topi: he was stuck with the red cap until its replacement was no longer available in the market. But he liked cotton caps for saying prayers at home or in our village mosque. When Turkey’s strong man Kamal Ataturk abolished the monarchy and the Caliphate from Turkey in 1924, he banned the Fez from his country too; I read that he also stipulated western dress for Turkish women. Evidently, this was Ataturk’s venture into westernization of the Turks, but that ban did not deter those who still wanted to wear Fez in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. Did my father have a little sympathy for the ousted Caliph? And through his passion for the Fez did he identify with the Caliphate once globally respected by the Muslims even after it was abolished? I do not have a precise answer for that. My father remembered the Khilafat (Caliphate) movement already brewing while he
Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity & Dress | 81 was a College student. The Khilafat supporters urged all Muslim students to quit schools as a protest to the British Raj since it was widely believed that the British government had contributed to the ouster of the Turkish Sultan and the Caliph. But my father did not leave college or later his job to join the agitation, which surely did him good in his life. I heard that one of his friends, who posthumously became my father-in-law in 1960, too did not quit college during the Khilafat movement in his student days. Even though the Muslims had probable sympathy for the Ottoman Caliphate, the Khilafat movement in India did not inspire all the Muslims to quit their schools and jobs as a protest. My father remembered that a 9th grade student from the local school abandoned his classes apparently to participate in the Khilafat movement and his poor father was deeply disturbed by this. When he brought the son to a locally prominent Hindu bhadralok, then possibly chairman of the village council, for a bit of counsel, the enraged gentleman hit him with an umbrella and yelled at him: “Your father, a poor Muslim, makes a sacrifice to send you to school, which you abandoned to join those who are agitating in the streets for the distant Khilafat. Shame on you! You must go back to school!” This admonished boy later became a senior civil servant in East Pakistan after 1947; he dressed himself in black sherwani for formal occasions. Every so often, I wondered if by sticking to the Ottoman Fez all his life, my father possibly made a redemption for his earlier failure to prop the Khilafat agitation by giving up his studies/job as a protest. I found several narratives from my father’s contemporaries who recorded that they put on red Fez without the sherwani; I have seen that people put on the red cap while dressed in pajama and long shirt or even when clad in lungi and shirt. One such recollection was recorded by a well-known writer and politician Abul Mansur Ahmad in his autobiography. He remembered that he put on a red cap in the high school even when it was uncomfortable during the summer. He wrote that he did not give it up even when his Hindu teachers and Hindu classmates urged him to do so. By wearing the Fez, he proudly demonstrated his Muslim identity1. Seemingly, Abul Mansur Ahmad was, according to his memoir, attracted to Fez cap from his school days, but my father did it much later when he became a schoolteacher. My ramble in the memory lane never found a clear answer on the real reason behind my father’s and his contemporaries’ love for the Fez unless it had a tie with religiosity and Muslim distinctiveness. I am unsure if my father demonstrated his support for the Turkish Caliphate since he switched to the Muslim dress around 1924, according to a few family narratives; by that time, the Turkish Sultan was already deposed by the country’s new leader Mustafa Kamal Ataturk (Ataturk). We had several books on Turkey—they
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were not complimentary to Ataturk, the undisputed Turkish leader at that time. Those books were possibly the publications from the 1930s or earlier. One such book was Patharer Rash (a literal translation would be—juice in stone!): it was a scathing attack and satire on the post-Caliphate Turkish leader. It had salacious accounts of his personal life; it was Ataturk’s virtual replication of the Sultan’s opulent lifestyle that the book condemned after he overthrew monarchy in Turkey. When I visited Istanbul in 1995, I toured the Sultan’s palace by the sea when I was told that Ataturk lived there too. I do not remember all the details of that Bengali book; it was in the mid-1940s when I first read it. The Indian Muslims’ subliminal sympathy for the ousted Caliph indicated that they were unhappy with Ataturk’s virulently secular and authoritarian posture validated by the Western powers including the British. I felt that there was a network of pro-Caliph sympathizers in the region of what is Bangladesh now; there was still a small Islamic party called the Khilafat Party in Bangladesh. It appeared to me that the anti-Ataturk books were originally published in Urdu—feasibly in Lahore or Delhi and later they were translated in Bengali for a wider circulation among the Muslims in Bengal. The Fez cap was possibly a symbolic loyalty to the old Turkish Caliphate. With the anti-Ataturk publications circulated in the 1920s and 1930s, sections of the South Asian Muslims obviously envisioned a Pan-Islamic identity even though bulk of the Muslim world languished under the Western Imperialism and the exiled Caliphate was little more than distant remembrance. It was more a mute but feisty vibration against the European hegemony of the Muslim world, which, however, did not seriously bump the alien hold at that time. Dress as a contentious identity expression gathered a fresh momentum in more recent time since the horrifying terrorist assaults of 9/11 in the United States. Horrendous harassments and even deaths sporadically targeted the Muslims wearing long dress, prayer cap, women’s hijab (head cover), and burkha (almost full body cover for women) in Europe and North America after increasing Muslim terrorist attacks in more contemporary years. Several Western and non-Western countries discriminated against the Muslim dress by an array of legal and extra-legal contrivances: by discouraging or banning hijab and burkha in public places. When such restrictions on the Muslim dress were imposed in the Western countries, there were protests from those who asserted that dress—as an expression of one’s identity—was part of human rights profile, which deserved respect. Even so, periodic restraints on the Muslim dress took place in the non-Western countries too. Turkey was at the top of the few Muslim countries where traditional Muslim dress for men and women were banned until relaxed in more current times. There were a few sketchy reports from India and Bangladesh that Muslim women were
Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity & Dress | 83 thrown out of their classrooms for wearing hijab or burkha or even shalwar-kamiz. In my family, I don’t recollect my mother or my younger sisters or my daughters wearing hijab, as a common practice: my mother covered her head with the end of her sari when someone from outside the immediate family visited her. Of course, for privacy, our houses had bamboo fences in the frontage, which my father called the family purdah. While going out to the railway station or to the steamer ghat (jetty), my mother used a doli (small palanquin carried by two persons) and casually covered her head with a shawl when traveling by train/steamer/launch. Later, she liked a rickshaw for short rides, and afterward she travelled in automobile dressed in a sari without hijab or burkha unless there were special reasons for wearing burkha as it happened while she visited Mecca and Medina for Umrah Hajj much later in her life. Before their adulthood, my sisters wore frocks and kameez (long tunic) and pajama until they were married when they switched to sari. One of my sisters, since she was married, observed a stricter Islamic dress code—wearing a burkha when she traveled in rickshaw, car, train, or bus. I do not remember my father insisting on stringent adherence to what is considered as the Islamic dress for my mother and sisters. Even now, dress is used to affirm identity, express power and gripe against authorities depending on time, place, and circumstances. However, Western dress— shirt, pant, suits, jackets, blouse, etc.—has replaced what is viewed as traditional Muslim or Hindu dresses. Muslim women, young or old, wear Western-style jeans and tops in most countries around the world. And men—of all religious denominations are switching to pants, shirts, jackets, and, sometimes, hats. While I grew up, I did not see women wearing jeans, shirt, or jacket except possibly in one or two cases in the university. My father had the same experiences in his younger days—adult women mostly wore sari. One exception, I heard, was my motherin-law’s grandmother—she wore shalwar and kamiz; she came from a traditional Muslim khandani family that had a strict dress code both for men and women. In Malaysia and Indonesia, two big Muslim-majority countries, I saw many young women covered their heads with bright hijab, but they were dressed in jeans and drove motor cycles and cars: my visits to those countries offered me an opportunity to compare the Muslim dress habits in the sub-continent and the Southeast Asia. Old Indian movies and novels carried depictions of Hindu elites who classified their dress as Garer Kapar (clothes for the home) and Bairer Kapar (clothes for the public). Customarily, the Hindu bhadraloks wore dhoti in their house, but when they went to office or some social gathering, they attired themselves with Western dress or in fancy dhoti and kurta (long shirt). In the yore, the Muslims
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in Bengal dressed themselves in two or three main kinds of attires—a lungi or a pajama or a dhoti (in the undivided Bengal) with or without a kurta for home, but an achkan or sherwani or a formal Western dress that came from outside. My father also had two sets of attires—not an unusual practice in those days and even in more current times. My wife told me that my father-in-law had in fact three sets of dress in Calcutta—several of his superiors were British, so he used European dress for work, and at home, he would wear a lungi. For special occasions like Muslim wedding he would dress in cream colored sherwani. The Raja of Bhawal, one of largest zamindars (feudal lord) in British Indian Bengal, followed an old Mughal tradition to hold an annual Muzra (a singing/ dancing/poetry recitation session) where he also invited smaller talukdars like my (maternal) great grandfather. He squeezed himself in such gatherings for his love for ghazals. In those functions, possibly from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, he was dressed in his best of sherwani, I heard from his son and my mother. It took nearly two days of horseback journey to reach what was then called Joydebpur, now Ghazipur. To exhibit his Muslim khandani, he spoke in Urdu and Persian to the singing girls from Lucknow or Calcutta, which impressed the fellow participants who were largely the local Hindu talukdars. The Hindu and Muslim guests were served meals in separate dining arrangements at the Raja’s garden house. He remembered that there was also a hierarchy in the sitting arrangements: the big talukdars had the frontal seats and the smaller talukdars had the back seats. My maternal great grandfather was assigned in the rear seats since he was only a small talukdar. The Hindu talukdars were dressed in finest dhoti and panjabi (long shirt); most of them wore golden chain and precious stone-studded rings. He had difficulties in making ghazal requests to the baijis (dancing/singing girls) shouting from the rear rows! Nirad C. Chaudhuri, one of my thrusts for this comparative memory narrative, was obsessed with dhoti, which he loved to wear at home even during his long stay in the cold climate of England. I saw a photograph in an old online posting that he was watering his backyard garden with his dhoti on while he lived in Oxford. He refused to wear pajama at home—apparently, he did not like it because it was perceived as a Muslim dress. Nirad C. Chaudhuri did not want the ladies of his house to wear anything but sari. According to a narrative that I read, he thought that shelwar-kamiz was a Muslim dress, which Hindu women should avoid2. But he was popularly known as the classic English gentleman with a three-piece suit with a tie and a hat! I have read that he started wearing Western dresses when he moved from Calcutta to Delhi. I had a teacher at the Dhaka University—a tall and handsome man always dressed in decent two-piece suit
Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity & Dress | 85 but without any tie, which struck me as something strange. When I joined him as a young colleague and shared the same room at the Dhaka University library in the late 1950s, once I asked him the reason for not wearing a necktie. He said that the necktie originated as a symbol of the Christian Cross, and as a Muslim he avoided that neckpiece as his parents also did the same. All that I could verify was that the neck wears became a style or a symbol in the 17th- and 18th-century Europe. I noticed that the post-Revolution Iranian high officials who put on Western dress during their visit to Europe or North America did not wear neckties. During the Hindu-Muslim rioting in the 1940s and 1950s, outdoor dress, in a way, became a life and death question! I heard on numerous accounts that Muslim men went to the Hindu-majority neighborhoods by wearing dhoti. And the Hindu men visited the Muslim majority areas by wearing a pajama and kurta or even wearing lungi. At my school, there were a few Muslim boys who came to classes with pajama/long shirt and some possibly came with lungi. Several boys came to my school wearing half pants and shirts—those boys were active in sports; my school was well known for extra-curricular activities. But the Physical Instructor, a local Hindu bhadralok wore dhoti even during his physical instruction classes. A few Muslim students occasionally came with dhoti, but not after 1946. As the tide of Muslim identity gained a new momentum in the 1940s, almost all Muslims gradually avoided wearing dhoti, at least in public. I saw that the Muslim men who went to say prayers at the mosque changed their dhoti into a sort of lungi, which was also called tafan. My father recollected that he also did the dhoti to lungi conversion at the time of prayers unless he was home wearing a lungi. The school Maulvi discouraged Muslim students wearing dhoti in his class. I do not recollect in my teens anyone in the mosque saying prayer dressed in dhoti with one end passed between the legs—it was called kacha in Bengali. Up to 1946, my mother was concerned about me when occasionally I dressed myself with dhoti because I could be attacked by someone who thought that I was a Hindu. Irregularly, I wore dhoti in the style of a hero from a detective novel! Like politics and social habits in transition in the 1940s, the dress habits of both Muslims and Hindus were changing in our area. I could not remember my father raising any serious objection to my erratic dhoti wearing. Clothes were scarce during and immediately after the WWII, and we could get no more than long white clothes in dhoti style and length, and on occasions we went to a local tailor to cut the materials into the size of one or two lungi. The colored lungi came into circulation during the WWII years when the supply of British-made long cotton clothes was interrupted. Babur Hat, a big textile market, flourished near Narsingdi (about
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10–12 miles from our home) in the 1940s when the local traders popularized the handloom-made textiles including the colorful and check-fashioned lungi. Rumors and stories circulated that the communal rioters in both the Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority neighborhoods asked men to be naked to see if the males were circumcised or not—the circumcised ones would be Muslims and the non-circumcised ones were non-Muslims. So, switching the outer wear was not always the best protection under those violent circumstances! In the 1940s, every so often lungi/pajama wearing Hindus were killed in the Muslim-dominated neighborhoods in Dhaka, and the vice versa happened when a few dhoti-clad Muslims were caught in Nawabpur; an old Hindu-majority neighborhood in that city. I saw a couple of my Hindu teachers wearing lungi and shopping in the open market. I remember even my elderly math teacher put on lungi when going to the bazaar! Of course, he wanted to avoid a situation when he could be stabbed to death for looking like a Hindu because of his dhoti! But in a small town, most people knew the schoolteachers, and the Hindu instructors could not hide their identity just by wearing lungi during the tension-filled times. It was possibly in 1947, I was going to Dhaka with my father, and at the local railway station we found that people were removing a dead body and cleaning the blood-stained waiting room—the headmistress of the Kaliganj Girls’ School was murdered earlier that day. We knew her: she was a widow, and she was always dressed in a white sari—it was commonly acknowledged as a Hindu widow’s dress. There are conflicting debates about the origins of the dresses in South Asia—achkan, sherwani, dhoti, lungi, shelwar-kameez: the respective Muslim and Hindu claims of their heritages varied a lot. Achkan/sherwani—with some regional, religious, and fashion variations—are worn by the Muslims as well as Hindus in several regions in South Asia. Blended in history, myths, partisan claims, and religious competitions over dress heritages, the origins of achkan/sherwani are sometimes traced in ancient India. But the Muslims claimed that stitched clothes were brought to India by the Turks/Afghans/Persians. In Bengal, those dresses most likely came from outside—through the Muslim upper class, mainly in the urban areas that eventually trickled in the villages too. A few of those costumes presumably flourished in the 18th/19th-century North Indian cities—especially in Lucknow and Delhi—the epitome of Muslim culture of the old time. Those attires gradually became a symbol of Muslim nobility in several parts of the country. Calcutta, once the Indian capital, hosted numerous Muslim rulers from small but virtually independent kingdoms of North India, their families, and their retainers. The British exiled a number of those rulers in Calcutta who lived there with their traditional lifestyle. Their dresses and cuisine were gradually adopted
Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity & Dress | 87 by the contemporary Muslim middle class in Bengal. It was a new social development among the educated Muslim professionals. Achkan/sherwani is still a wedding dress for most Muslim grooms in Bangladesh, but they are mainly shorter in length and more tuned to the changing Indian fashion. In Bengal of the times under review, the Hindus stayed with dhoti—a sixyard long rectangular shaped white cloth wrapped around the waist with one end passed between the two legs. One end of the long fabric is tugged in the waist and the other end of the cloth piece can be held on the right hand. The Bengali Hindu bhadralok did not care for the achkan/sherwani like their co-religionists in North India. There was one probable reason for this—the Muslim aristocrats were socially more influential in Delhi and the United Provinces (U.P.) than their correspondents in Bengal where the Hindu bhadralok were ahead of the Muslims. Dhoti is normally worn with a kurta (long shirt)—a typical Hindu gentleman had a nicely embroidered kurta and a light shawl on the shoulder. Depending on the prosperity of the person, the buttons of the shirt could be made of gold and its tunic material could be of high-quality cotton or silk. Normally, the Hindu grooms are given silk-made kurta with golden buttons. I have seen Muslim grooms as well gifted with such kurta, but never with a dhoti. Lungi is a piece of cloth sewn in a circle and worn around the waist like a sarong. A popular dress in Bangladesh, Myanmar, parts of India, and Southeast Asia, lungi could be plain white, checks, and in stripes. It is a comfortable dress all year round in warm climate, and lungi is popular among the Muslims. In some parts of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the neighboring regions, women also wear different varieties of lungi described diversely depending on countries and regions. In general, the Hindus did not wear lungi until possibly when East Bengal was partitioned from West Bengal that went to India. I believe I saw a Hindu classmate wearing a lungi possibly around 1950—he was one of the few of his family members left behind in the then East Pakistan to look after the estates while most of the elders left for India. I never saw him wearing anything except dhoti all those years I knew him at the school. He possibly switched to lungi to keep a low profile with a more Muslim-like dress—because the Hindu minority’s perceived insecurity since 1947. I have always been comfortable with lungi in most of my adult life. I did not give up my lungi in England or in the U.S. as my dress at home, not for going out for work! I feel close to Nirad C. Chaudhuri about sticking to my own dress at home—not switching to pajama! Surely, I like the Western dress: I never had any achkan or sherwani—when I got married, I borrowed one from a friend! It is still a Muslim tradition to wear sherwani at the wedding.
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While I was a student, a teacher of Bengali literature at the Jagannath College, Dhaka was immaculately dressed in sherwani and churidar pajama in the early 1950s. I believe he claimed that his sherwani dress was a legacy from his earlier Islamia College tradition in Calcutta presumably in the 1940s. A good friend of mine at the University occasionally came to the class with a cream or white sherwani in the mid-1950s, and he looked elegant in that dress. Not long ago, I asked him what inspired him to be dressed in sherwani in our classes. With all sincerity, he said that Dr. I. H. Zuberi, a renowned educationist since pre-partition Bengal, who was once the Principal of his College in Rajshahi, required the Muslim students to put on sherwani. It was in the early 1940s, Mahbubur Rahman, once a senior bureaucrat in Bangladesh, recollected in his memoir that he gave up dhoti when he was a resident of the Salimullah Muslim Hall (S.M. Hall), Dhaka University. In fact, its Provost made it a rule that all Muslim students should switch from dhoti to sherwani3. He further recorded that it was evidently done to make Muslim identity more visible in the university. He was proud about it, as he claimed in his book. Late Abul Mansur Ahmad observed, in his autobiography, that the Ulema urged the Muslims to dress in pajama, kurta, and sherwani-achkan4. My father recollected that Afsar, a Maulvi teacher at the local Christian Missionary School, insisted that he should give up wearing dhoti, but my father did not do it until he was in the 9th grade (1912). Afsar was a family friend; in his youth, he also urged my grandfather to give up dhoti. My son-in-law, an exceedingly bright young American, excitedly wore a sherwani that I and my wife gave him as a wedding gift. But I saw some reservations about lungi in what was East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. I have a couple of friends who still think that lungi is an uncouth dress—even in their own country they put on Western sleepwear for going to bed. In the mid-1960s, I had an interesting experience about wearing lungi. From time to time, during the winter, I visited one or two tea estates for a few days of holiday meeting friends and relatives. I remember that my host’s wife warned my wife (they were close friends from their childhood) that in the tea garden bungalows—the Anglicized Managers, did not wear lungi even before their servants; plausibly, an old managerial custom in tea plantation life since the British Raj. I understood the situation and I was wearing pajama/kurta in bed for a few nights! I feel that in Colonial Bengal, the Ulema (Islamic scholars) insisted on sherwani and pajama for the Muslims as a resistance to the cultural dominance of the bhadralok through the widespread use of dhoti as their recognized wear. Personally, I have been a little indifferent about dress, and I never seriously attached it with my sense of identity and dignity. Besides the achkan, sherwani,
Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti? Identity & Dress | 89 lungi, and dhoti, the trouser-wearing young men were gradually more visible soon after the WWII. Most of the returnee soldiers and those civilians who worked in the military establishments were accustomed to wearing long pants and shirts and we knew the background of those people by watching their dress. I inherited a cotton pant from my maternal uncle who spent part of the war years in Calcutta: I used it for a while after some adjustment by the local tailor. Subject to the accepted norms, I am comfortable with both Western and non-Western dresses. A Hawaiian shirt over a trouser is still my favorite outfit if the weather permits! **Explanatory Notes of different types of dress in South Asia:
(i) Achkan is a three-quarter knee length coat/jacket for men, comparable to sherwani (also a coat-like dress for men); it is just a little shorter than sherwani (depending on time and the prevailing style) usually made with finer fabrics. Both are worn over a shirt and over a pajama or a shalwar (a loose and wider version of pajama). (ii) Dhoti is a six-yard-long rectangular piece of unstitched (mostly) white cloth wrapped around the waist and one end passed between the two legs of men. Its origin can be traced back in time, and while it is no longer the universal dress of the Hindus, dhoti is still a widely preferred dress in their religious gatherings. Bengali dhotis are worn pleated, almost touching the ankle, and tucked at the center back. Dhoti is stylistically worn in a way that the other end of the piece can be held in hand. It normally goes with a long shirt. (iii) Lungi is a piece of cloth sewn in a circle and attired around the waist like a sarong. A popular dress in Bangladesh, Myanmar, parts of India and Southeast Asia, lungi could be plain white, checks and in stripes. (iv) Sari is the most popular female dress in India and Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent in Pakistan. A sari in Bangladesh and West Bengal (also known as Bangla) is a 6-yard long cotton or silk or nylon material draped around the body with or without pleats. Pallu (end of the sari) is left loose hanging over the left shoulder. (v) Across the religious spectrum, shalwar-kameez is widely popular women’s dress in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Like a loose pajama, shalwar is held together by a cotton string around the waist, which could be tight or loose. Kameez is a long shirt, baggy or tight—it could be simple or fancy. A dupatta (a scarf ) is a long piece of cotton or silk to cover the head and bosom of women.
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P. S.: Explanatory notes have been extracted from several descriptions of different dress items.
Notes 1. Based on Abul Mansur Ahmed, Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchash Basar (Fifty Years of Politics as I saw it), (1999) Khoshroj Kitab Mahal, 5th edition, Dhaka. 2. For statements about Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s likes and dislikes about his dress, see Dhruva N. Chaudhuri’s: My father, Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri: Many Shades, Many Times, Biography August 27 2011: the article was based on the book: Dhruva N. Chaudhuri’s: My father, Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri: Many Shades, Many Times, published by Niyogi Books, India. No date available now. 3. Kisu Smriti, Kisu Dhriti, Dhaka, 1987. 4. See Abul Mansur Ahmed, ibid.
The Incredible Rezu Chacha Quest for Sufism in a Rural Community?
I recall one late afternoon, most likely in December, when the rice-harvesting season was virtually over, the faded crop fields were empty except a herd of goats and several cows nibbling the shoots of the sheared rice plants. A flock of white herons were feeding on the little frogs sheltering in the moist cracks of the paddy fields when the harvesting season was just over. Between the afternoon and evening, the air was enjoyably cool: the winter had arrived in rural Bengal, and the lonely pedestrians, a few with wraps around their necks, were strolling back home through the twisting rice-field aisles. Looking at the open meadow, I missed the river waft flowing over the golden rice plants before the crop-cutting interval. Streaks of white clouds hovered in deep blue sky at the termination of monsoon though I was not paying much attention to Mother Nature except feeling a little chill in the air. The rural people in Bengal enjoyed the post-harvest good time around that season; they savored the fresh rice delicacies shared among family members, friends, and relatives while the atrocious heat and humidity were gone though not for long. Out of nowhere, a middle-aged man appeared before me, and he asked for my father. He disturbed my spell of solitude; he also interrupted my talking to myself about a litany of disappointments with my parents and younger brothers and sisters. I asked him why? He seemed a little offended by the deceptive insolence
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of a 7th grader-looking boy, still the man politely said: “My son, you would not understand, I want to speak to your father; it’s personal and rather for adults!” Besides the visiting relatives and a few neighbors who stopped at the outer house for occasional adda over neighborhood gossip, current affairs, folk songs, religion and fragments of history, two kinds of people came to see my father; either the students or the parents of his students, and the visitors whom my mother was not very fond of—the musafirs (shelter seeking travelers/guests), who wanted to stay the night or even a couple of days beyond that. Most of them were uninvited, of course! Among such musafirs were dervishes, or sadhus or bauls. I knew them by their sight; most of them had long hairs, beard, and garlands of beads. One Sufi fakir appeared in the dead of night with a big lantern when we had to get out of bed and make accommodation for him; his marker was a deeply red scarf and a big bamboo lathi. Occasionally one or two sannyasis with tilaks (vermilion—a bright red pigment commonly used by the Hindus) on their foreheads came for spending the night; some of those visitors carried their musical instruments for folk songs. But this gentleman had none of those. I was curious: Who is that man? He must be the father of a failed student of my father—I imagined. Reluctantly, I made him seated in our wooden bench in the verandah, and then I went inside the house. Father was still praying—he prayed over a long stretch of time! So, I told my mother: “Baba has a visitor to see!” “What kind of visitor”? My mother asked without any gap between my announcement and her response. She did not wait for my answer, and asked again: “Is he another musafir?” “How do I know?” Somewhat annoyed, I replied to my mother. “He was not a fakir (meaning a spiritual wanderer) or a sadhu (ascetic) or a baul (mystic singers in Bengal/Bangladesh)! He looked a regular guy, Maa,” I said that to reassure her. Mother then said “Oh!” I knew she had a sense of relief from what I told her, because she would not have to cook for an extra belly or two. Once my father’s prayer was done, mother told him, “There is someone to see you. Hope it’s not one of your visiting fakirs, and dervishes!” My father did not say much to my mother and proceeded to the bungalow. Mother was not yet fully reassured; she asked me to go and see if the visitor wanted to stay for the night or so. I knew my mother’s apprehension; I knew people called our outer house, the caravansary of our village. There were no hotels or motels in Bangladeshi villages of that time—travelers stayed with people; still, there were not many who would provide free board for the night. But my father liked giving them shelter to our outer house, and the villagers knew it. So, whenever a stranger looked for lodging for the night, they habitually said: “Go to the Master Saheb’s house.” And there they came. Then it was my mother’s turn to
The Incredible Rezu Chacha | 93 push Makbuler Maa, the moody maidservant, to cook for the guest. At times, the strangers had company—the singers and musicians of marfeti (spiritual) songs. It meant cooking for quite a few! I knew all those, and I had sympathy for my mother, and did not quite like the annoyance of unknown callers, which meant added work for her. But I did not overtly show my defense for my mother: I kept it to myself. Not because of my mother but then once or twice, I revolted against my father, and said: “Your guests disturb my study!” Because the bungalow was also my reading room! Lately, a cousin of mine had come to live with us and went to school; he was also my classmate and stayed with us for about four years. “The visiting guests disrupt my reading and writing,” I told my father once; such concerns slowed down my father’s open invitation to dervishes and sadhus. Once the guests came, I was kicked out of the only retreat I had from the crying younger sisters and brothers. Indeed, one dervish liked to meditate in my room; the worst thing he gave me was his smoking, not just cigarettes, but ganja (marijuana) at times. When the bauls came, it was an open house for songs and music. There was one sadhu who smoked his kalki but did not talk much: in appearance, he looked like a fusion between a Hindu sannyasi and a Muslim dervish. My elder cousins whispered that he was a Tantrik worshipper and visited the Hindu burning pyre by the river, not too far from our house. I believe he did not visit us that often after 1947. There was an aura of mystery about another ganja-smoking dervish, he was a Muslim. I can recall that he was in the habit of appearing suddenly and stayed for a few days. My father was a non-smoker; he did not enjoy anybody smoking around him. He too knew that the sadhus smoked ganja but did not seriously try to stop them—they were only visitors for a night or two; it was possibly his thinking. I was not attracted to cigarette smoking although I tried it secretly once or twice with Niyat Ali bhai, an elder cousin from the neighboring house. I was curious about the ganja that the sadhu smoked. One day, he gave me his kalki to have a puff, and it was an experience that I never forgot—after one blow my head was spinning and started severe coughing. I gave the kalki back to him and asked him why he smoked such a terrible stuff. What he explained, I did not understand then, but I got a sense of it later in life—he smoked ganja for a spiritual ecstasy. Sometimes, my father told that ascetic—“you cannot ride on your kalki to your spiritual destination!” It did not take me long to guess that marijuana (ganja) was a tolerable habit in the range of religious rituals besides the familiar cannabis-addicts, but Islam did not allow such smoking even though it happened in real life. All those were the familiar happenings long before the mysterious stranger appeared in our house. I was curious to know about the man: was he another
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dervish? I thought I knew a dervish if I saw one, but how do I find out about this visitor? I was too young to raise any such doubts except talking this to myself though my qualms never deserted me. So, I was sneaking along the verandah where my father and that man were talking except that I did not give any semblance that I was spying for mother. Father took notice of me once or twice while he was still absorbed in their discussion—once he interrupted and said: “Call this man, Chacha (uncle)! And say Assalamo Alaikum (peace be upon you, a universal Islamic greeting)!” I did that though I was still hanging around! What they were talking about did not make much sense to me other than that I picked up a few of their vibrations that stayed with me for long. He said: “Master Saheb (respectful teacher), I am not an educated man like you, still I want to have elm (knowledge)—I want to know Allah, my creator.” My father asked: “Why, me? I am only inspired by the writings of the Sufis, and about their life and practices. I am not an ascetic—I am an ordinary person—making a living by teaching and raising a family; I am not a pir and I do not go to any pir. Nor do I take any murid (disciple). Go to a Maulvi, learn the Quran, Hadith. That should help!” “Maybe you should go to a pir for some religious guidance,” my father added. “Yes, I say my prayer, and occasionally read the Quran, but still I want something more! I have a spiritual craving that is not quenched by routine prayers only,” that uncle replied. In his response, my new-found uncle added more to my father: “I am almost illiterate though I have heard about Maulana Rumi, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, Nizamuddin Auliay and host of other great spiritual leaders from old times. I want to know what they said about reaching Allah, my architect! Please take me to your arms and consider me as another student—much older than your regular pupils in the school!” My father paused and listened to him. Several decades later when I read about Sufism and visited a few illustrious Sufi shrines in Bangladesh, India, and Central Asia, I recollected my father’s mystic inclinations, and yet, he never claimed to be an accomplished Sufi, a dervish or a pir. In recollection, I appreciate that uncle’s spiritual chase better than I was able to do while I knew him for about four years: now, I feel that his divine longing had no material motivation behind it. My remembrance of the first encounter with Rezu uncle still roams down my recollection path. “What does he want? Is it money?” I asked myself at that juncture. I knew my father had little money to give away. Although my mother recollected that he would sometimes give away even his own woolen shawl and go without it during the winter. Once the children were born, he could not afford much of charity—feeding the traveling guests were the remains of his old benevolent leanings. Those who had Sufi beliefs did not care much for worldly
The Incredible Rezu Chacha | 95 possessions and comfort; they got a divine pleasure in sharing their resources— however meager, with others. My mother worried that my father should pay more attention to the family’s future while she was kind and never jealous of others. Most of the times, she acquiesced to her husband’s spiritual proclivities in good grace like a traditional wife; nevertheless, her concerns about the Sansar (family life) were justified. In a book, Essential Sufism, edited by James Fadiman and Robert Frager, Castle books, NJ 1998, the dust cover had a quotation from Abu Said ibn Abi-I-Khayr that attracted my attention, several years ago: “Whatever you have in your mind—forget it: whatever you have in your hand—give it; whatever is to your fate—face it.1” I do not know if my father ever read this quotation even though his handout from his pittance carried the Sufi yearning of that saying. My father told us that the tradition of the itinerant ascetics most likely originated from the roving monks during the pre-Islamic Buddhist era in Bengal. He added that dervishes wandering from one place to another was too a tradition of the Qalandari Sufis (followers of Lal Shabaz Qalander: 1177–1274) in North India. I also read that the so-called Madari fakirs were too amongst the wandering Sufi dervishes: I saw a few of them in my school days. Nevertheless, I perceived them differently then: they were little more than escapists, not willing to carry out their Sansar burdens. Were they really the seekers of the Divine path? Were they running away from their family? In my younger days, I saw sadhus and mystic singers roaming through the bazaars, railway stations, and steamer ghats (jetty). Family storytellers narrated that my grandfather watched and sometimes talked to such wandering characters flocking on the riverside. But he did not invite them home. The drifting sadhus and dervishes and their practices were not always rigorously tied to one of the typical religions—they were Hindus, Muslims, Vasihnavs, Bauls, to name a few. What most of them preached were clusters of syncretic rituals that raised a few eyebrows; however, they were not the targets of violence in those days2. Most orthodox Muslims deprecated them, and the traditional Hindus had their misgivings about them. Such itinerant individuals were though cultivated and respected by numerous people—both Muslims and Hindus. My father offered them temporary shelter possibly more for humanitarian considerations: it was a kind of spiritual service, I reckon. What he offered in a small village reflected a pervasive Sufi hospitality tradition in South Asia over centuries until more modern time. He had a soft corner for such ascetics who, seemingly, were on their spiritual missions. He conceived that life itself carried the disposition of a musafir, a floating traveler, and people had a moral obligation to help such wanderers with temporary shelter and provide them with some food. Sometimes, he viewed himself as a musafir temporarily stinting in the mortal
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world. Later in my life, after stopping at a couple of Sufi shrines in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I guessed if my father visualized our outer house as his Khanqah (a meeting place for spiritual gathering where divine songs and dhikr—a form of devotion—were expressed through rhythmic repetition of the name of Allah and His attributes). Those activities were occasionally practiced in that house. I and my cousin occupied that dwelling as our regular living quarter where a few other students gathered for weekend private tuition offered by my father to stretch his limited income. We did not have much privacy in that house—it was still the guest room for occasional friends and relatives visiting us. My cousin made a separate bed for himself, which he did not allow any visitor to mess up. Most of those students, coming for private tuition, brought little cash—fishermen’s sons brought impressive fish occasionally. The poor farmers’ sons sometimes brought fresh vegetable and fruits. Only a couple of Hindu boys—whose parents had shops in the bazaar—paid in cash at the end of the month. However, most of those students gradually disappeared after the 1947 partition. What’s more, the bungalow had a whole bunch of feathered lodgers who never left their abode— they were the flocks of Jalali pigeons (a variety of wild pigeon) believed to have been carried into Bengal by Hazrat Shah Jalal, the revered 14th-century Muslim preacher who brought Islam in parts of Bengal and Assam. His shrine in Sylhet is held in high respect in Bangladesh. Those birds were my father’s special guests; their droppings littered the premises, yet nobody could chase them out of their nests in our house. More seriously, nobody could kill those pigeons or their babies (squabs) for consumption. A great harm would come to those who killed those pigeons—it was a firm belief of my father and many others among the villagers! Turning back to Rezu Chacha, he was an unforgettable character to me: with hindsight, I feel that he possibly represented a spiritual culture in Colonial Bengal and other parts of historical India. He seemed different, when I came to know him for a couple of years as time rolled on. To recall the first day of his arrival, I was unable to grasp that he was in a transcendent exploration looking for a mentor in my father. But even then, I could feel that two of them were into serious conversation sometimes with the texts of Rumi in their hands. I guessed much later that they were then engaged in solemn dialogues—an exploration for the Divine through recitation of Rumi’s poems, which was not my cup of tea at that young age! I recall that once my father gave me M. Enamul Huq’s Vange Sufi Pravhav to read when I was barely in the 7th or 8th grade, which I did not comprehend then3. Gathered from a few books on Sufism later in life, I felt that my father believed in direct surrender to Allah—through prayer, ibadat (meditation), dhikr (recitation of Allah’s names) and love for Him. I feel that Uncle Rezu and
The Incredible Rezu Chacha | 97 my father had shared a common ground to talk and think about. They conversed about the Sufi poems and techniques of dhikr; I could distantly remember. Except special reference that there were cases of looting and arson in neighboring villages and Hindu-Muslim rioting in Dhaka, I did not hear them speaking much about the simmering communal disquiet and the raging Pakistan demands though they were surely aware of the communal unrest in Dhaka that even spread in the villages. I saw English and Bengali translations of the great Persian poets whom my father admired, and he fluently recited the Persian poems (in text) that I did not understand. He had a sound comprehension of the Farsi classics. For many years, I bore in mind the first day of that uncle’s visit; they were making preparation for the prayer: I guess that the gentleman was gone when my father returned to his favorite spot for reading. My mother asked: “Who was the visitor? Do we know him?” “A guy from Baligaon (a nearby village) came. You don’t know him.” “What does he want?” My mother enquired again. “Yes, he wants something!” my father replied. “What?” my mother asked quickly. “Something that I don’t have,” father quipped, with a little smile! Before my mother could ask another question, father stepped back to the bungalow to pick up something. My mother gave up further queries. “How can people ask for something that you don’t have?” Then I believe that my mother talked to herself: how can you give something to someone that you do not have—this time I talked to myself? I thought it was dumb even to ask someone to give an object that he/she did not have. After the first encounter, that stranger gradually became a virtual family member—he would show up especially on Thursday or Friday, eat with us, pray with father. He sat down with my father and did dhikr closing his eyes. My father did his dhikr silently, but Rezu Chacha did it loudly. I came to know the difference between the two modes of dhikr, much later. Silent dhikr possibly originated with Bahauddin Naaqsbandi (1318–1389), the mediaeval Sufi saint from Bukhara. Several other dervish visitors to our house also practiced loud dhikr. In 1995, during my stint in Central Asia, I visited the shrine of Sufi Bahauddin in the outskirts of Bukhara, which still survived through the Soviet Communism when the tomb compound and its Madrassa were occupied by the local Communist Party. I noticed that some of those who called on the shrine silently recited dhikr and prayed at the burial place. The new-found friendship between my father and that uncle, with their mutual spiritual interests, had the bearings of what is known as the Sufi Brotherhood in South Asia and far beyond. The uncle had a sizeable homestead with three or four corrugated iron sheet-roofed houses including an outer cottage like ours.
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He had a big pond in the front. He was not rich but produced enough rice for the whole year; he also had cash from selling jute and other surplus crops. Like my father, he was not excited to buy land of those Hindus who were migrating to India. I never saw a man more contented with what he had already owned; yet he did not sound happy. One earthly complaint was his eldest son who went to the World War II (WWII) in Burma, and later he disappeared. First, he was feared killed but he was not. He visited his parents once after the end of WWII, and then he went back to Burma (now Myanmar); he fell in love with a Burmese girl, and stayed back in Burma, Rezu uncle told us. He had two other sons—both were school dropouts—that was his biggest regret in life. They were engaged in agriculture: helping the father; one of them had long hair and beard; sometimes, he too indulged in spiritual talks with my father. My father socialized moderately—not beyond what was necessary and who were close to him. He liked to read a lot, almost page to page, and many times over, any book on history, Islam, and spirituality that he could lay his hands on. I had a younger brother who died at the age of two and half years during the wartime. Since then, he was inclined to read books on life after death; he would talk to the piously inspired people about the afterlife for the young children who died prematurely. My parents found solace in religion and spiritual readings, but my father was more into it than my mother who recited doa (blessings) at the end of her daily prayer. Struck in grief for years, my parents slowly recovered as my younger brothers and sisters were born in the intervening years. Rezu Uncle too lost a baby son, as I learnt; he too shared the sadness of losing a child with my father. Father was stuck with the newspaper and magazines that he subscribed when they arrived fresh; the rest of the time, he would perform the daily prayers unless he was teaching in his school or busy otherwise. From time to time, he was engaged in theological and spiritual questions brought up by one or two neighbors who frequently visited our outer house or sometimes, assembled in the verandah in the early evening or during holidays when my father was in a relaxed mood. It was like a little seminar where diverse issues were brought up, but such conversations were typically open ended. My father was a sort of connector between the educated and those who were not so educated in our village. I know that they often asked him about the latest news from Calcutta or Delhi: in addition to the daily newspaper that came from Calcutta by mail for some years, my father gathered political news from his colleagues, some of whom were well informed about the provincial and national politics. Occasionally, the visiting neighbors played with my father’s musical instruments—commonly used in folk songs. I remember one of them helped father to string his prayer beads, which he
The Incredible Rezu Chacha | 99 had in plenty gathered over the decades. Seldom there was such excess of religious debate that could hurt personal relations. “There must be no coercion in matters of faith,” my father always concluded his discourse with those words. As I grew older, I knew a little more about those Sufi poets and their books that my father had, but still I could not fully comprehend their contents. I am yet to grasp why Rezu Chacha, without much of education, sat down like a devoted student when my father read out of those classics. I can dredge up a coarse recitation possibly from Rumi that my father read to that Uncle, which he also murmured on other occasions even when he was not with any company: “If you can’t find your Allah within yourself, you may not find Him anywhere else; because, He has been with you all the time!” Uncle Rezu was a good listener; he would seat for hours and listen to what my father read out to him. Two of them performed one-to-one spiritual interactions only when my father was not occupied with more mundane activities. “What does Baba discuss with Rezu Chacha?” I asked my mother once. “That’s not kid’s stuff,” my mother snubbed. But sometimes she added: “Whatever your father is doing does not help you much when you are alive!” I was more confused by such answers, and at one stage I gave up asking; now I realize that those mystical contentions were beyond my intellectual comprehensions in those days. Rezu Chacha was a little younger than my father, but all his sons were older than me. He got married early, and by the time he was in his 20s, he was the father of a boy. My father was a big contrast—by the time he finished his degree and started his teaching career, my father was preoccupied with his mother, and did not think about marrying until she deceased. Many things changed him; slowly he became more spiritually inclined than he was in his younger years. He had initial failures in finishing his B.A. degree—for financial constraints as well as health reasons. Yet, he kept on trying to fulfill his academic dream. Once he was successful, he believed that it was a divine gift to him—since then, his spiritual and mystical landscape possibly widened. My grandmother was religious, and her influence fell on my father too. His school Maulvi made my father a Muslim in religious practice; he was also a mentor for my father’s love for Persian. I was then possibly in the 5th grade—my father took me to him and asked me to say Salam to him and touch his feet for his blessings. “This is my real Ustad (teacher); he taught me things that even my father did not teach!” He said that with the fullness of his heart and in my school years, I heard numerous anecdotes about my father’s Arabic/Persian teacher. I believe that he changed to achakan, shirt, and pajama around those years when he had completed his graduation and established himself as a teacher
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at the Kaliganj School. But my father’s Sufi proclivities did not, however, come from his Maulvi teacher. My father and Rezu Chacha went for prayers in the same mosque when that uncle visited us; periodically, they took time visiting the Muslim shrines in and around Dhaka; their reverence for durgah also bonded their friendship. Once they went to Narsingdi to attend the annual congregation of the bauls; I believe I also accompanied them. My father’s regard for shrines—a long South Asian practice among the Muslims—was not favored by the more orthodox Muslims. The schism between the literal interpreters of Islam and the Sufi preferences was, as I understand it now, signified by the theological dichotomy of the Muslim community that never achieved its finality. Sufism is more pluralistic; it holds that love for Allah should also embrace the entire humanity and shun sectarianism. The practicing Sufis concentrated their mental powers by deep and rhythmic breathing; they fasted, kept night vigils, and chanted (dhikr) Allah’s different names. I believe we had a short book that explained the meaning of different names of Allah cited in the Quran. I wondered later in life, if the Sufi dhikr was close to what is known as the “perpetual prayer” also familiar with certain sects among the Christians. The mystic ecstasies could sometimes become wild. The ganja smoking that I watched possibly bonded with such trance-seeking exercises although it was not a universal practice among the Sufi-tilting individuals I met in my younger days. In fact, I came across a few revulsions to such customs. One of the two neighbors, who idled his time in our house, was a folk singer, and the other was a sort of amateur musician. One rule was that none should speak ill of others when they sat down together. Rezu Chacha, from time to time, asked: “What is marafet (gnosis/mystical enlightenment)? Does the marafet skip sharia for the Muslims?” We had a young Maulvi whom I called the Maulvi Bhai. Not so successfully, he tried to teach me the Quran and how to say prayer. I heard occasional discussions on the mutual compatibility of the sharia and marafet— but I was unable to get a clear picture on the differences. The Maulvi would jump into the debate by saying: “You cannot get into marafet without respecting the sharia”! My father explained the significance of following the basic tenets of Islam, as the first step before delving into marafet. He also reminded that most historically known Sufi dervishes observed the basic requirements of the sharia. Rezu Chacha was a little cynic about sticking to sharia just for the sake of fulfilling the routine requirements of Islam. “I want to love Allah unconditionally before I just lay a prostrate five times a day:” Rezu Chacha said his prayers punctually, as I remember, but he threw his questions to have an argument and an answer; I believe I was in the 9th grade by the time our outer house occasionally came alive with
The Incredible Rezu Chacha | 101 such spiritual pondering. “But the observance of the sharia was stipulated in the Quran and the Hadith; there was no liberty on that obligation” our Maulvi neighbor, who lived close by, fired back. Once or twice, Rezu Chacha and the Maulvi really entered a heated argument, even in a virtual shouting match. Uncle Rezu’s sparse educational background affected him little; he skillfully raised unyielding questions for which none amongst the group had convincing answers, as my father later remembered Rezu Uncle. Habitually, I queried about him during my holiday breaks from the university; by that time, my favorite uncle had died. Such spiritual deliberations in the small but informal gatherings in our house indicated that there was a Sufi trail in our village and the neighboring ones even though my father did not develop a string of disciples or a silsila (a spiritual lineage) around his Sufi predilections largely derived from the Sufi texts. The blend of Sufi attachments and folk songs that my father cultivated was, however, not universally popular among the neighboring villagers. And once or twice, my father ran into arguments with a member of the village council, and a local politician. He was older than my father—a contemporary of my eldest uncle. An incredibly shrewd character, my father would keep away from him as much as possible but maintained a formal relationship. One day, that neighbor told my father: “Badru, I hear some people sing and play music till late night, and when they go home, they steal from our villagers! Is it true?” My father was taken aback; what that man implied was unacceptable. Countering immediately, he said: “Brother, I don’t keep such company who would steal at night! You should know that.” Our neighbor was much more cunning and worldly than my father. “No, Brother, who will question your integrity? But remember that people are talking about it,” he somewhat retracted from whatever allegation he spewed earlier. He was on his way toward the bazaar but stopped and turned back and told my father in a more mollified tone: “You know these are not good times! Hindu-Muslim conflicts are periodically erupting in the region. We should be careful, that’s what I wanted to convey to you.” My father was averse to the communal unrest. He replied: “I understand that, Brother! I will keep an eye, and no harm will come from those who come for infrequent singing. This is my own private residence, not a public singing house!” Immediately after that conversation, our colorful neighbor had possibly left. And then, my father did not stop talking to my mother or he was possibly just thinking aloud without caring if anybody was listening to him or not. “Himself a crook, how can he suspect others as thieves? He has nerves!” Meantime, mother appeared on the scene, I remember. “Are you talking to yourself or to your son?” Mother asked. “That’s none of your business!” Father replied with visible
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irritation although my mother was not the cause of his frustration. “Come on, tell me what happened! Don’t dump your temper on me!” My mother did not waste time in firing back. My father replied: “Well, it’s our neighbor, our local council member.” He yielded and narrated what happened. This time it was my mother’s turn for aggravation that she promptly expressed: “I told you many times not to invite those folk singers, and have singing Jhalsa (gathering) in the outer house; you don’t know all those people who come to your musical sessions. Nor do you know what they would do on their way back at night! I can tell that you will get a great disappointment from those people. But I also know that men don’t listen to their wives until it’s too late!” “The people who come to me are good, Allah fearing people,” defensively father repeated roughly the same that he told his neighbor earlier. I know that my parents did not agree over several issues—the outer house, the singing and dhikr groups were among them. Later during the day, my uncles also enquired about my father’s row with our influential neighbor. That episode echoed in our family when I was in my teens, and I knew that my father avoided socializing with that neighbor. And yet, my father had periodic singing and musical sessions even in his advanced age; it was possibly entrenched in his mystic DNA. He maintained an assortment of spiritual interests throughout his adult life. My mother came from a religious family; she came from folks that communed with Allah through a straight path—as strictly defined by the sharia. She would say her prayers in prescribed times, fast during Ramadan, and give charity during the month of fasting. But, in her early upbringing, she was not familiar with asceticism, the devotional songs and endless theological debates. Indeed, my maternal grandfather (Nana) was a bearded Sufi looking man who did not believe in mystical workouts. I knew he had a pir, a spiritual guide who visited him from time to time; as a contrast, my father was a clean shaved person who was deep into spiritual thinking. Nana was opposed to singing and playing music with spiritual goals, a common practice among the Sufi followers but disliked by the orthodox Muslims. My father visited the Sufi shrines that my Nana disapproved—those amounted to grave-worshipping, unacceptable to the core Islamic teachings, he counseled. My father treated his father-in-law with a great respect even when they were not on the same spiritual path. We had a good collection of religious books including the Hindu scriptures; Nana liked to read a few of the Islamic kitabs though he had no patience for the philosophical homily. “Islam goes directly to Allah—no middleman; no middle path!” My mother casually told me recalling what happened in the past; contrary to Nana’s beliefs, my father’s understanding
The Incredible Rezu Chacha | 103 straddled into mysticism of Rumi and Fariduddin Attar, which he, occasionally, shared with uncle Rezu. As I grew up, I became curious what was it that my father, to a lesser extent my mother, Rezu Chacha, the family Maulvi, the kalki-smoking dervishes and Nana were all talking about. Could I get an answer? Possibly yes, but most possibly no. I found all of them baffled at different degrees or I was myself puzzled—the fault was apparently my ignorance on the subject at the tender age—the concepts of self-denial and spiritual power were still unfathomable to me then. When I was in the 9th or 10th grade, once I asked my father: “Can you explain why you are so absorbed most of the time?” His prayers stretched over hours on some occasions, but he was not sedentary in habits. He was a great walker; he could walk miles and wanted me to do that: he visited several Sufi shrines mostly walking except short rail or boat rides. He got up before the dawn, say his Tahajjud prayer, outside in the verandah so that he did not disturb my mother’s or my younger brother’s and sisters’ sleep inside. When I moved to the outer house, it gave me a little more freedom—at least free to read detective fictions until, sometimes, the middle of the night that my father despised. But he knew what I was doing—he could easily find out by looking at the kerosene level of the hurricane lantern that we used for reading at night. I remember when I asked him all about the spiritual debate, he ignored me the first time, but possibly after a few months, when he was in a relaxed mood, I asked him again. But father fired back: “What do you care about those divine matters? You don’t even pray regularly, the Maulvi comes, and goes, but you care to learn nothing!” What my father said was correct though I did not want to provoke him. “Sorry, I will sit down with our Maulvi teacher to learn a few more steps before I start praying again,” I uttered those words before I walked quietly out of sight from my father. From the back, my father said: “Hope you keep the promise!” I remember I started saying my prayers quite seriously in the 9th or 10th grade, and then one day Shahid, a classmate, who was on the border of religious skepticism taunted me. My interactions with Shahid on the divine issues took me out of the family discourses between my father, Uncle Rezu, my mother and a few others. I think that my spiritual questions were on uncertain ground as I talked to my friend. Shahid asked bluntly: “Rashid, are you praying because the exams are coming? My mother says that I should pray regularly if I want to do well in the exams. Do you believe in that?” I was taken aback by what my classmate asked. My mother routinely asked me to pray and make wishes that Allah would help my grades: how Allah can help me with grades if I did not try hard myself,
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I wandered! This friend of mine was a competitor in my class, so I was careful about what he was telling me, and what I said in reply. So, I was rather evasive in my response. I said: “It’s my father, you know him. He wants me to say my prayer regularly. I have to listen to him.” Shahid did not hesitate to show off, as far as my dim recall goes: “My father does the same! But I told him that I am more of an agnostic!” Shahid picked up some leftist/liberal buzzwords from his maternal uncle— his intellectual icon was possibly then in finishing his M.A. degree. His residence was just beside the post office; his mother was a kind and a religious person. I was not a very obedient son, but Shahid would perhaps, sometimes, aggravate his parents’ patience, not an uncommon posture of the teenagers. But my friend was a good student and professionally successful in his later life. As I recall, Shahid’s teasing remark about praying to get good grade hurt my sense of pride. But at the back of my mind, I knew something—I did pray so that I would do well in math, something that I was not so confident about. Still, I did not do so well in math; it was close to the lowest grade in my class. Notwithstanding his religiosity and Sufi penchants, my father hired a private tutor who was helping me in math. So why pray for good results in the exams? I asked myself, but I could not figure out. Shahid was doing better than me in grades though he was apparently a doubter about religion! Somehow, my math never worked out—with namaj, or without it! I also compared my father with a neighbor; he was richer than my father; even after he allegedly cheated innocent people! How come a bad guy wins and a spiritually motivated good guy loses? This debate burnt like an eternal flame inside me; still I never found the answer—not in father nor in Rezu uncle’s Sufi journey! The more I recall Rezu Chacha, the more I am convinced that he was an incredible character, a man who did not even finish his high school; he was full of deep spiritual and philosophical values without any hidden motives behind those postures. He was not so much like the erudite people, but he was fired by the mystic expositions like those of the wandering ascetics, dervishes, or the local cohorts. My father was stimulated by Sufi teachings, but he did not claim any hidden power; yet, I believe that he stood somewhere in that esoteric crowd. More than ever before, I realize now that Rezu uncle struggled to unearth the spiritual meaning of his life when he took my father as his guide though a reluctant one. After so many decades since I knew him, those questions never died in me. Sometimes jokingly but more often seriously, he told me: “You are lucky; your father is the awakened one!” Not aware of the mystic meaning of it, I looked at him and asked: “What about you, uncle?” Smilingly, he replied: “I am the sleeping one!” The uncle had a sense of inferiority, I guess; he felt that he was intellectually and spiritually asleep
The Incredible Rezu Chacha | 105 while my father was spiritually alert. Before he met my father, Rezu uncle, I was told, left his home, and wandered from one shrine to another, and he confided in my father that he still wanted to do this again. My father, however, counseled him that he could live in his sansar (family life) and still lead a spiritually exalted life. Notwithstanding my father’s diverse spiritualism, no religion other than Islam permeated his world of faith. He told me more than once that the local padres who, from the neighboring Catholic Churches, occasionally visited our house wanted to convert him to Christianity. My father taught for a while at the Church School; however, he never thought of yielding to Christianity. One Catholic priest presented him with a copy of the Bible which still existed in our house. Besides, Rezu Chacha told me that he was grateful since my father had taken him under his wings, and he was explaining the great Sufi wisdom to him. When we felt the need for someone in time of a natural disaster or sudden illness, he appeared from nowhere! During the monsoon, the Lakhya could suddenly flood the area overnight. Once we got up in the morning and found knee-deep water just in the front yard of our house! We did not have a boat, and we did not know how to go to school or to the bazaar to buy the daily necessities. Suddenly, Rezu uncle appeared in a small boat and he brought some fresh supplies for us. My father’s transcendent comprehension was still based on books and his religious practices; his Sufi mysticism was not just unique to the Muslims: he detected traces of mysticism in Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity, as well; may be in different shapes and modes. He believed that Sufi mysticism was indeed part of Islam; not outside of its main teachings though their interpretations could vary. More importantly, he held that spiritualism could be earned only by an individual through his/her own prayer, meditation, religious activities, and altruistic services. I had a faint recollection that once he told Rezu uncle that he had to earn his spiritual consciousness by his own efforts. It was indeed his favorite expression that divine awareness was not transferable even from father to son. He detested such stories that when a certain elderly pir died, his professed saintly power was reassigned to his son or one of his favorite murids (disciple). I heard such stories that after a certain pir died, his son was installed in his place. My father’s love for mystical books was incredible—he had quite a few in his compilation. One of the books that my father read from time to time was Fariduddin Attar’s The Conference of Birds, a classic in Sufi literature4. He once tried to explain the cryptic meaning of the “Birds” recounted in the book. After a long time, I knew more about the work—it was an allegorical Sufi poem about the search for the Simourgh, the mythical king bird. My father loaned the book to the then education officer in the neighboring town who he gave it someone
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else. The book was apparently lost. My father was deeply saddened; I believe he found a replacement for the lost volume. He was also fond of that Persian poet’s Tadhkaratul Auliya (Memoirs of Saints) with stories of miracles performed by 39 Sufi saints. But Rezu Chacha’s pious awareness was more intuitive that he gathered from others—he did not read books for his mystical boost; he was what he was—he never pretended to be something else. Most likely, I was then a 10th grader; one day Rezu Chacha came while my father was still out for an errand. But he liked talking to me; he was happy that I was planning to go to college and encouraged me to get the highest degree that one could achieve. A little skeptic as I was about the divine seekers, I asked: “Chacha, do you think, a human can reach Allah? Allah is so remote, distant and, sometimes I fear even praying to Him,” I added. My father would have slapped me if I had asked such a question that plausibly bordered on being a disbeliever. Apparently, I assumed that my uncle was more persistent in explaining the spiritual questions to the best of his understanding. My father could not fully convince my mother of his mystic beliefs, and I was then nowhere near to figure out how one became a Sufi. But Rezu Chacha did not consider me as a doubter because I asked him those questions. “Allah is not far from you, but you have to search Him through your prayers, meditation, good work for others, love and trust in Him.” I was not fully convinced. Because I did not see any sign of Allah in myself; I was a bit unmindful to what Rezu Chacha was telling me. I was wondering how Allah could reside in someone who did not pray regularly, who did not habitually listen to his parents, who occasionally lied and pilfered the sweets that his mother prepared for the whole family. Allah is not that cheap! So, I asked him: “Chacha, I don’t see Him.” My father arrived on the scene, and that uncle ended the dialogue by saying: “Surely, He is there, but you have to search for Him!” I left the spot, but there was no end to my skepticism.
Notes 1. 2. 3. 4.
Fadiman, James and Frager, Robert (Ed.) Essential Sufism, Castle books, NJ, 1998. Roy, Asim, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal, Princeton, 1984. Huq, Enamul, M., Vange Sufi Pravhav, (Sufi Influence in Bengal), Calcutta 1935. Attar, Fariduddin (a Persian poet), The Conference of Birds, 1177 A.D. (for more modern translation of the book by Sholeh Wolpe, Norton, 2017).
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites Rai Sahebs/Khandans/Beparis?
In Colonial Bengal, the popular sources and the political vocabulary chiefly flaunted the Hindu bhadralok, which referred to a sloppily defined privileged group of the higher castes endowed with modern education, gainful employments, and presumably refined cultural postures. A selected bunch of them stood for the scions of the rent-receiving talukdars, but majority of them were already transitioned into salaried and qualified professionals. On the other end, there were the Muslim elites better known as the khandans/ashraf/kulin/rais, in the rural as well as urban areas; unlike the Hindu bhadralok, the privileged Muslims were ordinarily tied to their dwindling landed estates while they were plainly behind modern enlightenment and skilled professions. Still, they enjoyed a modicum of weight in the Muslim community. My father was ambivalent toward the local Muslim champions of their khandani legacy. At times, his disappointments were at their peak—the avowed “cream” of the Muslim community had a patronizing vanity, sautéed in nostalgia, real or contrived. Nonetheless, they were a part of the local history and the social milieu, my father reminded us: their ups and downs were intertwined with the changing leadership, Muslim identity perceptions, and headway of Colonial Bengal’s villages. The Muslim khandans (also called kulins) in our areas were a little different from the old-style Urdu-speaking Muslim elites in Calcutta or Dhaka though nurturing Persian and Urdu literature was a visible
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emblem of the traditional Muslim aristocracy in that period of history. There were a few noteworthy gentlemen in our area who knew Arabic for religious instructions (a common phenomenon among the Muslims), but they knew Persian (Farsi) and Urdu quite well. Of course, the knowledge of Farsi was a marker of sophistication among the Muslim elites well into early decades of the 20th century; partly, it was a noble tradition in western and northern India that no doubt trickled into Bengal’s Muslim community. Besides the kulin families, most Madrassa-educated Maulvis knew Persian and Urdu in addition to Arabic—beyond their mother tongue. I knew at least one such person, a Maulvi in our village, who was fluent in both Persian and Urdu; sometimes, he discussed Farsi poems with my father. I heard that he had a degree from the Calcutta Madrassa. The kulins were a component of the larger civil society of Kaliganj, Boali, Bakhtarpur, Chaura, Ghorashal, Sonargaon, and a few of the adjacent villages/ towns; they were the presumed remnants of the old well-bred families of the area. They had no sizeable estates by the time my father became an adult. He acknowledged that there was an extent of a khandani-culture among the one-time wellknown Muslim families in those days. They wore pajama and kurta (long shirt) when visiting friends and relatives; personally, I do not remember having seen many such people dressed in lungi when coming to the school or in the bazaar. They were fond of good food—meat dishes were common among the kulin and well-to-do Muslims; pulao, biryani and kebab were the favorite food items in their weddings. I remember one or two students from such families bragged that they brought the Mughlai food chefs from Dhaka for their wedding dinners. I remember that a fairly well-off neighbor (not a khandan) brought a baburchi (chef ) from Dhaka when his son was married to a young lady of a khandani family from another town, and elements of the bride’s entourage came riding two elephants. It was a large gathering and most villagers were invited to the wedding. My father had a few students from such families in the nearby villages—their parents had personal and mutually respectful contact with him. In my teens and in their adult life, they were among their friends swarming the new tea stalls in the bazaar. They were usually nice to me and reminded that my father tried to bring them back to schools from where they dropped out in the 1930s or earlier. I am sure they regretted the missed educational opportunities in their life; they ruminated their families’ well-off days in the past. However, a handful of the khandani men finished their high school and with a couple of years of college education or even without that academic background found jobs in government offices as clerks in Dhaka, Narayanganj, or Calcutta through certain prominent contacts because of the extended family ties.
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 109 I had several class and school mates from such families; some of them were indeed proud of their ancestries and occasionally showing a little smugness, not necessarily with me, personally. One of them hailed from an old Muslim family, in another village; that had a shared talukdari in a few households of our village. Periodically, he came to our village apparently to collect his parents’ share of the land revenue from several villagers and stopped by to say “hello” to me. Dressed in pajama and kurta, he was always accompanied by a mature attendant. Even when I urged him to have some refreshments at our house, he would say: “No Rashid, I just came to collect taxes in your village.” The truth was that by the 1940s very few ryots cared to pay land taxes to the talukdars regularly; indeed, they expected an abolition of the zamindari system, which finally came in 1950. More than tax collection, my friend apparently exhibited that he was the son of a talukdar though a tiny one: his father, I believe, had a clerical job in Dhaka and his elder brother was a railway inspector. With the khandani families enjoying a level of respect among the villagers, both Hindus and Muslims, there was a semblance of equivalency with the more influential Hindu bhadralok. A handful of the khandans still struggled to preserve the old Muslim traditions, social courtesies, dress, and food. But in my father’s generation, only a small number of the local Muslim rais/kulin sent their children for higher education although they were not necessarily antagonistic to the British Raj. A few descendants of those Muslim bhadralok were amongst the local councilors, the area’s rural cooperative directors, relief providers, teachers, maulvis and members of different school managing committees. A number of such Muslim gentlemen had relatives among the mid-level government officials in Dhaka and Calcutta, which offered them access to a little higher echelon of the administration, but few Muslims were at the top management of those bodies until the 1940s when the Hindu bhadralok began leaving the area in large numbers. Often, alliances worked between the locally prominent Hindu families and the well-recognized Muslim families—it was politically correct to have some Muslim representation in the local government though the Muslims were, for a long sweep, scarce at the higher echelon of politics and bureaucracy. The limited number of kulin families were scattered; then, I found that such families bonded with each other by marriages. Most of the khandani families no longer had any solid income from their rent-receiving interests; they virtually survived by selling or mortgaging their landed properties and bits of their talukdari estates. Without a good education they were less noticeable in law, administration, teaching or medicine; in the British-ruled Bengal, the local councils, for a while, had certain nominated slots, a few of which were available for the Muslims. My father was
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nominated to the local council once in the 1930s; he was uncomfortable with the personal rivalry and factional strife in village politics at that time. I heard anecdotes of corrupt practices among the village board members; the local councils then had limited judicial powers to try petty cases, which further opened village governments to corruptions, as my father hinted. Another source of dishonesty was the limited infrastructure development resources channeled through the village government—tube wells for clean water and small village roads. Elected members of the rural councils tried to connect those government-funded paths with their own respective estates and sunk officially paid tube wells in their own homesteads. My father was unhappy with one neighboring council member for such unfair practices. However, I noticed that our village, like a few of the nearby ones, had a parallel village panchayat (an assembly of five elders) going back into ancient Indian history; its non-formal presence was morally accepted and the senior citizens patched up, though not always successfully, family quarrels, religious issues, and disputes over family inheritance. They held meetings to decide the venue of Eid prayers, annual milad of the village mosque, to hold yearly waz (religious sermon), and payment to the mosque Imam, to list a few of such village elders’ activities, not performed by the government-created local councils. If someone did not respond to their call for such community activities, they were threatened with virtual ostracization by the fellow villagers. Often, such gatherings were attended by the local Maulvi, who conducted prayers in the local mosque; I remember that such meetings were held in the open space in front of our village mosque. My father did not give much weight to this parallel assembly of the rural elders and the religious counselors, which had no legal status: I recall once he had a row with a self-styled leader of our village panchayat. Such unofficial rural bodies of elders did not claim any jurisdiction beyond the recognized village boundary or a para (sector) of the village. However, the Hindus had their own such council of elders, and I believe that the Christians too had informal counseling arrangement where the local Church priests held their sway. I heard that the parts of our village inhabited by the kulu (oil pressers), drumbeaters, and dais (midwives) had their own little panel of elders to reconcile their personal and family disputes. I know that such unofficial village councils gradually disappeared from the rural areas and what I saw in my school/college days were the fading years of the ancient “five-elders’ assembly” in the villages. Nevertheless, they demonstrated their wisdom in arbitration and reconciliation of sensitive matters for which the rural people avoided formal, open-to-public, and legal redress except those who had a knack for court litigation. Most likely, it was about a year since Pakistan
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 111 came into being—in 1948 when stories were flying about such a panchayat’s skillful handling of a local Hindu sex-worker becoming a Muslim and marrying a Muslim who was in love with her. She was presumably a prostitute; under strict sharia law, she allegedly deserved certain lashes plausibly as a part of her punishment and atonement before she could marry her Muslim fan. It was a dilemma for our villagers that they gossiped about, my classmates and the senior students too overheard this from their parents, or they were amongst the floating gossips. A few Maulvis resisted the conversion of the Hindu sex-worker to Islam and marrying a Muslim who warned that whoever converted her and whoever married her should be shunned by the local Muslim community. Then I heard that the panchayat, with religious guidance, stipulated that she would be given symbolic lashes with a gamcha (a light cotton towel used by people to wipe their face and body) turned into a kind of coiled rope. She went through an exemplary reprimand after which she became a Muslim and married her Muslim suitor, I came to know. I never heard more about that couple, but apparently the panchayat handled a sensitive matter in a humane and creative way, most members of my family felt. It was a familiar sight that young khandani Muslims, just after finishing the high school or just dropping out of it or withdrawing from colleges, got married and looked after whatever was left of their assets. Conceivably, it was one way that respectable Muslim families sheltered their economic status—they put their younger generation in charge of their estates—occasionally with adjunct activities for the community and the local institutions. However, numerous kulins kept their matrimonial connections to their kin and their parallel families at times going beyond our adjoining villages well into the neighboring districts. It was their pride that they did not normally marry in the peasant families no matter even if they were rich farmers; however, it was an old custom of the Muslim nobility that habitually looked down upon the peasants who were presumably converted to Islam from amongst the lower caste Hindus. However, that phenomenon began to change as a small number of educated boys from the Muslim girasth (peasant) families were lucratively employed under the government; they often married in the khandani families, possibly it was an alternative for gaining a higher social identity. The parents in those girasth families’ sons felt elevated when they were related with the old and recognized rais families; it was a kind of upward mobility in the traditional rural hierarchy. At least two of my father’s former classmates did the same. I heard that one local (Muslim) civil servant—well known to my father— married a second wife, with a khandan lineage since his first wife came from a girasth family, which actually paid for the gentleman’s college expenses. By the
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time, I finished high school and went to college (1951), I heard that affluent peasants’ daughters were married to the sons of bankrupt Muslim bhadraloks on the condition that father-in-law would pay for the son-in-law’s educational expenses. Such marriages for the sons or daughters were, in most cases, arranged through the family elders. It was also familiar that the kulin families married their sons and daughters in the far-out towns if they did not find a suitable match in the nearby areas. In my high school, I knew several students from the distant villages—their local relatives gave them free room and board while studying in our school. By the time I entered a professional life, the trend of gaining a social altitude through marriages into khandani families perceptively declined. Rather the parents wanted their successful sons to marry the daughters of senior bureaucrats or rich businessmen in the cities. Since numerous Hindu landholders were also, at times, engaged in small entrepreneurships like moneylending and real estate business on the side and involved in professions like law, teaching, medicine and food trade, they had resources and spare time to engage in politics which offered them additional prestige, visibility, and a hold over the allocation of government grants for schools, health, sanitation, and rural infrastructure. From the 1930s, the British Indian government initiated various public spending projects for developing communication, transportation, rural cooperatives, education, and health facilities. Concrete political objectives backed such development initiatives; as a rule, the British Raj policy was to utilize the rural elites—both Hindus and Muslims, wherever possible. Until the 1940s, however, very few of the top local officials who monitored the village council leaders were Muslims. For example, my father did not recollect any Muslim School Inspector in our town before the beginning of the 1940s. After the British Indian government introduced decentralization of powers from 1919 to 1935, an extent of control and influence was delegated to the so-called transferred departments run by the elected or sometimes by the nominated politicians—both Hindus and Muslims at the provincial level. And in their turn, the local politicians gained more prominence too. Once the larger provincial autonomy and the peasant-oriented reforms went into actions since 1937, and when the WWII and the Great Famine in Bengal created extraordinary circumstances, numerous young men (and a few women too) got government jobs all over Bengal, a few fresh college graduates from my region were too benefitted. From time to time, my father carried such news that someone from the neighboring village became a sub-deputy/deputy magistrate or even a civil supply officer or a cooperative bank inspector or a police sub-inspector. During the interwar years, India saw a steady rise of extra-constitutional
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 113 politics—anti-government protests, terrorist activities, communal polarization, and violence. To meet such challenges, the government wanted to involve more Muslim politicians with local administration, education, development, and welfare activities; it was also a political stratagem to maintain peace and stability in the villages that surely contributed to the rising prominence of the rural elite. My hometown and the neighboring ones were the Muslim majority belts where the Hindu elite sought a level of cooperation of the Muslim leaders to face any breakdown of law and order and sudden onslaught of communal bloodletting. It was indeed an example that the local Hindu elite could realistically cooperate with their Muslim counterparts for their community’s peace. There was, however, a small but steady group of Muslim leaders who were energetic in village politics. Several of them hailed from the kulin families or they were from the new generation of teachers, mukhters, lawyers, maulvis, physicians, deed writers, affluent farmers, middle or large landholders and small businessmen among the Muslims. For such rural leaders, the allocation of infrastructural responsibilities presented them a lever over patronage distribution. A few of those Muslim leaders were commuters to Dhaka working as government officials, teachers, lawyers, clerks, maulavis and mukhters in the city and returning during the weekends and holidays. My father remembered that by the early 1930s, he had a small but stable stream of Muslim students in his school—largely from the ryot and farmer classes—only a few from the kulin families then. Slowly, such young men as well surfaced in village leadership, which marked a transformation in the rural landscape. I came to know several of them in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the bazaar, football field, the village festivals, river ghats and tea stalls—the new meeting grounds to informally share politics, community news, or family anecdotes. Recruited during the interwar years, several Muslim officials from our region later absorbed into the Pakistani bureaucracy after 1947. Except those in clerical positions and in law and medicine, most government officials were known as the Deputy Sahebs in their rural communities. To be known as a deputy magistrate was a sign of prestige in those days. When I was still a school student, an uncle periodically reminded me that when I grow up, I should get a Deputy Magistrate’s job! At least a couple of my senior school mates from 1940s became Engineers working for the government in the 1950s and 1960s. A few of them joined the police service especially those who did not go for a full College degree; and a small number of those school friends from the middle 1940s went for law after their college degrees. During the WWII, several senior students dropped out of schools and went to the military—by 1945/46, they returned home, I recall. Throughout the Great Famine in 1942–1943 (according to unofficial estimates, the severe
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food shortage started even earlier in a few areas), quite a few college graduates or even those who did not complete their Bachelor’s degree got jobs as the Civil Supplies Officers—a special cadre created by the government to deal with famine and relief services. When they visited their villages, most of such government officials claimed that their jobs were equivalent to the deputy magistrates—it was a kind of pretense to earn additional social recognition among the rural cohorts. Abandoning higher education for gainful employment continued in the early years of Pakistan: at least two of my earlier classmates joined the Pakistan Air Forces by giving up college education in the early 1950s. Additionally, several young men became small construction and supplies contractors for the military garrisons in Kurmitola, Tejagon, and Comilla during the WWII years. Most elderly family members recollected that the war-time young military purveyors constituted the new band of construction businessmen in our areas. The wartime military facilities in and around Dhaka required numerous clerks, nurses, and supporting staff: there were similar manpower demands in a few other army establishments including Comilla and Chittagong. One Christian friend’s elder sister was a nurse in the Cantonment Hospital, and I heard that she later married an American soldier and left for the USA. However, in those days, young men and women were not anxious to emigrate to Europe or North America. I remember a dozen of my distant relatives worked in those military barracks; a few of them stopped over at our house on their way to Dhaka: it was convenient for them to catch the direct railways connections to Dhaka from the outskirts of our village. Later, most of them became small entrepreneurs. Jute market shot up during the war—a string of middlemen worked as the intermediaries between the wholesale buyers at the top and the producers/retailers at the bottom. Money trickled to the farmers who had enough land to grow jute—more cash flowed into the villages while food was still scarce. A few of my mother’s cousins became cash-rich in jute business—they were frequent visitors to Narayanganj, the main jute purchasing center in our region. The big jute traders were frequently the Marwaris or the Europeans situated in Narayanganj, the big river port or in Calcutta. But the dalals (middlemen/they were also called beparis) were overwhelmingly Muslims in Narayanganj, my own town and other jute trading outposts—those brokers made good money during the war period and even in the early 1950s. Neither the Hindu bahdralok nor the khandani Muslims were among the familiar jute trading dalals/beparis. For the Muslim traders, it was easier to become beparis since it did not require much of capital or education to invest as dalals. But I heard that it was tough for the newcomers to get into the close-knit networks of the jute dalals unless backed by
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 115 someone already established in that business. Narayanganj was well known for the concentration of a few Muslim jute traders—a trend that continued in the early years of East Pakistan. A few such traders in our area allegedly had more cash than the typical landowners, rich farmers, and the bhadralok—Hindus and Muslims alike. Such individuals were soon drawn into local and provincial politics. A few amongst them were the financiers of the Muslim League party in the 1940s, I came to know later. They habitually invested their cash earnings in landed properties; apparently, several of them sent their sons to schools and colleges. A relative of mine, with money from jute trade, bought a small house in Dhaka so that his son had a nice accommodation while going to a college—it was not a common phenomenon amongst the Muslim rural elites until later during the Pakistan era. The real estate dealmakers were more active since 1946–1947, when the Hindus began to sell off their properties before migrating to India. Those who made money in such deals afterward became successful businessmen; and a growing number of such entrepreneurs were amongst the new politicians in former East Pakistan. What was more, the new actors—the novae riche—challenged the traditional hold of the Hindu bhadralok as well as the Muslim kulins in village politics. A bunch of my father’s classmates and others, a little junior to him, had abandoned their schools when they just finished school matriculation or Intermediate College Examination—and joined the anti-British Khilafat and Non-co-operation Movement of the early 1920s. Without any better career options later in their adult life, they went to the teacher’s training schools and became elementary/junior schoolteachers. The village schoolteachers and the ulema too contributed to the rural leadership development—they were closer to the village life. Besides teaching students, they groomed their own children for education and professional careers; I knew two such neighbors. There was a big madrasa in a neighboring village—it became a well-known institution of Islamic learning that attracted numerous Islamic scholars and students from different parts of what is Bangladesh now. A few of my father’s contemporaries went away to Calcutta for education or jobs. One of them went to study medicine in Calcutta: as the capital of Bengal, the city was the hub for different educational and professional opportunities. But his friend eventually dropped out of medical school when financial constraints forced him to take a job in the early 1920s. He spent most of his adult life in Calcutta; three of my cousins went to Calcutta in search of job—it was around 1944–1945. My father did not know many, from our neighboring villages, who lived in Calcutta for professional reasons in the 1920s and 1930s. Those who worked in and around Dhaka were still the acknowledged community
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leaders in my ancestral village and its adjacent areas being in the geographical proximity of the city. Skillfully, the oldest and notable person in our area was a doctor who was the first Muslim graduate from Dhaka’s Mitford Medical School in the 1890s and retired as a Civil Surgeon possibly in the 1930s. He was from a khandani family about 4 miles from our village, and he spent the last years of his retired life in his ancestral home. I heard that he socialized with the Muslim leaders of Dhaka in the 1930s. When he lived in his village home, he was an elder statesman who commanded respect across the region. When he visited his relatives in our village—he was over 80 years old and still moved on horseback. Sometimes, he also stopped by at our house to look up my father. His son was also a doctor who moved to Kaliganj town since the 1940s; he was considered a respectable gentleman among the Muslims in my ancestral community with personal contacts in Dhaka and several districts. There was another doctor from the nearby village, who was my father’s classmate; he spent most of his adult life practicing medicine, as a government doctor, in different districts. I remember him visiting our house—he was then retired from the public health service; he was indeed appreciated as a member of the local Muslim elite. There were a few Muslim mukhters from the nearby villages, who practiced law at the lower courts in Dhaka and Narayanganj, two nearest urban centers. We had a relative—husband of my mother’s cousin—my father’s contemporary, who went to Calcutta for practicing law. Not being successful there, he returned home and became the Headmaster of a local school about 25 miles from our house. I remember that he was held in esteem for encouraging education among the young Muslims. There were several Muslim traders and businessmen from our and the bordering villages—they were in jute, rice, and lentil wholesaling in the nearby towns and in Narayanganj, the big river port by the Lakhya. Such entrepreneurs leased big country boats and sailed to the northern bazaars where they would buy jute and rice cheaply and bring those to our town and sell at a profit; jute traders usually took their merchandise to Narayanganj. In his younger days, my grandfather was a seasonal businessman for several years until he picked up his money-lending stint. Later my Chandu uncle was one of such traders when he jostled with the fellow traders in the town; his heart was always in business, not in agriculture; occasionally he chatted with me about his old business ventures while tending his young onion and chili plants. My uncle and his wife did not have any children—they were happy and regretted little that a few of his trade partners were better off than them. I remember that they told me stories about those who became rich in the village and who were the losers.
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 117 I recall that my uncle enjoyed time with the traders in bazaar even when he was virtually retired from business. There was a tiny group of educated people in our area who worked in Burma, but they did not take their wives and children with them. They were a kind of absentee middle class in the villages—they were remembered, talked about, but they were not visible except when they briefly visited their families. As the British and Indian-owned business entrepreneurs settled in Rangoon and Mandalay, new schools, colleges, and hospitals were established in the country. There was a growing need for clerks, teachers, doctors, and traders though Burma did not have enough educated people to fill up those slots. With the expanding railway networks, it was in a way easier to go to Burma via Chittagong than going to Calcutta for job hunting! There are numerous fictions that featured the Bengali expatriates in Burma, and my generation of readers was fond of those tales. I heard that our School headmaster, Nirendra Chandra Sen, started his teaching job in Burma before he moved to Kaliganj. I knew a few details about one gentleman who worked in Burma—his son was my classmate; he told us the horrifying stories of his father’s escape from Burma in 1943–1944. The families depending on the remittances from Burma were hard hit since the Japanese invasion and occupation of that country during the WWII. I also had a first cousin in the army who fled Rangoon when it fell to the Japanese military. One evening, he just appeared from nowhere before it was getting dark, with an unshaven and bearded face, tired and hungry! My cousin recalled those experiences later in his life. I also remember that there were several other young men from our village and the neighboring ones who had earlier returned from the war-stricken Burma. With whatever cash they mobilized, they started small business in the bazaar instead of going back to agriculture while my cousin returned to the military; they belonged to the new generation in the community injecting fresh blood in the rural leadership. Time and again, I collected from my parents, teachers, and uncles that the em bryonic beginning of a Muslim middle class in the villages surfaced in the 1920s and 1930s when a small group of educated Muslim young men looked for opportunities outside home and traditional farming. Such ventures beyond their home and village marked the slow transformation of the long-established joint families. It was a promising social group with a new imagination about themselves even though most of its cohorts did not have their college degrees. My father remained in his own village, but there were several others who dared to move out of their cocoon. Those who worked in Dhaka or Narayanganj lived in shared house, but during the weekend, they came home to spend time with their families. Most of them did not buy or build houses in the cities—colloquially, their rented and
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shared living space in the city was called basha (literally meaning a bird’s nest), and their family dwelling in the village was called a bari (home)—emotionally, it was more than a house built on a piece of land! From a couple to a dozen men from our area, mostly government officials lived in such typically joint basha (shared lodge)—few brought their wives there. Cooking and housework were done by one maid—she was called mama, an old and apparently vanished domestic practice in contemporary Dhaka City. Whenever my father visited Dhaka, he spent a night or two in such a basha, where his senior friend from the adjoining village lived while he worked as a peshkar (clerk) in the District Magistrate’s office. One gentleman from the neighboring village owned a modest lodge called the Sadu Khan’s Hotel; it was a popular board for the lawyers, teachers, talukdars, villagers, litigants, and students who went to the city for court cases, business, and other purposes. I knew where it was located, but I never stayed there; beyond the recounts of my elders, that modest hotel has been remembered in at least one autobiography of a senior journalist/writer from a neighboring village. I spent a few days in a shared basha when I first moved to Dhaka in 1951, where my mother’s cousin lived since the late 1940s; he was still a bachelor but during the weekend, he visited his parents in the village and he was known as one of the successful cousins of my mother. Except the traditional Muslim residents of Dhaka—the remains of the old khandans, old traders, a few Muslim landlords, the ustaghars (constructors of brick-built houses) and the so-called kuttis—the perceived remnants of the Mughal legion, the full-time Muslim urban dwellers were still limited. There were a few Muslim lawyers, government officials, and educators, but many of them were not the settled city dwellers. The big influx of such city dwellers was not really felt until the 1950s when construction of new houses and apartments began to accommodate the growing government employees, exploding student population in the university and colleges and the new arrivals of the traders and businesspeople crowding the city. Postal remittances from the working sons were among the few channels for financial support to their families coming from their earning members in their respective places of employment. Such financial prop came from the slowly emerging educated young men who were in Dhaka, Calcutta, and in different parts of Colonial Bengal. Support for the extended family from the working sons was common to both Hindus and Muslims except that the Muslims were the new actors among the evolving professionals. Once I had access to my father-in-law’s diary and a few personal letters going back to the late 1920s and early 1930s in Calcutta—I do not precisely remember the years. In that, he meticulously wrote down the amount of money he sent from Calcutta to a few members of the
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 119 extended family not far from my family home. He paid for his nephew’s education for a while; he also bought a commercial property in Narsingdi for his elder brother to use it for business so that he could enhance his income back home. That the new Muslim professionals helped their brothers, sisters, and nephews to go to school was an additional contribution to the rise of an educated middle class in rural Bengal—in largely what is now Bangladesh. My father too paid for his nephew’s education until he decided to drop out and joined the military when the war started. He took care of my grandmother and a couple of his nieces: it was almost a religious duty to fulfill such obligations to the members of the extended family. It was the earlier generations’ good wishes and munificence that slowly added the spread of education that ultimately created new Muslim leaders in the rural areas—some of whom later matured into national leaders in Pakistan and in Bangladesh. By the early 1940s, the boys who went out of their homes and saw the war, country-wide communal and political turmoil, brought home a fresh mindset; they opened new doors of a dormant Muslim community to the outside world. It was a phase of history unlike what my parents and grandparents experienced with tapered openings to the universe. A handful of wartime suppliers and minor contractors who started their small construction companies in Dhaka were visibly different from the customary bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals—it mattered little that several of them even did not finish their high schools. It was a new crop of people; later in life, nearly all of them were well off; they were politically and socially influential in and around Dhaka as they changed over to former East Pakistan after 1947. Since Kaliganj was the regional nucleus with a school, a police station, a post office and a few Thana (sub-district level) offices, a bazaar, a river port, nearby railway station, and a land-registration office, the young returnees of the region at the end of the WW II had their turn in the local town. With large school playgrounds, the town became a venue for political meetings and social gatherings where the younger war returnees made themselves visible. I saw only a couple of Hindu young men (one was a local shop keeper’s son and the other one was an enthusiast in local cultural gatherings) in action with the new age group of ex-soldiers, contractors, traders, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and college/university students. Additionally, I saw a few madrassa students, maulvis and religious leaders among the incipient rural elite; I also recollect the well-known Maulvis at the milad sessions hosted by the town’s mosque. I knew one of such wartime service providers who later became a contractor of the huge Kaliganj Muslin Cotton Mills in the early 1950s—I recall that the Japanese technical assistance built that project. Some of those enterprising young
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men were looking for jobs or business opportunities with that textile mill; they frequently visited Kaliganj and met the Japanese builders and the high government officials involved in that project. Except a few, the Japanese contractors and their senior Pakistani counterparts did not generally speak fluent Bengali; broken English or a strange mixture of English, Urdu, and Bengali was the main medium of communication between the two sides. Prior to that, a bunch of the soldiers, recently released from their military services, offered diverse voluntary works in the neighborhood. The langar khana (free food open kitchen) offered complimentary food during the famine of 1942–1943; they were still in action in the school playground even in 1946, I believe. There was a small army camp in one of the school hostels. The free food kitchens were run by ad hoc committees consisting of local officials, the village councilors and Chairman, and a few volunteers who helped to maintain order in the large crowd of famished adults, children, and women. I still remember that dozens of starving and emaciated men, women, children, and infants huddled in the playground for free food, and often the young volunteers failed to control the hungry crowd. The food suppliers and the kitchen handlers were the businessmen in the bazaar and a bunch of local politicians. Whenever the quality and quantity of food went down, the starving men and women shouted slogans against the contractors, suppliers of food, and the local politicians. It was a real challenge for the village leaders to manage famine reliefs and feeding the poor with free meals although the relief fund largely came from the then Bengal government. The ex-soldiers also offered training to the volunteers in civil defense activities; they too organized village watch groups to prevent communal attacks and violence. Several of those ex-soldiers from the WWII and a couple of local men moving from Calcutta joined the Muslim National Guard, better known as the para-military arm of the Muslim League. However, I do not recollect it as a huge outfit in our area, but one member of that group from our village, several years older than me—my senior fishing buddy, was working with the Muslim National Guard, I remembered. A small number of them, including that neighbor, later joined the Ansar force, a cross between the paramilitary and police, created by the new Pakistan government after 1947 to help maintaining law and order. I remember that I joined the elders to parade the neighborhood streets at night for a few hours apparently to discourage the presumed miscreants attacking innocent residents. By the time I joined hands with such volunteer groups, I was in the 9th grade. One Moslehuddin Ahmad, an ex-soldier, was a well-known activist of the growing Pakistan movement in the mid-1940s. He was a charismatic figure with a fancy beard that he liked to touch repeatedly while making a public speech. When
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 121 he addressed large gatherings, spell-bound audience listened to him, and they wished him to be one of their future elected leaders. There were a few others like him. Some of the ex-army men including my cousin went back to the military, I recall. One of such ex-soldiers brought a gramophone when he returned home: a record player was a rare entertainment piece in a village in those days. I remember that a bunch of old and young neighbors flocked in his house to listen to songs, and he proudly showed off his new gadget. I ran into a couple of young men who were laid off from what was then called the civil supplies department launched during the war and the colossal famine. One of them was later reemployed by the government. I remember a couple of young men—working for the police—came home just to get married on the eve of 1947 partition. One young neighbor who was previously a civil supplies officer became a taciturn Sufi; he sat by his father’s pond, under the shade of a tree and rarely talked to anyone—not even to his wife. All those people—irrespective of their education and professional levels—were the new cohorts in the village leadership; different in experiences, perceptions, and world views compared to my father’s generation. Most of them were from the ryots and farmer families; war, the widespread famine, communal unrest, political turns and twists in the country and the impending partition made them more itinerant and energetic. New and exclusive residential areas flourished in Wari, Hatkhola, Paltan and near the Ram Krishna Mission in Dhaka in the 1930s according to various oral and written recounts. Those localities, nearly exclusive enclaves, were among the most desirable residential areas in pre-partition Dhaka—most residents were the Hindu bhaaralok—the professionals, retired officials and small talukdars, until they left a little before and after 1947. One of the reasons of the affluent Hindus earlier moving to Dhaka was the simmering communal tension in certain rural areas where law and order stretches were limited. From the 1930s, there were frequent robberies in the villages, according to local recollections, and often the victims were the affluent bhadralok families most of whom were Hindus. My father cited this trend as the beginning of the flight of rural bahdralok from the villages to the urban areas. With a few exceptions, however, the rural Muslim elites did not show any such mobility to the nearby urban areas until years after 1947. Many Muslim khandans went into debts to meet the needs of their growing families while most of them did not have enough resources and job-related pressure to relocate in the urban areas. The rural indebtedness surely impacted the peasantry—both the Muslim and Hindu ryots challenged the feudally inclined leaders in the villages. For the rising breed of politicians, it was a priority to offer debt relief to the impoverished
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ryots; their constituents could not afford to send their children to school and college. A series of debt relief and more basic land reforms came into effect in the late 1930s under the pioneering leaders like A.K. Fazlul Huq, Abul Mansur Ahmad, and a populist trailblazer Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani (Bhasani); they were hailed by the Muslim peasants and tenants in Bengal and Assam. Those leaders had their counterparts in the villages: more peasants and farmers were apparently confident about sending their children to colleges for higher education and better professional opportunities. I did not come across any Muslim woman among the local officials or politicians in my childhood, but I found female Hindu and Christian school teachers in the 1940s. I knew of one young Muslim lady from our town who received training as a nurse, which many of her relatives did not like. An open secret in Bengal politics, the Congress Party owed its support and resources to the landholding class, the traditional elite in Colonial Bengal. Then they opposed the land reforms initiated by the predominantly Muslim parties and their leaders. Such conflicts between the Hindu and Muslim leaders were, however, echoed in all-Bengal politics as well as in the rural communities. Surely, the traditional rural elites were in decline in more than one way; as the government introduced debt settlement laws, the local money lenders cut their lending business. Faced with economic hard times, most land owning Muslim bhadralok fell in hard times; I heard about one kulin family—related through my mother’s side; partly, they survived by retailing embroidered designs from house to house or hawking those to the professional tailors. More than one way, the traditional Muslim elite in the villages was on the sharp decline. My father perceived that a few of our known Muslim khandans had possible external ancestry and came from his long-standing reflections, local anecdotes, and a few historical references. However, when I studied Political Science later in Dhaka University, I realized that my father’s social narratives were more than everyday banal opinions. They had the traits of in-depth social rumination, which the academics reconstrued through empirical methods in modern times. I had a teacher called Professor A.K. N. Nazmul Karim at the Dhaka University who taught a sociology course in which he talked about the Muslim aristocracy in South Asia. His book: Changing Society in India and Pakistan (Oxford, 1956) is among the classics on the subject; it was a brilliant study of the Muslim classes in what is now Bangladesh. His main claim was that the Muslim aristocracy in Bangladesh was uniquely connected with geography: whoever claimed even a scrap of outside origin had a stake in the Muslim khandan (aristocracy) hierarchy. The trace of the Bengali Muslim nobility was more toward the West, not to the East! If someone’s
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 123 ancestors came from Iran, Afghanistan, Samarkand, Bokhara or even from Delhi, U.P. or Lahore, it was an emblem of superiority, but not at the highest rank! In fact, the immigrant Muslims coming from the Middle East, Iran, and Central Asia looked down upon the locally converted Muslims in India; that stance never really vanished from the Muslim identity thoughts in South Asia. If one could hint the origin beyond those stations, and lay a claim of ancestry in Baghdad, Medina, or Mecca, that was considered as the pinnacle of classic Muslim nobility! In fact, only such families could claim the authentic khandan status. I gathered it in several personal accounts that there were several “real” Sayed families in Jessore and a couple of districts in Bangladesh. The rest were, presumably, just unsubstantiated claims of “high” ancestry. It was in the late 1960s when I had the rare privilege of browsing a bunch of ethnographic essays on several well-known families in former East Pakistan by a few senior students of the Sociology Department of Dhaka University. It was a casual opportunity in the middle of 1960s when I read a few of those undergraduate papers and I did not record those essays. But I remember that a couple of those articles were about a few khandani families around Dhaka and other districts. A few of my observations of the Muslim aristocracies are partly drawn upon what I remembered from those undergraduate term papers, but I do not recollect the specific papers and their authors. In my adult life, I had occasional opportunities to talk to such people who claimed that there were descendants from what are modern Iraq, Yemen, Iran, and Bokhara, but I rarely met anyone who claimed that their ancestors came from Mecca or Medina. My father once mentioned a school inspector in the town—his family traced its origin to Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiqui, the first Caliph after the death of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). Those who claimed such ancestry had a sense of preeminence over the rest of the Indian Muslims, especially in Bengal. Even the Mughal rulers, according to historical records and my father’s anecdotes, gave priorities to the Persian and Turkic immigrants in their courts. Those Muslims who claimed aristocracy used a variety of familiar surnames in Bangladesh or what was a big segment of the province of Bengal in British India—Syed, Mir, Khan, Mia, Bhuiyan, Talukdar, Chaudhury, Kazi … to name a few, which did not necessarily substantiate their elite pedigree lines although certain land records established their ties with the pre-British feudal gentry in and around Dhaka. My village and the adjoining areas fell well within the jurisdiction of the pre-Mughal Muslim rulers in Sonargaon, once the capital of a good chunk of medieval Bengal and a center of trade and commerce, administration, military, bureaucracy, and learning institutions. The Muslim khandans in the nearby villages were possibly the descendants of the soldiers, Islamic preachers, feudal nobles,
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judges, tax collectors, traders, and the privileged families from the past who went adrift in the dynastic changes and regime upheavals in pre-British and Colonial Bengal. A few of them were large jagirdars (feudal estates bestowed for life) and their agents chaudhury, tarafdars, chakladars, mirs, talukders, and patwaris, to name a few who survived more in name since the British introduced its Colonial zamindari system. Some of those observations are validated in oral narratives as well as in a few published resources. Surnames or even the newly gained wealth did not necessarily guarantee the (aristocratic) standing among the Muslims. My mother’s father was, for example, from a well-to-do family: before him, his father made good money in jute trade and invested in land and commercial real estates, which were subdivided among his 9 brothers. By the time I was grown up, most of their financial standard fell below the prosperous middleclass level. My maternal grandfather (Nana) did not put any title after his name, but a couple of his nephews accumulated visible properties and added chaudhury after their names. A few of those surnames for example, talukdar, chaudhury, mir … were believed to be the titles claimed on account of their occupations in the past: talukdars had feudalistic claims in the pre-British period; small landlords also carried the talukdar titles, which continued over time. I had a classmate whose grandfather and great grandfather became rich in indigo and jute trade and invested in a slice of talukdari estate just to add the talukdar title after their family name. His family was still in jute business and never earned any sizeable rent-receiving income from that talukdari wedge. The chaudhurys (both Hindus and Muslims) were the presumed rent/tax collectors during the Sultanate/Mughal periods on behalf of their larger estate holders, as I heard and read about them. I am aware of one chaudhury family in a neighboring village—it was well connected with the khandani families in Dhaka—who in turn claimed lineage from the pre-British days in Bengal. We had a splash of khans, bhuiyas, chaudhurys, khandakers, but I am unable to remember many Syeds except possibly one or two whom I met in my younger years. One of them was the school Maulvi who was also my father’s teacher—he hailed from Sonargaon, and he was proud of his Syed heritage. Typically, the khandan/sharif families did not physically take part in the cultivation of lands—as a common practice, they leased land to the sharecroppers; a few of them farmed with their hired laborers: it was a sort of fall from the status of the “real” khandan to become farmers even in their own cultivable land! On the issue of staying away from the actual agricultural work, the Muslim khandans and the Hindu bhadralok were on the same page: it was the sign of their aristocracy. My mother’s maternal parents bragged that none in their family ever “touched” a
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 125 plough! My mother-in-law’s father too bragged that they were never tillers of land, and he was reluctant to give his daughter in marriage into a farming family. As a rule, the “high born” Muslim families’ streak of prestige was their distance from the peasant class and from manual work; they imagined their status as the quintessential “leisured class.” Such attitudes isolated the Muslim elites from the bulk of their co-religionists; the prevailing logic was—aristocracy did not necessarily flow through more land, rice-filled storage, and jute bales (both good sources of cash income though). However, the Hindu bhadralok too represented a class of people—though not uniformly affluent—who avoided menial work like farming and did not identify with the peasantry and the lower castes. The British East India Company-created zamindari (landlordism) system bureaucratically known as the Permanent Settlements since 1793 gradually went downhill under various innovations and populist challenges that swerved a little more toward the peasants and farmers in the wake of economic and political reforms slowly ushered from the early 20th century. The earlier stage of that transformation happened during my father’s lifetime—in the British Raj, but the final blow to the zamindari system in former East Pakistan came under the land reforms act in 1950. With the Colonial government’s legislative reforms that allowed more elected leaders, the Muslim tenants and peasants were the new-fangled constituents for a promising group of Muslim politicians, not heavily attached to the old feudal interests. The Village Self Government Act in 1919 that overhauled the rural government brought in more opportunities for the village leaders to participate in the rural administration. A typical Union Board covered 10 villages with an area of 10 to 15 square miles and a population of 10, 000 or more. Each such Board had six to nine members; one-third of them were nominated, but in 1946 the provision for unelected members was abolished1. The office of the president of the Board frequently went to the locally influential Hindus several times in our Union Board, and there were Muslims too among the elected members and the nominated ones. Together with more land reforms, the traditional hold of the rent-receiving families progressively waned both for the Hindu and Muslim landlords. But the Muslim landed gentry was more adversely affected than their Hindu equivalents by those changes. Numerous Hindu landlords and their professionally successful descendants had already been in the tremors of class and work-related changeovers—they went to schools/colleges and were absorbed into diverse occupations at different geographical locations, many in Calcutta. The pioneering Hindu middle class in Calcutta, the nerve center of Bengal, was no longer heavily bound to rural East Bengal that later became the eastern wing of Pakistan in 1947 and
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independent Bangladesh in 1971. At best, the Calcutta-based bhadralok visited their caretaker-managed rural estates during the (Hindu) Puja festivals in Colonial Bengal, and during the early few years after the partition. The post-1947 Bengali literary genre that flourished in Calcutta romanticized the idyllic life of the Hindu bhadralok in the eastern districts of the then united Bengal. Books of fictions, movies, poems, TV documentaries, and non-fiction narratives echoed the obvious dispossession of the Hindus, who migrated to West Bengal or the neighboring provinces. Ironically, the literature that developed in Dhaka after 1947 did not offer much space for the Muslim migrants who left their ancestral homes in the Indian part of Bengal. I don’t remember having read much about the Muslim immigrants from West Bengal except a few informal recollections of their hardship when they hurriedly shifted to East Pakistan after 19472. Most of such Muslim migrants from West Bengal (or from other parts of India) were either professionals or businessmen or industrial workers who settled in Dhaka, Chittagong, and other urban areas; the immigrants who came from India to the then East Pakistan did not overtly embellish the mainstream rural leadership of Bangladesh since 1947. My father recollected that most of his college educated Hindu friends who lived in Calcutta or in other parts of India worked for the government, but a good many of them were educators, lawyers, and doctors; and several younger men were employed in the business sectors as well. At the start, the Hindu bhadralok involved in rural leadership were, by and large, the rent-receiving gentlemen who habitually leased their cultivable land to the peasants or sharecroppers. By the 1947 division, maximum number of their sons and daughters were in their respective professions—bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors, engineers, businessmen and clerks, and teachers in different parts of Bengal or beyond. Compared to the established Hindu middle class, the Muslim professionals were just the first generation of the educated pick still with strong ties in the villages. Often my father gave multiple examples of bhdralok families whose sons and daughters had college degrees and were employed in Dhaka or Calcutta. After the post-1947 massive emigration of the educated Hindu gentleman, former East Pakistan faced a leadership scarcity in the rural areas including our region. Whilst most Hindu bureaucrats, the remnants of the talukdars, lawyers, doctors, and teachers in East Pakistan, gradually left for India after 1947, the surge of non-Bengali refugees who opted for Pakistan did not have a direct impact in the rural life except that a few non-Bengali business entrepreneurs migrating from Calcutta (and other parts of India) set up factories in the suburbs of Dhaka (also Chittagong and Khulna). They were virtual villages, but those businessmen
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 127 ordinarily lived in Dhaka, Khulna, or Chittagong. However, the non-Bengali investments impacted the traditional rural network—a new group of villagers— men and women, began working in jute and textile factories. I watched a glut of such activities in the second half of the 1940s merging later with the roaring 1950s and 1960s. Surely, a dynamism drove many in the village schools, bazaars, aisles of the paddy fields as well as in the narrow lanes and by-lanes of old Dhaka, which marked the post-partition evolution process. There were more Muslim students in the schools and colleges, and a new optimism were clear; no matter if their hopes were ultimately fulfilled or frustrated. Oddly, the Muslim girasthas had their own snobbery in the villages—a sense of pretentiousness and class thwarted them from marrying into whom they imagined as the “inferior classes” among the Muslims. Partly, the Muslim social stratifications in the region where I grew up were tapped in the earlier chapters of this volume where I portrayed the kulus (oil grinders), badyakars (drum beaters), zolas (weavers), dais (midwives), majis (boatmen) on the edge of our village. Though living in two virtually separated village para (sectors), they could still exercise their political rights by voting, and that privilege slowly became their ladder on the way to recognition by the rest of the villagers. From our house, I, my cousin, and one or two neighborhood boys went to our school as a group. For about a mile, we strolled through the rice-field aisles during the dry season with my father who taught at the same school. We did this routinely until I reached the 9th grade! I remember that several young housewives and a few older women were, from time to time, engaged in hurling most abusive language against each other. Once I asked my father: “Why are they fighting and exchanging such unseemly language?” There was no straight answer for my question, but he nearly yelled: “You are going to school! Isn’t it? Why do you pay attention to such filthy abuses?” I kept quiet and did not ask any such question in the future. Nevertheless, I understood that most residents in that sector of the village were not educated, and my family members did not usually socialize with them. I remember that there was one student from the southern section of that para when I was in the school’s junior class; later, that acquaintance from the school became a family friend; and my father liked him as a hardworking and honest young man. He was one of the neighbors who occasionally visited my father in the early evening hours—by that time, I had already moved to Dhaka and he was a clerk in the new textile factory. He was generally liked by the young and elders, and he became a sort of new leader in his sector of the village. By that time, I saw nearly a dozen students in the local school from the disparagingly called kulu para, baddhyakar neighborhoods. Slowly they moved out of their ancestral professions;
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they became tailors, ready-made garment dealers, small merchandise vendors and bidi (Indian cigarettes wrapped in leaves) makers; a few of them were well off. Long before the bustling garment industry in Bangladesh, the members of the perceived “inferior classes” in my ancestral village became the traders in readymade clothes using common sewing machines, scissors, needles and threads; they sold their products in the bazaars all over the region including Dhaka. By the 1960s, a couple of their community’s young men competed in the village council elections: they claimed a respectable space in the rural leadership. Around that time, I heard that a few marriages took place between the girastha and the descendants of the so-called oil grinding/drum beating families. On my return to my Dhaka University teaching position after my Ph.D., I conducted a modest study of the 1964 November elections—which was in fact the local council election. However, Pakistan then had an Electoral College system for electing the President of Pakistan while the members of the village councils were additionally members of the national electoral body. Furthermore, the system was better known as the “Basic Democracy,” consisting of all the local council members in both the parts of Pakistan, who, in turn, elected the country’s President. Part of that modest study was published in 1966 as “Election Politics in Pakistan Villages.3” The three villages I covered in my election study were primarily Muslim-dominated with small pockets of Christians and the Scheduled Caste Hindu minorities. What I found in that study had a long tangle with the past; historically, those villages played important rural administration role since the Chowkidari Panchayat Act, 1870. Under that law, the District Magistrate appointed a Panchayat (Council) consisting of 5 members in any village that had 60 households. Its responsibility was to appoint a village Chowkidar (watchman)— that outfit’s overall responsibility was to maintain local law and order in cooperation with the police station, and, furthermore, it could raise a little tax to defray the necessary expenses. It was the beginning of modern rural local government in Bengal, and most of the Panchayat members then were nominated from the area’s influential Hindus and Muslims4. Two of the three of those villages under the Union Board were, for many years, represented by, I recall, a shrewd Muslim deed-writer—an acknowledged but controversial local leader. Gradually, we saw an almost new brand in our village leadership—surplusfarmer-cum-jute traders—barely literate but cash-rich by the rural standard in the 1940s and early 1950s. Soon a younger jute trader became the Chairman of the local council; he was a student of my father while he was at the school before he dropped out without finishing his matriculation examination. Coming from a girasth family and as a relatively young man, it was quite a feat for him to become
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 129 the Chairman. He was commonly known as the bepari (trader/merchant), but his popularity was so high in the village that he almost had a walkover victory over his rivals in the election. He prepared himself well for the election: he earned his reputation as a charitable person by distributing free clothes, cash, and rice among the poor during the Ramadan and Eid festivals. The rural political eminence was, for long, monopolized by the landowning bhadralok in Colonial Bengal—mostly Hindus with a sprinkling of the Muslim khandans. However, the peasants, no matter Hindus, or Muslims, were habitually inarticulate in politics. More often, they were beyond the corridors of power in our village politics for long; even though the ryots had the numerical majority, most of them were previously not enfranchised. With delicate differences among the elites, the social status of the professional class was split over a range of perceptible factors in Colonial Bengal. For example, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, in his Autobiography, truly pointed out the disjunction between the pleaders who had BA/MA, BL (Bachelor of Law) degrees and the Mukhtars though all of them practiced law in the same small town. (Nirad’s father was a Mukhtar—the Mukhtars did not have university degrees but they had legal training and government license to practice law in lower courts). I came across those lawyer-Mukhtar distinctions even decades after Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s time in Kishorganj: I remember that a friend of mine, a Mukhtar by profession, complained about this disparity even in the 1970s. Neither Nirad nor my father was a trained social scientist, but what they observed in their lifetime are still pertinent to scholarly studies of the identity battles. For Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the middle class in Kishorganj’s insular community was driven by the Hindu-Muslim tension, the professional nagging between the full-fledged pleaders and the Mukhtars, and the underground Swadeshi activities, only naming a few of those divisive forces. But there were also other dynamics that shaped the rural/small town civil societies–—they were not always accommodating, and more than a few of those disruptive characteristics lingered in my village even at this writing. The power structure in Kishorganj, Nirad’s home town in early 20th century, had some resemblance to what my father (me too but later) observed in Kaliganj through the 1940s. Kaliganj is still only a Thana/Upazila (sub-district) town; the highest-ranking bureaucrat that my father and I usually saw in our neighborhood in the past was the Circle Officer (CO). Usually the CO enjoyed the rank of a sub-deputy/deputy Magistrate in the bureaucratic hierarchy and the local leaders habitually yielded to his decision. An old time Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), who mostly came from the privileged (British) Indian Civil Service (I.C.S.) cadre, headed the sub-divisional administration—Nirad C. Chaudhuri mentioned
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such officers posted in his hometown. Whoever could directly contact the SDO/ deputy/sub-deputy magistrates in a sub-divisional town was considered as important and influential person. The judges commanded a solid respect; still the police officers were, in real terms, the next in hierarchy in the smaller towns and villages. However, there were only a few arenas of politics: the municipality, the local government bodies, and the school/college committees where the town’s influential people were on the go in Kishorganj, a small town largely surrounded by rural areas. But in Kaliganj, the Union Board (Council) was the recognized venue of village politics, and the other platform was the Kaliganj High School management committee. Both the forums had periodic Hindu-Muslim frictions in Colonial Bengal. The panchayat of five village elders discussed earlier in this chapter represented the informal grassroots leadership divided by different religious communities. In contrast to the Muslim backwardness affecting the community’s presence in the larger rural leadership establishments, the Hindu bhadraloks were more prominent in Kaliganj until the closing years of Colonial Bengal. When the town was the seat of the Munsef Court, a yield of lawyers, clerks, physicians, and petty bureaucrats lived there. Their scions preserved the continuity of an educated Hindu middle class in the neighborhood. It was mostly a group of Hindu bhadralok that took initiative to set up the Kaliganj High School (1889) for educating their children (earlier the town had only a middle school). However, there were subtle differences between the Hindu bhadralok, who were the local scions, and those Hindu professionals and those who came from outside to work for the old Munsef Court, the high school, or the government offices but settled in Kaliganj: they were perceived as the external implants. The main difference between the local Hindu elite and the migrant bhadralok was not difficult to identify; beyond their home estates, the latter group did not usually have rent-receiving interests or own cultivable land; they were predominantly the educated people with skills—the salaried individuals dependent on their jobs/pensions. The Munsefpur neighborhood of the town was bound by an “unwritten social contract” of who would be the welcome residents there and who would not be welcome to buy properties or live there. I remember that all the leading families in Munsefpur were not Brahmins; there was one large Hindu talukdar family with a huge homestead; it’s exclusive space for the annual Puja was a sign of wealth in the village, but it was not a Brahmin family. Occasionally, I visited the Rai Saheb’s house in Munsefpur (I cannot recall the full name of my friend there). I believe that the gentleman ran the local school’s management committee for a stretch of time; he was a recognized community leader and owned the town’s Abgari shop
Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites | 131 selling alcohol and opium. I cannot precisely remember if he was a Brahmin; one of his grandsons was my class friend—he shared his detective novels with me. An orthodox pundit resided in that neighborhood; both Hindus and Muslims went to consult him for horoscope. There was also a Hindu physician who lived in that neighborhood until possibly 1950. Most of the residents in that area of the town, I heard, belonged to the Kayastha caste—a few of them were active in village council and the school management committee. Several well-known Hindus in Kaliganj—teachers, lawyers and doctors—originally migrated from the Bikrampur, a historical region of the old Dhaka district, recognized as the habitat of numerous highly educated and successful professionals with all-Bengal and all-India reputations. Kaliganj, barely 24 miles by railway from Dhaka, was a healthy small town by the bank of the Lakhya! In some way, it was the “second capital” of the zamindars of Bhawal; in importance of the zamindari estate, it was only next to Joydebpur where the Raja lived, but most of his family presumably lived in Calcutta from the earlier years of the 20th century. I remember there was a large kutchery (out house/office) of the Bhawal zamindars with a naib (manager) as the head of the establishment. He was known by his own status until the old zamindari system went downhill. A couple of elephants occasionally carried the zamindar’s estate managers to Joydebpur—it marked the importance of such people in the village community. Whenever a visitor came on the back of an elephant, people would cheerfully guess that someone important was visiting the town. Few Muslims resided in the Munsefpur sector of the town; it was a virtually protected neighborhood of the Hindu bhadralok even several years after 1947. I had a few friends from Munsefpur whom I visited from time to time even when the town’s Hindu population began to plummet. Theirs were mostly joint families; by the time, I visited my friends in those houses most of the younger and educated members of those households were employed outside our town.
Notes 1. See Rashiduzzaman, M. Politics and Administration in the Local Councils: A Study of Union and District Councils in East Pakistan, Oxford, 1968 pages 4–5. [It was based on a study of 129 randomly selected Union (village) Councils in all the districts of East Pakistan excluding Sylhet and Chittagong Hill Tracts during 1965–66]. 2. One exceptional account was Mohammad Abdul Majid’s AKBARUDDIN 1895– 1978, Bangla Academy, 1987 in which the author pointed out that Akbaruddin, a noted dramatist, writer and social worker fled West Bengal (India) from the wrath of communal violence in 1949 leaving his properties and job behind.
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3. Rashiduzzaman, M., “Election Politics in Pakistan Villages,” Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies, Leicester University Press, November 1966, Vol. IV. No. 3. 4. Please note that the legally constituted Village Panchayat system (under the 1870 Act) was not identical with the informal and pre-existing village panchayat of five elders mentioned earlier.
Muslim Identity Imaginations “Never Apologize for Being a Muslim!”
I had an amazing run into Muslim identity imagination in the second half of 1960s, which too had its historical roots in Bengal under the British Raj. I had an unusual student then: his name was Faizul Huq (Faizul). Occasionally, he shared his dream to follow his illustrious father A. K. Fazlul Huq (Fazlul Huq/Huq), the first premier of Bengal in 1937, by pursuing a political career for himself. Faizul entered politics while he was fresh from the University—he became a law maker, a cabinet minister, and a freelance writer in Bangladesh along with his share of political controversies until he sadly died at an early age. Once I informally asked him: “Did your father ever give you any message for your life while he was still alive?” He said: “Yes Sir,” he once told me: “Never apologize for being a Muslim!” Was it only a message from a father to his son? Did the octogenarian leader foresee that Muslim identity would still be a haunting issue in Bangladesh and beyond? Faizul once gave me a sparsely written diary of his father going back to the 1940s when the Hindu-Muslim conflict reached a bloody climax in Calcutta and several other parts of Bengal and the neighboring provinces as well. Essentially, I came across that handwritten observation (never apologize for being a Muslim!) in that diary too. Whenever he remarked on the communal riots, Fazlul Huq’s notes ran like this: “What is at the bottom of the incident?” I no longer remember the
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specific dates and all the comments in that diary, which I did not have in my possession at the time of this writing. Leo Tolstoy’s metaphor in his Hadji Murad that the Chechen resistance was like a broken thistle that defied human annihilation is still germane to the battle of identities all over the world: in one form or the other1. To recap here: Bangladesh went through three unprecedented history-shattering events—the 1905 and 1947 partitions and its 1971 swift but bloody transition into an independent state after a violent war. I could, perhaps, bring another spiny allegory to the Bangladeshi identity framework: a prickly weed called the khure kata multiplies profusely with little care in Bangladesh, and even just chopping it off at the top would not stop its growth. It would rise from its roots again set to pinch anyone who touched it! Given its history in Bangladesh, Muslim identity, over the sweep of the times past, had the khure kata-like buoyancy. This memory-oriented account is intertwined with the unyielding identity struggles unfolding over multiple “historical waves:” they essentially shaped Bangladeshi political legacy since Muslim identity continues as a stubborn issue throughout the subcontinent and beyond. My grandfather’s youthful hustle apparently brushed aside identity and religiosity, but as he got older, such pressures, time and again, challenged his beliefs that, sometimes, put him on the brink. In his failing health, Nuri, his wife, exhorted him to come back to the “straight path” of Islam—prayer, fasting, and a host of other rituals that accompany it in private and public life. Afsar, a Maulvi teacher, his younger friend, was less strident in his push for religious practices. The old habit of attaching a Sri title before Muslim names and ignoring lungi as an acceptable dress for school had come under a sharp focus by the time Alabdi, my grandfather, was mature and my father was at school. Gradually, the pattern of adding a Sri to male Muslim names disappeared as the Muslims baulked at that practice largely imposed by the powerful bhadralok in Bengal. We saw in Chapters 2 and 3 that under family pressure, Alabdi’s religious mends went back and forth depending on the personal, political, and social circumstances. What is more, identity search, in the light of this tale, could fracture at a given time and then refocus with a slow, uneven but steady pace across the political and social landscape. The Chechans, it appears, fought for their self-determination with a liberal/secular posture in the past, but in more recent times, they were plausibly more encouraged by their Muslim awareness. The linguistically defined secular identity of Bangladesh has been different from the religiosity associated with Pakistan throughout the pre-1971 era, and yet, the new professedly non-religious state did not produce a passionately secular Bangladesh civil society. Now the riveting historical experiences underlying this tale would throw fresh light on the
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 135 unyielding polarity between secularism and a widely shared Muslim identity in Bangladesh that trails the Colonial Bengal’s political and social history. It mattered little when he fell short of strictly following the sharia or how he dressed himself—dhoti or lungi—my grandfather was still a Muslim to himself, and in the eyes of most Muslims, Hindus, and Christians too. To his unexciting perceptions and identity encounters, the spiritual and cultural fault lines were, now and then, unclear. However, one reality hurt him; when he went to the zamindar’s local office to pay land revenue, he would remain standing for a long time: usually, he shared a long wooden bench with other Muslims or several scheduled caste Hindus. Sometimes, he gave half of the floor space (pati or hay-covered) to fellow Muslims. The Dhars, the largest among the relatively smaller landlords in our locality, had an open house during the Durga puja where all were invited and served with snacks. Either those handouts came in small containers made with dried jack fruit tree leaves or they sat under a shady tree where vegetarian food was served on pieces of banana leaves. Not surprising to him, the Muslims were assembled in a separate spot, at a reasonable distance away from the Hindu worshippers relishing their nibbles. In a few instances, the Hindus avoided a hand-to-hand transaction in the exchange of silver rupees. A cane or wooden holder was used for this purpose—the money was picked up from the container. My grandfather knew the reason for the “separate treatment” for him—he was a Muslim; it was this reason for which most high-caste Hindus avoided any real or potential body contact or sharing the same space for eating or drinking. Such degrading actions had emotional repercussions for my grandparents and my parents’ generations, which slowly exacerbated the deteriorating Hindu-Muslim discord spread over a century in Colonial Bengal. It was possibly in 1946–1947, our school Headmaster’s daughter got married; my father, among others, was invited to the wedding dinner. I faintly remembered him telling his dinner experiences to my mother years after that dealing. He took his food at the verandah of the Headmaster’s home along with his Muslim colleagues; the Hindu guests were seated differently, not sharing the same ground. I remember that the Headmaster lived in a nice house on the north bank of the Lakhya. Partly, the Muslim identity consciousness was a reaction toward the Hindu community’s social distancing from the Muslims. What amounted to a separate treatment of the Muslims by the Hindus, ironically, made my grandfather, father, and their friends more conscious about their Muslim awareness in their lives. Being treated as the “different” and the “other” was a palpable humiliation that my grandfather, most of the time, tolerated mutely. My father too endured the “separateness” during his student days, but
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in his working life, he, seemingly, responded by publicly wearing achkan, shirt, pajama, and red Fez (already discussed elaborately in Chapter 4), and by becoming a “visible” Muslim. He tried to prove that he had his own “roots” to stand upon: it was a matter of his izzat (honor) to demonstrate his own self. What he did was shared among the educated and professional Muslims from around the 1920s or from earlier times. Nirad C. Chaudhuri seemingly maintained that such “separate” contacts with the Muslims came from the fact that the Hindus were more educated and prosperous while the bulk of the Muslims faltered2. Notwithstanding my respect for his intellectual virtuosity, I feel that Nirad’s writings pushed him near Muslim revulsion. He contributed little to bridge the prevailing Hindu-Muslim faultline. Kishorganj had a small but thriving educated Muslim community during that author’s time, I came to learn from a couple of memoirs of well-known people (Abul Mansur Ahmed and Dr. M.O. Ghani) who hailed from the old Mymensingh district that included Kishorganj in the past. Outside his town, the Dewan family members traced their origin to renowned Isha Khan, who was one of the dozen or more of the powerful rulers of Bengal before the Mughals conquered the province. He was a Muslim, possibly from a mixed ancestry, but he fought against the Mughals when they invaded Bengal. To me, Nirad made minimal references to the foremost Muslim leaders of his time in Kishorganj besides recounting the Hindu-Muslim tension for which the obvious aspersion fell on the local Muslims. Conceivably, he did not readily identify with Muslim legacies of his native region, but he was not alone in slighting the Muslims. Many of the Muslim peasants and farmers, largely the poor ryots (tenants), were habitually looked down upon by the Hindu gentry: worse still, this tendentious Muslim profile seeped into various popular fiction and non-fiction Bengali books in Colonial Bengal, which my father resented—more discussion on this issue will follow later in this narrative. The Hindus and Muslims lived side by side, but they failed to forge a common identity at the grassroots communities. Consequently, the chasm between the two communities were widened by the changing dynamics between the two world wars, my father regretted from time to time. The Hindus were angry, Nirad C. Chaudhuri argued, because of the conquests, conversion, or repression, and whatever harms were, allegedly, inflicted upon them over centuries of earlier Muslim rule. Much later though, such anti-Muslim accusation was hurled by V.S. Naipaul, the famed Nobel laurate too. Evidently, Nirad C. Chaudhuri ignored the reality that the Hindu bhadralok possibly defined the Muslims in a way that they could possibly perpetuate their hold over them as they wanted—not only through the zamindars and money lenders, but as well through their allies in the bureaucracy, law, business, and the
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 137 intellectual community. I know that my father was irritated by the sweeping accusations against the past Muslim rulers in India that created a virtual mythology of Muslim persecution of the Hindus. In my father’s vision, throughout the pre-British rule in Bengal, the mutual coexistence between the predominantly Muslim rulers and the overwhelming Hindu subjects was credibly sustained by the Sufi pull of humanitarian love spanned over the genre of spiritually inspired folk songs and the punthi literature; they produced a unique blend of cultures in Bengal. It was a demeanor of unity out of diversity—a social equilibrium, which clasped the polity together even while the dynastic upheavals continued during the long pre-British centuries. And yet, the role of the Sufis and the punthi writers in Bengal’s social history were sparingly accredited in the mainstream intellectual establishments, my father occasionally muttered. A small group of contemporary historians including Andrew Truschke and Rajeev Kinra have presented more positive accounts of the cultural achievements and scholarly understanding between the Muslim rulers and the Sanskritized Hindu intellectual elite. The medieval-period Bengali, blended with Persian (Farsi), Arabic, Sanskrit, Prakrit, and even Portuguese languages, largely a Persianized literary legacy marked the so-called Muslim Bangla in the Bengali cultural history. However, medieval Bengali was not the sole monopoly of the Muslim writers. Later the rise of suddha (correct/standard) Bangla since the 19th-century Literary Renaissance deconstructed the old Bengali mostly by eliminating the Persian, Arabic, and Urdu words. My father had an inner literary flair that periodically sparked—he was a contributor of essays in his school magazine. He added that there were still numerous Persian, Arabic, Urdu, English, and even Portuguese words (occasionally, he pointed his finger at table, chair, our verandah, and a certain food items to remind us that there were still foreign words in our mother tongue). Even after the Mughal Empire collapsed under the East India Company, the remnants of the old Indo-Persian culture lingered in different parts of India including Colonial Bengal. Realistically, the Farsi-flavored literary culture was more nurtured at personal and family echelons during my father’s adult life, but not in most academic and intellectual forums except the Islamic learning centers in the rural areas and the cities. What Nirad C. Chaudhuri characterized as the Hindu elite’s social distance from the Muslims were the real-life mortifications for most Muslims. With an overwhelming presence of the locally influential Hindus in the school administration, it was difficult for my father or any other fellow Muslim teachers to establish a Muslim specialty in the prevalent mode of history teaching. The world of Bengali bhadralok was also typically closed to the Hindu lower castes. A classmate,
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who hailed from a well-to-do kaibarta (fisherman) family was not considered a bhadralok by the higher-caste Hindus. More than just a Hindu-Muslim sensitivity, adult Christians had their own identity discernments; most of them, I remember, did not cheerfully claim to be Bengalis or Indians or Pakistanis in both pre1947 and post-1947 days when I socialized with them. I can dimly recall that one or two of my Christian contemporaries occasionally bragged that they belonged to the Rajar Jati (nationality of the King, meaning that they fitted to the same Christian religion of the British Royalty). I remember one Christian family preferred to converse in rudimentary English among its members although they were fluent in Bengali; possibly it was because they claimed to be the descendants of Anglo-European ancestors, who switched from indigo business to small talukdari estates. The family had landholding interests, but most of its members worked for the Bengal Railways as clerks and ticket checkers: they leased their cultivable land to Muslim and Christian farmers. It was widely known that the local Churches held a tilt over the neighboring Christians’ identity formulation. Unlike the Arabic-Persian flavored Muslim names, a few Christian men I remember from my younger days had a combination of Bengali first name with a Christian last name (like Costa), a kind of dual identity. And the primary names of boys and girls were similar with the nicknames normally used by the Hindu males and females—in those days, the Christian names were typically different from the Muslim names for both men and women. The identity insights were no longer just personal and family perceptions; they were gradually politicized and spilled in the public arena and the political lexicon of Colonial Bengal and British India. I did not see any Muslim students in the school singing Bande Mataram! My father too remembered the Muslim reluctance to sing Bande Mataram (Glory to Mother—comparing India with mother deity); it went back to his student days. To the Muslims, chanting that national anthem implied a type of Hindu idolatry—that assumption apparently bonded the Muslims in my village with the larger British Indian Muslim community that was ordinarily hesitant to chant Bande Mataram. The all-Indian nationalism was briefly invoked in my school only when a visiting Congress leader (from Dhaka or Calcutta) made a rousing speech, I heard from the seniors. My father and my teachers too recounted those events in course of their periodic storytelling in the classes; it was an accepted tradition in school education to tell local, national anecdotes or mythical stories. But the visits of such Congress leaders were rare as the Pakistan movement picked up in the 1940s. The earliest anti-British gatherings were held in Kaliganj when hostility to the (Bengal) division was energized after 1905. Oral narratives recollected that Muslims generally avoided such meetings
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 139 rallied against that partition of Bengal. By the 1940s, the Muslim League leaders openly pressed their version of Muslim nationalism in recurring meetings in the school football grounds—the Hindus, not surprisingly, avoided such gatherings but they keenly followed the contents of public speeches by the local and visiting speakers. I remembered it for a long time that in 1946 or early in 1947, a young college student made a passionate speech at a public meeting in which he said that in the all-India panorama, the Muslims were a minority but “it was a community of tigers and lions”! That speech offended my Hindu friends as well as the Hindu teachers in the school. Recalling my father, and surfing a few accessible biographies, most Hindu bhadraloks were unhappy about the joint anti-British resistance where the seemingly extra-territorial Khilafat question surfaced prominently. He remembered well that locally, the Hindu leaders discouraged the Muslims to join the Khilafat movement. Once the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in 1924, the Indian Khilafatists, possibly along with the greater part of the Muslim community, felt like the rebels without a cause to fight for. At our and the adjoining villages, the Muslim opinion carved up—the more religious groups felt that the Muslims should “go back to their roots;” they must be “true” Muslims to assert themselves. A growing belief ascended upon the Muslims that the only way to their unity was through Islam. Abul Mansur Ahmad, an elder statesman and indeed, a contemporary of my father, made the same reflection about what he saw in Mymensingh and in Calcutta where he had his early professional stints3. Our local school Maulvi inspired his Muslim colleagues, friends, and students to say their prayer regularly and to be dressed like a Muslim, and I believe that my father, to an extent, came under his spell. The Muslims did not find any other banner but their own religion—my father from time to time unwrapped such events from the past. A neighbor, a middle school teacher in another village who was near my father’s age, also recounted his frustrations stemming from that era. He gave up school for the Khilafat movement when he was possibly at the first year of College, but he did not see any tangible political achievement from his sacrifice. A distant relative from my mother’s side, I remember from the 1960s, had a different viewpoint: he still believed that non-cooperation with the British Raj was the only effective option to get rid of the foreign rule much earlier but the Western-educated Muslims and bulk of the Hindu elite did not like to go that radical way. Still, the Tablig Jamaat, a reformist movement among the Sunni Muslims, was started in Mewat, India in 1926 to counter the Hindu revivalist postures that scared Muslims in India. The Tablig advocates urged Muslims to observe the sharia; their message was not wholly different from the other traditional Muslim instruction, but the
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Tablig was formally non-political. Its campaign soon spread to Bengal including our areas while my father was an adult; Bangladesh still hosts the largest Tablig congregation annually, which is supported by the mainstream parties. The Muslim leaders’ empathy for the ryots and peasants became obvious rather erratically—a largely Muslim party, the Krishak Proja (Peasants and Tenants) Party (KPP), slogged in the face of the old and established Muslim League Party. Although there were a few Hindu supporters of the new outfit, the KPP was mostly backed by the politicized Muslim farmers, peasants, and ryots who, in the past, squirmed under the zamindars and the money lenders. Nevertheless, the best part of the new-fangled peasant-inclined leaders were the younger Muslim lawyers, heirs of the landholding families, members of the ulema, a few journalists, and educationists. A.K. Fazlul Huq (1873–1962) (Fazlul Huq/Huq) was the most conspicuous Muslim leader in Bengal by the second half of the 1930s, according to most observers of Bengal politics. As the innovative Muslim leaders drove for land reforms, my father’s generation sighed a sense of relief. The peasant-oriented pressure groups wanted the end of the old zamindari system accompanied by a substantive debt relief to the peasants though it was not possible to accomplish that goal easily. Predictably, the zamindars and the big money lenders—by and large, the bhadralok opposed such reforms that, they feared, would mainly benefit the Muslim peasantry. The so-called (Sarda) Child Marriage Bill (1929) was opposed by the Hindus and Muslims on their respective religious and social grounds. According to that law, the minimum marriage age for the girls was fixed at 14 and for the boys at 18. My own recollection of this subject is largely based on the Central Legislative Assembly Debates on the bill that I studied for my dissertation. The legislative deliberation showed a measure of common Hindu-Muslim stance—both sides joining hands from their own religious and social perspectives. The legislation was, however, proposed by a non-partisan member of the Central Legislature albeit with official blessings: he was Sir Harbilash Sarda, himself a Hindu. The law, popularly called the Sarda Act, was amended in 1937, which allowed that the Muslim girls could be married before they were 15 provided their parents agreed. Numerous marriages were transacted quickly before those laws went into effect. My parents were married in 1933. My mother, periodically, referred to the Sarda law date as the ainer basar (year of the law). That was a sort of remembering the time preceding her marriage! My father recollected that that his Hindu colleagues at the school were even more concerned about the law because their daughters’ marriages involved dowries and horoscope of the bride and groom; moreover, childhood marriage was socially accepted and, usually, they couldn’t
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 141 rush their ceremonies without cash in hand. The Muslims challenged the law on the grounds that the sharia law of marriage would be breached by the Sarda Act. Its 1937 amendment seemingly allowed the Muslims as well as the Hindus a little flexibility about the matrimonial age restrictions under that law. Manifestly, the 1935 Indian constitutional changes, legislative reforms, and the continuation of the communal electorate (the so-called Communal Award) assured a Muslim preeminence in Bengal politics; the provinces got more autonomy under the new law. The Muslim majority provinces brought various Muslim premiers and ministers in the fresh provincial cabinets, an unprecedented phenomenon in British India. My politicized relatives lost no time to bring up those streams of Bengal politics even in private gatherings of the 1940s that lingered through 1950s and beyond. In fact, there are several political history books, memoirs, newspaper columns, and dissertations on this subject. When the old KPP (then known as the KSP—the Krishak Sramik Party) joined the Jugta Front (alliance of the major opposition parties better known as the United Front) that won the East Pakistan provincial assembly election in 1954, its leaders with Fazlul Huq at the top cashed the past glory of the party in Colonial Bengal from the late 1930s. His earlier stint as the chief minister was still a political resource in post-Colonial East Pakistan. Fazlul Huq was still widely hailed as the Sher-e-Bangla (Tiger of Bengal), a populist resonance from Colonial Bengal of the 1930s and 1930s. But in the late 1930s Fazlul Huq and later H. S. Suhrawardy (chief minister of Bengal 1946–1947) symbolized a kind of fear for the Hindu leaders although both had personal friendship with many Hindu leaders. The pitiable “Muslim Other,” to most Hindu elites in the not-so-distant past, surely became their “Muslim Fear” in the 1930s though the phenomenon was not entirely new. My father’s generation of Bengali Muslims in Calcutta, I gathered, was visibly confident that Fazlul Huq (Huq) achieved a remarkable victory in politics; they positively sought more power and influence. My mother-in-law recollected that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the East Bengali Muslims, working in Calcutta, took pride in Huq’s widely recognized leadership. In her remembrances, it was also an era when the Muslim writers, singers, and painters who later became the acclaimed artists in East Pakistan were warmly welcomed by Calcutta’s Muslim community. Fazlul Huq’s elevation as the provincial chief minister was indeed a great news in Dhaka and in the district headquarters of Colonial Bengal; indeed, he made his mark in All-India politics since he was elected to that position. But at the village level, my father did not notice any great enthusiasm among his Hindu colleagues about such an epoch-making event. My senior colleagues at the Dhaka University, who
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were then students when Fazlul Huq was the provincial chief minister, remembered that there was a disagreement between the Hindu and Muslim students on the question of giving Fazlul Huq a rousing reception at the university. The disagreement over giving a big welcome to Fazlul Huq was disappointing for the Muslim students; it would possibly have been overlooked in normal times, but it really exacerbated the Hindu-Muslim distrust at a gravely sensitive time before the demand for Pakistan exploded in the next few years. For the length of those years from 1930, periodic communal strife rocked Dhaka City although a few of my older relatives traced the city’s Hindu-Muslim violence to the 1920s or even before that. Such conflicts, from time to time, spawned unshakeable dread throughout our rural areas. But the worst apprehension was that the Hindu-Muslim dissensions could lead to a partition of the country when the British would leave, and worst sectarian massacres could follow in the wake. Dhaka City and the immediate region had a strong Muslim majority; in case of a partition, many Hindus might leave, for one reason or the other: indeed, it was the familiar discussion point among many who hailed from the Hindu middle class. For a typical Bengali Hindu bhadralok in the Muslim-majority districts in the early years of 1940s, the sweltering queries were—where would I live in the future, where should I look for a job, and what would happen to the real estates in case the country is split and when I might be on the wrong side of the religiously defined borders? A couple of my father’s colleagues were life-long bachelors and the school’s Hindu hostel’s guest rooms were their virtual homes; they wondered to my father: “Where would we go if there is a partition?” Once the demand for Pakistan reached its high point, a few Hindu students who came to my father for private coaching—mostly the sons of fishermen, carpenters, and small shopkeepers—were genuinely concerned about their future. They did not belong to the privileged bhadralok class; they were terrified about the consequences of the impending partition of Bengal, which would possibly drive most of the educated Hindus to India. Beyond the familiar Hindu-Muslim identity differences, the Hindu minorities had their tangible fears in the prospective Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim state. While the Muslims, in my ancestral neighborhood, were jovial about the prospects in Pakistan, the Hindu community’s reactions reflected their deep anxiety and uncertainty. Two main responses, expressed or hidden, were presumed in my village and the nearest ones well into the 1940s; a few local Hindu leaders known to be the Congress Party supporters then veered to the Hindu Mahasabha, widely believed to be an anti-Muslim party, according to the words of mouth well into the 1950s. Apparently, Munsefpur, an all-Hindu enclave, was the hub of contests between the
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 143 alleged supporters of the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha parties respectively. The Mahasabha’s strong line against the Muslims gave the Hindus a counterpoint against the Congress Party believed to be “soft” to the Muslims. But, in course of time, senior friends at the school recalled that the Mahasabha supporters were growing even among the teachers while several Congress supporters were still active although it was not disclosed in public so much. My father did not like the Hindu Mahasabha and its leaders for their anti-Muslim stance; he was open about it. He recalled his personal displeasure when Fazlul Huq once made a shortlived political deal with Shamay Prasad Mukherjee, the Mahasabha leader. A few among my senior colleagues recalled that the short-lived Huq-Shamay Prasad coalition (1940–1943) was Fazlul Huq’s last ditch attempt to keep Bengal united through a Hindu-Muslim partnership. But my father did not like the Huq-Shamay partnership. It is a long gap of time since those days; personally, I cannot now vouch precisely for who did what in the local Hindu community’s turnarounds between the Congress and the Mahasabha. From my earlier research, however, I recall that in most legislative elections of the 1930s, the Hindu Mahasabha made substantial gains in Bengal. For example, in the 1934 Central Legislative elections and in the 1945 provincial legislature elections, numerous (non-Muslim) parliamentary seats from Bengal were won by the Hindu Mahasabha-inclined candidates. So, the reversal of fortunes between the Congress and the Mahasabha at the all-Bengal level was surely reflected in my rural arena that my family elders recollected. I have had a scrap of recollections that the followers of Subash Bose evidently increased among the younger generation of the Hindu locality; with hindsight, it was another loop of politics in our town besides the respective supporters of the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha. Bose was believed to be one of the few strong leaders supported by a host of Muslim comrades in the armed struggle against the British Raj. It was well known that with his Azad Hind Force, Bose sided with the Japanese military, which occupied Burma: that news surely reached our village community. And it was rumored that Bose was prepared to launch attacks on India while it was widely speculated and shared during those days. We heard stories that Japanese spies were caught in the Cox’s Bazar beach near Chittagong. Later, the events took another turn when Bose was killed in an aircraft accident although it was vigorously disputed by many over the following decades. I remembered that my father had a few old copies of the then Bengal Government’s propaganda leaflets declaring that Bose was killed in an aeroplane crash. The Hindu bhadraloks of the town were still confident that Netaji Subash Bose was still alive. It was around that time, at the urging of my friend—I only remember
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his last name …. Sen Gupta, I joined a group called the Mahajati Mandir (temple of the great nation) late in 1946 or early in 1947; it was a small personal library shared among friends. Another classmate Shahid and possibly his cousin as well joined that group. I can hazily think of another Muslim boy who joined this group. It was, in fact, the outhouse of Sen Gupta’s wealthy grandfather who was well known in local politics; the British government bestowed the Rai Saheb title on him for his community services. We met there during the weekend, mainly to chat about the detective stories, but my senior friends spent more time to praise Subash Bose and urged us not to believe in the British hype that the leader was dead. We had a physical instructor in the Mahajati Mandir group, a 9th or 10th grader, I believe—he helped us in practicing parade and saluting the Subash Bose portrait. I never said anything to my father about this Mandir, but once Shahid (his father, our local post master, knew more about the local and all-Indian political trends from the newspapers and chit chats with the local colleagues) told me that if the police knew about our activities, we could be in great trouble. Since then, most of us dropped out and by that time we passed the middle of 1947: Sen Gupta, my young friend suddenly left Kaliganj for India, I believe. I could never find out about him since then though I made personal queries about him until the mid-1950s. I must say that my friend was politically more astute than me, and at that age! Though a Muslim, I was not so much thinking about my “Muslim nationalism” and the raging campaign for Pakistan, a Muslim state. Knowingly or unknowingly, I drifted into Bose’s nationalism; it was quite different from the prevailing Muslim sensitivity in those days! I wonder if it was the result of my ignorance or a kind of shifting of identities that probably happen in most people’s life. Whenever I met Shahid, my classmate from 6th grade, later at the Dhaka University in the mid-1950s, we remembered our time as supporters of Subash Bose! By the middle of 1940s, my village community came face to face with communal pull, but I did not know about an all-out Hindu-Muslim bloodletting in our area. Family elders, however, remembered that the Hindu-Muslim equations were already sliding from the later years of the 1930s when the WWII was knocking at the doors, but the unambiguous demand for a separate Muslim state was not yet there: the transition of Muslim identity into a demand for Pakistan evolved in the 1940s. But I did not see a religious war in its wake. To supplement my family experiences from that time, I have borrowed from two gentlemen, several years older than me but personally known as the successful professionals from my neighboring areas: Mahbubur Rahman and Dr. Rezaul Haque Khandaker. In
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 145 their autobiographies and personal discussions with me, they candidly recorded the stressful interlude from the late 1930s into 1940s. Both the gentlemen lived in Dhaka City and in their villages, hardly 15/25 miles from my family home. Not surprisingly, the Hindu bhadraloks suffered from of an appalling sense of loss after 1947—and they were consumed in fear, exhaustion, and mostly unprepared to live under the anticipated Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Sensing waves of popular discontents against the talukdars and mahajans (money lenders), the bhadraloks feared an anti-Hindu rampage in and around Dhaka although my family did not recollect any massive bloodletting in our adjoining villages or in the local town immediately before or after 1947. Often the Hindu teachers and local officers sent their families away to safer distances, sometimes to Calcutta and to Agartala. I had a math teacher: whenever, the Hindu-Muslim tension spiked, he took his family to Tinsukia, Assam, where his son-in-law and eldest daughter lived. I and my friends felt sorry for the pressure and helplessness that he suffered months before and after the 1947 partition. He sometimes talked to my father about his fear and anxiety with two teenage daughters and my father was always sympathetic to his predicaments under the circumstances. Most Hindu gentlemen and the local traders maintained good relations with the town’s police station and local politicians as a protection against the feared looting and rioting. There was still a modicum of cooperation between the Hindus and Muslims in our neighborhood; although a small town, Kaliganj had a lively cultural life. While passing near the Hindu households in the evening, the sound of songs and music floated in the air, and the Hindu boys and girls were at the forefront of singing and dancing in the local cultural gatherings in the last few years of the 1940s and well into 1950s. In open-air theatres also, the main actors were the Hindu teachers, doctors, or just amateur stage performers—they did not leave our area immediately after the division. I remember that the event organizers were frequently Muslims, but most performers were from the local Hindu community. It was late in 1947 or early in 1948 when the Nawab Sirajodowlla drama was staged right in the middle of the Kaliganj bazaar. The Nawab, the last independent ruler of Bengal before the British East India Company defeated him and gradually took over the real authority, became a symbol of pride shared by the Muslims and Hindus because he stood up against the British East India Company. I still remember that a (Muslim) young man got the lead role without much of acting experience in the past. I believe the sentiment was that the drama’s title position should go to a Muslim because Sirajodowlla was a Muslim. Accompanied by senior cousins and neighbors, I watched that drama—and there was frequent clapping for the lead actor. One of my elder cousins from the extended family was also involved
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in local theatre and cultural activities; he was also a source of the town’s gossips. The young man who played the title role was my father’s former student—later, he became a successful local politician. His son, whom I met a few years back, also followed his father’s footsteps as an elected chairman of the local council. On Muslim identity imagination, I have another narrative when, in 1962, I was doing my research through the British Indian legislative debates from 1921 to 1947. Several Muslim members of that apex legislative body in New Delhi (there were 30 elected Muslim and 3 nominated Muslim members), during the interwar years, were inspired by the secular/liberal paradigm of the Indian National Congress (Congress) Party. The rest were more inclined to protect the sole Muslim interests; they were not so trustful of the Congress. A few among those Muslim lawmakers feared that when the British would leave the country, the independent and sovereign India might become a virtual Hindu Raj. While in Bengal, the Hindus feared the growing Muslim upper hand in the Muslim-majority province, the Muslims also dreaded that in All-Indian politics, the Hindus would overshadow them in the future. For the most part, the Muslims looked for a sense of confidence and protection against such a dismal prospect in post-independent India though it was still a distant possibility then. From the legislative debates, it was not difficult to surmise that most Muslim lawmakers were less than confident about the Congress leaders’ ability and commitment to protect the Muslim interests in the prospective independent India. Not surprisingly, I saw that apprehension expressed by a few legislators in the Indian legislative debates long before the 1947 division. A lawmaker Khan Bahadur Zahiruddin (he was an elected/ nominated member from Bengal) made a dramatic statement on the Assembly floor on the March 23, 19214. With an allusion to the growing Hindu-Muslim conflicts, he observed: “… while the branches of the two side-by-side trees might have intermingled at the top, the two trunks have remained separate as ever.5” Such a statement had forebodings for the future, although it could not be more “communal” when the Muslim Khilafatists joined hands with the Indian National Congress to make a common cause against the British Raj. I saw two dimensions of that statement connecting this work. Though it was then a peripheral voice, it was still an eerie precursor of the subsequent demands for a separate Muslim state curved out of India. But the other perception was politically more pertinent: it indicated that Muslim identity inspiration in Bengal, even in a small town, resonated in the larger Indian political forums, which I will converse below. Jinnah, however, did not use overtly communal rhetoric in the legislative debates during the 1920s and 1930s.
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 147 That old statement in the British Indian central legislative body carried me to my father’s recollection of a village maulvi teacher who reminded my grandfather that the Hindus and Muslims should peacefully live next to each other, but their roots would still be different because of their respective religious beliefs, cultural norms, and rituals. That was probably sometimes at the beginning of the 20th century because my grandfather died in 1912. Barely more than three blocks from our house, two old banyan trees stood, next to each other, bordering our neighbor’s home. I was in the 9th grade (1949) when a sudden storm uprooted one of those two trees. With faded memories about those trees since his childhood, my father carried in his mind that his father sat in the verandah of our outhouse and got religious as well as civic lessons from his younger friend Afsar. A few times, he overheard that Afsar drew upon those two old trees as an allegory to explain the Hindu-Muslim differences to my grandfather who had little formal education. The visiting gentleman enlightened my grandfather that the Hindu-Muslim relations were like the two old side-by-side trees intermingled at the top but separate at the roots. By the time (1949) my father shared that reminiscence with me, India was already divided into two countries. On reflection, I feel that what spins up at the macro-level could, now and then, possibly be instinctively foretold by ordinary people at the grassroots much earlier than their leaders at the top. I have already detailed my grandparents’ encounters in Chapters 2 and 3. Since their time, the Muslims of British Indian Bengal had two conceivable options to deal with the imbalance between their demographic majority and social underdevelopment: (a) boycott Western learning and the British Raj and opt for an uncompromising hostility as an array of radical and orthodox Muslim groups wanted or (b) empower themselves by education, compete for jobs, and assert their rights through the innovative local, provincial, and all-India political forums. Whether it was the result of exhortation by the top Indian or Bengali Muslim leaders or the outcome of their own volition, the Muslims of Bengal made slow strides toward their education and professional accomplishments: this commemorative narrative echoes the footsteps of those advances that made the Muslims more confident in undivided Bengal. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s eloquence was at its peak when he disapproved of the Muslim demands for land reforms as it threatened the Hindu landlords in East Bengal. In the second volume of his autobiography (Thy Hand …), he made no secret that he advised his sister and her family, as early as the 1920s, to leave Kishorganj and move to Calcutta to avoid the Muslim dominance in their “social and cultural” life there6. What he implied was more than politics—he grasped the growing Muslim preeminence as a threat to the Hindu culture. Such a predisposed mindset, if that was the voice of the
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Hindu elite, only worsened the Hindu-Muslim strife while identity politics was gradually taking a new turn. My father and his generation reviled the prejudiced postures of the local Hindu bhadralok though he was personally obliged to a few (Hindu) individuals for their help and cooperation. All those efforts—accepting modern education, looking for career opportunities, and participation in the electoral process—surely enhanced Muslim influence in Bengal in the urban as well as rural areas; it mattered little if individuals like my father were the full beneficiaries of that phenomenon or not. The 19th-century Renaissance that gradually swept Bengal was largely an accomplishment of the educated Hindu middle class. In consequence, a Hindu version of nationalism, literature, and culture was created by the emerging Hindu elite—commonly characterized as the bhadralok or a Babu slant of nation, society, and politics, that was exclusionary in its essence. Several other observers including a few of his contemporaries too expressed the bhadralok’s anti-Muslim negativity at the community as well as national levels. In his autobiography, late Dr. R. H. Khandaker (1928–2014), one of Bangladesh’s well-known economists, unabashedly recorded that in his hometown Sonargaon, “culture meant Hindu culture” although it was the pre-Mughal capital of Bengal, an old center of Muslim grandeur and culture for centuries7. Whether it was the colonial bureaucracy, the new professional class—lawyers, doctors, teachers and the host of literary giants, the cultural upper hand was with the Hindu elite as well. They were not ready to compromise it while the bhadraloks were, no doubt, afraid of the rising Muslim buoyancy through the elected legislatures and local councils. Overwhelmed by taxes, poverty, indebtedness, and widespread illiteracy, the Muslim ryots had limited economic opportunities for education even when they were not ideologically or religiously opposed to the British-introduced modern education. The educated leadership and a dynamic middle class were slow to surface among the East Bengali Muslims in the villages, but the swelling Muslim leaders gradually changed the landscape of identity politics. When one of the most popular Bengali novelists Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876–1938) died, the Kaliganj High School students brought out a handwritten collection of essays in his honor. I had the privilege to read it in 1949/1950 from the school library. I remember that my father argued that Sarat’s major works of fiction rarely had prominent Muslim characters, and his writings primarily replicated the Hindu society of his time. Manifestly he wrote with the large Hindu audience in mind or the Muslims were frequently beyond his literary sight. To my father and a couple of my Muslim teachers, Sarat and most of the prominent Bengali novelists virtually apportioned a “literary disenfranchisement”
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 149 of the Muslims from their creative writings in Colonial Bengal. My father’s generation’s standard of judging those writers was, however, their attitude to the Muslims and the conspicuously diminutive space they offered to them through their works. Visibly, the new crop of Bengali writers essentially ignored the cultural confluence that flourished during the long tenure of the pre-British rule; worse still, their writings hardly lessened the communal stereotypes that detached the Hindus and Muslims. Though the literary skill of those novelists was widely appreciated, their genre mostly neglected the Muslim identity as well as their cultural and social life. At the beginning of the 20th century, a young group of Muslim writers claimed that Muslim culture and identity deserved a place in Bengali literature. Those Muslim authors established themselves as the new stakeholders in the thriving Bengali literature. They also took a stand against such conservative Muslim leaders who considered Bengali an anti-Islamic language because of its Sanskrit roots. I saw old copies of magazines from the 1930s in my father’s collections; they promoted the aspiring Muslim novelists and essayists to feature Muslim experiences in Bengali literature. My father was also in charge of the school library: it gave me an easy opening to browse through numerous books and magazines. Muhammadi, Saogat, and Bul Bul were amongst the reading materials in our house. His assortment of reading materials included a couple of Dr. Mohammad Iqbal’s (1877-1938) poetry collections in Bengali. He liked Iqbal’s mystical poetry, and I remember that after 1947, our textbooks included essays on the poet and his works. Numerous Muslim writers in Bengal virtually created an alternative intellectual forum, where a band of Muslim authors published their literature. Over the years, the Muslim literary societies were active in Calcutta, Dhaka, and even in several district towns, I heard. I remember that my father had a few old copies of a literary magazine published from Sylhet. To the best of my recollections, a few of those Muslim literary groups were lively in Dhaka in the 1950s. Those magazines, their writers and authors pointed out that Muslim identity, the lived experiences, and the key cultural facets of the Muslim community were by and large ignored in the standard literary forums. A few of those journal articles, I recall, remembered that several Muslim writers were amongst the best-known authors of medieval Bengali literature, long before the Bengali literary renaissance ushered in the 19th century. I recall such literary debates continued in Dhaka during my college/university days. A few of those Muslim writers, I recall, reminded that Farsi literary styles and especially ghazals inspired some well-known Bengali poets. Sometimes, my father grabbed a Bengali poetry collection and told that the metaphors like Nightingale, rose, wine, mole on the lover’s cheek were the direct descendants of
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Persian literary expressions with spiritual implications, no matter if the poets and their readers acknowledged that influence or not. Abu Jafar Shamsuddin was a reputable writer/journalist from a nearby village who started his career in the 1930s in Calcutta and brought up the Muslim ryots’ grievances and early Muslim resistance to the East India Company through his literary works. It’s a long time since I met him once while he possibly worked for the Bangla Academy, Dhaka; his historical fictions and his autobiography, noted later, largely depicted the 19th- and early 20th-century Muslim society especially in my region8. I dare say that the modern Bengali fictions and non-fictions’ peripheral reference drove the presumed “Muslimness” of a band of Muslim writers who crafted their own expression in the thriving Bengali literature. While both Bankim and Sarat faced censure in our house, we had several volumes of their fictions. My father remembered that Sarat made anti-Muslim speeches in the 1920s at political forums which have also been cited in contemporary academic histories that my father obviously did not read when he was a narrator to me9. On Bankim Chatterjee (Bankim), I came across more than one complaint from my father and a few of his generation. Set against the famines in 1776 and the anti-British Sannyasi revolt of that period, Bankim’s Ananda Math (Abbey of Bliss), originally published in 1882, offered a Hindu-centric Indian nationalism, stirred by his Bande Mataram chant (deification of Mother Goddess), which was resented by the Muslims. A set of contemporary historical and anecdotal claims adds that the Hindu sadhu-inspired rebellion of the late 18th century was indeed a common front of the Hindu Sannyasi, and the Sufi dervishes originally spearheaded by a Madari Fakir popularly known as Majnu Shah in several districts of what is now Bangladesh. But Bankim’s Anand Math though a pioneering Bengali novel of great fame gave that Sannyasi insurrection an anti-Muslim stance. Through his popular Anand Math, Bankim injected a “Hindu identity” in the rising Indian nationalism that seeped through Bengal and larger India. Those are among the classic reasons for which Bankim was never a popular writer among the Muslims, my father reminisced. Most schools in Colonial Bengal observed the Saraswathi puja; above all, my father remembered his days as a student as well as a teacher. I did not see much of it after 1946. But most schools did not have such institutional celebration of the holiest Muslim religious occasions. Both Mahbubur Rahman and Dr. R.H. Khandaker, raised in towns not too far from my ancestral village, recorded this phenomenon in their memoirs10 tracking into the 1930s and the early 1940s. One feasible explanation of such a trivialization of the major Muslim festivals was possibly the relatively fewer Muslim students in the schools and colleges. Most
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 151 teachers were Hindus, and for several decades, the Muslims did not have the political influence to pressure the schools to observe their religious events in their premises. I heard that my father raised those issues with friends and relatives as well as the Headmaster and the few Muslim members of the School Management Committee. The handful of Muslim teachers including the school Maulvi in our school wanted to have longer Ramadan and Eid holidays, my father recalled. Such visible apathy to the Muslim rituals and practices eventually had deeper political consequences, which steadily widened the fissure between the two largest religious communities. Those questions evidently pitched the Muslim aggravation that ultimately rolled toward the history-making 1947 division—this was the sentiment expressed by the old chroniclers whom I have now and then reviewed for this work and other previous studies. In her book, Joya Chatterji exemplified the political history as well as the cultural backdrop of the 1947 Bengal partition11. Halfway through my schools in the 1940s; the Muslim teachers complained that few textbooks adequately covered Muslim history and culture in British India. It was no longer a whispering complaint! My father searched for Muslim history on his own—through his personal collections of the Mughal history and several periodicals with Muslim orientations. Gradually, he noticed a refurbished identity consciousness among the educated Muslims in Bengal, but it was more limited to religious activities and Muslim attires. Except through personal anecdotes and oral reminiscence, Colonial Bengal’s rural surroundings of the Muslim society remained essentially unspoken and unexplored in the prescribed textbooks, which, however, began to change after 1947 when a few new books on Muslim heritages were included in our reading list. The Muslim students generally took Arabic, Persian, or Urdu as their second language, but I did not know if any Hindu student taking Arabic, Persian, or Urdu as an optional subject in my school during my time there. Then again, I heard that in the past, a few Muslim students in my school studied Sanskrit as the required additional language: one of them was my father’s house tutor. By and large, the Muslim students knew more about Hinduism than their Hindu classmates’ comprehension about Islam or the Muslim society and history of India that has already been recited in a couple of earlier chapters of this volume. Yet, the first Bengali translator of the Quran was not a Muslim: my father took pride in reminding that Girish Chandra Sen (1835–1910), a Brahmo Samaj missionary from not-so-distant Narsingdi was so well versed in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu that he took the challenge of translating the Quran into Bengali. There was a slow but sturdy awareness among the Muslim ryots, peasants, farmers, and small landholders that going to school and seeking government jobs
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were amongst their survival questions. My father remembered that a group of religious scholars (Ulema) emerged in Colonial Bengal who too encouraged modern education and professional careers for Muslims. But the fact is: only a limited number of the ryots/peasants could afford school and college education for their sons. Professor Abdur Razzaque (late), a highly regarded intellectual in Bangladesh and a Dhaka University faculty from the 1930s, was my respected teacher at the Dhaka University. Later, I became his junior colleague in the late 1950s. Somewhat mockingly, he occasionally remarked that, by and large, those Muslims who were the “surplus farmers,” with cash flowing from their jute sales, sent their children to schools and colleges. He was a student, I believe, in the late 1920s and early 1930s—and he connected the rising Bengali Muslim middle class to jute cultivation. However, jute was not the main source of cash earning of the Muslim khandans who were not directly involved in agriculture and jute cultivation—the golden fiber-plant as a tangible cash crop was more identified with the Muslim peasants and ryots. Abul Mansur Ahmad, in his recollections, too bonded the cash-generating jute with Muslim higher education12. Ultimately, the so-called golden fiber, was tied with the rudimentary Muslim middle class that gradually surged from the so-called ryots, farmers, and peasants in Bengal. I believe that bulk of the educated and professional Muslim families in Bangladesh now could pin down the social recount of their parents and grandparents who battled to establish themselves from the 1920s to 1940s or earlier in Colonial Bengal. I can personally remember that the students coming from rural background were unable to pay tuition and meal expenses on a regular basis even in the mid-1960s when I was House Tutor at a foremost residential Hall of the Dhaka University. James J. Novak (late), a longtime observer of Bangladeshi society and politics, once commented that Bangladeshi Muslims immersed in ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic cultures acquired a “split-level” mind, which was open and respectful to different cultures and faiths13. Quite a few scholars have written copiously on the syncretistic traditions among the Muslims of old Bengal and present Bangladesh (also Indonesia, for example) going into the long past. Such syncretic concepts unlocked an intellectual frame to comprehend my grandparents and parents’ orientation to life, daily slog, education, religion, and identity. I described my grandfather’s religiosity and insight at the beginning of this story. The perceived syncretism might as well explain my father’s abiding respect for all other faiths; already noted, he had a life-long conviction that the Muslim rulers did not habitually and massively convert Hindus into Islam by coercion. Not so much familiar with modern political concepts like secular liberalism and human rights, he seriously believed in mutual sharing, love, and respect for others irrespective
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 153 of their religious differences, as the hub of peaceful living in a community. My father’s intercommunal sensitivities were, apparently, not far from my mother’s oft-repeated axiom of Suleh-e-Kul (peace for all) thrashed out at the introduction of this book. Even though the British ran an apparently non-religious Colonial administration, their not-so-hidden “divide and rule” contraptions were the strategic elements of their control over India. The British Raj conveniently exploited the Hindu-Muslim differences to its hegemonic advantages while this was known to the leaders of both the two main religious communities. My father’s argument was that the contentious Colonial apparatus would have failed if the Hindus and Muslims were more cooperative and respectful to each other at the community and intellectual levels. Through popular beliefs as well as the known historical accounts, the British had a general distrust toward the Muslims for a long sweep since the 1857 Mutiny. Both the East India Company and later the British Colonial government marked that the Muslims, from the nobility to the villagers, were generally more inclined to undermine the alien rule though the 1857 revolt was a joint uprising of the Muslims and Hindus. Such smearing of the Muslims were the early footprints of the way the British began to sideline the Muslims both emotionally and materially in Colonial Bengal until they slowly gained institutional clout through legislative reforms and their demographic muscle. Later, the British Raj tried to mitigate the Muslim miseries—most likely as a balancing force against powerful voice of the Congress and the well-entrenched bhadralok. Still, the Hindu and Muslim elites regrettably failed to mutually accommodate on political and social grounds to undercut the perceived British imperial contraptions. It was a staggering failure of the Congress Party and influential bhadralok community not to unequivocally recognize the Muslim complaints—those points summed my father’s views of British Bengal’s earlier history. My grandfather was very much a product of the fallen days of the Indian Muslims from the second half of the 19th century, and it was a story-telling ritual to unload the complicated Muslim history in India even though those anecdotes were not always amongst the historically proven narratives. My father remembered that his father (following the habit of my great grandfather, I heard) still invoked Emperor Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal ruler’s power to forbid the local goons, who, sometimes, robbed standing crops in open daylight. By the time, my grandfather called upon his authority, Bahadur Shah was long removed from his throne and he had already died in exile in Burma though the last Mughal ruler was still alive in a Muslim ryot’s imagination. And even the East India Company’s rule was then taken over by the British Government in the name of Queen Victoria once the 1857 revolt was put down. Notwithstanding that reality, my father
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reminisced that my grandfather, sometimes, invoked the East India Company’s authority to thwart any attack on him or on his property! He corrected my grandfather by telling that it was the British Government that ruled over India. Still, for a time, he appealed to the authority of Maharani (Great Queen) Victoria (1819– 1901) when he was bullied by anyone. When my grandfather implored Queen Victoria, she was long dead! Whenever my father tried to correct his father, he would, every so often, sneer at his son: “East India Company, Queen Victoria or the British Government—it’s the same white firangis (Christians) who are ruling over us! Isn’t it, my son?” My grandfather’s ironic remark had a clear message: he knew the identity of those who ruled India, and it was different from his own individuality. Couched in that sarcastic remark, my grandfather feasibly expressed his dissatisfaction with the alien rulers—their identity was different from his own. The virtual absence of his fellow Muslims at the local power hierarchy in Kaliganj gave my grandfather an inferiority feeling before the prominent Hindus. Why? He wondered! Was something wrong with his religion? My eldest uncle paid little attention to such frustrations of my grandfather, and my father was too young to calm down his father. I heard that, every so often, he teased his wife: “Ismail’s mother, why Allah had made the Muslims far behind the Hindus and Christians?” Most of the time, she did not say anything. Occasionally, however, my grandmother snapped: “Why don’t you pray to Allah? And then ask—why was He unkind to the Muslims? It’s a punishment for people like you …!” Such exchanges of ironic comments at the family level signified the conflicting Muslim psyche under the British Raj. Since the local Muslim khandans belonged to a few categories of privileged people during the pre-Colonial period, the power hierarchy dramatically changed, and my grandfather’s experiences were starkly diverse from his predecessors. The Muslim presence at the Kaliganj School was disappointing; except the Maulvi (religious instructor for Islam) and one or two junior teachers, all the teachers were from the Brahmin, Khatri, and Vaidya castes of Hinduism. Going back to the 1880s, that school was open to members of all communities. I gathered that quite a few private schools under the Hindu management in other regions did not easily admit Muslim students. Our school did not follow such discrimination; my father fondly remembered the School Headmaster who, from time to time, visited the Muslim families to encourage their sons to enroll as students. The Headmaster worried that the school enrollment was falling since the Munsef Court moved out of the town. Father always admired one of his teachers who was evidently non-communal in dealing with Muslim students; he encouraged the Muslim parents to send their sons to the school. There were only small numbers of Muslim
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 155 students not only during my grandfather and father’s time, but also in 1944 when, out of about 20 students, only 5 or 6 were Muslim in my class. Throughout my grandfather’s time, our village and the adjacent ones had only a few educated Muslims; most literate Muslims in those days were madrassa-educated. My father was the first Muslim in my village to earn a B.A. degree (1924) and I was the first Muslim in our village to earn an M.A. degree in 1957. With only a small number of educated Muslims in our nearby town during his time, Alabdi, my grandfather, consulted the school’s teachers about his sons’ education and occupational prospects; most of them happened to be Hindus. He could easily locate a bunch of kulin Muslims from the old pargana (sub-region) in the land-registration office. They were there to sell or mortgage their lands to the money lenders, bigger landowners or even to the affluent peasant families with a better cash flow and eager to enlarge their holdings. Though a fellow Muslim, my grandfather did not find it easy to strike a give-and-take relationship with the khandani Muslims, who had the semblance of traditional leadership for the Muslim populace. In my school days, I knew a young man of the 4th generation of kulin family whose residential estate ran into about 5 acres of land with a mosque, a large pond, and dilapidated brick-built houses—the leftover from the late 18th century or the early 19th century. The gentleman was senior to me by several years, but he did not care to go for higher education beyond the high school diploma. I remember he accompanied his cousins who came to my father for private coaching. He took pride in saying that a talukdar or zamindar’s scion need not go to college or work for someone! I remember he cited the Nawab family members in Dhaka: with a few exceptions, they did not care for higher education or jobs. Later, I knew that he lived his life in penury. Even then, he did not sell his ancestor’s decaying homestead; it was a symbol of his prestige and his identity as a progeny of his khandan family. He was not alone among the local kulins with such a posture toward education and professional career. Disappointingly, my father was often angry with such people while he reminded us that kulins were poor examples for the rest of the Muslim community. In part as a reprimand, he would say “Don’t just blame the Hindus for the Muslim reversal of fortunes; rather Muslims should learn that the Hindu elite had the power of modern education while they did not give up their religion!” Though the Bengali Muslims from East Bengal generally supported the 1905 partition, Lord Curzon’s Bengal partition did not really create any immediate bonanza exclusively for the Muslims in the new province except that their hopes for the future, rather predictably, swelled. Conceivably, the Muslims from the villages near the Dhaka city were even more optimistic about its trickling
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benefits—education, jobs, and infrastructure, according to my family’s senior citizens and numerous other anecdotal references. Some of them, however, took that partition as a reversal of the previous anti-Muslim vision of the British Raj. My father’s reminiscence about the first Bengal divide and the founding of the Muslim League (1906) was indirect except the anti-government protests while he was still at school. One gentleman from a neighboring village, I heard, got a clerical job at the District Collector’s office, and, on the recommendation of the Nawab of Dhaka, one bright Muslim University graduate became a sub-deputy magistrate: some of those benefactions were meant to soothe the Muslim disappointment after the collapse of the Bengal division in 1911–1912. The professed Muslim exuberance about the Bengal partition was, however, short lived but its legend rose and fell into popular gossips, which, in course of time, generated a few historical studies on that controversial episode. Both the Hindus and Muslims in Bengal defined their respective trails on that division—one community (Hindus) by opposing it tooth and nail and the other community (Muslims) typically supporting it, possibly in different degrees. What’s more, the contemporary narratives of the old 1905 episode too follow that old political divide—most West Bengali chronicles, with rare exceptions, still oppose that split although frequent Muslim observers (especially in Bangladesh) identify with that (1905) creation of the East Bengal province; its territorial wrap roughly corresponded with what was East Pakistan after 1947 and Bangladesh since 1971. The Muslim support for the 1905 partition possibly gushed from the excitement of having a new Muslim-majority province, but further tangible expectations—more jobs, opportunities, and patronages—were behind the Muslim backing of that Bengal split. At least two of my father’s teachers had presumed connections with the anti-British Swadeshi movement spawned by the Bengal division. I believe that two of my uncles who were elder to my father had clearer recollections of what happened around our villages after the first partition of Bengal. A few aging neighbors too connected the former division to the one that took place later in 1947, as they reminisced their past. Such conversations had all the markings of oral history about what occurred previously and who were the supporters and who were the opponents of the first Bengal divide. We had a few senior teachers at the school who told us stories from their respective tracks, if we behaved in the classroom, and if we did our homework. One of them, a Hindu teacher recalled a poem about the 1905 partition, which I plainly recollected (wordings may not be exact now) for many years but only by one or two lines: Lord Curzon, Kare Garjan, Karila Banga Bibhag (with a thump, Lord Curzon divided Bengal)! Nevertheless, I did not meet any Muslim teacher or any aged relative who claimed to be an
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 157 opponent of that Bengal division. A couple of local poets also composed anti-partition poems—my father told me. My sense is that a literary sub-genre thrived over that Bengal division during my father’s youth while the political and intellectual debate on the controversy still goes on. We had a teacher called Sultan Mia (Sultan Sir, we called him): he recollected the Muslim frustrations that followed the dissolution of that Bengal division. My impression is that it was then politically incorrect for the East Bengali Muslims to downbeat that Bengal-divide. Few of the post-1905 genre of anti-partition writings and political rhetoric reflected the Muslim support for the new Muslim-province of East Bengal. In the light of my father’s recollections and available records, the opposition to the so-called Curzon division of Bengal was largely spearheaded by the Calcutta-based elites who refused to acknowledge the Muslim backup for the new province. Was the anti-partition resistance driven by anti-Muslim politics simmering beneath the Bengali nationalist rhetoric? Possibly, there were other considerations for the hostility as well: the Calcutta-based elite could have feared that people from the East Bengal province would no longer journey to Calcutta for higher education, to the higher courts of appeal and for trade and business since the Chittagong port would become the new trading center for the fresh province. On the other end, the East Bengali Muslims broadly felt that the Hindu bhadralok’s anti-partition pressure wanted to deprive them from the prospective benefits in the new East Bengal province. What seemingly started as a dispute over an administrative reorganization took a communal turn when the predominantly Hindu elite verbally called it as the “vivisection of Mother:” the religiously embedded equation of the country with mother goddess was not liked by the Muslims. Blending my father’s recollections and my historical readings, I feel that Hindu-Muslim distrust found a fertile ground when the British Raj was forced to cancel the Bengal division under the massive protest led by the Indian National Congress and the bhadralok-dominated civil society. The Congress Party and the Hindu elite’s blatant opposition to the new East Bengal province created negative Muslim reactions that spilled in the political arena. The rise of the Muslim League in 1906 was also deemed as a counter to the Indian National Congress leaders’ inexorable antagonism toward the 1905 division. With an aim toward increasing their representation in the legislative bodies, the influential Muslims, under the Aga Khan’s leadership, asked for a separate electorate for the Muslims. Once that controversial provision came through the Morley-Mintu reforms in 1909, a “new Muslim politics” was born as I gathered through my father’s reminiscences, available historical treatises, and memoirs/autobiographies of several individuals.
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I met more than one Muslim neighbor or relative who keenly supported the Khilafat movement after the WWI. A kind of broader sense of Muslim loyalty plausibly inspired my father’s generation to side with the Ottoman Caliphate although, personally, he was not willing to sacrifice his education and career for that cause. In fact, most Muslims did not leave their jobs or schools to sustain the pro-Khilafat protests. Father did not recollect any serious Hindu-Muslim rioting in our area while East Bengal continued as a separate province with Dhaka as its capital (1905–1911) although there were a few references of communal violence in 1907 in a couple of districts. When he studied at the Dhaka College (1915– 1919), the memories of the 1905 partition were still fresh—my father heard chats that Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka had wept when the Governor announced that the partition of Bengal would end. Possibly a “consolation prize,” the Bengal Governor promised the Dhaka University in 1911 that was established later in 192114. My father lived in old Dhaka for a few years; outside his college, a few Muslim young and elderly gentlemen he knew were amongst the admirers of Nawab Salimullah; they supported the 1905 partition that was already annulled and the Nawab died in 1915. Most of my father’s handful of acquaintances felt that the Bengal split with Dhaka as the capital of the new province, in a way, had restored the old prestige of the city since the capital of Bengal moved to Murshidabad in 1704 when Murshid Quli Khan was the Dewan of Bengal under Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor. The remnants of the anti-British rebel factions that sparked after the Bengal divide were still sporadically in action during my father’s student years (1915–1919) particularly in Narinda area, a largely Hindu neighborhood in Dhaka during the Colonial days. All through my student years in the 1950s, that area of Dhaka slowly became a Muslim zone but one particular section was still known as the “Bhuter Ghali” (the Ghost’s Lane)—the senior residents there still reflected that once the anti-British terrorists lived under cover as teachers, students and shopkeepers during the British rule. In the brief tenure of East Bengal as a separate province, the British constructed numerous buildings for offices and official residences. Architecturally, they were impressive; it was a blending between the inherited Mughal legacies and the British Colonial innovations, and the Muslims took such buildings as a point of their historical pride. The government housing facilities left behind in Dhaka after the reunification of Bengal (1912) partly came under the Dhaka College during my father’s student days; the old High Court building plus the Curzon Hall premises were then used for classes. Subsequently, they went to the Dhaka University, and later a few of those buildings were taken over by the post1947 government of East Pakistan. A small number of the surviving buildings
Muslim Identity Imaginations | 159 became the architectural legacies of the historical city. One bright example of the mixed architectural heritages was the Salimullah Muslim Hall (S.M. Hall), a Dhaka University students’ residence, built after the university was established in 1921; it became the nucleus of Muslim politics in Colonial Bengal, as I have already touched on it. My father remembered the lingering bitterness among the Muslims as the partition was annulled in 1911–191215. I feel that his generation was proud of the old buildings constructed during the period when Dhaka was briefly the capital of the new province of East Bengal. For about three years, I had the privilege of residing in two such old residences of the Dhaka University in the late 1960s. On one occasion, I shared one red-brick residential building of the University from that Colonial period: in the two-story house, next to one of the historical Dhaka Gates, I lived on the ground floor and my senior colleague was in the second floor of that house. We enjoyed the lovely garden though the house had leaky roof, creaky doors, and windows, to name a few of the inconveniences, and we kept on complaining about those. Once my father while visiting me was very pleased that he was so close to his old college buildings; there were a couple of old mosques and a revered Sufi shrine in the old High Court premises that he visited since he was a student. One day, he reacted rather sharply to our whining about the old house and said: “You should be proud that you are living in one of the historical buildings, which are parts of our legacies! When I was a student, I remember a few of the fellow undergraduates wondered—who are the lucky people living in such beautiful houses—are they humans or angels?” I still remember those rebukes as my father’s way of making historical identity corrections for me although most of those old colonial houses have long been dismantled for multi-storied facilities of the Dhaka University.
Notes 1. Tolstoy’s thistle allegory for identity fray in Hadji Murad has also been underlined in Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle, and the Drone: How American’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Brookings, 2013. 2. See also Nirad … Autobiography, ibid. 3. Abul Mansur Ahmad, Ibid. 4. See also M. Rashiduzzaman, The Central Legislature in British India, 1921–1947, Peter Lang, New York, 2019. 5. M. Rashiduzzaman, ibid. 6. Thy Hand …, ibid, p. 825. 7. Khandaker, Ibid.
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8. Abu Jafar Shamsuddin, Athma Smriti, Dhaka, 2016 and Bhawal Garer Upakhan, Dhaka, 2016 and Padma, Meghna and Jamuna, Dhaka, 2017. 9. See also Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partitition 1932– 47, Cambridge, 1994. 10. See also Mahbubur Rahman, Kisu Smriti Kisu Driti (Bengali), Nawroz, Dhaka, 1987 and Rezaul Haque Khandaker, Jiban Jeman Dekhechi (Bengali), Dhaka, 1992. 11. Joya Chatterji, ibid. 12. Abul Mansur Ahmad, ibid. 13. James J. Novak, BANGLADESH: Reflections on the Water, Indiana University Press, 1999. 14. For a scholarly study of the Muslim reactions to the 1905 Partition and its annulment in 1911, please see Sufia Ahmed, Muslim Community in Bengal 1884–1912, Dhaka, University Press Limited, Second Edition, 1996. 15. See also Sufia Ahmed, ibid.
Eclectic Historiography “Demise of Memories Is the End of History!”
In her The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy, the celebrated author, could find a story anywhere—from the high-profile historical relics to the old Kabaristan (Muslim graveyard) in Delhi and from the elites to the subalterns. While reading that book, I harked back to my father’s dispersed pursuit of history: he gathered his chronicles across old architectures, forts, mansions, mosques, temples, old bridges, shrines, long-standing trees, elderly people and family ethnography, punthi literature and their village—punthi readers, story tellers in the bazaar or street corners and roving ascetics. A memory and heritage enthusiast, his historiographical insights were harnessed to his personal experiences, readings, and observations. Those were not his lonely ponderings; periodically, he shared his ideas with his cohorts. While I was still an undergraduate at Dhaka University, I shared a couple of my history textbooks with my father—they were more contemporary volumes of Muslim history in South Asia compared to the books that he had to read in his younger years. He believed that the Hindus and Muslims had a long and mutually shared history in the Indian subcontinent though occasional conflicts and social void were hard to ignore. By embedding unwritten remembrances, anecdotes, and tagging their eclectic sources, was my father surrounding history, or encircling himself by different recounts? Was he hinting at alternative
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sources of history from his rural grassroots? Did he unwittingly offer a substitute for “formal history?” I wonder over those questions. To fathom history, you need to recall the old ways the ordinary people lived and cherished their identity, music, literature, religiosity, and spiritual values; he counseled the young and adult he met. He interacted with a range of aging relatives, a few of his school colleagues, several among his favorite students and their respective parents known to him, the former students, a handful of the local ulema, some neighbors and occasionally the Sufi-inclined guests. Such openings were deliberations on the past, as they knew it, not necessarily from typical history books. Occasionally, my father matched his ideas with the local pandits, Vaishnavas, and bauls; he believed that Muslim narratives and the Hindu recounts carried mutual relevance even when the narrators came with different versions of their experiences. It was not a monologue; some of his listeners added their family experiences, spiritual trips, and tales over a stretch of time. He did not pamper the local leaders and bureaucrats except maintaining a workable relationship with them. The weight he laid on memories, anecdotes, folk tales, oral narratives, Sufi saints, and punthi literature was possibly, in part, on account of his limited access to the latest scholarly books on history; but such probing for alternative routes to the past is fairly common among the historiographers. History is not a neatly stitched tapestry, to my father; not always tied to academic tomes: historians should be amenable to peer revisions and to the real-life experiences. The condensed sub-heading of the chapter here: “The demise of mem ories is the end of history” broadly concurred with my father’s historical thinking. His occasional buzz that I could get a century old history by adding my memories to his was a stirring message to me though I did not pursue an academic degree in history. I have incorporated that assumption in the Introduction, and in this volume’s earlier Preface with a log of encouraging sources and research methods spread over in this narrative. Accounts of the bygone, to him, bore a resemblance to a never-ending garden or a terrain with diverse flowers, fruits, and trees: some pretty, some ugly, some sweet but others bitter. He yearned the historical narrators as the gardeners (malis) who should, if possible, present a bouquet or garland of different flowers in the patch. His allegory seemingly stood for diverse history that improves intercommunal harmony. Metaphorically, history was a sinuous river where the human actors were like maji (boatman) paddling from different directions: however, majs, sometimes, lost directions in the waterway under the spell of the kanaola, the mythical phantom that supposedly ruled the local rivers and marshes after the nightfall! He pitied those viewers of the days of yore who, like a fictional group of blind people, vainly portrayed a big elephant by touching
Eclectic Historiography | 163 only parts of the big animal. He had no time for those who evidently weaponized history to attack others for their selfish political gains. My grandfather derided the British Raj as the white firangi rule, and yet his determination to send two of his sons to a modern school instead of a traditional Muslim Madrassa was a near contradiction or an outright opportunism considering his time and circumstances. He and a small group of assorted villagers sent their sons to modern schools; by doing that, they indeed, sponsored a sweep of Muslim professionals. My father reminded that his generation and its descendants became civil servants, clerks, businessmen, teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers, leaders and wheelers and dealers in the new eastern wing of Pakistan and later Bangladesh. But the historians of the old united Bengal generally neglected such ryots who took small steps toward modern education and made sacrifices for such gains while admiring the political elite’s periodic exhortation for modern education. My grandparents were not endowed with contemporary instruction; still those shortcomings were not the unsurmountable barriers toward practicality and interactions with the world around him. Chapters 2 and 3 of this volume are filled with those encounters in the past, and now they are surely amongst the lost fragments of the known South Asian historical genre that I gathered from the medley of oral narratives. My father was not the only one who acknowledged history by a contrast of what his generation had enjoyed and what his successors savored. In my adult and professional life, two gentlemen substantially carried similar chronological messages to my contemporaries. One was Dr. M. O. Ghani who was then the Vice-Chancellor of the Dhaka University in the mid-1960s. It was possibly in July/August 1964; recently returned from England, I met him to seek the position of a House Tutor at a student residential hall. In addition to the salary as a university faculty, there was a small monthly benefit that went with a rent-free accommodation for the residential tutor’s largely administrative and counseling activities; it was an attractive proposition for a young teacher in search of a housing in Dhaka. When I explained that I desperately needed that position since, without an affordable housing, I was living with my in-laws, Dr. Ghani laughed out loudly and said: “You are lucky that you will be working as a House Tutor with free accommodation, but I started working initially as an Assistant House Tutor; and I did not have any in-law’s house in Dhaka as you have now!” The implication was clear: I was luckier than him in terms of certain benefits as a young professional. My understanding was that he started working at the Dhaka University (also later for the Bengal Government) in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Dr. Ghani had been wellknown for his passion of telling stories about the
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trials and tribulations of his life starting from his school days in Kishorganj area and the sacrifices that his family made for his education since the late 1920s. Another pertinent understanding came from Akbaruddin, near my father’s age, who was an acknowledged Bengali writer since before the 1947 independence; after his retirement as an administrator at the Dhaka University, he was then working for the US Information Service (U.S.I.S.) in a supervisory position running the district branches of the American Information Agency’s head office in Dhaka. While I briefly worked at the U.S.I.S. (1957–1958), he encouraged me to look for a university teaching position when I smilingly reacted that it was not easy to get a job at the Dhaka University. With a serious posture, he talked back to me: “Young man, it was much tougher for me to get a good education and suitable job while I was of your age! Notwithstanding the admitted constraints, the educated men and women in Pakistan have an easier sail in life!” I came to know later that he migrated from West Bengal to Dhaka in 1949. Apart from such family and personal stories from my parents and their contemporaries, I did not come across many such comparisons between the Muslim encounters in British Bengal and what were the apparent gains for the East Bengali Muslims since 1947. My father recollected that a few amongst his brilliant contemporaries’ highest expectations were not higher than becoming sub-deputy/ deputy magistrates on their merit or through a little patronage. Once my father took me with him when he visited one such gentleman-his senior friend, in 1949 or 1950 in a crowded neighborhood of old Dhaka—possibly, he had then retired as a senior deputy magistrate, as I recall those days. I heard my father saying on many occasions that his friend had the merit to be a member of the Indian Civil Service (I.C.S.), the elite British Indian administrative cadre. His retrospective narrative was indeed a historiographical lesson; what he shared with me were the experiences of his life: may be a subjective source but it was real, not academic homilies. My father suggested that after my master’s degree, I should go for a bachelor’s in law, and then go for a judicial job starting as a Munsef and climb the ladders of judicial service. But I heard that most Munsefs end up serving the outlying districts, I told my father. But he would readily add that a few amongst the Munsefs, he heard about, had easily reached up to the ranks High Court Judges in East Pakistan. My father’s respect for his mother defined his sense of personal history. His admiration for his mother was not second to that for this father, and my grandmother was indeed the anchor to my father’s understanding of his days in the yore. He remembered that his mother ran the household, she fed the family members, but more importantly, she supported and encouraged them for a better and
Eclectic Historiography | 165 honest livelihood. When her husband died, she pushed my father through the first two years of college with my uncles’ support; it was a proof of her leadership in running a family. My grandmother and later my mother deftly defined their respective roles in the family: more positively, they managed the family with little formal education, skills, and advantages enjoyed by modern women. My grandmother and later my mother demolished the old stereotype that Muslim women, restricted by purdah, were unable to add much to the material objectives of life. They were “empowered,” I believe, without the modern “women empowerment” buzzwords. Devoid of her unflinching support, my father’s life could have been quite different indeed: he reminded this as a part of our family legacy. My father had remarkably spelled out the Muslim misgivings about the sudden replacement of Persian as the official language with English in 1835, then a strange language in India. It was the extraordinary seal of the British East India Company’s unmitigated cultural and intellectual intervention that radically swelled the alien hegemony over the subcontinent. He grew up under the lingering Muslim doubts of English education when most of the old Madrassas were in ruins and lacked funds for teachers. Still at high school, I came across a few elderly persons (mostly educated in the Madrassas) with a different historiography—they believed that the British would have left India as the Indians refused to learn English and work for them. My father respected English language but his appetite for the Persian literary elegance was greater, and in his time, such tenderness for the Persian language was shared not only amongst the educated and khandani Muslims but also amongst a small section of the eminent Hindus on various occasions. Muslim names, cuisine, houses, cities, towns, bazaars, and even certain fruits were tagged with a touch of traditional lyrics, heroes, and heroines from the Persian classics: together they enriched the blossoming Bengali language and literature. Recitation of conventional Persian poems was a common sight even when I was growing up; my father encouraged me to take Persian as the additional language course for my final high school year in 1950–1951 when Persian had little more than its vestigial prestige. But I did not develop any serious interest in that language. By urging me into a Persian/Farsi course, my father possibly tried to fulfill his historical homage to the past legacy of the language. He studied Farsi up to B.A. level. When I took Persian as the added language in 1950–1951 for my school matriculation, a classmate and possibly a teacher asked me why I opted for a “dead language”! In my father’s eyes, however, Persian language had global footprints, and the Farsi culture were still alive through Bengali literary traditions, art and architecture, a range of vocabulary in Bengali language, (Muslim)
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mannerism and customs and cuisine in the real life. Without their recognition, we would be the rootless “strangers to our own history” and culture, he warned. Besides the urbanized bi-lingual Muslim aristocrats, there were numerous rural Bengali Muslims who knew Persian, Urdu, and Arabic in addition to their mother tongue. Well into the middle of the 19th century, Calcutta was home to several Persian and Urdu newspapers, which expressed the social and political challenges of the contemporary Muslim society, and even the East India Company and later the British Raj officials kept track of the Persian and Urdu press in North India, for many years. My mother-in-law shared a family story that the first cousin of her grandfather was a talented writer in Persian and Urdu; for a while, he worked for Durbin, a Persian newspaper in Calcutta (1854–1856), which faced a court trial initiated by the East India Company in 1857 for publishing a firman (proclamation) of Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal Emperor, urging people to drive the British out of India. When the paper ceased its publication, the gentleman migrated to Lahore with his family and settled there, according to my mother-inlaw’s remembrances of her ancestors. The deletion of Persian as the official language put such people at a disadvantage in the ongoing world where that language earlier had given them a head start for a few hundred years. Most well-known historians with South Asia as their major research areas had earlier ignored this negative flank of British Colonialism in India. Both during the Sultanate and Mughal rule in Bengal, Persian was the official language although Bengali was also encouraged by those rulers allegedly to neutralize the influence of Sanskrit in Bengal. But Navadip thrived as a Sanskrit learning center under the Muslim rulers according to several historical accounts. Not surprisingly, the Muslim as well as the Hindu elites learned Persian until the 18th/19th century period; from time to time, my father reminded that Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, a great social reformer in Bengal of that time, knew both Arabic and Persian so well. He was very much a product of the protracted Mughal culture, and indeed, he edited a Persian language newspaper in Calcutta, my father periodically reminded. More than a religious concern, a loss of prestige, a Colonial imposition and a cultural hegemony, the replacement of Persian as the official language resulted in a sudden shortfall of jobs, patronages, missed opportunities, and a humiliation for the Muslims for many decades to come. Among the elderly relatives, this was a common topic in family gossips in my school years. English was not a popular language for the masses for a long run since it was imposed as an official language. Until English gained a foothold as a medium of expression in administration, Farsi and Urdu/Hindustani were still shared among local people, both Hindus
Eclectic Historiography | 167 and Muslims, according to numerous historical records and popular anecdotes. To establish their claim of pre-British aristocracy, a couple of local khandani families claimed that they had land registration and talukdari documents written in Persian; my father, in fact, saw a few such records in Persian in several families in our region. Suffering from a palpable ache for what they lost to an alien rule, the Muslims feared, rightly or wrongly, an extinction of their identity and cultural heritages at the hands of the British Raj. My grandfather was not yet an adult during the 1857 anti-British revolt, but the “Sepoy (soldiers) Mutiny” tales and the previous East India Company legends thrived in the family storytelling. Anecdotes, from my grandparents’ time, had it—about 100, 000 people were presumably killed in Delhi alone when the revolt was crushed while there were charges of officially endorsed atrocities upon Indians, and particularly the Muslims throughout North India as well as Dhaka and other parts of old Bengal. The story tellers surely added flesh to the bare bones of what happened in the past—those popular narratives were history to my grandfather’s generation and mattered little if they were objectively verified or not. An ominous fear that the non-Muslim rulers would, possibly, Christianize the Muslims haunted that generation even before the 1857 revolt1. Most British Indian historians ignored such Muslim fears in the post1857 decades while that neglected narrative was brought up by the anti-British Muslim activists, not seriously treated in the dominant chronicles. Such rebuke of the modern Indian historical genre was the voice that allied the growing educated Muslim class and the community of the ulema, in our villages and beyond. My region had a strong Christian Missionary presence, and the Catholic priests were noticeable in our neighborhood for centuries; the oldest Church in nearby Nagori was presumably built by a Portuguese priest during the Mughal rule, and it was already noticeable for its proselytizing activities. To facilitate its Christianity preaching, Father Manoel da Assamcao of that Church compiled and printed the first Bengali grammar and dictionary (Lisbon, 1743) using the local (Bangla) dialect, from the neighborhood of Dhaka, written in Roman letters. But after the failed uprising (1857), the Church-priests were plainly more energetic in their conversion efforts, according to family lore. In fact, the anti-British Faraizi activists and the religious preachers cultivated that fear amongst the Muslims even as the then British Indian government did not take such resistance lightly. For my grandfather’s pals, survival under the alien rule, its exploitive zamindars and mahajans (money lenders) and the creeping fears of Christianization were amongst their litany of dreads and social decline. Furthermore, the Muslim dithering toward an alien rule as well as Western education surfaced in the wake of those
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reservations in the second half of the 19th century that stuck around through the earlier years of the 20th century when my father’s maternal uncle discouraged him from going to a modern school. With the exceptions of those zamindars and talukdars who initiated educational and charitable activities, there was a polarization between, on the one end, the newly privileged landowning and money-lending groups since the 1793 Permanent Settlement Act and, on the other, the overwhelmingly Muslim tenants and peasants. It was a common knowledge that before the British Raj was able to extend law and order and justice into the rural areas of Bengal, it was the zamindars and their intermediaries (Hindus as well as Muslims) who held a command over rural people. Furthermore, the fresh zamindars were mostly different from the old feudal class: generally, they made money by trading with the Europeans and their newly acquired (often through auctions by the East India Company) talukdari estates were their new investments and sources of extraction; the welfare of their tenants was not the prime concern to most of them. Their goons were the de facto law enforcers under the whims of the zamindars when my grandfather and his predecessors were fearful of such elements. Numerous fiction and non-fiction books have recounted the oppressive landlords’ persecution on their tenants in the past. In fact, the large zamindars held their own courts and maintained private jails to punish the recalcitrant ryots; social media still depicts those relics in the old and decaying zamindari estates throughout Bangladeshi villages and small towns. Besides my father’s narratives, I had multiple occasions to visit the Bhawal Raja’s mansion in the 1950s and the 1960s, in the outskirts of Dhaka; the large floor space was then the office of the government’s Circle Officer. One of the areas in the sprawling lodge, according to the local records, housed the prison where the defiant tenants were summarily tried, beaten, and jailed. Even though the landowning Muslim elites stayed aloof from Muslim peasants, the Muslims emotionally identified with the Muslim khandans when they suffered setbacks of fortunes at the hands of the Raj. Whenever an educated Muslim young man in our area needed any political backing in the earlier decades of the 20th century, he would habitually go to someone like the Nawab of Dhaka, not usually to a Hindu zamindar like the Bhawal Raja: my father regretted that he did not have someone who could take him to such a prominent Muslim leader to land him with a government job. My grandfather’s contemporary Muslims had two conceivable mindsets about the British rule that my father occasionally explained. Clearly, one had to live with their distrust of the foreign juggernaut; and the other approach was an exercise for survival by adjusting themselves to their existing realities. It mattered little to argue now that even under the Muslim
Eclectic Historiography | 169 rule, there were various Hindu zamindars though it is credible that the Muslim tenants were not necessarily more prosperous throughout the pre-British Muslim rules. The rigorous extraction of land revenues, mostly in cash, in multiple sectors and forced cultivation of indigo affected both the Muslim and Hindu farmers under the new British-initiated land tenure system. Other elements of the Colonial legacies that wrapped the economic, cultural, and religious spheres are already featured in the earlier chapters. My father had his own version of the pre-British Muslim rule in India, and he shared his views with others (refer Chapters 1 & 7). I had an exceptional experience at the Indian Office Library in London, which was, in the early 1960s, the rendezvous of international scholars working on India and other parts of Asia. There I ran into a gentleman—Professor Ranajit Guha, later a founder of the subaltern genre of the Indian freedom struggle narratives. He enjoyed chatting about his childhood in what is Bangladesh now. He liked to talk about the 19th-century Farizi encounters and the late 18th-century Fakir-Sannayshi revolt as well as the Santal uprising, which were usually passed over by Indian nationalist historians. One day Professor Guha had a strong argument with an elderly Indian historian who briefly researched at the library on his way back from the USA after an academic stint there. Professor Guha charged that most Indian historians claimed that the Muslim rulers were brutal to the Hindus while they infrequently mentioned their administrative, cultural, architectural, and economic accomplishments in India. I can still relate to what Professor Guha finally summed up: the historians, in fact, were amongst the veiled contributors toward the 1947 division of the country by cherry-picking charges against the past Muslim rulers in India. My father’s views on the subject were closer to those of Professor Guha: both appeared to be on the same page for grasping Indian history under the British. Periodically, father argued that the wrecked Hindu-Muslim relations were not always heightened by the religious differences or by the assumed Muslim orthodoxy. Not surprisingly, the parting of the ways between the two communities was substantially facilitated by the untested allegations against the bygone Muslim regimes as well as the bottom-line alienation of the Muslims at the hands of the Hindu bhadralok in what was then the British Indian province of Bengal. Not unexpectedly, the historical books and school texts too soured the Hindu-Muslim relations from the early decades of the British rule in India2. I can recall from my school days that history teaching was not seriously organized; most history classes were anecdotal, and versions of the Muslim and Hindu teachers differed in contents. Ominously, it created a fissure between the Hindus and the Muslims that did not remain confined in the rural communities: textbook
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contents were also occasionally debated in the Bengal Legislative Council. The Muslims commonly suspected that the British Orientalist scholars and their Indian endorsers created a new variety of history books, which, time and again, depicted the Muslim rulers with an anti-Hindu posture—still voiced by a section of historians. My father had his disquiet about the storyline put out by the British-era historians and their followers about the pre-British Muslim rule. The earlier British historiographers allegedly “magnified the Muslim tyranny” in the bygone in order to perpetuate their “divide and rule” paradigm. My father was unhappy that there were few well-known Muslim historians who could intellectually challenge such historical distortions spread against the previous Muslim rulers in India. I trust that he read the erstwhile Persian and Urdu books (and possibly their Bengali translations) that challenged the Western and Indian his torians for their obvious antagonism toward the long-gone Muslim rulers. He possibly sensed that most Indian historians wrote about the Mughal rulers largely from the European accounts that were not always the objective sources. They were further limited in their understanding about the cultural and social backdrop of the Mughal empire. I do not have records of such books that my father referred, but he cited a few of the Persian/Urdu sources in making his historical arguments. Manifestly, the conservative Muslims periodically challenged the liberal/secular regimes in Bangladesh for their perceived trivialization of Islam and Muslim history in the school textbooks. The Islamic traditions cast aside in former East Pakistan during the 1971 struggle for its separation from Pakistan subsequently re-emerged as a durable, widespread, and occasionally violent political phenomenon in the country even under the secular and liberal regimes. I saw a story more recently that a faction of the conservative Islamic leaders in Bangladesh opposed Darwin’s human evolution theory being taught at the schools: I don’t recollect any serious protest from my father or the school Maulvi against the epoch-making evolution theory. But the identity pitch continued to hang like a political millstone on Bangladesh—the non-secular issues periodically flared up the country’s fault lines, which are not within the range of this narrative. However, Muslim identity was not a monolithic construct during the British Indian Bengal or through the long-established Muslim rule in Bengal and other parts of India: it was my father’s consistent history lesson. And then, the inner dichotomy between puritan Islam and the secular/liberal interpreters, an active issue during my father’s foray into history, is still a vigorous question that runs across the state borders with its global bearing. Endured over centuries, the Islamic and Muslim roots in South Asia co-existed with other faiths through a web of cooperation despite occasionally hostile
Eclectic Historiography | 171 outbursts and political acrimony between the two largest religious’ communities continued. Most Muslim leaders, including Jinnah, originally wanted to remain within the larger Indian federation or Confederation until the catastrophic failures in the 1940s to come up with a mutually acceptable distribution of power between the center and the periphery. However, my father recalled that the Hindu-Muslim split became more obvious since the dispute over the Communal Award (1932) escalated. A couple of historians and popular writers traced the communal dichotomy to the 1905 division of Colonial Bengal. My own readings of the British Indian politics are not too far from my father’s historical visualization. The British Prime Minister (1932) recommended separate electorate not only for the Muslims but also for other religious and ethnic minorities including the scheduled castes, which infuriated the Indian National Congress Party (Congress) while most prominent Hindu-dominated political groups also turned it down. Locally, the Hindu teachers opposed it in our school. Their anger was sharper over the proposed separate representation to the Scheduled Castes, my father remembered. My school’s teachers’ common room plus the library hall occasionally reflected the local Hindu bhadralok’s prevailing political mood in the 1940s. But they were visibly courteous to each other. I had a small privilege of sitting in that library-cum-common room when I waited to join my father going home at the end of the school day. I wish I could understand and remember all the political vibrations floating through that room; it was also the time, when the Congress Party was losing its foothold in the local Hindu community as my father and my elder cousins recalled. Niyat Ali Bhai, a senior cousin from my extended family, was a fledgling mediator in the town who knew people across the religious lines; he shared the neighborhood’s political jingle and the bazaar rumors with us when he stopped by our outer house. Those gossipy tales of local politics were the only windows to understand what was happening in the neighborhood. Implied in the earlier intervals, my father offered a few of his historical explanations for the prevailing Hindu-Muslim fissure: (a) the Hindu zamindars and their intermediaries as well as their moneylending accomplices disaffected the predominantly Muslim peasants in the villages; (b) the Hindu elite avoiding the Muslims in “touching” and not even sharing the same neighborhood and premises and with few intermarriages failed to create a more interactive and cohesive civil society even in small villages (in the cities, the Hindus and Muslims habitually lived in separate neighborhoods/mahallahs); (c) the Hindu bhadralook frequently treated the Muslims as the alada, the isolated “others” who were grudgingly accepted as full-fledged Bengalis; (d) the unyielding Hindu opposition to the Communal Award that was widely popular with the Bengali Muslims; and (e) a virtual
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intellectual and cultural severance of the Muslims by a near absence of Muslim characters and their ways of life in the flourishing Bengali literature and the popular Bengali movies and theatres. What is often exoticized as the Ganga-Jamuna culture in the pre-Colonial era was, to my father, an amalgam of human and spiritual values encouraged by the Sufi inclusiveness and tolerance mostly upheld by the Muslim rulers. Those beliefs were, in many ways, simple: respect my faith and culture as much as I would respect yours—my father spelled his understanding plainly. He regretted that those conventions faded during the long and complex Colonial hegemony. Plausibly, modern Bengali literary explosion beginning in the 19th century paid little attention to Hindu-Muslim amity that further widened the gap between the two largest religious communities, he occasionally muttered. It was quite different from the pre-Colonial Bengali literary age. Muslim-ruled Arakan kingdom (now Myanmar) and Chittagong became a cultural center of Bengali literature hundreds of years before the British Raj, according to several claims. Compared to the modern Bengali literature, the old-time folk songs and punthi/padabali genre of writings enhanced relationships among people across religions, castes, demographics, the literates, and illiterates; my father argued as an admirer of folk songs. For example, Syed Alaol (1607–1673) wrote in Bangla (of that period)—a Sufi in spirit, he was well versed in Farsi, Sanskrit, and Arabic with an added interest in music. Centuries back, Al-Biruni learned Sanskrit and consulted the Hindu scholars before he embarked on writing Indian history, my father reminded us. Syed Mir Mosharf Hussain (1847–1911), the author of Bishad Shindu, his magnum opus of the Karbala tragedy, written in contemporary Bengali was amongst the most popular books among the Muslims. The old intercommunal literary and cultural give-and-take steadily changed with the decline of Muslim portrayal in the new genre of fictions and poetry; yet, those old writings attracted both the Hindus and Muslims. My father was convinced that the spiritually inclined songs gave solace to ordinary men and women irrespective of their religious affiliations, as much as they enriched the social life for the larger population in Bengal. He was not bashful to argue that Sufi mysticism was the common base to Rabindra Nath Tagore, Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, and Kazi Nazrul Islam irrespective of their varied religious orientations. To my father, Nazrul had the rare distinction of borrowing his literary florescence from both Persian and Bengali resources. He was, however, enigmatic about the national leaders of his time. On Gandhi, he said that the great leader failed to bring Hindu-Muslim amity as much as he was unsuccessful to reduce the miseries of the Hindu caste system although his contribution
Eclectic Historiography | 173 to Indian freedom was undeniable. He remembered that Gandhi’s ambivalence to the proposal for the Scheduled Caste Hindus’ separate representation disappointed several of his old students who were from the “lower” Hindu castes. In the local Hindu bhadralok community, Gandhi lost his popularity by blending the Khilafat movement with his anti-British campaign for Indian independence. Still, he credited Gandhi for his touch with ordinary people (including Muslims) while other prominent Congress leaders had fewer mass contacts with the Muslim community at large. Though the Muslims could not save the Caliphate in Turkey, they made themselves relevant to Indian politics with Gandhi’s blessings—that was my father’s line of reckoning. He felt that Jawaharlal Nehru, with his aristocratic bent, was rather remote from the fast-changing politics between the two world wars. To him, Nehru should have strived harder to amicably resolve the discord over the 1932 Communal Award to placate the outstanding Muslim grievances. He remembered Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the most prominent Muslim leader of the Congress Party, but he was not immensely popular with the Muslims in Bengal. Among the Congress leaders, my father liked Motilal, Nehru’s father; among the Bengali leaders; he admired C. R. Das for his efforts to bring peace and understanding between the Hindus and Muslims. In my father’s vision, the Bengal history would have been different had C. R. Das been alive for more years, but he too had strong critics among the Hindu elite who feared that he had made too many concessions to the Muslim demands. Multiple images of Jinnah came from my father: he dredged up his younger days when Jinnah was denounced by the conservative Muslims on the assumption that he was not a strict practitioner of Islam and because he married a Parsi lady. He recalled that in the 1920s, a few local Maulvis occasionally reprimanded Jinnah when speaking at the seasonal waz mehfil held by the local mosques. The Khilafatists did not like Jinnah for his resistance to the Khilafat and Non-co-operation movement led by Gandhi. But the same Jinnah, once the doyen of Hindu-Muslim unity, later became the nearly undisputed Muslim leader in India and a strident campaigner for Pakistan amidst the jagged political landscapes. He did not think that Jinnah was a hardcore Islamist in outlook even when he launched Pakistan movement. He also argued that Jinnah did not suddenly catapult himself into the so-called Pakistan Resolution: it was not a precipitous declaration of war in Lahore in 1940 for an exclusive Muslim state. In my father’s memory, Lala Lajpat Rai (1865–1928), an all-Indian political leader from the Punjab was at the height of anti-Muslim animus—he remembered that Lajpat Rai was possibly the first among the top leaders who demanded a partition of India consistent
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with Hindu-Muslim demographic lines. He recalled that the Hindu Mahasabha leader Shayma Prasad Mukherjee was active in demanding Bengal partition in the 1940s. I remember that my father held that Vallabhbhai Patel (better known as Sardar Patel) was one of those prominent Congress leaders who gave up on an undivided India even while a few of the Muslim League leaders were still negotiating for a compromise through the so-called Cabinet Mission Plan. My father occasionally recalled the All-India Hindu-Muslim tension following the publication of Rangila Rasul (the colorful Prophet) in Lahore in 1927. It was a scurrilous pamphlet that insulted Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him). His point of reference was the souring of Hindu-Muslim relations between the two World Wars. V.D. Savarkar (1883–1966), the ardent preacher of the Hindutva doctrine was one of his talking points when he recalled the Hindu-Muslim divergence in British India. Hence, Lala Lalpat Rai was a sore point even in my father’s village in Colonial Bengal, far away from Lahore, the venue for the explosive Rangila Rasul event. Rai was active with the Arya Samaj, the Hindu supremacy movement that led the anti-Muslim drive in British India. I had another occasion to learn more about the Rangila Rasul incident in the early 1960s: for my research, I read the highly emotional debates at the Indian Legislative Assembly in 1927, when it passed a bill outlawing such blasphemous publications that would deliberately hurt the sentiment of any religious community. I recollect that the Assembly deliberations were religiously divisive when such issues came to the floor: the Hindu lawmakers generally opposed that bill while the Muslim legislators supported the measure against communally offensive publications. My father’s spiritual bent had met periodic disapproval for his trips to old Sufi shrines. And yet, he felt that the Sufi dervishes had enormously impacted the social history of the entire subcontinent though their influence has been largely ignored by the academic historians. And yet most political leaders demonstrated their respect for certain Sufi shrines when it suited them politically. To him, visiting the shrines of the piously enlightened Sufis did not amount to tomb-worshipping. Most of the Sufi tombs including those in smaller towns and villages carried flashes of Muslim history lessons albeit flavored with tales of miracles and supernatural interventions. Calling on shrines and gathering knowledge about the Sufi preachers amounted to a search for the cultural roots and social history since they were among the few relics that survived through time while the old rulers, the past regimes, and their records were all gone. By ignoring the old shrines, people would neglect a critical layer of Muslim history in Bengal: this was my father’s historiography on the subject.
Eclectic Historiography | 175 The early settlers of our village and the nearby communities, once a swampy forest area, including our extended family’s ancestors probably came with the Sufi preachers of Islam in our region, according to the extended family’s anecdotes3. To my father, the Sufi pirs were more than rarefied saintly men; from time to time they fought for ordinary men and women persecuted by the local despotic rulers, and those preachers fed hungry people during famine with voluntary help from their disciples. A few of those traditions of feeding the hungry and the poor persist in South Asia although there were reported abuses behind such practices in different Sufi dargahs. Local legends cited that a few of the well-known Sufis in our area helped people to settle in the swampy areas: at least one of them was a builder of chauchala houses with four roofs (chauchala houses had straw or iron sheet roofs). Once that Sufi, according to the village anecdotes, traveled to Delhi for building this variety of residences. From my school days recollection, I remember that only a handful of local saials (builders), with skills handed down through generations, had the aptitude to build such structures. The chauchala houses—once I read in a newspaper article, by Dewan Mohammad Azraf, an educator and Islamic scholar—were not the native Bengali residential construction styles: they apparently traveled from Central Asia. It could be a coincidence, but I came across such four-roofed buildings (with corrugated iron sheets) in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan during my stretch to those countries in 1995. I visited one family that accommodated three generations in one such a rambling house. Our ancestral village’s origin is presumably tied to the name of one Sufi preacher; Bangladeshi folk fables are rife with stories of numerous Muslim saints and “miracles” performed by those preachers all over the country. Father insisted that complex and disparate communities could still peacefully live together with mutual tolerance derived from the Sufi teachings of brotherhood. Several Muslim saint-shrines were revered by the Hindus as well. In my grandparents’ and parents’ time, most people identified themselves first by their religious denomination—Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. If I asked someone about his/her religion, it was an acceptable mode of disclosing one’s identity. For Hindus, their last names habitually disclosed their caste initiation; on a few occasions, I remember visiting Hindus identified themselves by their castes. I recall that once I asked a visiting Baul (the religious ascetics mainly in evidence in certain districts of Bangladesh and West Bengal) in our outer house while I was a 9th grade student: “What is your jati?” To ordinary people, jati practically meant religious affiliation in those days. He answered: “I am a Baul, and I have no other introduction.” Whether I am a Muslim or Hindu first or a Bengali or Bangladeshi or an Indian first continued as a lively debate in contemporary
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times as much as it did in the past. The perceived Muslim identity carried diverse connotations to different individuals and groups, at separate times in Bangladesh. The Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the two largest parties in Bangladesh, were sharply divided on the question of its citizens’ national identity: there was no closure of the angle of a “loss of Muslimness” in Bangladeshi political and intellectual postures. We had a few books by Maulana Akram Khan (Akram Khan) (1868–1969), a classic but contentious Muslim thinker since the early years of the 20th century: one of them was Mustafa Charit (biography of the Prophet Muhammad). A pioneer of Bengali Muslim journalism, a politician and an Islamic thinker, Akram Khan had a role in shaping Muslim opinion through his monthly magazine the Mashik Muhammadi and later the daily Azad throughout his long presence in Bengal (later in former East Pakistan) politics and in the media forums. I had the privilege of interviewing him once in the mid-1960s when I was researching on the eclipse of the Muslim League in East Pakistan—he was then too old for an exhaustive discussion. I do not recollect all the reasons clearly, but my father was not very fond of his views. It was possibly about his interpretations of the Quran and Hadith—my father belonged to the Hanafi sect, the largest segment of the Sunni Muslims. On the other hand, Akram Khan was plausibly associated with the Ahl-e-Hadith4 organization. I understood later in the College/University years that he believed that the Muslims could not be denied their Bengali identity while they maintained their Muslim singularity; his thoughts surely reflected the identity disagreement among the Muslims and also how they were perceived by the Hindus and other religious denominations. Numerous views took a pragmatic cognizance of dual identity for most Muslims in Bangladesh: a Bengali as well as a Muslim. However, the liberal-secular views in post-independence Bangladesh tilted more toward the Bengali (lingo) identity; I have given an account of Muslim identity perceptions in Chapter 7. The remnants of the Faraizi movement shunned the Friday prayer; this was a variety of non-secular protest that could rally the Muslim community behind their anti-colonial stance. My mother’s elder sister was married to a Maulvi who was also a graduate of the ultra-conservative Deoband Madrassa in the U.P., in India. My father told me that he belonged to an anti-British Islamist underground movement although I am not sure if it was an offshoot of the Faraizis. Leaving his wife and children in the care of his in-laws, he remained in hiding, sometimes for months. His mystery was never fully revealed to my family members before he died in 1946; I came to know from my mother. I heard that the remainders of the old Faraizi disciples, periodically, urged my father to abstain from Friday prayers
Eclectic Historiography | 177 as a protest to the British rule. I did not know much about the Ahl-e-Hadith movement in my school days, but there were a few devotees of that faction in our area; they spread their strict interpretations of the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) and the Quran; a couple of them occasionally stopped by at our outer house. However, my father did not cultivate those preachers. I heard that the Faraizi-inspired anti-British resistance continued in certain parts of rural Bengal even though they were not as noticeable as they were during my grandfather’s and my father’s younger years. However, none of my nearest family members had direct Faraizi connections in my younger years. Anecdotes and a few books, however, suggested that both Faraizi and Ahl-e-Hadith followers were more active in the old Mymensingh district (also in a few northern districts of old Bengal/Bangladesh) and from their base they preached in nearby Dhaka and other districts, mainly in the villages. My father’s version of Muslim history on Colonial Bengal included such undocumented tales. When I visited Dhaka in my childhood, he showed me a few charitable institutions in and around the city: most of them were established by the Nawabs of Dhaka: however, he reminded me that Nawab Salimullah donated huge acres of land for several educational and charitable institutions in Dhaka when it became the capital of the East Bengal province in 1905. By the time I was a college/ university student, such establishments were in poor conditions and the Nawab family no longer enjoyed the old privileges and wealth. Meanwhile, several religious leaders supported modern education, but their real emphasis was on “revitalization” of the Muslim society along religious lines. Maulana Keramat Ali Jaunpuri (1800–1873) was one such prominent religious leader. His followers were, I believe, close to the Faraizis about “purifying” Islam in India, but the Jaunpuris were apparently more reconciled to the British rule in India. In the light of a few exchanges with well-informed persons, my understanding is that Maulana Keramat Ali opposed the Faraizi demands that the Muslims in Colonial India should boycott Friday prayers as a protest to the British Raj. Still, the Jainpuri preachers emphasized that the Muslims must practice their religion and shun the professed Hinduism-influenced idolatrous practice. Though soaked in religiosity and culture, a few of those questions slowly trickled into politics as more Muslims were enfranchised and became politically active through several legislative and electoral reforms in Bengal. A kind of “Muslim empowerment” that slowly acquired a traction in Bengal since the 1909 political reforms was, however, gripped as Muslim communalism by the mainstream Hindu elite5. My father was, somehow, angry whenever the slant of “communalism” was indiscriminately hurled against the Muslims: it was an implicit anti-Muslim moaning to him! I am aware of the
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heated debates over separate electorate in the Bengal Legislative Council6 from the available historical studies and yarns from my father’s generation. But I gathered more about the contentious communal representation when, in the 1960s, I surfed through the Indian Legislature’s debates from 1921 to 1947. When I was an undergraduate in Political Science, I asked for his observation on the divisive issues of Colonial Indian politics. Once I asked my father what he thought about the controversial Communal Award of separate voting for the Muslims in British India. He thought that without that separate electoral arrangement, Muslims would have fewer opportunities to be elected against their resourceful Hindu rivals; furthermore, it would have undercut the Muslim confidence-building in politics. More insightful was his observation as he put the Communal Award dispute in a more historical perspective: even though the (Muslim) separate electorate was in practice since 1909, the rural Muslims did not realize its full political sway until much later, apparently, not until the 1920s. He recited names like Nawab Salimullah, Nawab Shamsul Huda, Nawab Nawab Ali Chowdhury, A.K. Fazlul Huq, Tamizuddin Khan, and quite a few other Muslim leaders of Bengal who were essentially the product of the new political era that started with the “communal electorate” of the Morley-Minto reforms (1909). By 1932, it was hard for the Muslims to give up the obvious political advantages of the Communal Award as my father, looking back, summed it up for me in the mid-1950s. The old separate electorate debate continued in popular historical writings in the post-1947 and post-Bangladesh eras. Grounded on my The Central Legislature in British India … ibid., I found that from 1893 to 1905, the Muslim members’ percentage in the Indian Legislative Council was about 12% while the all-India Muslim population was about 23%. In Bengal, the Muslim representation picture was even worse—while Bengal’s Muslim population was about 52%, only 5.7% of the Bengal Legislative Council members were Muslim up to the 1905 Bengal split. Whatever my father told me about the Communal Award in my undergraduate days was nearly vindicated by my subsequent readings on the subject. Though a highly divisive issue, the separate electorate was a mode of correcting the prevailing imbalance of the Muslim representation in the elected bodies. It was a virtual voice of the “unheard Muslims” beyond the pales of suffrage! However, the glaring disparity in the Hindu-Muslim representation in the legislative institutions before the 1909 separate electorate epoch is rarely available in popular writings except in a few old official reports during the British Raj or in a few historical treatises on the subject. By the 1920s, most Muslim leaders were convinced that Western education and electoral gains would give the Muslims more jobs, patronage, and access to
Eclectic Historiography | 179 power and influence. The mainstream Islamist theologians as well encouraged Muslim masses for Western education, and my father was heartened by the developing Muslim interest in modern education. I remember one of our neighbors hosted such a religious preacher who traveled in a bajra (houseboat) anchored in the river. I do not remember if he preached anything about modern education. My father respected Maulana Keramat Ali, the founder of the Jaunpuri Islamic campaign, who was the author of over 30 books on Islam, history, and travel. But my father was concerned that too much emphasis on the “purification” of Islam might create internal fissure in the diverse Muslim community. To the orthodox Islamists, the purity of their faith deserved the highest priority, but for the politicians, the Muslimness was a potential political force—a rallying ground to fight for their rights and privileges. Strikingly, the Bengali Muslims were more confident after 1921 when a set of political reforms transferred new, still limited though, powers and influence toward the elected leaders in the Indian Central Legislature in New Delhi, pro vincial governments, and local councils. A few well-known Muslim politicians became members of the Bengal provincial executive council in the 1920s. He remembered that the Muslim politicians helped educated Muslims with jobs. To boost their uniqueness even in the rural areas, many educated Muslims donned sherwani, achkan, pajama, long shirt, a cap (often Turkish Fez) in public places. I read from memoirs going back to the 1930s and the early 1940s, the young Muslims had a prickly sensitivity in the villages that they were little more than the “second class” citizens. I knew several such people who, otherwise liberal and secularly inclined, feared that when and if the British left India, the Muslims might suffer even the worse discrimination at the hands of the Hindu upper class7 in what was flaunted as Akhand Bharat (undivided India). The Hindu elite apparently failed to offer an assured “safety-net” for the minorities, and, worse still, the Muslims suffered the indictment that “separatism and communalism” was stirred up by the Muslim League. Soon the headwind of Pakistan demand ruptured whatever was left of the Hindu-Muslim concurrence in Bengal and the larger country. My father, his Muslim colleagues and the elderly neighbors, felt that the (Hindu) bhadralok’s marginalization pushed them to become even more assertive; they were the new political imprints of my father’s generation. To my father, the Hindu elite’s treatment of the Muslims as the “other” people damaged the intercommunal relations at the grassroots. My own take is that majority of the known historical treatises did not acknowledge that the widening Hindu-Muslim rift in British Bengal deserved both social and political mending. The gulf was widening at the top as well as the grassroots: in my father’s cognition,
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ultimately the unresolved social gulf brought Bengal to unprecedented political upheavals in the 1940s. My father’s historiography also touched the Bengali literature. He too had a flair for writing in his younger years and published several articles in the school magazine; yet, he did not pursue that knack in his adult life. He did not encourage me to study literature for a university degree since gainful opportunities in that field were visibly limited. He believed that most of the famous Calcutta-based writers occupied a much higher ground in the Bengali literary world, and they mainly wrote for the educated Hindu audience. Occasionally, he discouraged me while I was already in the College and briefly edited a wall magazine. I guess he was unhappy because the then East Pakistani literary figures did not have great prospects for success as popular writers—he did not see any gainful job prospects for the graduates in literature. With a few exceptions, Muslim writers were not amongst the most successful Bengali novelists of united Bengal. My father, however, believed in the humane and transformational potentials of literature; he deemed that the emerging Bengali literature could have encouraged more intermingling between the Hindus and Muslims. I find some justification of this view in the writings of post-Colonial liberal challengers like Edward Said and Pankaj Mishra. Edward Said implied that most local intellectuals were, in a way, the “native validators” of the Colonial era’s Orientalism. Earlier in British India, a group of Muslim scholars, writers, teachers, and journalists established a Muslim literary identity through their learned activities. With rare exceptions like Kazi Nazrul Islam, the Muslim writers were still on the periphery of Colonial Bengal’s literary mainstream; the Hindu bhadraloks were largely unshaken by such voices from the Muslim literary fringe. My father recalled that initially Nazrul Islam was not so acceptable among the mainstream Bengali authors. On such questions, my father switched back to his favorite theme of more Muslim education without which the growing Muslim writers would have a limited audience. In our village, my father was the only one with books on history, literature, and magazines in addition to the religious books. Without a great success in attracting many Muslim villagers to school and higher education and in the virtual absence of knowledgeable partners in the local Muslim community, my father felt frustrated. He mellowed over the years when his echoes of Sufism and sweep of education fell short of his expectations. Within my family, I did not see any visceral hatred for Hindus even though grumbles against the talukdars and mahajans were embedded in the old and acknowledged hassle. Paradoxically, the Hindu elites were my father’s role model for his academic and professional goals. While he was still struggling with his
Eclectic Historiography | 181 college studies, he would occasionally consult a few Hindu bhadraloks who already had university degrees. Most of my Hindu school friends hailed from the town’s bhadralok families who lived in three “exclusive” sectors of the nearby town. Socializing with them involved walking nearly a couple of miles from my home during the weekends and holidays; and I did not hesitate to walk that distance to hang out with a few of them; in fact, father encouraged me to mingle with such boys from the educated families. While the Hindu bhadralok eagerly rejected the Muslim demands for a “special treatment” on account of their backwardness, most Muslim leaders and their community believed that those were their legitimate socio-economic grievances, not so much of their religious demands. To people like my father, the Hindu upper class tried to delegitimize the Muslim gains sluggishly accumulated through education and professional ladders. Only from the late 1920s, the educated Muslims’ share of government jobs increased very slowly, elderly family friends and former students of the school recounted their earlier frustrations: this is largely accepted by numerous memoirs and historical records that I read over the years. A few bright Muslim graduates got civil service jobs across competitive examinations from the latter half of the 1920s, but a good number of them as well got employment through patronage from the leading Muslim politicians, senior bureaucrats, or influential Muslim zamindars. To be sure, the predominantly Muslim ryots (tenants) and farmers’ demands for land reforms and debt relief scared the (Hindu) bhadraloks many of whom had consigned interests in the zamindari and the rent-receiving system as well as in money-lending business. Nirad C. Chaudhuri was unapologetically candid about this fear in his writings. By the time my grandfather died in 1912, the sad plight of the farmers received only a wisp of attention for their betterment. To follow up an earlier touch on this, my grandfather’s courageous legal challenge against the Raja of Bhawal, at the sunset of the 19th century, was a foreboding of the ground-breaking changes that gradually brought down the harsh zamindari system in the next five decades. He demonstrated his courage and spirit as a ryot against one of the largest zamindars in Colonial Bengal long before the anti-zamindar protests that dominated all-Bengal politics in the 1930s. My father knew about that episode from his father and my elder uncles: it was his small window of understanding the Muslim status on the zamindar-ryot interactions from the past. The new generation of Muslim politicians, evidently more sensitive to the Muslim ryot’s grievances, acquired more institutional clout and political experiences from the quasi-parliamentary institutions and the local councils. They became more astute leaders in the following decades. Subsequently, the land reform
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demands along with reliefs from rural indebtedness were put into practice by stages until the zamindari-based land tenure was finally abolished in 1950. I recall the peripatetic tales of my father’s youth and his contemporaries since the WWI; Abul Mansur Ahmad, an activist writer since the 1920s, wrote in great details about the struggling Muslim tenants in Colonial Bengal and how their demands gained an undeniable pull. At times, I got a feeling that the post 1909-legislative reforms gradually brought the Muslim peasantry more tangible benefits and confidence in Bengal than the old Muslim League even though its aristocratic leaders conducted high-profile lobbying for the Indian Muslims. In our area, the Muslim peasantry had some relief from the zamindar-driven abuses since the Bhawal Raj family was in its internal disarray beginning in the first decade of the 20th century: my father recalled that the Bhawal zamindari, in fact, went under state management with a deputy magistrate as the chief operating officer of the estate; I remember one such official made an annual trip to the school when all the students and teachers dressed up for the officer’s homily. The break between the Muslim landholding class and the Muslim peasants was a departure from the past in the wake of the anti-zamindari drive that had the semblance of a thrust against the Hindu bhadralok only. But the new anti-zamindari political phenomenon worried the Muslim feudal families too. Initially, small peasant associations were formed in most villages of the East Bengal districts; we had such entities in our area but, I heard that they were still dominated by the well-off landholders, not the poor peasants. And those groups led to the rise of the peasant-oriented party called the Krishak Proja Party (KPP) in Mymensingh, Dhaka, Barisal and Faridpur districts. The popularity of the KPP drove its leader A.K. Fazlul Huq (Fazlul Huq/Huq) to power in Bengal after the 1937 election when he became the provincial chief minister. He made history for the Muslims in Bengal. I heard slogans—Sher-e-Bangla Zindabad (Glory to the Tiger of Bengal) at the school and the bazaar in the mid-1940s even though his popularity dipped following his disagreements with Jinnah, the most powerful Muslim League (ML) leader then. For the Muslim constituents, the traditional leadership lost ground even for those who supported Jinnah. My father remembered that the Nawabs of Dhaka no longer enjoyed the old political weight although they were still respected in the district—or parts of it. While the Muslim League became the vanguard of the Pakistan movement, its top leaders still carried the baggage of Muslim feudal prominence and the titled gentlemen whose privileges were not radically different from the Hindu landlords. It was in 1948 or 1949, I remember that one of the Nawabs from Dhaka was unable to hold a public meeting in Kaliganj under public protests led by a young man who was on the go
Eclectic Historiography | 183 in local politics; the Nawab’s motor launch went back to Dhaka. Even the social background of the Muslim League supporters, in our villages, was changing by the 1940s; they were younger and most of them hailed from the ryot families, not the old time landed khandans although some of them were well to do. Their aspirations were amplified while the demand for Pakistan gained an outstanding popularity as the masses dreamed of an ideal polity, as strikingly analyzed by Dr. Tajul Islam Hashmi in his book Pakistan: A Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal 1920–47, Routledge, 2019. While the Muslim feudal families were already in decline in Bengal, the campaign for Pakistan apparently blurred the social differences between the Muslim landed aristocracy and the Muslim ryots. The Pakistan movement unified the Muslims at that time; it melded as a political force for self-determination through an exclusive Muslim state. Those were the new markers in my father’s historical horizon. An example of the new breed of top leaders’ connectivity with their rural counterparts came from my father’s remembrance of an old friend from Narsingdi, currently a district head quarter, about 12 miles from my home. He was a well-off trader and landholder involved both in the KPP and local Muslim League politics since party loyalty was still porous in the villages. My father’s friend carried lobster-size fresh-water prawns as a gift to Fazlul Huq that he fancied much. Though a hearsay, such information signified the rise of Muslim populist leaders who were in touch with the village leaders: it was a new flair in Bengal’s Muslim politics. Such contacts between a rural leader and the provincial chief minister was different from the time when the aristocratic Nawabs were amongst the exclusive patronage givers—only a handful of well-connected people had, earlier, access to them. Occasionally, I read popular stories and overheard personal anecdotes that the post-1937 East Bengali Muslim legislators, some of them wearing lungi, pajama/kurta or sherwani with topi, were different from the old political elites (both Hindus and Muslims) in Calcutta. In the legislative floor, quite a few of them spoke in popular district dialects instead of English, and Fazlul Huq, occasionally, burst into his native Barisali parlance while addressing the Bengal Legislative Assembly. Such historical changes in Muslim leadership came through the inner socio-economic transformation while Muslim identity played a mobilizational role; my father distinguished those changes and shared with family members and friends. What possibly surprised him was the way Muslimness became a de facto political force under his watch-what he lived through was more a reality than an academic discourse. Except the Khilafat movement after the WWI, my family members remembered rare Muslim-led street protests before the 1940s. Most of the time, the Muslims, in our area, stayed away from the Mahatma Gandhi-led
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non-cooperation movements in the 1930s; I have read more about this through my research on the British Indian political development, but it was already a lively anecdote in family remembrances. My father had limited interest in those populist campaigns although he could hardly ignore the growing drumbeats of his colleagues, the students, his villagers, and street politics in his neighborhood.
Notes 1. Mohar Ali, Bengali Reactions to Christian Missionary Activities 1833–1857, Chittagong, Mehrub Publications, 1965. 2. See also Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire, FSG, New York, 2012. 3. This information is also partly based on my younger brother Dr. Waheeduzzaman’s more contemporary collection of my forefathers’ earlier links. 4. See Dhurjati Prasad De, Bengal Muslims in Search of Social Identity 1905–47, UPL, Dhaka 1998. 5. See also Asim Pada Chakraborty, Muslim Identity and Community Consciousness, 1912–36, Minerva, Calcutta, 1993 and Humaira Momen, Muslim Politics in Bengal: A Study of Krishak Proja Party and Elections of 1937, Dacca, 1972. 6. Asim Pada Chakraborty, ibid. 7. See also R. H. Khandker, Jiban Jeman Dekhechi, (Life as I have seen it), Dhaka, 1992.
Memories A Cherag on the Edge of History!
Nestled around a family’s microcosm of a century-old encounters that trailed Colonial Bengal’s history, this book is a pioneering contribution toward the understanding of human experiences—it welcomes scholars, students, and the wide-ranging readers. What began as casual scribbles, what looked like the tumbled tree leaves in my five-part magazine article decades ago, what appeared like a blurry kitab and what lingered like a lethargic script in the computer disk has at last come to its closure. And what began as an intergenerational transmission of memories of a family is a historically rich multi-layered portrayal now! This story has recently gained a fresh global relevance while the past Muslim identity questions and the legacies of the old Hindu-Muslim acrimonies have briskly resurfaced in public discourses. What a rural school Maulvi-teacher once allegorically told my grandfather at the dawn of the 20th century, as cited in Chapters 2, 3, 7, and 8—the “Hindus and Muslims are like two old side-by-side trees whose branches intermingled at the top, but their roots stayed apart”—turned into a reality with the subsequent religious division of Bengal and the Punjab in 1947. To the astute observers, the old specter of “two-nation theory” is still haunting the subcontinent since the BJP, the Hindutva nationalist party, reached the climax of power in 2014! This storyline corresponds to British Bengal’s recurring saga that the Hindu-Muslim distrust was the “elephant in the room” swaying individuals
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and political leaders. Packed with the bygone real-life chore, authentic recollections, anecdotes about factual events, informal interviews, eye-witness accounts, recall of memories, reimagination of genuine personal trek, and past tumbles, this narrative integrates with the larger history of Colonial Bengal. Those legacies are still alive in Bangladesh along with the leftover of old Bengal in modern India. Possibly in 1948 or 1949, once a Hindu classmate vented his frustration to me when he was visiting our outer house for private tuition from my father: “You Muslims wanted a separate state so that you can have more jobs without competing with the Hindus!” I reflected over that class fellow’s gust in the long past. Possibly, he gathered that aversion from his parents or others in his family; this is an anecdote, surely: still, it denoted the tangible social and political gripes that pitted the Hindus and Muslims against each other in those days. This volume’s earlier chapters voiced the Hindu bhadralok’s aggravation toward the rising Muslim push for more jobs and added resources; it was the centerpiece of Colonial Bengal’s 20th-century politics. My childhood recollection was only a wedge of a long string of recounts, partly recorded, but mostly washed away with time. It matters little if one openly admits that the partition (1947) benefitted him/ her or not; objectively, the division helped the multitudes who did not directly suffer its tragic consequences. However, liberal/secular political and intellectual doubts about the divisions of Bengal and the Punjab along religious lines continued without a finality. It is an old wound for many Hindus from East Pakistan/ Bangladesh (or West Pakistan) who left their hearth and home because of that division. The never-ending stories of the devastating partition continue to echo in Bengali novels and movies produced in Calcutta and Bombay, but they hardly capture the grassroots Muslim feelings about the antagonistic rupture. The Indian Muslims who opted for Pakistan too suffered the dreadful loss in job, finance, and real estate since 1947. At a personal level, however, my father’s benefits were few indeed—he became the short-lived Headmaster of his school that he did not enjoy much. Following his retirement, he stretched at three financially troubled schools as the senior-most teacher or the Headmaster for a few years. Most of those institutions failed to pay him the promised salary! And still, he hoped for a better future for his children and it was a shared sentiment in the neighborhood while the schools were filled with students and the comings and goings between our town and Dhaka increased phenomenally. My father changed little; a good book on history or Sufism or a folk song would still make him happy late in life! He did not take advantage of any of his fleeing colleagues to grab their properties at a time when such temptations were hard to check.
Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History! | 187 Neither the local Hindus nor the Muslims in my rural community, apparently, had a single, grand, inflexible, and collective design for the division of Bengal despite the persistent distrust, hostility, and intermittent violence that terrified the two communities in different parts of the big province. Nor did I come across an unmitigated drive for Hindu annihilation in my village or in the neighboring town. I saw trickles of local Hindu elite leaving the town, but it was not a brutal exodus under the guns. Most migrating Hindus from our area were able to transfer their resources to the other side of the border until after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. There were routine contacts between the Hindus and Muslims for education, local administration, school managements, and business. Besides the school and the daily bazaar, the sports, the visiting circus, the seasonal melas, annual dramas, and even Durga pujas attracted crowds of both Hindus and Muslims although the communal tension thinned such gatherings in the 1940s. There were few complete shutdowns in the bazaar while the students took out processions from time to time and the partisan meetings were held in the school football fields. The Hindu-Muslim teachers and students met regularly at the school; there was no visible confrontation amongst them whilst the volatile political temperature had a different trail and a sense of insecurity prevailed in the local Hindu communities. And yet, the Hindu teachers continued to be popular among the students and their parents, but my father felt a growing distance between him and his Hindu colleagues. They avoided political discussion publicly; and yet, hotheads among the Muslim students and younger leaders were no doubt growing as the Hindu-Muslim disputes captured the national and local headlines in the 1940s. My father believed that the two communities could still live side by side in peaceful coexistence if they mutually trusted and respected each other. My father’s Muslim identity was not exclusivist in posture. However, the toxic practice of arson and the billowing smoke of burning houses from villages on the other side of the Lakhya, periodic killings in Dhaka, and violent Hindu-Muslin riots in the cities supplanted sanity by a widening uncertainty in our locality of the 1940s. Most Muslims, whom my father spoke about, did not originally want to break up Bengal even months before independence from the British. Maximum number of Muslim members of the Bengal Legislative Council initially opposed the (1947) division of Bengal, according to anecdotal and historical sources. A modest hope still hung around for a reciprocal accommodation if the Hindu elite did not fear the Muslim majority in a post-Colonial undivided Bengal. Several Hindu families who stayed back in the town and nearby villages were visibly more open to social and personal interactions with the Muslims; most of them were successful in local business and professions. Scarcely months before
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the 1947 partition, I heard that a school mate fell in love with a Hindu girl, the boy’s neighbor in the town—it was a story of interfaith romance in the middle of widespread Hindu-Muslim fear! The father of the teen age girl was, I believe, a local official in those days; he was, I heard, scared of the Muslim boy’s fling with his daughter and sought a transfer from the town. The Hindu-Muslim romance and marriages were not totally unknown though Hindu-Muslim matrimonies were a virtual taboo. There was still personal friendship between Hindus and Muslims, but Hindus were generally petrified by the unprecedented split along the religious lines demarcated by international borders. In late 1947–1948 a Hindu talukdar, my father’s old class mate, occasionally stopped by our outer house to make his last ditch efforts to collect arear land revenue from the neighborhood’s ryots: in his frustrations, he occasionally sighed to my father: “Your neighbors are not paying my taxes because of Pakistan, but remember that the new state for the Muslims could be a “chaler hater moa,” (the candy in the hands of kids)!” My father was usually respectful to his old class fellow who inherited portions of talukdari in our and contiguous villages. That locally prominent bhadralok later left the town, but his periodic anger with his tenants was still alive in our family remembrances. The existence of Pakistan possibly took a little time before it hit the remains of the Hindu elite in my region, conceivably not before the wider Hindu-Muslim rioting in 1950. A retired teacher at our school, my father’s senior colleague, built a one-storied brick house just a few yards outside the school boundary in 1946–1947. The hearsay was that he had invested all his paltry pension fund to build that brickbuilt house. Though he was a Hindu, most likely, he did not think that Bengal’s division was inevitable, or personally, it would not affect him so adversely. A faction of the top Bengali politicians then—Hindus as well as Muslims—unsuccessfully tried to keep Bengal as a united and autonomous entity of a Confederal/Federal India. Most likely, that retired schoolteacher was amongst those who were cautiously optimistic that he would be able to live in a peaceful community in post-Colonial Bengal as he lived in that Muslim-majority neighborhood for decades. Faintly I remembered him supervising the construction work while going to my school and returning home barely months before the 1947 partition was announced. Nonetheless, my father had misgivings about that house in case his colleague decided to migrate to India when Pakistan became a reality. And that happened after 1947 when the old teacher sold or abandoned the house and left the country or died. To my grasp, there were different tiers of identity feelings and Hindu-Muslim relations throughout the turbulent episodes in 1946–1947, and
Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History! | 189 disparate insights of the split are amongst the legacies of the independence from the British in 1947. The mass exodus of people between India and Pakistan that accompanied the untold miseries, human suffering, and horrendous cost of lives and properties marred the joy of freedom from the British Raj. And yet, the 1947 divide brought a sense of relief, confidence, and cultural self-assurance for the Muslims in the Muslim-majority districts of Bengal and for the Hindus in the Hindu-majority districts on the Indian side: it was an escape from the fatigue after a long stretch of the World War II, famine, political turmoil, Hindu-Muslim rioting and insecurity. For most Muslims in the Muslim-majority districts that fell into Pakistan, there was an overwhelming sense of victory! Historically, it felt like a vindication of Muslim victory since Nawab Sirajodowla (1772–1757) was virtually defeated by the East India Company in the Battle of Plassey 1757. In real life, the old grip of the Hindu bhadralok was already sliding since the late 1930s or even since earlier time. A sense of uncertainty and fear prevailed among the Hindus across the gamut, but in my ancestral and neighboring villages, I did not come across an overriding vengeance on the Hindus. For the Hindu elite in Calcutta, on the other end, the divided Bengal meant a break from the Muslim-dominated united Bengal that would have been an effective “Pakistan by another name.” I gathered such awareness from my elders while it was a popular talking point in the succeeding years after 1947. Numerous writers have recounted the shattering human travails of the second split of Bengal and the first division of the Punjab. Most of the 1947 partition deliberations and popular writings rightly focus on the enormous suffering and dislocation of millions in the aftermath of the falling-out; however, few of those stories go into the social backdrop of that division and, except several fictional tales and autobiographical accounts, serious grassroots studies of the Hindu-Muslim relations in rural Bengal are rare indeed. Historians, scholars, academics, and politicians continue to debate about what really happened in 1947 and who got what from that split—a deeply divisive event in the British Indian Colonial history; however, those top-down reflections rarely rebound the village-level tremors, which I tried to bring forward in the volume. The mindset that wrecked Hindu-Muslim relations in united Bengal grew incrementally over the long historical voyage—most oral reminiscences of elderly people whom I interviewed stressed that sight. The mood in my neighborhood and the country at large, as my parents recollected the early 1940s, was hugely different from what they saw in the past. A few of my seniors in the school who led the student processions shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans were our local
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“political gurus;” they were very much in touch with their counterparts in the Dhaka University. The Salimullah Muslim Hall (S.M. Hall), the premier student residence of the University was a dynamic partner in Bengali Muslim politics from 1942 to 1947. I was one of the resident House Tutors of that famed student lodging from 1964 to 1968. At least one retiring House Tutor (simultaneously with his teaching position at the University), the outgoing Head Clerk, and one elderly peon recollected the political activities of the late 1930s and 1940s—the S.M. Hall was the popular venue of meetings, seminars and protests of the Muslim students, politicians, writers, and prominent citizens. I remember a few of the student front-runners in my school in the 1940s—later in life, several of them became the mid-level leaders of the Muslim League (M.L.), the Awami League (A.L.) and the National Awami Party (N.A.P.), the largest political parties in the 1950s and 1960s (the M.L. was on sharp decline since its massive defeat in the 1954 East Pakistan provincial legislature elections). Shortwave radio was another tie with the outside world in the tension-filled 1940s, but most villagers did not own radio sets. One classmate from my village improvised an old headphone as a receiving set with a few pieces of silicon rocks and a long outside antenna for shortwave receptions. He was hooked to listening news from the All-India Radio in Calcutta even though the reception was poor and unpredictable; he shared the news with his friends. However, we often listened to the radio in the bazaar—it was owned by a Marwari businessman who, sometimes, put the radio set outside his room so that more people could hear news from Calcutta or Delhi. Such bazaar crowds calmly listened to the radio and discussed the news amongst themselves. We shared the newspapers subscribed by a few families in the neighborhood. But rumors coming from Dhaka affected the political mood in our town and the adjoining villages. A few of the senior politicians, with experiences in Colonial Bengal’s politics, whom I once interviewed in the late 1960s for a study of the decline and fall of the Muslim League in East Pakistan had an essentially common message: the Bengal Muslim League did not originally plan for the 1947 partition. They reminded me that even when A.K. Fazlul Huq (Huq) moved the Lahore Resolution (1940) that later came to be known as the Pakistan Resolution, he did not want a divided Bengal; nor did he shut the opportunities for Hindu-Muslim alliance. Historically, it was known that he wanted the Muslim majority to live in peaceful partnership with the influential Hindu minority. His coalition with Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the right wing and openly anti-Muslim Hindu Mahasabha leader, between 1940 and 1943, was a controversial venture to work through a Hindu-Muslim collaboration. My father remembered that Huq lost a big slice of his proverbial
Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History! | 191 popularity on account of that Shyama-Huq alliance cabinet. His dubious partnership was, however, a predecessor to the last somber initiative of Sarat Bose, Abul Hashem, H.S. Suhrawardy, and Kiran Shankar Roy, well-known political actors in the province, for saving Bengal for the impending partition. However, it finally fell through when most Hindu legislators of the Bengal Legislative Assembly voted for the split of Bengal. In his article, “India, West Bengal and East Pakistan,” Hindustan Times, May 10 and 17, 1971, Nirad C. Chaudhuri asserted that Sarat Chandra Bose, an opponent of the 1947 partition, “was slandered in the most shameful manner”. And yet the final break, as my father recalled, came rather abruptly while the British were evidently in a hurry to leave India and even feasibly scared. The Raj was visibly weak at the end of the WWII—its imperial arms were shaky confronting unbridled Indian politics: it was my father’s thought living in a village, but this perception has been endorsed in the contemporary genre of British Indian Colonial history. More than the undeniable failure of the national leaders to compromise on an acceptable distribution of power between the central and provincial governments, the grassroots community also ominously failed to halt the communal dialectic undoubtedly rolling toward the 1947 division. My father felt that the so-called Hindu-Muslim Choa-choi encounters amounted to a “social distance” for the Muslims; they were at the bottom of the social ladder until further enfranchisement offered political leverage to them. More than a personal attitude or prejudice, the Choa-choi became a systemic issue dividing the Hindus and Muslims across the spectrum. That was how he compressed Bengal’s political and social development since the early 20th century. He was, initially, unsure which way would the gathering political storm go. However, it was clear that our districts would not fall on the Indian side, and we need not worry about migrating from our ancestral home if the final division would really come. But an up-front break up of Bengal would end up with the neglected Muslim-majority districts becoming a new entity in Pakistan with Calcutta, the economic hub of Bengal, falling into India. Such thoughts flashed in the rural community as well. I have read such narratives that even Jinnah wanted Calcutta to be a part of the expected eastern wing of Pakistan, and, initially, he was not keen about the partition of Bengal and the Punjab. Not only my father but his colleagues at the school and my seniors among friends and relatives wondered: “Would the Hindus let Calcutta fall into East Bengal—the anticipated eastern province of the expected Muslim-majority Pakistan?” Such gossiping individuals offered an instant answer to such hypothetical questions: “No, the Hindus wouldn’t sacrifice Calcutta to the Muslims!” The local
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Hindu elite appeared to have resolved that it would be better for them to migrate to India instead of living in Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Among the bhadralok, there was no initiative for a long-term intercommunal understanding to continue living in their ancestral neighborhood. The Hindu community was caught in fears and distrust of Muslim treatment of Hindus in Pakistan. Partly those impressions came from the informal adda in the vicinity where I grew up and those jolts reverberated through the 1950s. Such casual congregations, I recall, had few Hindu participants except possibly one whose family lived on the edge of the local bazaar. I do not remember my father ever wishing for a “Hindu-free” East Pakistan, as I look back. He had, however, some strange worries about Delhi falling into India! He visited Delhi once in his lifetime in 1927: still, he carried an impression that Delhi was largely a Muslim city in terms of culture. He identified Delhi more with Sufi shrines, language, food, dress, and traditions even though it was then the capital of the British Raj. I remember him regretting that Delhi fell into Hindustan, an outcome of the 1947 partition; he had the same sensitivity about Agra where the Taj Mahal and numerous Mughal relics were located. He had a nostalgia about those historical places that became parts of India after 1947. I had a cousin who sold leather products in Calcutta; after the partition, he returned in 1950 and later started the same kind of business in the posh New Market in Dhaka. But he thought Calcutta was still a better place for a small entrepreneur like him. My wife remembers that her family wouldn’t have left Calcutta in 1949 had there been no partition: she recollects that her mother did not think about leaving Calcutta even after the “great Calcutta killings” in 1946 though her family hailed from a village near Dhaka. Numerous such Muslims who came back to their ancestral East Bengal after 1947 felt that circumstances really forced them out of Calcutta! Abul Mansur Ahmed’s Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchash Basar and Atma Katha (Fifty Years of Politics as I have seen it and My Autobiography) as well as Tamizuddin Khan’s memoir (The Test of Time, Dhaka, 1989) contained valuable recollections of the Bengali Muslim experiences of the days long gone. Abul Kalam Shamsuddin, a protester since the Khilafat agitation too, wrote on Muslim politics of Bengal in the 1930s and 1940s. I have gone through half a dozen published and unpublished memoirs/autobiographies as well as oral reminiscences of retired bureaucrats, doctors, teachers, politicians, police inspectors, and lawyers who mainly grew up in the rural settings between the two World Wars; a few of them hailed from nearby towns—several of them were personally known to me for years. Those remembrances helped me to assess the veracity of my family’s “unwritten narratives” that I gathered from relatives and the contemporary published
Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History! | 193 and unpublished sources. Notwithstanding the 1947 partition and periodic communal tension, the day to day day-to-day interactions with the Hindu students, friends, teachers, and traders continued for a couple of years until the Hindu migration accelerated in and around my hometown. Most popular recounts of the 1947 split ended up in blame games! My father regretted that the partition became the proverbial lathi to beat up the Muslims for the catastrophic division of Bengal. For his part, my father laid the partition-blame on the Hindu Mahasabha, particularly its leader Shyama Prasad Mukherjee (1901–1953), the Hindu Mahasabha leader, who, according to his recollections, warned that the Muslims should go back to their ancestral land. I could not verify that alleged declaration, but such perceptions evidently undermined any hope for a workable Hindu-Muslim amity. I enjoyed my personal companionship with my Hindu class fellows most of whom were discreet in bringing up politically sensitive topics; genuinely, I felt sad when they suddenly left the area immediately before or after 1947: partly, I unloaded those remembrances in Chapters 1 and 7 of this book. So far, Joya Chatterji’s1 post-modern thesis that it was the Hindu bhadraloks who were largely responsible for the 1947 Bengal division has not yet been rejected, lock, stock and barrel, either in India or in Bangladesh or Pakistan (at least I am not aware of it!). In a tribute, my father evidently foretold Joya Chatterji’s subsequent analysis of Bengal’s political history. She partially exonerated the Bengali Muslims from the “exclusive blame” for the 1947 Bengal partition—my father too tried to stave off that allegation as he debated the issue with his colleagues in the local school. Another remarkable work that brought up “Hindu politics” as one of the leading causes of India’s division (mainly in the Punjab) was Neeti Nair’s Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Harvard, 2011. Nirad C. Chaudhuri failed to appreciate the Muslim ryot’s grievances against the zamindars/talukdars and the mahajans (moneylenders) in Bengal. He was, however, correct that it was the new-found Muslim political power that undermined the Hindu elite’s long-held supremacy. The fact that Bangladesh did not reverse the 1947 division by joining India after 1971 sustained that the bequests of the 1905 and 1947 divisions were not entirely lost and buried under the rubbles of the 1971 bloody war of independence from Pakistan. A few popular discourses virtually conceded that the country’s 1947 split was possibly the only viable option in the mid 1940s, and, again, its peaceful status quo was possibly the best choice for the region in the foreseeable future. With hindsight, independent Bangladesh is amongst the “spoils of the 1947 division,” “the bricks and mortars” of sovereign Bangladesh; and yet many Bangladeshis/Indians may
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not accept such discernments. Denial of history by way of national narcissism and relentless partisanship is a dangerous predicament for national unity! The history-making split of old Bengal presumably carried a penetrating vision for the future transformation of the eastern wing of Pakistan into independent Bangladesh as it actually happened in 1971 while (West) Bengal had, so far, demonstrated little initiative to break away from India to become an independent state or to reunite with Bangladesh. That a separate and sovereign Bangladesh would have been impossible without the earlier 1947 break up is the obvious historical reality that is largely missing in the Bangladeshi post-independence accounts. Most Muslim predecessors of present Bangladesh were, however, convinced of the added opportunities in the anticipated Pakistan, and that was what happened since 1947. By the 1940s, the new band of Muslim leaders were undeniably confident to push ahead with or without the partition of the province. My old extended family chit chat was about a distantly related gentleman, a member of the old Bengal Civil Service (BCS) cadre, who was promoted to the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), the top national bureaucratic ladder in Pakistan after 1947. But it was the general trend after 1947, which bolstered the nascent Muslim middle class struggling from Colonial Bengal. My father knew a couple of them who were college graduates in the 1930s. Not long ago, Abdul Hannan, a retired civil servant of my age wrote in Dhaka that the gigantic accomplishments of the Muslims in East Bengal since 1947 was the “missing narrative” to many in Bangladesh2. It was indeed a historical statement rarely brought up in scholarly or popular literature in Bangladesh. The social and political transition of the rural Muslims of Bengal that slogged since early 20th century was largely overlooked in the post-1947 genre of popular and academic writings and political rhetoric in what was East Pakistan. It is rarely acknowledged that the pre-1947 Bengal’s civil society was an uneven playground for the Muslims until the 1940s. One obvious explanation is that East Bengal/East Pakistani intellectual and political establishments were more engaged in redressing the inter-wing disparities between the two parts of Pakistan: the pre-partition social backwardness, political struggle, and also a measurable human resource development in East Pakistan since 1947 were either deliberately and politically discounted or it was subtly incorrect to acknowledge those gains while East Pakistanis were demanding a reparation of the widening inequality between the two wings of Pakistan. While the pre-1971 political history suffers from an institutional neglect in Bangladesh and while the pre-1947 history is nearly a lost chapter there, the country is frayed between the liberals and secularists on the one end, and, on the other, those who plausibly refused to eschew their deeply held Muslim history,
Memories: A Cherag on the Edge of History! | 195 identity, and religiosity. In course of this writing, Bangladesh wavered between those two identities within one state boundary, which is, however, not unprecedented in history. The incoherence in Bangladesh’s national imagination is undeniable: simultaneously, it wants to be a secular as well as a Muslim state! Its unsettled ambivalence over identity is entrenched in its two historical failures: first, it was the failure in 1946–1947 to unify the Hindus and Muslims as United Bengal through Bengali, a common linguistic national heritage, and secondly, it was the catastrophic failure in 1971 to keep East and West Pakistan united on the basis of Islam, the common religion shared by the majority population in the two disparate parts of Pakistan. The identity standoff looms large at the historical cusp when the old sparkle of homogenized secularism is on a global meltdown. Strikingly, India, the largest multiethnic democracy with a secular constitution is gripping with a rancorous array of Hindu-Muslim hostility since the spectacular rise of the BJP, the Hindu nationalists there. The contemporary experiences are somewhat reminiscent of what our parents and grandparents intermittently faced in Colonial Bengal and larger British India: the Hindus and Muslims are still confronting each other about the way they perceived themselves and about who got what in the old days and in the ongoing time. The contemporary resonance of this volume makes the narrative so relevant today. This is not a chronological volume of history; nor do I claim this as a traditional memoir or an autobiography. The story rings like a protracted journey for me, my family, and the larger terrain; I am grateful to all those who helped me morally and intellectually in this process. The connectivity and empathy that humans habitually search between themselves and the conventional history or politics books are, time and again, missing. We cannot turn the mosaic of the past into a straight-line recount that we wish we could, as if, watch from a distance through a telescope. Political expediency and the patriotic tidal wave of the present cannot turn back what happened in the past. Memory is often a positive energy while the dividing line between memory and conventional history is customarily thin. By most accounts, even brutal dislocation cannot erase memories from the past; plausibly, a mission impossible; no matter if it is a partisan or patriotic swagger, or an authoritarian pitch! I almost felt my ancestors’ footsteps in my creative delight while I couldn’t discount that my present is powered by my past: I am someone’s son and someone’s father, and the two sides are interconnected in the domain of history. Memories, though sometimes painful, could be flexible resources to heal animosity, maintain dignity and confidence; they are indeed the primary elements of identity’s historiography, which die hard. For me, the waft of history has a
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solid message—identity simultaneously belongs to what we were in the past—as my father narrated and what we are at the present! Paradoxically, there is hardly any fixed identity or an inflexible culture even though the nationalist historians, with their respective shibboleths, may disagree on this issue. Is it then a parallel existence that we may feel more than we can show? I have a sense that my grandfather possibly felt more as a Muslim than he could demonstrate it through a more rigorous practice of the sharia, a view that may not be acceptable to all. My father argued that Islam, as a world religion, had built-in accommodating openings; those pluralistic views influenced his historical comprehensions. When we try to quash the distinctive self by insisting on uniformity and orthodoxy—be it national, linguistic, ethnic, or religious, it can recoil back on us. Now and then, I cannot help feeling that a nation as much as an individual is more like a ship that needs both a logbook and a rudder, as implied by Jamal Mahjoub in his The Drift of Latitudes, London, 2006. We should know where we are heading, but we should also know our earlier ports of call as that author hinted. If I clasp the vast canvas of Colonial Bengal’s Muslim identity, religiosity and culture and the Hindu-Muslim encounters exclusively through my family trajectory, my naïveté would then be as good as foolishly trying to put the confluence of Padma, Meghna, Jamuna—three gigantic rivers of Bangladesh in a water pitcher! Reading Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, (Vintage, New York, 1982) gave me an instinct that memories could gush like “spark plugs.” May be, but I did not thump-open my memories! There is something magical in sailing through engrossing recollections: the embers of riveting memories remind a slow burning Cherag—the oil lamp, an enduring Sufi flame metaphor. It smolders delicately, but, for sure, it fights darkness and ignorance! Meandering through oral narratives, published and unpublished sources, and the acknowledged history books, I have gathered an intimate understanding about Colonial Bengal and its contemporary legacies. What is apparently a memory-focused narrative also carrying the larger multi-voiced historical ambiance of old Bengal in British India. Promisingly, this narrative would be a bridge between its days of yore and future national imagination for Bangladeshis. This journey, however, has a global lesson: for political or other reasons, an individual, a group, and a nation could possibly hide memories, but those efforts would not erase history. In summing up, this sojourn gave me an insight about who am I while it has blessed me with an inner light, enlightenment, brotherhood, peace, and consciousness. Hope that fluorescence will fall on my readers too!
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Notes 1. Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and the Partition: 1932–1947, Cambridge University Press, 1984. 2. Abdul Hannan, “The Impact of partition on East Bengal Muslims,” Holiday, 9/1/2017, Dhaka.
Abbbas, Zaheer. Construction of Muslim Identity in Colonial Bengal, (M.A. Thesis at the North Carolina University, Chapel Hill), 2010. Ahmad, Kamruddin. The Social History of East Pakistan, Dhaka, 1967. Ahmed, Abu Mansur. Amar Dekha Rajnitir Manchass Basar (Fifty Years of Politics As I have Seen It), Dhaka, 1999. Ahmed, Rafiuddin. The Bengal Muslims 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity, Oxford, 1981. Ahmed, Sufia. Muslim Community in Bengal 1884–1912, UPL, Dhaka (Second Edition), 1996. Aiyar, Sana. “Fazlul Huq, Region and Religion in Bengal: The Forgotten Alternative of 1940–43,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 42, No. 6, 2008, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1991. Anisuzzaman. Muslim Manas O Banglar Sahitya, Muktadara, Dhaka, 1969; Muslim Banglar Samayikipatra (Journals of Muslim Bengal 1831–1930), Dhaka, 1969; and Atma Katha. (Autobiography), Dhaka 1999. Bose, Neilesh. Recasting The Nation: Language, Culture and Islam in Colonial Bengal, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014. Broomfield, John H. Elite Conflict in a Plural Society, University of California Press, 1968. Broomfield, John H. “The Forgotten Majority: Bengal Muslims and September 1918” in D.A. Low (ed.) Soundings in Modern South Asian History, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968. Butalia, Urbashi. The Other Side of Violence: Voice from the Partition of India, New Delhi, Viking, 1998. Chatterjee, Kum Kum. The Cultural History of Early Modern India: Persianization and Mughal, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.
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Chatterjee, Partha. Bengal 1920–1947, The Land Question, K. P. Bagchi and Co., Calcutta, 1984. Chishty, Muhammad Shamsul Haque. Alone in the Breech, (an autobiography of a retired civil servant in Bangladesh), Dhaka, 2011. Datta, Pradip Kumar. Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Early 20th Century Bengal, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999. Eaton, Richard. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204–1760, Berkeley, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996. Gangopadya, Sunil. Purba Pachim, Ananda Publishers, Calcutta, 2012, Vol I. 2012. Ghosh, Shyamali. “Fazlul Huq: Muslim Politics in Pre-Partition Bengal,” International Studies, JNU, Delhi, July 1, 1974. Hardy, Peter. The Muslims in British India, Cambridge, 1972. Hasan, Mushirul. Nationalism and Communal Politics in India, Delhi, 1979. Hashmi, Taj-Ul Islam. Pakistan: A Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal 1920–47, Boulder, Westview Press, 1992. Hossain, Shaukat Ara. Politics and Society in Bengal 1921–36: A Legislative Perspective, Dhaka, Bangla Academy, 1991. Huq, Mohammad Enamul. A History of Sufism in Bengal, Dhaka, Asiatic Society, 1975 (It also has a Bengali version: Vange Sufi Probab, 1935). Hussain, Abul. Bangali Mussalmaner Sikhsha Shamsya, Dhaka, 1928. Iqbal, Sir Mohammad. Six Lectures on the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore, 1930. Islam, Maidul. “Imagining Indian Muslims: Looking through the Lens of Bollywood’s Cinemas,” Indian Journal of Human Development, Sage, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2007. Jalal Khan, Q.M. Bangladesh: Political and Literary Reflections on Divided Country, Peter Lang, New York, 2018. Karim, K. Nazmul. Changing Society in India and Pakistan, Oxford University Press, 1956. Khan, Mohammad Akram. Mustafa Charit, Calcutta, 1925. Khan, Mosarrap H. “ The Construction of Bengali Muslim Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century and Early Twentieth Century,” Café Dissensus Every Day, ( an online liberal magazine in New York), July 15, 2017. Khan, Muinuddin Ahmad. The History of the Faraidi Movement 1818–1906, Karachi, Pakistan Historical Society, 1965. Khandker, Rezaul Haque. Jiban Jeman Dekhesi (Life as I Have Seen It), Dhaka, 1992. Mahbub, Raihana. Britainer Rupashi Bangla O Amader Katha (An Autobiographical Account), Dhaka, 2015. Majeed, Abdul. AKBARUDDIN 1895–1978, Bangla Academy, 1987. McLane, R. John. “The Decision to Partition of Bengal,” Daily Star, October 21, 2019. Momen, Humaira. Muslim Politics in Bengal: A Study of Krishak Praja Party and the Elections 1937, Dhaka, Sunny House, 1972. Mukherjee, Ishan . Mukherjee, U. N. Hindus: A Dying Race. Bengal, 1909. Mullick, A. R. Amar Jeeban Katha O Bangladesher Mukti Sangram, (My Life and Bangladesh Liberation Movement), Agami Prakashani, Dhaka, 1995
Bibliography | 201 Nair, Neeti. Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2011. Nair, M.B. Politics in Bangladesh (A Study of Awami League: 1949–58), New Delhi, Northern Books Centre, 1990. Nash, Geoffrey. Writing Muslim Identity, Continuum, London, 2012 Pada, Asim. Muslim Identity and Community Consciousness, Calcutta, 1993. Prasad De. Bengal Muslims in Search of Social Identity 1905–1947, UPL, Dhaka, 1998. Rahim, Mohammad Abdur. Social and Cultural History of Bengal, Karchi, 1967. Rahman, Mahbubur. Kisu Smriti, Kisu Driti, Dhaka, 1987. Rashid, Harunur. The Foreshadowing of Bangladesh: Bengali Muslim League and Muslim Politics 1906–1947, Dhaka, University Press Limited, 1987. Rashiduzzaman, Mohammad. “Bangladesh at 26: Encountering Bifurcated History and Divided National Identity,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Villanova University, Pennsylvania. Spring, 1998 and “The Liberals and the Religious Right in Bangladesh,” Asian Survey, University of California Press, Berkeley, November, 1997. ———. The Central Legislature in British India 1921–47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, Peter Lang, 2019. ———. Politics and Administration in the Local Councils: A Study of Union and District Councils in East Pakistan, Oxford University Press, 1968. Rob, Abdur. A.K. Fazlul Huq: Life and Achievements, Lahore, Feroz Sons, 1967. Rolin Mainuddin, Religion and Politics in Developing World: Explosive Interactions, Taylor and Francis, 2002. ———. “Bangladesh at 26: Encountering Bifurcated History and Divided National Identity,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Villanova University, Pa. Spring, 1998 and “ The Liberals and the Religious Right in Bangladesh,” Asian Survey, University of California Press, Berkeley, November, 1997. Roy, Asim. The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal, Princeton, Princeton University, Press, 1983. Roychaudhury, Tapan. The World in Our Times: Personal Memories and Social History of East Bengal, Princeton, 2012. Sarkar, Sumit. The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903–1908, New Delhi, People’s Publishing House, 1973. Sen, Shila. Muslim Politics in Bengal 1937–47, New Delhi, Impex India, 1976. Shah, Muhammed. In Search of an Identity: Bengali Muslims 1880–1940, Kolkata, KP Bagchi & Co, 1996. Shamsuddin, Abu Jafar, Atma Smriti, Dhaka, 2016. Shaikh, Askar Ibne, Farruk, Mohammad Osman and Azad, Abid (ed.), Dr. M.O Ghani: Kirti o Khetiman Akti Jiban, Dhaka, 1991. Siddique, Ambassador M. Osman, Leaps of Faith: An Immigrant’s Odyssey of Struggle, Success and Service to His Country, TransconPublishing, 2000. Truschke, Audrey. Aurangzeb: Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, Stanford, 2017. Uddin, Sufia M. Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity and Language in an Islamic Nation, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Wasti, Syed Razi. Lord Minto and the Indian Nationalist Movement 1905–1910, Oxford University Press, 1964.
A achkan, pajama, Sherwani and Turkish Red Fez 31, 77–89, 136, 179 adda x, 2, 51, 92, 192 Afsaruddin (Afsar) 55 Ahmad, Abul Mansur 39, 81, 88, 122, 139, 152, 182 Ahmed, Benazir 41–42 Alauddin (or Alabdi in abbreviation, my grandfather) 48–73, 134, 155 Almost a new brand in our village leadership 128 An absorbing quest between memory and history 5 Ananda Math 150 Ansar 120 Apparent gains for East Bengali Muslims since 1947 164 ashraf, aristocratic xii, 8, 107
Attar, Fariduddin 103, 105 Aulia, Nizamuddin 94 Autobiography, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri xiii, xv, 12–13, 17–19, 37, 39, 41, 129 A way out of the colonially foisted individuality 1
B Badhaykars 54, 62 Badruzzaman, M. (Badru, my father, in abbreviation) x–xiii, xvi, 3–15, 17– 42, 47–51, 55–57, 59–61, 66–69, 71–75, 91–106, 107–113, 115–123, 126–129, 136–145, 147–159, 162–183, 186–188, 190–194, 196 Chronicler of cultural history 15
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Identity and dress 77–81, 85, 88 Muslim identity was not exclusivist 187 Own version of the pre-British Muslim Rule 25, 169–170 Passion for spreading education among young Muslims 75 Spiritual universe was textured 6 Student stint in Dhaka College (1915–19) 73–74, 158
Baijis 84 Bande Mataram 138, 150 Bangladesh did not reverse the 1947 division 193 Bangladesh is amongst the “spoils of the 1947 division” 193 Barzenda Akhtar Khatun (my mother) 48, 65, 85, 92–106, 124, 140, 153, 176 Anecdotes 2, 4, 41 annual naiar 79 Arabic-Persian-Urdu loaded Bengali 3 Head covering 83 Maiden name 48 Role in family 165
Basha (temporary rented residence) 118 Bauls 31, 44, 69, 76, 92, 93, 95, 100, 162 Bengal Muslim League did not originally plan for the 1947 partition 190 Bengali Muslims from East Bengal generally supported the 1905 Bengal division 155 Beparis (traders) 114 Bhadralok, British Raj xii, xiii, 6, 11–14, 18–20, 28, 30, 34–36, 39–41, 47, 49–50, 60–61, 69, 81, 83, 85, 87–88, 107, 109, 112, 115, 121– 122, 124–126, 129, 130–131, 134, 136–140, 142–143, 145, 148, 153, 157, 169, 171, 173, 179–181, 186, 188–189, 192–193
Bhawal Raja 168 “Bhuter Ghali” (the Ghost’s Lane), Dhaka 158 Biharis 34–36 Bikrampur 47, 57, 131 “Blame it on the Muslims” and their social marginalization sustained the Hindu-Muslim estrangement in Colonial Bengal 29 Blend of Sufi attachments and folk songs 101 Bose, Subash Chandra 103, 143–144 Brahmin 40, 130–131, 154 Brief Tenure of East Bengal as a separate province 158 British East India Company 125, 145 British historiographers allegedly “magnified the Muslim tyranny 170
C Calcutta (now Kolkata) 11, 13, 20, 34– 38, 42–43, 51–52, 84–86, 88–89, 107–109, 115–118, 125–126, 133, 139, 141, 145, 149–150, 157, 166, 183, 186, 189–192 Central Legislative Assembly, Indian 140 Chasm between Hindus and Muslims 136 Chatterji, Joya 12, 151 Chaudhuri, Nirad Chandra xiii, xv, 12– 13, 17–21, 27, 29, 31, 37–42, 84, 87, 129, 136–137, 181, 191, 193 Chaura 22, 24, 58, 108 Choi-na-choi (touching and not touching), Choa-choi xii, 140, 191 Chowdhury, Nawab Nawab Ali (1863– 1929) 37–38, 178 Chowkbazar 74, 78–79, 128
Index | 205 Christian missionary presence and the Catholic priests 167 Clive, Robert 43 The Communal Award 171, 178 Communal Electorate 141, 178, 12 Congress Party, Indian National Congress Party 12, 29, 32, 122, 142–143, 146, 153, 157, 171, 173 Congress Party owed its support and resources to the landowning class 122 Conservative Muslims periodically challenged the liberal secularists in Bangladesh 170 Cultural dominance of the Hindu bhadralok 88
D Dalals (jute traders/middlemen) 114 Das, C. R. 29, 44, 173 Data collection strategies ix Dhaka (Dacca) 2, 4, 8–10, 23–26, 35–42, 51, 56, 69, 72, 78–80, 86, 97, 100, 107–109, 115–119, 121, 123–124, 126–128, 141–142, 145, 149, 158–159, 167, 177, 187, 190, 194 Dhaka University (University of Dhaka) 26, 28, 38, 77–78, 84–85, 122–123, 128, 141, 144, 152, 158–159, 161, 163–164, 190 Dhars 49, 135 Dhikr 96–97, 100, 102 Dhoti 14, 83–89, 135 Doa (blessings) 66, 76, 98 Dress as a contentious identity expression 77–89 Drifting Sadhus 95
Durbin, a Persian newspaper in Calcutta, 1854–1858 166 Durga puja 135, 187
E East Bengali Muslim Legislators 183 East Bengal Muslim achievements after 1947 are among the “missing narratives” to many in Bangladesh 194 East Bengal Muslim League 190 East India Company 10, 43, 58, 137, 150, 154, 166–168, 189 Eid Prayers 110 Election of 1946 32 Existential Slog and Identity Imagination 47–61 Explanatory Notes 89–90 Extraordinary magical power of the Pirs 72
F Faizul Huq (son of A. K. Fazlul Huq) xvi, 37–38, 141–143 Faraizis 176–177 Farsi literary style inspired some wellknown Bengali poets 149 Fazlul Huq A. K. x, 37, 51, 122, 133, 140, 178, 182, 190 Few Muslims resided in the Munsefpur secto 131 Fez and Red Turkish Fez 31, 77–82, 136, 179 First group of Hindus who left our areas after 1947 34 For the (Hindu) elite in Calcutta the divided Bengal meant a break from Muslim-dominated united Bengal 189
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G Ghani, Dr. M. O. xvi, 163 Ghazals 84, 149 Girasth 54, 62, 69, 111 Girasth families 111, 128 Goddess Kali 29, 42 Government officers and Babus 59 Grassroots communities also ominously failed to halt communal dialectics 191 Great Bengal Famine (1943) 7, 22, 31 Guha, Professor Ranajit 169
H Hashmi, Tajul Islam xvii, 183 Hastings, Warren 26, 43 Hijab 82–83 Hindu bhadraloks suffered an appalling sense of loss after 1947 145 Hindu-Muslim rioting in 1940s and 1950s 2, 20, 85, 188–189 Hindu teachers and students were uncomfortable as Muslim activism heated up 30 Hindu theological version 71 History is not a neatly stitched tapestry 162 Holiday xv, 13, 17, 19 Hookah (the smoking bubble) 51, 54–55, 57, 70 Huq-Shamay partnership 143
I Identity imagination was like a fracturing chrysalis 1
Identity simultaneously belongs to what we were and what we are at the present 196 “If you add your own memories with your father’s, you will get one hundred years of history!” (A favorite and inspiring saying of my father) xi, 1, 15 Indian Constitutional changes (1935) 141 Islam, Kazi Nazrul 44, 172, 180
J Jalal, Hazrat Shah 96 Jalali pigeons (kabutar) 96 Jinnah, M. A. 32, 39, 146, 171, 173, 182, 191 Jinn-ghost stories, anecdotes and folklores … are worthy of a slot in history 4
K Kaliganj 2, 21, 30, 34, 52, 108, 116–117, 119, 129–131, 144–145 Kaliganj High School xvi, 30, 51, 74, 130, 148 Kalki-smoking dervishes 3, 70, 93, 103 Karim, A. K. N. (author of Changing Society in India and Pakistan, Oxford, 1956) 122 Kayastha 131 Khandaker, R. H. xvi, 144, 148, 150 Khandani/Sharif families did not physically take part in the cultivation of land 124 Khilafat Movement, Khilafatists, Indian 32, 81, 139, 158, 173, 183
Index | 207 Kishorganj 18, 23, 38, 41–42, 129–130, 136, 147, 164 Kitab, Memories are like a worn-out kitab 18 Krishak Proja Party (KPP) 182 Kuttis 10, 118
L Lakhya (a river) 9, 26, 34 52, 71, 105, 135, 187 Landowning Muslim elites 168 Langar Khana (kitchen serving free food to the poor) 120 “Larke Lenge Pakistan,” the most popular slogan (in the 1940s) 32, 44 Liberal and secular doubts about the division of Bengal 186
M Madrassa 60, 63, 97, 108, 119, 155, 163 Maghreb, prayer 76 Mahajati Mandir 144 Majis 52, 54, 62 Mannats 72, 76 Maximum number of Muslim lawmakers of Bengal Legislative Council initially opposed the 1947 division of Bengal 187 Methodology (Ways and Means) of the study ix–xiv, 1–15 Mindset that wrecked Hindu-Muslim relations 189 The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (by Arundhati Roy) 161 Most of my Hindu classmates were from the (Hind) bhadralok families 181 Murid 66, 76, 94, 105
Muslim articulation of worldly grievances 39 Muslim community haltingly emerged from the cocoon of self-denial 7 Muslim depictions of the 1905 Bengal division 18 Muslim feudal families already in decline 183 Muslim girasthas had their own snobbery 127 Muslim Khandan 10, 19, 83–84, 107, 121–124, 129, 152, 154, 168 Muslim Khandans had possible external ancestry 122 Muslim League 32, 42, 115, 120, 140, 156–157, 176, 179, 182–183, 190 Muslim members of the apex legislative body (Indian Central Legislative Assembly) 146 “Muslim Other” and “Muslim fear” 141 Muslims of British Indian Bengal had two conceivable options 147
N Naaqsbandi, Bahauddin 97 Namaj (Muslim prayer) 72, 76, 104 Nawabs of Dhaka 37, 177, 182 “Never Apologize for Being a Muslim!” 133 Nilkuthi 26, 43 Nuri (Nur Jahan, grandmother) 48, 52–56, 59, 61, 63–75, 134
O Ola Devi, goddess for fighting cholera 65 Once a Hindu classmate vented his anger over the 1947 division 186 Our outer house was a rendezvous of the religious fakirs 31
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of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal
Parees 4 Pakistan movement unified the Muslims at that time 183 Partition of Bengal (1905) 8, 28, 31–32, 41, 139, 142, 156, 191 Personal friendship between the Hindus and Muslims 188 Popular recounts of the 1947 split 193 Post-1857 Mutiny 10, 153 Primary Questions germane to this work xi–xiv
Said, Edward 180 Salimullah Muslim Hall (S.M. Hall) 88, 159, 190 Sarkar, Sir Jadhunath 24 Shalwar-Kamiz 83, 89 Sherwani 78–81, 84, 86–89, 179, 183 Shifting demographics in the schools, adjoining villages, and towns 2 “shudda” Bengali 27 Sitala Devi, goddess for fighting smallpox 65 Social and political transition of the rural Muslims of Bengal 194 Solace in religion and spiritual readings 98 Sonargaon 108, 123–124, 148 Spiritual culture of Colonial Bengal 96 Sufi hospitality 95 Sufi pull of humanitarianism 137 Sufis, Sufism 3, 22, 44, 58, 76, 94–96, 100, 137, 175, 180, 186 Suleh-e-Kul 3–4, 153 Surge of non-Bengali refugees in my neighborhood 126
Q Quest for Sufism in a rural community (in Bengal) 91–107 The Quran 27, 49, 60, 64–67, 72, 96, 94, 100–101, 151, 176–177
R Rahman, Mahbubur xvi, 39, 88, 144 Raja of Bhawal 52, 57–58, 84, 181 Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) 166 Ramadan 55, 63, 72, 102, 129, 151 Red Turkish Fez had a long history in Muslim identity 79 Relegation of the Muslims in social and political spheres 29 Replacement of Persian as the official language with English in 1835 165 Rezu Chacha 96–106 Roy, Arundhati 161 Rumi, Maulana 94 Rural indebtedness 121, 182 Ryots and peasants (Muslim) 14, 30, 140
T Tagore, Rabindra Nath 27–28, 43, 172 Talukdars 19, 30, 38, 47, 49, 51, 57–58, 84, 107, 118, 121, 124, 126, 168, 180, 193 Tauba 65–66, 76 Tolstoy, Leo 134 Traditional hold of the rent-receiving families progressively waned 125 Traditional Muslim aristocracy 108
Index | 209 Trickles of Hindus leaving town (after 1947) 187 Truschke, Audrey 24, 137
U Ulema 76, 88, 115, 152, 162, 167 Universal message for human experiences rooted in history 15 Unofficial Council of five village elders (traditional panchayat) 110–111, 128, 130, 132
V Vaishnava 76, 162 Village Self Government Act (1919) 125
W While the branches of the two side by side trees might intermingled at the top, the two trunks have remained separate as ever 146 White firangis rule 55, 154 Why did the Hindus leave immediately before and soon after 1947? 35 World of Bengali bhadralok 137
Z Zahiruddin, Khan Bahadur 146 Zamindars 38, 43, 51, 56–58, 84, 131, 136, 140, 167–169, 171, 193