Unity, the bases of thriving societies: origins

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Category : Shelley

by Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley
The Mughal period: thriving within an empire
IN 1576 Bengal was incorporated into the All India Mughal Empire (V Smith, Oxford History of India, London: Oxford University Press, 1950, p 271). It may, however, be noted that the tradition of independent ‘Bangala’ did not disappear. Even after the Mughals established their stronghold in the land the Bara Bhuyian (Twelve landlords) resisted Mughal rule in the late sixteenth century. Among these stalwarts were Isa Khan of Sonargaon and Mymensingh, Chand Ray and Kedar Ray of Bikrampur, Dhaka and others. In the end, however, the territory became a prosperous part of the Mughal Empire.

The new rulers understood and appreciated the prosperity and potential of the land. They shifted the capital of the province of Bengal from Rajmahal to the more central town of Dhaka (1608 AD). History records the thriving nature of society in Bengal during the Mughal era. Foreign travellers were profuse in their praise for the plenty and prosperity of the land. Thus, Francois Bernier, the French traveller and physician to the Great Mughal Aurangazeb (1659-1666) described Bengal as the most fertile of the provinces of the Mughal Empire in South Asia. He described the wealth and prosperity of Bengal as incomparable. He wrote that there were very few lands more fertile than Bengal. According to Bernier, Bengal was more fertile than even Egypt. Like Egypt, Bengal produced rice and wheat in plenty and, in addition, grew what Egypt did not: cotton, silk and indigo.

Bernier wrote that the surplus rice from Bengal used to be transported to South India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. According to his testimony, during the seventeenth century, sugar from Bengal (Bangladesh and West Bengal) was exported not only to southern India but also to Arabia, Mesopotamia and Persia. Moreover, wrote Bernier, so many varieties of cotton and silk clothes were produced in Bengal that one would as well call it the very reservoir of clothing. Bengal, according to Bernier, was not only the pool and sources of cloths for all South Asia (India) but for entire Europe. Bengal was matchless in the production of fine cotton and silk cloth. It was also the prime source of saltpetre, chilli, opium, wax and butter.

Another French traveller Tavernier who was in India and Bengal during 1640-1667 AD also wrote: ‘(Bengal) also abounds in sugar, so that it furnishes with it the Kingdoms of Golkonda and Karnates …As to the commodities of great value, and which draw the Commerce of Strangers thither (to Bengal) I know not whether there be a country in the world that affords more and greater variety: for besides sugar … there is store of cottons and silks, that it may be said that Bengal is, as it were, the general magazine thereof, not only for Hindustan but also for all the circumjacent kingdoms and for Europe itself . . . Butter is to be had there in great plenty . . . In a word, Bengal is a country abounding in all things; and it is for this very reason that so many Portuguese, Mesticks and other Christians are fled thither’ (Cited in Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, Profile of Bangladesh, unpublished monogram, pp 1-2).

The process of the decay and fall of the Mughal Empire began with the death in 1707 of the last of the Great Mughal emperors, Alamgir Aurangzeb. The rulers of the various distant provinces took advantage of the gradual collapse of the central authority at Delhi and proclaimed virtual independence of their provinces. From 1717 onward, Bengal was practically free of Mughal imperial control.

A Turkistani soldier of fortune, Alivardi Khan, ruled Bengal from 1740 to 1756. Alivardi’s grandson, Sirajuddoula, ascended the throne of Bengal in 1756 for a one year reign. In June 1757 the forces of the British East India Company (under Lord Clive) defeated Sirajuddoula in the Battle of Plassey, thereby laying the foundations of the British rule in the Indian subcontinent.

British colonial rule: historic impact

BRITISH rule in India in general, and Bengal in particular, during its initial period, was favourable to the Hindus. In Bengal, the nineteenth century Bengali middle class, with Calcutta as its economic, cultural and political Mecca, was a predominantly Hindu middle class. The Bengali Muslim society, at this time, consisted of a thin aristocratic stratum, a small but gradually growing, English educated middle class, and a vast, impoverished and illiterate peasantry.

The absence of a strong numerous and influential Bengali Muslim middle class in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has been justifiably argued (Amlan Datta, The Case for Bangladesh, World Meet on Bangladesh, Gupta and Radhakrishna, ed, New Delhi, 1971, p 6; also Sankar N Maitra in Bangladesh: Crisis and Consequence, NM Ghatale, ed, New Delhi, 1971, p 6), was instrumental in excluding the Muslims from the nineteenth century Calcutta-centric Bengali literary and cultural renaissance and the embryonic Bengali nationalist movement that found a focal point in the 1905 partition of the British Indian province of Bengal. That was the beginning of a rift with far-reaching historic significance.

Viceroy Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal, avowedly for reasons of administrative expediency, severed West Bengal from East Bengal, the former’s economic hinterland. It also made the eastern half Muslim-dominated at least in numerical terms. The Bengali bourgeois class, at that time overwhelmingly Hindu, made it a national objective to undo the partition. They succeeded. This 1905 partition was annulled in 1911, ‘largely as a result of intense and partly terrorist Hindu agitation based on interest and perhaps still more on an extremely powerful sentiment for Bengal as a single motherland’ (HV Hodson, The Great Divide, London, 1969, p 274.). Thus, the movement, led and dominated by principally Hindu elites, left the Bengali Muslims untouched. By the early twentieth century the Muslims made a limited entry into Bengal politics. Muslim leaders such as AK Fazlul Huq and HS Suhrawardy drew support from the embryonic Muslim middle class and in the latter highlighted the inherent divergence of outlook and interests between the Muslim and Hindus of Bengal in the economic and social fields.

Meanwhile, on the All India level Indian National Congress led by Gandhi was struggling for Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi transformed the Congress into a mass organisation. A cardinal canon of his programme for mass mobilisation was appeal to Hindu cult and civilisation. This served to sharpen the edge of Muslim separatism in India. The Muslim separatist movement humbly began in 1906 under the leadership of the All India Muslim League. It gained tremendous momentum by the nineteen forties. The failure of the Congress to convince the Muslims of its secular credentials led to the emergence of what has been called ‘Muslim nationalism’ and the Muslim League exploited it. Indians in general wanted freedom; the Muslims wanted self-assertion. In the last days of the British rule the struggle was three-sided and the creation of Pakistan was its most extraordinary result (ibid, p 9).

The Pakistan idea received its first formal expression in a Resolution adopted by the Muslim League in its annual session in Lahore in 1940. The Lahore Resolution (popularly known as the ‘Pakistan Resolution’) demanded inter alias that the ‘North-western and Eastern zones of India’ where ‘the Muslims are numerically in a majority’ ‘should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign’ (Resolutions of All India Muslim League, December 1938 to March 1940, published by its central office, pp 47-48).

Seven years on Pakistan came into existence but not in full accord with the Lahore Resolution. During these years Hindu-Muslim antagonism in India reached its peak. Communal violence assumed the proportion of Civil War. The British as well as the combatants agreed that partition was the only practicable way out and the partition of the subcontinent was accompanied by partitions of the two large, ‘mixed’ provinces, the Punjab and Bengal.

The Bengali Muslim elite, consisting of a thin aristocratic stratum and a small English educated middle class, sided clearly with the Muslim separatists of other regions of India. In Bengal before the 1947 Partition largely because of the impact of British colonial rule the landlords were Hindus, the tenants and cultivators mostly Muslim. The moneylenders were predominantly Hindus and the debtors largely Muslim. Trade, commerce and industry so far as these were in the hands of the natives were monopolistic preserves of prosperous segments of the Hindu community. The vocal elements among the Bengali Muslims ‘raised these points tellingly’. As a result, in the elections to the Provincial Legislative Assembly in 1946, the Muslim League captured 96.7 per cent of the ‘Muslim’ seats. In spite of this, an influential section of the Bengali Muslim leadership under the guidance of HS Suhrawardy, at that time the prime minister of Bengal, tried in 1947 to keep intact the unity of Bengal. With the help of some Hindu leaders they put forth the idea of a ‘sovereign Bengal’ existing outside Pakistan and India. The congress as well as the majority of Bengali Hindu leaders and legislators did not support the idea and it was dropped. Thus ‘the dominant section of the Hindu leadership and the congress decided upon the partition of Bengal which their forbears so bitterly opposed’ (Hodso, op-cit, p 275). East Bengal (Bangladesh today) thus became one of the five provinces of Pakistan in August 1947. Pakistan as it emerged was described as a geopolitical ‘absurdity’.

Abridged from Justice Muhammad Ibrahim Memorial Lecture 2008 delivered on December 18, 2008. Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelly is chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh.

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