How Islamic fundamentalism in Bengal sowed the seeds of partition

It has been a year since unprecedented violence took place in West Bengal after the announcement of the Assembly election results. Why did Bengal experience violence (both in West Bengal and Bangladesh)? What was the original demographic composition of Bengal and how it has changed; and how has this affected the socio-political environment of this region? This multi-part series would attempt to trace the origin of socio-political trends in the greater Bengal region (state of West Bengal and Bangladesh) over the past few decades. These trends are related to the evolution of Bengal over the past 4000 years. It’s a long journey and unfortunately most of it has been forgotten.

Bengal experienced a very significant dichotomy in the 19th century which seems to be a mirror image of what we are witnessing today in West Bengal and Bangladesh. This dichotomy was a profound simultaneous spread of Hindu nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism in Bengal. These two traits have always been present in the society of Bengal, but what we have witnessed in the 19th century is the consolidation of these traits. In the previous article in this series, we discussed the spread of Hindu nationalism, in this article, we would discuss the spread of Muslim separatism in Bengal in the 19th century.

Several factors were responsible for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Bengal in the 19th century, setting the stage for later tragic events that continue to haunt us to this day. We would look at some of these factors as they would help us understand the real dynamics of communalism in the Bengal region.

Power loss

In the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, large sections of Muslim society in Bengal could not come to terms with the fact that they had lost power to the British after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The New land revenue scheme introduced by the British in the Permanent Settlement System costume in 1793 also drastically reduced the land holdings of Muslim zamindars.

Nitish Sengupta analyzes the state of mind of Muslim society in Bengal at this time in Bengal Divided: The Destruction of a Nation (Pp7), “Bengal’s great intellectual awakening in the 19th century left the Muslim community intact, except on the fringes. In the galaxy of famous names from the early Bengal Renaissance, we hardly come across Muslim names before the arrival of the 20th century. The century that elapsed between the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the mutiny of 1857 saw the Muslims of Bengal as a sullen and withdrawn community, irreconcilable with the loss of political power and retreating, so to speak, into a shell suspicion of both the ruling British and the new Hindu meritocracy. This had prepared fertile ground for Muslim fundamentalist movements to take deep root among the Muslims of Bengal.

“Purist” Islamic movements

19th century Bengal was also affected by the Wahabi, Faraizi and Tarikh-e-Mohammed movements. These movements emphasized “purist Islam” instead of nationalism. Bhaswati Mukherjee explained it quite lucidly in his seminal work Bengal and its partition: an untold story (pp 59-61)“During this period, rural Bengal and rural Bengali Muslims were profoundly affected by…the Wahabi and Faraizi movements…In the modern context, these movements might be called ‘fundamentalist’, since they urged their followers to ‘cleanse’ and purify Islam by condemning those Hindu traditions which were part of the common popular culture of Bengal.The effort was to restore and revive a more puritanical form of Islam. , this unfavorable development would color and influence the resulting separatist sentiments.The Wahhabi movement in India was led by Syed Ahmed of Raebareli (currently in Uttar Pradesh) while the Faraizi movement was founded in 1819 in East Bengal by Haji Shariatullah .

Mukherjee says: “Politically however, no revivalist movement has succeeded in rural Bengal, it has encouraged religious preachers (mullahs) funded by the Muslim elite to successfully develop throughout Bengal a narrative community based Islamization.”

Demographic changes

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bengal underwent massive demographic change. Muslims, especially in rural Bengal, have become a larger numerical majority than Hindus. The Hindus and the British were unaware of this silent but tectonic change in the demography of Bengal. According to Nitish Sengputa (Two Rivers Land; pp 280)“It was the census of 1881 which first convincingly showed that in the 28 Bengali-speaking districts of the undivided Bengal Presidency, the Muslims significantly outnumbered the Hindus and that in the Rajshahi divisions, Dhaka and Chittagong, they made up two-thirds of the population.”

Sengupta underlines the significant impact of these developments: “The revelation of this momentous demographic shift also marked the starting point for a series of new attitudes. For the British administration, there was a new appreciation of the importance of the Muslim factor. For marginalized and inarticulate Muslim leaders, it was the realization of their own importance and the assurance that they could not be ignored any longer. This awareness among Muslims resulted in the establishment of Muslim organizations with a separatist agenda such as the Muslim Literary Society and the National Muslim Association of Calcutta. The former was created by Abdul Latif while the latter was founded by Syed Amir Ali. The end result of this trend was the establishment of the Muslim League in 1906 in Dhaka, which played a pivotal role in spreading Muslim separatism across the country, resulting in frequent communal violence, particularly in Bengal.

British politics

William Hunter, an Indian civil service officer, came out with a document titled “Indian Muslims” in 1871 who played a central role in shaping British policy to promote Muslim separatism. Hunter advocated that the British should promote Muslims instead of Hindus in all fields. Nitish Sengupta explains UK policy change (Bengal Divided: The Unmaking of a Nation; pp 8), “A subtle shift in official attitude…was underway. The Hindus were gradually becoming seditious, so the British Raj had to seek new allies. Only Muslims could provide that. This community could be won over by sponsorship in the form of job opportunities and educational support. Thus began a new policy of appeasement of Muslims.

In an 1871 resolution, Governor General Lord Mayo regretted that the Muslims had been kept out of the way and that the British had not given them enough attention. The British policy of promoting Muslim separatism was now actively pursued. The Indian Commission of Education (1882), chaired by none other than Hunter, recommended exclusive schools and scholarships for Muslims. The British happily accepted these recommendations despite fierce opposition from the Hindu rulers of Bengal.

In this context, it is important to remember that this was a Muslim educational conference in Dhaka in 1906 where a resolution for the establishment of the All India Muslim League was proposed and accepted. The Muslim League then spearheaded the separatist movement leading to the partition of India. Incidentally, the same resolution, by which the Muslim League was created, had also pledged loyalty to the British government.

READ ALSO | The Riddle of Bengal: How the Islamization of Bengal Started in Medieval Times with Forced Conversion

You can read more articles from The Bengal Conundrum series here.

The writer, author and columnist, has written several books. One of his latest books is “The Forgotten History of India”. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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