Bengal from Bakhtiyar Khilji to Mamata Banerjee

Bengal from Bakhtiyar Khilji to Mamata Banerjee

There is a lament among Hindu Bengalis about the decline in Bengal’s intellectual and cultural life and its rapid Islamisation under Mamata Banerjee that merits careful examination. The question posed is why did Bengal, with its extraordinary intellectual and cultural achievements after the nineteenth century, end up in such a parlous state of pervasive decay. Bengal’s history and fate are, in fact, the most apt illustration of the encounter between Islam and Hindu India. The outcome that resulted lies in the long history of Islamic rule over the region, the evolution of British colonial policy to curb the loss of its Indian empire and the dynamics of Bengal politics. The latter is really about the dominance of communism and its Islamisation that culminated in the rise of Mamata Banerjee and politics of capitulation to Islam. Bengal lost its independence and all human dignity when it was conquered by Bakhtiyar Khilji in the early thirteenth century. Its population reduced to penury and brutally oppressed. People are enslaved when their women become fair game, the standard protocol of Muslim rule everywhere and most of all for the Kuffar. They are only granted the choice between conversion and slavery or death. Several centuries later, upper caste Bengali women used to take refuge in Fort William to avoid kidnap by the successor of the Nawabi family of a Brahmin convert, Siraj-ud Daulah. His notorious agents roamed the country on the lookout for beautiful women to abduct, even in the twilight of Muslim rule in Bengal. It was Mamata Banerjee who sought to rename Fort William in the name of the same Muslim tyrant, as Fort Siraj, only retreating when the army of independent India refused.

The British conquest in 1757 changed the course of Bengal’s history. The momentous event had been applauded by Ram Mohan Roy, India and Bengal’s greatest renaissance intellectual progenitor. He was prompted to pray in grateful remembrance to the Almighty at the ejection of Muslim rule in Bengal by Robert Clive. It began a revival of ‘Hindu consciousness’ and created a renaissance that the new colonialists found politically convenient to create support for their rule. But a Hindu class had already been integrated into its political and economic life earlier in Bengal, by Murshid Quli Khan, a Brahmin convert. It was his financial acumen that had allowed Aurangzeb to avoid bankruptcy and sustain the Mughal empire. The entire endeavour in the aftermath of the elevation of Murshid Quli Khan by Aurangzeb was about collecting revenue. It had led Murshid Quli Khan to curtail absentee Muslim Jaigirs and replace them with a new class of Hindu zamindars, to be favoured later as well by Britain’s Permanent Settlement. This period also marked the rise of the notorious financial mercenary, the fabulously wealthy, Jagat Seth. The crucial issue to understand is that the primacy of Islam in Bengal and territories beyond its contemporary borders has had a very  long history, with associated profound lasting impact on the culture and psychology of the region.

The British colonial period witnessed a prodigious flowering of Hindu intellectual life and the establishment centres of learning, initiated by the patronage of Warren Hastings. Yet this phenomenon was unavoidably anchored in both European colonial Christian interpretations of the Hindu past and its motivated misreading for political purposes. British rule over Bengal empowered an influential landowning interest and occasioned the formation of a burgeoning Hindu professional service class. The latter was the first to eventually revolt against British rule, chagrined at blatant racial discrimination against their aspirations. It culminated in the thorough disenchantment over the Imbert Bill, affirming their second-class status. After the 1857 revolt, the British Crown assumed direct control of India, conquered in the previous two generations, with the defeat of the Marathas and Sikhs. It also took serious cognisance of the implications of the revolt that almost ejected them from the Indian empire. Officials began studying Indian society through caste censuses that turned previously much more fluid social dynamics into institutionalised ‘social distancing’. And officials sponsored groups that were more likely to acquiesce to colonial rule in exchange for sectarian privileges. The rise of the particular form of Islamic radicalism haunting India today began with the discreet British encouragement to the Islamic clergy. The colonialists abetted the establishment of Deoband in the 1860s and the ‘King’s party’ in the shape of the Ahmadiyyas in the 1880s. The foundation of the estrangement of Sikhism from the Sanatani mainstream was also laid in this period.

The downfall of Bengal as the fount of a Hindu intellectual, spiritual and political renaissance, already profoundly underwritten by the prolonged experience of Islamic rule, began in earnest in this period despite many outward signs to the contrary. Two of the greatest Hindus in their history, Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda, were born in the 1860s and a galaxy of legends preceded and followed them. One of them was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who lived 56 years, only one earlier divinity outshining them all, the Mahaprabhu Chaitanya, straddling the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for a mere 49 years. The immense cosmopolitan spiritual and intellectual universality of the late nineteenth century was followed by the rise of others, like Maharishi Aurobindo and a real creative genius in filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, products of the upbringing in the antecedent high culture of Bengal and its historical genius. Nor did the great achievements in science of the pioneer Jagdish Chandra Bose and Satyen Bose and his contemporary Meghnad Saha leave any lasting imprint except of individual, private accomplishment. Only Bengalis will also know this was a period of unprecedented creativity that produced an outpouring of poetry. But Satyajit Ray, self-consciously selective, was the last of the greats in a period that has now ended in the shocking boorish uncivility of Mamata Banerjee. Bengalis today forget the long history of the dismally lumpen character of their urban society. It was insightfully recorded in a revealing 1971 essay, published in ‘Best of the Quest’, by Mihir Sinha, a teenager in the 1940s who married one of Tagore’s granddaughters. At least, Bengali Hindus cannot sink any lower unless she manages to restore Islamic rule and the horrors of Shariah that had begun in the early thirteenth century. In the final analysis, the renaissance culture of Bengal and spiritual stirring were essentially an elite phenomenon and intellectually demanding and remote. Its impressive churning did not socialise the ordinary Hindu masses and create a consciousness in the way the simple injunctions and appeal of Islam were galvanising the ordinary Muslim in a direct and personal way, even in rural Bengal. Even the blindly revered Subhas Bose, who provides the modern Bengali an alibi for small-mined, cynical and cowardly violence, was a paradox. He professed an avowed Hindu identity, but it was overlaid with reverence for Islamic rule, with Subhas Bose paying homage of Bahadur Shah’s tomb in Rangoon.

The question posed by the three historical periods, Islamic rule, British conquest and the onset of Hindu retreat needs intense and thoughtful scrutiny and the rest of this essay seeks to understand it. Most historians, with their left-wing ideological obsessions appear to have evaded the Islamist churning in Bengali society during the third quarter of the nineteenth century and its espousal of an Islamic identity. One of its most striking features was an assertion of a foreign Turkic, Arabic and Persian identity and not merely among the Ashrafs but even Hindu converts the latter disparaged in disdain, even describing them as ‘kamina’. The rejection of English education that had conferred an advantage on Hindus in employment was emphatic, in an echo of contemporary Nigeria’s Boko Haram and emphasised its un-Islamic character. These trends became widespread through education in Madrasahs and Maktabs and propagated by youth to the rural masses. The phenomenon was reinforced by prominent Islamic religious ideologues like Jamat-ud-din-Afganai, who visited Kolkata in 1881-82. His pan-Islamist project a was a move to empower the Mullahs and Maulvis to use symbols and slogans of Islam to establish solidarity and the separate identity of Muslims. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was to reaffirm these sentiments with a ringing declaration of Islamic separatism in a blood curdling warning to the Bengali Hindu Congress movement in a speech in Meerut in March 1888. An underlying counterpoint to the revival of Islamic sentiment was the Bengali Hindu renaissance and its political undertone, whether Ramakrishna Paramhamsa or Bipin Chandra Pal’s activism. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath and even Rabindranath Tagore’s Katha O Kahini were viewed as attacks on Muslims. Between 1870 and 1900 Muslim elite themselves published papers like Mohammadi Ambar, Mussalmani Bandhu, Islam Pracharak, Kohinoor and Nural Imam. This tangential parallel growth of Hindu and Muslim nationalism often took the shape of ugly communal outbursts.

By 1872, Muslims almost outnumbered Hindus in Bengal, an experience which has since gathered momentum again in the nominal Hindu post-partition rump of West Bengal. One of the key factors that intertwined incitement of Islamic religious motivation with material reality was the burden of debt. It had replaced oppressive rent levels as the principal source of festering aggrievement of the Muslim peasantry of rural Bengal. Nineteenth century legislative acts after the 1857 revolt had curbed excessive rents but the predominantly Muslim peasantry laboured under the burden of exorbitant interest payments. They immediately recognised such debt as riba and a gross violation of Islamic injunctions. This is the critical underlying issue that allowed a synergy of religion with urban political activism and the sense of a separate Islamic identity that eventually led to partition. This is also the critical problem that has also informed the politics of West Bengal subsequently, accounting for the rise of both the Left and the Trinamool Congress. And it would be the historical bedrock of the portentous likelihood of the original Muslim aspiration for an Islamic Bengal. This was the Caliphate sought in August 1946 by Chief Minister, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who unleashed Direct Action Day, with the collusion of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Two supplementary but vital specific questions arise in this context that provide an answer to the three sequential historical parameters highlighted earlier. These are the dramatically successful activism of Muslims and the restoration of their primacy in contemporary West Bengal and the current predicament of a closure of Bengali intellectual and spiritual life. It also highlights the apparent impossibility of establishing any political counterforce to represent their aspirations. The answer to these questions overlaps and have largely remained unexamined so far. The historical backdrop to the rise of Islam in post-partition West Bengal, the supposed inheritance of its Hindu population, and the usurpation of its political life and, increasingly, its cultural footprint by a militant Islam, lies in the developments initiated by the British colonial government that began in the early twentieth century. The British colonial administration turned angrily against the ungrateful Bengal bhadrolok it had nurtured that was now supposedly repaying its generosity with social protest and political revolt. The patronage of Islamic revivalism was one measure to outmanoeuvre the Hindu bhadrolok, culminating in the attempt to disempower them politically by dividing Bengal in 1905. It was followed immediately by the sponsorship of the Muslim League and eventually the Ramsay MacDonald’s communal award of 1932. The declared purpose was to cultivate Indian Muslims to prolong colonial rule, which would explain Jinnah’s proposal to Winston Churchill to ‘cut out the Hindus and let’s rule together’. The decisive blow that cut Bengal down to size was moving the capital to New Delhi in 1912, reducing opportunities for Bengali professionals and downsizing Bengal’s political ascendancy. And of course, the Mahatma arrived three years later to enable the administration’s consolidation against Bengal’s violent militancy.

The substantive Bengali world-view was never a product of the spiritual pining that motivated Bengal’s great sages, but it was rather mundane career ambition. It was emblematically imbued with the hope of a public service pension eventually, preceded with a career by entering its, pinnacle, the ICS before independence and then, the IAS and IFS. This class entirely was entirely a creation of British colonialism as service employees, with associated limited and veritably warped horizons. And that were also taken away from them brutally by independence in 1947. It was never the counterpart of Schubert’s unfinished symphony imagined by Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the archetype colonial bhadrolok created by the artifice and artificiality of the British colonial presence. Bengali parents were obsessed with their sons becoming doctors and engineers and the upper reaches of legal profession had allure too. Every Bengali film groom, Dionysus, poised to return home from England and claim his demure bride. He was unfailingly completing his FRCS or becoming a barrister in the 1940s and 1950s. Even today, the remnants of the once-confident upper crust Bengali professional class look to a Rhode scholarship at Oxbridge and for some, increasingly now, the US Ivy League, as nirvana to escape the fetid bayou their very own have created locally. Just recently, I overheard three young English literature graduates in a café, from Calcutta’s now infamous Presidency College, in animated discussion of the likelihood of foreign travel since they had performed excellently in their finals.

There is, in addition, to the unreality of such pipedreams for most, socialisation in the humanities and the social sciences that purposively enjoins deconstruction of one’s own society and rejection of its purportedly corrupt inherited morals. There is nothing of the divinity of Vivekananda or the lofty creativity of Tagore for them, to inform their innermost feelings and real actions. They are merely for moments of idle pleasure and something to boast about because of the Chicago speech and Nobel prize. Significantly, very few Bengali Hindus know of the actual ideas of their sages and literary giants, only mouthing their names to assert parochial achievement and experience displaced gratification. In any case, teaching in universities did not socialise students in the ideas and traditions embodied in their work. That was largely achieved by the destructive anomie of Western social science with its deep Christianised scepticism towards Indic traditions.

The inception of the death knell for the Bengali Hindu professional, imparted by a malicious British colonial authority in the early twentieth century. It was the underlying reason for the rise of Bengali left-wing radicalism, which began with the founding of the communist party in 1920. The loss of status and professional gratification has been a long drawn out painful process, of which the 1960s Naxalite movement was the final gasp.  The rapid loss of Hindu landed wealth, especially after partition in 1947 and dwindling professional opportunities for a swelling middle-class population, were the fertile ground for parochial resentment to turn into revolutionary rage. The supposedly idealistic youth were easily cajoled to become the foot soldiers of dreams insinuated by adversaries of the Indian state itself. They became enamoured by the murderous upheavals of China’s cultural revolution, the Castro’s Cuba and war in Vietnam and eager to burn down their own homes and their city in solidarity. Appositely, the hero in a Satyajit Ray’s film, the Adversary, asked what was the most memorable event of the era, shocked his interviewers by saying it was Vietnam.

The communist movement, in reality, was from the outset essentially an appendage of the Islamist revival in early twentieth century Bengal. It adopted in toto its agrarian vision, infused with millennial Islamic conceptions of a righteous order. The communists could not, as one scholar, Ananya Dasgupta, later put it, “disaggregate economic reasons, demands, or categories from religious dispositions, charismatic religious figures, and prominent ethico-social ideological strands that shaped conceptions of cultivating self and community among Muslims in rural Bengal”. Indeed, leading communists were obligated to adopt Muslim names in the mid-1940s in order to function, as in the case of Barin Dutta of the Tebhaga movement, who became Abdus Salam. Significantly, the Red Flag of communism and Green Flag of the Muslim League were hoisted side by side at meetings. The political cultures of leftist populism and religious nationalism had converged in Bengal’s Pakistan movement. The historic problem of the poor cultivator was increasingly viewed by an ideologically obsessed Left as a problem of substantially, though not exclusively of Hindu landowners and moneylenders oppressing poor Muslims. The religious ideology and consciousness of Muslims was studiously ignored by Hindu Marxists. They did not wish to confront the reality of expansionist Islamic aspirations and subliminally hoped it would be subsumed under their fabricated banner of exclusive class identity.

After independence, Indian communism rapidly returned to its status as a subaltern aspect of Islam. Its constituency was dominated by the Muslim peasantry of West Bengal though it also absorbed the urban white collar and working-class trade union movements later, to solidify its political base. By virtue of the sheer numbers of rural Muslim voters and other disenchanted constituents, the essentially politically Islamised Hindu Bengali communists, became the natural political party to wield power. And demographics also worked in favour of their Muslim constituents. The Hindu refugees fleeing into West Bengal and the left leaders, who also abandoned East Pakistan, found that to be a part of the governing elite of the state or enjoy its patronage they had to throw in their lot with West Bengal’s burgeoning Islamic communism. The communists were only temporarily excluded from power for a couple of decades in the aftermath of independence and dominance of Nehru’s Congress party. They began their ascent back towards political primacy in Bengal by mobilising Muslim peasant support and combining it with calculated urban unrest. They virtually brought West Bengal to a halt, industry and professionals abandoning the state in droves in the 1960s and 1970s. In a phenomenon that somewhat paralleled the outcome of expelling Brahmins from Tamil Nadu and Chennai, the hated bourgeois high culture of Bengal was largely decimated by disruption of Calcutta life and the exultant lumpen miasma that came in its place. The communists were to soon achieve unassailable monopoly of political and social power, often physically liquidating all political Opposition in the process. The antecedent leftist Naxalite protest was a complex phenomenon, partly used by the CIA and China against the established communist party, which was suspected of being pro-Soviet and the greater threat because it was achieving electoral success. But it was also turned into a violent assault against Indira Gandhi and the Indian state because they had midwifed the birth of Bangladesh.

The Naxalite revolt had been an orgy of nihilistic bloodletting of all and sundry, from Hindu moneylenders to real or imagined bourgeois enemy of ‘the people’. Even modest Hindu small holders in densely populated rural Bengal, where large landholdings were insignificant, found no respite. The chaos and killings enjoyed the support of many among educated Bengalis inadvertently spawned by colonial Britain, who had taken an incongruous leftward turn. The disenchanted bourgeois Hindu youth, lacking prospects of professional advancement, turned revolutionary. The official communists, whom Naxalites denounced as revisionist, found fulfilment in capture of state power and its resources, in alliance with a Muslim vote-bank. The pregnant reality was that the revolutionary rage of the educated left-wing intelligentsia, disappointed by its own stagnation, was the orphaned offspring of the British Raj that was being used by Western intelligence against the Indian state, judged a Soviet stooge, in order to destabilise India.

The revolutionary Indian left-wing intelligentsia’s usefulness to western intelligence in India was later affirmed as many former Bengali revolutionary underground cadres and their fervent supporters found lucrative academic positions in Anglo-American universities like Columbia and Cambridge. And they quickly revealed their hand in entirety by joining Western chancelleries, politicians and their evangelist assets to become relentless critics of the Indian state. Only a careful scrutiny of the virulence they collectively heaped on India indicates that it was mostly the Indian state, rather than individual Indian politicians and political parties, which attracted libel and hostile propaganda. Any Indian government that exhibited self-assertion and began a serious quest for national power and autonomy was the principal target of the bourgeois left-wing intelligentsia. They epitomised the malignity of disappointed humanity once the historic fortunes of the Bengali Hindu middle class had waned.

In the long perspective of history, preceding Islamic rule, during and after it, the history of India has been a record of the constant ebb and flow of dominant ruling orders and changes in their territorial reach. Hindu Sindh fell in 712 AD Hindu and Buddhist and Zoroastrian primacy in Afghanistan was wholly ceded in the by the tenth century. In addition, many dynastic rivalries characterised India prior to its gradual Islamic conquest. And Islam often fought to expand its territorial reach within it but struggled to hold it. Muslim rulers never achieved total primacy, only enforcing their rule through frequent wars. It was eventually challenged successfully and forced to retreat in the seventeenth century by the Marathas, Sikhs and the Jats, and then replaced by English rule. The latter achieved consolidation over the widest expanse for a century, advancing successfully over the previous eighty or so years, only to almost lose it in 1857. In this context, Islamic rule over Bengal and more had prevailed for a much longer period after the early thirteenth century than that of any other power though Islam lost Bengal for almost two centuries to British colonial power. Hindus themselves only enjoyed a sort of nominal political primacy for a couple of decades after Indian independence and have since been losing their vaunted but chimerical cultural and intellectual ascendancy that has proved quite transient. Communism restored the primacy of Islam that had absorbed it decades earlier as the co-sponsor of the peasantry asserting economic interests and religious fidelity.

The primordial political feat of Bengal’s communism was to unleash Operation Barga in West Bengal in 1978. It is considered to have created economic heaven on earth in rural Bengal, according to the entire Left-Liberal Bengal intelligentsia that has celebrated it ever since like a cherished daughter’s wedding, in countless column inches in scholarly tomes, journals and newspapers. But it also dismantled the remaining vestiges of a Hindu presence in rural Bengal by the exercise of brute state power and political thuggery on the ground. On important chapter associated with this outcome was the earlier Naxalite movement, which had presaged the peremptory legislative and administrative action of the communist party in power in 1978 with preparatory terror. It had unleashed an orgy of terror by murdering Hindu jotedars, the misdescribed supposed wealthy landlord, and moneylenders in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The real ambitions of Islam surfaced with its political consolidation in rural West Bengal and the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, shielded by the state government, and the arrival of co-religionists from Bihar, changing the demography of the state. It sought the ushering in of a medieval order consistent with an Islamic vision, articulated in the late nineteenth century. The communists made themselves irrelevant to this wider project once they had delivered the politics of the state into the hands of the Muslim vote-bank. The communists in power now wanted to promote industrial progress in West Bengal. They tried to usurp some largely Muslim rural landholdings, having, paradoxically, disposed of urban economic activity themselves earlier with violent trade union unrest. What they failed to grasp was the issue of sovereignty and control over territory that is central to Islamic tenets and found themselves out of favour swiftly. Mamata Banerjee proved an ideal alternative instrument for the next logical stage of Islamic expansionism because she espoused no principle, seeking only to wield power. She has shown herself willing to deliver West Bengal more diligently to Islam and also proved adept at organising unforgiving street muscle and assembling dismal fellow-travellers for the project. Her current combat against the integrity of Indian federalism is a harbinger of a pending Islamic self-assertion that will make the vexatious troubles in J&K look like a slightly raucous children’s tea party.

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Gautam Sen

Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for over two decades.