On the idea of United Bengal under Islam: The panic stricken past

On the idea of United Bengal under Islam: The panic stricken past

Dedicated to those who are still drowned in the nostalgic and romantic idea of a common Bengali nation.

When India and consequently Bengal was on the eve of partition in 1947, the now infamous riot architect Shuhrawardy himself sobbed, that Bengal should neither be with India, nor go with Pakistan, but keep its own independent existence.

The logic laid bare was that Calcutta’s jute, silk and the larger textile economy were closely integrated to East Bengal and thus a united Bengal would mutually benefit the Hindu and the Muslim, the East and the West. Meanwhile, the overused broken record of historical Hindu Muslim Unity that is now all too common in India, no thanks to TV and Radio, played in the background.

So much so, that the likes of Sarat Bose in the Congress actually fell for it. The charge of the resistance lay with Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukhopadhyay with the Hindu Mahasabha firmly behind him.

The Hindu Mahasabha had already in its Tarakeshwar session of 1946 passed the resolution that if eventuality dictates that Bengal stays within the Common Union (not divided into India and Pakistan), even then Bengal should be divided into Hindu-majority West and Muslim majority East. This view found a gradual footing in the political circles of the State and led to the consensus regarding Partition of Bengal.

One need not go far down the pages of history than the Nawabs of Bengal who ruled Bengal at the sunset of the Mughal empire to prove one’s point. State sponsored Bourgeois Secular historians draw the dot after saying Murshid Quli Khan was born in a Brahmin family.

What is omitted here is the fact that he didn’t belong to Bengal and was born in southern India. Probably born to Odia parents, he was enslaved very early and became the property of Haji Shafi Isfahani. As was the norm, he was initiated into the faith of his master and rechristened Murshid Quli Khan. Shafi Isfahani was a favorite courtier of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. After his term at the Southern Province of Deccan (Dakshin), he was recalled and appointed in Delhi and subsequently transferred to Bengal. He was but a Persian in India with the intention of earning money and thus he returned to Iran like the Company servants retreated to England. After his death, Murshid Quli Khan returned to the court of Aurangzeb from Iran. He became the Dewan of Bengal in 1700. He did not have any equivalent in efficiently extracting tax money from the Hindus and keeping them poor as their God given punishment. As a result, in 1717, he became the Nazim of India’s richest province.

In the year 1722, he re-evaluated the revenue settlement by which the earnings of the treasury increased in one stroke by 22.5%, 117 lakhs to 141 lakhs. According to Wheeler’s writings, the zamindari of the landowner Asadullah of Birbhum and that of Krishnanagar did not come under new assessment. Afghan Assadullah was able to stop the attack of Jahrchand on the Rajmahal Mountains. On the other hand, most of the areas of Krishnanagar were forests and jungle, most of which make up present day Sundarbans, which made the exaction and appropriation of revenue by calculating total land, produce from land and the prices of the crop a near impossible task.

At the end of every month, every Mutsuddi, Amil, Zamindar, Kanungo were kept imprisoned inside the Dewankhana until they could explain their revenue collection to the satisfaction of his minions. One may safely forget eating food and drinking water, they could not even answer the calls of nature. They had to stay inside until their tax collection was accounted to the last penny. Lest the Nawab’s own people supply them with water out of mercy or a bribe of two or four bucks, the Nawab Bahadur maintained steady espionage on the entire episode.
All this was good. However, if ultimately, the balance-sheet discrepancies could not be resolved, words would fail to describe the harshness of the Nawab on these officers. Their feet would be whipped after tying them upside down. Sometimes, their toenails were brushed against hard stone. Often, the whole family of the officer or landlord had to accept Islam. Golam Hossain Selim, a chronicler on the Nawab’s payroll, did not see any additional revenue getting collected as a result of this torture. One might pay a little attention here that Hindus are not only a different breed, but also a lot that lay between a human and an animal, who could be tortured with impunity for they did not deserve dignity in the first place. This torture not only provided a hobby but an excellent cover for hiding their own miscalculation on the books.

After Sayed Razi Khan, the husband of the grand-daughter of the Nawab became the new Dewan, his first job was to dig out a large pit and name it “Baikuntha”. Anything but a Ksheer-sagar, this was filled with human filth where the zamindars susceptible of cheating or forgery of accounts would be pushed down. Selim’s chronicles further show that the Zamindar Ram Singh of Sushang was forced to accept Islam along with his household. The Zamindar Sitaram of Bhusna did not share his lucky star. His face was plastered with cow dung and sent to gallows after parading him through the entire Capital. His entire family was imprisoned to servitude under the Nawab.

A question might arise that if the Hindus were indeed so bad and deplorable, then why have their kind still in possession of their zamindari? They could be replaced by the kinsmen of the Nawab or from the old Islamic aristocracy the Mughals supplanted. The reason is tartly pointed out by one Stewart who worked for the East India Company.

The inhuman amount of wealth the Nawabs amassed year after year would not be possible with Muslim landed elite. Harsh treatment meted out to them would lead to outright revolts and chances of intrigues inside the court itself. The Nawab would face hostilities from other Islamic principalities as the extended families of such nobles would stir up influence in those courts in response to their ill attitude. It was much easier to oppress the innocent Hindus than answer other Muslim princes and mending broken bridges with those states.

After Murshid Quli Khan, his two successors quickly gave way to the ascendancy of Nawab Alivardi Khan. He was the Deputy Nawab of Bihar who killed Sarfaraz Khan, the grandson-in-law of Murshid Khan and laid the foundation for his house. Under his watch, the royal income increased more than 30% of the revenue collected under the settlement of 1722 by imposing an additional abbab (cess) on the total revenue. Interestingly, our Nawab Bahadur could not raise money for irrigation, roads and flood control by imposing this burden.

Nevertheless, Murshidabad was yet to see the likes of Siraj-ud-daulah in full glory. Within a year, this new Nawab who was a grandson of Alivardi Khan became the most hated of the lot. The memoirs of a certain Englishman Hill tell us how the Nawab used his own spies to scourge for the beautiful women. They would be kidnapped in small boats when they would go down to bathe in the Ganges (as is a common Hindu custom) so that our Nawab could satisfy his perversion. His other notable hobby was sinking ferry boats in the middle of the Ganges and taking a delight in seeing hundreds of people huddled, confused and swimming frantically to save their lives.

Although Mir Jafar is projected as the face of the plot of 1757, it is certainly noteworthy that the greater Hindu society directly and indirectly supported the East India Company. The notable Hindus in support of Siraj-ud-daulah were the Kashmiri Hindu Maharaj Mohanlal and Deputy Nawab of Bihar Ramnarayan of Sasaram. Otherwise, the banker to the Nawab, Jagat Sheth, Omchichand, the Nawab’s other commander Rulam Ram, the Dewan Rajballav and the royal houses of Nadia and Bardhaman had lent their support to the English. These royal zamindari houses played a crucial rule in the leased grant of their administered districts to the Company when the Dual Government was later set up to avoid tyranny of the later Nawabs.

How much “Bengali” were these “Nawabs of Bengal”? Only a narrow set of selected Shiite people were eligible for top jobs. The Sunni Muslims who settled during the earlier Sultanates belonged to Turko-Afghan stock and were seen as threats rather than allies. To make up for the small number of settled Shias, relatives of nobles from faraway Iran were encouraged to migrate and take up government positions. Although most of the actual work was done by Hindu administrators, one Shi’ite Muslim would be imposed on them for oversight.

Therefore, using Persian was customary for their convenience. Lest some might conspire in Bengali behind the backs of these Persian appointees, the use of Bangla in the court became condemnable. It was forbidden to submit petitions in Bengali language. Only those Hindus who could speak chaste Persian witnessed any upward mobility in position. The similarities with Macaulay’s English conundrum are for everyone to see save those who wish to bury their heads in the sand.

Two madrasahs were opened for the promotion of Islamic religion and Arabic language. A large number of Persian merchants in Hugli enabled it to become an epicenter of Islamic education system apart from the capital Murshidabad and Dhaka. During this period, Patna’s Azimabad became a center for learning of Urdu.

On the contrary, the inception of the Golden Age of Bengal was the handiwork of Hindu zamindars and merchants. The zamindar community encouraged the use of Bengali language to spread the message of Dharma to the public. Generous grants were given to Pundits and tol pathshalas. Kings of Bardhaman, Rani Bhabani of Rajshahi and Bishnupur royals became patrons to a huge number of temples.

Nadia zamindars took it upon them to propagate the Vaishnava thoughts of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu throughout Nadia. By 1829, around 25 tol schools were in operation disseminating knowledge of darshan , Nyaya, Vedanga and grammar There were about 60 students in each tol school.

The poet Bharatchandra Roy under the patronage of Maharaj Krishnachandra’s, penned the iconic Ananda-Mangal Kavya; about an imagined conversation between Emperor Jahangir and the Raja’s predecessor Bhawananda Majumder. The similarity of principles of Hindu and Islamic faith but their propagation through meaningful dialogue rather than through violent imposition was the central theme.

In the course of time, instead of patronizing long poetry works of Mongol kavya, the Bengali business class encouraged and indulged in small poetry. The contribution of these works is undeniable in the gradual evolution of the Bengali language that climaxed during the British rule.

If this is the history of Bengal, then what shall be its future? There are still many in this land, who have been whitewashed for political convenience, for whom the Union of the two Bengal is filled with nostalgia and romanticism. The history of Nawabs shows how much of that is real and executable, how much of that is anything other than a daydream.

The historical events and the observations of Selim, Wheeler and Stuart are all taken from Dr. Meenakshi Jain’s essay, Political Culture in Mughal Successor and Muslim Conquest States: Bengal, pg 52-63 Parallel Pathways: Essays on Hindu -Muslim Relations (1707 -1857) Konark Pubishers Pvt Ltd.

The original Bengali version of this article can be accessed here.

Featured Image: Bangodesh

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Debtanu grew up in a Bengali Brahman household listening to stories of the French Revolution and Europe from his maternal grandfather. One of the very first novels he read was Gorky's 'Mother' which romanticized the Russian Revolution. An avid Marxist in school, he became a free market radical in college because of disenchantment. He became interested in Indian thought having read the Classics after passing out. He not only believes that Indian Civilization should be preserved but that it can hold a mirror to the current Western Civilization where it has never been hit; its philosophy of materialism. His interest lies in Biology, Evolution, Economics and Politics.