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The Construction of Bengali Muslim Identity in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

By Mosarrap H Khan 

In this essay, I chart the trajectory of Bengali Muslim identity through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The 1871 Census of India by the British colonial government for the first time adopted a policy of counting population according to communal (religious) affiliation. This census focused on the contentious issue of religious conversion, as historians such as W. W. Hunter tried to explain the presence of a huge mass of Muslim population in the swampy land of eastern India by suggesting that Muslims were converted from the lowest strata of the Hindu-Bengali society. Accordingly, Muslims in Bengal were divided into the upper-class ashraf and the lower-class azlaf or atraf/atrap categories. These categories were based on the supposed ethnic and linguistic differences. The ashraf Muslims claimed north Indian ethnic identities and in some cases Arab and Afghan descent, whereas the lower-class atrap Muslims were thought to have been converted from the lower caste Bengali Hindus. While the ashraf Muslims lived mostly in Calcutta and other urban centres, the atrap Muslims lived in the rural areas. In regard to occupation, the urban ashraf Muslims were engaged, prior to the arrival of the British, in the Mughal judicial and administrative services, in trade, and some of them were landlords. The atrap Muslims were in most instances poor peasants. The ashraf and the atrap Muslims inhabited socially and culturally alienated spaces.

Bengali Hindu bhadrolok and secular education

A basic difference between the Bengali Hindu and Muslim societies was the absence of a genuine link between the upper and lower class Muslims. The emergence of Hindu-Bengali intelligentsia under the British patronage functioned as a stable link between the upper and lower-caste Hindu-Bengalis. The emergence of an indigenous professional class, who acted as the cultural mediator between the British and the Bengali Hindu, sought to institutionalize this mediation process through the encouragement of ‘media participation’ (in Daniel Lerner’s words). One such media was Hindu College (1816), founded by the emergent Calcutta elites, which aimed at ‘psychic mobility’ or “liberating a man from his native self … to shape for himself a different personality than that with which he was born” (Lerner, 1964: 62 cited in Kopf, 1969: 178). The idea behind Hindu College was to impart western education to the wards of the Calcutta elites, who willingly refrained from imparting Hindu religious education in the college and encouraged secular education in western science and literature. In the pre-Macaulay days, Hindu college served as the finishing school for Calcutta babus or professional intellectuals and the bhadralok, the genteel landed gentry. These babu and bhadralok classes undertook the task of revitalizing Hindu culture premised on the myth of a Hindu golden age.

William Carey’s promotion of Bengali language and literature succeeded in making Bengal Renaissance from an elite endeavor to a mass consumable phenomenon. In 1818, Serampore missionaries published the earliest periodical in Bengali language, Dig Darshan (Magazine for Indian Youth), and the first issue of Samachar Darpan (Mirror of the News), the earliest Bengali newspaper. The evangelical missionaries reposed their faith in the printing press for the growth of the vernacular languages much like in the case of European Renaissance. These vernacular journals and newspapers contributed significantly towards the growth of a pan-Bengali ethnic identity. This Bengali identity was undoubtedly Hindu in its orientation. Interestingly, Bhabanicharan Bannerjee’s Kalikata Kamalalay (1823) was the first effort by a Bengali at depicting his own cultural image: “Bhabanicharan’s book was of great value in that it may have been the first attempt by a member of the intelligentsia to hold a literary looking-glass before his peers so that they might better perceive their own social image” (Kopf, 1969: 208). Composed as a conversation between a rural Bengali and a Bengali babu from Calcutta, the book condenses in the figure of the babu the “multi-ethnic, multilingual, colonial and multi-value entity” (Blackburn & Dalmia, 2004: 384) that the city of Calcutta was around this time. The emergence of a proto-Bengali nationality among the Calcutta elites, however, was more affective in dimension and less political in the first two decades of the 19th century.

Macaulay’s policy of westernization through the introduction of English as the medium of instruction paved the way for an emergent political consciousness among the Indian middle class. The nascent political consciousness, however, remained regional in aspiration in the middle decades of the 19th century. The regional facet of political nationalism was expanded into a pan-Indian cultural dimension in the writings of another Hindu College student, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, one of the first graduates to be conferred a degree by the newly founded Calcutta University (1857). Bankim’s novels envisaged India in terms of a distinct cultural and racial identity. However, he refrained from defining a geographical territory for the culturally imagined national entity, which is found in the writings of the nationalists such as Bipin Chandra Pal. The entities India and Bengal were used interchangeably in Bankim’s novels and critical writing. Reflecting on the absence of historical consciousness among the Bengalis, Bankim writes, “He who is a Bengali will have to write it … Come, let us all search for the history of Bengal. Let everyone do what he is capable of doing” (Cited in Poddar, 1977: 69). If the renaissance in Bengal inspired Bhabanicharan Bannerjee (author of Kalikata Kamalalay) to write the first social history of the Bengali metropolis, Calcutta, and the life of the urban Bengali, it stimulated Bankim to advocate the cause of cultural nationalism in seeking out one’s own history. This Bengali identity, however, was Hindu in its conceptualization, cultural in orientation, and not yet fully mapped in terms of geographical territory. The territorialization of the Hindu-Bengali identity would be evident during the anti-partition movement following the first partition of Bengal (1905).

Bengali Muslims and religion

Contrarily, at the time of the British annexation of Bengal, there was a small middle-class Muslim population which gradually degenerated. This upper-class Muslim population failed to adapt to the western system of education, unlike their Hindu counterparts who greatly benefitted from English education. The Muslim society was generally untouched by the Renaissance in the Hindu-Bengali community, who already under the patronage of the Fort William College, embarked on a mission of modernizing the Bengali language and literature. The rural Muslim-Bengali society, on the other hand, witnessed intense religious reform movements under the aegis of the Wahabis and Faraizis towards the beginning of the 19th century. The reformist Wahabi and Faraizi movements tried to purify the rural Muslim society of accretions garnered from the Hindu traditions. The religious impulse behind these movements was to condemn the syncretistic traditions of Islam and to restore Islam to its pristine glory. In rural Bengal, these movements took on the color of economic resistance against the exploitation of Hindu zamindars and European indigo planters. The Wahabi movement became so violent that the British government had to suppress it with armed intervention in 1831. Despite the influence of All-India Wahabi movement, these movements got a localized colour in Bengal. By offering a heady cocktail of religion and politics, these movements inspired Muslims from rural Bengal to think of emancipation from the oppression of Hindu zamindars. However, the proponents of these movements failed to offer a nuanced understanding of British domination in India and remedies to immediate economic exploitations. As Rafiuddin Ahmed (1981) writes, “[Faraizi was a] fundamentalist movement involving the poorer sections of agrarian society, and it was its particular emphasis on economic and agrarian questions that primarily distinguished it from the Wahhabi tradition of Delhi” (40).

The success of the reformist movements forced the traditionalist mullahs in the villages to start Islamization of the rural Muslim society in right earnest towards the end of the 19th century. The Islamization drive was meant for countering the danger of intense propaganda of the reformists. The frequent religious debates between the reformists and the traditional mullahs in the villages helped in the generation of a renewed interest in Islam among the rural Muslims, notwithstanding their inability to comprehend the discourses. For the first time, the rural mullahs and maulvis were forced to explain their own position – a departure from earlier blind devotion to local pirs and maulvis. These new religious discourses also increased interaction between different localities and social groups. The attempt of the maulvis eventually succeeded in creating new channels of communication among the rural Muslim population which gave birth to a new sense of solidarity based on religious ideology. The real movement for Islamization in Bengal started in 1870-71 with the conclusion of the State Trials of the Wahabis and the formal denunciation of the jihad that year. The internally divided rural Muslim community was successfully mobilized by the manipulation of certain common symbols and slogans popularized by the religious preachers (Ahmed, 1981: 72). This Islamization drive of the mullahs was aided by prosperous and educated Muslims who saw in the rural Muslims a potential political ally in their fight against the Hindu elite. The well-organized anjumans (the Islamic associations for the mobilization of Muslim population) and the growing madrassa educated graduates ably assisted the process of Islamization through missionary work, by writing religious tracts, and by addressing religious assemblies. They professionalized the process of Islamization, which was not the exclusive domain of the village mullahs any more.

Westernization: Muslim Bengalis or Bengali Muslims?

As the Faraizi-Wahhabi movement petered out by the end of the 19th century, Islamization and a new westernization process among the Muslim-Bengalis accentuated a dilemma: Were the Muslims in Bengal ‘Muslims’ first and ‘Bengalis’ next? Was the religious Muslim identity consistent with secular Bengali identity? Would the new call for westernization be inconsistent with Islamization? The revival and rediscovery of a pristine Islamic past was akin to the contemporary Hindu search for a golden past. However, the search for a pure Islam in Bengal inspired local Muslims to aspire for a trans-Indian identity. The Islamization process de-territorialized and de-ethnicized the Muslim-Bengali identity. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the Muslim identity in Bengal was becoming increasingly extra-territorialized in the form of a pan-Islamic identity. Meanwhile, Muslim leaders such as Abdool Luteef influenced the Bengali Muslims to enroll for western education. By the end of the 19th century, “one section took the path of religious education and the other turned to western learning” (De, 1974: 21). Whereas Faraizi-Wahhabi movement advocated the cause of purely religious instruction through the madrassas, Maulvi Abdul Lateef Khan Bahadur (1828 – 93) and Maulana Karamat Ali (1800 – 73) championed the cause of English education among the Bengali Muslims. The encouragement behind western education of Muslims came from the recommendation of W. W. Hunter, a British civil servant, appointed to research the conditions of Indian Muslims. Hunter blamed the Wahabi doctrines for their hold on Muslim peasantry and recommended English education among Indian Muslims “to foster a Muslim leadership capable of counterbalancing what it saw as the forces of treason within the Muslim population” (Gossman, 1999: 25). The recommendation of the Hunter report envisages the emergence of a Muslim middle-class intelligentsia, who would act as a bridge between the British and the Muslim masses. Moreover, they would also counterbalance the growing influence of Hindu-Bengali bhadralok nationalism.

To conclude…

Thus, the Muslim-Bengali identity was constructed as a result of the antagonistic relation between the ashraf and the atrap Muslims in the beginning of 19th century; as a contest between the rural traditionalist mullahs and jihadi reformist preachers (Wahabis and Faraizis) throughout the 19th century; and also on the basis of a new alignment in interest among the urban educated and rural educated, semi-educated, illiterate Muslims on the basis of a religious solidarity. The spiritual mooring of this newly constructed identity lay outside the immediate geographical territory of the sub-continent and its practical interest was tied to immediate territorial interest. The apathy of the Bengal Muslims towards the anti-partition swadeshi movement against the first Partition of Bengal (1905) was the first manifestation of the Muslim-Bengali intelligentsia’s territorialization of their new self-conscious identity as they perceived a secure territory in the Muslim majority East Bengal province. [However, a more extensive discussion of territorialization of Bengali Muslim identity is beyond the scope of this essay.]

Photo: Portrait of a Muslim Ascetic (Madaria Faqir), Eastern Bengal, c. 1860

Mosarrap H. Khan 
has submitted his doctoral dissertation – “Muslim Fictions: Toward an Aesthetic of the Ordinary” – at the Department of English, New York University, USA. He is also a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Email:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wonderful! Will be a regular reader of this magazine. I am associated with a blog too. Please visit sometime. Its very small and new one.

    July 25, 2017
  2. Sanchari Chakravarty #

    An interesting and informative read. Would have liked a bibliography.

    August 12, 2017

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