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The World through the Wars: The Bengali Muslim and the Great War

By Sipra Mukherjee 

This short article will deal with the Bengali Muslim and the Great War of 1914. Bengali Muslims have been a curiously neglected community in most studies of South Asia – in studies of Indian Islam, where they were viewed as only half-Muslim; in studies of nationalist politics in early twentieth century; in studies of Communism in South Asia; and, the unkindest cut of all, in studies of Bengal and Calcutta.

In this attempt to explore the changing world of the Bengali Muslim, I suspect that many among these issues would be applicable to many Hindus, too – Hindus who belonged to the lesser privileged classes and castes, but the documentation is even sparser there. We can begin with a folksong, which I have translated quite unsatisfactorily, so as to introduce the economic parameter within which this write-up may be placed. The economic dimension possibly played the crucial role of being the trigger to the many changes that marked 19th century Bengal. Economic development of earlier marginalized groups made accessible opportunities that had been denied for ages by tradition, widening the horizon, and making possible the reforms that characterized modernity in Bengal. Here is a representative folksong by Abed Ali Mian from Mymensingh:

“You grow more jute brothers, with hopes of greater cash,
Costs and debts of jute will soon your hopes dash.
When you’ve spent all your money and got the crop off the ground,
Marwari traders, sitting at home, will pay only Rs 5 a mound.” (Goswami, “Agriculture in slump”, IESHR, Vol. 24 (1984), 334- 364, 361, translation mine.)

The song quite clearly expresses the fear in the minds of the jute cultivators, many of whom were Bengali Muslims, at the outbreak of the War – an event that led to a sudden and unexpected drop in the overseas demand for jute. Significantly, the song speaks of this calamity not as one in an endless litany of misfortunes that fall upon the poor, but as one unexpected disaster that will dash hopes, and bring in poverty. Possibly of greater significance is that the song conveys little animosity towards the British, referring to the greed of the Marwari traders as the ultimate villains.

A brief background to this war-time situation of poverty is necessary to understand its peculiar impact. The Bengali Muslim community, a large section of which were economically poorer than the Bengali Hindus, was not in 1914 the invisible, inaudible community whose numerically dominant presence had come as a shock/surprise post the 1871 census, and who had remained largely invisible till the beginning of the 20th century. The decades immediately preceding the Great War had been a time of relative prosperity for many among the Bengali Muslim community. A significant role in this affluence was played by jute cultivation.

This resulted in a period of relative affluence for the cultivators, a high percentage of whom were Muslims, the others being Hindus from some of the lowest castes. This led to what was sometimes termed by the journals as ‘extravagant’ consumption by the peasants. There appears to be some disparity between what the peasants thought was justified expenditure and what the writers in the journals and newspapers thought the cultivator should do with this money that he was earning. The extravagant spending referred to by the bhadraloks were the peasant consumption of cloth, salt, oil, hilsa, jackfruit, and sweetmeats from the itinerant traders at the weekly hats – areas which turned into sites of violence and conflict when the cultivators resisted the Swadeshi Bengalis, usually Hindus, who attempted to introduce the doctrine of boycott – of not consuming imported articles – into the rural bazaars of eastern Bengal. This is a subject dealt with in Rabindranath’s novel Ghare Baire that critiques the unthinking aggression of the contemporary Swadeshi movement. Given that the jute cultivators were seen as opposing Swadeshi economic ideas, it is not surprising that Swadeshi activism proved unpopular in the jute tracts.

The Bengali middle-class antipathy towards jute cultivation was evident in popular songs and poems. A song popular as “Paater Gaan” composed in 1914 after the War broke out, and the demand for jute slumped, begins with the line: “O my tasty jute!” emphasizing the fact that unlike rice, jute could not be eaten.

The prosperity in the agrarian hinterlands was however short-lived as dependence on the global market heightened the vulnerability of the cultivators to price shocks, a fact that would be cruelly revealed in August 1914, when the outbreak of World War I led to a virtual cessation of all shipping and trade and markets for jute virtually disappeared. And, as the songs had shrewdly pointed out, jute could not be eaten, forcing the peasants into the vicious cycle of debts.

Despite the debt and poverty brought on by the War, large sections of the Bengali Muslim community had experienced decades of relative affluence by 1914. Not just the jute cultivators, but a large section of the Bengali Muslim community had been moving towards modernity and western education since the 1870s. This was reflected in a demand for more government-aided English schools that had been raised and the Calcutta 1914 Committee on Muhammadan Education in East Bengal.

As they moved into education and into a diversity of jobs in both the moffassil towns and the metropolis of Calcutta, a visible and articulate middle-class began to be seen and heard. Questions on religion, modernity, and education were voiced in the many periodicals such as Mussalaman Bandhu (1885), Naba Sudhakar (1896), Mihir O Sudhakar (1895), Naba Nur (1903), Mohammadi (1903), Bangiya Mussalman Sahitya Patrika (1911) that began to be published from the 1870s. Questions of whether Islamic culture conflicted with Bengali culture and questions of which language, Urdu or Bangla, should be spoken by the modern Bengali Muslim were two moot ones that were repeatedly discussed and debated. The supposed contradictions within the self-ascription and the identity ascribed to the Bengali Muslim by their significant others: the Hindu, the British, and the non-Bengali Muslim, were discussed and debated by the community.

It is around the time of the Great War that the Bengali-Muslim middle classes, who favoured secular and modern education, began to make their presence felt in the madrassa education system. The Bengali-Muslims, a community that had been perceived as lesser privileged, socially inferior, and keen to imitate the Urdu-speaking ashraf community, saw a remarkable change of character and stance in the twentieth century. This change was revealed in the increasing role they played in the planning, controlling, and imparting of education. Despite the quotient of glamour that the Urdu ashraf culture carried, Bengali students were finding it difficult to master the increased number of ‘new’ languages that the syllabus demanded. In 1902, the Bengali-Muslim periodical Islam Pracharak writes that the load was unusually heavy on a Bengali-Muslim boy because as a Muslim he would have to learn Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bengali and, English. Though many among the rural propulation still preferred an education that emphasized religion and Persian culture, continuing to perceive education as a consecrated privilege, the urban and suburban families of somewhat better means were attracted to the more secular education. The popular image of the culturally rich, sharif Muslim was built on the urban, aristocratic, Urdu-speaking Muslim. In reality though, under the pressures of the new economy, the urban Muslim was fast changing. The Report of the Committee on Muslim Education in 1915 responded to this changed situation by recommending that besides Bengali and English, the learning of Urdu, Persian, and Arabic should no longer be compulsory for the Bengali-Muslim student since it burdened the child with five languages.[1]

Thus, the acceptance of Bengali as a rightful language for the Muslims involved a difficult journey of improving, justifying, sacralizing, and finally establishing of the Bangla language.[2]

This claim to a more secular-modern identity that the emerging middle-class articulated was, understandably, neither a simple uni-dimensional claim, nor a claim that was universally voiced by the entire community. The Bengali Muslim community was to be found both in the metropolis of Calcutta and in the mofussil towns – to use the colonial term – which were located in-between the agricultural hinterland and the city. Belonging to the rural areas of Bengal, a large section of the Bengali Muslims had a strong association with the land, an aspect that is reflected in the later slogans of the Muslim League like “The Plough-owner is the Land-owner” (‘Langol Jar Jomi Taar’). At the same time, though, the early twentieth century events around the Ottoman Empire also foregrounded associations with Islamic universalism. While the intimate association with the land connected the Bengali Muslim intimately to the territorial region of the Indian subcontinent, the other connected him to the wider pan-Islamic ‘territory’. These associations came together in a complex imaginary to shape the mind of the modern Bengali Muslim in the first two decades of the 20th century. It is possibly therefore not surprising that the echoes of socialism first began to be heard in the writings of this community, an ideology that was universal, trans-territorial. Echoes of these associations, conflicting yet in accord with each other, are conveyed in the poetry of Nazrul, the foremost revolutionary Bengali writer of this age.

The Bengali Muslim constructions of communitarian selfhood in the colonial era entailed a variety of approaches: the local distinctiveness of Bengal, their correspondences with Hindus, and Islamic universalism. The outbreak of the First World War placed under strain the conscience of Indian Muslims, a fact that was revealed by the Khilafat movement which found enthusiastic support immediately after the War. The debates over the issues of loyalty and duty frequently turned to the intricate and thorny issue of Muslim identity in a colonized country. A clearly articulated pro-Khalif stance and the beginnings of an anti-British stance soon began to be seen in the papers. With the formation of an educated articulate middle class, opinions within the Bengali Muslim community were shifting from the safe, traditional, often conservative opinions of the earlier leaders to more secular and liberal ones. The victory of Kemal Ataturk, for example, so memorably celebrated by Nazrul, was condemned by some of the conservative Bengali Muslim periodicals which criticised the Young Turks and their disastrous ways.

The acceptance of a universal Islamic identity also had varying impacts across the Indian Muslim community – for the Bengali Muslims, with their largely rural and agrarian base, the conscious emphasis of an Islamic identity that had a universal presence would serve to open up a wider world. This identity appears to have been strengthened by the experience of the War when many Muslims were posted in areas of Middle East and Afghanistan. Nazrul’s trip from Howrah to Naoshera, near the Afghan border, was an actualization of the romance and the identity which had till then been an abstract idea in his mind. Though disappointed at not being called to the battlefront, Nazrul sought out the maulavi, who imparted religious instruction to the regiments, and began readings of the Sufi Hafiz and other Persian medieval poetry. What Nazrul was culling from his study of Persian poetry though may have been different from the world’s usual expectation of Islamic literature. When in 1919, he started the “Bulletin of the Rationalist Society” in Calcutta and claimed that this was the first “non-political, non-sectarian journal where Hindus, Christians, Muslims, may freely mix with each other”, he quoted Hafiz to support the powers of rationalism. The experience of Karachi too would have brought him closer to Kabul, the context for the failed but nevertheless bold Silk Letter conspiracy by the Deobandis, who had planned to liberate India from the British with the help of the Ottoman Empire. And even as it brought him closer to the Islamic world, it would have brought him closer to Russia and to the Bolsheviks.

Nazrul’s early prose may be seen as attempts to understand and negotiate the competing narratives of the territorial and extra-territorial allegiances of India’s Muslims in both their restrictive and expansive dimensions. Attempts to contribute to the discourse of the Indian nation through narratives present to the Bengali Muslim drew on their affiliations of linguistic (territorial) and religious (extra-territorial) community. This may perhaps also explain the attraction of the philosophy of Socialism – with its ability to move across territorial loyalties and its appeal of universal justice. It is significant that Muzaffar Ahmed and Nazrul, the two most famous Bengali Muslims of this decade, reached Socialism independently. They did not influence each other, meeting only in 1920. Suchetana Chattopadhyay in her study of Muzaffar Ahmed notes that the first socialists in Calcutta were predominantly Muslims, who emerged from the ranks of urban intellectuals and political activists. The first Indian vernacular into which the Communist Manifesto was translated was Bangla, and the second, Urdu.

Belief in socialism involves a rejection of identities based on ‘nation’ and ‘community’, two identities that formed the bases for nationalist mainstream politics. Its open condemnation of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism” widened the political philosophy to allow for a universalism based on ideas of justice and equality. The British Empire’s unease with the Socialist philosophy introduced the Red Scare as it came to be called. In 1925, a year after Abul Hussein’s widely read essay, “Banglar Bolshi,”[3] about Bolshevism in Bengal, the government reported that “as usual, the contribution of the Muhammadan writers is small.” Two years later, in1927, the government reported that “the number of Muslim writers is steadily increasing and some are fairly on their way to making their mark in literature.”[4]

For the Bengali Muslims of eastern Bengal, with their poverty and their close relationship to the land, the Bolshevik idiom of land and labourers had a special appeal. Moreover, this was a wider discourse than the available nationalist discourse. As Muzaffar Ahmed writes:

Considering my mental condition in the second decade of this century and the romance that lay in the terrorist movement, it was not impossible for me to join the terrorist revolutionary camp, but there were … obstacles … The terrorist revolutionaries drew their inspiration from Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath. This book was filled with communal ill-will … The fundamental message of the book lay in Bankimchandra’s invocation Vande-Mataram. The song contains the lines: Thou, as strength in arms of men Thou, as faith, in hearts, dost reign, For, thou hast ten-armed Durga’s power … How could a monotheist Muslim youth utter this invocation?[5]

Bayly’s Origins of Nationality in South Asia speaks of a “regional patriotism” within early modern South Asia that later informs nationalisms in the colonial period. This framework invigorates collective ethnic identities and opposes sterile statist models that posit nations as either wholly constructed instrumentalist creations or completely pre-modern primordial ethnicities. With the War years bringing about several changes in their lives, the Bengali Muslim intellectuals conceived of their identity as part of a broader conversation about being both Bengali and Muslim. Given these two parameters, their identity could not be expressed satisfactorily through any one of the narratives available to them: the political Swadeshi, the linguistic Bengali, or the religious Muslim. It required an identity that had greater scope and could accommodate the rich cultural intricacies brought on by being Muslim in a non-Islamic land.

[1] Mukherjee, Sipra. ‘The City of Colleges: the Bengali Muslim in Colonial Calcutta’. The Calcutta Mosaic: Essays and Interviews on the Minority Communities of Calcutta. London, New Delhi, New York: Anthem Press. 2009, 115-18.

[2] Murshid, Tazeen. The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses 1871-1977. Calcutta: Oxford University Press. 1995.

[3] Hussain, Abul (1921) ‘Banglar Bolshi’ [‘The Bolsheviks of Bengal’], Bangiyo Musalman Sahitya Patrika, Srabon B 1328-1921

[4] Suchetana Chattopadhyay.

[5] Muzaffar Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party of India 1920-1929, Calcutta, 1970, p. 12. Ahmad, Amar Jiban, pp. 27-28.

Photo: Nazrul (Courtesy: The Daily Star)

Dr. Sipra Mukherjee 
is Professor at West Bengal State University. Her research interests are religion, caste, folklore and power.


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

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