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Jute, the golden fibre of Bengal Muslim Development


Written By: HarunurRashid
29/06/2013 21:50
Economics

I consider Jute as something of great value to the life of the majority of people living in the deltaic plains washed by the three mighty rivers – the Padma, the Jamuna and the Meghna. Biologically, it is a fibrous tropical plant that grows in wet soil and can survive in standing water. Its fibre is coarse and is used to make gunny, burlap and cordage. In the fifties and sixties it became the then Pakistan’s prime foreign exchange earner; hence it was named the golden fibre. To me its significance is more than what gold means to most people. It has played a crucial role in changing the fate of the Muslims of East Bengal.

After the Battle of Palasi(plassey), the conditions of the Muslims deteriorated. Most them were cultivators and depended on the produce from the soil. They faced two challenges from the elite who comprised the British and the Hindus. The British looked upon them with mistrust as they belonged to the religion of the Muslim rulers whom they had dethroned. The prejudice with which the Muslims were maltreated and exploited can be seen in William Hunter’s account of The Inidan Musalmans. The Muslims too looked upon the British as the usurper after the fall of Nawab Shirajuddoula and a hundred years later, the exile of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Jafar.

So when the colonial rulers introduced a new system of English education, the Muslims naturally were averse to the English education system. So, the only way they could survive was agriculture. But cultivating just paddy was not enough to send their boys to school. In the mid nineteenth century, the Muslim attitude to English education started to change. They too wanted their boys to receive English education and get a share of the jobs that so far had gone to the Hindus. It was during this time that history came to play a dominant role in the life of these illiterate Muslims.

The outbreak of the Crimean War (1854-56) cut off the supply of Russian flax which posed a threat to the running of the Dundee Mills. They experimented with Jute as alternative raw material and it proved a success. So that made for a huge demand for jute fibre. The Muslim cultivators now concentrated on growing jute which provided them with a little extra cash. So the poor cultivator was now able to send his son to an English school. That’s where the Muslims started their journey in the world of capital and trade which enabled them to educate their children. Without this miracle happening in the 19th century, the political awakening of the Muslims would have been impossible in the early 20th century. The demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims would not have emerged without Jute coming to their aid. 

The second good turn Jute did to the Muslims was after the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. In the sixties, Jute again came to play a dominant role in the economy of the country owing to the Vietnam War (1959-1975). The War led to the use of Jute as gunny, hessian, cordage in an unprecedented volume. The price of Jute spiralled and the rural Muslims could now afford to invest money in small businesses. That’s where their journey from the paddy field to the drawing room began. 

Jute had its bad days too – in the seventies, the use of artificial fibre and plastic material led to its decline. And we all know how the biggest Jute Mill in Asia had to close down owing to incurring losses that it could no longer sustain. And now after the Rio convention, artificial fibre is considered harmful to the ecology and Jute has found its place of honour once again. It is today used not only as gunny or hessian or cordage. Jute has made an impact into the world of fashion – sari, handbag, briefcases etc are made from Jute.

But the men who produce jute still live in the villages. In their worst days in the 19th century, the forefathers of today’s jute growers were happy with a morsel of rice. They may not have learnt the three R’s, but they never forgot to send their boys to the madrasah or the nearest masjid to learn the basics of their religion. Those private madrasahs still exist alongside the Alia madrasahs established by the British. These Qaumi madrasahs have stood the test of time and have been the source of spiritual sap for the majority of these Muslims who have lived with jute for centuries together. 

The Dhaka March of the Hefazat-e-Islam was mainly arranged and manned by students and teachers of the Qaumi madrasahs. They suddenly discovered that their firm belief in their Prophet and Allah is in danger. So they decided to assert their belief and take to the street. The jute growers and sons of jute growers in white did not want to compromise as they sat under the open night sky . The operation on their gathering that fateful night has had an indelible effect on the minds of the rural community – the community of the jute growers. They don’t believe what the law enforcers claim to be the number of casualty. I shall not be surprised if jute again comes to fill the ballot boxes in the way it shapes its growers’ mind. So, for now I would say two cheers for jute. We will have to wait until the time comes to say three cheers. 


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Hefazat-e-Islam Economics Jute Bengal Muslim History British colonial rule 


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About HarunurRashid

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  • Name: Professor M Harunur Rashid
  • From: Dhaka
  • Nationality: Bangladesh
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    Professor Harunur Rashid is a Cambridge Gradute, former professor of North South University, now Teaching English at International Islamic University Chittagong(IIUC), Dhaka Campus. Contributing as an Associate Editor of The Independent and former DG of Bangla Academy.

    Contact: mharunursra@yahoo.com

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