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The subalterns’ new-found ethos gaining political clout

Written By: HarunurRashid
22/10/2013 22:00
Social Issues

The Mughals adopted a two-pronged policy of consolidation of their imperial rule. “At the elite level they endeavoured to absorb both Muslim and non-Muslim chieftains into the imperial service, thereby transforming potential state enemies into loyal servants. They also sought to expand the empire’s agrarian base, and hence its wealth, by transforming forest lands into arable fields and the semi-nomadic forest-dwelling peoples inhabiting those lands into settled farmers. “From the time of Shah Jahan [1627–58],” (an 18th century revenue document). This policy was adopted from the reign of Akbar onwards.

From this historical document it transpires that the majority of the population in the eastern flank of the empire, unlike northern India, were nomads turned farmers. They used to be given a patta (a royal document) and the annual rent was just one anna per bigha. The more jungle you could clear the more land you would own.

The nucleus of the rural society was not a feudal castle, but the mosque. Most brick-built or stone mosques with inscriptions were built in West Bengal in and around Gauda and Pandua. One source gives the number of mosques built in West Bengal between 1450 and 1550 as 117 whereas East Bengal had only a few with Noakhali and Faridpur having none.

This however does not reflect the number of Muslims being greater in number in West Bengal. East Bengal had mosques, numerous of them, but they were built by bamboo and thatching. So, these Muslim peasantry that enjoyed a comfortable living under the Muslim rule by the sweat of their brow came to encounter misery and exploitation with the fall of the Muslim rulers and the commencement of the colonial rule.

The rural society that used to congregate at the Juma ghar and listen to the Molla, now decided to boycott the British. The British too viewed them with suspicion and potential source of treason. The result of this confrontation can be seen in William Hunters’ The Indian Mussalmans which is in fact a sad story of the Bengal Muslims though the title chooses the word ‘Indian’.

Then came the Permanent Settlement that turned the Bengal Muslims into slaves of their Hindu landlords. While the Hindu gentry derived all the benefit, economic and educational, and supported the British colonial powers, the Muslims refused to send their boys to general English schools nor did they have the means to do so. The Bhadraloks of the Bengal Renaissance were openly supporting the British rule while Titu Mir and others were fighting for the emancipation of the Bengal peasantry. When Titu Mir was killed he got a one line obituary reference in a Calcutta paper. 

The Hindus launched the terrorist movement to free Mother India in the third decade of the 20th century and they did not recruit any Muslim in their terrorist groups. Before any operation they would vow before Mother Kali and swear on their blood not to betray the cause. All of them would have opposed the division of India and by the same logic even the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state. It may sound unsavoury, but the truth is the National Poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, would have opposed it along with Rabindranath Tagore, the writer of our National anthem. Incidentally, Nazrul was declared the national poet of British India in 1928 at a Calcutta reception presided over by Subhas Chandra Bose. 

Anyway, I mean to say something about the subalterns of East Bengal. The down-trodden Muslims would not have found a political voice if jute cultivation did not come to give them an economic boost in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, if there was no division of Bengal in 1905, and if there was no establishment of the Dhaka University in 1921 and finally if there were no partition of India in 1947. (If you differ from me please read the Sachar Report and apprise yourself with the miserable condition of the West Bengal Muslims who form nearly one third of the population of 
the state). 

What makes me deliberate on these rather long historical facts is that the subalterns in Bangladesh are still conflated around the little mosques, now no longer thatches, and eagerly listen to the Mollas. Their muscle power may be lent to the local wealthy thug, but emotionally they still listen to the Mollas and the Muallims of the Qaumi Madrasahs.

The subalterns have been making substantial progress in cultivation, fishery, and other professions. Their sons and daughters are going abroad and sending their sweat money back home. The little boat is now powered by a shallow pump. The new breed of paddy has given them surplus food. 
So, the real political power that can change the fate of this nation lies in the villages.

A generation of neo-subalterns have migrated to urban areas. And these educated professionals are exploiting the rest of the country. There is no reason why we should undermine political wisdom of the rural subalterns, illiterate though they may be. They understand which political leader has made how much money through ‘political business’ and yet they are generous enough to attend political meetings in millions. They are like the cormorants (pankouris) who float on the rivers and at the slightest hint of danger go underwater for as long as the danger is not over. They have been cheated over the centuries and there is in their blood an intuitive cleverness.

If you seek vote they would not say no on your face. But you can never predict who they are going to vote for from their naïve smile. The urban dwelling neo-subalterns have turned their backs on their own kinds. I did not go to teach English and computer to a Qaumi Madrasah, but an American lady did while she was here. Former US ambassador Moriarty’s wife, so I have been told, would go to a local madrasah to teach them English.

When shall we, the neo-subalterns, go to the madrasahs and volunteer to make them conversant with modern tools with which they can negotiate with the rest of the world? That would not take anything away from our misconceived ‘secularism’. With our new-found ill-gotten wealth can we write-off more than half the population, the subalterns I mean, of this country?

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Muslim Bengal History Colonial Rule in Bengal 


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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.


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