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Communal Relations


Communal Relations The principles that keep individuals together in a given community may be equally operative in keeping the communities together within a state. Conflicts among communities may arise at times with far-reaching consequences, unless these are duly resolved.

Historically, religion may be taken as the most readily identifiable criterion for distinguishing communities and their mutual relations in this country. This assumption rests on the fact that religion played a crucial role in moulding the Bengal socio-cultural systems and sub-systems, rites and rituals, literature and philosophy. Religion had also been the major source of guidance for state control and governance. The very early history of Bengal of course reveals the categorization of people according to their ethnic and territorial traits. During the course of Aryanization of Bengal, long before the Christian era, ethnicity was the main criterion for identification of peoples. In the eyes of the ruling Aryans the non-Aryan natives were braytya jati or people with Prakrit culture, ranked far below that of the Aryans. Similarly, in the eyes of the subjugated prakrit peoples the Aryans were a jati or community having a different culture, Sanskrit culture. Though the Aryans and the non-Aryans kept a distance from each other for sometime, there is evidence that the absorptive power of Prakrit culture was able to accommodate Sanskrit culture with great profit. Through a gradual process of assimilation the larger part of Bengal society was Aryanized while maintaining the cultural dominance of Prakrit, which not only survived the Aryan offensive, but also led to the rise of many living vernaculars including Bangla.

The Aryanization process finally dissolved the original ethnic jatis (Aryans and non-Aryans) into a hierarchy of castes. Jati, nonetheless, survived even after the Aryanization process was completed. Every major caste had developed several sub-castes within it on the basis of the attributed superiority or inferiority of jatis. Territoriality was never considered an important factor while castes and jatis were ascribed to people, though it is a fact that a particular area of Bengal was predominantly inhabited by a particular jati.

An important element of the caste system of the social organisation was that people belonging to a particular caste did not rule out the legitimacy and importance of other castes. Because caste mobility was becoming extremely difficult, toleration of other castes and religions turned out to be a practical necessity. Buddhist Pala kings are seen to have employed, as a mark of statesmanship, Brahmins as ministers and local administrators on a large scale. The succeeding Sena kings behaved the same way. Consequently, the change of a political regime was seldom followed by communal strife. Structurally, the community was more pragmatic in rural areas. As caste isolation was not practicable at village level where social production took place, the people forged inter-community solidarity by having a village god or goddess worshipped by all, irrespective of caste and religion.

The long interaction and mutual influence of all the cultures flowing from the Prakrita, Aryans, Brahmanic, Buddhists and Jainas under various regimes had established a great tradition of inter-religious and inter-caste syncretism under which peoples of all ethnic groups or tribes of Bengal had been living together without resorting to any serious conflicts, though kings were engaged in frequent warfare. But such warfare aimed at achieving territorial control, not to damage the religio-cultural fabric. Even the Turko-Afghans came as territorial conquerors rather than champions of a faith. Scholars agree that Muslim proselytisation in Bengal was the act of sufis and itinerant preachers and not of rulers who, like their Pala and Sena predecessors, took the local people in partnership by accommodating them in administration and armies, irrespective of religion or caste and who supported the religious establishments of all communities by land grants.

On the eve of the establishment of Muslim rule, Bengal was politically characterized by tiny kingdoms dotted around the country. One of these kingdoms was called Vanga. There were other states in eastern Bengal, such as, harikela (assumed to be in Sylhet), samatata (Comilla area), Pattikera (Comilla-Noakhali), and chandradvipa (Barisal area). The kingdoms in western Bengal were Kajangal (southwest Bengal), tamralipti (Midnapur), Suhmabhumi (parts of Burdwan, Hughli and Howrah) and Radha (West Bengal). Central Bengal was the domain of the kings of karnasuvarna (Murshidabad area), varendra (Rajshahi area), Gauda (Murshidabad, Birbhum, Maldah and Burdwan), and pundravardhana (Bogra, Dinajpur and Rajshahi areas). It is assumed that quite a number of these little kingdoms were ruled by the ethnic peoples and ruled in a tribal style, while others were ruled in a clannish manner, as kingship with its expansionist attributes was yet to develop. Political unification of Bengal was to come in phases under the Turko-Afghan rulers in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially under the Husain Shahi dynasty (1498-1538) when almost all of Bengal came under a single independent authority. Husain Shahi rulers also gave a political name to the united kingdom, Shah-i-Bangalah, the precursor of subsequent Suba-i-Bangalah and still later Bengal.

It is indeed remarkable that like many other politics of the time, the political unification of Bengal was not conjoined with a similar unification of religious faith and cultures. The Turko-Afghan rulers were sagacious enough not to impose their own faiths and rituals on the conquered communities. Rather, the great tradition of syncretism and assimilation of the previous regimes was prudently maintained. The central government saw to it that all the communities of the mulk/shahi (state) lived harmoniously according to their own beliefs and ways of life. The sultani administration was established in partnership with the local communities of all castes and creeds. All communities were allowed to observe their own religions and practices without any interference from others. Thus, as cultural systems, Islam and Hinduism came in contact with each other in an atmosphere of mutual toleration. Both the systems are seen to have influenced each other, without any noticeable conflict. Syncretism as a dynamic force, operated to smooth away the critical differences between the two religio-cultural systems and led, in consequence, to a merger of beliefs and practices at folk level. The Bhakti movement, and the Satyapir and Badr Pir cults are the results of free interaction of the two religions. Folk belief went to the extent of considering the saints of Islam and Hinduism as the same figures in different forms.

The tradition of inter-communal syncretism and peaceful co-existence continued, further strengthened, under the Mughals. The Mughal polity absorbed the local Hindu elite into its fold by sharing power and resources with them. In keeping religious rites and rituals and prejudices unaffected by political considerations, the jobs and services of the suba (province) were distributed more or less on communal lines. For example, whereas the military and judiciary were mainly kept in the hands of the Mughal military aristocracy, the revenue administration, land control, civil service, local administration and civil supply were mostly reserved for Hindus.

The country's trade and commerce were shared between the local Hindu baniks, Moors, Marwaris, Eurasians and the maritime Europeans. That such an arrangement received public consensus is attested by the fact that there was seldom any serious communal antagonism under the Mughals. However, there is evidence of occasional Hindu-Muslim conflict, even of riots. The religious processions passing mosques, temples and other sacred sites on the occasions of Durga Puja and Muharram, cow slaughtering, loud music before mosques etc were the commonest causes for triggering off communal tensions. But such tension scarcely led to lingering communal discord and disturbances. The state officials like muhtasim, faujdar, kotwal, amil, kanungo and qazi were under orders to maintain social morale and discipline. The government made the officials responsible for all crimes including communal disturbances within their jurisdictions.

The Bengal Muslims belonged predominantly to the Sunni sect, but the ruling classes belonged to the Shi'a sect. Shia-Sunni tensions have also been noticed during the later Mughal period. But such tension was the syndrome of the Muharram, and invariably short-lived. There were also sectarian differences among the Hindus. The rise of numerous syncretist sects and sub-sects (Vaisnavism alone had 28 sub-sects) in Mughal times tended to undermine Brahmanical control. In advocating and practicing sectarian viewpoints the dissidents often encountered opposition from the established sects. Again the state officials were always very alert about the sectarian tensions and saw to it that any sectarian difference did not escalate into largescale communal unrest.

The participation of the maritime Europeans and Eurasians in the trade and commerce of Bengal from the mid 17th century added a crucial new dimension to the communal composition and relations. The establishment of European trading settlements, and trading outposts in various places of maritime Bengal by the Europeans and Eurasians like the portuguese, french, english, dutch, danes, greeks, armenians introduced new elements in the Bengal society and economy. The European trading towns like Calcutta, Chandannagar, Chunchura, Serampore, Hughli were growing on communal lines.

Though the Europeans and their native baniks and amlas worked in perfect collaboration in hats, bazaars, aurangs, dockyard and shipping offices, they preferred to live away from each other. Every European town in Bengal distinctly grew in two parts, white town and black town. Physically and culturally the two towns never met. From a communal point of view, such segregation originally developed through consensus. The socio-religious rites and rituals and caste rules of the native elements of the town required them to maintain a spatial distance from the 'Feringhees' who were perceived by them as unclean. The Feringhees, again, needed to keep a similar spatial distance for reasons of their own styles of health and sanitation, civic amenities, religious practices, food habits, housing, transportation, entertainment etc. Language too was, of course, an important consideration for mutual segregation.

But what was an acceptable arrangement of city settlement in the 18th century became a racial affair in the 19th. Earlier, the Europeans used to take it as part of their communal and personal obligation to participate in the fairs and festivals organised by their collaborators in the native part of the town. They were invited to pujas and nautch (dance by baijees) in which they participated enthusiastically. Within the domestic front, almost all Europeans used to engage native ayas and servants and many of them even married native women. But social interaction between whites and natives practically ceased in the 19th century when the British, as a race, began to consider themselves as superior in culture and civilization to the Indians. Racial arrogance reached such a level that the British began to think that it was their sacred duty to 'civilize' the Indians. The Anglo-Indian community grew in size significantly in the 19th century. Besides the people in the state departments (civil service, police, judiciary, military, etc.) there were Anglo-Indians in the railways, inland and overseas navigation, plantation, industries, trade and commerce, engineering works, education, missionaries, land control and so on. Though internally there was social stratification and hierarchy among the Anglo-Indian community, in relation to the natives they formed a homogenous community different from the natives as regards skin pigmentation, income, lifestyle, general outlook, manners and habits. Being always very conscious as rulers and being puffed up with the idea of racial superiority, the Anglo-Indians formed a distinct community with a segregationist outlook.

The all-white clubs, all-white railway and steamer saloons, all-white shopping arcades, all-white associations of sports and games, all-white theatre and the like made the natives feel that communally the Anglo-Indians were different from them in all respects. The natives were pained to see that the Anglo-Indians made themselves a separate category even in the eye of the law. Under the Criminal Procedure Code, the native judges had no jurisdiction over the members of the ruling race. When the liberal Governor General lord ripon (1880-1884) tried to eliminate this discrimination, the Anglo-Indian community successfully put up a resistance. The Anglo-Indian agitation against Ripon's reform proposal led to progressive deterioration in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. The conflict took on the colour of racialism.

The wahabi Muslims and nationalist Hindus united in opposition to the British. The resistance to the ruling white race took many forms, peaceful and violent. The reform movements in the Muslim and Hindu communities in the 19th century were indirectly a peaceful method of responding to the moves of the Christian missionaries. The swadeshi movement, terrorist movement, non-cooperation movement and finally the quit india movement were more assertive political responses to the arrogance of the ruling white race.

British rule based on racialism was not in agreement with the tradition of assimilation and syncretism. But ironically, the hatred generated against the racist Europeans had over time contaminated the relations between the Hindus and the Muslims. The age-old Hindu-Muslim amity degenerated into communalism, conflicts and clashes in the 20th century ultimately led to the partition of bengal on communal lines. The Bengal Muslims and Hindus looked at the partition from two opposite poles. The introduction of separate electorates under the India Act of 1909 was another major contributory factor behind the spread of communalism.

The most ineffaceable mark of Hindu-Muslim rift and confrontation was a series of communal riots in different parts of Bengal. Riots are explosions in socio-political processes and are expressions of the unworkability of the old relationship. Bengal history has known momentary and short-lived riots in the past on the occasions of Durga Puja, Muharram processions and cow slaughtering, but organised and lingering widespread communal riots with political slogans were a phenomena of the twentieth century. From the early 1940s, communal riots in Bengal increasingly assumed organised form. This form found its fullest expression in the Calcutta carnage of 1946. The great Calcutta killing made the partition of Bengal in 1947 on communal lines inevitable.

It led to a mass exodus of Hindus from East Bengal and a similar exodus of Muslims from India. The Bangla speaking muhajirs were quickly absorbed into the social mainstream and identified themselves as Bangalis. But the non-Bangali muhajirs, because of their ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences, appeared as a distinct social group. The distinctiveness was made more glaring by the government policy of having separate settlement zones for the non-Bangali muhajirs as well as a priority quota, though undeclared, for jobs and services for them. For their own safety and welfare, the non-Bangali muhajirs tried to organise themselves politically under the banner of muhajirs. The non-Bangali muhajirs were mostly skilled labourers and professionals and naturally it was they who seemed to have seized the opportunities created by the new state. Mills, factories and shops were seen to be dominated by them. The host community could not take the events generously. Soon there was tension between the Bangalis and the non-Bangalis. The social nucleus of the new community was formed by the biharis who constituted the majority among the muhajirs.

The partition (1947) and the abolition of the zamindari system in 1950 seemed to have had largely resolved the Hindu-Muslim conflict. But isolated communal incidents are still noticed in the 1950s particularly in areas where there were muhajir concentrations. The muhajirs who had lost or left their properties in India felt it politically legitimate to grab the Hindu properties here in East Bengal. But it is true that organised rioting was there no more. By the 1960s Hindu-Muslim and Bangali-muhajir relations became normal, barring occasional tension which might happen in any multi-communal state.

Communal relations during the war of liberation and after, acquired an explosive dimension. The Biharis as a community openly sided with the Pakistani forces and collaborated with Pakistani troops in their crimes against humanity. Relations between the two communities reached its lowest ebb. Apprehending reprisal at independence in the hands of the oppressed people and the mukti bahini, most of the solvent Biharis moved their families and wealth to Pakistan and other places before the war ended. But most unfortunate were those who could not move out before independence. To save them from the fury of angry Bangalis, most of the Biharis were huddled up in sheltered places under the care of the International Red Cross. They claimed themselves to be Pakistanis, but Pakistan is yet to recognize them to be so. Hence, they are still living in many camps located in various parts of Bangladesh. It is true that many sneaked out of these camps, and either integrated themselves with the Bangalis or silently migrated to Pakistan or India or elsewhere.

The community question was not resolved by the War of Liberation. Soon after Bangladesh came into being, a new community problem emerged. Under the Pakistan Constitutions of 1956 and 1962, the religious and ethnic minorities were recognised as separate communities, and they had been enjoying minority rights according to International Laws and Conventions. But as the Bangladesh War of Liberation was fought on the basis of Bangali nationalism, and as secularism was adopted as a state principle, the Bangladesh Constitution of 1972 did not accord any separate status to any religious or ethnic minorities.

The constitutional provision making all people living within the territory of Bangladesh constituting one nation and styling all people irrespective of religion and ethnicity 'Bangali' in nationality, was quickly challenged by some ethnic minorities, particularly the chakmas. They refused to be identified as Bangalis. They asserted that the Chakmas and other ethnic minorities within Bangladesh were different communities, not Bangalis, though citizens of Bangladesh. Their claim was based on their historic relation with the central government in the past. Historically, the Chakmas were enjoying autonomous status ever since their region was conquered by the Mughals. They alluded to the British Act of 1900 which gave autonomy to the Chakmas and other tribes, and to the Pakistan Constitution of 1962 which recognised their minority status. The demands of the Chakma community finally led to a protracted armed confrontation between the government and the shanti bahini, the armed wing of the parbatya chattagram jana-samhati samiti. Many lives were lost on both sides ever since the Shanit Bahini resorted to guerrilla operations. At last a peace accord was signed under which the Shanti Bahini laid down their arms and accepted peace under terms and conditions acceptable to the hill people. [Sirajul Islam]