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Communalism


Communalism in the context of Hindu-Muslim antagonism in Bengal has been viewed in terms of the political experiences of South Asia. A particular paradox in the history of freedom struggle against the British Raj in the subcontinent lies in the fact that the maturing of mainstream Indian nationalism was almost synonymous with the strengthening of communalism in Indian politics which in the long-run contributed to the partition of India along religious lines.

The phenomenon of communalism in Bengal has, not unnaturally, attracted the attention of social scientists, which resulted in the development of competing stereotypes on the causes and nature of this political process. Recent studies have particularly stressed a link between Hindu dominance and Muslim socio-economic grievances. The 1871 Census of India formally revealed that nearly half of the total population in Bengal was Muslims, most of whom inhabited the marshy, low-lying tracts of eastern Bengal - the area corresponding to present-day Bangladesh. In some districts such as Mymensingh, Pabna, Bogra, Bakerganj, Noakhali and Chitagong more than 60 per cent of the population were Muslims.

Their demographic predominance was, however, not reflected in the socio-economic and political structures of the province. As a community they mostly earned their livelihood as tenant farmers and agricultural labourers employed by Hindu zamindars (landlords). Hindu domination over Muslim peasantry was buttressed by a dependence of the latter on Hindu mahajans (money-lenders) for credit. Besides paying regular rent, the Muslim peasantry had to meet the burden of additional abwabs (cesses) for the remuneration of amlas (zamindari officials), performance of puja (worship) in zamindari estates, opening of additional classes in village schools and special occasions such as marriages or births in zamindars' families. Bengal had some Muslim landlords, but their position was constantly threatened by the subdivision of estates among female members of their families who, unlike their Hindu counterparts, were entitled to succession.

The few Muslims who lived in towns earned their living as day-labourers, butchers, carpenters, carters, coachmen, stable-boys, tailors, boatmen, laskars, book-binders and petty traders. According to one estimate in the beginning of the twentieth century there was only one Muslim to every seven Hindus in government jobs and professional occupations; the situation changed only marginally in the 1940s.

Much of the communal riots in Bengal during the first part of the 20th century can be ascribed to this economic divide between the Hindus and the Muslims. For, as has been aptly argued, where the exploiting groups are 'racially' or culturally distinct from the exploited, like the Hindu zamindars and Marwari moneylenders facing the overwhelmingly Muslim peasantry in twentieth century colonial Bengal, the contradictions between the two tended to be expressed in a communal form under changing circumstances. Economic grievances of the Muslim masses alone cannot, however, explain the growth of communalism in Bengal. Bengal's economic scene itself had undergone significant changes by the late 1920s with the rise of a substantial number of Muslim landowners, especially in Rajshahi, Dhaka and Chittagong.

Although economic impoverishment of the Muslim peasantry provided a material base for agrarian tensions in Bengal, the ideological form in which the consciousness of the Muslim peasantry increasingly came to be defined was that of a community united by religion and separated from its counterparts by religion. The growth of solidarity in Bengali Muslim society was caused by a successful mobilization of rural Muslims by the ulamas. The Islamic reform movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which sought to restore the 'purity' of the faith by purging it of 'idolatrous' practices, served to achieve a 'consensus' between the diverse Muslim social groups. The Bengali Muslims gained a new Islamic identity, which, in turn, led to a social alienation of the Muslim villager from his/her immediate Hindu neighbours with whom he/she had generally shared a common pattern of rural life. A heightened consciousness of a separate cultural identity made the Bengali Muslims feel that as Muslims they were required to be distinct from Hindus and to orient their manners, customs, personal and family names in accordance with Pan-Islamic norms.

The strengthening of a religious identity among the Muslims was matched by a rapid rise of Hindu revivalism. In rural areas, especially such districts as Pabna and Dhaka, the local Hari Sabhas and Arya Dharma Pracharini Sabhas organised yajnas (public worship) and kirtans (devotional music) to generate solidarity amongst the Hindus; the marwaris in Calcutta formed defence parties to forestall attacks on Hindu property; newspapers such as the Amrita Bazar Patrika (30 June 1926) wrote of establishing Hindu organisations in every part of Bengal. Such organisations as the Hindu Sabha in Pabna, which since its establishment in 1921/2 had not been particularly anti-Muslim, now became active in educating its followers on important communal rights such as playing music in religious processions without any obstruction.

By the turn of the twentieth century Hindu-Muslim contradictions were noticeable both at the elite and popular levels of Bengali society. Certain long and short-term developments in the world of organised politics contributed to a link between the two. The Constitutional Acts of 1909 and 1919 expanded the franchise but introduced the system of separate electorates that encouraged politicians to work along communal and sectarian lines. These tendencies were strengthened by another contemporaneous development-the spread of education without a corresponding rise in employment opportunities, which produced a scramble for scarce jobs along communal lines. Communal solidarity was thus strengthened in the realm of organised politics.

The khilafat movement was another landmark in the evolution of communal political identities in Bengal. For, it presaged an alliance between Hindus and Muslims on a religious issue that, once broken, generated a communal backlash. The Movement had provided a political platform to the ulama who imparted a new consciousness and confidence to their coreligionists that prepared them for the future acceptance of the two-nation theory. On their part the Hindu leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya in post-Khilafat day raised the cry of 'Hind-Hindi-Hindu'.

In the context of organized politics in Bengal the revocation in 1925 of chitta ranjan das's bengal pact, which aimed at 'a strange marriage' of religio-communal consciousness with institutional forms of representative politics was the last straw for the uneasy peace forged between the two communities through 'unity from the top'. Bengal's Muslim leaders now opted for an alternative to the Swaraj Party. Unlike the bhadralok dominated Hindu voluntary associations, the local anjumans in Bengal proved to be ready-organisations for Muslim politicians. The search for Muslim political identity was reflected at one level in the rise of the bengal moslem council party under ak fazlul huq and Mujibur Rahman and the bengal muslim party under Sir abdur rahim. While the former advocated an anti-British approach on Swarajist lines, the latter emphasised attachment to British connections. At the same time there was a gradual emergence of a more 'nebulous focus of Muslim attention', evident in a number of 'regional and cultural organisations'. Areas such as Pabna, where Hindus and Muslims had for so long participated in each other's festivals, and Dhaka, which had been remarkably free from communal tensions, were now hit by Hindu-Muslim conflicts.

By 1926 issues such as 'music before mosques', that had hardly worried either the Hindus or Muslims in the past, emerged as an important nucleus around which communal solidarities developed. The Hadal of Pabna now declared that there could be no music before any mosque at any time. This Muslim rigidity induced the government to formulate laws which denied the Hindus, what they claimed was, their 'traditional' and unrestricted right to conduct musical processions along public thoroughfares. Hindu reactions to such measures were forthright. Meetings were organised and a publicity campaign launched to prove the total ignorance of the government about 'customary Hindu rights'.

Against this background, the syncretic tradition in Bengal received a setback. The Janmastami procession at Dhaka, for instance, was a 'time-honoured institution' where Muslim musicians and labourers were employed, wealthy Muslims lent their elephants and horses, and Muslims from surrounding villages crowded the streets to watch the ceremony. But in 1925-6 this spirit was rapidly undermined. Leaders of the Muslim community even raised objections to musical processions for non-religious functions such as marriage ceremonies.

Results of the elections to the Bengal Legislative Council in November 1926 clearly reflected the communal trend in organised politics. The Swarajists, who failed to dissociate themselves from Hindu vested interests despite their nationalist concerns, won 35 of the 47 Hindu seats but were successful in only one of the 39 Muslim constituencies. On the other hand, the Bengal Muslim Party under Abdur Rahim emerged as the largest single group in the new council. But it could not present a united political front with the other two Muslim orgasnisations-the Bengal Muslim Council Party and the Independent Muslim Party. What, however, became significant was the development of a 'Muslim bloc' inside the Bengal legislature. None of the ministries formed after the 1926 elections had a long life, but all of them were Muslim dominated. Muslim politicians in Bengal were thus seizing the initiative in legislative politics. The Calcutta Corporation elections of April 1927 also resulted in the formation of a distinct Muslim group within that body. Muslim councillors in the corporation held the political balance.

The alignment of communal political forces was manifested in discussions on economic issues too. To mobilise support from the community's subordinate social groups the Muslim leaders voiced in the Bengal Legislative Council and other bodies an unequivocal support for the overwhelmingly Muslim praja (tenant) against their predominantly Hindu zamindars. This could be noticed during the Tenancy Act debates in the Council in 1928. While the Muslim members with few exceptions voted for all clauses of the Act that favoured the bargadars (share-croppers), under-raiyats and tenants, the Hindu members-Swarajists and non-Swarajists alike-sought to protect the interests of the owners of the land. In popular Muslim perceptions the Hindu politicians naturally came to be viewed as allies of the Hindu renter class.

Bengal was witnessing the 'last effort by the landed Hindu bhadralok to protect as a class their economic, social and political dominance' and the Swarajists and the Congress became the willing partners in this move. The resuscitation of communal feeling among Hindus from the first months of 1927 further strengthened Muslim communal consciousness. An anti-Muslim tirade in the Hindu press followed the murder of the Arya Samaj leader Swami Shraddhanand in North India. Muslim political opinion naturally reacted sharply to this attempt to elevate a 'rank communalist' to a 'nationalist stature'. When Hindu councilors of the Calcutta Corporation resolved to name a park after Shraddhanand the Muslim press condemned the move as another instance of the trampling of 'Muslim sentiment' by 'rampant Hindu communalism'.

The communal divide within the realm of organised politics in Bengal, which had now become apparent, was reflected in both Hindu and Muslim press. The 1935 Government of India Act, providing for provincial autonomy based on separate electorates, was yet another turning point in the evolution of communal politics in Bengal. The Act reserved for the Muslims nearly half of the total seats in the proposed Bengal legislature, which made Hindu politicians feel that they would be unable to influence legislation proportionately to their interests in the province. This psychological blow was soon transformed into a material setback for the Hindu elite when the krishak praja party - muslim league coalition ministry initiated a number of legislative and executive measures to improve the condition of the subordinate social groups who mostly belonged to the Muslim community. A growing notion amongst the Hindu elite of being reduced to subservience due to these measures was perhaps far-fetched. But unemployment among the educated Hindus increased significantly in the post-1937 period, largely the result of the Muslim League ministry's rigid enforcement of the communal ratio in public offices.

The Muslim community had responded to the nineteenth century reformist movement by initiating a process of self-definition, self-classification and self-identification. The Pakistan movement was the culmination of a pan-Indian attempt by the Muslim elite to use the assertion of this identity at the popular level to establish for political ends a vertical solidarity within the Muslim community. While the League was asserting its new-found identity in the post-1937 period, the Congress, especially in northern India, increasingly relied on 'manifest Hindu symbols' and developed a close relationship with Hindu revivalist organisations which had their own programme for spreading hatred towards Muslims. This political process was replicated in Bengal too. The Arya Samaj propaganda in Bengal in the late 1930s particularly sharpened the hostility of Hindu labouring classes towards their Muslim colleagues.

The Congress-Raj tension worsened, with the former seeking to use the 1935 Act 'as a new challenge to the demand for independence'. The Raj in turn exploited the League-Congress antagonism to prevent 'total mobilisation' along nationalist lines. Not unnaturally, the Muslim League dominated ministries in post-1936 Bengal received consistent patronage from the Europeans, officials and non-officials alike. All these developments strengthened the politics of communalism in Bengal, amply demonstrated by the changing nature of communal riots in Bengal. While the riots of the pre-1940 period had a distinct class basis and were relatively autonomous of organised politics, the riots after 1940 were overtly communal and highly organised and became a part of institutional politics.

A considerable section of the population in Bengal became reconciled with the idea of the Partition. This was reflected in the changed perception of some nationalist Muslims and Congress leadership (except Gandhi and Badshah Khan) whose secular stance gave way to the acceptance of Pakistan as `the only real alternative'. Muslim and Hindu communal consciousness had assumed a distinct political identity, nourished by propaganda and hardened by the riots of the 1940s. The Hindu bhadralok politicians played a sigficant role in accelerating the Partition of Bengal.

Both at the elite and popular levels there was for a long time a lack of clarity in communal attitudes. Constant tensions existed between intercommunal and secular politics on the one hand, and separatist politics and communal animosities on the other. In September 1918 the Hindus and Muslims fought each other on the streets of Calcutta, but during the Rowlatt Satyagraha of April 1919 the same crowd presented a united front against imperialism; in 1930 the Dhaka populace initially joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, but then fell out among themselves; in February 1946 the Calcutta people presented a unique anti-imperialist unity to protest against the British treatment of the INA prisoners, but barely five months later the city experienced its worst communal violence.

Communal animosities were certainly heightened by the Great Calcutta Killings and the Noakhali-Tippera outrage of 1946, and yet 15 August 1947 witnessed Hindus and Muslims jointly celebrate the deliverance from alien rule. [Suranjan Das]

Bibliography Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity, Delhi, 1981; BR Khan, Politics in Bengal 1927-1936, Asiatic Socity of Bangladesh, Dhaka 1987; Suranjan Das, Communal Riots in Bengal 1905-1947, Delhi, 1993; Joya Chatterjee, Bengal divided: Hindu communalism and partition 1932-1947, Cambridge, 1994; Pradip Dutta, Carving blocs: communal ideology in early twentieth-century Bengal, New Delhi, 1999.