Bhadralok an elitist social class that emerged through the processes of social changes brought under the impact of British colonial rule. In pre-modern times, the word Bhadra, a Sanskrit term, denoted several values including property, particularly homestead property. The homestead granted to a person rent-free was then known as bhadrasan. The occupant of the bhadrason was bhadra and from that root, bhadralok. The term bhadralok began to be used later for the behaviorally refined people. From early nineteenth century, a bhadralok class was emerging as a social category and became practically an institution in the mid-nineteenth century.
In its institutional sense, the term was first used by Bhabanicharan Bandyopadhayay (1787-1848) in his literary works. Native clericals and petty officials serving the British colonial state, the noveau riches, new zamindars, and entrepreneurs were made the themes of satirical works like Kalikata Kamalalaya (1823), Naba Babu Bilas (1825), and Naba Bibi Bilas (1831). Bhavani Charan ridiculed the emergent class using the term bhadralok. The bhadralok did not really come from bhadrasan but from the clerical, commercial and the new landed class, who built their fortune through their association and transactions with the Europeans. They amassed wealth, according to Bhabanicharan, after coming in contact with the Europeans, and being influenced by them, they became indifferent about religion and culture of their forefathers.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the bhadralok seemed to have received social recognition. By then, they were not only wealthy but also educated and influential. From that time onward, the administrative and the landed middle classes of the nineteenth century came to be known in general as bhadraloks, whose hallmarks were education and wealth. Until the second decade of the twentieth century, the bhadralok class was socially identified with Hindu elite groups, for the obvious reason that then most zamindars and educated elite were Hindus. The elite members of the Muslim society were socially known as Ashraf or gentry.
However, vast changes took place in the Bangali social structure during the Crown's period (1858-1947) and in the milieu of great changes in the up-stream of the society, all educated and respectable people, irrespective of religions, came to be known as bhadraloks, though Muslim ashraf never enjoyed the appellation. It is because; ashraf has a connotation of pedigree and linkage with the family of the prophet. As a social category, bhadralok as a class meant only the Hindu babus, who were educated, wealthy, upper caste and shared some administrative powers with the white ruling community. The members of the bhadralok class led the nationalist movement launched in the late nineteenth century. Until the second decade of the twentieth century, the Bengal Bhadralok class had been enjoying pre-eminent position in the administration, economy and politics of Bengal and their education and outlook earned respect from the society at large.
Since 1920s, political pre-eminence of the bhadralok was at a stake when elective legislature was introduced under the Act of 1919. The Muslims and scheduled caste communities were empowered to elect their own representatives under the Montegu Chelmsford Reforms Act, 1919. The new system deprived the bhadralok class of their traditional supremacy in politics. The less privileged and less educated scheduled castes and politically backward Muslim communities got representations in the bengal legislative council and later bengal legislative assembly. All these political changes took place at the expense of the traditional privileges of the bhadralok class and this change had deeply changed the caste and communal relations. The Political reforms eroded the bhadralok identity, because now the Muslims and scheduled Castes candidates tended to combine against the bhadralok candidates. To overcome such predicament, the bhadralok class resorted to communal politics resulting in the communal riots in 1926. A section of bhadralok class branded the Muslims as enemies of Hinduism. To establish their thesis, many of them invented the myth of Muslim tyranny against the Hindus during the long Muslim rule. The Muslim politics led by ashraf class also invented myths of Hindu tyranny at social level in the past, especially citing the bhadralok led communal riot of 1926. Bhadralok and ashraf communal discourses eventually led to the division of the Bengal society into communal lines. The rise of Hindu and Muslim nationalism eventually led to the Great calcutta riot (1946) and partition of bengal (1947). [Sirajul Islam]
Bibliography JH Broomfield, Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth Century Bengal, (Berkeley 1968); Bazlur Rahman Khan, Politics in Bengal 1927-1936, (Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (1987); Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947, (Cambridge 1994).