Dr. Rudabeh Shahid
It may come as a surprise to many people that Bengali-speaking Muslims form the second largest Muslim ethno-linguistic group in the world after Arab Muslims. About a decade ago, I was looking at the Indian National Census and noticed not only the substantial number of Bengali speakers in states of India surrounding Bangladesh, but also the existence of significant Muslim populations in those regions. However, at that time, the literature concerning Bengali Muslims living in India was limited, with scholarship pertaining to Bengali Muslim identity being largely focused on Bangladesh. In recent years, the Bengali Muslims of India have been in the news due to the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which increasingly tries to label them as “foreigners” in their domestic political discourse. Hence, in this article commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of India’s partition, it will be worthwhile to look at the colonial history concerning the Bengali Muslims in three of the states of India: West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura.
Development of the Muslim political identity in Bengal and the Partition of India
The lands that comprise of yesteryear’s Bengal, consisting of West Bengal and Bangladesh, have a shared history until the end of British rule in the region. By the late eighteenth century, the British East India Company emerged as a major military power, which in 1757 defeated the last Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey, thereby gaining administrative control over Bengal. From then onwards the region slowly integrated into a province of the British Empire. Scholars on British colonial history posit that the development of a distinct Muslim political identity consciousness, as opposed to the greater Hindu population, can be considered to be a product of British rule.
Until the arrival of the British, Muslims in India were in no means a monolithic entity, having several regional differences, such as being mainly peasants in Bengal and landowners, yeoman farmers and tribesmen in the Punjab, Sind and the Northwest Frontier region. Specifically in Bengal, four reasons can be taken into account for understanding the dynamics of the intensification of Hindu and Muslim fragmentation within the local population during British rule. The first two reasons can be considered similar to what was happening within the Muslim community in North India, while the latter two are Bengal-specific. The first reason can simply be attributed to the introduction of the printing press in India. Due to the print media, there was a rapid growth in pan-Islamic consciousness as Muslims in India learnt about the fate of their co-religionists in other parts of the world. The second reason involves the creation of a census. The enumeration of religious categories for the purpose of building a comprehensive census by the colonial government in order to know about the people living in their realms, led to a situation where religious consciousness started increasingly becoming prominent among Muslims as individuals started to identify themselves primarily based on their religious identity.
The third reason for the growth of religious identity can be attributed to the arrival of Christian missionaries, which led to reformations in the Hindu and Muslim communities, which included greater consciousness of their faith. Missionary efforts to convert local populations involved learning Indian languages and writing about the theological superiority of Christianity over Hinduism and Islam. This led to counter-reformist movements by the followers of those Hinduism and Islam. For the Muslim reformers, such as Haji Shariatullah who founded the Faraizi movement, it meant wanting to do away with localized interpretations of Islam that they deemed as non-Islamic, thereby telling Muslims to adhere to a more “uniform” Islam, which they thought of as emulating the practices from the time of Prophet Muhammad.
The fourth reason for the growth of intensification of Hindu and Muslim identities is related to the animosity of the rural Muslim peasants against their Hindu rural landlords. In pre-partition Bengal, Muslims constituted a little more than half the population, who were located mostly in the rural areas of Bengal’s eastern districts. Few amongst them went to the cities to be educated or looked for employment in the government service. In a list of Calcutta University graduates from 1858 to 1881, only 38 names out of a total of 1720 were Muslims. As these Muslim cultivators had to endure the oppression of the Hindu landlords and moneylenders, they developed their own sense of identity. This frustration of the rural population was the motivation behind the Muslims of Bengal largely supporting the Partition of Bengal in 1905, which according to the British authorities was carried out for administrative reasons.
When the 1905 partition occurred, the Muslims of the province largely supported the move as they felt that their aspirations were being expressed through the creation of a Muslim-majority province in the east. The 1905 Partition resulted in the creation of a new province comprising of the eastern part of Bengal and also Assam, which would have a majority of Muslims. This move was not seen favourably by the elite Bengali Hindus, especially those who held land in the eastern areas of Bengal and felt that their land and economic power were being taken away.
So, when this partition was reversed in 1911 by the British authorities due to anti-Partition protests staged by Hindus of the province, it angered Bengal’s Muslims. This anger, in turn, led to a new political party called the Muslim League gaining momentum by starting to politically mobilize the region’s Muslim population. The Muslim League would in the following decades turn out to be the arch-enemy of the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress. Counter-reactions to the creation of the Muslim League were also seen within the Hindu nationalist establishment, such as with the creation of the All India Hindu Mahasabha in 1915.
After the end of World War II, the British decided to make a swift exit from India in 1947 and in doing so, created two sovereign nations, based on religious considerations — India and Pakistan. One decisive factor for the British authorities for coming to the conclusion that Hindus and Muslims cannot have a mutual coexistence was due to the Great Calcutta Killings in the 1946 Direct Action Day riots in modern-day Kolkata, where Hindus and Muslim mobs clashed, resulting in the death of over four thousand people. Counter riots took place in Bengal’s eastern districts such as in Noakhali, resulting in the deaths of more people. While the concept of a United Bengal was suggested by Muslim leaders such as Huseyn Suhrawardy, this time around the Hindu population mobilized by the Hindu Mahasabha demanded a separate homeland for themselves as part of the Indian union, and largely supported the Partition of Bengal.
With this Second Partition of Bengal, most Hindu-majority districts remained as part of India, while most Muslim-majority districts became the eastern wing of Pakistan. Following the Partition of 1947, a significant percentage of educated and wealthier segments amongst the Bengali Muslims of West Bengal migrated to East Pakistan, and many fled due to fear of communal violence to rural areas or clustered in Muslim-majority areas of urban centres.
Beyond Bengal: Assam in current day North-Eastern India
However, the story of the Bengali Muslims during the colonial era is not limited to Bengal, but goes beyond that. The main region with a significant number of Bengali Muslims outside Bengal is Assam.
Here, during the era of British rule, several waves of migration of various communities took place. It is essential to consider the migration of native Bengali-speakers to North East India, including Assam, before 1947, as a direct result of British policies to administer the region. The Bengali-speaking Hindus were brought to Assam as administrators, while the Bengali-speaking Muslims were brought in to reclaim marshy land for growing food. In 1837, the Bengali language was made the official language in the Brahmaputra Valley, which pitted the Assamese against the Bengalis. Although Assamese was reintroduced in the Brahmaputra Valley in 1873, this step did not mitigate the anxiety of the Assamese. When Bengal was partitioned in 1905, Assam for a short period became part of East Bengal. Subsequently, with the reunification of Bengal in 1911, Assam was separated to create new provinces on linguistic grounds. This reorganization based on linguistic grounds in 1911 was a measure by the British to assuage the fear of the growing Assamese elites who saw the realignment of their region with East Bengal as a threat to Assamese identity and culture.
Similarly, the arrival of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the region also built the foundation for religious polarization in Assam. As the years of the Partition of India approached, the politics of Assam saw a degree of religious polarization mainly due to the colonial government’s policy for increasing revenue collection through increasing agricultural productivity encouraging Muslim migration from Bengal. Under the Muslim League government of Syed Muhammad Saadulla, during the period from 1937 to 1945, the Muslim migration from East Bengal increased as part of the “grow more food” campaign of World War II. Many see this policy of the then Muslim League government of Assam as a mechanism to increase its Muslim vote-bank. As in other parts of India, the politics of the Muslim League was at odds with that of Indian National Congress, whose leadership under Gopinath Bardoloi blocked the province’s merger with Pakistan. In the years to come, the Bengali-speaking Muslims who remained and did not immigrate to East Pakistan would be the targets of anti-foreigner movements of Assamese nationalists, most notably culminating in the Nellie Massacre of 1983.
The Bengali Muslim minority of the Princely State of Tripura
Beyond Bengal and Assam, another area with a considerable number of Bengali Muslims, albeit in a smaller proportion, is in the erstwhile princely state of Tripura. Here, the former Manikya kings had a long history of encouraging the immigration and settlement of Bengali-speakers to their kingdom.
Before the arrival of the British, there appeared to be a degree of harmony between the local tribal population and the Bengali-speaking population. Although Kokborok, the native language of the Tripuris, was the state language of the Kingdom of Tripura, since the days of King Ratana Manikya (1464-68), the Manikya rulers were patrons of the Bengali language. The best evidence of this was having the Rajmala, the chronicle of the Tripura rulers, being composed in Bengali. In the Rajmala, there are various instances recorded of the Manikyas encouraging the immigration and settlement of Bengali-speakers. The migration of the Bengali Hindus was encouraged in order to run the administration, while the welcoming of the Bengali Muslim cultivators was for reclaiming uncultivated lands, in order to increase imperial revenue. Especially in the seventeenth century, the Manikya rulers encouraged the immigration of Muslim cultivators in large numbers.
Dr. Rudabeh Shahid is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre