The Politics of a Violent Decolonization | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 07, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 07, 2017

The Politics of a Violent Decolonization

Jatiotabad, Samprodaikata O Jonogoner Mukti 1905-47, Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Samhati Prokashan, 2016.

Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury's Jatiotabad, Samprodaikata O JonogonerMukti: 1905-47 or Nationalism, Communalism and People's Freedom: 1905-47 is vast in scope and incisive in analysis. In its more than 800 pages (of which the references alone number thirty-nine), the book treats the most turbulent years of South Asian history. The countries involved in the turmoil—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—are home to a billion and 700 million people now. The region, often described as “the Indian Subcontinent” or “the Indo-Pak Subcontinent” or just “the Subcontinent,” witnessed epoch-making events in the first half of the twentieth century. The Subcontinent at the time was the shiniest jewel in the crown of the British Empire. The glory, however, did not extend much beyond the few years following WWII. On the other hand, what to the British was a mere loss of colonial territory became an occasion for unimaginable horror to millions of South Asians.

The historical period is specific as the subtitle implies. The cutoff year, 1947, is self-explanatory because it was the year when both India and Pakistan became at least politically free from British rule—whether their peoples became truly free though is a highly charged question; Chowdhury leaves ample hints in his book to suggest otherwise. But why the starting point of “1905”? There lies the rub. The joy of independence in1947 was no joy at all for the millions who fell victims to partition violence. Hindus and Muslims who found themselves in the wrong country, Pakistan and India, respectively, were mercilessly brutalized, oftentimes by their neighbors with whom they had lived in peace for centuries. The casualties were extremely high in Punjab and Bengal, the two most populous and prosperous states. Presaging the 1947 partition, a mini partition occurred in Bengal in 1905.Imposed by the British, this was a bloodless event. The rationale given by the colonial administration was administrative efficiency. Bengal at that time comprised today's Bangladesh in its entirety and the Indian provinces of Bangla, Bihar, and Chota Nagpur. Such a large administrative unit was not easy to govern; this was the basis for “Bongo-Bhongo” or the “Bengal-Break” measure put forward by the British.

All subsequent political events, Chowdhury suggests, took an ominous turn. Good administration was the stated goal in partitioning Bengal, but for greater Bengal and the rest of India, the splitting of Bengal created a deep divide between the Hindus and the Muslims. The colonial administration, led by Lord Curzon, promoted the many benefits of the dissection as aggressively as it could. Eastern Bengal, which became East Bengal—and then as a part of Pakistan East Pakistan, in 1947, and sovereign Bangladesh since 1971—was a Muslim-majority state. While the divisive measure was popular among some Muslim leaders there, it was thoroughly unwelcome to the residents of the then West Bengal, many of whom were Hindu and were prospering under British patronage.

The religious divide also had a strong element of class. In eastern Bengal, the economy and agriculture were based on land ownership. The owners of huge estates generating stupendously high revenues were primarily Hindu; the peasants who worked those lands were mostly Muslim. The landowners preferred to reside in Calcutta, where they owned expensive houses in posh neighborhoods. Located in what became West Bengal in 1905, Calcutta was the capital of the former greater Bengal; it was also the seat of British power in all of India, Burma, and Singapore until 1911, when the British moved the Indian capital to Delhi. Peopled by poor peasants, the landowners' estates in eastern Bengal, quite unsurprisingly, lacked the glamour and amenities of Calcutta.

“Bongo-Bhongo” was offensive to many for other reasons as well. An administration as colossal as the one in early twentieth-century Calcutta required the labor of many functionaries. The Bengali Hindus, early beneficiaries of the new education introduced by the British, gladly provided the administrative support the British needed. Thus emerged the “babus” or the clerks, the low-level officials of the Raj, as beholden to their masters as were the zamindars or the landowners, for their continued prosperity under British rule. The division of Bengal threatened both the economic interests of the zamindars and the prospects of the babus.

Both groups opposed the division. Undeterred, Curzon found a new ally among the Muslims—who, in fact, outnumbered the Hindus in Bengal—and implemented the move. This patronization of the Muslims was the first seed of discord that fueled Hindu-Muslim rivalry. Five years later, the colonial government overturned the division; Bengal was reunited; but Calcutta did not regain its lost glory. In the same year, the British moved their administrative center to Delhi, carving a new capital out of the one once held by the Mughal Empire.

Chowdhury is right in claiming that these events foreshadowed the eventual rise of Indian nationalism, which was neither homogenous nor then a clearly articulated notion. More advanced in wealth and education than the Muslims, the Hindus promoted their faith as the foundation of Indian nationalism. Now receiving support from the British, the Muslims refused to join them and came up with their own version of nationalism. A huge irony exists in these developments. Chowdhury reminds his readers more than once in the book that just about half a century before, during India's First War of Independence in 1857, the table had been turned on the Muslims. Calcutta Hindus had staunchly supported the British in that conflict.

Nationalism in India never became true nationalism in that not all Indians could subscribe to the same idea of it. To illustrate this point, Chowdhury refers to the popular rallying cry of the time “Vande-Mataram.” The word literally means “homage to the mother” and appeared as the title of a well-known poem written by Bankimchandra Chatterjee, the most accomplished littérateur of nineteenth-century Bengal. Chatterjee included“Vande-Mataram” in his fiery novel Anandamath which depicts a group of Hindu monks fighting the British but turning against the Muslims. According to Chowdhury, it is highly probable that Chatterjee felt obliged to change the plotline to avoid offending the British too much. He held the job of a Deputy Collector in the colonial administration and had been denied promotion. Both the poem “Vande-Mataram” and the novel Anandamath, despite its anti-British fervor, could not inspire the Muslims. While the poem begins as a paean to the mother representing India, it transforms her later into the ten-armed goddess Durga; in the novel, moreover, Muslims supplant the British as the real enemy of India. NeverthelessVande-Mataram was later adopted by the Congress Party as a political slogan and grew extremely popular among Hindu nationalists. Hardly any of them found a problem in the assumption that Muslims would appreciate the Vande-Mataram brand of nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore's was the lone voice. Though Tagore set a part of the poem to music, he was unequivocal in his assertion that no Muslim could accept its conflation of Bengal or India and Durga.

Religion was not the only divisive factor in sculpting the nationalism that could unite India; class was another. Politicians in colonial India, Chowdhury reminds us, could never shake off their class orientation. Gandhi, who had an exceptionally modest lifestyle, was no friend to the poor. Nehru evinced a Fabian brand of socialism but professed his loyalty to both Gandhi and the bourgeois ideology of the Congress Party. Jinnah, the self-professed leader of the Muslims and the founder of Pakistan, was more comfortable with a feudal form of government than with democracy. All these national politicians of colonial India—except Gandhi—were enamored by power. They were too eager to fill in the vacuum that the imminent departure of the British would create to think of the people they were leading.

Though a Marxist thinker himself, Chowdhury does not spare the Indian communists either because in his opinion, limited by class attachment, they too failed to rise to the occasion. Comrade Muzaffar Ahmed, the eminent activist, for example, was known as “kakababu” among his young and largely Hindu admirers. “Kaka” means uncle, commands respect, and implies an amity surpassing communal bigotry, but “babu,” the equivalent of sahib in Bengali, suggests distance and imposes a class barrier. Indeed, the failure of communist leadership in pre-independence India can be attributed to the leaders' inability to connect with the peasants. Neither group saw the other as one of their own. The communist leaders were quite content to be the third political entity after Congress and Muslim League. Ludicrously enough, they took a great deal of pride in playing merely a minor role in the large national political arena.

An important contribution of Nationalism, Communalism and People's Freedom is the many comparative analyses of key personalities, both political and cultural. Comparative studies of Gandhi and Jinnah or of Nehru and Jinnah are common enough, but that of Jinnah and Subash Chandra Bose is not, nor of Tagore and the Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal, whom many consider the ideological architect of Pakistan. Here it is useful to note that not only does Chowdhury discuss the politicians of the time, he examines literary figures as well, of Bengal and beyond.

The events leading to independence from the British, to the partition of the subcontinent, and to the horrendous communal violence that followed were complex and, in some instances, chaotic. Unraveling this convoluted history is not an easy task; Chowdhury, however, performs it dexterously. Two facts account for the success of his book: lucid prose and impeccable research. Obviously, Chowdhury's background as a literary scholar and a highly productive author has given him the disciplinary tools needed in writing the ambitious Nationalism, Communalism and People's Freedom. Though the history it tells is painful, the telling is in refreshing Bengali prose combined with sound scholarship.

Farhad Bani Idris is a  professor of English at Frostburg State University, USA.

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