Bengali Muslims and their identity: From fusion to confusion
One of the grand paradoxes facing Bangladeshis is expressed in the negotiations and contestations on the simple question about who they are, particularly in the context of the strains caused by the Universalist claims of their religion on the one hand and the particularist demands of their ethnicity and culture on the other.
Consider, for example, that in the Bengal Legislative elections of 1937 they demonstrated their ambivalence about themselves by voting largely in favor of independents, preferring A.K. Fazlul Huq's Krishak Praja Party to form a coalition Government, and rejecting the nationalist/communalist appeals of both the Congress and the Muslim League. But in 1946 that very population voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Muslim League in its quest for Pakistan thus embracing the religious distinctiveness of its identity. However, in 1970-71 a huge majority of the same people chose to repudiate that idea, and eventually fight a war, to assert a new consciousness of self that was anchored on linguistic/cultural determinants. This reveals the fraught nature of Bangladeshi identity, its duality, its schizophrenia. The "problem" is rooted in history and, as this essay will argue, in the "long 19th century" (1793-1905) when many of these tensions and contradictions evolved.
It is worth remembering that Islam came from the outside, but Muslims in the region were primarily locals (though some non-Bengalis also arrived, ruled, preached, proselytized and settled). What was striking is that there was no overt conflict between Islam and the variety of local religious convictions and observances that pre-existed here under the over-arching umbrella of Hinduism. This may be traced to several factors.
The fact that Hinduism does not assert one God, one Church, one doctrine, one text, or one practice that determines the faith, may have led to a relative tolerance of diverse traditions and practices (although internally, caste stratification could be quite harsh and intractable). Similarly, Muslim rulers in India, with a few exceptions, were more interested in extracting revenues and administering a sprawling, often restless, empire than in saving souls, particularly in a distant province like Bengal. The "fire and sword" theory of forced conversions has little empirical validity. The Pirs, Fakirs and "holy men", around whom dargas and mazars (shrines and tombs) developed in Bengal, helped to spread the faith more through example and invitation, than confrontation or compulsion.
It is important to note that most of the people in the region were poor peasants, vulnerable to the whims of nature, and facing a common enemy in the tax collector. They were also tied together by the moral economy of the peasantry, where cooperation and mutuality were dictated by the circumstances of their life and the interests of collective survival and welfare.  Finally, as Akbar Ali Khan has noted, the distinctive openness of the village formations in Bengal dictated by nature and geography or, as Eaton has pointed out, the expanding frontiers of its settlements made possible by forest cutting, population movements and changing agricultural practices (from shifting cultivation patterns to wet-rice), indicated its accommodative and absorptive character.
The arrival of Islam may have had deep and lasting consequences elsewhere in India. But in Bengal, it did not lead to significant departures or displacements in the continuities of its rural practices and rhythms. In fact, Islam's encounter with Bengal was long and quiet, its creeping advance almost surreptitious. Thus, everyone was taken by surprise when it was discovered in the late 19th century that in Bengal the number of Hindus (18m) and Muslims (17.5m) were almost the same.
Some syncretistic impulses among the communities contributed to this indefiniteness about the "markers" of separation. Though some words and inflections could vary, and some food preferences unique, the language and cuisine remained essentially the same. Similarly, while some heroes and myths could cater to exclusive audiences, popular culture expressed in local musical forms (e.g., leto, pala, jhumur,and jari), village theater (e.g., jatra and gambhira productions), and folk literature (puthis and gitikas), manifested wide cross-over appeal. The vaisnav and sufic aesthetic and performative traditions were also not only compatible but overlapping in their mystical and allegorical representations.
Admittedly, there were lines of distinctions between the communities - intermarriage was uncommon, social mingling limited, religious festivals easily tolerated but not commonly celebrated. But while these lines separated them, they did not divide them, nor lock them into hostile binaries.
The British arrival significantly aggravated those lines, not necessarily by sinister design, but certainly through the imperatives of colonial rule. This happened at different times and in various forms.
First, the British intervention in Bengal's agrarian structure through the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 profoundly affected the economic, social and political dynamics of the region. Supposedly predicated upon the need to maximize and rationalize land revenue, the strategy that was adopted was to transform some de facto revenue collectors into de jure land owners (zamindars) who agreed to deposit the hugely enhanced assessment levied by the British payable at an appointed time every year.
These zamindars, and the intermediate title holders (based on a process of rent farming and sub-infeudation), were mostly Hindus who had some money, education and experience through service to the British in comprador and "bridgehead" capacities. They seized upon this opportunity, and prospered in remarkable fashion. The Muslims as the newly vanquished "enemy" were alienated, unprepared, and "lost ground" (in more ways than one), and swelled the ranks of the landless and artisanal classes.
Thus, the Hindus became the dominant class (though not the "ruling class" in a Marxist sense), and exploited the peasants through ruthless rack-renting excesses. It pitted Muslim agriculturalists (ryots and projas) against Hindu zamindars, and this was dramatically expressed in various peasant uprisings. Moreover, the economic inequalities and social/educational disparities also widened psychological distances. Some in the newly emerging (mostly Hindu) middle-class "bhadralok" groups began to express a snobbish disdain for the "uncultured" (mostly Muslim) peasants. This communalization of class became integral to the problem of identity later.
Second, the Census of India, introduced by Lord Mayo in 1872, was initiated for ostensibly benign and administrative reasons. However, this was the first time that Indians had to confront the British obsession with classification, and were forced to make self-conscious decisions about where they belonged. What was personal faith and private practice now became a matter of public declaration and official choice. What had been diffuse and permeable now became bounded and definitive. The consciousness of "difference" now located them within discrete categories, and became articulated as numerical realities. This did not "cause" communal misunderstandings, but it certainly generated a consciousness of being distinct, created some wariness among groups, and provided the colonial power with the statistical artifacts of division and manipulation.
Third, the Partition of Bengal in 1905, which may have been based on administrative logic, caused deep and bitter misunderstandings between the communities. On the one hand there were predominantly Hindus who felt that dividing "Bengal", the mythicized motherland, was a dagger aimed at their very soul. On the other hand were mostly Muslims, who felt that this would provide them with advantages and opportunities that a "united Bengal" dominated by Hindus, could not. The protests against the decision, led by the Hindu "bhadralok", were passionate, lively and widespread. When the Partition was annulled in 1911 the Hindus felt vindicated, the Muslims betrayed. But, what it rudely exposed was a lack of trust between the two communities with one unsure about the other's nationalist commitments, and the other convinced that the first was hostile to its interests.
The increasing distancing between the communities was a bit counter-intuitive. It had always been presumed that the Bengal Renaissance founded on a liberal, cosmopolitan and a rationalist world-view, buttressed by the process of urbanization and professionalization, and sustained by the advent of new communication technologies and "print capitalism" (leading to a proliferation of new media and publications), would all serve to modify religiously driven sentiments. Some of this did happen in the intellectually heady environment in the early 19th century when teachers and students of Hindu College, led by the charismatic and iconoclastic Vivien de Rozio (who died when he was only 22), challenged the dogmas, deities and diets of Hinduism (many ate beef, drank alcohol, and mocked temple-based rituals).
These sentiments were expressed widely, in perhaps less flamboyant ways, in 19th century Bengal. Intellectuals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dwarakanath Tagore, Iswar Chandra Bidyasagar, Dinabandhu Mitra, Upendra Kishore Ray, Akshay Kumar Dutta, Gnadanandini Devi and others, supported by like-minded groups and print platforms, pursued an agenda of social justice, educational reform and religious broadmindedness.
But ironically, it also led to some unanticipated counter-currents. The British Orientalists (such as William Jones, H.H. Wilson, William Carey, H.T. Colebrook, James Prinsep and others) helped to stimulate a "classicist revitalization of a Golden Age of Hinduism" both in terms of its historical content and cultural aspiration, as David Kopf put it. Similarly, the introduction of English education, important to the needs of the colonial bureaucracy and Christian Missionaries, did not generate the expected modernist response, but provoked a defensive reaction as Prof Abdur Razzaq has noted. Western education did not provide a tool to question their faith, it provided the confidence to affirm it in more sophisticated ways.
This trend, combined with the more traditional sources of religious authority and learning, created a formidable reactionary force. Thus personalities like Radha Kanta Deb, Keshab Chandra Sen, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Raj Narayan Basu, Nabin Chandra Sen, Haraprasad Sastri, the redoubtable Swami Vivekananda, and the hugely popular Bankim Chandra Chattopaddya (whose Vande Mataram became the obligatory hymn of Indian nationalism), generated organizations and newspapers that were part of this revivalist campaign. Huge festivals like the Hindu Mela (after 1867) and Shivaji Utsob (after 1902), reflected this zealousness, often tinged with a new emphasis on masculinity.
The "traditionalist" group was also more affected by national trends where the themes, motifs and symbols of Hinduism were appropriated into the nationalist narrative, and the concepts of Hindu and Nation became increasingly intertwined. It was entirely expected that many of their adherents in Bengal would consider the Bengali Muslims to be the outsider, the interloper, the "other".
But surprisingly, the Bengali Muslims were marginalized by the "modernist" group as well. The progressive impulses that were expected from the "enlightenment ideals" professed by this group did not cause a secular embrace of the other. It may be easy and tempting (and partly justifiable) to blame this on Hindu prejudice. But, perhaps the question may be a bit more complicated.
It may be instructive to consider the comparative position of Muslims. In education they lagged far behind. In 1855-56, out of 7216 students in the schools and colleges of Bengal, only 731 were Muslims, and the vast majority of them attended Madrassas. In 1865, 9 Hindus received M.A. and 41 their B.A. degrees from Calcutta University. There were no Muslims in the first category, and only 1 in the second. Between 1855 and 1877, out of 1337 "natives" with B.A. degrees in Bengal, only 30 were Muslims, and out of 331 with M.A. degrees only 5 were Muslims.
These disparities in education were also reflected in the employment sectors. Muslims had been well represented in the professions till in the early 19th century. For example, even till 1851, they equaled the number of Hindu and English pleaders in Calcutta. But over the next 20 years, while 239 Hindus became pleaders, only 1 Muslim did. Syed Ameer Ali's memorandum to the Government in 1882 pointed out that of the 3720 employees working for the city of Calcutta, there were 3045 Hindus and only 166 Muslims. Similarly, out of 2007 gazetted posts, 850 were Hindus and only 77 Muslims. In other words, Muslims were less than 5% in the first category, and less than 4% in the second.
The relationship between the communities faced other obstacles. Calcutta, the young city (founded only in 1690) and glittering imperial capital (second only to London), became the nucleus of political and economic power in Bengal. The Hindu bhadralok classes flocked there for education, advancement and "entertainment", and Calcutta became the hub of the "babu culture" that emerged. Muslims were generally service providers and low level employees who went there for livelihood and subsistence and, even in 1941, constituted only 23% of the city's population.
Predictably, the two communities occupied two very different economic and spatial realities and became increasingly segregated. Muslims congregated in areas where they sought the comfort of numbers, the small opportunities provided by the micro-economies of enclave settlements, and religious (mosque-centered) fellowship. They were localized in places like Rajabazaar, Metiaburz, Topsia, Park Circus and pockets in Howrah and central Calcutta. This ghettoization was perhaps inevitable. But it provided formidable barriers to encouraging any intellectual or textual interactions between the two.
The bhadralok classes, which shaped and reflected the values and attitudes of Bengalis in the 19th century, had no meaningful encounter with Muslims in their lives. They did not attend the same schools, work in similar environments, or share the same neighborhoods. The fact that the Muslims were neither part of their social experience nor their literary imagination led to an epistemic disjuncture expressed in a lack of interest or curiosity about them. The Muslims were not the hated minority but, ironically, the invisible majority. They became "sous rature" as Derrida would say, a community "under erasure", there but not "there", not expelled from, but not acknowledged in, the site of discourse, and gradually deleted from bhadralok cultural projects, practices and products.
The social and intellectual developments under the leadership of the Hindu literati in Bengal did not create the enabling conditions towards the formation of a Muslim Bengali identity. Their own Renaissance, beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, could have encouraged the forging of such a synthetic resolution of the "self". The reasons for this failure will be explored in a subsequent article.
Ahrar Ahmad was Professor Emeritus, Black Hills State University, SD, USA. Currently, he is the Director General, Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka.
 Wallerstein referred to "the long 16th century" in which structural transformations prepared the ground for a new phase of "predominant capitalism". See, Immanuell Wallerstein, The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the 16th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). Our usage is limited merely to the period of colonial consolidation, the incorporation into the world capitalist economy, and the consequential impact of the period on Bengal's socio-political progression.
 According to the 1872 Census, only 1.52% of the Bengali Muslim population claimed foreign ancestry. See, Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengali Muslims 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981) p. 17
 The people were more prone to divide themselves on the basis of social structure and occupational categories than religion. Beverley, who authored the Census Report of 1872, noted that "there was no clear definition of what it means to be a Hindu" and that it tended to "assume a protean form". He also referred to the "close resemblance" between the communities in terms of "racial characteristics" and "similarity of language, manners and customs … (even) names" as well the appropriation of some "caste distinctions" among Muslims. See, Henry Beverley, "The Census of Bengal" Journal of the Statistical Society of London 37:1 (March 1874) pp. 84 and 87. For the fact that Muslims were not merely divided on dimensions of "ashraf" and "atraf" but there could be many groups (almost 50) whose social location demonstrated caste-like characteristics, see E.A. Gait, Census of India 1901 vol IV part 1 pp. 439-451, and L.S.S O'Malley, Census of India 1911, Vol V Part II, Tables 191-98 and 202, quoted in Amalendu De, Roots of Separatism in Nineteenth Century Bengal (Calcutta: Ratna Prakasan, 1974) f.n. 65 pp 88-89
 The notion of the "moral economy" of the peasantry, to indicate the norms of reciprocity and the subsistence ethic that define various pre-capitalist agrarian formations, was developed by James C. Scott, in his The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Peasant Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).
 See, Akbar Ali Khan, The Discovery of Bangladesh: Explorations into the Dynamics of a Hidden Nation (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 1996) and Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Akbar Ali Khan's chapter "Banglai Islam Dharmer Prosar: Oitihasik Proshner Punorbibechona" in Ahrar Ahmad ed. Samaj, Rastro, Biborton: Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Gunijon Boktritamala (Dhaka: Bengal Publications, 2019) pp. 44-105 contains a succinct discussion of various theories on this matter. Eaton notes that the peaceful coexistence of the communities could even extend to Muslim Chaudhuris granting land for the construction of temples, and Hindu Chaudhuris providing land for mosques. See op. cit. p. 252
 See, Beverley, op. cit. pp. 85-90. By 1881, the number of Muslims (17,683,411) had overtaken the number of Hindus (17,254,120), and by 1891 it had become 19,582,349 to 18,068,655. See, Amalendu De, op. cit p. 32
 See Asim Roy, The Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) identifies these tendencies both in the "great" and the "little" traditions of Bengal. See also Aziz Ahmad, Chap 4 "Sufism and Hindu Mysticism" and chap 5, "Popular Syncretism" in his, Studies of Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1964) pp. 119-166, and Binoy Ghose, Banglar Nobojagriti (Calcutta: Orient Longman, 1968) particularly the chapter "Islam O Banglar Sangskriti Somonnoi", pp. 77-112.
 After the Dewanee had been granted to the East India Company in 1765, the assessments rose steeply. In 1764-65, Mir Jafar had collected total revenue of £817,553 from Bengal. In the first year under the Company the collection was doubled to £1.7m, in 1790-91 it was £2.7m, and in the Permanent Settlement it was fixed at almost £3.4m. Thus, in just 30 years, revenue assessments were increased by more than 400%. See, Ram Gopal, British Rule in India: An Assessment (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1963) p. 10. See also, Badruddin Umar, Chirosthayi Bondobosto o Bangladesher Krishak (Dhaka, Mawla Brothers, 1973) pp. 13-14. Unable to meet these demands many of the Muslim land holders were forced to forgo their entitlements (the question of land ownership and tenurial arrangements under the Mughals had always been maddeningly complex, and has generated a spirited controversy among Marxists about specifying the "mode of production" that existed). In just 15-20 years, almost one-third (according to Misra) to almost one-half (according to Chandra) of the lands changed hands. See, B.B. Misra, The Indian Middle Class: Their Growth in Modern Times (London: Oxford University Press, 1961) p. 137 and Bipan Chandra, History of Modern India (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan Private Ltd, 2009) p. 104.
 See Ananda Swamy, "Land and Law in Colonial India" in Debin Ma and Jan Luiten Van Zanden ed. Long term Economic Change in Eurasian Perspective (Stanford University Press, 2011) pp. 145-157. He quotes Tapan Raychaudhury in noting that in some areas (like Bakerganj) there could be as many as 20 intermediaries between the cultivator and the actual landlord. The Simon Commission Report of 1930 suggested that in extreme cases the number could reach 50, quoted in A.R. Desai, Social Background of Indian Nationalism (Bombay: Popular Prakasan, 1966) pp. 68-69.
 The profits that came from landownership were indeed impressive if not spectacular. For example, on average, for each acre, landowners provided 10 annas and 8 paisa as revenue to the British, but they extracted almost 3 taka from the peasants. In other words, they collected almost 5 times more than what they paid. See, Hemchandra Qanungo, Banglai Biplob Prochesta (Calcutta: Komola Book Depot Ltd, 1928) p. 27, quoted in B. Umar, op cit. p 29. For the proliferation of "new men" in the sector, who did not form the landed aristocracy or gentry that was expected, who had no connections to the land but saw it merely as "investment" with profits coming not from improving the land but squeezing the peasants through illegal levies, cesses and exactions, see Binoy Ghose, Banglai Samajik Itihaser Dhara: 1800-1900 (reprint of 1968 ed, Dhaka: Book Club, 2000) pp. 30-31. Obviously, the increase in the number of intermediaries translated into greater pressures on the peasants.
 It should be pointed out that religion was not necessarily and always the driver of these uprisings except in the early stages (Wahhabi, Faraizi, Tariqah-e-Muhammadiya, Pagalpanthi, etc. all occurring between 1820s and 1840s, where the pursuit of religious purification and peasant demands against exploitation were combined). In many later struggles poor Hindus also participated (e.g., the "indigo uprisings" 1859-60, Pabna peasant revolt 1872-73, Tebhaga andolon 1945-46 etc). But, the religious sub-text established early could not be avoided, and it facilitated the growth of mistrust and resentments between the two communities. Even in the 20th century the fault-lines shadowed many of these agrarian struggles. See, Tajul Islam Hashmi, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920-1947 (London: Routledge, 1992) particularly pp. 83-123
 Following Broomfield, the term "bhadralok" is used as an analytical category, not as a status group determined by ascription and birth, or an economic class defined by occupation or wealth. See J.H. Broomfield, Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth Century Bengal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) pp. 13-14. For the persistence of some uncharitable stereotypes and attitudes about Muslims that could be embedded in the Hindu bhadralok consciousness even in the early 20th century, see, Nirad Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951) pp. 225-232
 Anisuzzaman notes that the multiplicity of identities the people simultaneously embraced made it difficult to disaggregate them and prioritize one single "marker" as definitive. See his "Many Identities, Some Emphases: The Case of the Muslims of Bengal Down to the Eighteenth Century" in Perween Hasan and M. Mufakkharul Islam, ed. Essays in Memory of Momtazur Rahman Tarafdar (Dacca: Centre for Advanced Research in the Humanities, Dhaka University, 1999) pp. 163-166. It must be emphasized that the sense of distinctiveness being triggered here is not comparable to the idea relating to the "alterity of self" where people may seek separateness to establish individual autonomy, agency or authenticity. That process is usually necessary and creative. But this was externally imposed, abrupt and driven by colonial cunning. For the notion of "alterity" see, Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (trans by Kathleen Blamey, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997) and Jean Baudrillard and Marc Guillaume, Radical Alterity (trans by Ames Hodges, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).
 British efforts to placate the Muslims after this debacle - the decision to establish a University in Dhaka, some affirmative action policies in education and employment and, most importantly, separate electorates initiated through the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909, and expanded later - deepened the chasm between the Hindus and Muslims. The last was particularly important not only because it led to the mobilization of the electorate along communal lines, but more so because the prospect of democratic institutions created a bit of an anxiety among some Hindus who were economically/educationally advanced but numerically disadvantaged. Joya Chatterji has pointed out that the partition of Bengal in 1947 was supported by the very Hindus who had vociferously opposed the first partition in 1905. See her, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), particularly pp. 220-265
 A cluster of newly founded educational institutions such as Fort William College (1800), Serampore College (1817), Hindu College (1817) and the Sanskrit College (1824) became the nucleus around which the liberal spirit was generated and sustained. Some organizations supporting this new "movement" were the Brahmo Samaj, Tattobodhini Sabha, Bangahito Sabha, Gyansondipon Sabha, Gyanoparjika Sabha, Atmiyo Sabha, Bongoronjini Sabha, and many others, with the Sambad Probhakor, Gyanonneshon, Samachar Darpan, Bharati, Tattobodhini Patrika and others carrying their message.
 See, David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1773-1835 (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1969) particularly pp. 283-284
 Prof. Razzaq's insight can be found in his unpublished dissertation "Political Parties in India" submitted to the University of London in 1950. Its publication is eagerly expected.
 The traditionalist message was nurtured in organizations like Arya Samaj, Dharma Sabha, Prarthona Samaj and a variety of revivalist organizations, and their messages were carried in Samachar Chandrika, Sambad Ratnakor, Arya Dharma Pracharak, Anushilon Purohit, and Hindu Patrika among many others.
 These figures are quoted in Muhammad Abdur Rahim, The Muslim Society and Politics in Bengal A.D. 1757-1947 (Dhaka: Dhaka Visvabidyalaya Prokashona Samstha, University of Dhaka, 1978) p. 154
 Ibid pp. 57-60
 The babu culture, based on intellectual chatter, literary pretension and personal decadence (centered on taverns, coffee houses, clubs, horse races, nautch girls, lotteries, alcohol, concubinage, and mimicking the "indulgences" of the English), served to drive the Muslims further away. See Baijayanti Chatterjee, "Fun and Games in Old Calcutta", Live History (Nov 7, 2019). According to the Census of 1901, while Calcutta had a population of 847,796 the number of registered prostitutes was 14,370. By 1926 it had increased to more than 20,000. This does not include those who were unregistered ("kept" women and informal sex workers) which would lead to much higher numbers. See, Harshankar Adhikari, "History of Prostitution in Calcutta: A Review" Indian Journal of Society and Politics 2(02) 2015 p.5
 This notion was used by Derrida as a way of problematizing language and the way in which realities are constructed (rendering them transient, contingent and misleading). But it may be used to signify one's perception of an entire community which is gradually eliminated from the discursive space and eventually from the public imaginaire. See, Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (trans by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1976) pp. xiii-xvi and 6-26