Salimullah Khan, Professor, General Education Department of ULAB, is one of the most respected academics and essayists of the country. In this interview with the Star magazine, Khan shares his insights on the origin of communalism in the subcontinent, language of rumours and the politics behind it.
Politicians, journalists, writers and intellectuals are used to saying that people have been living with "communal harmony" in this region for a thousand years. Do you agree with this statement?
How can one talk of 'communal harmony' without identifying what one means by a 'community' or its derivative 'communal' for that matter? They signify completely antithetical stuff in South Asia and in most of the world. 'Communalism,' is an extraordinary word. It's a special gift of India to the English vocabulary. It signifies something completely different in South Asia than what it does, say, in North America. It hits like 'fascism' in your face. However, it is a British import to India, it thrived well there. I would go so far as to say that the British conquest of India would not have been complete without it. Many Indians, or a good majority of them, stood behind it, didn't they?
I think it suffices to cite Rabindranath Tagore, just for one, who too succumbed to this hideous ideology of communalism, in so far as he too considered the six centuries of Muslim rule in South Asia as 'foreign' (bideshi) rule and equated that with British rule. This was Tagore in his middling years, say around age 45 to 50. Did he ever shy away from this position? I am sorry to say, never, at any rate not entirely. For him, as for many others in late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Mughal rule or pre-Mughal rule in South Asia was just as foreign as British rule. And I believe this world view lies at the root of communalism in Indian history. It originates in the view that Indian history might be divided into Hindu, Muslim and British eras. Curiously, one does not find the British as Christian era.
Ever since Islam came to Bengal, and I cannot vouch for India as a whole, until the advent of the British you cannot find any evidence of what may be called 'communal' riots or communal warfare. As the late Professor Abdur Razzaq used to say, you cannot cite one single war between a Muslim king and a Hindu king fighting on communal ground.
Interestingly, Akbar in trying to occupy Bengal in that good old imperial manner sent a Rajput general Mansingh. And he was opposed by Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore, Isha Khan of Mymensing and many others (the legendary twelve feudal kinglets), wasn't he. So both Hindus and Muslims, in a manner of speaking, opposed Akbar. It cannot be depicted a Hindu struggle against a Muslim king. In modern parlance we can say it was a political struggle for regional autonomy. One refers to occasional clashes between some Muslim clerics or Qazis with sundry Hindu priests, as one finds in the biographical accounts of Chaitanya. But I don't think they reflect patterns of conflict.
It is only in this sense that, namely by postulating an absence, one can say communities lived in communal harmony. There was hardly a Muslim community by the 16th century in Bengal. But who can say that there were no conflicts or contradictions. Again this presupposes the meaning what do you mean by harmony? I would define it in a negative way. By excluding warfare I will call it harmony. In the five hundred years or so before the British presence you would hardly locate one single fight or war exclusively between Hindus and Muslims, or between Buddhists and Muslims.
Do you think the term 'minority' while referring to people of a particular faith is a contradiction to democratic ideals?
It all depends on what do you mean by community, again. If the nation is a community then how is it constituted? In one view, the nation is composed of its members, the 'population' as it is called today. Fie, we don't even use the word “people” any longer, we call it “population”. There is a mechanisation of the concept of the “people”, it has been turned into a statistic, i.e. the “population”. Now the population consists of men and woman, nearly 50 percent are man and 50 percent are woman, which is called sexual division, a division not unlike those based on religion, race and caste. See the constitution of Bangladesh, article 121, if you are curious.
Thus in Bangladesh, there are no constitutional minorities in the religious, racial, caste, or gender senses. But there is history. Take, for instance, 'scheduled caste', introduced in the censuses taken onwards from 1872. What is a member of a “scheduled caste”, but a euphemism for “outcaste” or untouchables? Mohandas Gandhi's invention “Harijan” is but a shrewd metaphor for that isn't it? Whether you are a minority or majority depends on what definition of community you take for your wonder.
In Bengal, interestingly, the Hindus had been shown to be a numerical minority ever since 1872, the year the first British census was published. Up until then, Hindus were supposed to be in a majority in Bengal. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, for one, comments on this. He opined, citing British ethnologists, that it is by conversion that Muslims have become a majority in Bengal. Muslim aristocracy in Bengal took exception. Khondokar Fazle Rabbi, Dewan of Murshidabad, in his Persian text “Hakikate Muselmanan i Bangala” (or its English version 'Origins of the Mussalmans of Bengal') claimed Arabian, Persian or central Asian descent for them. This is, as they say, history. The facts are otherwise. As many as ninety-nine out of hundred Bengal Muslims are by common consent considered Bengali Muslims.
The point the communal differences are products of ideologies, of creeds, faiths, and religious identities. After 1947, when Bengal was partitioned, parts of Bengal which were Muslim majority constituted East Bengal, parts inhabited by Hindu majority (not only presidencies or divisions but district also) were put in West Bengal. Majority and minority were census categories, and then it became political ones.
What are the results/implications of policies formed by the imperial British Raj in the Indian Subcontinent? How do you evaluate the policies of pre-partition British rule?
In Bangladesh people are oblivious of history, especially of the colonial era. It is unfortunate, indeed! The fabric of our polity today is a text woven in the warp and woof of events both pre-1947 and post-1947. The British in India found their main stake, their fundamental article of faith, in the concept of community along religious lines. The British thought they could rule India by harping on it. They did succeed in extending their tenure for 190 years, at any rate in Bengal. If this was possible because of mixing ice with wine, or politics with religion, why won't people exploit the legacy?
To be honest, India faced its biggest crisis ever in the eighteenth century. The Mughal were losing control over its “successor states”- Bengal, Awadh, and Hyderabad. And “challenger states”- the Marathas, the Sikhs, and Mysore were waxing in your face, without being themselves strong enough to deter the usurpers from Europe.
So eighteen century India was suffering from what one should describe, using a Gramscian term, as an “organic crisis of the state”. The Mughal state was collapsing but no local successor state or rival power could claim suzerainty over the whole of India. It was in this interregnum or interlude that the British entered the stage. But the British were not alone. You know, they had strong competitors, namely the French, the Dutch and many other Europeans.
Not unlike Europe, India is a multinational continent. This is a fundamental truth. But the British pretended that India was neither a nation, nor was it a conglomerate of nations. They upheld the view that the only nations in the continent could be 'Hindus' and 'Muslims'. This was a Manichean super-imposition on an otherwise very colorful map.
India had many as, let's say, more than 50 nations. Whatever definition you use Bengal by the time was evolving as a colourful nationality, if not a full-bloomed Bengali nation. But the British would not allow it. So, they demanded, be a Muslim or be a Hindu. And Bengali Hindus actually stepped into the shoes which the British left for them. Rabindranath Tagore's grim instance that I was forced to cite earlier is only a mild testimony to this misfortune.
Caste (or kind of upper class) Hindus of Bengal thought it better to be Indians than being Bengalis. Thus they went for Indian nationalism in 1947 under Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, MLA from the Calcutta University. He was president, by the way, of Hindhu Mahashabha. The Bengal leadership of the Indian National Congress, went along. In India, by 1947, communal identities overwhelmed national identities.
India was never a nation, but a collection of nations or 'nationalities' if you prefer. So one may call it a 'civilization', it is not a nation, at any rate not yet. But before the idea of nation matures the British fostered the idea that the two great religious communities are two nations in India. What about other communities? For truth's sake, there should have been as many nations as there were communities.
Ostensibly, it was the Muslims of India, especially the aristocrats, who put forward this demand. But the truth was that the Muslims put forward their demands in reaction to the developments in late 19th century, especially after the exclusion of Muslims in the Governor-General's Legislative Council in 1892. So the organic crisis that led to the usurpation by foreigners of India's administration in the 18th century continued throughout the 19th century by a different path to mutation. The sense of nationality was converted to a religious communal sense. And this was not without its repercussions. Today's India is a multinational state. So is today's Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even Bangladesh is also a multinational state. But the ruling classes would not admit that honestly. They are trying to suppress the word 'Advasi', for instance. In other words, they are trying to suppress national minorities.
In order to understand origins of the communal problem in Bangladesh well one must refer to India. This may sound not well advised. But it is true. Our borders, especially cultural ones, are porous. And what we see in Bangladesh as communalism is more often reverse communalism. It is most often the flip side of communalism in India. Communalists of all nations are united in one thing, they are oppressors. Therefore communalists in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh they are part of a South Asian communalist international, so to speak. In order to resist them you should form a people's international, there is no exit outside. Exactly as the case was in the 18th century, so it is going on today. The 20th century, its second half especially saw the worst. Alas, it is not yet over, not in the 21st either. The Indian state (officially secular) in this regard is a failed state, so is the (officially communal) state of Pakistan, (officially semi-communal) Bangladesh proves not exception. None of these states could put it the legacy of communalism behind. Communal conflicts do flourish, with official and sometimes civil social support, everywhere. That means the organic crisis with the British inherited and passed on continues to this day.
It has not been solved. Why, on earth? For a fundamental social revolution has not been carried out. 1947 is not a fundamental social revolution and I'm very sorry to observe it despite my great commitment to 1971 warfare I must admit that we are a failure sate. The revolution has become “passive”, to use again a Gramscian signifier, which in Bangla we sometimes translate it as “Behat”. Even 1971, our liberation war, could not put an end to the legacy of 1947. So it remains as a half-baked revolution. Our struggle continues. Bangladesh must accomplish a social revolution, which alone can make the communal question perhaps completely superfluous. Why do we need to continue? For it is a continuation of the unfinished struggle against British colonialism.
Why do you think people believe in rumours?
Why people buy, you ask, rumours? It is a very metaphysical question. Our minds are hungry, or thirsty if you prefer. If you are not going to feed them with the right stuff they are going to purchase the wrong. Getting them the right thing, I mean politically right thing, is your business. A Bengali daily, namely Inqilab (what an irony) recently published in its columns a rumor that the Indian army came into the terrain of Bangladesh, intervening in Satkhira. Why was it that they alone were the ones to find it out? Or take the instance of the group named Hefajate Islam. I refer to the incidents on the day and night of May 5-6 in Dhaka. Some human rights organisations claimed first and then at least 61 people being killed. Whatever happened to those claims? These are classical examples of rumors. The point is why whould you lend your ears to this tales, if you too don't have a felt gap?
Rumours spread the truth in a fictional way. So what is fiction here? That the Indian Army came to Bangladesh to repress political dissidents is the fiction. What is the truth, then? It is that there is a fear in the mind of the people. That India might come is the truth. Truth, unfortunately, is always structured in the form of a fiction. I borrowed this thesis from a Frenchman. You know him, Jacques Lacan, the great Freudian psychoanalyst. Fiction stands at an angle to the truth.
I would say many a citizen in Bangladesh feel they are dominated by the colossus India. Everybody knows it and yet nobody admits to know it. That is why this repressed social truth gets around in a fictional form and often gets credence, even at times can become truly popular.
That the Indian army might one day invade that is a fear in the mind of the people. Why, because Indian market has already invaded it, hasn't it. Bangladesh-India economic relation portends worse. It is already pretty bad in the imaginary. There already exists the anxiety that Bangladesh has become a colony of India, economically speaking. Also there is cultural invasion, the unevenness of the playing field, for all to see but the wide-eyed blinds. Is there a future for a home market, I mean a national economy space, an industrial base, for Bangladesh? So the fear is real. It is however only a short road, and transport is cheap too, to rumor and people buy it.
Rumors are sustained by anxieties, in fact. But what is an anxiety? It comes out of trauma, real or imaginary, or it may originate in a persistent repression. And traumas get embedded, in many cases, in a psychotic structure. Communal riots are one of them. They are a good mixture of imaginary and the real.
Bangladeshi Hindus got nothing to do with anything being done by communal parties in India. But why not only Jamaate Islami, but even a ruling political party, would hold the Bangladeshi Hindus responsible on that account? There is political machination, relating to war crimes trial and contested elections, in the recent communal attacks on poor Hindu communities throughout the length and breadth of the country. There is a social imaginary behind it.
But in many communal slaughters in India, as in Awadh or in Gujrat, even in New Delhi, there had been many examples of a social psychosis. In Bangladesh all those who vote for Awami League, the present ruling party, are not Hindus, nor do all Hindus vote for Awami League. Why then only the Hindus are being selectively attacked? Why the opposition parties, especially BNP, don't take a strong stand against such crimes? This is a perversion.
That is why one can claim rumors are riots in ideological form; so may one call these communal attacks a kind of rumors in uniform, weapons in hand.