Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART VIby Nurul Kabir
THE great poet, however, realised later that mere tying of rakhi couldn’t unite two communities that had drifted away from each other over a period of more than a century primarily because of the politically dominant Hindu community’s mistreatment of the politically weaker Muslim community. Tagore wrote in an article, ‘Byadhi O Pratikar’, in 1907: ‘We know in many places of Bengal Hindus and Muslims do not sit on the same carpet – when a Muslim enters a Hindu household, a side of the carpet is being folded out.’ Tagore then put forward his analysis about Muslim indifference towards the Sawdeshi movement: ‘Suddenly when the English-literate city dwellers go to the illiterate villagers to say that “we are brothers”, the rural poor fellows cannot understand the meaning of the word “brother”. We have always treated these villagers as “rustics”, their sorrows and happiness have hardly mattered to us, we still need to take the help of official statistics to know their conditions and we have never visited them in their difficulties. Now, while protesting against the British, if we suddenly call upon those people, in the name of brotherhood, to purchase essential commodities at a higher price and to be exposed to police torture, it is only natural for them to be suspicious about our intentions. And, that they did. I have heard from a famous Sawdeshi propagandist that after hearing the Swadeshi speeches, the Muslims of East Bengal talked to each other that the ‘Babus must have been exposed to difficulties.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, in Bhuiyan Iqbal, Rabindranath O Muslim Samaj (Rabindranath and Muslim Soceity), Second edition, Prathama Prakashan, Dhaka, 2012, p 217-218.]
Meanwhile, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915), who took over the presidency of the Indian National Congress in late 1905, went to England ‘to place the grievances of India before the English people, especially with regard to the rule of Lord Curzon’, who was instrumental behind the ‘partition of the province of Bengal’. [John S Hayland, Gopal Krishna Gokhale: His Life and Speeches, Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2003, pp 147-148.]
However, the Kolkata-based protesters of the partition of Bengal projected it to be a ‘British conspiracy of dividing nationalist forces’, and announced the ‘boycott of foreign goods’, the British products in particular, to press home their demand for annulment of the partition. The movement came to be known in the political history of Bengal as Swadeshi movement.
The Swadeshi movement got huge momentum with the partition of Bengal in 1905. [Suprakash Roy, op-cit, p 68.] Synchronising with the civil unrest, the ‘terrorist revolutionaries’ continued to put up violent resistance against the British regime, killing and injuring a significant number of civil servants, police officers and members of the judiciary. Both the movements, spearheaded by Caste Hindus, demanded the annulment of the partition of Bengal.
The Muslims of Bengal in general, and those of East Bengal in particular, did not like the movements because, as Nirad C Chaudhuri, admittedly a devoted orthodox Hindu himself, observed in his memoirs, ‘The Swadeshi movement of 1905 was mainly an assertion of the nationalism of the new Hindu school.’ [Nirad C Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Eighth Impression, Jacob Publishing House, Bombay, 1988, p 439.]
Nevertheless, the British regime, headed by governor general Lord Harding, eventually succumbed to the Sawdeshi ‘terrorist revolutionaries’ and annulled the partition on August 20, 1911. Moreover, the Britishers shifted their capital from Kolkata to Delhi in 1912.
However, the anti-colonial nationalist ‘movement in Bengal almost came to halt with the annulment of the Bengal partition’ in August 1911 [Suprakash Roy, p 144] leaving an impression that the movement, both civil and terrorist, although organised in the name of ‘nationalism’, were meant for the annulment of the partition of Bengal aimed at securing the political and economic interests of the Hindus in general and the Caste Hindus in particular.
Understandably, the so-called Swadeshi movement did not contain the political essence of ‘nationalism’ as such, which is supposed to be inherently secular. Instead, it divided the ‘nation’ in Bengal along religious lines further. Nirad Chowdhury rightly observes: ‘The nationalist movement brought about an accentuation of the difference [between Hindus and Muslims]. Theoretically it preached Hindu-Muslim Unity … But against that unconvincing preaching was to be set the definite inculcation of an anti-Muslim doctrine.’ [Nirad C Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Eighth Impression, Jacob Publishing House, Bombay, 1988, p 237.] Then Chaudhuri, quoting Bepin Chandra Pal, says, ‘[I]t gradually awoke, at least in a section of the nationalists, the …ambition of once more re-establishing either a single Hindu state or a confederacy of Hindu states in India.’ [ibid]
There was more to it. Nirad Chaudhuri points out: ‘[T]he more dangerous form of the aggravation of Hindu-Muslim antagonism by the Swadeshi movement was that this hostility was now brought down from the historical to the contemporary plane, and converted from a retrospective hatred to a current hatred.’ [ibid]
Chaudhuri provides us with a vivid description of how the Swadeshi movement brought in a communal division among the schoolboys of a small township of Kishoreganj in East Bengal: ‘A very large number of our school-fellows were Muslims, and in the whole school there were at least as many Muslim boys as Hindu. We worked, talked and played with them quite naturally…
‘But the change inevitably came, and came very early. It was from the end of 1906 that we became conscious of a new kind of hatred for the Muslims, which sprang out of the present and showed signs of poisoning our personal relations with our Muslim neighbours and schoolfellows. …Nawab Salimullah of Dacca, the protagonist of the Muslim League and new Muslim politics, became our particular bête noire – and we contemptuously called him “The One-eyed’.’ [ibid]
Notably, the All-India Muslim League came to be born in Dhaka ‘in the end of 1906’ and the nawab of Dhaka, Sir Salimullah, had hosted the conference of the Muslim leaders of the subcontinent, who were behind the formation of the party. While the Muslim League leaders of India had a general political objective to represent Muslim interests separately, independently of the Indian National Congress, Nawab Salimullah had, along with the general objective, an additional one — the consolidation and expansion of the new opportunities for the local Muslims, particularly its elite, in the newly created Muslim-majority province of East Bengal. Hence, the Hindus of East Bengal were ‘contemptuous’ particularly about Salimullah and found him to be the ‘bête noire’ — the ‘black beast’.
Chaudhuri also provides us with a specific example of the intensity of communal hatred that the Swadeshi movement, largely disliked by the Muslims, had generated even in the young hearts of the schoolboys in his hometown of East Bengal: ‘A cold dislike for the Muslim settled down in our hearts, putting an end to all real intimacy of relationship. Curiously enough, with us, the boys of Kishorganj, it found visible expression in the division of our class into two sections, one composed purely of the Hindus and the other of Muslims…Whether or not the Muslim boys had also expressed unwillingness to sit with us, for some time past we, the Hindu boys had been clamouring that we did not want to sit with the Muslim boys because they smelt of onions.’ [ibid, p 242]
The ‘cold dislike for the Muslims’ that ‘settled down in the hearts’ of the Hindus of Kishoreganj, in fact, represents the situation of entire Bengal of the time. With the annulment of the partition of Bengal in 1911 might have reduced the level of Hindu dislike for the Muslims, but it definitely deepened the Muslim dislike, particularly that of the Muslim elite, for the Hindus of Bengal in general, for the annulment robbed the Muslim elite of East Bengal of certain benefits that it had started enjoying due to the partition.
To be continued.
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