Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XIIby Nurul Kabir
Politics of language and literature
BANGLA has been developed over several centuries with its organic practice by both Muslims and Hindus of Bengal, while the Muslim rulers of Bengal, particularly those of the Sultani era, substantially contributed to the development of Bangla literature.
The Buddhist Pal dynasty ruled Bangladesh for four hundred years since the 8th century. Then, the Hindu Sen dynasty took over in the 12th century. It ruled the country for a hundred years.
The Pal kings, although Buddhists, accepted the cultural hegemony of the Hindu Brahmanism; therefore, the language of the Brahmins, Sanskrit, remained the official language. Still, under the Pal dynasty, people used to compose fairytale, ballad, etc in Bangla and read out to the kings. But, under the Sen dynasty, people did not dare enter royal palaces with songs composed in Bangla. The Sen kings used to patronise Sanskrit literature and substantially obstructed the progress of Bangla language and literature. During the Sen rule, the Brahmins issued religious decree to the effect that ‘those who would even hear the religious texts in Bangla would suffer the eternal fire of Rourab — the worst of hells.’ The language spoken by the ordinary Bengalis, Buddhists or ‘lower caste’ Hindus or Muslims, was to be hated and, therefore, got expelled from ‘standard’ literature of the 12th-century Bengal.
Things started changing after the Sen dynasty had fallen at Nadiya in the Rajshahi district of Bengal to an invasion by a Muslim Turk — Ikhtiaruddin Muhammad Bakhtiar Khilji — in 1201. Dr Enamul Huq says the dethronement of Hindu king Lakshman Sen, and subsequent occupation of Bengal by Muslim rulers, ‘stood in the way of the practice of Sanskrit’ and ‘paved the way for that of Bangla in Bengal’. [Dr Enamul Huq, Muslim Bangla Sahitya, Pakistan Publications, Dhaka, first print, 1957, p 13]
However, throughout the Muslim rule, Persian had been the official language, and both Muslim and Hindu communities widely used Persian. While the Pal dynasty encouraged Bangla language, despite retaining Sanskrit as the official language, the Muslim dynasties helped Bangla language and literature flourish although Persian remained the official language.
Bengal came under the Sultan dynasty when Sultan Shamshuddin Ilias Shah conquered Gouda, Borendri, Samatat and Banga regions one after another, and completed the Muslim conquest of Bengal after conquering Sonargaon in 1352. Shamshuddin Ilias Shah took the name of ‘Shahe Bangalian’ and his successors ruled the country independently for more than two hundred years.
The Sultan dynasty made serious efforts ‘to understand the Hindu population and secure their sympathy’ for both ensuring good governance in Bengal and defending its independence from the rulers in Delhi. The Sultans, therefore, as Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah says, ‘inspired and patronised local literature. Bengali poet Chandidas appeared during this period. Side by side with the Hindus, the Muslims also entered the realm of Bangla literature.’ [(Dr) Muhammad Shahidullah, Bangla Sahityer Katha, Volume II, op-cit, p 11]
Probhatkumar Bondopadhay also believes ‘Bangla took shape as a language after the arrival of Islam in India, with the touch of Persian language and literature’. [Probhatkumar Bondopadhay, ‘Rammohan O Tatkaleen Samaj O Sahitya’, Bidyasagar Lecture delivered at Kolikata University in 1965, Biswabharoti, Reprint 1394 Bangla calendar (Gregorian calendar 1987), Kolkata, India, p 4] Bondopadhay rightly says Bangla found literary expression during this period, in the 12th century, in Padabali Keerton, in the composition of Charitraleelamrita as well as in the translations of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Dinesh Chandra Sen finds the Muslim rule in Bengal of crucial importance in terms of the flourishing of Bangla language and literature. Explaining the significance of the Muslim rule in this regard, Dinesh Sen writes: ‘Before the arrival of Muslims, Bangla was living in the rural huts of Bengal as the poor peasant women in humble attires did…The Brahmin pundits used to consider Bangla as the language of the lower classes of people and drove it away from their lives…Unacceptable to the gentlemen class, Bangla was an object of its hatred, disaffection and indifference…’ [Dinesh Chandra Sen, ‘Bangabhashar Upar Musalmaner Probhab’ (Influence of Muslims on Bangla Language), in Dr Humayun Azad (ed.), Bangla Bhasha: Bangla Bhashabishayak Prabandhasankalan (The Bengali Language: A Collection of Linguistic Essays on the Bengali Language), Volume II, Second edition, Agamee Prakashani, Dhaka, 2001, p 597]
Dinesh Sen then asserts that it was the Muslim conquest of Bengal that enabled Bangla to come out of the rural huts to the highway of literature. He says, ‘Bangla was there in this country since long, even during the time of Buddha… But it would not be an overstatement to say that Bangla literature, in a way, is the creation of the Muslims.’ [ibid, p 598] This is now an established fact of history that Sultan Nasrat Shah, his military commander Paragal Khan and the latter’s son Chunti Khan got certain episodes of Mahabharata translated into Bangla from Sanskrit. Besides, Shamshuddin Yusuf, aka Goonraj Khangot, had certain chapters of Srimad Bhagawat Gita translated into Bangla.
Dinesh Sen says the ‘Afghan Kings in Bengal really turned themselves to be Bengalis’ and ‘their deeds of agreements were being written at times in Bangla’. For the Afghan kings, ‘Sanskrit was inaccessible, while Bangla was the day-to-day language that they found comfortable to read.’ [Dinesh Chandra Sen, Brihat Banga, Second Volume, Dey’s Publishing, Kolkata, First Edition (1935), Third Print, 2006, p 657]
Thus, modern historical researches clearly suggest that there was tremendous growth and development of Bangla during the Sultani era, beginning from the conquest of Bengal by Ikhtiaruddin in 1201 to the defeat and murder of Sultan Daud Khan Karrani by the Mughals in 1576. In this period, writes Aniruddha Roy, ‘Bangla got developed by the influence of Persian. The reason may be, after the establishment of Sultani regime, Sanskrit was ousted from the administrative affairs; mixing with Persian, Bangla gradually made inroad to the affairs of local administration, and consequently developed itself as a full-fledged language.’ [Aniruddha Roy, ‘Sultani Amole Bangla: Prasanga Misra Sangskriti’ (Bangla during Sultani Era: On mixed culture) in Shamshul Hossain (ed.), Abdul Karim Commemorative Volume, Adorn Publication, Dhaka, 2008, p 142]
The Delhi-based Mughals took complete control of Bengal in 1612. However, under the Muslim rulers, Pathan or Mughal, Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus had lived in harmony. The situation started changing with the British taking over Bengal in the mid-18th century. Gopal Halder, a reputed historian of Bangla literature, rightly points out: ‘The nature of the relationship between Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus had always been different than that of the Muslims and Hindus elsewhere in India, because they not only spoke the same language, Bangla, but their lifestyle was also similar. This remained unchanged under both the Pathan and the Mughal regimes. The non-Bengali ruling classes of those days had never objected to the Bengali lifestyle of the Muslims of Bengal. Rather, in the 18th century, the upper-class Bengali Hindus came closer to the upper-class Muslims by way of adopting the latter’s lifestyle, while the ordinary Hindus and Muslims of the rural societies got cordial among themselves much before that. The “process” of this Bengali nationalism was rather obstructed in 1757, thanks to the takeover of power by a third force.’ [Gopal Halder, Bangla Sahityer Rup-Rekha (Outline of Bangla Literature), Second Volume, Aruna Prakashani, Kolkata, Fifth print, 1415 Bangla calendar, p 24]
The ‘third force’ in this case was the British East India Company that took over Bengal between 1757 and 1765, and almost the whole of India by 1857, and gradually created social, political and linguistic walls between the Muslim and Hindu communities of Bengal and beyond. With the inauguration of the British rule, Bengal’s Muslim aristocracy lost power while the upper class Hindus got closer to the new rulers. The changeover contributed to the growth of political animosity between Muslim and Hindu aristocracies that eventually spilled over into ordinary Muslims and Hindus across Bengal. The British, on the other hand, not only deliberately nurtured the animosity between Muslims and Hindus, but also sharpened the divide between the two religious communities by way of distributing political and economic favours among Hindus and depriving Muslims.
To be continued.
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