Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XIXby Nurul Kabir
TO UNDERSTAND the degree of the politically motivated distortion of history by the novelist, one should look at the narratives of history first. Suprakash Roy, an Indian researcher and historian commanding respect of the educated sections of both the Hindu and Muslim communities of Bengal, writes that there were sections of wandering sanyasis and fakirs, in other words Hindu and Muslim ascetics, who started settling in different parts of India since the middle of the Mughal era on the lands occupied by, or granted to, them by the Mughal authorities. These sanyasis and fakirs gradually became full-fledged peasants. Still, they would wear old-fashioned attires befitting sanyasis and fakirs, and in keeping with their old tradition they would go out on pilgrimages in groups on various occasions.
During the same period, a large number of such sanyasis and fakirs also settled in different parts of Bengal and Bihar. They also became peasants while continuing with their traditional attires and occasional pilgrimages. However, the British rulers enraged these fakirs and sanyasis by imposing increasing amount of taxes on peasants in general and fresh taxes on pilgrims. “They were peasants on the one hand and fakirs and sanyasis on the other, and thus victims of double taxations. They, therefore, were left with no option but to revolt against the British regime for protecting their livelihood and religions.’ [Suprakash Roy, Bharater Krishak Bidroha O Ganatantrik Sangram (The Peasant Revolts and Democratic Movements of India), Third edition, Book World, Kolkata, 1990, p 21]
Subsequently, the fakirs and sanyasis put up organised resistance, at times armed ones, against the British in different regions of Bengal and Bihar and stopped paying taxes of any kind to the authorities. In some cases Muslim fakirs and Hindu sanyasis led the movements separately; in the others, they jointly resisted the oppressive British. Subrata Barua writes that Majnu Shah, Musha Shah, Bhabani Pathak and Devi Chowdhurany stood together against Devi Singha, East India Company’s leasehold of northern Bengal, who used to violently exploit the peasants of the region. [Subrata Barua, Itihase Bangladesh (A history of Bangladesh), Dibyaprakash, Dhaka, 2005, p 59] In the process, Majnu Shah, Musha Shah, Cherag Ali and Nurul Mohammad among the Muslim fakirs, and Bhabani Pathak, Devi Chowdhurany, Kripanath, Petambar, Anupanarayan and Srinibash among the Hindu sanyasis came to be known as great leaders of the peasants’ revolts.
Bankim was well aware of history, but he deliberately ‘killed the history’ of the Muslim participation in the revolts in order to intellectually legitimise his political project of creating a Hindu state in India. In the words of Ahmed Sofa, ‘out of the sanyasi revolt against the British rulers’, Bankim ‘aspired for paving the way for the emergence of an ideal Hindu state’. [Ahmed Sofa, Shata Barsher Ferari: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya (The fugitive of a century: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya), Prachyavidya Prakashani, Dhaka, 1997, p 44]
Bankim’s Devi Chowdhurany was set in the context of a period when, as Bhabani Pathak, the main character of the novel, informs the readers, ‘Muslims rulers have ceased to exist’ and the ‘British are just coming in’. [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhaya, Bankimchandra Chattapadhya: Upannyassamagra (Collection of novels), Khan Brothers & Company, Dhaka, 2013, p 828] In the novel, Bankim used the names of some Hindu leaders, such as Bhabani Pathak and Devi Chowdhurany, who organised and led various revolts against the British authorities. But his communal political project stood in his way, as Ahmed Sofa rightly points out, of even a mention of the name of the greatest leader of those revolts — Fakir Majnu Shah.
Who was this Majnu Shah? Historian Suprakash Roy writes: ‘Majnu Shah aka Majnu Fakir made fundamentally special contributions to the peasants’ revolts in question. …We at times find him as an organiser of the solders, at times as the commander of the revolts and at times we find him busy uniting the separate groups of rebels spread over of Bengal and Bihar regions against the British exploitation. There are a lot of evidences that he made all-out efforts to unite various classes of people with those of peasants and artisans, and thus build up an indivisible force against the colonial British regime. He was the soul of these revolts, chief organiser and prime hero.’ [Suprakash Roy, Bharater Krishak Bidroha O Ganatantrik Sangram (The Peasant Revolts and Democratic Movements of India), Third edition, Book World, Kolkata, 1990, pp 28-29]
Bankim Chandra simply erased the historical character of Majnu Shah from his so-called ‘history’-based novel Devi Chowdhurany.
Earlier, in Anandamath, he projected the Muslims as enemies although the British had already started ruling Bengal. Bankim’s dishonest treatment of history in his literary works could only be explained by his political aspiration for a moral and cultural atmosphere in which the politics of Hindu nationalism could flourish. Bankim, after all, was, as Nirad C Chowdhury observes, ‘the creator of Hindu nationalism’. [Nirad C Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Eighth Impression, Jacob Publishing House, Bombay, 1988, p 434]
However, Bankim Chandra believed that for the political materialisation of his Hindu nationalism in India, the subcontinent had to undergo a transition period of the British colonial rule and, therefore, deemed it important for the Hindus to cooperate with colonial regimes. He asserted that the political proposition in question in the closing episode of his Anandamath, through the final utterances of a mysterious holy man of the Hindu faith who appears before Satyananda Thakur, the prime leader of successful revolt of the Hindu ‘Santans’ against the Muslim forces.
The holy man tells Satyananda: ‘You have done your job. The Muslim rule has been destroyed. You have no work to do now.’
Unhappy with the instruction, Satyananda says: ‘True that the Muslim rule is over, but Hindu kingdom has not yet been established, Kolkata is still under the control of the British.’
The holy man replies: ‘There will be no Hindu kingdom at the moment… The British will rule now.’
The reply upsets Satyananda. The holy man says: ‘The British rule is a precondition for the revival of Hinduism... So, we will make the British the ruler of this country.’
Still unhappy, Satyananda asks: ‘If establishing the British rule was the intention, if the British raj was good for the country, then what was this bloody war for?’
The holy man explains: ‘The British are traders at the moment, busy with making money. They are reluctant to take the responsibility of running the country. Thanks to the Santan-rebellion, the British will now be forced to takeover, for money making is not possible without political power.’
Satyananda then asks for blessings of the holy man so that his deep love for the country, which he visualises in the image of a mother goddess, remains unchanged. The holy man says: ‘The sacred vow has been fulfilled — service has been done to the mother goddess — the Kingdom of the English has been established. Now leave the war, let the people work in the agricultural fields, earth be fertile and people prosper.’
An enthused Satyananda says, ‘We will make the earth fertile by soaking it in the blood of the enemy.’ But the holy man says: ‘Who is the enemy? There is no longer any enemy. The British is the friendly king.’ [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhaya, Bankimchandra Chattapadhya: Upannyassamagra (Collection of novels), Khan Brothers & Company, Dhaka, 2013, pp 793-794]
The readers see the similar, if not the same, conclusion of the novel Devi Chawdhrani, when they see Bhabani Pathak, the leader of a clandestine armed group of spiritually trained Hindus fighting against the ‘oppressive rule’ in Bengal, willingly surrendering to the government, for ‘the English has taken over, and the country has come to be governed well.’ [ibid, p 884]
Bankim’s claim that with the takeover by the English the country came to be ‘governed well’ is absolutely unfounded, for history records that people of Bengal had witnessed its first horrible famine in less than three years of the British rule of Bengal. Immediately, the British secured the ‘Dewani certificate’ from the Mughal administration in Delhi in 1765 to manage the territories of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar and asked local zamindars to increase revenue, while the latter resorted to various kinds of repressive means to force their tenants, Muslims and Hindus alike, to pay increased amount of revenues. The ruthless practice continued against the hapless poor peasants despite the loss of crops due to severe drought in 1768 and 1769. The result was obvious. Shibnath Shastri writes: ‘The country was exposed to a horrible famine, which the people of the region have never witnessed in the past. …Some ten million people died of starvation in eight months between January and August of 1770, while as many as 76,000 people have died in the Kolkata city alone in two months between July 15 and September 15 the same year.’ [Shibnath Shastri, Ramtanu Lahiri O Tatkalin Bangasamaj, (ed.) Biswajit Ghosh, Nabajug Prakashani, Dhaka, 2012, p 34] Giving a ‘heart breaking’ description of the result of the unprecedented famine, Shastri says: ‘The bodies of the people were found lying on the roadsides, in the streets, in the market places and in the dungeons [of the Kolkata city]; it was difficult to find out people to remove those bodies.’ Then he writes: ‘What is surprising is that the newly established British administration did not take any measure to contain the tragedy.’ [ibid]
Not only the newly established British authorities, headed by governor Warren Hasings, refrained from taking any measure to save the lives of the famine victims, it rather continued to apply violent means in post-famine years to make sure that the amount of revenue does not fall despite the ‘deaths of the one-third of the tenants’ of Bengal due to the famine. Notably, the British authorities in Kolkata sent to London the amounts of Tk 15,254,856 and Tk 13,149,148 in revenue in the1768-1769 and 1769-1770 financial years respectively. In 1770-1771, the year of famine, the Kolkata office sent to London Tk 14,006,030 in revenue and in 1771-1772, the post-famine year, sent Tk 15,726,576 in revenue. [ibid, p 99]
How did the Kolkata-based British authorities manage to keep up the pace of revenue collection, particularly when ‘one third of the tenants’ died of the devastating famine? In this regard, Shibnath Shastri quotes a letter that Warren Hastings wrote to the British authorities in London on November 3, 1772: ‘It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.’ [ibid] The records reveal that the British administration determined the amount of tax on the basis of ‘assessment upon the actual inhabitants of every inferior descriptions of lands to make up for the loss sustained in the rents of their neighbours, who are either dead or fled from the country’ due to the famine. It was, indeed, a cruelty of the highest order.
To be continued.
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IN THE modern history of humankind, religion and nationalism have always been two of the most vital ideological constructs that have led men to shed blood. Let’s take the case of Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict for instance... Full story