Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XXby Nurul Kabir
CONTRARY to the British practices in the times of difficulties of the peasants, the Mughal rulers, as Subrata Barua writes, were sympathetic to the tenants: ‘In case of the loss of crops, the rayats used to get some respite during the Mughal rule, at times they were being exempted from taxes and granted loans called taqavi [for recovery of losses].’ [Subrata Barua, Itihase Bangladesh (A History of Bangladesh), Dibyaprakash, Dhaka, 2005, p 59] Yet, for Bankim Chandra, the ‘country came to be governed well with the British takeover’!
Bankim Chandra successfully represented in his novels like Ananadamath and Devi Chowdhurany a political thought long shared by a significant section of the Hindu elite that welcomed the British colonial occupation of India, and cooperated with them to disempower the Muslims at large, with a view to paving the way for setting up a Hindu state in the region. Moreover, Bankim offered a political and philosophical outline of the Hindu state that a significant section of the English-educated Hindu elite aspired would emerge in India. Members of the Hindu elite had always considered the rise of British power on the debris of the Mughal’s a positive development, while Bankim Chandra tried to provide theoretical legitimacy to the proposition. He wrote in Dharmatatwa in 1888: ‘Swadhinata is not a local idea; it has been imported from England, in the translated form of liberty. Liberty does not necessarily suggest that the king has to be a local one. A local king might at times be an enemy of liberty, while a foreign king could well be a friend of liberty.’ [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhaya, ‘Dharmatatwa’, Bankim Rachanabali: Sahitya Samagra (Collection of literary works), Tuli-Kalam, Kolkata, 1393 Bangla calendar, p 609] Bankim, the most influential intellectual representative of the anti-Muslim Hindu elite of the time, therefore, admits without hesitation: ‘When the British became the king after the Muslims, the Hindus remained silent. In fact, it was the Hindus who invited the British to be the ruler. The Hindu soldiers fought [against the Muslims] on behalf the English. The soldiers won their own Hindu kingdom and handed it over to the English, because the Hindus have no malice against the English for the latter’s foreign identity. India continues to remain absolutely loyal to the English rule.’ [ibid, pp 650-651] Bankim put the same the statement earlier in the mouth of the ‘holy’ man appearing before Satyananda of Anandamath: ‘The British is the friendly king.’
There was many a taker of such colonialist political proposition among the English-educated Hindu elite of Bengal for decades to come, Jadunath Sarkar being an eminent one. Jadunath Sarkar, a well-known Indian historian of the Hindu faith, wrote even after the independence of India in 1947: ‘Today the historian, looking backward over the two centuries that have passed since then, knows that it was the beginning, slow and unperceived, of a glorious dawn, the like of which the history of the world has not seen elsewhere. On 23rd June, 1757, the middle ages of India ended and her modern age began.’ [Jadunath Sarkar (ed.), ‘Muslim Period: 1200-1757’, The History of Bengal, Volume II, Third impression, University of Dacca, Dacca, 1976, p 497]
Sarkar asserts that Bengal ‘in the Mughal times’ was ‘a hell well-stocked with bread’. [ibid, p 498] Then he argued that Bengal ‘entered a great new world’ with Lord Clive defeating the Muslim nawab of Bengal in Plassy in June 1757, which eventually led to Indian freedom from both the Mughals and the British in August 1948. He wrote, ‘In June, 1757, we crossed the frontier and entered into a great new world to which a strange destiny had led Bengal. Today, in October 1947, we stand on the threshold of the temple of Freedom just open to us.’ [ibid, p 499]
That Jadunath Sarkar’s understanding of the impact of British colonial rule in Bengal is grossly wrong is evident in the analysis of the phenomenon by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Westernised non-Bengali leader of the Indian independence movement. Nehru wrote in 1944, three years before Jadunath Sarkar glorified the British rule of Bengal: ‘Bengal certainly was a very rich and prosperous province before the British came…Bengal, once so rich and flourishing, after 187 years of British rule, accompanied, as we told, by strenuous attempts on the part of the British to improve its condition and to teach its people the art of self-government, is today a miserable mass of poverty-stricken and dying people.’ [Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2004, p 322]
Explaining the reason, Nehru said, ‘Bengal had the first full experience of British rule in India. That rule began with outright plunder and a land revenue system which extracted the uttermost farthing not only from the living but also from the dead cultivators. …It was pure loot. The “Pagoda tree” was shaken again and again till the most terrible famines ravaged Bengal. This process was called trade later on but that made little difference. Government was this so-called trade, and trade was plunder. There are few instances in history of anything like it. And it must be remembered that this lasted, under various names and under different forms, not for a few years but for generations. The outright plunder gradually took the shape of legalised exploitation, which, though not so obvious, was in reality worse. The corruption, venality, nepotism, violence, and greed of money of these early generations of British rule in India is something which passes comprehension… The result of all these, even in early stages, was the famine of 1770, which swept away over a third of the population of Bengal and Bihar.’ [ibid, pp 322-323]
In Nehru’s analysis, ‘those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today’.
But obsessed with the dream of a Hindu state, Jadunath Sarkar and the like did not bother to trace the adverse impact of colonial rule in the subcontinent, and, therefore, failed to realise that the morning sun of June 23, 1757 did not bring in any ‘glorious dawn’ to India; it was rather a ‘false dawn’, for it did not provide the subcontinent with the ‘sunshine’ required to transform its traditional agricultural economy into a modern capitalism independent of colonial exploitation. The colonisers, after all, are inherently incapable of playing any ‘liberating role’ in the colonies.
Rabindranath Tagore, who was a much liberal political mind, too, initially had tremendous confidence in the ‘liberating ability’ of the Western civilisation. He eventually got disillusioned in his old age about the self-seeking British colonial objectives in India. Tagore recorded the process of his illusion and disillusionment in an article in 1933: ‘The dynamic force of European thoughts struck our static mind the way rain heavily pours down on earth from the distant sky, enters into its barren heart, instils inspiration for fertility, resulting in the germination of life in multidimensional directions. … Under the new rule [of the British], there was a great message: The crime is a crime whoever commits it. No matter whether a Brahmin kills a Sudra, or Sudra a Brahmin, the law is equally applicable to the killer — no directives from a religious saint would influence the sense of justice.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Kalantar’, Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 12, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2012, p 538]
Tagore continues on the same note: ‘When we were first exposed to English literature, we not only got the taste of new aesthetic beauty, but we also got inspired to remove injustice committed by man against man, heard of political ideologies about emancipation of all human beings and saw efforts against transforming human beings to mere commodities in the world of commerce.’ [ibid, p 539]
Then the poet, already septuagenarian, writes about his experienced realisation of the colonial British rule in India.
‘It gradually appeared that the torch of the European civilisation was not meant for enlightening the world beyond Europe, rather it was meant for setting ablaze the non-European regions. So, one day, the balls of canon fire and pouches of opium hit the heart of China. No such pervasive destructions have ever taken place anywhere on earth, except when the civilised Europe had completely destroyed, by force and intrigue, the unique Maya civilisation of America in order to grab the gold of the new world.’ [ibid, p 541]
Tagore’s final disillusionment about the British rule was manifested in his open ‘reply to a letter from a British lawmaker, Miss Rathbone’, in which he accused the British rulers of betrayal of a ‘great trust’. Explaining why the British ‘found no place in our hearts’, Tagore wrote to Rathbone, ‘[W]hile pretending to be trustees of our welfare, they have betrayed the great trust and have sacrificed the happiness of millions in India to bloat the pockets of a few capitalists at home.’ [Tagore is cited in Salimullah Khan, ‘Paradhanatantra O Sharifniti’, Shadhinota Beboshai (ed.) Abul Kashem Mohahammad Atikuzzaman, Agamee Prakashani, Dhaka, 2011, p 127. Tagore’s ‘open letter’ was first published in the Calcutta Municipal Gazette: Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, in September 1941.]
However, any serious reader of Bankim can easily understand that the latter was acquainted with the works of many a Western philosopher, ranging from Stuart Mill to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx. But the humanist ideology of the Westerners in question did not touch him. He rather embraced the ideology of religious communalism. In the process, an English educated Bengali literary genius like him turned out to be a devoted Hindu communalist.
Ahmed Sofa rightly points out: ‘He (Bankim) could not think of anything but the Hindus and the Hinduism. He released his power of imagination like a ball of canon fire for the sake of the welfare of his own [religious] community… He thought distortion of history would serve his community, so he distorted history. After reading the political thoughts of Mill, Bentham, Voltaire, Rousseau and other Western thinkers, he got inspired to write Krishnacharita. The biggest difference between Bankim and his Western gurus remains in the fact that the latter tended to disown both the Bible and Christianity, while the former accepted religion and religious texts to be the absolute truth of life.’ [Ahmed Sofa, ‘Banglar Sahityadarsha’ (Literary ideology of Bengal) in Morshed Shafiul Hasan (ed.), Ahmad Sofa: Nirbachita Prabandha, (Selected essays of Ahmed Sofa), Maola Brothers, Dhaka, 2002, p 85]
Bankim even distorted the English history, and that of the Arabs, to inspire the Hindus to work for the materialisation of a Hindu state in India. In order to create the Hindu state, Bankim finds it important to propagate what he believes the essence of Hindu religion, Bhakti — religious piety of Hinduism. Bankim in his Dharmatatwa, written in the form of dialogue between a guru and a disciple, makes the guru assure the disciple, ‘The Hindus would soon emerge very powerful, as did the Cromwell’s English contemporaries or Muhammad’s Arab contemporaries, by way of getting regenerated through the propagation of pure Bhakti.’ [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhaya, ‘Dharmatatwa’, Bankim Rachanabali: Sahitya Samagra (Collection of literary works), Tuli-Kalam, Kolkata, 1393 Bangla calendar, p 647] Evidently, Bankim presented a distorted view of both Oliver Cromwell and Prophet Muhammad. The fact of history remains that neither Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) nor Prophet Muhammad (570-632) depended on the religions that they were born into, as did Bankim, to implement their political thoughts in their respective regions. While it is common knowledge that Prophet Muhammad fought against his forefathers’ pagan belief system to establish his monotheistic Islam, Cromwell was intolerant towards Catholicism.
Christopher Hill, a modern biographer of Cromwell, writes: ‘The political radicals whose leader Oliver Cromwell had become were very often also the religious radicals, and with them he was in obvious agreement.’ [Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, Penguin Books, London, Reprinted in 1990, p 73] It was, after all, Oliver Cromwell who attacked in the House of Commons the ‘great revenues of bishops’ in February 1641, drafted along with others the Root and Branch Bill proposing the extirpation of Episcopal government in May and moved the ejection of bishops from the House of Lords in August the same year. It is true that there are talks of religious tolerance about Cromwell but ‘the tolerance which is so striking a feature of his religious thought of course applied only to Protestants, to those with the root of the matter in them, to God’s children’. [ibid, p 116]
To be continued.
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