Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XXIby Nurul Kabir
BANKIM Chandra’s political project of Hindu state is also present in his last novel, Sitaram, which was first published in 1887. Writing about the novel in question Bankim Chandra himself said, ‘Sitaram is a historical character. But the historicity of Sitaram has not been maintained in the novel. [The propagation of] historicity is not the objective of the book.’ [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhya is cited in Dr Bishnu Basu, introduction to Bankimchandra Chattapadhya: Upannyassamagra (Collection of novels by Bankimchandra), Khan Brothers & Company, Dhaka, 2013, p XVI]
The apparent objective of Sitaram is nothing but propagation of political Hinduism in order to create a Hindu state in India. In the novel, readers find Sitaram founding a ‘Hindu kingdom’ in Shyampur, near Bhushna city of East Bengal, ‘on the bank of the river Madhumati’. [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhya, Bankimchandra Chattapadhya: Upannyassamagra (Collection of novels by Bankimchandra), Khan Brothers & Company, Dhaka, 2013, p 899] Readers also find Chandrachur Tarkalankar, once a rioter against Muslim villagers and later adviser to Sitram for planning and financial affairs, persuading the latter to fight Torab Khan, an official of the Mughal emperor in Bhushna, to ‘save the Hindus from the Muslims’ and thus ensure ‘revival of Hinduism’. [ibid, p 932]
Earlier, readers found Bankim’s efforts to inspire Hindu nationalism against Muslims, when Sree, the abandoned wife of Sitaram, persuades the latter to save her brother from ‘injustice’ inflicted on him by a ‘notorious’ Muslim fakir and an ‘unjust’ local Muslim quazi, arguing that ‘who would save Hindus but the Hindus?’ [ibid, p 888] Sitaram agrees to Sree’s proposition, and comes forward to save Sree’s brother from the clutches of the ‘notorious’ and ‘unjust’ Muslims. In the process, readers find Sree organising a Hindu mob against the fakir and the quazi, calling upon the Hindus around to ‘Mar! Mar! Shatru mar, debater shatru, manusher shatru, Hindur shatru, amar shatru, mar! Shatru mar! (Kill! Kill, Kill the enemy, the enemy of gods, the enemy of human beings, the enemy of Hindus, my enemy, kill! Kill the enemies!) [ibid, p 894] This is the same war cry that one finds in Anandamath. Again, Roma, one of Sitaram’s wives, find Muslims to be ‘dacoits, thieves, beef-eaters and the enemy’. [ibid, p 911] In the irrational way that Bankim portrayed Muslim characters in the novel, any ordinary non-Muslim reader would find a ‘rationale’ to hate and fight Muslims in general.
Most of his so-called historical novels, despite their high literary standard, are poisoned with religious communalism that breeds political hatred against Muslims; a recollection of Nirad Chaudhuri might prove the proposition. He writes: ‘The historical romances of Bankim Chatterji and Ramesh Chandra Dutt glorified Hindu rebellion against Muslim rule and showed the Muslims in a correspondingly poor light. Chatterji was positively and fiercely anti-Muslim. We were eager readers of these romances and we readily absorbed their spirit.’ [Nirad C Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Eighth Impression, Jacob Publishing House, Bombay, 1988, p 235]
The political consciousness that Bankim Chandra generated in society was extremely contradictory with that of the liberal humanist as well as reformist literary works of Rammuhan Ray and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had provided. Binoy Ghosh rightly observes, ‘The liberal humanist movement of the Hindu society gradually took the shape of the Hindu revivalist movement. The love for the Hindus turned to be the love for Hinduism and then it further deviated to Hindu communalism. The age of reason and liberalism, presided over by Rammuhan, Young Bengal and Vidyasagar, came to an end. Traditional piety took the place of reason, superstition replaced reforms, in the place of liberalism came parochiality, and communalism replaced humanity. [Binoy Ghosh, Banglar Bidvat Samaj (Intellectuals of Bengal), Fourth edition, Prakash Bhaban, Kolkata, 2000, p 27]
Bankim Chandra’s novels gained enormous popularity among a significantly large section of readers then. Sukumar Sen, a renowned historian of Bangla language and literature, writes that ‘Anandamath …received great appreciation from the general readership’. [Sukumar Sen, Bangala Sahityer Itihas (History of Bangla Literature), Third Volume, Seventh Print, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 1416 Bangla calendar, p 191] Sen made similar observations about Devi Chowdhurany. He says, ‘Devi Chowdhurany was the most well received of Bankim Chandra’s novels during his lifetime.’ It took only one and half a year for every edition to be sold out. [ibid, p 192]
Sen, however, fails to realise that the novels in question could not have been well received by ‘readers in general’, particularly Muslim readers, for these so-called historical novels were in many ways political hate campaigns against Muslims on the one hand and political propaganda for creating a Hindu state in India on the other. Bankim’s novels were, in fact, well received exclusively by the communally-oriented sections of the Hindu readership, and for many Hindu literary historians of Bengal, like Sukumar Sen, ‘Bengali readership’ and ‘Bengali Hindus’ were synonymous.
That many Muslim readers did not, and still do not, appreciate the communal contents of the novels is evident in the abusive comments written on the margins of Bankim’s publications in question.
Ahmed Sofa (1943- 2004) ‘noticed in his school days’ that ‘readers of Bankim Chandra would write on the margins of his novels, such as Sitaram, Rajshingha, Devi Chowdhurany and Anandamath, shala Bankim, malaun Bankim and other such derogatory remarks, particularly on the sides of passages where he makes cruel remarks about the Muslims’. [Ahmed Sofa, Shata Barsher Ferari: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya (The Fugitive of a Century: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya), Prachyavidya Prakashani, Dhaka, 1997, p 12]
The readers that Sofa refers to must have been Muslims of rural Chittagong where he had schooling. Sofa had similar experiences with Bankim’s books procured from the Dhaka University library many years after he had left his school in rural Chittagong. He found similar abusive remarks on the margins. The only difference was that ‘the remarks made by rural schoolboys were vulgar and those made by university students were indecent’. However, notwithstanding the quality of their remarks, ‘vulgar’ or ‘indecent’, Muslim students of Bengal had obvious reasons to be critical about Bankim’s politically motivated literary works. It is for no reason that Ahmed Sofa observes, ‘Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya is perhaps mainly responsible for the partition of Bengal.’ [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 86] Such a critical observation, however, could not stand in Sofa’s way to respectfully recognise Bankim as ‘one of the greatest children of the Bangla language’.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938), another genius of Bangla language and literature, ‘had once appealed to the Muslim students, with his hands folded, not to write on the margins of his books abusive words like shala as they do on those of Bankim’s books.’ [Ahmed Sofa, Shata Barsher Ferari: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya (The fugitive of a century: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya), Prachyavidya Prakashani, Dhaka, 1997, p 13] He had legitimate reasons to be apprehensive of the hatred of Muslim students of Bengal for his Hindu chauvinism occasionally reflected in his literary works and political speeches.
For instance, in Sreekanta, otherwise a great autobiographical novel, Sarat Chandra referred to a ‘football match played between Bengali and Muslim students.’ [Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Sahitya Samagra (Collected Works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), Volume I, Sukumar Sen (ed.), Ananda Publishers Limited, Kolkata, 1393 Bangla calendar, p 268]
In this regard, one also needs to note that many Kolkata-based educated Muslims of the late 19th century used to feel constrained to identify themselves as Bengalis. An exceptional educated Muslim of Bengal, Maulvi Yaquinuddin Ahmed, ‘ruefully’ observed in 1896: ‘In Calcutta the Hindus are called Bengalees by every Mohamedan who has never travelled beyond the Mahratta Ditch, as if such Mohamedans, by the fact of their professing the faith of the Great Arabian Prophet, have a right to be non-Bengalees.’ [Maulvi Yaquinuddin Ahmed is cited in Rafiuddin Ahmed, op-cit, p 112]
Be that as it may, while addressing the Bengal Provincial Conference in 1926, Sarat Chandra observed: ‘It is difficult to imagine as to what could be a greater hoax than the Muslims ever saying that they want to unite with the Hindus. The Muslims had once entered India only to plunder the country, not to establish a kingdom. They those days did not even stop after plundering India, they destroyed temples, demolished idols and violated women; in fact they unhesitatingly did everything possible to insult humanity and humiliate the people of other faith … it seems today that the habit has become an inherent component of Muslim life [in India].’ [Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, “Bartaman Hindu-Mussalman Samasya”, Sarat Sahitya Samagra (Collected Works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), Volume – II, Sukumar Sen (ed.), Ananda Publishers Limited, Kolkata, 1393 Bangla calendar, pp. 2134-2135]
The observation made by Sarat Chandra is over-generalised; such a historically unfounded statement about Muslim rulers only suggests that he was a prisoner of the colonialist historiography, which is perversely biased against Indian Muslims — both the rulers and the ruled. Bhudeb Mukhapadhaya (1827-1894) rightly observed in his Samajik Prabandha in 1892: ‘There is another stronger reason for sustenance and further growth of animosity between the Hindus and Muslims. Many English writers perpetually propagates, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, that the Muslims as rulers had terribly persecuted the Hindus. Thus, the English writers have been vitiating the minds of the Hindus against the Muslims.’ [Bhudeb Mukhapadhaya is cited in Dr Panchanon Saha, Hindu-Mussalman Samparka: Notun Bhabna (Hindu-Muslim relations: New thoughts), Jatiya Grantha Prakashan, Dhaka, 2001, p 129] Since Sarat Chandra not only shared the deliberately constructed anti-Muslim views of the colonialist British historians but also publicly propagated such a-historical views, it was only natural for educated Muslims to find in him a local Hindu collaborator of the colonialist British, who needed to deliberately demonise the Muslim rulers in order to legitimise the British colonial takeover of the subcontinent.
In terms of cultural attitude towards life, Sarat Chandra was quite different from Bankim Chandra; the latter was very conservative and the former quite liberal. While Bankim Chandra used his literary talents for the sustenance of Hindu orthodoxy and revival of political Hinduism, Sharat Chandra fought against the inherent inhumanness of the conservative Hindu society — his literary works like Pallisamaj and Narir Mulya being a couple of obvious example. But to the Muslim society, liberal or conservative, both of them were allergic, although at varying degrees: Bankim Chandra was cruel and Sarat Chandra was unsympathetic.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the most Bengali litterateur of international repute, who continues to influence the minds of the millions of Bengalis more than seven decades after his death, made the highest individual contribution to the development of Bangla language and literature. Primarily a poet, Tagore made fundamental contributions to many other branches of Bangla literature, such as essays, linguistics, short stories, novels, plays and songs. In the process, he created hundreds of new words and introduced them into the Bangla literature, both in poetry and prose.
Besides, Tagore popularised the chalita form of Bangla prose, using innumerable ordinary words used in the daily life of the ordinary Bengalis living in and around Kolkata, replacing the so-called sadhu or pure form initially introduced by the Sanskritised pundits. It is in Tagore’s hand that Bangla prose finally descended to the dusty world of ordinary people from the high ivory tower of the pundits, and thus brought Bangla literature to the doorsteps of the average Bengalis. Sukumar Sen rightly remarks that ‘Rabindranath [Tagore] has singlehandedly infused so much strength, and generated so much potential, into the Bangla language that no other single writer of the world has been able to do so to any language on earth’. [Sukumar Sen, Bangala Sahityer Itihas (History of Bangla Literature), Third Volume, Seventh Print, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 1416 Bangla calendar, p 124]
To be continued.
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