Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengalby Nurul Kabir
UNDER the divisive linguistic and literary circumstance of Bengal, created out of the Hindu elite’s communal practices and subsequent Muslim literary reactions, the entire cultural atmosphere got so vitiated so that the Kolkata-based Muslim litterateurs decided in 1911 to stay away from Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, founded in 1893, and form their own organisation — Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Samity. It was the ‘psychological environment of the time’ that made the Muslim writers of Bengal to form their ‘own’ Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Samity in 1911.
Explaining the context of forming the Samity, Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, the founding secretary of the organisation, wrote in the Bangla monthly Mahe Nou in 1958: ‘Some of us were the members of Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. …but we used to attend the meetings of the Parishad as poor relatives of the rich attend the latter’s functions. We, therefore, resolved to have our own literary organisation….’ [Dr Shahidullah’s article, Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, published in the Kartik 1365 issue of Mahe Nou, is cited in Sukumar Sen, Bangala Sahityer Itihas (History of Bangla Literature), Fifth volume, Sixth impression, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 2010, p 241] Hence, a meeting of the Muslim writers of Bengal was held on September 4, 1911 and Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Samity came to existence.
The timing of the formation of the Sahitya Samity is very significant in terms of Bengal’s political context as well. The Muslim writers in question decided to organise themselves separately from their Hindu counterparts within two weeks of the annulment of the division of Bengal on August 20, 1911, which was the result of a Hindu elite-led movement to the disadvantage particularly of the Muslims of East Bengal.
Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Samity decided in 1918 to launch a Bangla literary quarterly, with its president, Moulavi Abdul Karim, proposing that the title of the quarterly should be Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika. But some Samiti officials, including Muzaffar Ahmad, a founding member of the Communist Party of India, argued that the words Bangiya Musalman should be dropped from the proposed name and that the name of the quarterly should be just Sahitya Patrika. But the president of the Samity rejected Muzaffar Ahmad’s idea, arguing that ‘Hindus would never purchase the periodical [edited by Muslims], and therefore there is no point in confusing Muslim readers about its identity.’ [Muzaffar Ahmed, Kazi Nazrul Islam: Smritikata, Muktadhara, Dhaka, 1973, p 57]
This is not the sole example of the literary and linguistic division of the Bengalis those days. In 1920, when Afzalul Haque, a Kolkata-based Muslim publisher, decided to launch a Bangla monthly under the title of ‘Moslem Bharat’, Muzaffar Ahmad again pursued him to leave the word ‘Moslem’ from ‘Bharat’ to give it a secular identity. But Afzalul Haque, himself ‘a non-communal person’ refused to accept the suggestion, because ‘he was not sure that many Hindus would buy any monthly edited by a Muslim.’ [ibid, p 55]
Even AK Fazlul Haque (1873-1962), while launching a Bangla daily in Kolkata in 1920, insisted on a ‘Muslim name’ for the newspaper. Confronted by the writers concerned, particularly Muzaffar Ahmad and Kazi Nazrul Islam, Haque warned that if they did not chose a ‘Muslim name’ for the daily, they would be exposed to ‘double jeopardy’: ‘The Hindus will not buy your newspaper, while the Muslims will not understand that it is theirs. You would be caught between the two communities.’ [ibid, p 62] This time they, however, were not swayed by Haque’s insistence and the daily was published with a secular name, Nabajug — the New Age.
Even in those days of communal psychological environment, there were some litterateurs in both the Muslim and Hindu camps who sincerely tried to forge a comprehensive linguistic and literary unity between the two communities. Ahsan Ullah, a Muslim litterateur from East Bengal, for instance, made a passionate appeal in an article, Bangabhasha and Mussalman Sahitya, to the Bengali literary practitioners in 1918 to abolish the idea of Hinduised Bangla and Islamised Bangla. He wrote: ‘Brothers, forget about the conflict between the Hindus and Muslims; remove words like Hinduised and Islamised Bangla languages from the dictionaries. You should rather establish better command over Bangla by using both the forms, and ensure the welfare of the country by furthering the development of the language.’ [Ahsan Ullah is cited in Shajahan Manir, Bangla Sahitye Bangali Mussalmaner Chintadhara: 1919–1940 (Thoughts of Muslims in Bangla Literature: 1919-1940), First reprint, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2004, p 259]
Earlier, Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury (1863-1929), a Muslim aristocrat from East Bengal, wrote in an article, Bangabhashar Gati, ‘We do not want Hinduised Bangla language, nor do we want an Islamised one, we want pure Bangla language communicative to both Hindus and Muslims of Bengal.’ [Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury, Bangabhashar Gati, in Mahbubullah (ed.), Mohan Ekushe Subornojointi Grantha (Amar Ekushe Golden Jubilee Book), op-cit, p 1207]
There was also a collective literary effort by a section of the Muslim intellectuals to bring in social and intellectual reforms in the Muslim community on the one hand, and forge linguistic and literary unity among the mutually opposing religious communities of Bengal — the efforts made by the Dhaka-based Muslim Sahitya Samaj is a case in point.
Muslim Sahitya Samaj, which was founded in 1926, launched a literary movement called Buddhir Mukti Andolan — movement for the ‘emancipation of intellect’. The prime organisers of the movement included Abul Hossain, Kazi Abdul Odud and Kazi Motahar Hossain, while the signature slogan of the movement was: Where knowledge is limited, the intellect is benumbed, and emancipation impossible [‘জ্ঞান যেখানে সীমাবদ্ধ, বুদ্ধি সেখানে আড়ষ্ট, মুক্তি সেখানে অসম্ভব’]. The group launched its annual journal, Shikha (flame), the next year. The group eventually came to be known after its signature publication — the Shikha group.
The Shikha group, side by side with intellectually fighting against the Mullahism in Dhaka, floated an organisation called ‘Anti-purdah League’, understandably to fight against the purdha system imposed on Muslim women by the fanatic mullahs.
In the process of fighting social and intellectual reforms of the Muslim society, the Shikha group had faced many obstructions and harassments by a section of the conservative Muslims who started considering the members of the group to be ‘kafirs’. In one such instance of harassment, as Mustafa Nurul Islam points out, the powerful leaders of the Dhaka-based Muslim society summoned the top organisers of the group, Abul Hussain and Kazi Abdul Odud, to the residence of Baliadi’s zaminder, Kazimuddin Siddiky. In the zaminder’s house, they had faced a test of Islamic credentials by one Moulana Muhammad Ishaq. They, however, escaped an adverse religious decree, with the former expressing in Arabic his commitment to Islam and the latter presenting a piece of his poem composed on the prophet of Islam. [Mustafa Nurul Islam (ed.), Shikha Samagra, Preface to Shikha Samagra, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2003, p IX]
The group’s literary activism included analysing the socio-cultural reasons for the communalistic division of the Bengali populace and making enlightening literary efforts to forge a comprehensive unity by removing religious animosities prevalent among the Muslim and Hindu elites of Bengal.
Kazi Abdul Odud (1894-1970) of the Shikha group observed in an article, Bangali Mussalmaner Sahitya-Samasya, in 1927 that ‘literature here [in Bengal] is very communalistic — its more about an exercise of special joy and sorrows of the Hindus than those of the human beings [in general]’. [Kazi Abdul Odud, Bangali Mussalmaner Sahitya-Samasya, in Mustafa Nurul Islam (ed.), Shikha Samagra, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2003, p 41] Odud regretted that the ‘literary assertion of Hindutwa by Hindus has generated in the Muslim minds nothing but parochial communalism.’ [ibid, p 42] He observed that there was nothing wrong with litterateurs being Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists or Christians as individual social beings, but as litterateurs they are supposed to be fundamentally different from communalist Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.
Abul Hussain (1897-1938), the founding editor of the Shikha, regretted in an essay, Chota Golper Dhara, in 1919: ‘Bangla literature has been flowing by two separate streams, one led by the Hindu community and the other Muslim.’ [Abul Hussain, ‘Chota Golper Dhara’, in Abul Quasem Fazlul Huq (ed.), Abul Hussain Rachanabali (Works of Abul Hussain), Volume I, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2003, p 146]
In another essay, Tarun Muslim, written in 1921, Hussain wrote: ‘Our beautiful birth-land, the [two] opposing communities, still prisoners of the past, are fighting each other over [the past glory], ignoring the contemporary challenges. One community wants to regenerate and re-establish the Vedic society and the other is out to replicate the Arab world. Both the communities are dangerously hypnotised by the past. They do not have the consciousness about the present; they refuse to look at the future.’ [Abul Hussain, ‘Tarun Muslim’, in Abul Quasem Fazlul Huq (ed.), Abul Hussain Rachanabali, ibid, p 211] In the essay, Hussain urged upon both the Muslim and Hindu youths to do away with mutual enmity and jointly work towards changing the ‘condition of our Sonar Bangla’ for the better.
Dr Muhammad Shahidullah (1885-1969), a reputed linguist from East Bengal, was also against those nurturing the communalistic division of Bangla language and literature, and therefore fought against the phenomenon. In an address in 1929, Shahidullah said: ‘To one section of the Bengalis, Bangla language means Sanskrit without its onuswars and bisargas, while to the other section Bangla means a peculiar hotchpotch of Arabic, Persian and Urdu …The Bangla language must be saved from both these groups.’ [Dr Muhammad Shahidullah is cited in Shajahan Manir, Bangla Sahitye Bangali Mussalmaner Chintadhara: 1919-1940 (Thoughts of Muslims in Bangla Literature: 1919-1940), First reprint, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2004, p 259] Dr Shahidullah was very critical of contemporary Muslim writers, making deliberate efforts to Islamise Bangla by inappropriately using Arabic, Persian and Urdu words in their literary exercise. He found ‘those trying to cultivate Mussalmani Bangla’ to be ‘a genre of people, created out of the bones of gorillas’.
There were, of course, Hindu writers, Pramatha Chowdhury being a prominent one, who had those days aspired for doing away with the linguistic division of Bangla, and therefore explored different ways to forge a literary unity among the two opposing religious communities. Chowdhury had argued in an article, Urdu Banam Bangla, 1934: ‘Bangla is the language of the Bengalis irrespective of their [religious] communal identity…In religious matters, Hindus and Muslims use different words. The texts of Hinduism remain mostly in the Sanskrit, and that of Islam… mostly Arabic. …However, the size of the religious vocabularies is so small that they have not divided the Bangla language into two.’ [Pramatha Chowdhury, ‘Urdu Banam Bangla’ (Urdu versus Bangla), in Mahbub Ullah (ed.) Mohan Ekushe Subornojointi Grantha (Amar Ekushe Golden Jubilee Book), op-cit, p 276] He then argued that the writers of both the communities were free to use the rest of the vocabularies in the same manner, keeping the words relating to religious faiths free for the use of respective religionists. But there were only a few takers of the literary proposition among the Hindu community.
However, there were some educated Muslims who believed that the Muslim society urgently needed to be enlightened by the modern education, which, in turn, would not only help Muslims catch up with their Hindu counterparts, but also help grow a better relationship between the two communities. But the Muslims of Bengal had been feeling constraints for decades to send their children to Bangla and English medium schools of the day, due to anti-Muslim curricula.
In this regard, the Dhaka-based Musalman Surid Samniloni observed during its 1886-1887 annual session: ‘Many educated Muslims can speak about the life of Jesus Christ’s great grandfather, they can recall the names of 1,600 girlfriends of Sri Krishna, but they say nothing about the basic tenets of Mohammedan religious system. …The Muslim parents are, therefore, opposed to the idea of English and Bangla education.’ [See Wakil Ahmed, ibid, pp 516-517]
Then Noor-al-Iman, a Bangla monthly, wrote in 1900: ‘The school curriculam includes the mythological stories of Hinduism, such as war between Rama and Rabana, episodes of Kuru-Pandab, etc. Besides, the [Muslim] students have to internalise the Hindu culture and learn Hindu manners. That is not all: the textbooks, full of anti-Muslim slanders and vilifications against Muslim manners, train the impressionable young boys to hate the Muslims as mleccha and jabanas.’ [Noor-al-Iman is cited in Wakil Ahmed, ibid, p 517] The periodical also advised Muslims of Bengal ‘to write books on the historical episodes of Islam, narratives of the deeds of Muslim heroes and heroines, the episodes on Muslim prophet and saints, lives of pious Muslim men and women, lives and works of Muslim kings and nawabs, essence of Islam and its hadiths, advantages of namaj and roja, Muslim festivals, et cetera in the Bangla language and make efforts for including them in the school curricula.’
Abdul Hamid Khan Yusufzai (1845-1910) wrote in the Note on Mohammedan Education, published in the Moslem Chronicle in 1900: ‘Muslim parents were often disgusted to find their [pathsala-going] children reciting fairly easily chapters and verses of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but stark ignorant of the name of the revered father of their great prophet.’ [Abdul Hamid Khan Yusufzai is cited in Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 18711906: A Quest for Identity, Oxford University Press, Second Edition, Delhi, 1988, p 126]
The same year, Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury questioned in an essay, ‘Vernacular education in Bengal’, the anti-Muslim contents of the school curriculum, and asked: ‘Should we send our boys to schools only to learn of the vices not of the virtues of our civilisation and our forefathers?’ [Nawab Ali Chowdhury is cited in Wakil Ahmed, Unish Shatake Bangali Mussalmaner Chinta O Chetanar Dhara (The thoughts and ideas of Bengali Muslims in the 19th century), Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1997, p 516]
Meanwhile, Mir Musharraf Hossain provided in his Atmajibani in 1908 the autobiographical account of the experience: ‘We two brothers enrolled in a school in Kushtia to take lessons in English and Bangla. We were there in the school for quite some years, but we found no trace of the name of Allah and His rasul in the curriculum. Even no teacher had ever pronounced those names. We found the mention of pigs in an English book, but there was no trace of anything Islamic in the books. We have found in the books the mention of Ram, Shyam, Hari, Kali, Durga, even pigs, dogs and jackals, but not anything about Allah and his prophet.’ [ibid, pp 491-492]
Under the circumstance in which the Sanskritised Bangla and the Hinduised contents of the school textbooks appeared to be a serious impediment for Muslim children to attend government-run Pathsalas, some progressive Muslim writers committed to Muslim education, such as Abul Mansur Ahmed and Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, started writing children’s books compatible with the Muslim psychology. But their efforts faced stiff resistance from the powerful quarters of the Hindu elite — both private and public.
Concluding part tomorrow.
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