Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengalby Nurul Kabir
ABUL Mansur Ahmed, one of the finest Bengali prose writers from East Bengal, wrote a children’s book in the mid-1920s and approached Bhattachariya and Sons, a prominent Kolkata-based publishing house of the time, to have the book published. The publisher, a Hindu businessman, liked the manuscript; he believed that ‘the stories and the language of the manuscript were wonderful’, and that ‘the book would definitely be popular.’ [Abul Mansur Ahmed, Atmakatha (Memoirs), Ahmed Publishing House, Dhaka, Second Printing, 2009, pp 205-206] Bhattachariya agreed to publish the book, but requested the writer to add an index of the meanings of some widely used Bangla ‘words of Arab and Persian origin like Allah (God) and roja (fasting in the month of Ramadan)’. Mansur Ahmed refused to do so, on the ground that words like Allah and roja have been widely used by Muslims of Bengal for several hundred years and, like jangal (jungle) and janala (window) of Dutch origin, assimilated in Bangla vocabulary long ago. But the publisher insisted on the index of meaning for the Arabic word ‘Allah’ as Sanskrit word Iswar and Persian word ‘roja’ as Sanskrit upabash, etc. Mansur Ahmed eventually told the publisher that he would entertain the request only if the former asked his Hindu writers to provide an index of meaning for words like Iswar as Allah and upabash as roja. The condition angered the publisher and he refused to publish Mansur Ahmed’s book.
Abul Mansur Ahmed’s experience with the Hindu-dominated administration was not pleasant either. The Textbook Committee of Bengal, comprising Hindu officials, rejected a proposal for Abul Mansur Ahmed’s book, Naya Para (New Reading), a storybook for children, to be part of the primary school curriculum in 1937 as it contained Arabic and Persian words like Khoda (God) and pani (water). The officials of the Textbook committee argued that such words ‘would hurt the religious sentiment of Hindu students’. In response, Abul Mansur Ahmed argued that ‘if words like Ishwar (God) and jal (water) had not hurt the religious sentiment of Muslim students for more than hundred years, words like Khoda and Pani should not hurt the Hindu sentiments today.’ The argument did not help. Even the then Muslim chief minister of Bengal, AK Fazlul Haque, who was also in charge of the education ministry, failed to change the mind of the Textbook authorities in question. [Ibid, p 208]
Subsequently, a ‘new realisation’ dawned on Abul Mansur Ahmed that the elite of the minority Hindu community was determined not to accept the spoken language of the majority Muslim community of Bengal. He told the annual conference of the Progressive Writers Association in 1943: ‘I do not know whether a political Pakistan will emerge in India, but what I am sure about is, given the way writers of the Hindu community and the education department have been ignoring the use of the spoken language of the Muslim majority community of Bengal in their literary works and textbooks, a literary Pakistan will be created in Bengal.’ [ibid, pp 222-223] Abul Mansur Ahmed, once a staunch Congressite publicly condemning the ‘demand for Pakistan’, left the Indian National Congress for the Muslim League and admittedly became ‘a bigger supporter of Pakistan than the Muslim League leaders’. [ibid, p 224]
Dr Mohammad Shahidullah, a famous philologist from East Bengal who actively opposed the deliberate attempt to Islamise Bangla, wrote a textbook for maktab and madrassah students of Bengal. Subsequently, Ramesh Chandra Bandyopadhyay, a well-known Kolkata-based Hindu litterateur, accused Shahidullah of ‘polluting’ the ‘very tenor and structure of the Bengali language’ by using ‘Arabic and Persian words like fereshta (angel), dojakh (hell) and behesht (heaven)’ in the textbook concerned. [Ramesh Chandra Bandyopadhyay is cited in Dhurjati Prasad De, Bengal Muslims in Search of Social Identity: 1905-47, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1988, p 119]
In an article published in the Kolkata-based monthly Prabasi in 1339 Bangla calendar, Bandyopadhyay complained that ‘random use of such words without considering their suitability’ by Dr Shahidullah and the like ‘evidently split the language into two, giving birth to a kind of literary communalism between the Hindus and the Muslims’. Bandyopadhyay found the phenomenon ‘a question of cultural survival’ for the Hindus and urged ‘the fellow Bengali Hindus to come up and rescue the Bengali language’. Perhaps, Bandyopadhyay would have found Dr Shahidullah to have ‘rightly’ served ‘the Bengali language’ had he used Sanskritised words like debdoot for fereshta, narak for dojakh and swarga for behesht, words found in Hindu religious scriptures and mythology. He clearly failed to realise, or accept, that Arabic and Persian words like fereshta, dojakh and behesht have been naturalised in the vocabulary of the Muslim majority Bengal over the past few centuries, while no rationally thinking Bengali, Muslim or Hindu is expected to object to the use of such words in the textbooks of maktab and madrassah curriculum meant primarily, if not exclusively, for Muslim students. In this regard, it is also worth mentioning that Dr Shahidullah had to go all the way to Germany to learn and study Sanskrit, as the ‘Brahmin pundit of the erstwhile Calcutta University refused to teach a mlechho (barbarian) the Veda-Upanishad’. [Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Bangaleer Jatiyatabad (Bengalis’ Nationalism), The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2000, p 17. Mlechho is a derogatory Bangla word usually used by the caste Hindus for Muslims.]
Be that as it may, in response to Ramesh Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s contention, Moulana Akram Khan, a Muslim League leader-cum-journalist wrote in Masik Mohammadi, a monthly literary magazine, that there were cultural differences between Muslims and Hindus of Bengal that found expression in the use of words in their literary works. He also pointed out that the kind of Bangla the Hindu litterateurs wrote contained ‘Hindu religio-cultural ideas apart from Sanskrit words’, many of which were ‘symbolic of image worshipping and therefore opposed to Islamic ideal’. In this perspective, Akram Khan observed, if the textbooks for maktabs and madrassahs were to be written in that Bangla, the Muslim community ‘might have to face a possibility of cultural extinction’. [Akram Khan is cited in Dhurjati Prasad De, Bengal Muslims in Search of Social Identity: 1905-47, op-cit, p 121] He eventually proposed ‘a mutual understanding …between Hindus and Muslims’ to the effect that the former ‘would not drop’ the Arabic and Persian words that ‘had been naturalised’ and the latter ‘would not try to incorporate’ them ‘without necessity’. There were, however, not so many litterateurs in Bengal those days, Muslims or Hindus, to implement the proposed ‘mutual understanding’ about Bangla.
S Wajed Ali (1890-1950), who was for developing a ‘comprehensive Bangla language, accommodating the two sub-languages, one for Muslims and the other for Hindus’, had a different linguistic prescription to propose. He wrote in an article: ‘Bidyasagar mahashaya has totally changed the Bangla literary language. He has completely ousted Arabic, Persian and Urdu words from Bangla language, and replaced them with Sanskrit ones.’ [S Wajed Ali, ‘Bangla Sahitya O Bangali Mussalman’ in Mahbubullah (ed.), Mohan Ekushe Subornojointi Grantha (Amar Ekushe Golden Jubilee Book), op-cit, p 1011]
He argues, ‘There is not an iota of doubt that the language of the Bengali Muslims is largely different from that of the Bengali Hindus. Indeed, there are enough historical and cultural reasons for the difference. The language of puthis had once emerged in our [Muslim] society due to those reasons. We now definitely have to make our language more communicative, for the language of Amir Hamza’s Dastana would not work anymore. We would advance our language towards lucidity based on our own natural language. Maybe, two sub-languages, of the Muslims and the Hindus, would constitute a comprehensive Bangla language some day. But that would depend on our Hindu friends, for we have already proceeded towards their sub-language to an extent more than we had required. They should now come forward to join us halfway through.’ [ibid]
Meanwhile, much before the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, words like Pakistan, East Pakistan and West Pakistan had entered the political vocabularies of the region. For instance, a Muslim literary organisation with the phrase ‘East Pakistan’ — East Pakistan Literary Society — came into existence in Dhaka as early as in 1942. Similarly, three years before the politicians created Pakistan/East Pakistan in 1947, the Muslim literary intellectuals of East Bengal created the East Pakistan Renaissance Society in Kolkata in 1944. Evidently, the politically conscious Muslim literary elite of Bengal was already prepared to shape their own Bangla language and literature separating them from those of their Hindu counterparts.
Abul Mansur Ahmed, while delivering his presidential address at the first conference of the East Pakistan Renaissance Society in 1944, said: ‘The inhabitants of East Pakistan are a people, which is entirely different from the other peoples of India on the one hand and its religious brethrens of West Pakistan on the other.
‘By the literature of East Pakistan, in other words the literature of Bengal and Assam, we understand the literature of the era beginning from the period of Vidyasagar-Bankimchandra to that of the Rabindra[nath]-Sarat Chandra era. The literature created in this era is of very high standard. Rabindranath, particularly, has upgraded this literature to the global standard.
‘Still, this is not the literature of East Pakistan, for this is not the literature of the Muslims of Bengal. The Muslims do not have any contribution to this literature, nor has this literature any contribution to the Muslims. The Muslim society did not get, and are not getting now, any inspiration. The reason is simple: The Muslims are not the creators of this literature, while there is no Muslim content in it. Besides, Muslims have nothing to do with the spirit of this literature; even its language is not the one of Muslim’s.’ [Abul Mansur Ahmed is cited in Anisuzzaman, ‘Swaruper Sandhane’, Nirbachita Prabandha, Anyaprokash, Dhaka, 2000, p 51]
In terms of the division of Bangla language and literature, an old analysis of Haraprasad Shastri proved prophetic. He wrote in an essay, Bangala Bhasha, published in Prabasi, a Kolkata-based Bangla periodical, as early as in 1915: ‘Some believe Bangla is the daughter of Sanskrit. Mr Aksmaychandra has observed that Sanskrit is the grandmother of Bangla. But I say Sanskrit is the great-great-great-great grandmother of Bangla…So Bangla’s relation with Sanskrit is a quite distant one. Those who want to drive Bangla towards the direction of Sanskrit, there is hardly any possibility for them to succeed. Sanskrit had a direction of its own; Bangla has flown towards another direction over time. The attempt to drive Bangla towards Sanskrit, therefore, would be like driving Ganges towards Himalayas. Bangla, by way of living with Muslims over seven hundred years, has already taken many things from Muslims that have become inherent components of the language. No attempt to drive those things out of Bangla would succeed now. Muslims have not been able to change any other language of India the way they have been able to change Bangla.’ [Haraprasad Sastri, ‘Bangala Bhasha’ 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 382]
Then he wrote: ‘So far the [Sanskrit] pundits have driven the Persian words out of Bangla language at their will, because the Muslims of Bengal have hitherto not entered Bangla literature. Now that they have started creating Bangla literature, they are asking, “Why should you drive out Mussalmani words from Bangla literature? What rights do you have to drive them out? The words that have been in circulation for three, four and five centuries, they have earned the legitimate rights to remain in the language. Who are you to deny them of the right?” The Muslims have not stopped here. They are saying further: “If you drive the Muslim words out, and replace them with bombastic Sanskrit words, making it difficult for us to understand, we would use bombastic Persian and Arabic words; we will separate our language from yours, without depending on you”.’ [Ibid, p 384]
Bangla language was indeed separated, with that Bangla literature, and with that the minds of ordinary ‘educated’ Bengalis — Hindus and the Muslims. Subsequently, the ‘educated’ sections of the two religious communities, who usually mould public opinion, contributed to the social polarisation of the people of Bengal into Hindu and Muslim camps, and thus provided the communalist politicians with a fertile cultural ground to successfully cultivate the politics of the partition of Bengal and divided it on religious line in 1947, with apparent supports of the people at large — both Hindus and Muslims. Language, indeed, plays a powerful role in politics.
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