The curious case of the path not contemplated

Posted in Bengal, history by jrahman on August 6, 2012

I missed the whole Humayun-Shaon-Gultekin drama because of a microbe attack.  But even if I were well, I probably would have been baffled by the whole thing.  Perhaps because I had little touch with Bangladesh during the 1990s, when Humayun-mania was at its peak, I really have no opinion matters like this, which seem to animate most literate Bangladeshis.  And I can very easily understand why Humayun Ahmed would not have been a news in Paschim Banga (let alone rest of India).

I was, however, quite amused to see bunch of talking heads in TV — sorry, don’t remember the channel, nor do I have any link, you’ll just have to take my word for it — bemoaning the fact that ‘our Humayun isn’t better loved by them, even though we love their Sunil-Samaresh et al’.  I mean, seriously, how childish can one get — it reminded me of my two year old who cries when other kids don’t want to share their toys.

That may have been childish.  But given our tragic history, there is nothing childish about this:

পশ্চিমবঙ্গে হুমায়ূন আহমেদের বইয়ের কোনো চাহিদা নেই। অথচ তিনি বাংলাদেশে একজন মেগাস্টার। দুই বাংলার সাহিত্যপ্রেমী পাঠকের কাছে গ্রহণযোগ্যতার প্রশ্নে এই  তারতম্য কেন? প্রশ্ন করা হয়েছিল বিশিষ্ট কথাসাহিত্যিক সমরেশ মজুমদার এবং পশ্চিমবঙ্গের এক বিশিষ্ট পুস্তক প্রকাশককে। প্রশ্নকর্তা অমিতাভ ভট্টশালী। উত্তরে সমরেশ মজুমদার এবং পুস্তক প্রকাশক মহোদয় কারণ সম্পর্কে প্রায় একই সুরে কথা বললেন। তাঁদের বক্তব্যের মূল প্রতিপাদ্য হলো পশ্চিমবাংলার হিন্দু বাঙালি পাঠক খুবই সংকীর্ণ মনের। তারা জলকে পানি, দিদিকে আপা, পূজাকে নামাজ ব্যবহার প্রাণ থেকেই গ্রহণ করেনি। কাজেই বাংলাদেশের মুসলমান সাহিত্যিকদের কদর সেখানে খুবই সীমিত। সমরেশ মজুমদার বললেন, আমার বই বাংলাদেশে কমপক্ষে চার লক্ষ বিক্রি হয়ে থাকে। আমার লেখায় হিন্দু ধর্মের কথাই থাকে। পুজো কিংবা বিভিন্ন সামাজিক হিন্দু আচার অনুষ্ঠানের প্রসঙ্গও থাকে। কিন্তু বাংলাদেশের পাঠক ওগুলো আমলে নেন না। এ ব্যাপারটি বাঙালি হিন্দু পাঠকের ক্ষেত্রে খুব একটা দেখা যায় না। এটাই হচ্ছে সংকীর্ণচিত্ততা। বাংলাদেশের পাঠক সাহিত্যমূল্যকে ধর্মের ওপরে স্থান দেন। কিন্তু হিন্দু বাঙালি পাঠক ধর্মকে সাহিত্যমূল্যের ওপরে রাখেন।

(In Paschim Banga, there is no demand for Humayun Ahmed’s book.  But he is a megastar in Bangladesh.  Why is there such a disjoint in terms of acceptability among the literate readers of the two Bengals?  The question was put to the renowned author Samaresh Mazumdar and a major publisher.  The questioner was Amitabh Bhattashalee.  Both the publisher and Samaresh Mazumdar replies in nearly the same tune.  Their main thesis is that the Hindu Bengali readers of Paschim Banga are very narrow minded.  They had not accepted in their hearts the use of pani instead of jal (for water), apa instead of didi (for elder sister) or namaz instead of puja (for prayer).  That’s why the appeal of Muslim writers from Bangladesh is very limited there.  Samaresh Mazumdar said: “My books sell at least 400,000 copies in Bangladesh.  My writing mainly reflects Hinduism.  It includes puja and other Hindu rituals.  But Bangladeshi readers don’t mind them.  But this isn’t the case with Hindu Bengali readers.  That’s the narrow mindedness.  Bangladeshi readers put literature above religion.  But Hindu Bengali reader puts religion above literature”.)

It would have been easy to dismiss this as blatant communal bigotry if it appeared in Amar Desh, or if the person being quoted was some well known Hindutva fire breather.  But the person writing this is Abed Khan (click on the article titled Tumi robey nirobey), who is firmly, squarely in the secular, pro-1971 camp.  And Samaresh Mazumdar is renowned for his sympathetic account of the Naxalite movement — I am not aware of him harbouring Hindutva views (happy to be enlightened).

I am in no position to judge Mazumdar’s claim.  One need not invoke communalism to explain why Humayun Ahmed never caught on in India.  But then again, perhaps there really is something to the view that communal differences run deep.  Consider Afsan Chowdury’s review of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s memoir:

Much of the early narrative is occupied by the conflict he experienced with the Hindu community and this book shows how deep this was, away from the pious sentimentality of historians pushing the case of an imagined communal harmony in Bengal. This was a reality that influenced Bengal politics and Sheikh Mujib both. Being a ‘muscleman” — mastaan(?) — meant he also could go and rescue a young Muslim boy from a Hindu home where he was being held forcibly. This animosity element is weaved deep into the narrative stretching to the last days of the British Raj. It is a vivid example of the mindset that produced the Bengal Muslim League and led it to power in undivided Bengal.

The discourse around partition is typically about finding whose fault it was.  Bengalis lived in harmony, there was no Hindu-Muslim difference, it was the evil imperialist British — that’s the secular nationalist refrain.  And then there are communal accounts of the perfidious Hindu and the nefarious Muslim, neither of whom could be trusted.  I find this blame game rather boring and tedious.  It’s far more interesting — and useful for the purposes of current priorities — to explore why people — by which I mean the affluent, propertied classes who made the political choices — chose particular paths instead of alternatives.

To the extent that there were communal differences in terms how people identified themselves — that is, Ghoti-Bangaal differences were overshadowed by Hindu-Muslim differences — perhaps at the micro level, for the Hindu Bengalis it made perfect sense to seek partition.  Developments in the 19th century meant that by the first third of the 20th century, they had greater shares of white collar employment, higher education, or business opportunities than warranted by demographics.  And any majoritarian political configuration would have meant losing that edge.  According to Joya Chatterjee, many Hindu bhadralok leaders demanded partition even if Muslim Bengal opted against Pakistan.

Perhaps this was the rational choice for the affluent, propertied Bengali Hindus of upper and middle castes of the 1930s.

What about the choice before their Muslim neighbours?

Obviously the choice made in the 1940s — Pakistan — didn’t turn out to be all that well.  The reasons are well understood and I don’t want to spend any time on them.  Indeed, some would argue that Bengali Muslims ended up with Pakistan because their first choice — a united, independent Bengal — was shunned by the Hindu leadership.

I am not sure if the case for a united, independent Bengal was ever really articulated by anyone.  Suhrawardy’s push for it , with the support of Sarat Bose and Fazlul Huq, came far too late.  After the blood bath of Calcutta and Noakhali riots, I don’t think that plan had any future.  But from CR Das to the Bose brothers to Huq to Abul Hashim to Suhrawardy to the Dhaka Nawabs, I don’t think anyone articulated the case for a united, independent Bengal to the Hindu bhadralok that was already apprehensive of the Muslim majority.  If the said majority assumed that there was some kind of pan-Bengali nationalism, then I guess they didn’t know their neighbours all that well.

What were the other alternatives before the Bengali Muslims?  One path was discarded quite early — Ataur Rahman Khan, Abul Hashim and Abul Mansur Ahmed all tell us that no one believed East Bengal could survive on its own.  There was no taker for Bangladesh among the Bengali Muslims in the mid-1940s.

But at least that was a conscious decision.  Bengali Muslim leaders thought about going it alone, and decided that it was going to be too hard.  They tried to patch things up with Hindu co-linguists, and when that didn’t work out, ended up with co-religionists from across the subcontinent.

Isn’t it curious that they didn’t try the other option?  Isn’t it interesting that no one had ever made the case for a Bengali Muslim state within the Indian Union?

By all accounts, Humayun Ahmed’s genius was in his portrayal of the Bengali Muslim middle class.  That class blossomed in independent Bangladesh.  Could it have happened in the Muslim majority Indian state of East Bengal?

Think about it.  Such a state would have its own political centre in Dhaka.  There would have been a state administration, with its own development priorities, educational and entreprenuerial opportunities.  And at the same time, the greater Indian market would have been open to the Bengali Muslims.

Someone like Abbasuddin welcomed partition because Radio Pakistan, Dhaka gave him an opportunity that was denied to him in the Hindu dominated All India Radio, Calcutta.  And his children welcomed Bangladesh because Radio Bangladesh had given them even greater opportunity.  But what if there was an All India Radio, Dhaka?  Abbasuddin could have been a local star, free of Hindu domination.  And perhaps he could have made it in Bombay too, right up with Mohammed Rafi and SD Burman.

Perhaps.  But not only did Abbasuddin never seek that path, I am not aware of anyone seriously contemplating that option in the crucial years leading up to partition.

It’s fashionable these days to talk about the benefits of integrating with India, even if the economics of it is questionable.  I’d prefer to see some reflection on why the option of remaining in India was never seriously contemplated by Bengali Muslims 65 years ago.

12 Responses

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  1. Diganta said, on August 7, 2012 at 5:28 am

    I will write in details on this piece but for now it looks similar to an interview question asked to Baichung Bhutia (Indian soccer team captain and legend) that how he would have done if Sikkim were an independent country. Bhutia responded that he wouldn’t be known to the world at all even if he used to captain Sikkim over years. And his fan-following might have been tenth of that size now. (No references since I read it in a local newspaper).
    On the other hand, think of the 11 players that would have been played in that imaginary Sikkim National team captained by Bhutia. None of them would have got any international level experience if there were no Sikkim national team. So, one man gained and ten other lost. That’s why a separate nation is always preferred by democracies 🙂 …

  2. Diganta said, on August 7, 2012 at 6:32 am

    This one I had on missing Humayun in Kolkata –

  3. fugstar said, on August 7, 2012 at 9:21 am

    0) How about Subas Chandra Bose riding in to bengal from Freed Burma to relieve the starving of Bengal from the clutches of British starvation and usher in a totally unproblematic asiatic cosmopolitanism?
    1) How infantalising was the writers impact on those who read him and the public thats talking about him?
    2) Is there much thats Islamicate about the writer that folks are pulling out the sad tribal residue of whats refusing to be the past

  4. kgazi said, on August 11, 2012 at 9:47 am

    “I’d prefer to see some reflection on why the option of remaining in India was never seriously contemplated by Bengali Muslims 65 years ago.”

    Then you missed the whole chapter on partition. Bengali Muslims were the key initiators, they started the first riots (in Calcutta), were the first to humiliate the Brit Guvnors, and were the most vocal in public. BM were the first to campaign for splitting from India. The core reasons were:
    a) more muslim militancy in bengal – aka Kazi Nazrul, Fazlul Huq, etc
    b) more anti-muslim discrimination in Bengal than anywhere else.

    The anti-muslim discrimination was so grotesque and deep in Bengal (based on first hand reports from our grandads) that they promised never to utter the word India again !! The contemplation was how to split from India forever, NOT to remain in India. It may be “fashionable” to re-unite with India, but that fashion is superficial and has no idea of how India treated pre-partition Bengali Muslims.

    • উদয়ন said, on August 12, 2012 at 11:34 pm

      Kazi Nazrul was a strong Indian nationalist and anti-partition voice right up until his illness silenced him in 1943. One of the reasons he and his family struggled so much after he became ill was because much of the Muslim elite abandoned him at that time. It was only several decades later, in a desperate search for symbolism, that he was rediscovered by Sheikh Mujib and the new Bengali Muslim nationalist classes, and even then, only selectively.

      Are you sure claiming that Muslims “started the first riots” is something to be proud of?

      • kgazi said, on August 16, 2012 at 10:53 am

        Against jrahman’s last sentence, my topic here is ‘Bengali muslims’ NOT any Indian muslim. You are right – the vast majority of mainstream Indian muslims may have dropped Nazrul, but they were not Bengali muslims, they were the other (Hyderabadi) muslims who had no idea what lingo Nazrul was talking about; esp with his anti-british hoi-choi, when the other muslim nawabs were still hobnobbing with the brits !!

        Bengali Muslims “started the first riots” of Indian Separation has nothing to do with pride, but as as proof of history, it indicates the height of **Bengali Muslim** TENSION in seceeding (separating) from India.

      • উদয়ন said, on August 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm

        Other Indian (or subcontinental) Muslims had no clue who Nazrul was. Then or now. They are irrelevant. They were never in a position to drop him. Mainstream Bengali Muslim political leaders like Fazlul Haq, Akram Khan and Suhrwarady, in 1943, saw Nazrul (as did the Bengal Congress) as an irritant who had provoked them by very vocally questioning their stated positions on partition and Pakistan.

  5. উদয়ন said, on August 13, 2012 at 12:30 am

    “But not only did Abbasuddin never seek that path, I am not aware of anyone seriously contemplating that option in the crucial years leading up to partition.”

    There were a few prominent Bengali Muslims who opted for India, including some whose origins were in the East, so even if professional / ideological reasons meant they might have had a preference for India, for all practical purposes one would have assumed the would migrate – some that come to mind:

    Ustad Vliayet Khan
    Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
    S Wajed Ali
    Syed Mujtaba Ali (went back and forth, but I think only went to BD permanently after 1971)
    Muzaffar Ahmed (politician)
    Humayun Kabir (educationalist)

    Knowing some of their family members, I’ve heard how these were heartbreaking decisions, splitting siblings, parents/children etc. But, a common refrain is that in 1947, people didn’t think that the borders were going to be so rigid.

    Memoirs are often written with a revisionist lense based on peoples’ positions at the time of writing. For instance, Sheikh Mujib’s take on the communal situation in his unfinished memoirs is very different from the fiery speech he gave in Calcutta in 1972, when he blamed Noakhali and the Calcutta riots on “o-bangali hindu ar o-bangali musalman” or his interview with Annada Shankar Roy after BD independence when he said something like, “We could have been the greatest country in the world, but the British and Punjabis have always divided us Bengali Hindus and Muslims who never had any problems between us”. Suhrawardy claimed in his memoirs in the 1960s that he stayed on in India for a little while after 1947 to protect the rights of Indian Muslims as new institutions were being set up. But contemporary records show he was desperately trying to find a perch in Congress and in West Bengal or national Indian Muslim politics, including speeches and editorials regretting his former position and advocating a grand pluralist future – fearful as he was of losing his vast property and being rejected by the Muslim League. Could he have been another Maulana Azad in India had whatever equation he was working on in 1948 had a different outcome?

    Another point on Dhaka AIR / divided Bengal within undivided India. One of the reasons that opportunities were strong for Bengali Muslims in the new set-up after 1947 and even more so after 1971 is that middle class / affluent Hindus vanished – in some cases as slowly, in some cases overnight, clearing space. Would the same have been so if an East Bengal with 30% Hindus overall and 50% in Dhaka owning 80%+ of property etc remained within India, especially without the triggers of Enemy property Act, riots (which within an unidivided India would not have been one-sided), state discrimination etc?.

  6. jrahman said, on August 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Diganta, interesting example about Bhutia. The thing is, the decision to opt out of India wasn’t taken in the context of universal suffrage. Only about 10% had voting right in the 1940s, and arguably Bhutia-type superstars would have been over-represented in that 10%. And by the same token, and contra-Kgazi, the other, poorer/less-educated 90% might well have voted for India if they were asked — millions of poor Bengali Muslims have voted for India with their feet in more recent decades.

    Udayan, Nazrul is a bit of sui generis, and is really not amenable for the kind of question I am posing here (and by the same token, invoking Nazrul to support some point about Muslim Bengali / Bangladeshi nationalism is also problematic). You mention a few individuals who chose India. But the very fact that even in their families they were isolated rather underscores my point — India had little takers, and we should seek to understand why.

    The possible concentration of Hindus in Muslim Bengali state in India is a possible reason. With apologies to Punjabi readers for a gross over-simplification, what happened to the Indian Punjab might be instructive. Haryana was created in the 1960s to be a Hindu-majority state. I believe it is 90% Hindu, but the ‘Sikh Punjab’ still has 35% or so Hindu population, particularly in the urban areas. So perhaps even a Muslim majority East Bengal would still have a sufficiently large Hindu population.

    But then again, if this were so, then partitioning Bengal wouldn’t have solved the Hindu Bengali bhadralok’s dilemma. If they were comfortable living in towns surrounded by strong Muslim majority villages, surely the same Hindu bhadraloks would have been also comfortable in an independent Bengal where they still would have had massive economic advantage. And yet, we know that they were very uncomfortable about such a state because they feared Muslim majoritarianism inevitably leading to wholesale redistribution.

    At any rate, it’s worth further research. Serious research, not blogs now and then.

    Fug, I have no idea how Islamic Humayun Ahmed’s writing is. I am not sure Subhas Bose marching on to Bengal would have fundamentally altered the historical trajectory (unless Bose had some how won the war for the Axis). There is nothing in Bose’s pre-war politics to suggest that he particularly appreciated the politics of Bengal. His eye was on Delhi, and he didn’t particularly care which set of politicians grabbed power in Calcutta. This is a pity, because arguably he was one politician in the pre-partition Bengal who had the charisma to unify pre-partition Bengal behind some political platform the way Mujib unified East Pakistan behind 6 points in the late 1960s.

    • Diganta said, on August 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm

      What happened to the plebiscite in Sylhet? Did only those 10% were able to vote?

      • jrahman said, on September 4, 2012 at 9:37 am

        Yes, only about 10% or so of the population had the vote.

        However, Sylhet wasn’t like Bengal. Assam was a Muslim-minority province, and the Assamese Muslims of Sylhet were asked to choose between joining a Muslim majority state or stay as minority in Assam. Their choice of leaving Assam for East Bengal / East Pakistan was similar to the Hindu Bengalis of western Bengal prefering to break away from the Muslim majority of Bengal.

  7. সাতকাহন « Mukti said, on November 23, 2012 at 1:46 am

    […] A Bengali Muslim judge in India.  Makes you think about that path not taken by men like this.  But how is the Indian Bengal?  Perhaps they need […]

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