On the Eaton thesis

Posted in Bengal, books, classics, history, Muslim world, South Asia by jrahman on January 13, 2016

Awrup Sanyal wants to whet your appetite about Richard Eaton’s seminal work.  Let me complement him on the effort.  I have noted Eaton in the past: a must read book on Bangladesh; and a book that has stayed with me. A full-fledged critical review of the Eaton thesis is well beyond my capability.  This post really is a complement to Mr Sanyal’s.

Richard Eaton is a professor of history at the University of Arizona with research interests focus on the social and cultural history of pre-modern India (1000-1800), and especially on the range of historical interactions between Iran and India, and on Islam in South Asia.  It’s been well over a quarter century that he did his research for the The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier.

It is a slim volume — the one on my shelf, published by OUP (India), is less than 350 pages including reference.  There are two parts, one covering Bengal under the Sultans and the other the Mughals.  First part begins with a chapter on Bengal before the Turkish conquest.  Then there are chapters on: how political authority was conceptualised and articulated by the Sultans of Delhi and Bengal; the arrival of the Sufis to the Bengal delta; and the evolving economy, society and culture of the delta during the early centuries of Muslim rule.

As we can see, Eaton’s is not merely a history of kings and battles and one damned-event-after-other.  Rather, he wants to answer a major historical puzzle, which he poses in the fifth chapter — how did the Bengal delta come to be home to the second largest Muslim ethnic population in the world?  It’s all the more striking that this is the only major Muslim population that is not contiguous with the rest of the Muslim world.

How this easternmost tip of the Ganges delta came to be Muslim majority is an interesting historical puzzle.  Further, the political ramifications of the Muslim majority nature of the  delta have been profound, and are self-evident.  One doesn’t have to believe in any variation of the two-nation theory, any kind of historical inevitability or any particular brand of nationalism to acknowledge that had this region not been a Muslim-majority land, what is now Bangladesh would have either been a state in the Indian federation or there would have been a Bengali republic.

Prior to Eaton’s, there had been four major theories to explain the puzzle:

  • Immigration — the bulk of South Asian Muslims are descended from Muslim settlers from West Asia (two-nation theorists like this theory);
  • Religion of the Sword — imposition of Islam through conquests, a function of military or political force (the Hindutva types’ favourite);
  • Patronage — non-Muslims converted to receive political patronage (this is one of the more dominant theories among the non-Bangladeshi academia);
  • Social Liberation — mass conversion to escape the discriminatory Hindu caste system (the most dominant theory among the Bangladeshi academia, with particular slants depending on the given academic’s political bent).

The problem with all of these theories is geography.  Why would the Arabs/Turks/Persians travel all the way to this corner of the subcontinent instead of settling in, say, Gujrat?  Why was the sword and/or patronage more effective in the Hindustani heartland around Agra and Lucknow, given those regions were the centre of Indo-Muslim political order and were under Muslim rule for much longer than Bengal delta?  Why didn’t the Bihari dalits convert to Islam?

Eaton presents a fascinating thesis through chapters covering the rise of Mughal power the diffusion of Mughal culture, before supporting his argument in chapters on: the changing agrarian order in the delta and the role of Islam; mosques and shrines in Mughal Bengal countryside; and Islamisation of Bengal.

According to him, much of today’s Bangladesh was forest until the advent of the Mughal rule in the 16th century.  It was around that time, an earthquake changed the flow of Ganges and Brahmaputra to Padma and Jamuna respectively, opening up the land for agrarian settlement.  In this telling, there was a very South Asian drang nach osten to the golden land of Bhati.

Is this story right?  In social science, it’s impossible to have the final word.  And as I said upfront, I am not qualified to critically judge the Eaton thesis.  However, it is a sad reflection of our intelligentsia that not only has there been little critical assessment of the thesis in the past couple of decades, but that the thesis itself is so poorly known.

While Mr Sanyal has to be commended for drawing attention to Eaton, I did find it curious that he puts contemporary relevance of this work in ‘India reels under the yoke of the militant and supremacist Hindutva regime’.  I would have thought that for a Bangladeshi audience, a much more important contemporary relevance would be the dangerous upsurge in chauvinistic Bengali nationalism, militant Islamism, and the re-emergence of the identity dilemma of the Bengali Muslims — the debates around the existence of a millennia old Bengali identity upon which foreign Islam has been imposed and/or the need for the Islam of the delta to shred its pagan past.

The identity debate is important because we cannot even begin building a democratic polity and egalitarian social order in Bangladesh until the Bengali Muslims are comfortable in their own skin. However, if Eaton is right, then we can bypass the identity debates altogether — Bengal delta became Bengali Muslim simultaneously, and only a few centuries ago, much like the settler countries of the New World.

Moving beyond the identity debates, the Eaton thesis allows us to see Bangladesh and its contemporary issues in a new light.  For example, what does history tell us about the relationship between Bangladesh /the Bengal delta and India / North India based empires?  In Eaton’s telling, the Bengal Sultanate was far more in defiance of Delhi than was the case under the Mughals, even though what is now Bangladesh became home to the people now called Bengali Muslims only under the Mughal Indian empire.

If there is one book you read in 2016, let it be Richard M Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760.

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. awrupsanyal said, on January 13, 2016 at 11:49 am

    “While Mr Sanyal has to be commended for drawing attention to Eaton, I did find it curious that he puts contemporary relevance of this work in ‘India reels under the yoke of the militant and supremacist Hindutva regime’.”

    Mr. Rahman, thank you for this very crisp and apt trimming to my hastily written review (I am still doing copy edits as it went live a little prematurely).

    I was writing it from an Indian perspective as there is where I am situated. Recently there has been a lot of tamasha in India, and Bengal, over jihadi Muslims, including false flag operations in Burdwan, to name one, [], and the muck that has been flying around in the name of discourse (“the narrative—of Bangladesh-based Islamic terrorism waiting to rip apart West Bengal”) in India about Islam and Muslims, as such, by the Hindutva ideologues.

    The review was aimed at a wider South Asian audience. Moreover, I am thoroughly under qualified to analyze the Bangladeshi context, which you have raised here (“the dangerous upsurge in chauvinistic Bengali nationalism, militant Islamism, and the re-emergence of the identity dilemma of the Bengali Muslims”), which I am hoping you will further expand on in subsequent pieces.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: