If we are right about our thesis on the situation of Bengal at the arrival of Islam, then the following points need to be verified:
first of all, fierce class struggles must have taken place with the new ideological weapons (shaktist Hinduism and Islam);
these weapons, if they were real weapons, must have proven their efficiency, if not then another weapon would have been raised;
the ruling class in Bengal must have necessarily also reflected this situation of “two cultural paths” in Bengal.
Bengal succeeds in protecting itself
Indeed, Bengal flourished and could defend its new situation. Two main points are to notice:
a) Under Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, who reigned from 1342 to 1358, Bengal became unified. The newly formed Sultanat was even able to resist under Hindu and Muslim generals to the attack of the Sultanat of Delhi, led by Firuz Shah Tughlaq.
Bengal was then known as Bangalah, and the state was the Muslim Sultanate of Bengal. The Sultan was called Sultan-i-Bangalah, Shah-i-Bangalah, or Shah-i-Bangaliyan.
The word came to Europe through Marco Polo, giving birth to the word “Bengal” (Marco Polo was never in Bengal and even did a confusion, thinking in fact of a part of Burma!).
The new Islamic state modernized the country and its administrative system. The ideological culture, based on the popular culture of Bengal, was putting forward Islam but in a local manner. Numerous elements were taken from the Buddhist and Hindu arts (open lotus in profile, floral elements, the lotus and the diamond, the lotus petal frieze, the trefoil, the rosette, the finial, the festoon, the twisted rope, chequered squares, the diamond criss-cross, etc.).
Husain Shah had even Hindus as prime minister (wazir), physician, chief of the bodyguards, private secretary, superintendent, etc.
b) Ala-ud-din Husain Shah, who reigned from 1494 to 1519, defended the Bengali literature, promoted religious coexistence in Bengal, giving Chaitanya Mahaprabhu full possibility to make diffusion of his mystical version of Vaishnavism (no castes, cult of love, universality, etc.).
This was the positive aspect of the new situation. Bengal existed as a structure, with a solid inner base, which would have not possible:
if Bengal was Buddhist, because the Muslim conqueror would have totally rejected any compromise with the local elites, and mainly plundered the land;
if Bengal was traditionally Hindu, because then it would have ideologically submerged by ancient India, and would have become a simple eastern region, without real possibility of local development.
Hindus were integrated in the Bengali nobility, appointed by the Muslim rulers. Bengal existed and could develop itself. It shows that a pre-bourgeois resistance could structure itself through a certain variant of Hinduism and a certain version of Islam.
Let's look now at the negative aspect. The fact that two religions existed in Bengal was an ideological problem. To make a strong national unity, the existence of one single religious unity in the country was necessary for the pre-bourgeois element, allied to the local conqueror establishing its authority.
We will see that this goal will be found again a lot of times even in modern Bengal history.
However, at this time, the problems were the following:
- there was necessarily two factions upholding Islam or Hinduism as the main ideological center;
- these factions would necessarily be in struggle and trying to win importance within the state power, which was dominated by the Muslim conquerors.
The episode of the Ganesha dynasty in the 15th century was an expression of this: the Hindu landowner Raja Ganesha overthrew the Muslim dynasty, put his son as a Muslim ruler to overthrow him as soon as the Muslim invasion was away, tried the trick even a second time, but then was killed.
This shows how weak the position of the local elite was. This would have a fatal consequence.
The Mughal era
Bengal had from the 12th century to the 16th century to make unity. It succeeded in protecting itself and maintaining its national culture, but it failed to unite in a stronger national sense, with a unified pre-bourgeois culture on the level of all the nation.
This had a terrible consequence when the Mughal emperor managed to invade Bengal. From this moment on, Bengal was ruled from the top – a top far away from Bengal itself, based in northern India.
From 1574 to 1717, Bengal was ruled by 32 subahdars – a subah being a Mughal province and the word subahdar designating the governor, of course chosen by the Mughal or the highest officers.
Bengal was considered as a wealthy place, which wealth had to belong to the Mughal in Northern India, and especially the army. Because of this, cadres of the Mughal empire were sent to Bengal.
The Mughal ruler Akbar even implemented a new calendar, still used today. The goal of this calendar was to improve the collect of the land taxes in Bengal. Like elsewhere under Mughal rule, the language used for justice and the administration was Persian.
The country was not able to produce its own ruling class any more. The ruling class was a construct made by the Mughal, and composed of Muslim aristocrats, speaking urdu like in nothern India, and separated culturally from the others Muslim.
End of the Mughal era: the Nawabs
When the Mughal empire declined, the situation did not change. Bengal began to be ruled by a dynasty of governor, and the Bengali subahdar was henceforth known as the Nawab of Bengal (the word giving the french word “Nabab”).
It means that the feudal model of the Mughal empire was imported to Bengal, and even modernized.
Murshid Quli Khan, first Nawab (from 1717 to 1727), abolished the system of jagirdar, land that was given for life to someone that was considered as meritorious for his military service (with its death the land coming back, theoretically, in the hands of the monarch).
Instead of the system of the jagirdar, that was adapted to the military state of the Mughals, Murshid Quli Khan installed the mal zamini system. In this system, land was rented to ijaradar - revenue farmer.
It was more adapted to an economy were an autocrat needed wealth to be locally produced, in the same way as the French declining monarchy with the “fermiers généraux”. As the revenue farmer paid the Government nine-tenth of the production, he was very engaged to make a better production.
But Murshid Quli Khan faced the fact that in doing this, he could not base this system on Muslim ijaradar, because he needed to go against the Mughal culture, and anyway he did not receive any more cadres from the Mughal empire to put as revenue farmer.
Murshid Quli Khan organized therefore his ijaradar system this way: he divided the province into 13 administrative divisions called chaklahs, the largest revenue farmers were put as chaklahdars, and he chose mainly Hindus. From the 20 biggest revenue farmers chosen by Murshid Quli Khan, 19 were Hindus.
The British colonization: first period
In an interesting manner, the British empire that colonized Bengal continued in the “same way”. The Permanent Settlement act of 1793 made hereditary the positions of the revenue farmers.
Therefore, Murshid Quli Khan's revenue farmers system must be considered as a parasitic system, of a feudal type. Karl Marx, in The British Rule in India (1853), described it as “European despotism, planted upon Asiatic despotism”:
“There cannot, however, remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before.
I do not allude to European despotism, planted upon Asiatic despotism, by the British East India Company, forming a more monstrous combination than any of the divine monsters startling us in the Temple of Salsette [Island of Salsette in the north of Bombay and famous for its 109 Buddhist cave temples]. This is no distinctive feature of British Colonial rule, but only an imitation of the Dutch (…).
All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.”
Karl Marx saw perfectly this question of melancholy, so present in the oppressed countries, a melancholy giving birth to numeros romantic fundamentalism.
Anyway, from the British side, this followed also clearly the traditional imperialist logic of “divide and conquer”. From the merchants working with the East India Company in the 1736-1740 periods, all of 52 Bengali were Hindus in Calcutta, 10 from the 12 in Dacca, all from the 25 in Kashimbazar.
Then, the British empire defeated the Nawab at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, creating the Bengal Presidency and ruling finally directly Bengal and India.
The British colonization: second period
The submission of Bengal by British imperialism brought a new situation, in the sense where to the post-Mughal feudalism must be added British colonialism.
This was not understood because of the lack of dialectical materialist analysis. Imperialism was understood as the one and only responsible of the situation. This was helped of course with the fact that British imperialism used Hindus as revenue farmers.
Because of this, class struggle developed on a religious basis: as the big land owners were Hindus in Bengal, and as the British imperialism was working with them, then logically Islam had to be taken as a revolutionary flag.
It was also caused by the fact that the former rulers – the ones before the (Mughal) semi-independent and independent and again (British) semi-independent Nawabs, i.e. the aristocrats formed bu the Mughals – seemed like a romantic ideal.
A very important expression of this romantic conception until today in Bangladesh is the very high appreciation of the Taj Mahal, that can be found in numerous drawings, especially on the rickshaws.
Because of this, ideologically “pure” Islam – the one of the Mughal, that looked “anti-imperialist” - was taken as a weapon.
This happened with the Faraizi movement, founded by Haji Shariatullah (1781–1840). He went to Arabia and used the version of Islam there – Wahabism – as a fundamentalist weapon in Bengal, promoting an Islam “purified” from the Hinduistic influence, i.e. from the British presence.
“Fairaz” designates the obligation due to God; of course, Bengali Islam was very far away from the Arabian Islam, with all his magical thinking and its open-mindedness to the Hindu goddesses.
But this movement of “purification” was perceived as a romantic way to, at least, affirm the nation of Bengal.
Nevertheless, this was romantic, and understanding in a non dialectical way Hinduism as a mere ally of imperialism. So, this process of “purification” of Islam, even if not generalized - killed for good the possibility of a union of Bengal under the bourgeois flag. Bengal could have been unified only if its cultural national element could be taken as a common denominator.
Fundamentalism killed this possibility. Wanting to fight against imperialism, the peasant masses rejected Hinduism as much as they could, not seeing that the problem was the agrarian question.
Haji Shariatullah did put forward a anti-national cosmopolit struggle – but it looked revolutionary, because it sounded anti-imperialist (and so anti-feudal).
Nonetheless, for this reason, the Fairazi movement was taken by the masses as anti-imperialist (and so anti-feudal); a state in the state was created in Bengal, forming a huge opposition to the British empire.
The masses did not see that the problem was the agrarian question, but they felt that upholding the Fairazi movement – not so much in the religious purification as socially – was in their interest.
In this sense, the Fairazi movement was a anti-feudal movement, but led by intellectual circles and not a bourgeoisie that was terribly weak because of the Mughal and the post-Mughal type of economy.
Because of this, the Fairazi movement turned into a utopian peasant movement and came to even put forward the doctrine of the proprietorship of land as due to the labour.
Logically, the same process happened with Hinduism, naturally with a center of gravity in West Bengal. Bourgeois elements tried to build a new ideology, a Hinduism able to mobilize the masses, putting aside the caste systems and the religious hierarchy.
So came to birth the Brahmo Samaj, founded by the Brahmin and bourgeois Dwarkanath Tagore (1794 - 1846) and the Brahmin and intellectual Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772 – 1833).
But more than the Fairazi movement, it failed to mobilize the masses in a revolutionary way – both were carried by intellectual circles trying to find an universal exit of the situation in Bengal then, but at least the movement in East Bengal did manage to have a strong popular identity.
So, both were progressive in the sense that they were criticizing and rejecting feudalism, both took an universal stance, but both looked in a idealized past to find the nucleus of the ideology that should have been found in the present.
Both were petty-bourgeois, romantic movement. Their failure was inevitable because thie bourgeoisie was weak, coming too late in history, and could not brake the advance of imperialism.
But there was a difference: in West Bengal, the process was organized around petty bourgeois and grand bourgeois circles, what is called until today the “Bhadralok” i.e. the “better people”.
The “bhadr alok” were culturally westernized, but ideologically wanting a bourgeois society and so rejecting Western culture (exactly like the founder of Pakistan did not speak urdu and was one the “best” dressed man in the world i.e. in the english style).
In Eastern Bengal, the movement managed, on the contrary, to deeply influence the masses, failing on the other side to mobilize them in a revolutionary way.
The British colonization: third period
After the Brahmo Samaj and the Fairazi movement, there was no forces to unite Bengal any more; the bourgeoisie came too late, and the petty bourgeois elements were weak and ideologically divided in the two parts of Bengal.
On the contrary, the forces to split Bengal were strong. The British empire played a significant role in splitting Bengal for administrative reasons in 1905. It did not succeed in it – Bengal was unified again, in 1919.
But it pushes the contradiction between West and East Bengal. The Hindus, that won points with colonialism and then thought they would profit from an independent India as it would be mainly Hindu, carried a struggle against the 1905 partition.
The petty bourgeois forces in Bangladesh, fearing the hegemony of the Hindu part, accepted for their part this partition, because they thought it would permit the strengthening of the Bengali nation.
This process, once engaged, was not to stop any more: in 1919, the British divided the Bengali people with separate elections for Hindus and Muslims. Again, the petty-bourgeois forces in East Bengal thought it was favorable for their affirmation.
British colonialism went very far in this policy, even using famine. The 1770 famine killed approximatively the third of the population (so, around 10 million people); there was afterwards famines in 1783, 1866, 1873-74, 1892, 1897. British colonialism preferred to block the supplies, that were to serve its profit, even if it meant the starvation of millions of people.
When the Japanese conquered Burma, British colonialism continued this politic in a extreme way, giving death to nearly 5 millions of people of Bengal in 1943-1944. Famine was not even officially declared. Satyajit Ray made a famous movie about this event, Distant Thunder.
The situation was therefore unacceptable and it was necessary to make a leap, at any price. This drove to the Bengal split, in West Bengal and East Pakistan.