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Assembly elections 2021: An East Bengal In West Bengal

The West Bengal elections will be a game changer (Illustration by Saurabh Singh/Open magazine)

The 2021 struggle for power is shaped by history, geography, demography—and a miracle by the mahatma, argues MJ Akbar in this article for Open magazine

THREE DECISIONS MADE by the British Raj, and one miracle by a Mahatma immediately after freedom in August 1947, have shaped the contemporary political map and mind of Bengal.

The seminal decisions were the Permanent Settlement secured by Lord Cornwallis, successor to Warren Hastings as Governor General, in 1793; the first Census of India in 1871; and Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905. Together, they spawned a turbulent concoction of ideas, fears, claims and aspirations that made geography vulnerable to demography and affected, with disruptive force, the existing ethos of a unique land. A history of political infections is ancestor to the electoral shifts of 2021.

The Permanent Settlement, which partially mirrored Europe’s serfdom, altered the hierarchies of power and impoverished the landless cultivator by the terms of revenue collection through a new class of Zemindars. ‘Zemindar’ is Persian for landlord; zemin means land.

The Settlement was essentially an agreement between the East India Company and its selected nominees, many of them former agents (ghomosta) or trading associates, who bought land at low prices and received the ownership title from the British in return for a fixed annual tax. The Zemindars, in turn, allotted small plots, known as pattas, to peasants, who cultivated it on an exploitative rent model. The peasant had no rights over the land, and could be ejected at will, leaving him at the mercy of the landlord. This two-tier rentier system had no flexibility to accommodate pressures such as drought or resultant famine, when the peasant, living hand-to-mouth, was often literally starved to death.

Under the Mughals, all land was owned by the crown. The Permanent Settlement gave the Zemindar hereditary rights, but this much-vaunted concession was a qualified asset. If any landlord was unable to pay the tax, set at a ratio of 89 per cent for the government and 11 per cent for the Zemindar, before sunset on the allotted day, either the whole or part of the land was auctioned off. The British took their money; landlords lapped up the surplus, and the peasant lived in permanent impoverishment as a consequence of this permanent settlement. This has often been described as the lowest point for the peasantry.

In theory, landlords were expected to invest in their extensive properties and improve general prosperity. In practice, many of them became absentee landlords whose land was controlled by managers while they lived in their Calcutta mansions, or invested their enhanced capital in lucrative commerce. Many of them belonged to families which had traded with the East India Company before it became a political power, and continued to invest in the goodwill of the authorities.

The English preference for allies within the Hindu elite in the first phase of their rule was perfectly comprehensible reason. Having defeated the Nawabs to wrest Bengal, the British were wary of the now displaced and sullen Muslim aristocracy. Hindu bankers and traders who had kept Company commerce humming were the logical beneficiaries of this distrust.

The number of Muslim Zemindars in Bengal was minuscule; and had to prove its loyalty to the British before it could claim any favours. The largest Muslim Zemindari was given to the Khwaja family in 1812, when they were allowed to purchase around 44,000 acres for a pittance. But they were not Bengalis. They were Urdu-speaking traders of gold dust and skin from Kashmir, who had settled in Sylhet around the 1750s, and moved to Dhaka for better prospects only after the British conquered Bengal. Their title of Nawab came in 1875, after many decades of service to the English cause.

The Company mandarins also felt that they needed some justification for the conquest of Bengal to win some popular sympathy. Fake history was an effective mechanism, which they would repeat with the Peshwa, the Rani of Jhansi and the Nawab of Awadh in the 1850s. They introduced the theory that British rule represented a new dawn, because it had liberated Bengal from the dark age of medieval, backward, ruthless and barbaric Muslim rule. The idea seeped into the consciousness of the 19th century, and found an indelible space in its literature.

It would be egregious to suggest that any feudal structure rested on equality. But, exceptions apart, the pre-British Nawabs tried to ease any resentment among Hindu elites with accommodation in the administrative structure, and assuage mass sentiment with absorption into a common culture driven by the Bengali language and local customs.

But such was the persistence of the British narrative that their rule had swept away tyranny and ushered a new age of enlightenment that it became a familiar trope among the Bengali intelligentsia of the 19th century. Even a radical poet and teacher like the very young but astonishingly influential Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, whose students at Hindu College (now Presidency University) constituted the nucleus of the ‘Young Bengal’ movement, bought into this insidious colonial twist.

Derozio was born in Calcutta in 1809; his father Francis was Portuguese and his mother Sophia Johnson an Englishwoman from Hampshire, but he identified himself as an Indian. His poetry and academic brilliance were quickly recognised. In 1826, at the age of just 17, he was appointed a teacher in English literature at Hindu College; a year later he had set up an Academic Association on the campus which reflected the rising ferment in the intellectual air. For all his liberalism, Derozio, in ‘The Enchantress of the Cave’, could hardly be more explicit in his endorsement of the new history being promoted by foreign rule:

The Moslem brings his turban’d band,
To win the peaceful, golden land,
The crescent on his banner shines,
The watchword’s “Alla” in his lines,
And on his blade the Koran verse
Bespeaks for every foe a curse.
The Hindoo courts the bloody broil,
To fight or fall for his parent soil,
And he must go forth in the battle to bleed
For all that is dear—country, kindred, and creed;
But evil betide him and fair Hindoostan
If ever he yield to the proud Mussulman!

By extension, Muslim rule also was diagnosed as an interruption to the golden age of India, whose revival became the objective of the intelligentsia. The Rozarians themselves soon became nothing more than a quirky memory, because while they extolled the virtues of forbidden meat in their war against ‘superstition’, and gatecrashed into the certainties of a rigid tradition, they forgot to provide an Indian construct to fill the vacuum they had created. In a paradox hardly unknown to history, their option was imitation rather than an indigenous framework. Their movement, sabotaged by excess, petered out, but the impact lingered and moulded, in tune with the natural inclinations of the urbane Bengali, into a cosmopolitan culture that thrives in Calcutta and what used to be called mofussil towns but now should be known as university cities.

The British scheme of partisan empowerment, in cyclical spells, succeeded in establishing a sense of alienation between Hindus and Muslims even as it encouraged sharp competition on the basis of religion.

By the 1820s the British policy of an unfathomable Great Divide had got off to a sprinting start.


THE RESULTS OF the 1871 Census should have been boring. Instead, they were startling. Till then, no one knew what the precise Hindu and Muslim populations of Bengal were, and power was measured in terms of Nawabs and Maharajas, not along the dimensions of majority and minority. The first census of British Bengal revealed that Muslims were in a majority; their numerical advantage was overwhelming in the eastern districts; and that most of them were peasants under Hindu Zemindars.

It was an economic problem which demanded an economic answer. Instead, the British used these revelations to inject the spark of religion into the brushwood of nascent politics. They recognised the implications, and with colonial speed institutionalised schism, diverting Bengal’s sentiments away from nationalism towards identity assertion. It was a masterclass of tactical seesaw manipulation which could not, in the long run, prevent India’s independence, but certainly ensured India’s partition in 1947. If Bengal had refused to join Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s partition project, the division of India would never have taken place.

The Census of British India and its Feudatory States in 1871-1872 found that Hindus and Sikhs added up to 140.5 million, or 73.5 per cent of the population; Muslims were 21.5 per cent, or 40.75 million. The other roughly 20 million were Tribals, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Jews, Parsis or Brahmos (the sect founded by Raja Rammohun Roy in Bengal, which believed in monotheism).

Bengal was, however, sharply divergent: Hindus were only 64.5 per cent of the population and Muslims over 30 per cent. Moreover, the latter had a double weight; they had a two-third majority in the east of Bengal. These Muslims were also converts from what were called the ‘lower castes’, which added another edge to their sense of social and economic deprivation.

The population of the 43 districts of British Bengal (which then included much of Orissa and a section of Bihar) was measured at 60,467,724. Only London had more than Calcutta’s 795,000 citizens. What interested the authorities was the religious mix in districts like Furreedpoor, Dacca, Rungpoor, Pubna, Rajshahye, Tipperah, Burdwan, Jessore, Nuddea, Moorshedabad, Midnapoor (to use British spellings); Hooghly (with Howrah); and 24 Parganas, a district extending from Calcutta to the Bay of Bengal. The Memorandum on the Census of British India 1871-72, presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (Queen Victoria) emphasised, without hesitation, the ‘remarkable’ nature of these statistics.

‘It is remarkable that, of the 20.5 millions of Mussulmans in Bengal and Assam (forming the larger moiety of the Mahomedan population of British India), 17.5 millions are found in Eastern Bengal and the adjoining Districts of Sylhet and Cachar, where they amount to 49 per cent of the total population; and in two districts, those of Bogra and Rajshahye, to about 80 per cent. In that part of the country they comprise the bulk of the cultivating and labouring class, while in Chittagong and Noscully [Noakhali], they follow a seafaring life; and it seems probable that their preponderance is due to the conversion of the lower orders from the old Hindoo religion under which they held position of out-castes,’ says the report placed in the British Parliament. In Bihar by comparison, ‘the comparatively few Mahomedans, some 13 per cent, belong to the upper classes as a rule’. Orissa was overwhelmingly Hindu. The politics of Bihar and Orissa, consequently, evolved on a different trajectory.

The key to British intentions in Bengal lay in the phrase, the ‘bulk of the cultivating and labouring classes’. What they did not add was that the destitution of these landless peasants and agricultural labour could be directly attributed to the Permanent Settlement; instead, they suggested that Muslims had lost out because they had lost power. It was a transparent attempt to convert peasant disaffection against Hindu landlords into a political weapon that would serve a foreign master’s interests. The 1871 Census fed directly into the most pernicious instincts of divisive colonial rule.

The British took three interconnected steps between 1905 and 1909 to create a template for a Muslim minority phobia and embed dual communalism into the pseudo-democracy of British India.

In July 1905 they formed a new ‘Eastern Bengal’ province, with a two-third Muslim majority. This simultaneously created a ‘West Bengal’ with a Hindu majority. Population was equated with power. This explosive brew of colonial numerology and economic frustration was supervised by the fractious and forbidding imperialist, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy from 1899 to 1905.

On October 16th, 1905, Dhaka became capital of Eastern Bengal, with an arch imperialist, Sir Joseph Bampfylde Fuller, ICS, as Lieutenant Governor. Hindus, enraged at the mutilation of united Bengal, refused to accord the usual address of welcome. Many Muslim opinion leaders also felt that this was a ruse rather than a remedy, but there were vehement voices who argued that British power would guarantee the physical and economic security of Bengali Muslims.

The Great Divide deepened.


(This is Part-I of the article with permission from the Open magazine)

(MJ Akbar is an MP and the author of, most recently, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam)