The roots

Bangladesh is a new state in an ancient land. It has been described by an American political scientist as "a country challenged by contradictions". On the face of it, the recent twists and turns of her history are often inconsistent. It is neither a distinct geographical entity, nor a well-defined historical unit. Nevertheless, it is the homeland of the ninth largest nation in the world whose groupings for a political identity were protracted, intense and agonizing. The key to these apparent contradictions lies in her history.

Proto-history and Pre-history

Geological evidence indicates that much of Bangladesh was formed 1 to 6.5 million years ago during the tertiary era. Human habitation in this region is, therefore, likely to be very old. The evidence of paleolithic civilization in Bangladesh region is limited to a stone implement in Rangamati and a hand axe in the hilly tip of Feni district. They are likely to be 10,000 to 15,000 years old. New stone age in the region lasted from 3,000 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. Neolithic tools comparable to Assam group were found at Sitakunda in Chittagong. Hand axes and chisels showing close affinity to neolithic industries in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa have been discovered at Mainamati near Comilla.

Political Dynamics in Ancient Bengal (326 B.C. to 1204 A.D.)

The earliest historical reference to organized political life in the Bangladesh region is usually traced to the writings on Alexander's invasion of India in 326 B.C. The Greek and Latin historians suggested that Alexander the Great withdrew from India anticipating the valiant counter attack of the mighty Gangaridai and Prasioi empires which were located in the Bengal region. It is not, however, clearly known who built these empires. Literary and epigraphic evidence refer to the rise and fall of a large number of principalities in the region which were variously known as Pundra Vardhana (northern Bangladesh), Gauda (parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh), Dandabhukti (southern West Bengal), Karna Subarna (part of West Bengal), Varendra (northern Bangladesh), Rarh (southern areas of West Bengal), Summha Desa (south-western West Bengal), Vanga (central Bangladesh), Vangala (southern Bangladesh), Harikela (North-East Bangladesh), Chandradwipa (Southern Bangladesh), Subarnabithi (central Bangladesh), Navyabakashika (central and southern Bangladesh), Lukhnauti (North Bengal and Bihar) and Samatata (Eastern Bangladesh)

There are two schools of opinion regarding the political evolution of ancient Bengal. According to one school, the Bangladesh region in the ancient period was an integral part of mighty empires in north India. These historians maintain Gangaridai and Prasioi empires were succeeded by the Mauryas (4th to 2nd century B.C.), the Guptas (4th-5th century A.D.), the empire of Sasanka (7th century A.D.), the Pala empire (750-1162 A.D.), and the Senas (1162-1223 A.D.). Specially, the Pala empire which lasted for more than four hundred years and reached its zenith in eighth and ninth centuries under the leadership of Dharmapala and Devapala is cited as an example of Bengal's political genius. The revisionist historians are of the opinion that the traditional interpretation overstates the role of all-India empires in the political life of the Bangladesh region. They maintain that epigraphic evidence suggests that only some of the areas which now constitute Bangladesh were occasionally incorporated in the larger empires of South Asia. In their view, political fragmentation and not empire was the historical destiny of Bangladesh region in the ancient times. Inscriptions attest to the existence of a succession of independent kingdoms in southern and eastern Bengal. These local kingdoms included the realms of Vainyagupta (6th century), the Faridpur kings (6th century), the Bhadra dynasty (circa 600-650 A D), Khadaga dynasty (circa 650-700 AD), Natha and Rata dynasty (750-800 A D ), the rulers of Harikela (circa 800-900), Chandra dynasty (circa 900-1045 A D), Varman dynasty (circa 1080-1150 A D), and Pattikera dynasty (circa 1000-1100 A D).

Evolution of Mediaeval Bengal (1204-l757)

The Middle age in Bengal coincided with the Muslim rule. Out of about 550 years of Muslim rule, Bengal was effectively ruled by Delhi-based all India empires for only about two hundred years. For about 350 years Bengal remained virtually independent. The Muslim rule in Bengal is usually divided into three phases. The first phase which lasted from 1204 to 1342 witnessed the consolidation of Muslim rule in Bengal. It was characterized by extreme political instability. The second phase which spanned the period 1342 to 1575 saw the emergence of independent local dynasties such as the Ilyas Shahi dynasty (1342-1414), the dynasty of King Ganesha (1414-1442) and Husain Shahi dynasty (l493-1539). The third phase which lasted from 1575 to 1757 witnessed the emergence of a centralized administration in Bengal within the framework of the Mughal empire. The Mughal viceroys in Bengal curbed the independence of powerful landlords who were known as Bara Bhuiyas and suppressed the Portuguese pirates who frequently interfered with the flow of foreign trade.

There were two major achievements of Muslim rule in the region. First, prior to Muslim rule in this area, Bengal was an ever-shifting mosaic of principalities. The natural limits of Bengal were not clearly perceived till its political unification by the Ilyas Shahi rulers in the fourteenth century. The political unification of Bengal was thus a gift of the Muslim rulers. Secondly, the political unity fashioned by the Muslim rulers also promoted linguistic homogeneity. Unlike their predecessors, the Muslim rulers were ardent patrons of Bengali language and literature. Prior to Muslim rule, the Bengali vernacular was despised for its impurities and vulgarities by Hindu elites who were the beneficiaries and champions of Sanskrit education. The spread of Islam challenged the spiritual leadership of upper caste Hindus. The intense competition between Islam and resurgent Hinduism in the form of Vaisnavism for capturing the imagination of unlettered masses resulted in an outpouring of their stirring messages in the vernacular.

The Muslim rule in Bengal also witnessed the gradual expansion of Islam in this region. Islam was propagated in the Bangladesh region by a large number of Muslim saints who were mostly active from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Among these missionaries Hazrat Shah Jalal, Rasti Shah, Khan Jahan Ali, Shaikh Sharafuddin Abu Tawamah, Shah Makhdoom Ruposh, Shaikh Baba Adam Shahid, Shah Sultan Mahisawar, Shaikh Alauddin Alaul Huq, Shah Ali Bagdadi, Bayezid Bostami, Hazrat Amanat Shah etc. deserve special mention. While similar Muslim missionary activities failed in other regions of South Asia, Islam ultimately succeeded in penetrating deeply into Bengal because the social environment of this region was congenial to the diffusion of a new religion. In much of South Asia, strong village communities were impenetrable barriers to the spread of alien faiths.

The Muslim rule in Bengal contributed to economic polarization and cultural dichotomy. Except the brief interludes of the northern Indian empires, pre-Muslim Bengal was ruled by local potentates. Most of the Muslim rulers either acted as agents of Delhi or tried to use Bengal as a stepping stone for attaining political authority in Delhi. Economic exploitation intensified during this period owing to transfer of resources to north India. The main victims of this exploitative system were locally converted Muslims and low caste Hindus. The sole aim of the Muslim rulers was to mobilize as much resources as possible. The size of the immigrant Muslim ruling elite was small. Furthermore, different factions of the ruling elite did not trust each other. Consequently, Muslim rule in Bengal became, in effect, a coalition of immigrant Muslims and upper caste Hindus

The gradual process of conversion to Islam in Bengal resulted in an intense interaction between Islam and Hinduism. At the folk level, however, there was less confrontation and more interaction between Hinduism and Islam. A syncretic tradition developed around the cult and pantheons of pirs . The actual practices of local Muslim converts were an anathema to both Hindu and Muslim religious leaders. The orthodox Hindus, despite their political reconciliation with Muslim rulers, despised the local Muslims as untouchables ( Mlechhas ). The Muslim religious leaders were equally scornful of the customs and practices of local converts. Hated by immigrant religious leaders for their ways of life and by the local aristocracy for their adherence to an alien faith, local converts faced a dichotomy of faith and habitat which found expression in an emotional conflict between religion and language. This dichotomy can be traced in Bengali literature as early as the fourteenth century. 'Those who are born in Bengal but hate Bengali language", asserted the seventeenth century poet Abdul Hakim "had doubtful parentage. Those who are not satisfied with their mother tongue should migrate to other lands".

British Rule in Bangladesh (1757-1947)

The greatest discontinuity in the history of Bengal region occurred on June 23, 1757 when the East India Company - a mercantile company of England became the virtual ruler of Bengal by defeating Nawab Siraj-ud Daulah through conspiracy. Territorial rule by a trading company resulted in the commercialization of power. The initial effects of the British rule were highly destructive. As the historian R.C. Dutt notes, "the people of Bengal had been used to tyranny, but had never lived under an oppression so far reaching in its effects, extending to every village market and every manufacturer's loom. They had been used to arbitrary acts from men in power, but had never suffered from a system which touched their trades, their occupations, their lives so closely. The springs of their industry were stopped, the sources of their wealth dried up". The plunder of Bengal directly contributed to the industrial revolution in England. The capital amassed in Bengal was invested in the nascent British industries. Lack of capital and fall of demand, on the other hand, resulted in deindustrialization in the Bangladesh region. The muslin industry virtually disappeared in the wake of the British rule.

The British rule in Bengal promoted simultaneously the forces of unity and division in the society. The city-based Hindu middle classes became the fiery champions of all-India based nationalism. At the same time, the British rule brought to surface the rivalry between the Hindus and Muslims which lay dormant during the five hundred years of Muslim rule. The class conflict between Muslim peasantry and Hindu intermediaries during the Muslim rule was diffused by the fact that these intermediaries themselves were agents of the Muslim rulers. Furthermore, the scope of exploitation was limited in the subsistence economy of pre-British Bengal.

The conflict between Muslim peasants and Hindu landlords was reinforced by the rivalry between Hindu and Muslim middle classes for the patronage of the imperial rulers. In the nineteenth century, both Hindu and Muslim middle classes expanded significantly. The Muslim middle class did not remain confined to traditional aristocracy which consisted primarily of immigrants from other Muslim countries. The British rule in Bengal contributed to the emergence of a vernacular elite from among locally converted Muslims in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was facilitated by a significant expansion of jute cultivation in the Bangladesh region. The increase in jute exports benefited the surplus farmers ( Jotedars ) in the lower Bengal where the Muslims were in a majority. The economic affluence of surplus farmers encouraged the expansion of secular education among local Muslims. For example, the number of Muslim students in Bengal increased by 74 percent between 1882-83 and 1912-13.

The communal politics of confrontation and violence which erupted during the partition of Bengal was interrupted by a brief honeymoon during the non-cooperation movement led by the Indian National Congress and the Khilafat movement of the Indian Muslims in the second decade of 20th century. Bengal witnessed in the twenties the emergence of the charismatic; leadership of Chitta Ranjan Das who had the foresight to appreciate the alienation of the Muslim middle classes. In 1923 Das signed a pact with Fazlul Huq, Suhrawardy and other Muslim leaders. This pact which is known as the Bengal Pact provided guarantees for due representation of Muslims in politics and administration. The spirit of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement evaporated with the death of C.R. Das in 1925. However, even if Das were alive he might not have succeeded in containing the communal backlash. The communal problem was not unique to Bengal, it became the main issue in all India politics. As the communal tension mounted in the 1930s, the Muslim ashraf in Bengal which had close ties with the Muslim leadership in other parts of the sub-continent pursued a policy of communal confrontation.

The Road to Pakistan

The Pakistan Resolution of 1940 at Lahore was the outcome of the political confrontation between Hindus and Muslims. The Lahore Resolution demanded that geographically contiguous units "be demarcated into regions which should be constituted with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary so that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority should be grouped to constitute "Independent States" in which the constitutional units be autonomous and sovereign". From the constitutional point of view, the Lahore Resolution asserted that South Asia consisted of many nations and not of two nations. It was, in effect, a blueprint for the balkanization of South Asia and not merely for its partition into two units.

The fervor for the Lahore Resolution sprang not merely from the disillusion of the Muslims with the Hindu leadership. It was also facilitated by the vagueness of the Resolution which promised everything to everybody. The vernacular Muslim elites in Bengal maintained that the Lahore Resolution was legally a charter for a Muslim dominated independent and sovereign Bengal. The immigrant Muslim ashraf in Bengal thought that the Lahore Resolution was a mandate for merging geographically dispersed Muslim majority areas into an Islamic state. Ultimately the demands of the vernacular Muslim elite for an independent Bengal was opposed by both the ashraf and the Hindu middle class. Ironically the formal decision for partition of Bengal was taken not by Muslim but by Hindu leaders who fought for an undivided Bengal four decades ago.

The partition of the South Asian sub-continent into two independent states in 1947 was a defeat for the British policy. It partially undid the Pax Britannica which was the greatest achievement of the Raj . Nevertheless, the partition forestalled the balkanization of the sub-continent which would have swept away the entire political structure which was so laboriously built by the British rulers. The eastern areas of Bengal were constituted into a province of Pakistan and her political boundaries were drawn up arbitrarily.

The Birth of Bangladesh and Resolution of the Identity Crisis

Pakistan, which emerged constitutionally as one country in 1947, was in fact "a double country", the two wings were not only separated from each other by more than one thousand miles, they were also culturally, economically and socially different. "The cure, at least as far as the East Bengalis were concerned, proved to be worse than the disease".

The relationship between the East and the West wings of Pakistan was the mirror image of the Hindu-Muslim relations in the undivided sub-continent. The creation of East Pakistan did not resolve the identity crisis of the majority people in the Bangladesh region. The political leadership in Pakistan was usurped by the ashraf and their fellow-travellers. The spread of secular education and monetization of the rural economy swelled the ranks of the vernacular elite who was intensely proud of the local cultural heritage. This compounded the dichotomy of language and religion. As a recent scholar rightly observes, "The Bengali love affair with their language involves a passionate ritual that produces emotional experiences seldom found in other parts of the world". The Language Movement during 1948-52 which demanded the designation of Bengali as the state language of Pakistan undermined the authority of the ashraf and reinforced the role of the vernacular elite. In British India, the Muslims of Bengal united under the banner of Islam to escape from the exploitation of Bengali Hindus who shared the same mother tongue. In the united Pakistan, the Bengalis of East Pakistan reasserted their cultural and linguistic identity to resist the exploitation of their co-religionists who spoke in a different language. Though history repeated itself in Pakistan, the lessons learnt from Hindu-Muslim confrontation were forgotten. Neither in undivided India nor in united Pakistan, the dominant economic classes agreed to sacrifice their short-term interests. Democratic verdicts were brushed aside and economic disparity between the two wings widened under the aegis of military dictatorships in Pakistan.

The disintegration of united Pakistan is not, therefore, in the least surprising. However, the way in which Bangladesh was born is unique to South Asia. Bangladesh was the product of a sanguinary revolution. The Pakistan army had to be defeated physically in 1971 to establish the new state. The birth of Bangladesh resolved the dichotomy between religion and habitat, and between extra-territorial and territorial loyalties by recognizing both the facts as a reality in the life of the new nation.

The above article is summarized from BANGLADESH TOWARDS 21ST CENTURY, published by the Ministry of Information, Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.


© Bangladesh Student Association @ TTU . Picture courtesy: Drik Picture Lab.