Divergent Paths: Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims During British Rule

The disparate trajectories of development experienced by Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims under the British Raj can be traced in much of the region’s modern challenges

During the last few centuries the Muslim world has experienced a decline. This has been largely due to internal stagnation and the rise of the European powers. The growth of European powers from the 15th Century enabled it to eventually overwhelm the rest of the world and physically occupy most countries. The consequence was the fall of non-European powers and empires, and the genocide and extermination of many tribes and nations, such as the Native American and the Aboriginals of Australia. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Belgians, Italians and Russians all established their own empires.

The British destroyed Muslim power in Bengal in 1757 and established their own rule. Many of their policies and changes can be traced to much of the region’s current predicaments. To understand the complex dynamics of this it is necessary to understand that although wherever Muslim powers established their rule many local people did become Muslims, there were others who did not accept Islam. Many such non-Muslims felt humiliated and dominated, seeing their world changing to their disadvantage. For example, many of the Hindus in Mughal India could not have felt comfortable about their situation under the Muslims and must have longed for a day when they would become the masters of their own destiny again.

Furthermore, whenever a Muslim power was destroyed opportunities were opened up for local non-Muslims to rise. The destruction of Muslim power in Bengal by the British in 1757, opened up opportunities for the Hindus to rise and develop their relatively backward community of that time. In contrast, Muslims in Bengal faced decline. During the course of the next one and half century the Hindu community prospered and rose and a Muslim community became poorer and declined.

The Hindus

The Hindus derived great benefits from their close cooperation with the British. When the British introduced the Permanent Settlement in 1793 as a land reform system for perpetuity, many of the Hindus that cooperated with them acquired permanent ownership rights to most of the land.

Next schools, colleges and institutions of western knowledge and English were set up, including the famous Hindu College opened in 1817 to provide useful western education to Hindu boys. In RBM Beaumer’s Aspects of Bengali History and Society it is observed, “The reason for the establishment of Hindu College in 1817 exemplifies the attitudes of many of the Bengali elite toward Western education…They valued highly competence in the English language and training in European fields of study…Hindu College was the Calcutta elite’s expression of a practical need to provide the sons of that group with an advantageous European education.” Individuals such as Raja Ram Mohan Rai, who with Scottish philanthropist David Hare was instrumental in setting up the college, considered English education and western knowledge as essential for bringing progress to the contemporary degenerated Hindu society.

The process through which the Bengali Hindu society developed during the 19th Century was, however, not simple. Many Hindus cooperated with the British, engaged in business and government jobs, owned and managed landed estates, acquired western knowledge and learned English. They reflected on their regressive state and developed ideas to regenerate their society. The outcome of the activities was a remarkable creative outpouring, which resulted in the creation of a sophisticated culture and society. The 19th Century was a very dynamic, creative and productive period for the Bengali Hindus. Their output left their mark on the whole of Indian society and, in some cases, beyond like the works of Rabindranath Tagore.

Comparing the Bengali Hindu society in the late 18th Century to its transformation in the late 19th Century, one can see the astonishing magnitude of their progress. Over a single century a society which lacked self-confidence developed a highly expressive language and rich literature; undertook profound analysis of east-west civilizations; produced journals, dramas, plays and music; reflected on world history, human predicaments and the reason for Hindu degeneracy; generated social and political associations and organised Hindu festivals. They achieved the creation of a sophisticated, refined and synthesised urban culture based on British and Hindu traditions.

The Muslims

In contrast, the Muslims spent most of the first century fighting. When the Muslim power was destroyed in Bengal and British power established, Muslims organised rebellions and resistance. Led by both peasants and the wealthy, these movements lasted until the end of the 18th Century and by the beginning of the 19th Century had virtually died down.

Then, from early 1800 to about 1825, Bengal was relatively calm. British power was consolidated. Some upper class Muslims accepted British rule and were trying to make the most of the limited opportunities in urban areas like Calcutta. This was especially in government services and legal processes as Persian, the official language of the preceding Mughal Empire, was still the official language. There is evidence that some Muslims in Calcutta saw the practical advantage of learning English and made attempts to improve their English, including setting up unstructured private classes.

Muslims were also involved in trying to develop the Calcutta madrassa by incorporating both Islamic studies and western science. However, as the British controlled the madrassa by management and finance, it was not possible to incorporate Islamic learning. The British were only interested in allowing Arabic and Persian literatures, not the learning of Islam. This alienated a section of the Muslims from attempting to acquire western education as they were interested in combining Islamic education with western learning. This had far reaching consequences for Muslim educational development subsequently.

From about 1825-1870, Bengali Muslim society, particularly rural communities, experienced turmoil that consisted of a series of pan-Islamic reform movements. The first was the movement by Titu Mir (Mir Nisar Ali) in Narkelbaria in West Bengal, who wanted to reform the Muslim society from superstitions, un-Islamic customs and unacceptable innovations. He shook a section of rural west Bengal around Narkelbaria, by standing up against a number of zamindars (land owners) and European indigo planters. Ultimately, after a series of impressive victories by Titu Mir, the British sent in their heavy guns, killing Titu Mir and about fifty of his followers.

Next was the rural reform movement, initially led by Haji Shariat Ullah and then by his son Dudu Myan, known as the Faraidis, which had far greater effects. Lastly, for about fifty years, from early 1820s to late 1860s, Bengali Muslims were involved with the Jehad Movement led by Syed Ahmed Shahid of Rai Bereily. They sent men and money to the Northwest Frontier to fight jihad against the Sikhs and the British. These movement lasted until the end of 1860s, which were destroyed by internal dissension, British political and military campaigns and trials of their leaders.

After the defeat of the Faraidis and the Jehadists by the British, the Muslims concluded that the British were too powerful to be defeated by fighting. They decided to concentrate on peaceful means to improve the conditions of Bengali Muslims. The rural poor concentrated on Islamising the people and eradicating un-Islamic practices, while the urban upper classes concentrating on winning British favours and sympathies for educational and job opportunities, the recognition of Muslim disadvantage and protection from Hindu domination.

For the Bengal Muslims it was a simple question of community survival and progress under the new situation of British rule and the power and influence of the rising Hindu community. What happened over the next century were the complex interconnected struggles of the Muslims to retain their religion and identity and Hindus to maintain their advantage. This would transpire in the rise of the Indian National Congress, the development of the Muslim League, the creation of Pakistan, inter-Muslim conflicts based on class and ethnicity, culture clash between Bengali and Islam and, ultimately, the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

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