The 2021 struggle for power is shaped by history, geography, demography—and a miracle by the mahatma, argues MJ Akbar
MJ Akbar | 12 Mar, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
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.
While Punjab witnessed a total exchange of populations, Muslims of West Bengal living alongside the border of what is today Bangladesh remained in their own land. Seven decades later, the largest density of West Bengali Muslims is in these districts
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.
What the British did not say was that the destitution of the landless peasants could be directly attributed to the Permanent Settlement of 1793; instead, they suggested that Muslims had lost out because they had lost power
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.
Partition done, the pre-eminent Muslim acolyte of the British in Bengal, Nawab Khwaja Salimullah in Dhaka, founded the All-India Muslim League on December 30th, 1906
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.
The 1905 partition provoked violent protests and a boycott of British goods. Wiser men in government realised soon enough that such fallacy would not hold. In 1911, the partition was rescinded. But it left a scar, and the scar bled easily
Fuller stoked the fire with colonial tongs; he promised Bengali Muslims a revival of the Mughal era. When Fuller resigned in 1906, pro-partition Muslim organisations held mass meetings in his support, while the Times of India described it as one of the gravest blunders in the history of British rule. (Fuller later became famous as the inventor of an alarm against gas attacks during World War I.)
Partition done, the pre-eminent Muslim acolyte of the British in Bengal, Nawab Khwaja Salimullah in Dhaka, founded the All-India Muslim League on December 30th, 1906. The third step was a carefully orchestrated stride, propped by pre-arranged petitions and demands. The Indian Councils Act of 1909 (also called the Morley-Minto Reforms) established separate electorates in a limited franchise system where only the top 10-11 per cent had the vote. By this law, based on the pernicious assumption that neither Hindu nor Muslim could be entrusted with the other’s welfare, only Muslims could vote for Muslim candidates in specified constituencies. Politics became firmly entrenched in religious grooves.
The 1905 partition, depicted in an iconic image of the severed body of Mother Bengal, provoked violent protests and a boycott of British goods which some Raj officials airily attributed to Bengali ‘Hindu superstition’. Wiser men in government realised soon enough that such fallacy would not hold. In 1911, the partition was rescinded. But it left a scar, and the scar bled easily.
For more than three decades the scar festered in Bengal, sometimes dormant, sometimes active. Any hope of unity vanished with the violence of riots that contaminated Calcutta and Bengal after the Muslim League formed a government in 1946
For more than three decades the scar festered in Bengal, sometimes dormant, sometimes active, with the Muslim League as champion of separatism. In the 1946 provincial elections, the last held under British rule, the Muslim League won 113 out of 119 Muslim seats in Bengal, and Congress swept up 86 ‘general’, or Hindu-vote, seats. Any hope of unity vanished with the violence of riots that contaminated Calcutta and Bengal after the Muslim League formed a government in 1946.
The Great Divide had become visceral.
1947 WAS AN epic year in the world’s history; the age of colonialism, which had begun in India, began its retreat on August 15th with India’s freedom. But the true miracle of 1947 was the heroic conviction and the moral power of one man, a true Mahatma, who prevented the horrific blood-letting that hovered on the horizon as another partition ran its scalpel over the heart of Bengal.
The bloodshed that consumed the final year of British rule started in Calcutta on Friday, August 16th, 1946 with the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ instigated by the Muslim League government then in office. The flames travelled furiously, and far. They ravaged Noakhali in the east, and sped to Bihar to the north. When the army and police brought largescale violence under some control, sporadic killing continued. Calcutta became a city of the dead.
When the partition of India was announced in June 1947, a heavy pall fell over Bengal. Calcutta divided into war zones. Rumour wrought as much dread as death. Mahatma Gandhi decided that his place on August 15th, 1947 was not in celebratory Delhi but in nerve-wracked Calcutta. If he could ensure peace in Bengal, exploding with horror stories, he would have prevented slaughter and refugee caravans on an unprecedented scale.
The Mahatma took his place in the middle of the maelstrom that had erupted, turning an abandoned house in the midst of a crowded bustee into a temporary home. He asked for calm, and there was no response. When every appeal to sense failed, Mahatma Gandhi had only one thing left to offer: his own life. He went on a fast till death, with the promise that he would break that fast only when there was complete peace. Bengal broke down, but this time in tears. The killing stopped. A British-owned newspaper, the Statesman, described this as a miracle.
The last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, wrote to the Mahatma saying that he had a force of 55,000 in Punjab which could not prevent massacres. All Bengal had was one man, and there was peace.
Gandhi’s moral triumph had a significant consequence on Bengal’s demographics, and thereby on the future electoral map of the state. While Punjab, the other province to be partitioned, witnessed a total exchange of populations, Muslims of West Bengal living alongside the border of what is today Bangladesh remained in their own land. Seven decades later, the largest density of West Bengali Muslims is in these districts.
There is now an East Bengal in West Bengal.
THERE ARE OVER 100 seats in Bengal’s 294-member Assembly where the Muslim population can become the determinant of who wins; and their percentage rises sharply in the eastern districts from North 24 Parganas to Dinajpur. Here are a few representative examples. In Nadia’s Kaliganj Assembly seat, Muslims constitute 58.51 per cent of the population; in Nabashipar 53.06 per cent; in Chapra, 59.72 per cent; in Tehata 29.21 per cent; in Karimpur 31.95 per cent; and in Haringhata 28.19 per cent. Malda’s figures are similar: 69.48 per cent in Chanchal; 72.61 per cent in Harishchandrapur; 71.89 per cent in Malatipur; 49.53 per cent in English Bazar; 47.70 per cent in Baishnabnagar. Even in Gazole, a constituency where the pattern shifts, Muslims are 23.6 per cent.
Murshidabad’s constituencies reflect this pattern: Bhagabangola has 85.67 per cent Muslims; Domkal 89.69 per cent; Farakka 67.15 per cent; Hariharpara 80.70 per cent; Jalangi 73.27 per cent; Jangipara 61.78 per cent; Raghunathganj 81.97 per cent; Ramnagar 81.69 per cent; Sagardighi 64.68 per cent; Samserganj 83.48 per cent; Suti 58.15 per cent. In North Dinajpur, Chopra has 64 per cent; Goalpokhar 77.26 per cent, Islampur 72.13 per cent. Karandighi and Hemtabad have 50.14 per cent and 53.71 per cent, while the ratio drops in Kaliaganj to 20.55 per cent.
Mahatma Gandhi decided that his place on August 15th, 1947 was not in celebratory Delhi but in nerve-wracked Calcutta. His moral triumph had a significant consequence on Bengal’s demographics, and thereby on the future electoral map of the state
The Muslim presence remains formidable in North 24 Parganas on the southern border: 58.48 per cent in Amdanga, 65.48 per cent in Baduria, 65.58 per cent in Basirhat Uttar, 70.92 per cent in Deganga, 61.12 per cent in Haroa, 47.58 per cent in Swarupnagar, 51.60 per cent in Minakhan, before coming down to 30.42 per cent in Sandeshkhali, 25.81 per cent in Habra, 26.89 per cent in Kamarhati, and 11 per cent in Hingalganj as the landscape moves out of the frontier hinterland.
In past elections these figures did not matter too much, for the Muslim vote followed the general electoral flow, whether it was to re-elect a government or defeat it. When change came in 1967 and 2011, it came because both Hindus and Muslims changed their mind. Voters united to unhinge Congress in 1967; since then, the party has been in decline, barring the pyrrhic victory of 1972 which came in the glow of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. By 1977, Congress had cracked, and is now being pushed into single-digit space. After 2014, it has slipped in its last bastions.
Two examples illustrate the point. Congress got 65,559 votes in the Islampur Assembly constituency in 2016; in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, this crashed to only 6,439 votes. In contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got 18,668 votes in 2016 and 56,531 in 2019. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) held its vote share. Congress won the Kaliaganj seat with 112,868 votes in 2016, and plunged to 18,561 in 2019; the BJP vote catapulted from 27,252 to 118,895.
A vote transfer is leaving the Left in the lurch as well. In Hemtabad the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) slumped from 80,419 votes in 2016 to 19,248 in 2019. Basirhat Uttar was won by CPM in 2016 with 97,828 votes; support collapsed in 2019 to 30,408. In Amdanga, CPM got 73,228 votes in 2016 and only 25,352 in 2019. In Palashipara, the CPM vote dropped from 76,568 in 2016 to 20,605 in 2019, while the BJP share rose from 14,028 to 59,135 and TMC went up from 82,127 to 95,195. In Nadia’s Krishnaganj, the Marxists collapsed from 70,698 to 10,131, while BJP shot up from 17,741 to 121,236.
There is a growing and perceptible consolidation of votes around TMC and BJP making the elections of 2021 a straight two-party race. The alliance between Congress and the Left could well turn out to be a vacuous arrangement. Nothing plus nothing can only equal nothing.
There were good reasons why the Left seemed impregnable for three-and-a-half decades. The most important was the goodwill it earned among the peasantry when it first came to power as part of a United Front and then Left Front, and ensured that the landless of the Permanent Settlement got the land they were cultivating as sharecroppers. They did this forcefully, for peasants of all communities. But the Marxist phase also underscores an exhilarating aspect of the Bengali cultural mindset.
It did not bother the Bengali Hindu or Muslim what the avowed faith of its ruling party was, as long as the people were left free to celebrate Durga Puja and Eid. Bengal enjoys the annual 10-day Puja festival with passionate joie de vivre, as a philosophy of life. The Marxists were self-avowed atheists. For a brief while they flirted with ideological consistency and turned their back on religion, famously described as the opium of the masses.
Very soon they realised that this was political suicide. The pre-Marxist arrangement was restored. A party apparatchik was given the responsibility of organising funds for Puja pandals, and normalcy returned.
Shibboleths were honoured. Oxbridge-educated Marxists like iconic Chief Minister Jyoti Basu took care to dress in a Bengali dhoti. Their peasant leaders like Harekrishna Konar had of course slept on a rural charpoy with the ease that patricians find only on a four-poster with fluffy bed linen. The Marxists knew all about economic disenchantment from their textbooks; they learnt about cultural consonance from experience. The last Marxist chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, catered to the urban bhadralok by spreading word about his love for art cinema and the government nursed the affections of the finest Bengali writers, like Sunil Gangopadhyay.
CPM would not have been obliterated in 2011 without an electoral grassroots alliance across identity differences. If anything, Muslim antagonism towards the Marxists was sharper, for Chief Minister Bhattacharjee had proposed a ban on the use of loudspeakers between 10PM and 6AM, which enraged the mosques and madrassas: they felt it was a sly attempt to stop the morning azaan. The government withdrew the suggestion, but once suspicion rises it can be hard to quell.
Perhaps the only section of Bengal’s electorate which lives a bit askance of its linguistic culture is the ‘Bihari’ who speaks Bhojpuri or Hindi or Urdu. This community, yet another byproduct of British rule, arrived from the middle of the 19th century as labour for British plantations from Fiji to Mauritius to Latin America. One part of the flow stopped on the shores of the Hooghly, to work in the new jute mills and iron factories that the British were creating in their Indian Manchesters. This vote has some impact in Calcutta and its long river-shore suburbs to the north and south of the city, but it cannot by itself affect decisively the final tally which will emerge after the results of the present Assembly elections are counted.
Our democracy has gone through more than one transition; there was an age of status quo, and then of doubt. Election results may still occasionally suffer from the warp and woof of local variations, but the results are generally decisive.
Once again, in the 2021 election, Bengal is at a turning point. It will be fascinating to watch on May 2nd, when results are announced, what the churn, driven by past angst, present judgement and future expectations, throws up this time.