The self-fashioning of bhadralok Hindus in Bengal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their responses to colonial rule, is an area which is frequently traversed by researchers. Scholars such as Rafiuddin Ahmed, Sufia Ahmed, Jayanti Maitra, and Anisuzzaman have mainly concentrated on late nineteenth century Bengali Muslim society. Developments in the Bengali Muslim society throughout the nineteenth century have been covered by the late historian Amalendu De. The late historian, Chandi Prasad Sarkar, has dealt with the politicization of the Bengal Muslims during the first half of the twentieth century. Not much is known, however, about the impact of literary and cultural history on the identity formation of Bengali Muslims in the first half of the twentieth century. How did the Bengali intellectual traditions intersect with the idea of Pakistan in the years preceding the vivisection of India? What role did Bengali language and literature play in the political consciousness of the Bengal Muslims? In the light of these questions, the author endeav-ours to present a comprehensive analysis of Muslim political mobilization in late colonial Bengal. Bose argues that the notion of the separatist ‘Muslim’ state of Pakistan need not be exclusively studied in the context of developments in northern India. It would be useful to investigate how this notion emerged out of a sustained engagement with Bengali intellectual and literary traditions. Through an intensive analysis of the writings of Bengali Muslim politicians and intellectuals, the pursuit of folklore, literary modernism, and intellectual movements in both Dacca and Calcutta, this book aims at exploring the arena of the Bengali Muslim perspective.
A brief overview of Bengali literary history is followed by a discussion of language and literature as debated by the members of the BMSS or Bengali Muslim Sahitya Samaj, the first Calcutta-based literary society for Bengali Muslims, active from 1911 to 1918. The implications of being Bengali and Muslim have been handled in chapter two. The period which is known for various ideological commitments like Bengali regionalism, Islamic universalism, and modern European ideologies of social justice, such as Communism, also witnessed the emergence of the powerful Bengali poet Nazrul Islam. The author goes on to investigate the issues relating to Islam, Muslim identity, and Bengali language and culture in the other major urban location of Bengal—Dacca, home to iconic Muslim aristocratic families. The role of the Muslim Sahitya Samaj (MSS) and its rationalist thinker Kazi Abdul Wadud and their journal Sikha (Flame) have been analysed in this chapter. How conversations within Bengali Muslim circles about language and cultural identity transformed between 1933 and 1939, has been addressed in the next chapter. In the 1930s, given the monumental changes in the world economy and the disappearance of credit mechanisms in the East Bengal countryside, organizations like the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) arose in the middle of the decade. From the elections of 1937, in which the KPP and the Bengal Provincial Muslim League (BPML) rose to prominence, peasant politics in Bengal interacted with a developing discourse of Bengali Muslim literary identity.
Bose analyses the role of the charismatic regional politician A.K. Fazlul Huq, who was famous for his support of the political rights of Bengali Muslims. His career has been discussed alongside the rising cadre of younger literary and intellectual activists, like Abul Mansur Ahmed and Abul Kalam Sham-suddin, both of whom pioneered a Bengali version of the idea of Pakistan through the East Pakistan Renaissance Society. Instead of being dictated by the All-India Muslim League and their 1940 Lahore Resolution, or simply being an unfolding of a Bengali regionalism, the varied expressions of Bengali Pakistanism united an investment in the Bengali language, especifically East Bengali literature, and a conception of socially just governance, inspired in part by Islam.
In the final chapter, the author discusses the ways Islam was manifested in the thought worlds and activities of leaders such as Abul Hashim and Maulana Bhasani, who formally held ‘religious’ credentials. Both of them also held strong convictions about Bengali Muslim linguistic and cultural autonomy. The author tries to demonstrate how their politics and support for Pakistan fit within a long-standing tradition of Islamic universalism, following other Muslim South Asian pioneers such as Muhammad Iqbal. The idea of Pakistan they promoted was based on principles of social justice for minorities, not just a vague principle of Muslim separatism from India.
Instead of presenting a narrowly construed perception of Pakistan that emerged from the early-twentieth century, Bose investigates the developments in the 1940s and tries to offer multiple perspectives as brought forth by a variety of historical actors towards the construction of Bengali Muslim communitarian selfhood. Various individuals, such as the charismatic East Bengali leader Fazlul Huq (1873-1962), public intellectuals like Kazi Abdul Wadud (1894-1970), poets like Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), and social activists like Abul Hashim (1905-74), contributed significantly to the Bengali Muslim identity, and therefore, to Bengali selfhood.
Bose examines Islam as one of the many sources of identity for Bengali Muslims. This religion was not simply a path towards separatism in the form of Pakistan, but rather one of many sources of identity and politics for Bengali Muslims. Like Hinduism, Islam held reference points, symbols, and inspirational narratives for Bengali writers. The author argues that the concept of Pakistan was not created from afar that duped innocent and unsuspecting locals, but it was a concept embedded in the literary and cultural history of Bengal. By the mid 1940s, Bengali Muslim regional aspirations consciously separated itself from Bengali Hindu literature, traditions of language and ‘culture’. However, such difference was not the only impetus in creating a state of Pakistan. The impetus for this state rested in ideals and civic conceptions of a new postcolonial future, not merely on cultural difference. The two models of politics and thought—Bengali literary culture on one side, and Pakistan as a moral and political project on the other—were imbricated until the late 1960s, during the military crackdown on East Pakistan that began in 1969. From the beginning of the Bengali Muslim Sahitya Samaj to the 1952 language movement, Muslim actors cultivated a nationalist aesthetic without being tied to a particular model of nation state. The late colonial period which has been examined is crucial for understanding the long political history in Muslim South Asia. The author claims that the various forces which nourished creativity and thought coalesced in ways that did not naturally culminate in Bangladesh. The internal contingencies of colonialism should be studied in the context of the rich world of localized Islamic cultural references for a proper understanding of nationalist thought in South Asia. The periodi-zation of political change, normatively understood through markers like 1905, 1947, and 1971, must be revised, claims the author, if Bengali Muslim conversations are to be taken seriously. The year 1911 was when the Bengali Muslim Sahitya Patrika was founded. This is a milestone in the regional history of Bengal. For the first time, Muslims, many new to the city of Calcutta, and not riding the crest of landed or otherwise wealthy origins, began to write and organize in Calcutta’s public sphere on behalf of Bengali culture.
The book under review is a significant contribution to our understanding of Bengali Muslim minds in the modern era. At the same time it would be rewarding for the inquisitive readers keen to draw a more complex and comprehensive picture of Bengali Muslim society, if they combine this fascinating work with some research based endeavours in twenty-first century Kolkata. Such works include The Image of the Prophet in Bengali Muslim Piety:1850-1947 (Amit Dey, Kolkata:2006), and Kazi Abdul Wadud: A Study of a Modernizer of the Bengali Muslim Society (Tapti De, Kolkata:2009). I put some emphasis on Kolkata based researches on the subject during the early twenty-first century because some major scholars in the field during the second half of the twentieth century either represented Dhaka or the western world. Secondly, Bose has mentioned Wadud and the Bengali Muslim Sahitya Samaj. Though he died in Kolkata, the people of Western Bengal seem to have forgotten him unfortunately. I have also mentioned the book on the Prophet because in terms of the magnitude of veneration in Muslim societies, he is surpassed only by God. So for a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of Bengali Muslim intellectual history, a study of the Prophet-oriented literature is crucial. Such a study has been carried out by the book I have mentioned above. Statistically also, this genre (Prophet-centric literature) would surpass any other form in Muslim societies throughout the world. Indeed! This genre is vital for the understanding of Muslim identity formation.
Finally, the get up of the book under review is sober and impressive. It deserves wide circulation.
Amit Dey is Professor of History at Calcutta University, Kolkata.