Peasant Movements (Colonial period) Very little is known about peasant movements and peasant politics in Bengal other than what traditional historians have narrated about various peasant movements from the fakir-sannyasi resistance and Faraizi-Wahhabi rebellions to the tebhaga movement. Whenever peasants stage rebellions or take part in national uprisings and movements (political or social), historians have taken notice of them and considered their activities of historical significance.
There is little scope for writing the history of the region in the thrilling terms of revolutionary peasant wars. Although a large number of peasants resorted to armed struggle against their exploiters, most of the time these struggles were short-lived, sporadic and under the control of non-peasant outsiders.
Peasants and Village Communities in East Bengal There are various definitions of the term ‘peasant’. Eric Wolf’s definition that peasants are cultivators, ‘existentially involved’ in agriculture, taking ‘autonomous decisions regarding the process of cultivation’ appears inadequate since it excludes landless labourers from the category of peasants. In Bengal landless labourers always identify themselves as peasants vis-E0-vis landlords and other agents of exploitation. Most importantly, if a group or groups from the cultivating classes regard themselves as ‘peasants’ and have a genuine sense of belonging to or identification with the category (peasants) for political purposes they should be regarded as peasants. They may be classified as ‘rich’, ‘middle’ and ‘poor’ peasants. Broadly, the jotedars/taluqdars, raiyats and under-raiyats respectively represent these three broad categories in Bengal.
Besides zamindars, other agents of exploitation in East Bengal, such as mahajans (moneylenders) and bhadralok (middle class/professionals including lawyers and doctors) belonged to the Hindu community while the bulk of the peasants were Muslims. The colonial government, because of its indirect rule and distance from the masses, was hardly visible and perceived as exploiters by the bulk of the peasantry. Consequently the peasants’ politics was mostly about how to circumscribe the power and authority of the zamindar-bhadralok-mahajan triumvirate during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, during the first 100 odd years of British Raj, up to the 1870s, the British colonial masters had been the main adversaries from the viewpoint of most peasants. This was so because of the Government’s promotion and protection of the zamindari and indigo plantation interests, which directly and adversely affected the peasant interests.
The following questions may be considered for an understanding of the problem: Are peasants politically inert, unconscious and indifferentFoodgrain Does peasant politics connote much more than the ‘periodic eruption of the peasantry’Foodgrain Peasants are, in general, fatalist and subsistence-oriented. Their wants are limited and expectations from society are not that high. They despise all ‘non-peasant outsiders’ as their exploiters, but go to the same ‘outsiders’ for help, guidance and leadership. Peasants are also suspicious of ‘outsiders’. Their religiosity, fatalism, superstitions, and belief in magic – characteristics of all powerless and dependent communities – have also been important in influencing their politics. Consequently religious leaders have also succeeded in mobilising peasant support in political movements in the name of religion. Although peasants in general are ‘fatalist’ and politically ‘inert’, nevertheless they are not ‘rural idiots’. Peasants often behave rationally and are prepared to take risks or gamble for a better future, as they are not always satisfied with bare subsistence. This is more so with the rich and middle peasants.
Various examples from peasants participation in political movements throughout the period reveal that the top leaders and ideologies of movements have always been non-peasant in character. Ideologies like Inqilab Zindabad (Long Live the Revolution) under communist leadership and Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Pakistan) under muslim league leadership were ‘alien’ and non-peasant in character. The peasants have often been mobilised by non-peasant outsiders on the basis of communal or other non-peasant ideologies in the name of liberation, freedom and even God and religion.
Elite-Peasant Nexus The advent of British Raj in the second half of the 18th century brought misery to the average Bengali, especially the Muslim masses, middle classes and aristocracy. the battle of palashi and the subsequent quick administrative, economic, cultural and political changes brought a new class of landed and professional elite (mostly Hindu) into being, and both the Muslim masses and aristocrats became impoverished, insignificant and without government patronage. Both the pre and post-Permanent Settlement land systems adversely affected the Muslim landed classes. The bulk of the Muslims in Bengal simply could not cope with the changes and failed to compete with the Hindu professionals (babus and bhadralok) and zamindar-mahajan classes. The rampant corruption and the unbridled competition for making huge fortunes among the bania and mutsuddi classes (mostly Hindu Bengalis) further impoverished the Bengali Muslim and peasant-weaver classes not long after the onset of Company Raj. Consequently as these changes brought a huge number of frustrated and downtrodden people to the surface, the abrupt changes in the fortune of hitherto dominant classes, peasants, artisans and weavers also gave birth to numerous peasant and mass rebellions not long after a few years of the battle of Palashi. Most of these rebellions were disorganised, sporadic and millennial in nature – their targets being the immediate exploiters and their aim the redress of the immediate grievances of the rebels.
In the 1770s the Fakir-Sannyasi Movement, led by mendicants and hermits, coincided with the advent of the Great Famine of 1769-70, a by-product of the systemic loot of the countryside by the rapacious landlords and their agents. fakir majnu shah was one of the famous leaders of the movement. Hindu and Muslim masses, peasant as well as non-peasant, participated in the movement. This movement did not aim at capturing state power. The rebels hardly understood the reason of their misery and had no idea about how the big transition had been taking place in the arena of politics. How the political transformation since Palashi had been installing the Englishmen as their rulers was simply beyond their comprehension. The Fakir-Sannyasi rebellion can be explained as one of the major, sporadic, ‘pre-political’ mass movements of the 18th century.
The ‘Wahabi’ and faraizi movements (1820s-1850s) were led by local leaders with local as well as ‘borrowed’ ideologies of Islamic puritanism and reform from outside Bengal (Arabian Wahabis and North Indian Syed Ahmed Barelvi and others). Under Wahhabi influence a local peasant, titu mir of 24-Parganas, started his movement against the local (Hindu) zamindar for imposing illegal cesses (abwab) including the humiliating beard tax on Muslim peasants. His movement was short-lived, sporadic and against immediate exploiters to get rid of immediate exploitation.
The Faraizis, on the other hand, wanted to transform British India, which they regarded as Dar ul-Harb (abode of war), into Dar ul-Islam (abode of Islam) by reform and Jihad. They also advocated the non-observance of Juma and Eid prayers in (non-Muslim) British India, (mainly in the districts of Faridpur, Barisal, Dhaka and Pabna), so that they would eventually establish Dar ul-Islam or an Islamic state. They also fought extortionate zamindars (Hindu) and British indigo planters. The Faraizis also wanted the restoration of their ‘moral economy’ or what they perceived as morally correct like the Wahabis, Fakir-Sannyasis and other peasant leaders.
The Sirajganj and pabna peasant uprising of 1872-73, led by both Hindu and Muslim leaders and participated in by both Hindu and Muslim peasants, was against arbitrary enhancement of rent by local zamindars. Under the leadership of local leaders, the rebellion was violent, short-lived, localised, sporadic and ‘pre-political’ by nature as the movement did not aim at abolishing the zamindari system but wanted ‘just rent’ from the zamindars who were very much legitimate in their eyes, from the parameters of their ‘moral economy’. This uprising later led to the enactment of the bengal tenancy act of 1885 and eventually to the foundation of the indian national congress as the government wanted non-violent constitutional movements as alternatives to the violent ones and promoted better rights for the peasants to pacify them.
In the swadeshi movement (1905-1911) Muslim peasants had a negative correlation with the movement as their leaders (urban ashraf and rural jotedar) told them about the benefits of the partition of bengal from the Muslim point of view. Nawab khwaja salimullah of Dhaka and other Muslim aristocrats, who later formed the Muslim League in 1906, inspired the Muslim peasants most. They despised the Hindu bhadralok who were behind the Swadeshi and terrorist movements. The so-called Maa Kali’s Bomb and attacks on Muslims by Hindu Swadeshis (opponents of the Partition of Bengal) led to rioting at Jamalpur, Comilla and elsewhere in 1907. By 1914 Muslim peasants, organised by Muslim ashraf and jotedar leaders, had started joining and organising praja (peasant) conferences. A big one took place at Kamarer Char in Mymensingh in 1914. These conferences gradually politicised peasants, who became convinced of the efficacy of non-violent, long-term political movements against their exploiters to get better rights over land and less rent and interest on loan etc.
Although the annulment of the Partition of Bengal in 1911 disillusioned the Muslims in general and shocked their faith in the government, instead of turning anti-British they became more anti-Hindu throughout the region. Meanwhile they achieved the Separate Electorates in 1909, as well as a national Muslim organisation – the Muslim League in 1906, and elected several vocal Muslim representatives to the Legislative and Executive Councils (Nawab Syed nawab ali chowdhury, Nawab Syed Shamsul Huda, ak fazlul huq and Nawab Khwaja Salimullah being prominent among them).
From 1914 onwards began the period of peasant mobilisation on a larger scale – not only by the ulama, but also by the Western educated Muslim and Namasudra leaders of the region. The proposed amendments of the Tenancy Act in 1914, to favour the tenant, aroused special interest among the jotedars and well-to-do peasants, who expected firmer rights over their holdings. They organised the first praja or peasant conference at Kamarer Char in Jamalpur (Mymensingh) in 1914, where men like Fazlul Huq, Maulana mohammad akram khan, Maulana maniruzzaman islamabadi, Maulvi Rajibuddin Tarafdar and other Muslim leaders having upper-peasant backgrounds and connections, demanded better rights for the tenantry and criticised the zamindari system. Soon, under the patronage of Governor Ronaldshay, several peasant and Namasudra organisations came into being. In late 1917 Fazlul Huq and a group of Muslim lawyers and journalists founded the Calcutta Agricultural Association. In 1920 the ‘Bengal Jotedars and Raiyats’ Association was formed.
It is evident from different contemporary sources that peasants were also enthusiastic about the Survey and Settlement Operations, the Co-operative Movement, Union Boards and other government measures including the formation of the debt settlement boards to curtail moneylenders power. The Settlement operations made the tenants conscious of their rights. Consequently they resisted landlords attempts at enhancement of rent. In some districts, these operations discouraged the practice of exacting abwab from tenants. When the Tenancy Amendment Bill was on the anvil in the mid-1920s, peasants formed their own organisations in order to mobilise themselves against the zamindars and tenure-holders whose rights, they anticipated, were going to be curtailed by the Act. In some districts, anticipating occupancy rights, even sharecroppers became assertive of their rights.
As an impact of tenancy legislation and the extension of the franchise down to the well-to-do peasants, the peasants’ behaviour in East Bengal in the subsequent period changed. The zamindars wanted to get rid of the intermediaries for the loss of income from abwab and nazar (gift), as jotedars in their turn collected these from their tenants. This attitude is well reflected in various memoranda of the landlords’ associations to the floud commission in 1940. The jotedars wanted the status of proprietors and called themselves talukdars to elevate their social position. The occupancy raiyats wanted lower rates of rent and more assured rights over their holdings, while the non-occupancy raiyats aspired to permanent occupancy rights; the sharecroppers to permanent rights and two-thirds of the crop, and the landless labourers to the status of grhasthas or head of the family to get a higher social position as well as permanent tenures. The middle and rich peasants aspiration to become bhadralok was the dominant theme in the politics of the peasants throughout the region.
During 1920-47, due to several government measures and rise of political consciousness among the well-to-do peasants, the zamindars’ power was waning and the hopes of the occupancy raiyats and jotedars were increasing. The significance of the peasantry and the impact of its politics lie in the fact that most of the population in the region was agrarian, about 80.66 percent in 1921. There was too little land for too many peasants. Roughly the tiller-land ratio was 1:2.5 acres in 1921. Agriculture remained the only means of livelihood for almost the entire population. By 1921 East Bengal had a population of about 29,687,701, the bulk of which was Muslim, the average density being 660 per square mile.
The enfranchisement of the well-to-do peasants was followed by their appreciation of the value of their votes in electing office bearers of the Union Boards and other local self-government bodies. However, at the same time they were aggrieved because of the slump in jute price and bad harvest in the wake of World War I. The issue of Non-Cooperation with the Government espoused by Gandhi in the wake of the War, and his championing of self-rule and civil rights soon attracted the peasantry in East Bengal. While the Congress leaders in the name of swaraj (self-rule) were mobilising them, peasants in the region interpreted swaraj as ‘a golden age when prices should fall, taxation should cease, and when the state should refrain from interfering with the good pleasure of individual man’.
Meanwhile, Gandhi and other leading Hindu and Muslim leaders of the Congress Party tagged the issue of the Khilafat question along with that of Non-Cooperation. Consequently Indian Muslims were aroused to their extra-territorial loyalty, enthusiasm and romantic ideas mainly by a section of the ulama, which organised a countrywide civil-disobedience movement against the British Government. Gandhi took the issue up as the ‘Muslim Cow’ and supported the khilafat movement with a view to strengthening Hindu-Muslim unity. In East Bengal, peasants and the masses had hardly any idea about what ‘Khilafat’ was. Peasant masses joined the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements with a view to attaining swaraj or a ‘Peasant Utopia’. In the process of attaining their goal, peasants resorted to violent acts of intimidation, boycott and ostracisation of their immediate exploiters and adversaries in the village community. Swaraj or Khilafat, as understood by the average peasant was a means to attain these ‘pre-political’ aims. The concept of nationalism or attaining independence (of India) from the British was simply beyond them in the 1920s.
Communalisation of the ‘Nationalist’ Peasant (1923-1936) The withdrawal of the Khilafat – Non-Cooperation Movement by Gandhi in 1922 reduced the importance of nationalism or swaraj, as understood by the peasantry. Pan-Islam and Muslim solidarity vis-E0-vis Hindus became more important politically than the elusive swaraj. The re-emergence of the ulama (mullas, maulavis, pirs and sufis) in the political arena of Bengal during the Khilafat days after a lapse of about 50 years ulama played important political roles up to the last phase of the so-called Wahabi movement in the 1870s) revived Islamic sentiment among the bulk of the peasantry in Bengal. Bengali Muslim peasants afterwards used Islam as a political weapon to fight their Hindu class enemies. The Movement, on the one hand, taught the peasant masses the modern ways of agitation (the politics of hartal and civil disobedience), instructing them how to defy the authority of their superordinates (both political and socio-economic); and on the other hand, the movement led to the ascendancy of the ulama, who remained important political organisers and mobilisers of the masses, even long after the Partition of 1947.
The fluctuations in the price of jute, the principal cash crop, and the depression (1929-36) were catalysts in the peasants’ political behaviour during the 1920s and 1930s. While 1923 and 1924 were extremely bad years for the jute growers due to the slump in jute price, the sudden appreciation of jute price brought prosperity to them in 1925 and 1926. However, the prosperity was short-lived. The Depression soon devoured the vestiges of the so-called prosperity of the peasantry. Low price of agricultural produce and unemployment were endemic, especially in the rural areas of East Bengal. As the bulk of the zamindars and mahajans were Hindu in districts like Mymensingh, Dhaka, Faridpur, Barisal, Pabna and Rajshahi while the bulk of the peasantry were Muslims, the tenant-landlord and debtor-creditor conflicts soon took a communal colour as Hindu-Muslim conflicts. Communally motivated people under the leadership of the ashraf-ulama-jotedar triumvirate, whose class interests conflicted with those of the dominant Hindu classes, played important roles in communalising the class conflict between the Muslim peasants and their Hindu superordinates.
It is noteworthy that although a large number of Bengali Muslim peasants spontaneously joined the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation movement with a view to attaining swaraj or their ‘golden age’ (an exploitation free social order), not long after the withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation movement a new era of peasant insurgency began, when peasants in some places showed total disregard for law and the established hierarchies in society.
Rural bards and writers, coming from the lower peasant families and having incomplete access to the market and inadequate tenancy rights, had already been ridiculing the peasants for jute cultivation even during the days of the jute boom in 1925-26. Some of the writers presented the Hindu and Marwari merchants (along with the Hindu zamindars and mahajans) as mainly responsible for the slump and fluctuations in jute price. A rural poet from Mymensingh (Abdul Samed Mia, 1921) was equally vocal about the ‘non-Bengali’ exploitation of peasants: ‘when jute came to this land, the Pashchima (North-West Indians) also came and occupied the country85. Now they are the moneyed people. They do not pay any regard to the Bengalis. This alien people who once could not get chhatu (ground grains), look! they are now eating Balam rice. The Bengalis on the other hand are not getting coarse Rangoon rice. The Bengalis have become mute. The Pashchimas are getting shelter only in Bengal, nowhere else will they have a place’.
Some of these folk-writers held the Hindus and non-Bengali Marwari (non-Muslim) traders mainly responsible for the slump and fluctuations in jute price. ‘In one year the Marwari millionaires give a good price for jute only to exploit you in the next three years’, held one of them (Abed Ali Mia). In short, folk literature reflected the general feelings of the Muslims, including peasants, towards their Hindu neighbours: moneylenders, shopkeepers, zamindars employees, zamindars and others.
The folk literature, which earlier identified the Hindus as bijati (one belonging to another religion) and representatives of the agents of exploitation or as ‘great burdens’ for the peasantry, also indicates that the phenomenon called ‘communalism’ was not solely a creation of the politics organised from above. Communal riots in Calcutta or elsewhere in the subcontinent added further fuel to the flame of communal hatred at the grassroots level in the countryside. Muslim rural bards often narrated the concocted and exaggerated versions of stories of Calcutta riots (1926) to Muslim villagers and thus aroused anti-Hindu communal passion among rural Muslims.
Though it sounds paradoxical, there was a higher intensity of peasant unrest during the period of ‘economic prosperity’ of peasants (1925-26), when the jute price was very high, than in the preceding period. Consequently the decline in the occupancy holdings by peasants (due to population growth and landlords’ pre-emptive move to obstruct the Bengal Tenancy Act Amendment Bill, introduced in 1923) and increase in indebtedness during the bullish jute market in 1925-26 further aggravated the situation. In 1925-26, when the jute price was exceptionally high (Rs 94 to 142 per bale against Rs 25 to 60 in 1923-24), the erstwhile occupancy tenants, who by then had been partially or fully converted into Sharecroppers(bargadars or adhias), did not want to part with half or more of the crop (jute) as the share of the jotedar, who in many cases acquired their land when they failed to repay their debts.
Meanwhile, realising the potential of the peasant masses as possible allies, the colonial government had taken certain legislative and administrative measures, such as the introduction of the Bengal Tenancy Act amendment Bill in 1923 to grant occupancy rights to a large number of peasants; the widening of the franchise to include more peasant representatives in the Union Boards and legislature and formation of the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1926 to improve the condition of the peasantry. The Hindu zamindar-bhadralok-mahajan triumvirate and the Hindu press in general opposed all these government measures as ‘anti-nationalist’. Consequently up to the enactment of the Tenancy Amendment Bill in 1928, Bengali Hindus in general, representing the zamindar-bhadralok-mahajan triumvirate, opposed the Bill while Bengali Muslims under the leadership of the ashra’ f-ulama-jotedar triumvirate supported the Bill. It is noteworthy that many Muslim zamindars also supported the Bill.
In the long run, the peasant movement in predominantly Muslim East Bengal was communalised under the influence of their non-peasant leaders, including their ‘class-enemies’ (zamindars and jotedars). This accelerated the gradual merger process of the ashraf with jotedar and jotedar with the krisak (lower peasant) belonging to the Muslim Community, leading to the Great Divide of 1947. While a section of the Hindu elite under the leadership of Deshbandhu chitta ranjan das tried to neutralise the Muslim middle and lower middle classes by the placatory bengal pact (also known as the Hindu-Muslim Pact) in 1923, with the promise of granting at least 55% jobs to the Muslim community after the attainment of swaraj (independence), other members of the Hindu elite stubbornly resisted any such move to win over the Muslims.
The Hindu opposition to the Pact gave an opportunity to the Muslim conservatives to launch a countrywide propaganda against the Hindus. The upshot was the development of communal consciousness at the grassroots level in the Muslim community. Peasant mobilisation on communal lines was facilitated by the obdurate attitude of high caste Hindu politicians and well-to-do classes, many of whom swelled the ranks of communal Hindu organisations like the Suddhi Sangathan, hindu mahasabha and the Landlords’ Association. All attempts to differentiate the Muslim tenantry into jotedars’ under-raiyats/bargadars did not succeed. Firstly, because the Hindu upper classes hardly had any contact with the lower peasantry. Secondly, as their co-religionists and patrons, the jotedars had greater control over the lower peasantry. Last but not least, the notion prevalent among the Muslims that they were the ‘have-nots of Bengali society’, belonging to an amorphous praja or tenant community vis-E0-vis the Hindu landlords, must have turned their class-consciousness into communalism. This facilitated the formation of a joint-front of the rich, middle and poor peasants under the ashra’ f-ulama-jotedar triumvirate against the zamindar-bhadralok-mahajan classes.
After the overarching power structure, with zamindars at the top, had been weakened, the jotedars, whom the lower peasants saw as their fortunate fellows-cum-patrons, moved into the vacuum left by the ‘retreating’ zamindars. Eventually, this led to the overshadowing of the jotedar -tenant conflict by the zamindar-jotedar one and this was possible only after the latter had succeeded in gaining the confidence of the ashraf and the lower peasantry (also Muslim) in the name of Islam/Muslim solidarity. The ulama played a vital role in bridging the gap. The external element – the ashraf and the ulama – was very important in changing the outlook of the peasant. Under their influence he was first communalised, then politicised.
While the peasantry was being communalised, East Bengal came under the devouring and cataclysmic influence of the depression of 1929-1936. Consequently the simmering discontent among the lower peasantry against rural moneylenders, landlords and their agents flared up into sporadic incidents of localised peasant movements in support of no-rent campaigns. Many Muslim peasants were led to believe by both peasant and non-peasant leaders that Hindu zamindars and mahajans were responsible for the low prices of crops and consequential misery.
The whole of Bengal and other provinces in 1930s witnessed widespread anti-British agitation in the name of Civil Disobedience under the aegis of Gandhi and the Congress Party. Since most Congress leaders in East Bengal represented Hindu bhadralok classes, which were linked with zamindars and moneylenders, they hardly had any influence on the Muslim peasant masses in the region. Meanwhile, the government had also taken several ‘pro-peasant’ measures to immunise the masses against nationalist, communist and terrorist propaganda. Among the legislative measures, one may mention the Bengal Tenancy Act, 1928; the Bengal Rural Primary Education Act, 1932; the Bengal Local Self-Government Bill, 1933; and the Government of India Act, 1935. The ‘Communal Award’by the Government in 1932 and the 1935 Act not only widened the franchise, but also led to the ‘protection’ of the Muslim community of the subcontinent. The Hindu zamindar-bhadralok-mahajan triumvirate, for its bitter opposition to the ‘pro-peasant’ and ‘pro-Muslim’ measures and its conflict of class interest with the peasantry, was not in a position to influence and lead the peasant masses any more.
The pro-Government Muslim leaders, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds, had started organising Muslim masses throughout East Bengal on anti-Hindu communal lines. The depression deeply contributed to the spontaneous response of the peasant masses in organising the anti-Hindu movements. The organisers of these movements spread wild rumours, telling the peasant masses that while the Hindu zamindars, traders and moneylenders were responsible for the low prices of agricultural products, the British Government had granted impunity to Muslim rioters who would attack, rob and even kill their Hindu adversaries. In parts of Dhaka and Mymensingh districts, due to the machinations of some mullas, peasants believed that the Government had granted swaraj for seven days and that the nawab of Dhaka had established his authority and would attack Hindu well-to-do classes in East Bengal. The upshot was communal riots in Dhaka at Ruhitpur, Matuail, Ati, Jinjira and Mirpur and in several villages in Kishoreganj district in 1930.
The Kishoreganj riots of 1930 almost totally eclipsed the inherent class conflict between peasants and their exploiting moneylenders. Angry Muslim peasants were very selective in classifying their enemies. They only attacked Hindu moneylenders and plundered Hindu properties, sparing Muslims from their wrath. Besides Kishoreganj, Muslim peasants also attacked and killed Hindus in parts of erstwhile Faridpur, Barisal, Khulna and Noakhali district during the miserable days of the Depression. Even the Congress-sponsored countrywide Civil Disobedience movement failed to dissuade Muslim masses from attacking their Hindu neighbours.
Rebellion to Conciliation These communal disturbances, having local roots under local leadership, influenced by a pro-Government and anti-Hindu Muslim elite from Dhaka and elsewhere eventually eliminated both the nationalist Congress Party and the Communist Party of India as politically relevant forces among the peasantry. Meanwhile, Muslim jotedar-talukdar and even ashraf-zamindar classes had been organising krisak or praja associations with a view to contesting elections and counteracting the anti-Government nationalist and communist organisations throughout the region. It is noteworthy that the bulk of the Muslim peasantry considered Muslim landed classes as part of the peasant community while Hindu landlords to them were nothing but rent-receivers and oppressors of the peasantry. Henceforth, Muslim ashraf-ulama-jotedar leaders started flirting with the Muslim peasantry more vigorously, promising radical land reform and other pro-peasant measures and projecting the Hindu zamindar-bhadralok-mahajan triumvirate as the sole and common enemy of both the Muslim upper and lower classes of Bengal. Eventually Muslim leaders successfully mobilised Muslim peasants in the region and formed a government under the leadership of AK Fazlul Huq, who in 1937 became the chief minister of Bengal.
Fazlul Huq and fellow Muslim politicians representing the lower middle and budding middle classes, mostly emanating from the upper peasantry (jotedars), joined hands with the Urdu-speaking ashraf leaders like mohammed ali jinnah, huseyn shaheed suhrawardy and khwaja nazimuddin with a view to installing themselves in power by side-tracking the dominant Hindu classes. Consequently Fazlul Huq and other leaders belonging to the krishak praja party had to join the Muslim League by discarding their ‘praja identity’ in the wake of the Legislative Assembly elections of 1937. The most fascinating part of the story up to the Partition of 1947 is the successful mobilisation of the under-raiyats and bargadars (sharecroppers) by the ashraf through the machination of the praja against the Hindu zamindar-bhadralok-mahajan triumvirate. It is equally interesting how the nationalists, socialists and communists failed to make much headway on the peasant front during the period.
Fazlul Huq and his Krishak Praja Party (KPP) who had commitments to an anti-zamindari anti-mahajan economic programme, as reflected in the Election Manifesto of the KPP, soon joined hands with avowedly communal Muslim League leaders to form a coalition government in Bengal in April 1937. It is noteworthy that several Muslim zamindars, including Nawabzada Hasan Ali Khan of Dhanbari (Tangail), espoused a pro-peasant and anti-zamindar programme prior to the 1937 elections and afterwards.
Meanwhile, some class-based and anti-British movements took place alongside the communally motivated movements. The class-based tonk movement of tribal (Hajong) peasants of northern Mymensingh under the leadership of moni singh and a few communist leaders did not attract non-tribal Muslim or Namashudra. Some movements remained confined to a middle-peasant-dominated sub-region of Noakhali, Comilla and Chittagong during the 1930s and 1940s. The absence of Hindu zamindars as principal agents of exploitation in the sub-region facilitated the mobilisation of Muslim peasants on non-communal class or nationalist lines, especially in parts of Noakhali and Comilla districts. Some leading Congress and communist leaders of the sub-region, again, belonged to the Muslim community, such as ashrafuddin ahmad chowdhury and Asimuddin Ahmed of Comilla and Abdul Malek, Muklesur Rahman, Moqbul Mia and others belonging to the radical Krishak Samity of the Noakhali-Comilla sub-region.
However, vicious communal riots in Dhaka in 1941 and the mass mobilisation of Muslims in the name of Pakistan by the ashra’ f-ulama-jotedar triumvirate in the wake of the lahore resolution of 1940, thoroughly communalised the Muslim masses throughout Bengal, including the Muslim jotedar-dominated northern districts of Rangpur and Dinajpur and Muslim middle-peasant dominated Noakhali and Comilla districts of Bengal.
In view of the above, the praja-ashraf alliance was inevitable. Fortunately for the ashraf and the praja (especially the jotedars), by 1941 the bulk of the Muslim peasantry had been totally disenchanted with the Congress and other organisations under Hindu leadership due to the pervading influence of Muslim separatism. By then the ‘anti-feudal’ struggle of the peasants had been channelled into a ‘religious stream’ and ‘the religious aspect of bourgeois nationalism’ in Bengal. The marriage of convenience between the ashraf and praja, which was essential for mutual succour in the post-1937 Elections period for the formation of a viable Muslim ministry to contain Hindu dominance in Bengal, in fact, signalled the capitulation of the praja to the rising ashraf.
By December 1941, Fazlul Huq further alienated himself from the bulk of the Bengali Muslims, including peasants, by forming a coalition ministry with the Hindu Mahasabha leader, shyama prasad mukherji. Eventually ashraf leaders like Khwaja Nazimuddin and HS Suhrawardy replaced Fazlul Huq as the Chief Minister of Bengal up to 1947, and henceforth quite for sometime, ashraf leaders, in collaboration with some loyal praja leaders like nurul amin, tamizuddin khan, hamidul huq chowdhury, fazlul quader chaudhury, abdus sabur khan, Wahiduzzaman (Thanda Mia), Yusuf Ali Chowdhury (Mohun Mia), Fazlur Rahman and others, remained dominant in Muslim politics in Bengal.
Meanwhile, the Bengal famine, 1943 and communal riots in Calcutta in August 1946 had further vitiated the environment. To the average Muslim in Bengal Hindu traders, hoarders and black marketeers, along with zamindar and mahajans, emerged as the main ‘culprits’, responsible for the famine. Hindu leaders in general, and zamindars and bhadralok in particular lost their credibility with the Muslim masses. For the bulk of the Bengali Muslims, including peasants, the concept of Pakistan emerged as the only choice. The calcutta riot, 1946 precipitated by the direct action day of the Muslim League, made Pakistan inevitable.
By early 1946 the Muslim League was well entrenched almost in every East Bengal district. This was reflected in the elections of 1946. Muslims voted for the Muslim League with full commitment to Pakistan. It is, however, altogether a different matter what the peasants – both voters and others who were not enfranchised – understood about the implications of the ‘promised land’ or the utopia called Pakistan. Nevertheless the fact remains that when local Muslims involved themselves in orgies of killing, raping, plundering and forcibly converting their Hindu neighbours in several villages in Noakhali district, avenging the killing of Muslims in Calcutta by destroying 372 Hindu villages and killing 220 Hindus, an elderly Muslim peasant is said to have remarked that they had achieved Pakistan as the region between Feni and Chandpur had been ‘liberated’ from Hindus.
During the hey-days of communalism (1946-47) the Communist Party of India (CPI) in its bid to revolutionise the Indian peasantry organised class-based peasant movements in various parts of the Subcontinent. The legendary Tebhaga Movement in undivided Bengal was one such movement, mainly confined to tribals, rajbangshis, santals and garos of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts in the north. Under the CPI leadership, mainly high-caste Hindu bhadralok, the movement turned violent as bargadars forcibly took their share, two-thirds of the crops, from the fields. Many landless peasants and others having no direct involvement with the sharecropping system took part in the movement.
It is interesting that both Hindu and Muslim bhadralok opposed the movement, as they were apprehensive of a class war beyond the parameters of the village community. Muslim League leaders dissuaded Muslim peasants by telling them that after the attainment of Pakistan all land would belong to them as the Hindu landlords would be kicked out of Pakistan or ‘the land of the pure (Muslim)’. Some Muslim leaders promised Choubhaga (literally four shares) or all the shares of the crop to the Muslim peasants in their promised ‘Sonar Pakistan’. Consequently to the average East Bengali Muslim peasant the ‘communal’ concept of Pakistan was much more persuasive than any appeal in the name of class solidarity or nationalism. The utopia of Pakistan was so devouring among the peasantry that even Hindu communist leaders of the Tebhaga movement adopted Muslim names (Barin Datta, for example, became Abdus Salam), attended public prayer (namaz) sessions with Muslim peasants to show their support for Islam and hoisted both the Red Flag of communists and the Green Flag of the Muslim League at the same venues. Muslim peasants chanted slogans both in favour of Tebhaga and Pakistan in meetings organised by CPI leaders.
Gradually the demand for Pakistan emerged as the main slogan of Muslim peasants throughout the region while the demand for tebhaga, being confined to much smaller section of the peasantry, mainly the tribals, fizzled out in no time. Peasants, on the other hand, have been firm believers in private ownership of land. Hence the vacillation and withdrawal of peasant support from the communist movement. Peasant support for tebhaga does not indicate their support for communism. Firstly, peasants themselves first raised the demand, not the CPI; and secondly, the movement did not question the concept of private ownership of land.
By 1947, false promises, communalism and above all, the economic dependence of the average poor peasant on the upper peasantry, blurred the sub-regional differences in the nature of peasants’ political behaviour in East Bengal. The relatively independent middle peasants of Tippera-Noakhali sub-regions (the vanguards of the anti-British Congress movements in the 1930s and 1940s), along with the Muslim lower peasants of the Muslim jotedar-dominated Rangpur-Dinajpur and Jessore-Khulna sub-regions (who took part in CPI-led class movements) succumbed to the appeals made in the name of ‘Islam in Danger’ and radical economic reforms under ‘Islamic’ and ‘golden’ Pakistan by the Muslim League. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Namasudra peasants had been won over by the high-caste Hindu Congress leaders.