Appropriation of the Bengali identity, personified in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib

A critical look at how the 'Greatest Bengali of all time', who was part of the Great Calcutta Killings, singularly represents the appropriation of the Bengali identity.

Appropriation of the Bengali identity, personified in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib

Appropriation of the ethnic identity is the worst fate that can befall a people, as it paves the way for a future ethnocide or genocide. First, the group is forced to share the identity with the dominant group that has appropriated it. Following that, comes a period of unabated cultural appropriation where the cultural symbols of the victim group that do not contradict with theirs are claimed by the dominant group, till the point there remains nothing to be appropriated further. The victim group, who by now is marginalized within the shared identity, can meet either of the two fates. They could either be fully stripped of their own identity sans the appropriated cultural symbols and placed somewhere in the early stages of the ten-stage genocide or forced to give up the remaining cultural symbols that are in contradiction with those of the dominant group and subjected to an ethnocide.

The Pandits of Kashmir had met the fate of such a genocide in the 20th century that started with identity theft, that independent India witnessed and acted a bystander. The Bengali Hindus who had precariously survived the genocide between 1946 and 1971 during the British and the Pakistani regimes, which had nothing to do with identity theft, is on course to an ethnocide in the 21st century that has started with identity theft.

In the early 20th century, the Kashmiri identity was appropriated by the separatists in support for the inclusion of Kashmir in Pakistan. But it didn’t happen in spite of the invasion and the LoC was born. While cultural appropriation continued, the separatists believed that ethnic cleansing rather than ethnocide was a better option given the demography and terrain of Kashmir, and the free world saw what happened on 19th January 1990. Unlike Kashmir, the separatists in Bengal had no interest in the Bengali identity when they were busy in the political manoeuvring to get the whole of Bengal included in Pakistan. Genocide was the means to achieve and sustain the partial success they had. However, their post-1971 identity crisis has led them to assiduously pursue the appropriation of the Bengali identity in exclusivity that has precipitated the present existential crisis of the Bengali Hindus.

It is an absolute travesty of history that the man who identified himself as Muslim, campaigned for the Muslim League in the 1946 elections on the sole agenda of the establishment of a Muslim state and smeared his hands with the blood of Bengali Hindus during the Great Calcutta Killings, posthumously became the 'Greatest Bengali of all time' in 2004 (Mustafa, 2004). Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s elevation from an average statesman who started his career as a ragtag student leader of a fascist party to this near-saintly larger-than-life status singularly represents the appropriation of the Bengali identity. One has to understand Mujib to fathom the depth of the crisis and what lies ahead in store.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975) was the seventh generation descendant of Sheikh Awal, an Arab missionary from Baghdad, Iraq who had come to eastern India to preach Islam (Chowdury, 2019). Extant hagiographies put Sheikh Awal’s date of arrival in Chittagong as 1463 (Wazed, 2015), which means that the Arab-origin Sheikh family were foreign settlers of less than 500 years in the land inhabited by the Bengali people for at least 2,500 years. The date of 1463, however, doesn’t go uncontested. Firstly, the biographies of saints tend to be sourced from oral traditions that are usually not the most accurate in terms of dates. It would have been a biological wonder for the seven generations of the Sheikh family to have spanned 1920 – 1463 = 457 years, even if the early years of Sheikh Awal in Iraq are discounted. That would make the Sheikhs’ average age of fathering to be 65.29 years, in a period of human history where the life expectancy was less than 40 years (Roser, Ortiz-Ospina, & Ritchie, 2013). Secondly, hagiographies, by their very nature, tend to glorify and exaggerate on the achievement of their subjects. A common strategy is to associate, even anachronistically, the subject with a prominent figure and get them haloed in the halo of the latter. Sheikh Awal is similarly described as a contemporary of Bayazid Bostami, a prominent 9th-century Sunni preacher from Iran with whom Sheikh Awal is believed to have arrived in Chittagong (Wazed, 2015), a claim that has been rejected by the official encyclopaedia of Bangladesh (Karim, 2012).

In contrast, let’s take the example of a family whose genealogy is correctly recorded, say Sayyid Husain Najafi, the 28th generation descendant of Ali, who came to India from Najaf, Iraq in 1676 (Buyers, 2015). Najafi’s grandson Mir Jafar’s (1691-1765) eighth-generation descendant Dr Syed Mohammed Reza Ali Khan was born in 1946 (Banerjee, 1994) i.e. eight generations of the Mir family spanned 1946 – 1691 = 255 years, making the average fathering age to be roughly 31.88 years. Considering the average fathering age to be 32, the Sheikh Awal’s year of birth can be approximated to 1920 – 32x7 = 1696. For practical purposes, Sheikh Awal may be considered to have arrived in India somewhere in the early 18th century, around the 1720s. It also makes sense because Sheikh Awal’s son Sheikh Zahiruddin had set up a wholesale business in Kolkata, which started flourishing as a trading hub only in the 18th century. That makes the Arab Sheikh family a very recent immigrant, compared to even the British who were the last of the colonizers to have arrived in Bengal.

Sheikh Awal though had no intentions of settling permanently in India. He eventually went back to his native Iraq, leaving behind his only son Sheikh Zahiruddin, whose progeny continued. The descendants had matrimonial ties either with Arab-origin Kazi or Khondokar families or among themselves. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was born out of incestuous wedlock between Sheikh Lutfur Rahman and Sahera Khatun, great-great-grandson and granddaughter of Sheikh Zahiruddin’s son Sheikh Jan Mahmud, possibly with congenital glaucoma, not uncommon among the offspring in consanguineous marriages (Bittles, 2002). When he was 13, his marriage was fixed with his three-year-old paternal cousin Sheikh Fazilatunnesa (Rahman, 2012). He was also suffering from severe thiamine deficiency and had to undergo treatment for two years when his glaucoma aggravated and he underwent surgery in both the eyes at the Calcutta Medical College (Rahman, 2012).

Mujib had a discontinuity of four years in his studies and when he resumed school in 1937, he was almost an adult while his classmates were in their early teens. He proved to be an obstinate bully commanding a gang of boys, who would mercilessly attack anyone who spoke out against him. Outside the school, he got involved in extorting money from unwilling people in the name of Muslim Welfare Association. On 16th January 1938, when Prime Minister Fazlul Huq and Labour Minister H.S. Suhrawardy visited Gopalganj, he formed a volunteer brigade of Muslim boys for an event. Suhrawardy visited Gopalganj Mission School and Mujib being a student of the school, welcomed him there. It was indeed during this brief moment of interaction, Suhrawardy, well-versed in communal politics since at least the 1926 Kolkata riots when he was the Deputy Mayor (Das, 1991), recognized the raw talent in Mujib that was needed in Muslim League for the Pakistan movement. On knowing that the Sheikh family had origins in Baghdad, much like his own family, he noted down Mujib’s address in his notebook. Soon letters began to be exchanged between the two.

Within weeks, Mujib got involved in a criminal act, wherein he broke into the house of local Hindu Mahasabha leader Suren Banerjee and assaulted the people with his gang of boys in order to rescue one Abdul Malek who was allegedly being held inside. Mujib got arrested on charges of murder, loot and communal riot and spent a week in judicial custody (Rahman, 2012). His political connection with Suhrawardy helped in coercing the victims of the assault into an out of the court settlement that secured Mujib’s release from jail. Next year, he met Suhrawardy in Kolkata and became a leader of the Muslim Students League and thereafter remained a frequent visitor to the Suhrawardy residence. His first brush with politics was a campaign to discredit Fazlul Huq for forming a coalition ministry with Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

After 15 years, four schools and two attempts, Mujib cleared Matriculation at the age of 22 (Rahman, 2012). Mujib got admitted to Islamia College in Kolkata for the Intermediate and put up at the Baker hostel, the den of Muslim League student politics. With sharp skills of manipulation and hatching intrigues, Mujib soon became the kingmaker of the students union at the college. During the famine, he organized 'The South Bengal Conference for Pakistan' in Faridpur to divert the public attention. Post-war, he got deeply involved in Muslim League politics working closely with Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim. During this time, he befriended Q. J. Azmeri, a well-built boxer, short-tempered but a dedicated worker of the Muslim League and a member of the Muslim National Guard.

In the March 1946 elections, the Muslim League attained a thumping majority in Bengal and formed the government, with Mujib’s mentor Suhrawardy as the Prime Minister. In April, the newly elected Muslim MLAs of Bengal & Assam and the Muslim League central & provincial council members travelled from Howrah to Delhi in a special train called East Pakistan Special to attend the convention called by Jinnah. From a compartment reserved for ‘Sheikh Mujib and party’, Mujib himself, his trusted aide Azmeri and another student leader sloganeered for Pakistan using the loudspeakers fitted to the train, all along the way (Rahman, 2012).

Following the declaration of Direct Action Day on 16th August, on the instructions of general secretary Abul Hashim, Mujib and his boys hit the streets of Kolkata to campaign for Pakistan, in cars fitted with loudspeakers. He was also armed with two books by Habibullah Bahar Chowdhury and Mujibur Rahman Khan, both titled ‘Pakistan’. As for 16th August, Mujib took upon the responsibility to organize the Muslim students of Kolkata by 10 A.M. at the Islamia College premises and lead them to the rally at the Calcutta Maidan in the afternoon. At 7 A.M. in the morning, Mujib bicycled to Calcutta University premises and hoisted the Muslim League flag. By the time he reached Islamia College, news of riots had started pouring in. Mujib, experienced in the use of guns, could hardly resist himself from the ‘direct action’. He led a group of about 50 Muslim students towards Dharmatala. The group quickly swelled into thrice the strength as nearby Muslims joined them with sticks. Buoyed by the collective spirit of the Pakistani nation in the making, Mujib led the mob in the sloganeering of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and throwing brick-bats on Hindus (Rahman, 2012). Later in the afternoon, he would lead the students to the Maidan rally, where a 50,000 strong-armed Muslim crowd would assemble to later resort to loot and murder (Whitehead, 1997).

The Muslim National Guards, the Muslim League supported goondas and Muslim mobs wreaked havoc on the Hindus in the first one and half days, however, the balance began to reverse from the afternoon of 17th August, when the Bengali Hindus began to fight back as a community. Led from the front by brave hearts like Gopal Mukherjee, Jugal Ghosh and Bhanu Bose, the retaliation by the Bharat Jatiya Bahini and other Hindu clubs was far stronger in its order and magnitude than the original attacks. Suhrawardy, who had made the Lalbazar police headquarters his war room and was controlling the attacks on Hindus from there, had to call the troops as he realized that the reverses suffered by the Muslims were far bigger. At his level, Mujib as the emerging youth leader had no other option than to go to Gopal Mukherjee and seek truce (Whitehead, 1997). Mujib and Azmeri pleaded to Gopal with folded hands to stop the mayhem. Acknowledging their abject surrender, Gopal let them go, on the condition of Muslim League too would reciprocate the same (Mazumdar, 2017).

The role of Mujib as an organizer of the Muslim students for the rally or leading them into a street fight was not of prime significance inasmuch as his role in hoisting the flag at the Calcutta University was symbolic of establishing Pakistan in the hallowed institution of Bengal. It was not only the centre of Bengali excellence in research and higher studies, but it was also the board that controlled the primary and secondary education in Bengal. For years, the Muslim leadership had been trying to wrest control over the education system from what they perceived as the domination of Bengali Hindus, most notably through the Secondary Education Bill (1940), but failed to achieve it (Chattopadhyay, 1994). Limited success was achieved through the removal of ‘Shree’ in Bengali from the university emblem and to take it a step further, Mujib took it upon himself to raise the ‘moon and crescent standard’ of Muslim League in the university premises.

That he had erred in trampling upon the highest seat of Bengali culture by desecrating it with the symbol of Muslim politics, did not bother him at all. Though he acknowledged the existence of the dual identity among the Bengali-speaking Muslims, that of being a Muslim as well as being a Bengali, they were not contradictory. Mujib viewed the Bengali identity in terms of territory and language, not culture or heritage as evident from his interchangeable use of the terms ‘Bengali Muslims’ & ‘Muslims of Bengal’ and his reference to the meaning of a Bengali word used in a certain context as the basis of explaining the Bengali mindset (Rahman, 2012). Such a superficial definition though was convenient enough for him to fit someone having an ancestry like himself or later even the Chittagong Hill Tracts tribes (Zahed, 2013) within the Bengali identity.

At the core of his heart, Mujib was a Muslim. True to his Iraqi Arab ancestry, in his subconscious mind Mujib identified himself with the Muslim invaders who once ruled India. On his Ajmer visit, during his second trip to Delhi, he was overwhelmed by the steep ascent to the Taragarh Fort. With awe and veneration, he wondered how the invading Muslim army ascended it and saw the climb to the top as something that he should emulate (Rahman, 2012). On his visit to the Red Fort, Qutub Minar and Jama Masjid in Delhi, he wrote, “For hundreds of years Muslims had ruled India from Delhi. How could we know then that we would have to give up control over the city?” (Rahman, 2012) The lament at the fall of the Mughals in 1857, typical of Indian Muslims suffering from ex-ruler syndrome, was palpable in the pen picture of his own emotions.

That the Hindus had unjustifiably gained at the expense of the ruling Muslims following the mutiny was a recurrent theme in Mujib’s analysis of Indian history. He saw Syed Ahmed Barelvi’s Wahabi movement as a justified rebellion and took pride in the fact that thousands of Muslims from Bengal had marched barefoot to the present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan to take part in jihad (Rahman, 2012). Pakistan, to him, was the just demand for the emancipation of the Muslims of India, who were reeling under the oppression of Hindu landlords and moneylenders. The Muslims should rightfully gain their status of the ruling class in Pakistan.

The imagined status of the once-ruler Muslims as the victims of circumstances got reflected in how Mujib perceived the events of the Great Calcutta Killings to have unfolded rather than how it actually transpired. Contrary to all the primary sources, Mujib has recorded that on the first day it was the Muslims who took the beating and in the next two days, they retaliated on the Hindus. On the one hand, it is a brazen attempt not only to absolve the Muslim League and the Muslim community in general from being the perpetrators who drew first blood and whitewash the micro-level of planning and preparation that preceded the attacks but also to justify what he described as subsequent retaliation by the Muslims. On the other hand, it is also a testimony to the fact that Mujib couldn’t come to terms with the reality that it was the Muslim community that suffered bigger losses in Kolkata.

The denial on the part of Mujib, of any planning of attacks on Hindus by the Muslim League on 'Direct Action Day' was characteristic of his ambivalence towards the genocide of the Bengali Hindus between 1946 and 1971, beginning with Noakhali. Not only did he not recognize the Bengali Hindu genocide of 1971, to rub salt into the wound he bulldozed the remnants of the Ramna Kali temple and handed over the property to Dhaka Club (Neelakandan, 2017). His general amnesty for the collaborators involved in the genocide restored the continuity in the persecution of the Bengali Hindus in independent Bangladesh.

Till the Pakistan period, the Bengali identity of the Bengali-speaking Muslims was based on territory and language. Post-1971, culture became an important factor. With the language substantially Islamized, what else is there to differentiate themselves from Pakistan, except obviously the territory? With the Bengali ethnic identity already appropriated through ‘Bangladesh’, ‘Bangabandhu’ and ‘Bengali as the nationality of Bangladesh’, cultural appropriation became the logical next step. The physical persecution of the Bengali Hindus in Bangladesh notwithstanding, it’s the degree and intensity of cultural appropriation, ranging from Poila Boisakh to pithe and almanac to alpana, which is a matter of grave concern. The sooner the Bengali Hindus of West Bengal realize this and raise their voice, the better. For unlike Kashmir, there would be no war or insurgency in West Bengal, rather it will be a slow but steady takeover. Decisive and irreversible.
References / Footnotes

- Banerjee, R. (1994). Descendant of Mir Jafar fights to erase stamp of treachery from family name. New Delhi: India Today. Retrieved from https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/offtrack/story/19940131-descendant-of-mir-jafar-fights-to-erase-stamp-of-treachery-from-family-name-808768-1994-01-31

- Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. (2020). (Bangladesh Parliament) Retrieved from Mujib100 Celebration: http://mujib100.parliament.gov.bd/#home

- Bittles, A. H. (2002). The Impact of Consanguinity on the Indian Population. Indian Journal of Human Genetics, 8(2), 45-51. Retrieved from http://www.bioline.org.br/request?hg02010

- Buyers, C. (2015). Murshidabad. Retrieved from The Royal Ark: Royal and Ruling Houses of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas: http://www.royalark.net/India4/murshid5.htm

- Chattopadhyay, R. (1994). Higher Education in Bengal (1919-47): A Study Of It's Administration And Management (Volume 1). Bethune College, History. Kolkata: University of Calcutta.

- Chowdury, S. R. (2019). Foundation of Religious Liberalism in Bangladesh: Contribution of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Awami League. International Journal of Social, Political and Economic Research, 6(1), 104-132.

- Das, S. (1991). Communal Riots in Bengal 1905-1947. Oxford University Press.

- Karim, A. (2012). Bayejid Bostami. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh. Dhaka, Bangladesh: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. Retrieved from http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Bayejid_Bostami

- Mazumdar, J. (2017). Remembering Gopal Mukherjee, The Braveheart Who Saved Calcutta In 1946. Swarajya. Retrieved from https://swarajyamag.com/politics/remembering-gopal-mukherjee-the-braveheart-who-saved-calcutta-in-1946

- Mustafa, S. (2004). Listeners name 'greatest Bengali'. London: BBC. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3623345.stm

- Neelakandan, A. (2017). Why The Amarnath Yatra Attack Is Nothing To Be Surprised About. Swarajya. Retrieved from https://swarajyamag.com/politics/why-the-amarnath-yatra-attack-is-nothing-to-be-surprised-about

- Rahman, S. M. (2012). The Unfinished Memoirs. Penguin.

- Roser, M., Ortiz-Ospina, E., & Ritchie, H. (2013). Life Expectancy. (Global Change Data Lab) Retrieved from Our World in Data.

- Wazed, S. H. (2015). PM's Speech at the International Sufi Conference 2015, Dhaka. Dhaka: Bangladesh PMO Portal. Retrieved from https://pmo.portal.gov.bd/sites/default/files/files/pmo.portal.gov.bd/pm_speech/a4713357_62c7_4454_a57c_a05b8452c9bc/intl_sufi_conf_140215.pdf

- Whitehead, A. (1997). Duty does not permit repentance - The butchers of Calcutta. Kolkata: The Indian Express.

- Zahed, I. U. (2013). Conflict between government and the indigenous people of Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science, 16(5), 97-102. Retrieved from http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol16-issue5/O01658691.pdf

About Author: Sumit Roy

Sumit Roy is an independent analyst and his areas of interest include international geopolitics, national security and current affairs. He is also a keen watcher of the events in Bangladesh.

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