Muslim culture in India has a uniformity about it that even reaches into regions you might not expect it to. Friends of mine from Hyderabad, and deeper south have an Urdu cultural orientation that is present even as close to home as Bihar. Of course, that’s not to say that they don’t also absorb local cultures and languages, they do, and are often more fluent in the language of the place, rather than Urdu. This is happening more and more, but they share a cultural connection that is evident even among the non-Bengali Muslims in Bengal – in their food, customs, mannerisms, and etiquette and in the way they model themselves on modes that are not ‘indigenous’, for lack of a better word. Many ‘Muslim’ families in Bengal were originally Urdu speaking. The Nawabs and Zamindars all over the place from Jolpaiguri to Joidapur were of course usually so, but so were many ordinary citizens in the Mughal cities of Chittagong, Murshidabad and Dhaka. In Kolkata and Malda an Urdu speaking Muslim gentry existed and still does, though much smaller now. These were the Suhrawardys and the Mohammed Ali’s of Bogra.
This is the Aligarh-Luknow-UP centric Classical Indo-Muslim culture with strong Mughal leanings. It incorporates Agra, Delhi and Lahore as well, but doesn’t include, for instance, Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. It also has an ethnic component, though this is thoroughly diluted and absurdly racist. All across India Muslim culture developed a similar look and feel, incubated almost in a fortress mentality that kept it apart from its surroundings. The exclusivity, born out of cultural, ethnic and religious prejudices, has meant that Muslims from Bombay to Bengal often see themselves as belonging to a shared legacy, but one different from the ethno-linguistic environments they are living in. Muslim folk stories are often about Middle Eastern people, are of Middle Eastern events and places, and include even pre-Muslim parables from other Muslim lands, like the story of Rustum. They are rarely connected to the legends and stories of the place – and these are often relegated as ‘Hindu’ stories. Muslim moral and intellectual inspiration is usually sought outside of the Indian Reference, and if they are Indian, they are usually Muslims Sufis and Saints, never, for instance, Kautilya or Sri Choitonno. In ‘twilight zone’ like surrealism, Muslim India removes itself from India’s history and puts itself in an India that is part-Persia, part-Afghanistan part-Arabia, sometimes even part-Turkey. Indo-Muslim civilisation certainly has those parts, but it’s mostly Indian, a thing that is too easily ignored. But this isn’t peculiar. It’s a Muslim thing worldwide. It’s Pan- Islamism – a world without divisions and differences: a community of faith. We share these stories and this sense of common space, to give us a social cohesion that is probably too many parts fantasy (even if it there is some truth in it) to be taken seriously anymore. But it keeps us together. Perhaps in a time when there was less nationalism and fewer borders, it was even mostly true.
But there are cultural and linguistic factors that are far less arbitrary than lines on maps. And identity is a complex phenomenon. In India, Muslims were always the minority even when they were rulers and so an isolationist colonial attitude was perhaps inevitable. But what probably made assimilation more complicated were the clearly defined ethno-religious lines in Indian society. When Muslims arrived on the scene, newcomer and convert alike, they tended to hover above, rather than be able to sink into these formations even if they wanted to, and most often they didn’t. Ethno-religious nationhood is not so bizarre when you consider that in Malaysia today, you qualify as a ‘Bumiputra’, if you are both Malay and Muslim. By this definition, a Chinese Muslim Malaysian who has lived there for four generations is never an insider. But more oddly, neither is the Malay Christian or Malay Buddhist, who’s family has been there since the beginning of the Malay Chronicles and is as Bumiputra as it gets.
Imagined communities can have high walls.
Muslim nationhood in India happened in two distinct waves. The Sultanate era, and the Mughal era – separated by about 400 years. The earlier wave had actually begun to sink in to the soil of India, developing their own merged culture and language, and creating their own stratifications and castes when they were violently interrupted by the Mughal invasion.
This process took in Bengal in a way that it didn’t in many other places in India. A little over a hundred years and many independence struggles after the Delhi Sultanate conquered Bengal, the Sultanatiya-i-Bangala, began in 1352, quite decisively as a local Muslim kingdom. The largest mosque in all of ‘Al Hind’ at the time was Adina Mosque in today’s Pandua, Bengal. It was built by Sikander Shah the second Sultan, and was built in a carefully blended style of Pala, Islamic and pre-Islamic Persian influences. This new kingdom made a bold and confident statement of distinction from its erstwhile rulers in Delhi, and did so by aligning itself to Bengal’s culture. But it was also a ploy for support. By connecting themselves to the Pala and Sena dynasties, they were carving a place for themselves in the natural order of Bengali politics and so would have been received familiarly. This must’ve worked; it’s inconceivable how they would’ve had the manpower to resist repeated attempts by Delhi to recapture it otherwise.
This assimilation evolved into a great many syncretic traditions and mutual appreciation. It did, in its own way, replenish a Bengali culture heavily indebted to Buddhism. Sufis rushed to the delta, curious about the tantric wisdom of the Buddhist and Hindu monks. The Jizya on non-Muslims was abolished. The new Bangla language and its nascent literature was patronised by the state, as was Bengali architectural and sculptural arts. The kings were followers of Sufism but the Boishnob prophet Sri Chaitonno received state protection to propagate his new religion. Religious freedom and respect is evidenced. Alongside, many features of a modern state with institutions seemed to be emerging, and in the medieval age of empires and conquests, this was something of an anomaly.
This Bengali milieu – pluralistic, multi-faithed and multi ethnic in its composition, fused into a nation sometime in the 15th Century. But did the Sultanate create a Bengali nation or did a self-aware Bengali nation already exist since at least the time of Shashonko? Did it run through the Pala and Sena kingdoms of Gaur-Bongo, the Chandra realm of Shomatato-Harikela and to the Vangaladesa of the Dravidian Cholas – to later be reborn in the Muslim State of Bangala? Or has it been there since the adopted son’s of Bali created the five eastern kingdoms of Anga, Banga, Kalinga, Pundra and Sumha, before they were conquered by Karna and destroyed by Arjuna? But whatever the order, the result was an identity both new and original at the same time. Sri Choitonno, Hossain Shah, the Bauls, the Boishnob, the Fakirs, all seem to find a place of convergence where Vishnu is to Allah what Allah is to Bidhata, and they shared their values and their storiesin a shared language.
In the Mughal age, when ‘Rajputised’ Muslim Turkmen ruled in a Persian tongue, Subh-e-Bangala was chatting away in 16th Century Bangla and fermenting dissent to the point of being dubbed ‘the turbulent province’.Cultural fissures were in play then too, with much derision heaped upon Bengalis, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, by the Mughals. The Bengali-Pathan dynasties and the BaroBhuiyans mounted a last-ditch resistance against the invaders, but the Mughals won and brought their All-India Muslim Way into Bengal with them. Suddenly they were speaking foreign languages in the courts and the buildings no longer had the characteristic elegance of Pala ‘karokarjo’.
Then the British came and we went on to become a persistent thorn in their side as well. The Fakir-Shonnashi uprising of the late 1700’s, also a multi-faith ‘jukto’ effort against colonialism, frustrated British efforts for over a decade. All of India ultimately faced up to the sub-human brutality of the Raj, but so much dissent came out of Bengal alone, that the shiploads of political prisoners and rebels like BaghaMatin and BarindroGhosh, exiled to the infamous Cellular Jail at Port Blair gave the city a Bengali majority, which it still has.ButBengali nationalism continued to be enriched during the British period. It also developed its Vedic hue during this time, sincemany brilliant minds were from urban Hindu backgrounds or Hindu landed aristocracies – intellectuals educated and patronised by the English schooling system. The Muslims drop out of this new scene, clinging to a fading superiority complex.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to these Renaissance men and women. They read Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Chaitanya’sArthashastra, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Jeffersonian ideals, Shakespeare, Valmiki, Marx. They studied the IRA, watched as Japan defeated Russia; they read Rumi and Hafez, the Quran, the Bible and the Vedas, followed Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Vivekannada and became, in many cases, members of the BrammoShomaj or the Indian National Army. They were an India-wide phenomenon eventually, but it began in the teahouses and coffee shops of Kolkata. They were the titans of Bengali culture. Her champions. They became writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, scientists, revolutionaries, philosophers, freedom fighters, lawyers, journalists, leaders, professors, reformers, Nobel laureates, inventors and artists. They developed acute political consciousness and a taste for revolution. This was a Bengali experience, albeit re-made in a Hindu image.
The traces of fault lines that were drawn between ‘Bengali’ and ‘Muslim’, by MughalAshrafs and Hindu puritans – long after the Sultanate’s sublime social experiment had ended – to be exploited by the British during these ultra – nationalistic times, took us away to Pakistan just as a United Independent Bengal came within kissing distance in 1947. But Bengali nationalism endures – its roots sunk deep enough to see that a single Muslim Identity is not quite representative enough. The Pakistani administration’s ethno-linguistic chauvinism was just the push needed to set off a process that led to the crystallisation of a Bengali political identity and a final detachment from that unitary Muslim culture. In what is triumph of natural identities over imposed ones, we left behind both nations of the ill-fitted two-nation theory, preferring instead to belong to a Bengali legacy that stretches deep into the past – to the Vedas and beyond. And like all of those people before us, we established an independent entity to house it in.
But that’s not the wonder of it; the wonder is that it only happened in Bengal.
Zeeshan Khan writes from Brisbane, Australia.