Political Islam and Bengal: A brief history from 1203 to 2013


The topic which was almost off the table for long is back on and it’s Islam and by some extension its political role. For the moment everyone is for ‘Islam/religion is a private issue,’ ‘political Islam is bad’, ‘We are sufis not wahabis’, ‘it’s against Jamaat-e-Islami and not Islam’, etc. To this has been added the Hifazat-e Islam challenge and its ‘medieval’ pronouncements and attendant confusion and conflict. Finally the resurgence of extremist groups like the Ansaris.

Meanwhile, the AL government is scared about the ‘Islam’ matter going out of control and the BNP has joined the Jamaat-e-Islami hoping it does get out of control. Everyone hates everyone and it’s wrong to say the Jamaat is the most hated party in town. Most hate the BNP and the AL much more and religion has become the main contention. Even human rights activism has been affected and conflict over the body count of Hifazatis has created a furore leading to the arrest of Adilur Rahman of Odhikar. The angst of a people looking for its identity and a full belly in a state which is no longer monolithic is on display. Is there one single Bangladesh?

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Many of the answers lie in history, a subject we would much rather not know. People of this region like all others in India lived through the pre-organised religion phases. And even when the central Indian rulers like the Mauryas (4th century) and the Guptas ‘took over’ (5th-6th century), the ancient belief and practicing structures remained. Most followed agriculture and nature based faiths which are still alive in many of our practices.

Politically, Sasanka (590-625) was the first independent ruler of Bengal and is given credit for fighting off North Indian invaders and later invading it. His faith is actually controversial according to some — Hindu or Buddhist — but religious categories were not so rigid then. Gopalas were the first dynastic rulers of Bengal and the first to incorporate state patronage of faith which was Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism. It incorporated much traditional religious rituals and behaviour including sympathetic magic and strong relationship with the supernatural. The Palas were close to the greatest Buddhist University of that time Nalanda University from which both Atisha Dipankar and Padmasambhaba, the father figure of Tibetan Buddhism came. The Palas were great patrons of that culture. But nothing was ever imposed and of course that was not necessary. The king’s faith was always paramount and ordinary people lived out their lives according to what they understood as faith.

The Palas (950 AD) were followed by the Senas (1095-1203) who were Hindus and they introduced caste system in Bengal but there is little evidence that Buddhists were widely repressed. As expected many learned Buddhists left as royal patronage declined, to more Buddhism friendly countries like Nepal from where the Charjapad, the first Bengali puthi was found. It was a Vajrayana Buddhist hymn collection.

No social repression was reported from this time.

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Islamic invaders came with Bakhtiyar Khilji (1203) who was part of the Delhi takeover by the Turko-Afghans. He brought in maulanas, set up madrassas and sufis who also were part of the Central Asian Islam which was less fundamental and ritualistic than the Arab variety. A few sufis may have come on their own but many were also state officials who came when the Turko-Afghans came. They were certainly part of setting up a new empire in an invaded land.

When the independent Sultans – Iliyas Shahi and Hossain Shahi (1342-1538 but it was broken by other rulers) dynasties came into being, they began a series of interactions with the local people that produced an array of syncretistic practices and cults. Vashanvisnism and the Dharma cult grew out of this which later also influenced peasant Muslims. This was a mature political move as these foreign rulers were in need of friends and as they had declared independence from the central rulers of Delhi. So friendly Hindus were a big help for their consolidation which was achieved through patronage of local culture. Subsequently, the Mughals took over Bengal and the number of Muslims also expanded.

During the Mughal era, particularly under Akbar, (1556-1605) the agricultural frontier expanded particularly in South Bengal and an army of farmers came under the Mughal agricultural plan. So did the number of imperial Mughal economic agents who also doubled as religious leaders. It was during this phase that Islam also entered the bowels of society and from the faith of the foreign rulers became the identity of the ordinary people though the nature of the faith didn’t make much sense and in most cases they carried on their practices as before. There were sporadic incidents of force and reference to punishment for conversion are mentioned but clearly it was in the interest of the Mughal state that Muslimisation took place here without disturbances.

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The administrative supremacy of the East India Company over the Muslim Mughals put off many educated Muslims although it was tax and trade rights that allowed given by the Muslim Mughals which led to the British takeover. (1757) Hajj pilgrims from India brought back Arabian Islam of the Wahabi variety which led to the anti-British militancy of Haji Shariatullah, Titu Mir and the Faraiji movement in the early 19th century. The converted peasants of the Mughals now became an organising force under the Wahabis. So Persian Islam of Kahljis entered as victors while Arabian Islam emerged after the defeat through the Wahabis. It’s no accident that during the first 100 years, Muslim radicals fought the British but after the Sepoy Mutiny began to cooperate with the British.

The Muslim revivalist movement was nationalist in objective but its main enemy was the Hindus, not the Brits. The Aligarh movement is the best example.

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Bengali Islam is another mix and used to be called “Popular Islam’ meaning it had non-Islamic elements drawn from various local sources. In fact we have always had ‘popular Hinduism’, ‘popular Buddhism’, etc. We are not very rigid in any of our beliefs and don’t confront conflicting or negotiate theologies. We accept as many as possible like all true villagers which is our root identity. The striking level of intolerance and brutality that we display in our public and private space is also rural and our real conflict is with urban attitudes. Our hyper-emotional celebration of socio-political positions are rooted in a peasant unwillingness to engage intellectually with ideas.

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The rulers decide what the state or public religion is but the people decide their own religion whatever that is. Religion is a way of life and runs deep because it also helps people survive psychologically. After 1972, when secularism was introduced in the constitution, it faced social rejection because it was commonly understood as ‘anti-religious” rather than “non-communal” which was the intent. It also means that people don’t want the religious space be derived from the political space. People have their own ideas about a social situation. For, example in Sheikh Mujib’s autobiography it’s obvious that the conflict between Hindu majority and Muslim minority was high back in those days and it affected the leader’s world view and politics. The conflict was a reality and Sheikh Mujib expressed that rather than gloss over it as some intellectuals do. In 1972, it was the Soviet inspired Communist party of India who pushed this component and later helped initiate one-party rule. These people, political failures all, had no link with reality and used the AL to gain reflected power.

To credit the Jamaat-e-islami and the BNP for creating the religious ‘issue’s is overestimating them. The fear of ordinary people that religion will be taken away by some power is always there. In 1971 few Bengal Muslims were concerned about the quality of their faith no matter how kafir the Pakistanis thought of them. Yet the anxiety about losing faith arrived when the post-1972 governance crumbled.  They will not bother as long as their faith world is not perceived as threatened right or wrong through politics.

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Religion has always been part of the political management system of Bengal throughout history. Political Islam is not a new concoction but a recycled version of the past of religion serving the state. The conflict between people and the politics is the one which has remained unchanged. No matter who is in power, there will be conflict between the two.

Source: Bd news24


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