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Becoming Hindus and Muslims (Reading The Cultural Encounter in Bengal 1342-1905)

Becoming Hindus and Muslims (Reading The Cultural Encounter in Bengal 1342-1905)
Item Code: NAK618
Author: Saumya Dey
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: Bengali Text with English Translation
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9788121512909
Pages: 314
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch

About the Book


This book begins by interrogating the assumption that coherent religious identities emerged in the Indian subcontinent only in the nine-teenth century, when the colonial state initiated the census and made it necessary for Indians determinately to identify themselves as Hindus or Muslims. The author studies the medieval Bengali kavyas and discerns the beginnings or religious identities in them. The kavyas thus, he argues, formed an emotional inheritance which impacted the literature and sense or history which emerged in colonial Bengal under European influence. In the second-hall' or the nineteenth century, this new literature, teamed with a freshly acquired historical consciousness, demonstrated the various ways in which the contemporary Hindu and Muslim intelligentsia tried to make sense or each other. In the process, the literature or the period, the book suggests, both reflected and aided the gradual 'becoming' or Hindus and Muslims as political communities.


Saumya Dev did his Ph.D at the Centre for Historical Studies. Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. He is currently working as a Senior Research Associate at Jindal Global Business School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.




WORKING HALF A CENTURY AGO, E.P. Thompson demonstrated that the working class did not explode upon history, fully formed and with an innate revolutionary consciousness, with the emergence of industrial civilisation. Thus, his masterpiece traced what things shaped the working class and, more importantly, how it shaped itself, how "it was present at its own making." Like Thompson, we too wish to study an "active process" and establish that Hindus and Muslims did not "rise like the sun" at the appointed moment- the coming of colonialism to the Indian subcontinent. Instead, they "became" through a great diversity of consciously made choices. The word "becoming," as a result, and the process implied by it, will form the core of our methodology. Because, like Heidegger, we too believe that history is derivation from a past and "stands in the context of a becoming." We find it implausible that the immense numbers of the subcontinent discovered their passionately contested religious allegiances suddenly in the nineteenth century upon being prodded by the white man. For long this has been the narrative, the result of a "primacy attributed to colonialism in forming contemporary Indian identities.?" An example of this primacy is Sandria Freitag's argument that the "process of forging group identities" was "part prompted by the efforts of an alien British administration to identify the constituent units in Indian society." As a result, she says, "drawing on European historical experience, the administrators applied the collective labels 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' to groups who were far from homogeneous communities.?" An understanding as Freitag assumes that before the arrival of colonialism Indians were either not aware of or not using the group labels "Hindu" and "Muslim." Her kind of analysis is also completely oblivious of cultural encounters which began with the arrival of Islamic ideas and modes of worship in India. Hence, a narrative like the one presented by Freitag fails to explain the perceptions of, or prejudices for, each other we find individuals or groups calling themselves "Hindus" and "Muslims" holding and expressing long before an alien administration arrived on the Indian scene. Though it ought to, if these group labels were, after all, fabricated by colonialism. We do not deny, however, that the colonial state's interventions and the vocabulary used by it to describe the community signifiers helped the process of consolidation of individuals under collective labels. Freitag's narrative also does not explain the coexistence of multiple codes of consciousness, of conflict and concord, friction and accommodation which always marked, and still marks, the interaction of Hindus and Muslims. Nor can we gather from it as to why, from the very beginnings of political agitation in colonial India, the language employed by the protagonists was one of cultural exclusivity. Our tale will take an amble down the long centuries and look for answers to these questions in leaves of verse and prose etched in a corner of the pre-colonial subcontinent-Bengal. We will observe the becoming of the "Hindus" and "Muslims" and witness how our protagonists were consciously at work to become what they did. We will deal at length with their cultural encounters long before the colonial official strode in with the census register. Like Thompson's workers, we will find them present at their own becoming.


Today, Bengali speaking Muslims form one of the largest Muslim communities in the world. The result is Bangladesh, located thousands of miles away from the desert peninsula where Islam had its beginnings, being the third largest Muslim country in absolute demographic terms. Legend has it that the region fell to Turkish cavalrymen on a fateful day in the year 1204. The ensuing centuries saw the rule of the Ilyas Shahis and the Husain Shahis. They were followed by the Mughals who established their sway over Bengal in the final decades of the sixteenth century. These centuries saw the expansion of Islam in this easternmost margin of the subcontinent. Apparently, the diffusion of Islam in Bengal was gradual. Richard M. Eaton locates its final spurt in the decades following the establishment of Mughal rule. As understood by him, the process was driven by the promotion and expansion of the agrarian economy in the region by the new state.


Islam, planted in the fertile deltaic soil of Bengal, became of it. This belief system, as also the cultural complex surrounding it, expressed itself in the language of the soil. Alongside, Bengali grew in refinement and firmly established itself as a literary language under the rule of the Muslim dynasties. Fourteenth century onwards, the language cast forth a prolific kavya tradition. Mangala kavyas and vijaya kavyas were the two main strands that twined to make this luxuriant vine. The former were mainly devotional odes to the various demigods and goddesses while the latter sang their triumph or of the Prophet of Islam. Enduring till the eighteenth century, the tradition was authored and nurtured by both non-Muslim and Muslim hands. The kavyas form a voluble repository of the universe of emotions and experience of' the age and reveal its constant becoming. They, thus, provide the ideal material with which to illustrate the process of the becoming of "Hindus" and "Muslims." A substantial part of this book is based on the material available in these texts.


Eaton posits Islam as contriving itself into a web of beliefs which were yet indeterminate and unself-conscious. As seen by him, the Islamic deity was first identified with the existing deities and in the course of time supplanted them. As he claims, "one readily sees local cosmologies expanding in order to accommodate new superhuman beings introduced by foreign Muslims"? in the corpus of the pre-modern literature produced in Bengali. He, however, cites no concrete evidence or source to cast light on the complex mechanisms of this process. All Eaton does to substantiate his thesi is to provide us with a scrap from an East Bengal ballad. 10 What aided this process of accommodation was also the fact that, as he avers, there were groups of people in Eastern Bengal who had not yet been incorporated in the Hindu social order. This was the case, for example, in Chittagong.!' We will, thus, begin by trying to form an idea of the social organisation and religious beliefs of the region from a set of contemporary texts. Then, we will attempt to get a measure of the perception of Islam from the kavyas of non-Muslim authorship. We will note that they yield a weave of emotions, sentiments and anxieties which makes for a cogent religious cosmos. This cosmos has sharply defined deities enshrined within its bounds and yields evidence that religious identities had had their beginnings. Beginning with the fourteenth century, Bengal saw the emergence of the cult of numerous folk deities. Mostly strong willed and irascible goddesses, it does not appear to us that they were very amenable to identification with any deity from without the bounds of their cosmos. The kavyas of non-Muslim authorship, thus, evince a cultural vocabulary which is very conscious of its distinctiveness, though, as we will see, it was sometimes permeated with ambiguities and ambivalences. Most importantly, we have their authors calling themselves and their audience "Hindu" in a denominational sense. They also, apparently, are cognizant of Islam forming a distinct complex of culture and belief. These description of the practices and professions of the Muslims are borne out very well by Kavi Kankan Mukunda in the Chandimangal kavya. The kavyas of non-Muslim authorship also often associate Islam with peoples of foreign provenance, such as Mughals and Pathans, and sometimes with state-power represented in the form of some zealot qazi. In the end, they betray anxieties, as done by the authors of Manasa Mangal and Sri Chaitanya Bhagpat when they put in their tales the archetypal zealot qazi bent on effacing what he terms Hinduani. It seems obvious that in some form the presence of Islam was contributing to the becoming of the "Hindu." One study, for example, notes the Vaishnavas calling themselves "Hindu" only when engaging with the Muslims."


The poets of the age who strove to be "Muslim" also perceive a cultural cosmos which is parallel and different. This is what someone like Alaol, a poet in the far off court of Arakan, apparently does when he mentions Hinduvani as being one of the several things that his guru was versed in." Unlike what is claimed by Eaton, the verses of these poets too reveal no perceptible sign that any process of conflation of deities across cosmogonies was on. True, we have one Daulat Qazi referring to Allah with the Sanskritic sobriquet of niranjan.14 But Qazi is also unflinchingly sure that it is shari'ali alone that can lead to this deity. It is as though the poets of the age are speaking with the aid of two very distinctive cultural thesauri and are acutely aware of the fact. Only, they will often look for a cognate in the other's thesaurus for a word or an artifact drawn from their own.










The Discourses Emerge, 1342-1757




The Inheritance and Auguries, 1757-1857




Becoming Hindus, 1857-1905




Becoming Muslims, 1857-1905











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