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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2490

Letter from America: Bengal under the English Rule (1757-1905) – Part 2

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

As noted earlier, an analysis of the post-Nawabi period in Bengal shows the very dismal state of Muslims. They had not only lost the political leadership at the top but had also fallen behind in all other counts.

As William Hunter’s report showed, Muslim upper and educated class before the EIC rule held mostly four important positions – defense, tax and revenue collection (which, as we have already noted, was transferred to Hindus by the time Nawab Murshid Kuli Khan), judicial and political administration. (W.W. Hunter, The Indian Musulmans, 3rd ed. London (1876)) With the replacement of the Muslim local nawabs and zamindars by the Hindu new masters, many Muslims started losing their jobs, and their economic conditions suffered miserably. With the EIC acquisition of Muslim Waqf properties through a series of laws enacted between 1793 and 1828, Muslim education, social and cultural institutions started suffering also. (A. R. Mallick, British Policy and the Muslims of Bengal, Dacca (1961), p. 32-3)

When English eventually replaced Farsi as the official language, Muslims found themselves in much disadvantage in the government employment sector, and they were no match against better educated and prepared Hindus. Between 1793 and 1814, the task of English education was essentially led by Christian missionaries, who with their too obvious aggressive missionary zeal and anti-Muslim bias helped further to discourage Muslim parents from sending their children to such English institutes. Many conservative Hindus, too, did not like to send their children to those Christian missionary schools.

For educated Hindus replacing Farsi with English was, however, not as emotionally challenging as it was for most Muslims, who resisted the change for a plethora of reasons. It is always difficult for the vanquished to adore anything from the victor. The Hindus, on the other hand, who were, politically speaking, second-class during the Muslim rule of India, saw the emerging opportunity with the old order being replaced with the new, and grabbed it faster and strongly. To further accelerate their climb up on the new ladder, set by the EIC, and later the British Raj, some of the Hindus did not mind even converting to Christianity.

In his doctoral work Professor Anisuzzaman challenged the notion that Muslims lagged behind Hindus in picking up English education on grounds of religion. With the closure of Islamic endowments and institutions, and lack of funding from the top, especially the EIC, the number of Muslim students declined. (Anisuzzaman, op. cit.,pp. 28-36)

But more importantly, it was the poor economic condition of the Muslim peasants overall which did not allow them to send their children to modern English schools. For them to have some rudimentary Islamic education in the madrasa and then help out in the agricultural sector was considered more fruitful. Most of the schools where English was initially taught in the early 19th century were also located in and around Calcutta, and not around northern and eastern parts of Bengal where Muslims comprised a solid majority. As Professor A.R. Mallick argued, the EIC educational policy favored the Hindus rather than the Muslims. (Op. cit., pp. 189-93) Even when in 1833, English was included as a subject within the madrasa curriculum it did not help much in improving literacy rate amongst Muslims of Bengal, again because of poverty.

Economically, the Hindu community was better off during the EIC rule and could, therefore, afford to send its children to schools to get better educated, which helped them to get employed easily. These educated Hindus also favored their own community in every field further narrowing down the scope for upward mobility amongst the already disadvantaged Muslim community. A Hindu zamindar would often discourage Muslim education in his territory and would rather force a brilliant Muslim student who was desirous of attending college to become Magistrate one day to work in his office as a clerk or an attendant. If the Muslim father resisted such suggestions, often times he would be punished and his properties grabbed by the zamindar.

By 1851 only two Muslim students appeared in the Junior Scholarship Examinations from Kolkata Madrasa (one was Abdool Luteef). In the same period, likewise, only two Muslim students appeared in the same exam from Hooghly College, established by philanthropist Haji Mohsin. (Bimanbehari Majumdar, History of Political Thought, Calcutta (1934), vol. 1, p. 392) It is also worth noting here that tuition fees charged in madrasas were less than a quarter compared to Hindu schools where English was taught. But English was not introduced in Calcutta Madrasa until 1854. By 1856, the Muslim students comprised only about ten percent of the entire student population of Bengal – e.g., 731 out of a total of 7216. (Mallick, op. cit., pp. 277-8) In the school year of 1856-57 a total of 158 Muslim students took the English education and 7 passed the Junior Scholarship Exam in 1856. (ibid., pp. 253-5)

The Hindu community also had community leaders like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra who not only approved the British policy in Bengal, but also encouraged its folks to quickly adopt the English education which would benefit them in every aspect, and this their community did almost religiously. In 1816, Ram Mohan Roy collaborated with English educationists to establish the Hindu College. The graduates of this college played a vital role later. In 1824 the Sanskrit College was established to preserve and educate on Hindu culture.

Under British patronage, the history of India started to be rewritten distorting facts, periodizing her history along religious lines, showing that the majority Hindus were better off under British rule compared to under Muslim rule. Many of the educated Hindus enthusiastically participated in this divide-and-rule game, seeding the ground for partition of India in 1947. The poisonous role of Bengali Hindu writers like Bankim Chandra was highly problematic who helped to further widen the religious divide. The middle-class Hindus created social clubs, exclusively for Hindus, to propagate Hindutvadi philosophy, towards a future Hindu (Ram) Raj. Even the latter-formed so-called revolutionary, essentially terrorist, cells suffered from distinct anti-Muslim bias and Hindutvadi ideas. (Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom, Calcutta (1959), pp. 4-5) In 1882, Dayanand Saraswati organized a movement to ban slaughter of cows in India. And then in 1885 when Bal Gangadhar Tilak introduced Shivaji festival probably the death-bell for a united India was rung. As many of the Hindu extremists, Hindutvadis, became important party members within the Indian National Congress, it was not a question of if but when the country would be sliced along religious lines.

In contrast, Muslims were disorganized centrally and their struggles were mostly economic-centric and local, which were directed against oppressive British Raj and their planters, traders and agents – the zamindars and the mahajons. Although the local agents were all Hindus, the revolt movement was never anti-Hindu by any definition. Many Muslim leaders, especially the religious ones, did not call for or dream about the partition of India, and surely not Bengal, along religious lines, and as a matter of fact opposed it wholeheartedly almost to the bitter end.

Muslim community could not compete with and, thus, lagged behind the Hindu community without a modern, savvy intelligentsia, an educated middle class that has learned English and a bourgeoisie, on a substantial scale. What they needed was an intellectual uprising. And this was provided by a very unlikely character – a non-Bengali from Delhi by the name of Sir Syed Ahmed (1817-1898), who in so many ways was what Raja Ram Mohan Roy was for the Hindus of the early 19th century. He, too, like Roy, was a great admirer of the British Raj, and felt that salvation of Muslims lied in English education and cooperation, and not resistance or revolt.

In 1858, Sir Syed Ahmed founded a modern school in Muradabad. In 1864 he established the Translation Society. In 1869 he published a newspaper – Mohamedan Social Reformer. In 1873, he founded the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh, which was to become later Aligarh University and to breed scores of luminous leaders who led the cause of Muslim subjects under the British Raj.

Not to be overlooked here is also the role of Nawab Bahadur Abdool Luteef Khan (1828-93) of Faridpur who was the first Bengali Muslim to have founded in 1866 the Mohamedan Literary Society in Calcutta, which had dual objectives: discussion around western (European) culture so as to encourage and reform Muslim thinking along that line, and to advise the British Raj through its advisory committees on matters pertaining to Muslims.

It was the first of its kind in entire India for the Muslim community. Within four years its membership grew to 500. (Anisuzzaman, op. cit., p. 85)

The titles of Nawab and later Nawab Bahadur were bestowed on Abdool Luteef in 1880 and 1887, respectively, by the British Raj. He, too, like Sir Syed felt that English education was a must for Muslims for moving up the social and economic ladder. He vigorously campaigned for higher education of Muslims, and as a result of his work, the famous all-exclusive Hindu College in Calcutta was renamed Presidency College in which for the first time Muslims could enter.

As noted above, Sir Syed’s Translation Society was contemporary to Luteef’s Literary Society, which enjoyed some financial benefits from the government, usually from the office of the Lt. Governor of Bengal. Many English men of high rank within the British Raj used to join in its meetings. Many Muslim dignitaries like the Sultan of Mysore, Nawab of Oudh (Ajodhya), Nizams of Hyderabad and Murshidabad were its active members.

Many of the Literary Society’s pro-British Raj activities ran opposite to those propagated by more conservative elements within the Muslim society which advocated self-rule and resistance and not subjugation and collaboration. It also opposed views of Justice Syed Ameer Ali who had founded the National Mohamedan Association in 1877 and was highly critical of educational policy of the British Raj on matters pertaining to Muslims.

It is obvious that there were serious divisions and disagreements within the Muslim community – from top to bottom. Many of the pro-British Muslim subjects like Sir Syed did not want to join in the national convention for Indian Muslims in 1882 that was called by the National Mohamedan Association.

Nevertheless, the efforts of pro-British pioneers within the Muslim community paid off to better the dismal economic condition of their lot. The awareness level about the benefit of English education under the Raj was much higher, and there were more educated people within the community. With better economy, esp. in the late 18th century, as a result of growing demand of jute and rice, which were mostly produced in Muslim-majority East Bengal, the overall condition of Muslims started taking an upturn. Many of the previously poor Muslim peasants now for the first time could afford to send their children for higher education. Hunter’s report also provided the necessary background for the British Raj to establish madrasas in Chittagong, Rajshahi and Dhaka where English was taught. (Anisuzzaman, op. cit., p. 89) The inclusion of Bengali, Farsi and Arabic subjects as part of the optional curriculum for the bachelor’s degree in Calcutta University and appointment of Muslim teachers for teaching English at the high school level greatly reduced the educational backwardness of Muslims. The scholarship from the Haji Mohammad Mohsin Fund also helped greatly to spread education amongst poor Muslims who previously could not afford paying the tuition and boarding bills.

As a result, in 1871, 14.7% of the Muslim population in Bengal had education at school and college levels. This number rose up to 23.8% by 1881-2. But such advances in literacy rate did not necessarily translate into higher percentage of government jobs since there was no quota system for Muslims in the employment sector, and they had to compete with Hindus for such jobs.

With competition in jobs came rivalry – social and political, and the short-lived division of Bengal in 1905, which was popular amongst most Muslims but unpopular with Hindus who felt that their monopoly in Calcutta-based trading and commerce was now threatened by raw material producing East Bengal. This rivalry would lead to the foundation of the All India Muslim League in 1906 as a counter weight to the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress, which was formed much earlier, and eventually to the emergence of a truncated Pakistan with two wings – East Pakistan (formed mostly out of East Bengal) and West Pakistan (which comprised parts of the territories of Punjab, Sindh, North-West Frontier and Baluchistan) separated by India in the middle.

- Asian Tribune -

Letter from America: Bengal under the English Rule (1757-1905) – Part 2
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