British Rule in Bengal

Time Period: 1757-1947

The greatest disruption in Bengal’s history began on June 23, 1757 when the East India Company (an English mercantile company) defeated Nawab Siraj-ud Daulah and became the de-facto ruler of Bengal. Territorial rule by a trading company resulted in the commercialization of power and the effects of the British rule were highly destructive.

As historian R.C. Dutt noted:

The people of Bengal had been used to tyranny but had never lived under an oppression so far reaching in its effects, extending to every village market and every manufacturer’s loom. They had been used to arbitrary acts from men in power but had never suffered from a system which touched their trades, their occupations, their lives so closely. The springs of their industry were stopped; the sources of their wealth dried up.

The plunder of Bengal directly contributed to the industrial revolution in England. The capital amassed in Bengal was invested in nascent British industries and, ultimately, resulted in the de-industrialization of the Bangladesh region. The muslin industry virtually disappeared as a result of British rule.

In the long run, British rule transformed traditional South Asian society immensely. The introduction of British law, a modern bureaucracy, new modes of communication, the English language, a modern education system, and the opening of local markets to international trade created new horizons for development in various spheres of life. New ideas originating from the West produced intellectual movements which have often been compared those of the European Renaissance. Furthermore, the idea of “Pax Britannica” which was imposed on South Asia, created a universal empire that brought different areas of the subcontinent closer to each other.

British rule in Bengal simultaneously promoted the forces of unity and division in the society. The city-based Hindu middle classes became the fiery champions of All-India based nationalism. At the same time, the British stoked rivalries between Hindus and Muslims, which had lain dormant during the previous 500 years of Muslim rule. Class conflict between Muslim peasantry and Hindu intermediaries during Muslim rule had previously been diffused by the fact that these intermediaries themselves were agents of the Muslim rulers. Furthermore, the scope of exploitation was limited in the subsistence economy of pre-British Bengal.

Economic exploitation of Bengal provoked an intense reaction against the British Raj although grievances against the British varied from community to community. The Hindu middle classes, who referred to themselves as the Bhadralok, were the greatest beneficiary of British rule. They originated primarily from the trading classes, serving as intermediaries of revenue administration, and occupied subordinate jobs in the imperial administration.

On the other hand, the establishment of British rule deprived the immigrant Muslim aristocracy (Ashraf) of state patronage. The “Immigrant Muslim/Upper-Caste Hindu” coalition, which characterized Muslim rule, was replaced by a new coalition of British and Caste Hindus. The new land settlement policy of the British ruined the traditional Muslim landlords. The immigrant Ashraf classes, which had hitherto been disdainful of their native co-religionists, sought the political support of these downtrodden Muslim peasants (Atraf), who were being exploited by Hindu landlords and moneylenders. The Ashraf manipulated the insecurity of these less-privileged Atraf, without giving up their upper-class exclusivity.

The conflict between Atraf and Bhadrolok was reinforced by the rivalry between Hindu and Muslim middle classes for the patronage of their imperial rulers. In the 19th century, both Hindu and Muslim middle classes expanded significantly.

The expansion of the Muslim middle class was not confined to the traditional aristocracy, which consisted primarily of immigrants from other Muslim countries. British rule of Bengal contributed to the emergence of an elite class from locally-converted Muslims in the second half of the 19th century. This was facilitated by a significant expansion of jute cultivation in the Bangladesh region. The increase in jute exports benefited these surplus farmers (Jotedars) in lower-Bengal where Muslims were a majority. The economic affluence of the Jotedars encouraged the expansion of secular education among local Muslims. As a result, the number of Muslim students in Bengal increased by 74% between 1882-1883 and 1912-1913.

Faced with economic and cultural domination by the Bhadralok and the Ashraf, the Jotedars and Atraf closed rank. Despite their outward unity, this coalition was fragile.The interests and ideological orientations of the two groups were starkly. Unlike the Jotedars and Atraf, the Ashraf in Bengal spoke Urdu. The Jotedars and Atraf in Bengal wanted agrarian reforms whereas the Ashraf were staunch proponents of absentee landlordism. The Jotedars and the Atraf identified themselves with the local culture and language whereas the Ashraf were enthralled by Islamic universalism.

The internal contradictions of Muslim society were naturally mirrored in politics. Leadership of the Muslim community in Bengal belonged to the Ashraf. At the beginning of the 20th century, the problems faced by the Jotedars were of their small population size and the fact that they tried to imitate the traditional aristocracy. Because of this institutional vacuum in rural areas, it was very difficult to mobilize the Bengali Muslim masses politically. The easiest way to arousing the passions of Bengali Muslims was to appeal to religious sentiments and emotions. In this charged atmosphere, the natural leadership of the Muslim masses in Bengal fell back to the immigrant Ashraf, who owned a monopoly in religious leadership.

Political rivalries between Muslim Ashraf and Hindu Bhadralok first surfaced when the British partitioned the province of Bengal in 1905. The nascent Muslim middle class under the leadership of the Muslim Nawab of Dhaka supported the partition in hopes of gaining the patronage of their British rulers. To the Hindu Bhadralok, who had extensive economic interests on both sides of partitioned Bengal, the move to separate the Bengali-speaking areas in East Bengal and Assam was a big jolt. They viewed it as a sinister design to weaken Bengal, which was at the forefront of the struggle for subcontinental independence. The Bhadralok class idolized the idea of “Golden Bengal”.

Though initially the anti-partition movement was non-violent, the anger of the Hindu middle class soon found its expression in terrorist activities, culminating in communal riots. The partition of Bengal ultimately turned out to be a defeat for all. The Raj had to eat humble pie and annul the partition in 1911. To the Muslims middle class, the annulment of the partition was a major disappointment. It weakened faith in their British rulers. To the Hindu Bhadralok of Bengal, the annulment was a pyrrhic victory.

“The net result of these developments in Bengal during the first decade of this century, so far as the Bhadralok leadership of Bengal was concerned, lay in the exposure of its isolation, its inner contradictions and the essentially opportunistic character of its politics.”

The communal politics of confrontation and violence, which erupted during the partition of Bengal, were interrupted by a brief honeymoon during the non-cooperation movement led by the Indian National Congress and the Khilafat movement of the Indian Muslims during the 1920’s. The charismatic leader Chitta Ranjan Das had the foresight to appreciate the alienation of the Muslim middle classes. In 1923, Das signed a pact with Fazlul Huq, Suhrawardy and other Muslim leaders. The Bengal Pact, as it was known, provided guarantees for representation of Muslims in politics and administration. However, the spirit of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement evaporated with the death of Das in 1925, leading to an intense communal backlash

Communal problems were not unique to Bengal however. They became the main issue in All-India politics. As communal tensions mounted in the 1930’s, the Muslim Ashraf of Bengal, who had close ties with the Muslim leadership in other parts of the sub-continent, pursued a policy of communal confrontation.

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