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Chapter IX PDF Print E-mail
Written by Syed Sajjad Husain   
The whole sequence of events from the sowing of the seeds of conspiracy to its final flowering in 1971 had been leavened by the creed of Bengali nationalism. Intellectuals and students swore by it, some actually sincerely dedicating themselves to its service, convincing themselves that in it lay the salvation of their race. Here again was something, part myth and part truth, which was never subjected to logical analysis, or dispassionate examination. Its adherents brought to bear upon it a blind faith approximating to religious obscurantism; those who opposed it made the cardinal error of under-estimating its power and influence among the young and underrating its potentialities as explosive ammunition. I would confess myself that although I had perceived how dangerous it could prove, I did not give it the importance it had already acquired in the eyes of our youth, and found myself caught unprepared when the explosion finally came.

‘ ... but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all poison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.’ - Shakespeare

The peculiar brand of nationalism which was employed as a weapon against Pakistan in the Awami League’s campaign is difficult to understand except as a political ruse. Linguistic nationalism can have its own mystique; it can inspire men to heroism; it can breed a lofty idealism; it can provoke wars, inter-communal conflicts, and civil strife. But was Bengali nationalism a nationalism in this sense?
We have always thought and felt, and maintain even today, that in the context of the subcontinent with the complex pattern of its history, feelings of group solidarity based on religion and historical memories are a stronger force than linguistic bonds. Occasional conflicts between different language groups such as the Assamese and Bengalis, Hindi and non-Hindi areas, have been noticed in recent times, but they were wholly unknown even in the nineteenth century. Regionalism of a kind flourished, explainable more in terms of geography and religion than in terms of language. India has always been a mosaic of states and nationalities, upon which from time to time powerful rulers have tried to impose some kind of administrative unity. The ancient Maurya empire was no more based on language than was the Mughal or the British empire. Every time central control weakened, the empire split into fragments; the fragments themselves were not linguistic, and owed their size and character to the personality and influence of the dissident chiefs. The Chola and Chera kingdoms in the south in the pre-Muslim period, the Vijayanagar kingdom which survived into the Muslim period, the Bahamani kingdom and the fragments into which it split later, the Maratta dominion, the Khalsa or Sikh kingdom, the kingdom of Bengal-to mention only a few---did not correspond with any well-known or recognisable linguistic boundaries. They were regional principalities with their limits defined by the power of the ruling chief, expanding or contracting according as the strength of his arms waxed or waned.

The kingdom or Sultanate of Bengal, whose name is deceptively linguistic as well as geographical, comprised areas now situated in the Hindi-speaking province of Bihar and the Oriya-speaking province of Orissa. Its eastern periphery extended into Assamese territory. Except for the name it differed in no material respect from the principalities carved out of the Mughal or the earlier pre-Mughal empire at the Centre by powerful dissident Viceroys who set themselves up as independent rulers. No historian either Muslim or British has spoken of language playing a part in the rise and growth of these regional states. The Marattas were a West-Indian group of fanatical Hindus, the Sikhs religious community recently converted from Hinduism, the former could perhaps lay some semblance of a claim to being a racial group; the Sikhs were racially of the same ethnic extraction as the Punjabi Muslims.

India had a multitude of races; but race and language were not coterminous. The huge northern tract stretching, say, from the western borders of Bihar to the eastern borders of the Punjab was a cauldron of races and languages. If the languages spoken could be treated as variant forms of basic Hindustani, what common description could fit the variety of racial groups seen here? The Rajputs had a purer strain of Aryan blood in their veins than the others. Around the capital city of Delhi and in and around such cosmopolitan centres as Agra, Lucknow and Allahabad could be noticed a mixture of many racial characteristics. The descendants of Aryans mingled with the descendants of Turks, Mughals, Persians and Pathans.

This pattern of language and race intermingling was repeated also in the south. The four principal languages, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kanarese, do not correspond to racial divisions. The dominant racial group in the south is Dravidian, and the languages, too, are Dravidian in origin. But the political history of the south did not follow either a racial or a linguistic line. A vague north-south sentiment has always existed but it is not to be explained in terms of race or language. The semi-independent principality of Hyderabad in the British period used to contain a fair proportion of Muslim inhabitants descended from the northern Mughals and Turks and Afghans; the language they spoke was Urdu. Yet they shared the south’s suspicion of the north to the same degree as the Dravidians. When in the late twenties or thirties of the present century, there was a proposal to invite settlers from Bihar to correct the imbalance between Hindu and Muslim communities, it was strongly opposed by the local Muslims. Echoes of the old Mulki versus Ghair-Mulki or local versus non-local issue are heard occasionally even today.

Conditions in the Indian subcontinent to this day resemble the situation that obtained in Europe at the end of the Middle ages after the disintegration of the Roman empire. Chaucer in England, Dante in Italy, Rabelais in France, while cultivating their own regional language in preference to Latin, thought of themselves as Europeans first. England being an island (or rather part of an island), Chaucer had a keener awareness of his singularity as an Englishman than had Dante or Rabelais. Italy in the modern. twentieth century sense was non-existent in Dante’s day, and Dante’s patriotism, such as it was, centred round the city of Florence. These Europeans felt that transcending the regional differences of which regional languages were a manifestation, there existed a common European culture which they shared. The idea that culture in England was different from culture in France or Italy would have shocked all three of the writers named. To repeat a commonplace, the foundation of the common European culture of those days were the Graeco-Roman heritage and Christianity. Upon those foundations, there grew in the course of the next four centuries the fabric of national states reflecting language and race divisions. But not wholly, though. Switzerland is a well-known exception. Less well-known but equally significant is the example of Holland which owes its survival as a separate state largely to the play of European politics. Likewise, the Austro-Hungarian empire continued right onto the twentieth century to defy the pull of race and language. While Hungary today can be said to be an expression of Magyar nationalism, how do we account for the existence of a separate Germanic Austria? Hitler’s Auschluss did not obliterate the evidence of Austrian separatism and Austria, speaking the same language as the two German states, West Germany and East Germany has obtained international recognition for her right to a separate political life.

Believers in linguistic nationalism may not consider the Austrian or Dutch or Swiss solution ideal. But are the vicissitudes of history less important than the theoretical claims of language and race in the formation and evolution of states?
But for the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century, the history of India might have followed a course not wholly different from the pattern of European history. The dissolution of the Mughal empire might have been followed by the rise of a large number of successor states in different areas based on the influence of the dissident chiefs and the interplay of local politics. It had actually splintered into a number of such fragments. The kingdom of Ali Vardi Khan in the east comprising Bihar, Orissa, and Bengal roughly, the Nawabdoms of Agra and Oudh, the dominion of Ranjit Singh in the Punjab, the Marattas in the West, Hyderabad, Mysore---these might have survived as separate sovereign states but for the Franco-British struggle in Europe and its consequences in the subcontinent.

I am not trying to indulge in nostalgic retrospection or to justify or deplore any developments. What seems clear to me is that the rise of linguistic nationalism in India is a very recent phenomenon. The only kind of unity, apart from the unity superimposed on her by great empire-builders, which India has over had was unity deriving from her religious culture. The Maratta and the Tamil, the Rajput and the Bengali were Hindus acknowledging the supremacy of the Vedas and the Upanishads, accepting the Gita as a practical code, looking upon the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as both epic and scripture. This unity was however partial; it did not embrace the entire population; it was flawed by the existence of several million Muslims who could not possibly, without resort to apostasy, accept the Vedas, Upanishada, Gita nor even the epics. If one ignored the small Christian and Zoroastrian communities, the only bonds of unity among the diverse language and racial groups inhabiting the subcontinent were the bonds deriving from Hinduism and Islam. If you removed them, what remained appeared immediately to be confusion of languages and races and local customs.
The exponents of the Congress brand of Indian nationalism used to be extremely critical of the view that the Muslims in India constituted a separate nation. Jawaharlal Nehru in both his Autobiography and the book called The Discovery of India spoke eloquently of Indian unity and ridiculed those who questioned its reality. But what evidence could he adduce of unity except the evidence of a common religious culture among the Hindus, which, he like the rest of the Hindu leaders thought, was not a religious but a secular culture? That is where the difficulties began. Acceptance of the culture of Vedas and the Upanishads and the Gita was no proof of religious outlook but acceptance of the Quran was. The one was indigenous, the other was not. It followed therefore that whatever the Hindu scriptures prescribe could be accepted, and even practised without the danger of one’s being taunted with religious obscurantism, but a person who felt that he could not without violence to his convictions offer his adhesion to those beliefs and practices, cut himself off from the stream of Indian culture and became a communalist. The Hindus were numerically stronger; they could claim, without appearing to depart from the truth, that their beliefs and practice represented the beliefs and practices of the sub-continent as a whole. Protest as the Muslims might, they were in the context of the subcontinent a minority.
The debate which ultimately forced the Muslims to demand partition as a solution had been a protracted one, prosecuted on the Congress side with a ruthless disregard of Muslim sentiments and the employment of a type of logical casuistry with which it was sometimes difficult to contend. While basing the whole of their case in favour of a common Indian nationhood upon Hindu culture and civilisation, the Congress spokesmen refused to countenance similar arguments on behalf of the Muslims. Where, it was repeatedly asked by the Muslims, was this Indian culture as divorced from religion? How flippantly the question was treated can be seen from the answer Jawaharlal Nehru gave in his Autobiography where he went so far as to assert that his own people in Kashmir were like the Muslim meat-eaters. This was intended to refute the common Muslim contention that the dietary habits of the two communities were different. Now the word used by Nehru was ‘meat’, a word used in England to signify ‘beef’. Nehru knew exactly what his statement would convey to Western readers, and as far as readers at home were concerned, they would not suspect the truth, but would suppose that what he said was that certain groups of Hindus did not avoid mutton or goat or poultry. There does not exist either in Kashmir or elsewhere in India any group among the Hindus who eat beef. Individual westernised Hindus may do so, but to say that the Hindu population of any area did it was a blatant lie. But this did not prevent a sophisticated person like Nehru from giving currency to it for obvious political purposes.
There is another example I remember from his autobiography, which is equally ridiculous. Dismissing lightly the argument that the Muslims of India possessed a culture distinct from that of the Hindus, he went on to say that the only difference between the two that he had noticed was in respect of the water-containers they used. The type favoured by Muslims had a protruding snout; the Hindus did not want snouts to be attached to theirs. An amazing riductio ad absurdum!
Given the diversity of her culture, language, race and religion, there were a number of possibilities open to India. Those who desired the continuance of the artificial fabric of administrative unity erected by the British could have worked for the establishment of a multi-national federation or union, recognising the right of each nationality whether linguistic, racial or religious, to retain its individuality. But what the Congress and Hindu leaders, advocated from the beginning was a national state. India, they insisted in the face of facts, was a nation. The more the Muslims and other communities objected, the greater their opposition to the multi-national concept. There was little to choose, in this respect, between such outspoken champions of Hindu chauvinism as Pandit Malaviya and Moonje and the so-called liberal wing of the Congress represented by the Nehrus. While Malaviya and Moonje openly spoke of the political destiny of Hinduism, the Nehrus, father and son, avoided reference to religion, asserting that there existed a secular, cultural basis for a common Indian nationhood. Their analysis of this basis showed that they were incapable of making distinction between secularism and Hinduism. Preference for the culture of the Vedas was secularism, but one exposed oneself to the charge of extra-territorial allegiances by betraying a preference for things associated with Islam.
The second course that Indian history might have taken was the disintegration of the British empire into a number of successor states on racial lines. That would have meant presumably the establishment of a Dravidian state in the south, and several separate states in Assam with its diversity of races, a united Bengal, a number of states in the region to the west of Bengal upto the eastern boundaries of the Punjab, and a Punjabi, a Pathan and a Maratta state. These formations would not all have been linguistically homogeneous. Apart from the obvious example of the south, there were numerous languages and dialects in the northern areas spoken by people belonging to the same racial groups.
If language is considered a more important criterion than race in the formation of states, then there should have been as many separate states as there were principal languages. The Congress was theoretically committed to the reorganisation of the administrative structure of India on linguistic lines but it never accepted the theory that each language group had a right to a separate political life as sovereign state. The Congress thesis from beginning to end had been that India created by Great Britain must remain one, and that upon this base they would construct a nationalistic state. Administratively federal, the units forming the state would however be severally the expression of a monolithic nationhood. It is little remembered today that the separation of Burma from India under the Constitutional Reforms of 1935 was opposed by the Congress. Burma had never before been either culturally or administratively a part of India, but what attracted the Congress leaders was the tempting image of a greater India extending from Peshawar to Mandalay, over which they felt they would, upon the retirement of the British from the scene, rule. Why then approve of the detachment of territories which somehow had been tagged on to it? Undoubtedly, the motive behind its criticism of the separation of Burma sprang from the same sentiment of Hindu chauvinism, which induced it also to oppose tooth and nail any concessions to Muslim feeling on other issues.


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