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The Identity Crisis of the Bengali Hindu and Reclaiming its Hindu character

The Identity Crisis of the Bengali Hindu and Reclaiming its Hindu character

Amidst the lushly greens of Surendranath Park in central Kolkata, stands the ‘Bhasha Shaheed Smarak’ commemorating the sacrifice of the language activists killed in police firing at Dhaka University premises in 1952.

The immediate question that would flash in the mind of an inquisitive non-Bengali visitor to that park is West Bengal’s connection with those language activists of erstwhile East Pakistan.

The answer would obviously be the intricate connection around the mother tongue that apparently ‘binds’ the two Bengals! But why is the average Bengali Hindu in a state housing the largest Bengali Hindu population, so allured to conflate his or her identity with a discrete incident in a country that drove out a nearly ten million Bengali adherents of Hindu faith just for the ‘sin’ of professing to a religion other than Islam?

The investigation to the above question lies in offering an explanation to the crisis of appropriation of the ‘Bengali’ identity and nefarious designs to divorce the ‘Hindu’ from the ‘Bengali’.

Not to mention, the collective anguish of the Bengali Hindus remains in their sheer ignorance to the plight of their own co-religionists who faced police repression in a dire attempt to preserve the dignity of their mother tongue.

Interrogating the ‘Bengali’ identity

In sociological terms, ‘ethnicity’ is loosely defined as the state of belonging to a social group where the members are bounded by a common cultural tradition or national history.

In European context, the categories of ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Asian’ constitute separate ‘ethnicities’. In the Indian context however, usually ‘ethnicity’ is conflated with linguistic identity which played a major role in the Reorganisation of the Provinces, back in 1956.

If linguistic identity is conflated with ethnicity, then the whole English-speaking world; or the whole Spanish-speaking world would be put under one ethnic classification. This would not serve the purpose, as the American War of Independence was fought between two groups that were racially and linguistically identical to each other.

During the rule of President Abraham Lincoln, the English-speaking southern states had seceded from the English-speaking northern states. Similarly, Canadians attained independence from Brits despite speaking the same language. Thus, the very premise of language not being the sole determining factor of construction of ethnicities has historical precedents.

The ‘Bengali’ identity is not entirely a linguistic one. The making of the ethnic identity of the ‘Bengali’ is rooted in ancient Hindu civilization. The earliest unambiguous reference to a Bengali tribe by the name of Vanga appears in the Aitareya Aranyaka and various other Dharmasutras, of the Vedic literary corpus.

In the due course of time, bloods of various other native ethnicities have intermingled with the indigenous peoples and culture of the Bengal region. This process of historical naturalisation has modified the social, political, and religious identity of the Bengalis.

The historiography of the religious identity of the Bengali race has been patterned by animistic, Vedic, and Buddhist philosophies and forms of worship.

The identity of the ‘Bengali’ is intrinsically inseparable from its Hindu Vedic and Buddhist heritage. Atisha Dipankar Srigyana, who converted the whole of Tibet into Buddhism and who is till date regarded as one of the greatest Bengalis of all time, set his foot from the hamlet of Vajrayogini, near Bikrampur in Dhaka (in present-day Bangladesh).

The Spiritual Renaissance that swept Bengal during the 15th century was spearheaded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu whose Gaudiya Bhakti movement tore apart traditional slimness of caste and rituals. The making of the modern Bengali identity is verily attributed to Mahaprabhu, whose movement established the spiritual connect of Bengal to the rest of India.

The emergence of Islam and founding of a Muslim political dynasty in Bengal symbolised the beginning of the Dark Age. The history of Muslim rule in Bengal was a history of forced proselytisations, loot, plunder, rape and desecration of Hindu temples.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar states in Bangalar Itihash that during the tyrannical rule of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, the property of no man and the honour of no woman remained safe.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee writes in his novel Anandamath that during the Muslim rule, the Hindu religion was destroyed, honour polluted and family honour shamed. Henceforth, an agent symbolising the philistinistic and murderous heritage of Islamic invasions can never truly accentuate or relate to the Bengali identity.

The Islamic conquest denotes a significant Break with the Past; where the Past refers to the ancestry tracing back to the Indus-Valley Civilisation.
Anyways, this is not the only reason why Islam cannot be conflated with the Bengali identity.

Islam is a foreign religion and so are its traditions, usages, customs, dressing and dietary habits. Any Bengali, who adopts these practices and symbols, ceases to be a Bengali by ethnicity. A Bangla-speaking Muslim represents the conspicuous disconnect of Bengali from its five millennia-old Indic civilisation. ‘Bengali’ culture and society is intricately ‘Hindu’ in character.

Islamic appropriation of the Bengali identity

A clear separation between a ‘Bengali Hindu’ and ‘Bengali Muslim’ emerges thereupon. Their views about society, politics and the world are distinct from each other. Their habits and mannerisms, ranging from dressing patterns to dietary customs- are all poles apart.

The Bangla-speaking Muslims have been part and parcel of an odious conspiracy to divorce Bengali festivals and symbols from its Hindu heritage and attribute the former to Islamic sources or icons.

While the Bengali Hindus represent the Bengali Little Tradition of the Viraat Hindu; the Bengali Muslims are a group of Bangla-speakers of the Abrahamic cult centred on Arabia. The Hindu culture is a conglomeration of different regional cultures; it encapsulates plurality and coexistence.

Muslim culture in itself induces the Muslim from any part of the globe to conform to the Arabic customs and patterns of existence. The Bengali Muslim is not free from the homogenous tendencies of Islam.

One may argue that language is the only string that binds the two. This might be a superficial observation made by the ‘outsider’. But the reality remains that even Bangla language has undergone drastic mutation at hands of Bengali Muslims.

Bangla vocabulary has increasingly been adulterated with words having Persian and Urdu origins. Bengali Muslim litterateurs like Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jasim-ud-din and others have used Persianate idioms and phrases in their writings.

In stern opposition to the Persianisation of Bangla, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a very thought-provoking article in Bangla titled Maktab Madrassar Bangla (1934) in the Prabashi magazine. Roughly translated to English, Tagore writes,

’’If contemporary Bangla language is unable to express the emotions of the Bengali Muslims in clear and precise terms, then they may oblige to renounce Bangla and adopt Urdu (as their mother tongue). This may be tragic for the Bengali race but afflicting the originality of Bangla language through misuse would reap far more disastrous consequences”.

The nationalist Bengali Hindu writers and composers of the Bengal Renaissance had liberated Bengali literature from the perils of Persian grammatical interpolation. This had Sanskritised Bangla vocabulary to a great extent.

However, the writings of Bengali Muslims that are filled with Persian and Urdu expressions, attained immense popularity among the Muslims of Bengal in general and eastern Bengal in particular.

Kazi Nazrul Islam came to be recognised as the ‘national poet’ of the newly-founded Bangladesh. The Bengali textbooks taught in Bangladesh are filled with such Persianate expressions which have replaced the Sanskritised Bangla equivalents.

Bhor (dawn) has been replaced by Sehar; Pratorash (breakfast) has been replaced by Nashta. Similarly, Aasman (sky) replaced Aakash; Ammi (mother) replaced Maa and Abbu (father) replaced Baba!

These are some subtle examples of Bhasha Jihaad that have adversely affected the onward civilisational march of unadulterated Sanskritised Bangla, only to bring the Bengali Muslim society in conformity with the habits and mannerisms of the global Muslim Ummah. The Islamisation of inter-personal semantic relations amongst Bengali Muslims happens to be with full swing in Muslim Bangladesh.

However, Islamic influences have not only appropriated the Bangla language. It has relegated traditional Hindu Bengali festivals and customs as subservient to Islamic observances. Eid has come to occupy as the most popular festival in Bangladesh.

The most conspicuous appropriation has been with respect to the Bengali Muslims’ observance of the Bengali New Year, known as ‘Poila Boishakh’ in Bangla. The Muslim Bengalis have not only distorted its nomenclature by supplementing a Persian flavour, as Pohela Boishakh, which is closer to the Urdu equivalent of Pahela Baishakh. Its history and date have also been altered in order to serve their communal whims and fancies.

The Muslims of Bangladesh take out a grand procession on the streets of Dhaka every year, commemorating Pohela Boishakh, a day before the ritually-stipulated Poila Boishakh, which marks the beginning of the Bengali New Year according to Bishuddha Siddhanta almanac, celebrated all Bengali Hindu-majority regions of India.

The Bengali Muslims have notoriously attributed the origin of the 1427-year-old Bengali Calendar, originally founded by the Gaudeswara Shashanka, to Mughal Badshah Akbar.

The Islamic assault on Bengali Hindu identity

The ways and means Islamic assault on the symbols of Bengali Hindu identity are two-fold: communal and state-sponsored. The most concocted and serial assault on Bengali Hindu identity has been on the Bangla language.

In the 19th century, a group of Muslim fundamentalists in undivided Bengal issued a diktat declaring Bangla as Kuffari Zuban or ‘language of the infidels’. Their concerns also revolved around the perceived ‘idolatrous’ nature of Bangla alphabets! The majority of the full-blooded erudite, urban-centred and educated Bengali Muslims of a class character, like H.S. Suhrawardy and Begum Rokeya preferred Urdu over Bangla as their mother tongue.

As mentioned earlier, one of the earliest personalities to have raised his voice against the Arabic assault on Bangla, was Rabindranath Tagore. In a letter to M.A. Azaan in 1934, Tagore complained to him that Bangla vocabulary has been interpolated with thousands of Perso-Arabic words. He opined that the usage of such words should be confined to only ‘one community’, which prompts that he referred to the Muslims here.

In stern opposition to the inclusion of Tagore’s poems Pujarini and Gandharir Abedon in the curriculum of Calcutta University, Maulana Akram Khan wrote in 1936, that these poems represent human-worship and animism and idolise superstitious beliefs of the uncivilized men of the antiquity. In 1950, Bengali Muslim poet Golam Mostafa wrote,

“Not only Bengali literature, even Bengali alphabets are full of idolatry. Each Bengali letter is associated with one or the other god or goddess of the Hindu pantheon. The Arabic language and script is the best language and best script in the world.”

In 1942, the East Bengal Renaissance Society that was established for the cultivation of cultural thinking amongst Muslims passed a unanimous resolution affirming that the existing Bengali literature in eastern Bengal of which Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra Chatterjee, and Bankimchandra Chatterjee are the moving spirits do not represent the emotions and aspirations of the Bengali Muslims. The content, spirit, and language of the literature are also ‘non-Muslim’.

In the immediate aftermath of the independence of Bangladesh, the ‘Aamar Shonar Bangla’ penned by Rabindranath Tagore, was declared as the national anthem. Yet in 1976, the Bengali Muslims vociferously denounced the national anthem, on grounds of authorship by an ‘infidel’ Hindu and promoting idolatry.

State-sponsored assault on Bangla language in the Bengali Hindu homeland of West Bengal happens unabated till date. On coming to power in 2011, the Trinamool government replaced Ramdhonu (rainbow) with Rongdhonu and Aakash with Aasmaan, in Bengali textbooks.

In 2012, the Official Language (Amendment) Bill granted Second Language status to Urdu in areas where Urdu-speaking population is close to or exceeds 10 per cent of the population. Many prominent Muslim neighbourhoods in Kolkata proper are crammed with civic signboards and hoardings bearing only Urdu caricatures.

There have been demands from several quarters of the Bengali Muslim community that elementary and school education for Muslims in West Bengal be imparted only in Urdu language in Perso-Arabic script.

In several Muslim-majority schools of the state, there have been attempts at banning the worship of Goddess Saraswati during Basanta Panchami and introduction of ‘Nabi Dibas’ on Milad-un-Nabi, owing to demands made by Muslim students.

Reclaiming the Hindu character of Bangaliyana

The sacrifice of Rajesh Sarkar and Tapas Barman for their mother tongue in Danribhit should not be seen as a discrete incident in a ‘Party-society’ marred by regular political violence. It is the culmination of the concerns of the Bengali Hindus arising out of an entrenched attraction for their mother tongue.

The sacrifices made by the duo in Uttar Dinajpur resonates in the glorious line of struggle rooted in the myriad assertions of Bhabini Mahato and Labanyaprabha Ghosh of the Manbhum Bangla Language Movement (1948-56); and Kamala Bhattacharya and others, of the 19 May Movement in Barak Valley of Assam in 1961.

It must be noted that the role of the Bangla-speaking Muslims in these movements was abominable. Not only did the Bengali Muslims of Barak Valley abstain from participating in the 19 May Movement, they went to the extent of collaborating with Assamese ethnonationalists in flaring up anti-Bengali Hindu riots in Hailakandi, which followed immediately after.

The ethnic identity of a Bangla-speaking Muslim was conditioned by the social and political constraints of the time. During the 1971’ Liberation War in East Pakistan, many Bengali-blooded Muslims supported the Punjabi regime and raised armed militias to crush the struggle for the political liberation of Bangladesh.

The first Pakistani statesman to raise the demand for recognition of Bangla as the official language in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan was a Bengali Hindu MP by the name of Dhirendranath Dutta. Instead of extending support to his demand, the Bangla-speaking Muslim MPs representing East Pakistan in the Assembly, advocated status quo and criticised Dutta’s move.

The same Dhirendranath Dutta was brutally executed by the invading Pakistani Army during Operation Searchlight in 1971.The successive regimes of independent Bangladesh have honoured him neither with the title of a Bhasha Shoheed (language martyr) nor erected a memorial in his honour. He continues to remain in abject neglect despite being the mascot of the Bangla language movement in Pakistan. His only ‘crime’ was that he was a Hindu by faith.

In Dhaka, a grand mausoleum stands in memory of the three Muslim Premiers of undivided Bengal: Fazlul Haque, Khwaja Nazimuddin and Suhrawardy. Though all three were Bengalis by blood, yet Haque is known to have moved the Pakistan Resolution in the Lahore Convention; Nazimuddin spoke atrocious Bangla, owing to his Ashrafi lineage; and Suhrawardy was infamous for the role he played during the anti-Hindu killings in Calcutta in 1946.

The celebration of all three of them by Bangladeshi Muslims portrays the deep-rooted anti-Hindu bias of the successive regimes. The essentially ‘secular Bengali’ Muslim characters have a background of anti-Hindu bigotry.

It was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, who participated in the Great Calcutta Killings as an Azrail vanguard. Another celebrated Bengali Muslim poet Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote plenty of Bangla poems calling for Muslims to arm themselves in wake of jihad.

In 2012, Bangladesh minister Dipu Moni visited Medinipur in West Bengal at the ancestral seat of the ‘Butcher of Bengal’, Suhrawardy. Soon after the completion of ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll in 2002, the BBC organised a similar poll to find out who is the greatest Bengali personality.

In 2004, Mujibur Rahman was voted the ‘greatest Bengali of all time’, which is a sheer consequence of the numerical preponderance of Bengali Muslims amongst the Bangla-speakers, who voted en masse in favour of him.

During the Assam Agitation of the 1980s, the Bengali Miya Muslims, who had settled in the Brahmaputra Valley as peasants from Eastern Bengal in the 19th century, resorted to collective opportunism by declaring Assamese as their mother tongue only to be recognised as ‘Na-Asomiya’ (neo-Assamese).

They escaped Assamese fury by siding with the linguistic chauvinists and pushing the Bengali Hindus into the abyss of decades of ethnic persecution and expulsion.

Henceforth, the ethnic allegiance of a Bangla-speaking Muslim is never consistently towards either language or traditions of the land he or she resides in. It swarms according to the needs of the day. For a Bangla-speaking Muslim, his or her Holy Book and form of worship matter more than anything else.

In contemporary times, there is an increasing tendency of the Bengali Muslims to emulate the Islamic ‘high practices’ like adoption of Urdu and thereby attain an upward mobility, near-to the upper-caste Ashrafi status.

The alarming increase in the Ashrafisation of the Bengali Muslim should caution the Bengali Hindu. The population of Bengali Muslims in the subcontinent is close to 70 per cent of the total Bengali-speaking population. Whatever the reasons may be, this should cause alarm since the identity of a Bengali Muslim is becoming synonymous with Bengali identity.

The prototype of the ‘Bengali’ in London is often conflated with the Bangla-speaking Sylheti Muslim! The ‘Bengali’ in eyes of an average European is verily a ‘Bangladeshi Muslim’ who speaks Bangla but predominantly Islamic in tastes and preferences.

The struggle of the Bengali Hindu is not only a struggle for reclaiming the land from the perils of radical Islamism. It is equally a struggle for offering a credible solution to the identity crisis that the Bengali Hindu faces in contemporary times.

Several Bengali chauvinistic organizations, funded by Bangladeshi Islamists, are engaged in a conspiracy to divorce the ‘Hindu’ from Bangaliyana (Bengali-ness).

From popularising slogans like ‘Joy Bangla’ (Victory to Bengal) used during the Bangladesh Liberation War, to idolising Muslim characters like Siraj-ud-daulah, Titu Mir and H.S. Suhrawardy by replacing Khudiram Bose and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose as icons of Bangaliyana, there are subtle attempts at giving rise to the territorial consciousness of a ‘United Bengal’ reminiscent of the days of ‘Shah-e-Bangla’, which would result in a gradual secession of West Bengal from India.

The urge of the Bengali Hindu to resurrect the Hindu-ness of the Bengali identity should transcend the lines of politics, class, and caste.

West Bengal was founded on three basic premises- substantial Bengali Hindu majority, the security of Hindu livelihood and property, and unrestrained propagation of Indic cultures, religions and languages.

Thus it remains the duty of every single Bengali Hindu to prevent Bangla language from being engulfed by forces of Islamic communal frenzy.

It is imperative upon the Bengali Hindu to resurrect the Hindu character of Bangaliyana and emulate the chivalry of the Bengali language martyrs of Manbhum, Silchar, and Danribhit.

The ethnic identity of the Bengali is intrinsically inseparable from its Hindu-ness and vice versa. The Bengali Hindu represents the five millennia-old glorious connection of Bengal with the world’s oldest civilization.


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