Bengal Under English Rule (1757-1905) – Analysis


When Bengal was colonized by the East India Company in the second half of the 18th century, it was the richest jewel on the British crown. Bengal by then had been ruled under Muslim rule for nearly six centuries.

During this long period from 1203 to 1757, as the rulers of the territory of Bangalah (Bengal), Muslims held the administrative positions. And yet, when the territory was divided in 1905 – less than 150 years of English colonization – into East Bengal, which was to later become the province of East Pakistan in 1947 and subsequently the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1971, and West Bengal, which was to later become a state within the Republic of India – the Muslims of Bengal lagged behind their Hindu counterparts economically and politically. Why?

To understand the causes, it is necessary that we have a fairly good grasp of the political, economic and social landscape of the territory, at least dating back to the time of the fall of the last Nawab of Bengal – Siraj-ud-Dowla in 1757.

The Hindu ascendancy in Bengal was not entirely a British phenomenon. As a matter of fact, a section of Hindu community had prospered beyond measures during the Muslim, i.e., pre-1757 English, rule of Bengal. Many of them held important positions as ministers and generals during the Sultanate period of Ilyas Shah, before the Mughals came in the political scene of India (Dr. Abdul Karim, Banglar Etihash, tr. History of Bengal: the Sultani Period, Dhaka (1998), p. 413). Many Hindus became very rich through such positions, and others through money lending to actually becoming the bankers (like the Rothschild family of our time) to the Nawab, and regrettably played the devious role which facilitated the downfall of the Nawabi rule.

During the Mughal period, Bengal existed mostly as one of its outlying provinces or Diwans and was locally administered by a Subedar (provincial governor), who acted as the representative of the Emperor. The Subedar was responsible for collecting taxes and revenues from subjects, a portion of which had to be sent to the Emperor and the remainder kept for meeting expenses for welfare of the province. He also maintained a standing army and police force to protect the territory against any potential attack from outside and preserve law and order. Land tax collection (usually a tenth of the agricultural produce) was done through the zamindars (Ibid., p. 411). In rare cases, e.g., in Benapole and Ghoraghat, feudal lords existed who instead of collecting taxes from the peasants paid an agreed upon sum of money as tax to the Muslim sultan to show their subservience to the higher authority (ibid., p. 418).

In Bengal, which was a Muslim majority territory, most of the zamindars were Muslims during the greater part of Sultani and Mughal rule (until 1717). But things started changing drastically from 1717 onward when Murshid Kuli Khan became the Subedar of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa (today’s Odisha and Jharkhand states of India). He held the position for ten years until 1727. During his rule, the Izaradar system emerged in which instead of the zamindars this new group became tax and revenue collectors (Jadunath Sarkar, History of Bengal, 2nd vol., Dacca, 1948, p. 409). Within just two to three generations, they were able to replace the zamindars and came to be known as not only zamindars but also in places as Rajas and Maharajas.

All the chosen Izaradars during Murshid Kuli Khan’s tenure were Hindus. He did this to avoid competition from fellow Muslim nobles who might vie for his high position. Before him, as noted by renowned historians in their vast works, all the top administrative positions were held by Muslims, esp. from the Uttar Pradesh (Salimullah, Tarikh-e-Bangalah, pp. 403-4, 454).

The latter Nawabs of Bengal simply followed the precedence of keeping Hindu Izaradars, established by Murshid Kuli Khan. By 1757, when Nawab Siraj-ud-Dowla became the ruler of Bengal, these Hindu administrators had become strong enough to conspire and bring about his downfall. But there were some exceptions, as much as some of the Muslim nobles betrayed the Nawab during the fateful Battle of Plassey (1757) and sided with the forces of the East India Company that was led by Robert Clive.

One such betrayer, Mir Jafar, who came to be known as Lord Clive’s Donkey, became the next Nawab and his reign lasted only 3 years (1757-60). In a revolving door politics, he was replaced by Mir Kasim who tried to go against the wishes of the East India Company. He, too, was dethroned in 1763, and Mir Jafar was put back to power for the second time. After his death in 1765, his inept son Najm-ud-Dowla (1765-66) and younger brother Saif-ud-Dowla (1766), followed by son Mubarak-ud-Dowla ruled in succession. Those Nawabs since the fall of Siraj-ud-Dowla were merely titleholders by name only, and nothing else, for which they earned a pension out of the share of the collected revenue.

By 1765, after the victory at the Battle of Buxar, the East India Company had won the Diwani (representation) from the Mughal Emperor, becoming the virtual ruler of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. 

During Robert Clive’s dual rule, until 1774, the task of revenue collection was still at the hands of the puppet Nawabs who collected the same through their Hindu representatives – the nayeb-diwans (tax collectors/Izaradars). His EIC did not have the wherewithal to collect such taxes through its English employees and thus relied upon already existing system.

As to the share of the collected taxes, here is a breakdown: the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II in Delhi earned 2.6 million Rs, the Nawab of Bengal 3.2 million Rs and the East India Company (EIC) the rest of the collected revenue (Anisuzzaman, Muslim Manosh o Bangla Shahitya, tr. Muslim Mindset and Bengali Literature, 1757-1918, Dhaka (1964), p. 6). 

[Note: Before Sultan Bahadur Shah Jafar was dethroned in the aftermath of the so-called Sepoy Mutiny, which should more properly be called the First Indian War of Independence, he used to get a pension of 100,000 Rs per month. Although the official date for downfall of the Mughal Empire is noted as 1857, the actual fall dates back to 14 September 1803, when General Lake of the EIC moved into Delhi with his British troops after capturing Aligarh. Since then, Mughal rulers were drawing pension money from the EIC (Jaswant Singh, Jinnah: India, Partition and Independence).] 

Under the EIC administration, taxes multiplied exponentially and consequently, people suffered miserably.

Muslim peasants (i.e., the Rayats) who were at the bottom of the economic pyramid were the worst sufferers in this revenue collection system. It is worthwhile sharing here a letter from Lord Clive, dated 30 September 1765, published in the Court of Directors of the EIC. He wrote: “The source of tyranny and suppression opened by the European agents acting under the authority of the Company’s servants and the numberless black agents and sub-agents acting also under them, will, I fear, be a lasting reproach to the English name in this country.” (Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India under early British Rule, 3rd ed., London (1908), p. 37) As already hinted, those so-called black agents were local Hindu tax collectors.

It should be also noted here that before the Battle of Plassey, Bengal was a very rich, prosperous province with enough for everyone to live a very decent life. As a matter of fact, the inhabitants of Bengal had a much better standard of living compared to most Europeans living at the time. But under the British rule, the tax burden became simply unbearable rising fivefold (from 10% to 50% of the value of the agricultural product) within a very short period. The agriculture sector was ruined by a faulty system, which encouraged cotton, opium poppy and indigo production over rice cultivation. Moreover, the EIC cared only about tax/revenue collection and nothing else. They did not do anything to improve the irrigation system.

To make things worse, the EIC imported products enjoyed duty-free entry into the local market while the reverse was not true for local made products, e.g., muslin, into the European market. Indian/Bengali cotton goods, imported into England, paid a duty of 10 per cent; silk goods a duty of 20 per cent; Indian woolen goods, a duty of 30 per cent. Whereas, British cotton and silk goods, conveyed in British ships to India/Bengal, paid a duty of 3.5 per cent; and British woolen goods a duty of 2 per cent only.

It is not difficult to see the impact of such unfair trade practices. In 1815 the cotton goods exported from India were of the value of £1.3 million. In 1832 they were less than £100,000. In 1815 the cotton goods imported into India from England were of the value of £26,300. In 1832 they were upwards of £400,000. 

Montgomery Martin, who had edited the voluminous and valuable statistical account of Eastern India left by Dr. Francis Buchanan said to a question and answer session in the British parliament, “We have during the period of a quarter of a century compelled the Indian territories to receive our manufactures; our woolens, duty free, our cottons at 24 per cent, and other articles in proportion; while we have continued during that period to levy almost prohibitory duties, or duties varying from 10 to 20, 30, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 per cent upon articles, the produce from our territories. Therefore, the cry that has taken place for free trade with India, has been a free trade from this country, not a free trade between India and this country… The decay and destruction of Surat, of Dacca, of Murshedabad, and other places where native manufactures have been carried on, is too painful a fact to dwell upon. I do not consider that it has been in the fair course of trade; I think it has been the power of the stronger exercised over the weaker.” [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, 3rd ed., London (1906), vol. 2, p. 112]

To another set of questions on the subject, Mr. Martin said, “I speak not now of her Dacca muslins and her Cashmere shawls, but of various articles which she has manufactured in a manner superior to any part of the world. To reduce her now to an agricultural country would be an injustice to 1ndia.” [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, 3rd ed., London (1906), vol. 2, p. 114]

The entire internal and external trade was monopolized by the EIC. The weavers were forced to weave cotton yarns beyond their capacity. Even under such savage, brutal, inhuman and ruthless work environment and tiring and back-breaking workdays, they would be paid so little that they could ill-afford having a full meal at the end of the day. Hunger and starvation were their lot. Many cut their own thumbs to avoid being put to this kind of forced labor, others sold everything including even their children to escape being punished by the revenue collectors, and many fled the country (Ibid., Dutt, pp. 23-27).

In 1769 the EIC directors issued the new directives stipulating that the peasants should be forced to produce raw material and not finished cotton or silk (resham in Bangla) products, and that such activities could only be done in company-owned properties and not at farmer’s cottage (Ibid., p. 45). Due to unfair trade practices, soon the entire cotton, muslin and silk industry got ruined. With one-way of flow of money out to the Great Britain, while nothing spent for the good of the farmers and the local people, it was only a question of time when a great famine would ravage the country. That ominous event came in 1770 when a third of the population, nearly ten million people, starved to death what has been called the Great Famine of Bengal even though that year the EIC had the highest collection of revenue ever from the land (ibid., pp. 52-53).

In the words of historian Romesh Chunder Dutt, “Early in 1769 high prices gave an indication of an approaching famine, but the land-tax was more rigorously collected than ever… It was officially estimated by the members of the Council, after they had made a circuit through the country to ascertain the effects of the famine, that about one-third of the population of Bengal, or about ten million people, had died of this famine. And while no systematic measures were undertaken for the relief of the sufferers perishing in every village, roadside, and bazaar, the mortality was heightened by the action of the Company’s servants. Their Gomashtas not only monopolized the grain in order to make high profits from the distress of the people, but they compelled the cultivators to sell even the seed requisite for the next harvest… Warren Hastings wrote thus to the court of Directors on the 3rd November 1772: ” Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province, and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the net collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of  1768. . . . It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.” In the language of modern Indian administration this violently keeping up the land revenue would be described as the Recuperative Power of India!” (ibid.)

Land revenue was increased even after the famine of 1770 had swept away one-third of the population of Bengal. The cultivators flying from their homes and villages or rising in insurrection were driven back by soldiers to their homes with cruel severity; and a great portion of the money so raised was annually sent in the shape of Investments to the gratified shareholders in England. In the words of Romesh Dutt, “No administrator however gifted, and no administration however perfect, could prevent national poverty and famines when the whole of their fiscal policy was to drain the resources of one country for the traders of another.” [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India under early British Rule, 3rd ed., London (1908), pp. 79-80]

As to the impact of such economic drain, Dutt says, the most prosperous country on earth was reduced to “a land of famines, more frequent, more widespread, and more fatal, than any known before in the history of India, or of the world.” (ibid. p. 420)

The EIC also came up with a new system for revenue collection. It is called the Sunset Law in which if either a revenue collector (i.e., zamindar) or a rayat (land holder) had failed to pay the previously decreed revenue by a certain sunset time, his territory would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Almost all these bidders were Hindu administrative officials, previously employed by Muslim zamindars. Many of them deliberately faulted upon payment on behalf of the Muslim zamindar so that later he could bid for the same territory using zamindar’s money. Many of the new zamindars were Hindu officials employed within the EIC’s government. These bureaucrats were ideally placed to bid for lands that they knew to be under-assessed and thereby profitable. In addition, their position allowed them to quickly acquire wealth through corruption and bribery. They could also manipulate the system to possess the land that they targeted.

So, by 1790 all on a sudden most of the zamindars or revenue collectors happen to come from the Hindu community who were mostly absentee landlords that managed their newly acquired zamindary through local managers. Those new zamindars virtually became the oppressive hands of the EIC imposing heavy taxes on the peasants. The situation of Muslims simply worsened after the Permanent Settlement Act, concluded by Lord Cornwallis in 1793, was enacted. Not only did the Muslim nobility, including the zamindars lost their properties, even the well-off farmers started losing their farmland as a result of company policy of high taxes, high usury rates charged by Hindu mahajons (moneylenders) and oppression of the new Hindu zamindars.

The EIC’s policy virtually ruined not only the agricultural sector in Bengal but destroyed its rural cottage industry. Consider, e.g., the case of Muslin – the finest fabric ever woven in the world, which weighed less than 10 grams per square yard. Till 1813, Dhaka muslin continued to sell in London with 75 per cent profit and was cheaper than the local British make fabrics. Alarmed at this competition, the British imposed 80 per cent duty on the imported Bengali product. But more than the duty, the EIC was bent on ruining the muslin trade by introducing machine-made yarn, which was introduced in Dhaka by 1817 at one-fourth the price of the Dhaka yarn. The Muslin weavers were also paid so little that their families remained hungry. Another unsavory fact associated with the destruction of this Dhaka Muslin industry was that the thumbs and index fingers of many yarn makers were chopped off by the British in order to prevent them from twisting the finer yarns required for the muslins, which would reduce the competitive edge that Muslin had enjoyed thus far over its counterpart fabrics made in Europe. While the machine generated British yarn was uniform in quality, something which could no longer be maintained by skilled weavers under inhuman company policy and practices, in 1840, Dr Taylor, a British textile expert, admitted: “Even in the present day, notwithstanding the great perfection which the mills have attained, the Dhaka fabrics are unrivalled in transparency, beauty and delicacy of texture.” The count for the best variety of Dhaka muslin was 1800 threads per inch, while the lesser varieties had about 1400 threads per inch.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning the published report to a question-and-answer session in the British parliament (1824). Mr. Trevelyan said, “Indian cotton manufactures had been to a great extent displaced by English manufactures. The peculiar kind of silky cotton formerly grown in Bengal, from which the fine Dacca muslins used to be made, is hardly ever seen; the population of the town of Dacca has fallen from 150,000 to 30,000 or 40,000, and the jungle and malaria are fast encroaching upon the town. The only cotton manufactures which stand their pound in India are of the very coarse kinds, and the English cotton manufactures are generally consumed by all above the very poorest throughout India… Dacca, which was the Manchester of India, has fallen off from very flourishing town to a very poor and small one; the distress there has been very great indeed.” [Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, 3rd ed., London (1906), vol. 2, p. 105]

As to the impact of the decline of muslin industry because of the colonial English policy, historian William Digby estimated that the population of Dhaka dropped from 200,000 to 79,000 between 1787 and 1817; the export of Dacca muslin to England amounted to 8,000,000 rupees in 1787; in 1817, nil. The fine textile industry, the livelihoods of thousands, and the self-sufficient village economy (cottage industry) were systematically destroyed.

Next consider the case of rice cultivators who were forced to grow indigo in their fields. The indigo planters who were Europeans left no stones unturned to make money. They mercilessly pursued the peasants to plant indigo instead of food grains. They provided loans, called dadon at a very high interest rate. Once a farmer took such loans he remained in debt for whole of his life before passing it to his successors. The price paid by the planters was meager, only 2.5% of the market price. So, the farmers could make no profit by growing indigo. The farmers were totally unprotected from the brutal indigo planters, who resorted to mortgage or destruction of their property if they were unwilling to obey them. Government rules favored the planters who owned some 400 plantation sites in Bengal in the early 19th century (Romesh Dutt, The Economic History of India under early British Rule, 3rd ed., London (1908), p. 270).

By an Act in 1833, the planters were granted a free hand in oppression of the peasants. Even the Hindu zamindars, money lenders and other influential persons like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Darokanath Thakur sided with those oppressive planters. Sadly, the latter two Hindu intellectuals, both then die-hard supporters of the EIC rule in Bengal, propagated the myth that peasants were living happily under the Indigo Plantations (A.R. Desai, Social Background of Indian Nationalism, 2nd ed., Bombay (1954), p. 113). Most of the oppressed peasants were Muslims. Facing severe oppression unleashed on them the farmers resorted to revolt against the joint forces of Indigo planters, EIC and the local Hindu zamindars, mahajons and their agents. But their resistance failed against the superior and more lethal weapons used by the opposing side. After the failure of the First War of Independence (also called the Sepoy Mutiny) of 1857, as a matter of fact, the oppression of the Indigo planters increased dramatically against the Muslim peasants, which in turn resulted in several protests across East Bengal.

In 1860 the British Raj was forced to investigate the matter and come up with new laws to curtail the oppression of the Indigo planters. A year earlier, in 1859, likewise the Bengal Rent Act allowed certain allowances to peasants against the zamindars and moneylender (Dutt, The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, p. 263).

Many of the Hindu zamindars were outright bigots and would penalize Muslim men heavily for keeping beard. In Sarfarazpur when the Muslim rayats declared not to pay such fines, they were attacked by Hindu vandals and their mosques were burned down. When their complaints were unheard in the police thana, the matter was brought to the notice of the Magistrate who also did nothing against the offenders. Then the matter was eventually brought to the notice of Calcutta Commissioner. When he, too, did nothing to redress the matter, Muslim peasants revolted under the leadership of Titu Mir. In Laoghata the oppressive Hindu zamindar Debnath Roy was killed. Muslim peasants also attacked Indigo plantations. But their resistance against the joint forces of the EIC, Hindu zamindars and mahajons could not last long against heavy weapons used by the English magistrates Alexander and Scott. Titu Mir and many of his gallant revolutionaries died in the battlefield, and many were taken prisoners to serve long terms.

Hindu zamindars also imposed several types of taxes on Muslim peasants for Hindu festivals like the Durga puja. When Muslim peasants refused to pay such taxes, they were beaten, and their properties grabbed by Hindu zamindars. Dudu Mia (d. 1860), son of Haji Shariatullah, led a peasant’s revolt against such practices in Faridpur. To discourage such revolts, the Hindu zamindars filed false cases against Dudu Mia and his lieutenants. Dudu Mia was imprisoned and died in Alipur Prison in 1860. [Interestingly, in Sheikh Mujib’s Incomplete Memoirs (published in Bangla by the University Press, Dhaka) he also mentions how the Hindu zamindars and landlords were adept in making those false cases against Muslim peasants in the early 20th century.]

An analysis of the post-Nawabi period in Bengal, thus, 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. He opined that the closure of Islamic endowments and institutions, and lack of funding from the top, especially the EIC, contributed to the decline of the number of Muslim students (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 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 Abdul Lateef). 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 an 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 Abdul Lateef 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 Abdul Lateef 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 Lateef’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 19th 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 counterweight 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.

(Written originally in Dec. 2013)

Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

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