Social discrimination of and injustice to the less-privileged classes in early 20th century Bengal, especially of the Namasudra community, created a divide that harmed the freedom movement, writes AK BISWAS
Bengal furnished a standing proof of what havoc social discrimination, injustice and inequality, resulting in dehumanisation of a populous community wrought. A homeland for Bengali Muslims in 1947 was, in consequence, created, a fact mainstream historians and litterateurs are shy to acknowledge. In the 1901 Census, authorities reported that descendants of Namasudra and Pod, both untouchable castes, who embraced Islam, aggregated at nine millions of the 10.5 million Muslims of Dhaka and Chittagong Divisions. In 1872, Bengal was a Hindu majority province with 1,81,00,400 persons as against 1,76,09,130 Muslims. A decade later the Muslims outnumbered the Hindus. In 1901, Bengali Hindus aggregating at 2,22,12,069 persons lagged behind Muslims by 55,98,000 persons. In 1941, the Hindus numbered 250,57,000 and Muslims 330,05,4000 souls, who became majority by 79,48,400 persons.
Between 1901 and 1941, the Muslims increased at 13.2 per cent whereas Hindus by 24.3 per cent. At this rate, the descendants of converts of Namasudra and Pod contributed during the period 12 lakhs to the Muslim population. Their contribution to Bengali Muslims totalled 1,02,00,000. Bereft of 1.02 crores, there was no Muslim majority and they would decline to 2,28,05,400 and Hindus surge to 3,52,57,000 — leaving an unbridgeable gap of 1,24,51,600 persons! Grossest dehumanisation and discrimination of the untouchables invited the partition of Bengal in 1947, for which Hindus must blame themselves though they targeted British divide and rule, intransigence of MA Jinnah etc. These factors were just incidental to the plot. Without a demographic majority, no logic of partition and demand for Pakistan had a leg to stand on. The Muslims must be grateful to unmerciful Hindu arrogance and unbridled orthodoxy that drove the Namasudras and Pods for cover and dignity under Islam.
lR Faucus, ICS and Settlement Officer, Khulna, recorded that as the deltaic area which is now Khulna district, rose out of the sea, the first persons to penetrate its swampy forests were undoubtedly the pre-Aryan hunters and fishers, who alone could find a livelihood to their tastes in its jungles and rivers. These tribes are now represented by the Pods and Namasudras who form the bulk of the non-Mohammedan population of the district. The term Namasudra is an euphemism for the detested Chandals who were held in lowest estimation of all the aboriginal tribes of Bengal by the Aryans. In 1911, John Edward Webesters, ICS, stated that the youngest among all the districts in the Ganges delta, Noakhali had no ancient history. It is probably not more than 3,000 years since first it became fit for human habitation, but there are no records to tell us who and what manner of men they were who first settled in it and reclaimed the jungles. Possibly they were the progenitors of the present Namasudras or Chandals, who according to O’Donnel, entered Bengal from the North-East before the Koches; or they may be represented by the Jugis.
These are some of the highlights of the keynote address delivered by this writer on the first ever Namasudra History Congress, February 18-19, 2017, held at Calcutta. Since these find no place in mainstream history or academic discourses, the Namasudra Intellectuals and Activists Forum organised the symposium which might be considered as a novel event for academic and cultural calendar of the Bengalis.
The Chandals, who in 1911, were officially re-designated as Namasudras, observed a ‘general strike’ in 1872-73 in protest against their caste men, when in jails as prisoners, being exclusively compelled to perform conservancy services, while prisoners of other castes and Muslims were exempted. The strike lasted for over at least four months, exerting ruinous repercussions on the life of 5.5 million people of Faridpur, Backarganj and Jessore, now in Bangladesh.
The Superintendent of Police, after an inquiry, reported on March 18, 1873, to the District Magistrate, Faridpur, which was the theatre of the strike, that “...Chandals are not only agriculturists, but they are also boatmen, porters, carpenters, potters, and fishermen; on them devolve all the occupation and trades practised by other castes in more settled tracts”. Unfailingly the strike by such a community brought life of the rural economy to a standstill. The district Magistrate too conducted an inquiry and found its repercussion “ruinous”.
The lieutenant Governor, Sir George Campbell, had passed order that “the Chandals in jail should not in future be forced to do the work of sweepers, but that any of them who chooses to do it when its comparatively easy nature is pointed out, may be allowed so to work”. Unfortunately, the order, for mysterious reason(s), remained unimplemented. This remains as an illustration of standing shame for the failure of the colonial bureaucracy to implement orders of His Excellency the lieutenant Governor of the lower Provinces of Bengal.
After 35 years, the Bengal Provincial Congress at Pabna in 1908, passed a resolution calling for an end to the discriminatory practice of engagement of Chandals, as Guru Charan Thakur, a Namasudra patriarch, social reformer and religious leader of Faridpur stood firmly on the partition of Bengal and against the swadeshi movement in 1905. Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea wrote a letter to the Namasudra leader, urging to join the swadeshi movement with his lakhs of followers, known as Matuas.
But Guru Charan Thakur turned down his request with an interjection that the upper castes were consumers of luxurious goods imported from abroad and hence the movement should remain confined within them. Deprived of their political right, he wrote back, the Namasudras were victims of oppression and discrimination in their own homeland. So the upper castes, his letter further disclosed, would do well to learn a lesson on how to fraternize with the untouchable and the depressed classes; otherwise they would never participate in theswadeshi movement.
A number of memoranda was submitted by All-Bengal Namasudra Association and All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association. A joint delegation of these two Associations gave oral evidence to Simon Commission in 1929 at what was then Calcutta and ventilated their grievances under the leadership of Mukunda Behary Mallick, a Namasudra. The memorandum of the Namasudras stated that “the literacy of the Brahmans is 48 per cent, that of the Vaidyas 65 per cent and that of the Kayasthas 41 per cent. It is a matter of history that for reasons known to them, these communities have practically shut the doors of schools against the members of the depressed classes during the pre-British rule in India”. According to the All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association, “denial of admission in Medical College and Hospital, Calcutta, for treatment” of untouchable patients was a reality in Bengal.
Subhas Chandra Bose held a black flag demonstration, saying, “Go back Simon” in then Calcutta. The memorandum read like chargesheets against the minuscule upper castes, against the vast majority of their own country.
The Namasudra memorandum demanded that “appointments should be made from amongst the qualified candidates of different communities in proportion to their numerical strength. At the first instance, candidates of the Depressed Classes and others, including Mahomedans, should only be appointed until and unless equalization of these classes is secured to those who have already filled these services. For the next 10 years, these appointments be made from amongst the Depressed Classes to obtain an equalisation of their number to those of others who have hitherto filled all these offices”. This carried tonnes of socio-political significance and if adopted as policy and implemented honestly, the catastrophe of partition of Bengal was to averted. The further demand was that “for next 10 years, these appointments be made from amongst the Depressed Classes to obtain an equalisation of their number to those of others who have hitherto filled all these offices”.
The deputationists also believed that the term “efficiency and competence are absolutely a misnomer and have absolutely no scope in public service”. Protagonists of efficiency and competence actually divided the country on this plank.
(The writer is former Vice Chancellor of Bheemrao Ambedkar Bihar University)