History of Bangladesh can be narrated through several perspectives. One may take the usual all-Indian position and look at it as an extension of the conflict between North Indian Muslim and Hindu elite over who would rule India. This would lead to the conflict from which emerged India and Pakistan. This perspective dominates most discourses and is influenced by the nationalist conflict as a religious one, best expressed by the 'One-Two Nation Theory' contest. It assumed 'India' as a permanent monolithic reality and 'Islam' as another at the same level. Thus the 'One-Two Nation Theory' discussion assumes that only one Identity Meta-identity conflict existed under British rule and the rest are derived conflicts rather than independent ones. But conflicts were many and different all over British India. This approach simplifies both history and the analytical framework of the 'meta-nationality' approach, both held by Hindu-Muslim North Indian elite who controlled pre-1947 politics.
This North Indian conflict continues even today in the shape of the Indo-Pak conflict. However, 'India' as a single unit producing an all embracing identity is a political fiction just as was 'Islam' producing the same between 1947 and 1971. It would seem that identity denial of others outside these two narratives was effectively pursued by the parties of the two ruling classes through Indian National Congress and the Muslim League leading to pausing of the history of other identities. What is denied is that Identity is not a permanently fixed matter but a process with certain objectives and changes constantly.
Two identities that are usually ignored in such discussions are the Bengali identity which itself was not a monolithic one and the Dalit identity, equally multi-layered. The Bengali identity was successful in asserting itself as a state through a complex web of stepping stone phases because of its territorial cohesiveness. The Dalit identity couldn't mature into a state-making project largely because Dalits were a dominantly religious identity and Dalits were spread all over the region and not concentrated in one place. It's the lack of geographical contiguity of Dalit areas which made state producing possibility weak though the wide range of its population dispersal added at times to its political mobilization capacity.
Dalits were produced by the economics of the Hindu caste system. For the Bengalis, territorial identity was linked to socio-economics. What is Bangladesh today was East Pakistan before that and was once East Bengal. It was birthed in 1905 through what is called the 'partition of Bengal.' So, both physical and political identity had a past history which was in a way interrupted by 1911 when the 'partition of Bengal' was annulled under pressure from Kolkata based elite. And in 1947 the same elite ended the United Bengal Movement which could have led to the first Bengali nation-state though that also was a complex multi-layered construct.
1905 and Birth of East Bengal
The Birth of East Bengal in 1905 is also seen as partition of Bengal. But it's in this event that the trek to Bangladesh began. The Identities that were produced or matured by 1905 was the clustering of several of them---some century-old---into a fairly cohesive East Bengali one. One, it was a territorial identity of being from East Bengal. But in this territoriality lay other identities which gave it a wider context and conflict as well. Most East Bengalis were peasants. This became a defining factor in determining the nationalist content then and later. The peasants were also mostly Bengali Muslims.
Between 1770 and 1905, the Bengali Muslim peasant---unlike the Bengali Hindu peasant---had built a reasonably long history of resistance to British rule and zamindari. These zamindars were dominantly Bengali Hindu Kolkata based upper class. And Kolkata lay in West Bengal which was also formed in 1905 automatically. Thus territorial, economic, social and cultural identities coalesced into one though it didn't have a full name in the other Bengal also.
West Bengal became synonymous with Hindu zamindar and lawyer-led Kolkata which fought to abolish East Bengal and was achieved through the Swadeshi Movement. With 1911 and the annulment of the Partition of Bengal, the community and class identities merged even more with the territorial one in both Bengals. Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus never ever had any common political experiential space, and barring C R Das and his Bengal Pact (1924) there is no example of an attempt either. East and West Bengal existed as one after 1911 through an executive order but the growth of separate identities went on.
In fact this West-East Bengal existed even within the Bengali Muslim community. Fazlul Huq---an East Bengali---himself faced this. When he left with his followers to form the Krishak Proja Party (KPP) in 1936, those who left with him from the Nikhil Banga Praja Samity were from East Bengal. In the 1937 elections KPP won almost all its seats in East Bengal. It was Bengal Muslim led by Suhrawardy---from Kolkata upper class---and Abul Hashem---zamindar from Burdawan---both from West Bengal upper class who led the party. They ended in becoming the junior party in Bengal of the All Indian Muslim League. In the process KPP and the interest of East Bengal suffered.
United Bengal Movement of 1947
United Bengal Movement (UBM) was floated in 1947 when 'Pakistan' was already final as Jinnah moved from 'Pakistan(s)' to one Pakistan. The resolution at the Muslim League Legislators conference held in Delhi 1947 was whipped by Suhrawardy himself, a staunch pro-Pakistani who backed the UBM after failing to be rewarded by Jinnah for his role while Abul Hashem did so out of despair and maybe even guilt as the duo was responsible for ensuring Bengal being delivered to one Pakistan in the 1946 elections. It was their territorial and upper class roots that guided Bengal Muslim League from 1937 to 1947 and both were better represented as local versions of the North Indian Muslims. UBM was a great dream but just as All Indian Muslim League betrayed Bengal by denying two 'Pakistans', the all Indian Congress did so by refusing to accept UBM. Both were expressions of the One-Two Nation Theories. UBM was in many ways the final lost labour of Bengal's upper class from the both communities as both Bengal Congress and Bengal ML tried and failed to give birth to United Bengal.
By that time the young Turks of Bengal Muslim League located in Kolkata were already planning a new independent country outside the conventional leadership. All were from East Bengal and their leader was Sheikh Mujib. Neither Suhrawardy nor Abul Hashem was part of it as their politics was located in what was West Bengal. Both tried to become part of Indian politics but finding no space later moved to Dhaka. By that time the party that represented East Bengal's interest most was formed in Dhaka in 1949 and Mujib and Bhashani were both part of it. Neither of the Kolkata duos was present at this creation. And this helped Bengal define itself along the lines set up in 1905. (The second and last part will appear tomorrow)
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist