Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal

Between Memories and History

by Mohammad Rashiduzzaman (Author)
©2021 Monographs XVIII, 210 Pages


Weaving personal remembrances with diverse sources including the author’s academic research and field works, this book is an intriguing rural Muslim historiography in Colonial Bengal, a largely ignored swathe in South Asian history. The gripping true-life account is built around real people—not imagined characters. Between the twilight of the 19th century and nearly the first half of the 20th century, the Muslims in Colonial Bengal in India were haunted by their misgivings about an alien rule and its cohorts. The religiosity and identity questions, conflicting existential urges, the spiraling Hindu-Muslim discord, the feudal constraints, and marginalization by the bhadraloks swirled around them. Wracked by religious, cultural, social, and political conflicts, the old British Indian Bengal comes alive in this book’s intergenerational narrative. With its 9 main chapters plus a preface and introduction, this volume seeks out average individuals’ life amidst such turmoil while it amplifies the larger challenges of the Muslims in undivided Bengal.
Not rigidly structured, the multi-layered recount has utilized variable ways and means of research and innovative analysis. Authored by a well-published scholar on South Asia, this extraordinary study of a rural Muslim family in pre-partition Bengal addresses scholars, students, and specialists as well as the general readers. Framed by the known historical milieu and backed by reliable oral narratives, qualitative interviews, authentic memoirs, and scholarly sources, this is not a chronological memoir. Pertinent to the academics and refreshing to avid readers, this recount touches a range of disciplines from history, culture, and politics to anthropology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface: Ways and Means of the Narrative
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1: Weaving Contemporary and Comparable Memories
  • 2: A Family Maverick
  • 3: Nuri
  • 4: Achkan/Sherwani, Fez, Lungi or Dhoti?
  • 5: The Incredible Rezu Chacha
  • 6: Kaleidoscopic Rural Elites
  • 7: Muslim Identity Imaginations
  • 8: Eclectic Historiography
  • 9: Memories A Cherag on the Edge of History!
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←viii | ix→

Preface: Ways and Means of the Narrative

Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History is a hybrid narrative that innovatively melds history with personal reminiscences, oral anecdotes, identity imagination, religiosity, scholarly studies, and grassroots encounters over three generations in united Bengal before 1947. A sequence of records and interviews in this volume were, indeed, the remains of my earlier academic research, sweeping over larger British India, undivided Bengal, and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) accomplished since the 1960s. My data collection and analytical strategies mirrored this tome’s variegated character. Diverse informants, intellectual probes, and the book’s protracted growth, concentrated in the Preface and Introduction, are further trickled in nearly all chapters. Such flexible ways and means were the realistic approaches for this multi-layered narrative. Triangulation of old materials including documents, comparative memories, religiosity and identity, open conversations, random village surveys in former East Pakistan, and peripheral but original resources are amongst the inclusive methodologies of this work. The observations and data assembled from their hybrid sources are, however, rooted in social sciences and historical research.

In the light of Benedict Anderson, identity lies in the realm of imagination; not always built on tangible realities, the distinctiveness is more about the ways people perceive themselves, and also about who got what in the course of history. ←ix | x→Notwithstanding the religiosity ascribed to it, Muslim identity has a relaxed posture here—Muslimness, as demonstrated through lived experiences, was not a monolithic countenance in rural Bengal of the interval delineated here. Chapter 7 (Muslim Identity Imaginations: “Never Apologize for Being a Muslim!”), more focused on the subject, steers with a quotation from A.K. Fazlul Huq (Fazlul Huq) in its sub-title: he was indeed an illustrious Muslim leader, the first elected premier of Colonial Bengal in 1937. The Bengali Muslims were, in their identity imagination, more likely inspired by such impulses than any academically fashioned theory. As a result, the account, at times, blurs the lines between personal recollections and the prevailing discourses on Muslim history, religiosity, and politics in South Asia.

Not a hagiographical account here, I relied heavily on what my father and family elders reflected upon their experiences and their historical recalls. Countless of my father’s verbal observations were not the neatly spelled hypotheses ordinarily preferred by historians and social scientists. Added to the Preface and the Introductory wedge, there are nine major chapters in this volume. Chapter 1 matched personal and family reminiscences with parallel memories including select autobiographies; other chapters too hosted the key premises with their motley underpinning. Further than the events and individual experiences covered here, I also scanned a few diaries, old letters, and the timeworn books from the extended family. Likewise, I surfed magazine articles, old political pamphlets, and a few exclusive books to get a feel of the time and society I entrenched here. Dispersed resources too included several Bengali fictions, non-fictions, classic Bengali movies, folklore, devotional songs, ghost/Jinn stories, art and architecture, morally infused rural parables, Sufi shrines, Hindu temples and puja festivals, punthi literature, allegorical tales, humorous anecdotes, informal adda (gossip), old coins and family wares, Sufi/sadhu discourses, and, occasionally, also family cuisine to trace how it reflected the Muslim lifestyle and traditions in rural Bengal from the past.

A precious slice of this account came from my old interviews with several senior political leaders in Dhaka in the 1960s; they were active in Bengal’s Muslim politics in the 1930s and 1940s, which stretched into the early years of Pakistan. This was part of my post-doctoral research, later carried at Columbia University from 1970 to 1973. Those informants in the late 1960s included Maulana Akram Khan, a senior Muslim League leader and a prominent/writer/editor in Colonial Bengal and East Pakistan; Nurul Amin, former chief minister of East Pakistan; Yusuf Ali Chowdhury and Azizul Huq, both former provincial minsters; Kamruddin Ahmed, political writer, social thinker and a diplomat; and Tajuddin Ahmed, then a prominent Awami League leader who, later in 1971, pioneered the ←x | xi→independence struggle for Bangladesh. A couple of them gave me a few political pamphlets and unpublished materials from the 1940s. This volume additionally carries the snippets of my prior study on the Muslim League’s demise and the rise of the opposition parties in former East Pakistan. Sections of those post-doctoral research projects were published in Asian survey and Pacific Affairs; this narrative is indeed enriched by those relaxed but rare voices decades ago—now they are lost forever as those information-providers deceased over the years.

A Few Primary Questions Germane to This Work

My father’s invigorating idea that originally inspired this work —“if you add your own memories with those of your father’s, you get one hundred years’ of history,” is further enhanced in my Introduction. Added to that bracing, the sprawling story has four essential affirmations: (a) the village based recount here was, in several ways, a microcosm in the bigger panorama of undivided Bengal and British India (See Introduction, Chapters 1, 8 & 9); (b) the ancestral recalls including the supernatural tales and family nostalgia that seeped into identity formulation deserved a niche in the domains of history and social sciences (see Introduction, Chapters 1, 79); (c) the Muslims largely identified with the Jinn-stories, embedded in Islamic theological discourses (see Introduction and Chapter 3); and (d) the housewives like my grandmother and later my mother had their own voices in their respective families, but their historical contributions in social development were generally overlooked by the acknowledged chroniclers (see Introduction and Chapters 1 & 3).

Two interweaving reflections in this recount are: (i) a broad Muslim identity vision dappled the Muslim community of Colonial Bengal’s villages that possibly had regional and theological diversities (see Preface, Introduction, Chapters 1, 2, 4, 7 & 8), and (ii) the marginalized rural Muslim ryots were in the midst of the pioneers of the educated Muslim middle class in old Bengal; later, they flourished even more in post-independent East Pakistan/ Bangladesh (for details of this issue see Chapters 2, 3, 6, 7 & 8).

Virtual Hypotheses of This Narrative

Sufi eclecticism largely stamped my father’s interactions with his friends, colleagues, and occasional visitors (see Chapter 5 for a friend who came to learn ←xi | xii→from my father’s Sufi dispositions: the mystic inclinations are inferred in a couple of other chapters as well). Not in any strict sequence though, a few of my key assumptions, substantively gathered from diverse sources, are resurrected below:

1. The replacement of Persian by English as the official language had an enormous social and intellectual impact on the Muslims in Bengal/British India (see Chapters Introduction, 1, 7 & 8).

2. The locally prominent Muslim ashraf/khandan (aristocratic scions, sometimes called the kulins, a term also used to describe the well-bred brahmins) fell behind the Hindu bhadralok in education, power, status, professions, and leadership: they had limited interactions with the rest of the Muslim community in Colonial Bengal. (see Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6 & 8).

3. Largely drawn from my father’s observations and widespread contentions: the contemporary Muslims were not accountable for the presumed historical guilt of anti-Hindu wrongdoing by the Muslim rulers in the past; nor should they be exclusively blamed for the 1947 division of India (see Chapters 1, 7, 8 & 9).

4. The marginalized drift of Muslim experiences in historical treatises, textbooks, and popular writings encouraged the Hindu-Muslim gap in Colonial Bengal (see Chapters 1, 79).

5. Modern Bengali genre of literature commonly ignored the Muslim encounters and their vibrations of life as a part of the larger civil society—the giants among Bengali literary figures did not deconstruct the pre-existing anti-Muslim stereotypes and prejudices (see Chapters 1, 7 & 8…).

6. The so-called Choa-Choi (touching/not touching) practice between the Hindus and Muslims became a virtual social distancing between the two largest communities that eventually foiled a sustainable and intercommunal civil society in old Bengal (see Chapters 1, 4, 7 & 8).

7. Sidelined as the “others,” average Muslims became more conscious of their own identity and religiosity, which gradually empowered them through their numerical majority and leverage in Colonial Bengal’s quasi-parliamentary institutions and elected local councils (see Chapters 1, 4, 6, 7 & 8).

8. While divided along their religious and identity lines, people could still live in peace and coexistence through shared survival needs, language, culture, literature, education, and mutual respect as significantly demonstrated in the pre-British centuries (see Chapters Introduction, 1, 7 & 8).

←xii | xiii→


XVIII, 210
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Mohammad Rashiduzzaman (Author)

Mohammad Rashiduzzaman, M.A., Ph.D., a retired academic and Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, USA, is a recognized scholar with a range of publications on British India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Durham, England in 1964; he taught at the University of Dhaka, now Bangladesh for a decade before he came to Columbia University for post-doctoral work from 1970 to 1973. His previous works include The Central Legislature in British India, 1921-47: Parliamentary Experiences Under the Raj (Peter Lang, 2020), Politics and Administration in the Local Councils: A Study of Union and District Councils in East Pakistan (1968), and Pakistan: A Study of Government and Politics (1967). He also authored numerous peer-reviewed articles on Pakistan, Bangladesh, Muslim identity, and political Islam.


Title: Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal