|Volume 6 Issue 01| January 2012|
Maulana Bhashani: The Majloom Jononeta
M. WAHEEDUZZAMAN MANIK provides glimpses of the formative phase of the life and struggle of Maulana Bhashani.
Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani was aptly called “Majloom Jononeta” (leader of the oppressed) because of his uncompromising commitment to the needs of the poor, landless, peasants, workers, sharecroppers, abandoned, exploited and repressed people of the society. By any measure, his long political struggle was characterised by his selfless dedication for championing the causes of the most underprivileged segments of our society. Throughout almost six decades of a struggling political life, Maulana Bhashani was both a demanding spirit and a fearless voice for emancipation of the humblest, exploited, terrorised, and oppressed citizens against the overwhelming powers of the governmental machinery and the overweening grip of the ruling elite of the society. Indeed, he had to his credit an unblemished and impeccable record of life-long relentless struggle for the downtrodden, the poor, the vulnerable, the neglected, the deserted and the disinherited. Yet his dignified comportment throughout his eventful political struggle had displayed a quintessential bravery, relentlessness and dauntlessness
However, Maulana Bhashani was more than a defender of the peasantry and working class. He was responsible for building up an epoch-making resistance movement against the infamous Line system and the brutish Bangal Kheda movement in colonial Assam. He was both the maker and shaker of political events during the most turbulent years of the then East Pakistan. The seed of politics of opposition and agitation was carefully planted by Maulana Bhashani in the formative years of Pakistan in an era when the overwhelming majority of Muslim population of the then East Bengal was not yet ready to be disillusioned with the euphoria of Pakistan movement. He had played a defining role in the difficult task of building up East Pakistan Awami Muslim League, a viable opposition party in the then Pakistan. Doubtless, his was the fearless dissenting voice in the formative years of Pakistan. He was an active leader of the Bengali language movement. He was one of the chief organisers of the United Front, an electoral alliance that routed the ruling Muslim League party in the 1954 elections. He was not only the authentic founder of the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League (EPAML) but he was also the founder of the National Awami Party (NAP). Therefore, the appearance of Maulana Bhashani in the regressive political scenario of the then East Bengal as the most dauntless dissenting voice and an effective organiser of a sustainable opposition party that was capable of building-up a viable resistance movement against the Punjabi-Mohajir dominated Karachi-anchored Pakistani ruling elite was nothing short of a miracle.
It is part of Bangladesh's robust political history that it was Maulana Bhashani who had organised the historic anti-Ayub movement which took place in late 1968 and early 1969 that prompted and hastened the withdrawal of the infamous Agartala Conspiracy case and the unconditional release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from captivity. It is widely acknowledged that he had orchestrated a series of 'gherao' (a form of non-violent sit-in strikes designed to 'encircle' the governmental official against whom a protest was directed) immediately before and during the 1969 student-mass movement eventually led to the shameful downfall of the dictatorial regime of Ayub Khan. Maulana Bhashani's legendary name is also integral part and parcel of Bangladesh's struggle for freedom and independence.
Although Maulana Bhashani was intimately associated with all of the progressive movements during the Pakistan era from 1947 to 1971, no attempt has been made to provide any analysis or chronological details of any of those movements within the limited scope of this article. No effort has been made to discuss his fearless role in building-up the EPAML as a viable opposition political party in the then East Pakistan. Rather, the main purpose of this piece is to reflect on the formative phase of Maulana Bhashani's life and political struggle with specific reference to his struggling life up to late 1920s and early 1930s when he made Assam's Brahmaputra valley his place of residence and political struggle. However, a detailed discussion of strategies and tactics of his anti-Line system and anti-Bangal Kheda movement is not possible within the size of this paper.
Alhaj Mohammad Sharafat Ali Khan had named his second son Abdul Hamid Khan. However, Maulana Bhashani was known as Chega Mia during the early phase of his life. From whatever is known about his father and mother, it is plausible to suggest that his father and mother were caring parents. Unfortunately, Chega Mia lost both of his parents when he needed them most. He was hardly five or six years old when his father died at an early age in 1889 leaving behind his wife and young children (three sons and a daughter). Chega Mia (Maulana Bhashani) also lost his grandparents, mother, two brothers, and a sister in an epidemic (cholera) in mid-1890s (most probably in 1894 or in 1895) when he was barely 10 years old. Since he lost both of his parents and his grandfather at a very early phase of his life, he had to journey through a chequered boyhood. Given the fact that his father's untimely demise preceded his grandfather's death, Maulana Bhashani was clearly deprived of his inheritance right to his father's property. He was a student at a junior madrasa for several years but he could not continue his studies due to abject poverty and changed pecuniary circumstance. As a madrasa drop-out, he had no shelter even at his paternal house due to the betrayal of his close relatives. He came to know what hunger and starvation meant as a young boy because he had neither food nor lodge even though his father left behind homestead and cultivable land. So he had started wandering around for several years, and there was no profession left in which he did not try his luck in those trying days.
The orphan son of a mid-range Muslim farmer cum petty grocer and a grandson of a humble peasant, Maulana Bhashani had little reason to anticipate, in those trying times, a dedicated and selfless life of an ardent defender of the oppressed and downtrodden people. As a young disciple of Pir Syed Nasiruddin Shah Baghdadi, he had visited and stayed in Assam in the early years of 1900s (his first visit to Assam is believed to be in 1904). Although his main task in those days was to take care of various household chores of Pir Nasiruddin Baghdadi, Maulana Bhashani had received his basic Islamic education including his skills in the rudiments of Arabic from his association with Pir Syed Nasiruddin Shah Baghdadi. At the behest of this Pir, he had also the rare opportunity to pursue more formal religious education at Deobond Madrasa for almost two years. During his stay at Deobond in 1907-09, he was deeply influenced by Maulana Mahmudul Hasan who was popularly known as 'Shaikhul Hind'. It is being conjectured by most of the biographers of Maulana Bhashani that the progressive Islamic thinkers at Deobond and the liberal traditions of Sufi Islamic preachers might have immensely inspired him to become a fearless fighter against all types of oppression and exploitation including his steep opposition to the perpetuation of British imperialism.
After his return from Deobond, most probably at the end of 1909, Maulana Bhashani started teaching in a primary school which was located at village Kagmari near Tangail town at a monthly remuneration of no more than three rupees. He also taught in a madrasa at village Kala near Haluaghat in Mymensingh district after he had quit his primary school job. Since he used to earn a monthly pittance in both of these places, his pecuniary circumstance had remained sluggish in those days. However, it is fair to suggest that wherever he went to work or live in those almost forgotten years he had demonstrated a knack for getting himself involved with the problems of the common people of that area. For instance, he used to deal with the problems of the poor, the poorest of the poor, the neglected, the hungry, the malnourished and the downtrodden. Maulana Bhashani had a strong desire for motivating and organising the marginal peasants and vulnerable villagers to resist all forms of injustices.
There is little wonder why the targets of his grass root level resistance and protest movements in those days were the Zamindars, Talukders, Jotedars, and Mahajans (money lenders). In fact, the juxtaposition of precarious conditions of the vulnerable tenants vis-à-vis the powerful landed class piqued his interest in the difficult task of defending the peasants, sharecroppers and landless agricultural laborers. If there was a conflict between a tenant (a 'Proja') and a feudal landlord, Maulana Bhashani was always on the side of the tenant. He was not only an ardent defender of the tenants' rights but he was one of the most dedicated and effective organisers of the 'Proja' movement in early 1920s. (Details on the early phase of Maulana Bhashani's life can be gleaned from Chapter I of Syed Abul Maqsud's seminal work titled Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Bangla Academy, 1994, and Peter Custers' “Maulana Bhashani and the Transition to Secular Politics in East Bengal,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. XLVII (47), No. 2, April-June, 2010).
Glimpses of the formative phase of his political struggle
Although Maulana Bhashani got himself involved in national politics in early 1920s, he voluntarily remained chiefly involved in the difficult task of ventilating, articulating and defending the genuine rights of the most vulnerable peasants of the regions wherever he lived in those years. In other words, he preferred to work among the peasants even though he had emerged in national politics before, during and after the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements. Maulana Bhashani's leadership experiences in the peasant movements in greater Mymensingh district and in other northern districts of Bengal had invariably played a role in his emergence as a charismatic peasant leader in Assam. Banned from the then greater Mymensingh district and eventually after being expelled from various northern districts of the then Bengal province, Maulana Bhashani settled in Char Bhasan (Gaghmari) of Assam in 1926 (according to some accounts, he took permanent residence in Assam in 1928).
As noted by Amalendu Guha, “After his first political experience reportedly as a Khilafatist and Non-cooperator, he (Maulana Bhashani) discovered that the real interests of the Muslim peasantry of Bengal lay in a consistent struggle against the zamindars and moneylenders, who were mostly Hindus. He did not hesitate to exploit the religious sentiment to organize and unite the oppressed Muslim peasantry, who constituted the overwhelming bulk of the Bengal peasantry. … The itinerant Maulana, with his simple and pious habits and great organizing abilities, was accepted by the rural folk not only as a political leader but also as a Pir (saint), believed to be possessed of occult power. Hounded out of Bengal by the zamindars and the police, he settled down on the wastelands of Ghagmari, a few miles from Dhubri in Assam, and also set up another establishment in Bhashanir-char (or Bhashan char), an island in the Brahmaputra (river). Both (places) were in Goalpara district where (Bengali) settlers already formed a fifth of the population. It was after the name of the latter place (Bhashan Char) that he was nick-named 'the Maulana of Bhashani' or simply 'Bhashani' in due course” (Amalendu Guha, “East Bengal Immigrants and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani in Assam Politics, 1928-'47,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Volume XIII, No. 4, 1976, p. 426)
Similar views about Maulana Bhashani's intimacy with the peasant movement during the formative stage of his political struggle have been expressed in a recently published article by Peter Custers, a left leaning European scholar. As emphasised by Peter Custers, “Though Bhashani originally hailed from Shirajganj in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), he derived his appellation “Bhashani” from 'char' Bhashan, a low lying area of Assam. It was here, in late (19) twenties, having been forced by the British colonial authorities to seek refuge beyond the borders of Bengal, that Bhashani cleared the jungles to build his own bamboo hut. Already by this time, the fiery theologian had distinguished himself as an opponent of the feudal zamindari system which was the backbone of Britain's rule over Bengal. The Bengal province in the 1920s had seen the emergence of a movement for tenants' rights. The 'proja' movement, protesting unjust impositions by absentee landlords, was actively supported by many rural intellectuals, including lawyers and Islamic preachers. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan, later to be known as 'Bhashani', was not only an advocate for, but also a key organizer of this movement. In fact, he convened several big peasant gatherings before being compelled to shift his habitation to Assam. In Assam, the Maulana re-emerged as an effective and popular peasant leader, ready to champion the cause of the downtrodden” (Custers, Peter.. “Maulana Bhashani and the Transition to Secular Politics in East Bengal,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. XLVII (47), No. 2, April-June, 2010, p. 232).
There is no doubt that Maulana Bhashani had become a legendary political figure in Assam in mid-1930s and 1940s. Yet it needs to be underscored that he had Assam connection long before he settled there in later part of 1920s. As a young disciple of Pir Syed Nasiruddin Boghdadi, as noted earlier, he had visited and stayed in Assam in the early years of 1900s. Maulana Bhashani had numerous disciples in Assam even before he permanently migrated there in late 1920s. It is believed that he was a frequent visitor to Brahmaputra valley of Assam in 1920s. He was intimately familiar with the devastating effects of the infamous Line system on the Bengali immigrant peasantry in Assam. He had first-hand knowledge about the deplorable plight of the Bengali Muslim immigrant settlers in Assam before he moved there to live. He also felt the acute need for effectively mobilising and organising the Bengali immigrant settlers throughout the Brahmaputra valley in Assam. In fact, he had realized quite early that his fight against the Line system needs to be backed up by public support and awareness, and his initial efforts were deliberately geared toward garnering such public support. For example, in 1924, Maulana Bhashani had organised a large public meeting of Bengali peasants at "Bhashan Char" (Bhashani Island) of Dubri district. The great success of this mammoth gathering of Bengali migrant settlers in Dubri area had inspired Maulana Bhashani to devote his undivided attention to the task of organising more peasant gatherings and rallies in far flung areas of vast char lands of Brahmaputra valley.
Soon after Maulana Bhashani settled in Assam, he observed that the hardworking Bengali settlers in lower districts of Assam were very vulnerable to all forms of discrimination and exploitation because they were not at all organised to protect their own legitimate rights. It was clear to him that those Bengali immigrant settlers in Assam were not in a position to build up any kind of resistance movement against the government-sponsored discrimination and violence. Although he had never hankered after power or authority, he decided to take that responsibility upon himself to organise and develop a sustainable resistance movement of the immigrant peasants against the overweening powers of the vested interests. Maulana Bhashani's strategy at the initial stage of his struggle against the Line system was to prepare and mobilise the unorganised and vulnerable Bengali immigrant settlers in Assam. He was not willing to waste even a moment in building up a sustainable movement against the infamous Line system.
There was a total absence of any dedicated leadership committed to further the just causes of the migrant settlers in Assam even though some 'Bhadralok' Muslim leaders started showing sympathy for the Muslim immigrants. However, the seasonal or sporadic support or sympathy they had received from the Muslim leaders was at best political posturing before the general elections that were scheduled to be held in Assam in early 1937. Neither the upper class Muslim leaders nor the Bengali-speaking Hindu leaders were the trusted allies of the tormented Bengali Muslim settlers in the Brahmaputra valley. In fact, the educated middle class Bengali speaking people of Assam did not offer any form of tangible support for the legitimate grievances of the Bengali immigrant settlers in Assam. Being apparently disgusted, one Bengali scholar (Amalendu Guha) had characterised the lukewarm support of the Assamese Muslim leaders for the Bengali Muslim immigrant settlers in the Brahmaputra valley as “wordy” and “motivated.” However, neither the upper class Bengali speaking Muslim leaders and nor the Bengali Hindu leaders did hesitate to woo the support or sympathy from the Bengali Muslim settlers when the then Assam government made the unilateral determination in 1935 “to close down the Bengali classes” in the schools and “to encourage the setting up of new aided schools exclusively for Bengali children.”
Maulana Bhashani started holding numerous community meetings throughout Assam for the purpose of forming a viable resistance movement against the vested interests. It is evident that his intent of holding public gatherings was not only to garner mass support and the public opinions in favour of the disinherited Bengali peasantry in Assam but his initial mobilising efforts in Assam were also designed to convince the vulnerable Bengali immigrant settlers, the victims of the Line system, the paramount importance of binding together in self-defense. For instance, Maulana Bhashani organised a huge 'Krishak Shommelon' (Peasants' Conference) at 'Char Bhashan' in 1929. The chief resolutions of this Conference were as follows: abolition of Line system, moratorium on the Bangal Kheda (Eviction of Bangalees) initiatives, the redress of the atrocities of Raja Probhat Kumar Barua (the Zamindar of Gouripur) over the Bengali Muslim migrants, and the introduction of uniform of weighing system throughout Assam (In fact, Maulana Bhashani's serious efforts later led to the adoption of uniform weight system in Assam).
Maulana Bhashani devoted most of his efforts from 1929 through 1935-'37 toward building up numerous organisations of Bengali immigrants throughout Brahmaputra valley. Specifically, he had formed many peasant organisations for the sole purpose of articulating their demands. He also organised the agricultural laborers and landless peasants of Assam through the formation of "Assam Chashi Majoor Samiti" in 1937. During this period, Maulana Bhashani also started holding inter-provincial peasant conferences both in Assam and Bengal districts. For instance, Maulana Bhashani had assembled the 'Bangla-Assam Proja Sommelon' (Bengal-Assam Tenants' Conference) in 1932 at Sirajgunj of the then Pabna district. One of the professed objectives of holding the inter-provincial tenants' and peasants' conference was to sensitise the people of the neighbouring Bengal about the discriminatory policies and initiatives of the Assam Government against the Bengali immigrant settlers in Assam. According to Amalendu Guha, “From 1928 to 1936, while still maintaining his contacts with Bengal, Bhashani used to move up and down the Brahmaputra to visit the riverside immigrant Muslim villages in accessible areas of Assam and organised them on the basis of a peasant programme including the demand for land. The colonisation of Ghagmari and Bhashanir char was due to his own personal efforts. People, suffering under the oppression of zamindars in Bengal, were in any case flocking to Assam in large numbers in order to settle on its beckoning wasteland. By 1936, Bhashani emerged as the accredited leader of the Muslim immigrants of Goalpara. He stood (contested) as a candidate in the 1937 election and returned to the Assam Legislative Assembly, formed under the Act of 1935. He (Maulana Bhashani) remained an important figure in Assam politics during the next ten years” (Amalendu Guha, “East Bengal Immigrants and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani in Assam Politics, 1928-'47,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Volume XIII, No. 4, 1976, p. 427).
Doubtless, the emergence of Maulana Bhashani as the ardent defender of the Bengali immigrant peasantry in Assam was spectacular. As a saviour of his fellow Bengali immigrant settlers in Assam, he had organised a viable resistance movement against both the Line system and the brutish Bangal Kheda movement in 1930s and 1940s. His was the most trusted voice during the agonising years of tears and fears of the repressed Bengali immigrant peasantry in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam. He relentlessly fought against all odds for establishing their rights in the desolated regions of Assam. Maulana Bhashani dedicated himself for a period of at least two decades for ventilating their fair grievances and articulating their legitimate demands. His defiance of the infamous Line system and his fight against the vicious 'Banglal Kheda' policies and ploys of the then Assam Government made him a charismatic leader in Assam and a 'folk hero' in his own time. Since Maulana Bhashani was one of the tormented Bengali immigrant settlers in Assam, his resistance movement can be characterised as the bold and creative defiance and mass rejection of various anti-immigration policies and ploys of the then Assam Government.
The cherished yearning of Maulana Bhashani's early life and political struggle in the then greater Mymensingh district and in various districts of northern Bengal was to free the marginal cultivators, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers from the yoke of the local landlords and their intermediaries and the money lenders. His struggle in the early phase of his political life both in northern districts of Bengal and the lower Assam districts can be characterised as a grassroots struggle for social justice. The emergence of Maulana Bhashani as the most charismatic peasant leader in Assam at a critical juncture was nothing short of a miracle for the discriminated and repressed Bengali peasantry in Assam. His grassroots level efforts towards building organisational infrastructures in rural regions of Bengal and Assam brought the most neglected and vulnerable segments of the society from periphery to the centre of the political spectrum.
There were a variety of voices against the infamous Line system and the brutish Bangal Kheda movement (also known as Bangal Kheda movement). There had been no dearth of criticisms of various anti-Bengali policies and ploys of the then Assam Government. Yet it was Maulana Bhashani who had emerged as the most selfless and dauntless champion of the most repressed and underprivileged Bengali peasantry in Assam. Indeed, his political struggle in Assam was deliberately designed and launched to dismantle the infamous Line system and to establish a moratorium on the Bangal Kheda movement. His heroic defiance of the Line system and his protracted fight against the Bangal Kheda ploys of then Assam Government represented one of the most courageous and principled stands for establishing the legitimate rights of the Bengali speaking immigrants in Assam. Maulana Bhashani's homegrown, community based resistance movement against the Line system and the Bangal Kheda movement was deliberately designed by him to be a movement of the Bengali peasantry, for the Bengali peasantry, and by the Bengali peasantry in Assam.
Doubtless, Maulana Bhashani was a catalyst of the most authentic movement for accruing or establishing both civil and political rights of the Bengali immigrants in colonial Assam. His relentless fight for the salvation of the toiling masses and his uncompromising resolve to fight against all forms of discrimination, oppression, exploitation and injustices had actually rendered credible voices to the most repressed Bengali immigrants in Assam. Maulana Bhashani had imparted a heritage of simple lifestyle, selfless and untainted leadership, and uncompromising resolve to fight for social justice. As the founder of a sustainable resistance movement against the Line system and the Bangal Kheda movement, Maulana Bhashani provided a path-breaking service for the vulnerable Bengali immigrant settlers throughout Brahmaputra valley of Assam. His organised resistance movement against the brutish Line system not only had to overcome the hopelessness and fearlessness of the Bengali immigrant settlers in lower Assam districts but also had to confront the internalised psychological damage that the Government-sponsored Bangal Kheda drive had inflicted on those tormented souls.
Dr. M. Waheeduzzaman (Manik) is a Professor and the Chair of the Department of Public Management and Criminal Justice at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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