Muslim identity in Bangladesh and in its yore: Is it still relevant?


M Rashiduzzaman  12 December 2022

The fractured Bangladeshi nation

 Image course: Dhaka Tribune

ONCE Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the new political actors brought a new display of politics. Many of them returning from the year-long armed struggle from their Indian base, passionately deconstructed the Pakistani Muslim trajectory as the ‘anti-liberation’ ideology. On the other end, the bulk of the larger Bangladeshi civil society, with a huge Muslim majority, declined to jettison their Muslim distinctiveness, lock, stock and barrel in the newly independent country. The post-1971 elite’s unbridled secularism encountered defiance in various profiles. To the Muslim multitude, secular liberalism was more of an elitist paradigm foisted on them. Muslim identity — as the recount follows — was not an exclusive religious phenomenon although it contained Islamic elements.

The resilient Muslim aspirations and sensitivities could survive, as we have seen their countenance in Bosnia and a few other ex-communist countries, could faintly exist behind the hostile state institutions and come out in time a national crisis. Both Bangladesh and the main shares of its citizens were the products of a buoyant Muslim politics that plodded through colonial Bengal and East Pakistan. Now, the story deserves a retelling. But the quest between memory and history is a convulsive undertaking. Dredging up the past human encounters and memories, however, carried their ‘inalienable rights’ for a niche in history, according to Annie Ernaux, the 2022 Nobel laureate in literature.

Muslim politics in the British Raj had surely spun a Muslim middle class in Bengal long before it led to Pakistan in 1947. Much to the liberal/secular disquiet, Bangladesh, at 50, is still  ‘shackled’ by the unyielding confrontation between the obdurate Muslim identity and the much-flaunted lingo-secular Bengali nationalism. And the incongruity came in multiple stages and configurations. The Muslim identity’s endurance appalled the secularists and their intellectual cohorts who avidly believed that nationalism in Bangladesh exclusively belonged to the shared Bengali language and culture.

Bangladeshi historical vision rarely goes beyond 1971 — the cherry-picked East Pakistani recounts stirred up the post-Bangladeshi political conveniences, but they hardly provided the loftier historical commands. The uphill slog of the pre-1947 decades, the precursor of the history-making partition, and the quintessential Muslim impetus in colonial Bengal faced a virtual extinction in the politicised recitation of Bangladesh’s history. Nevertheless, the country’s domestic politics and the growing Hindu-Muslim encounters in the sub-continent hark Bangladeshis back to their own past. Former East Pakistan’s achievements and failures and the prior Muslim politics in the pre-partition Bengal are very much a part of Bangladeshi experiences — it does not matter if present political correctness embellishes or dims the yore.

Muslim nationalism, be it in Pakistan, Bangladesh or elsewhere in its broadest connotation, does not robotically bond with politics. But political imperatives often hitch Muslim identity very much like a blend of Hindu nationalism becoming overwhelmingly powerful in India. Pakistan’s Muslim nationalism survives, but it could not save Pakistan’s break up in 1971. But East Pakistan did not secede from Pakistan over religious issues — dogged economic and political failures in the backdrop, and the Pakistan army’s sudden genocidal cruelty unleashed in March 1971 rolled East Pakistan to the path of separation. Every so often, the Muslim ‘we-feeling’ co-existed and coalesced with the center-right parties in old Bengal, East Pakistan and the current Bangladesh. Muslim identity, as a sprawling bond, a sense of pride or a rallying ground for ventilating grievances, did not originate from the religious zealots.

A powerful voice of Muslim confidence, AK Fazlul Huq, the one-time unchallenged Muslim leader of Bengal once thundered — ‘Don’t apologise for being a Muslim!’ (Drawn from his old diary and Faizul Huq, his now deceased son). He moved the Lahore resolution in 1940, but he was not enthusiastic about the 1947 division of Bengal. Fazlul Huq and most of his prominent Muslim colleagues in Bengal were practising Muslims, but they did not envision a fanatical Islamic state through their Pakistan prism.

The first significant blending of politics and Muslim consciousness came in the wake of the 1905 Bengal partition and the birth of the Muslim League in 1906. From 1991 to 1903, the Muslim percentage of the Bengal Legislative Council members was about 6 per cent while Bengal’s Muslim population stood over 50 per cent. Pressed by the Muslim lobbying and flung by the colonial exploitation of the old Hindu-Muslim divide, the 1909 legislative reforms introduced a separate Muslim electorate. It brought in a Muslim blend of a few old feudal scions and several young lawyers into politics. They marked the beginning of the modern Muslim politicians in Bengal. The 1909 ‘communal electorate’ was only a corrective tool for the Muslim under-representation in the legislatures.

Transitioned through the 1919 Montago-Chelmsford decentralisation and later under the larger provincial autonomy from 1937, the Government of India Act 1935 brought further empowerment to Muslim politicians in Bengal and other Muslim-majority provinces. Outstanding leaders like AK Fazlul Huq from Bengal and several pioneers from the Punjab challenged the raj. Such efforts of the Muslim leaders brought more benefits and patronage to the Muslims of East Bengal. Most Muslim legislators in the provincial legislatures and the Indian Legislative Assembly vented their constituents’ existential grievances — they had little to do with Islamic orthodoxy. Jinnah and most Muslim members in the central and provincial legislative bodies seldom used communal vocabularies before the 1940s  — the parliamentary debates are open books for those who care to read those documents.

The question hours in the colonial Bengal’s Legislative Council bristled with job-related queries for the Muslim youth. Numerous of the newfangled Muslim leaders helped the young Muslims with jobs and other patronages — mostly in the middle to the lower echelon of government positions. Dhaka University’s founding in 1921 is a testimony to Bengal’s Muslim inspiration at the crossroads between 1905 and 1947. Dhaka University made an enormous contribution to the growth of a professional middle class and the future leaders of what was East Pakistan and later in Bangladesh. A Muslim alertness of ‘who got what’ was at the source of our forerunners’ accomplishments — they were part of the Muslim identity bequests from those days. The contemporary Bangladeshi descendants of the educated Muslim professionals of that period could easily verify those historical footprints simply by adding their own memories with their ancestors’ anecdotes.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s Islamic state nomenclature and the broader allegiance to the Islamic state principles, the orthodox religious parties did not have unilateral sway in East Pakistan politics. The Muslim League went downhill after its massive defeat in 1954. Partly a methodical act of the secular proponents or because of unfamiliarity with history, a murmuring disapproval of MA Jinnah, the Muslim League and the 1947 partition was hard to ignore among certain brands of students, politicians, and academics in East Pakistan.

Since Bangladesh was born, the alternative trail has been devoid of the new state’s historiography. The Awami League’s secular bearing was a useful resource in 1971 for the exiled government to attract New Delhi’s strategic support towards Bangladesh independence. Conservative Bangladeshi Muslims, however, periodically charged that the liberal and secular leaders trivialised Islam and the Muslim identity. Eventually, Bangladesh remains a divided country over identity questions — a patent threat to its security.

When the Awami League was born in 1949, the party’s title was the Awami Muslim League. But later in the mid-1950s, the Awami League backed a joint electorate for elections in East Pakistan — a move away from earlier separate electorate no longer necessary in a Muslim-majority state. But the party did not directly demonstrate any anti-Islam bearing in the 1970 election. Following the war beginning in March 1971, the Awami League-led exiled government and their leftist cohorts operating from India questioned the ‘two nation theory’ that constructed the core beliefs behind Pakistan. Once the Pakistan army surrendered to the Indian armed forces in December 1971,  Bangladesh was born. All symbols of Pakistan, including its Muslim nationalism, vanished in public display while its supporters languished in jail or went underground in the new state. Periodically, the dismissal of the Muslim identity, the denunciation of the Islamic forces and the wanton harassment of the suspected ‘pro-Pakistani’ individuals and their political and social entities continued from 1972 to 1975. The (Muslim) religio-political entities in Bangladesh still suffer from such suspicions and aggravations. Renunciation of the Pakistani ideology gave the new elites a legitimacy for the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, but the marginalisation of the rightwing opposition became a stratagem of the secular and liberal elites.

In the aftermath of the coups and counter-coups of 1975, the new military-led administration found it convenient to earn added public support by acknowledging Muslim identity in Bangladesh. Together with president Ziaur Rahman’s revival of multiple parties and the formation of his centrist Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the Muslim distinctiveness gained more acknowledgement in the larger national imagination. Zia’s Bangladesh nationalism, a conceptual combination of Muslim cognizance and the attachment of Bengali language appeared as a moderation to the singularly lingo-centric Bengali patriotism. A broader Muslim perception became a patent political force despite the intermittent ideological slings and arrows that fell upon the BNP and Muslim identity proponents. And yet, the growing Muslim consciousness was not identical with the fundamentalist brand of political Islam launched by the Islamic challengers from the fringe. Muslim identity staged a political come back, but it had strong rivals. Its obdurate challengers were the secular leftists and the Bengali nationalists in Bangladesh.

No matter which party is or was in power in Bangladesh, the Muslim sensitivities have, in one way or the other, factored in politics. The Awami League, the most powerful ruling party since its return to power in 2009, demonstrated its caution about the Muslim identity by not removing Islam’s state religion status from the constitution. Beyond such ambivalence, Muslim identity deserved a courteous slot for the ultimate national interest. The forces of Muslim identity, with their abiding ubiquity, which irrefutably sponsored the not-so-distant ancestors, will persist in the country’s politics, security, and national imagination.

Identity imagination, broadly speaking, is malleable and the Muslim identity vibrations are not exceptions to that rule. MA Jinnah and the Muslim League speared Muslim nationalism in British India, but most of them were not religious leaders. Except changing to sherwanipajama, and a head cover (Jinnah cap), Jinnah had a secular and western lifestyle. The Islamic celebrities like Maulana Maududi, Maulana HA Madani and the Deobond Madrassah’s Islamic establishments stayed away from Jinnah and his Pakistan movement.

More driven by the socio-economic gaps between the Hindus and Muslims and the palpable backwardness of the Bengali Muslims, the western-educated Muslim lawyer-politicians wanted Pakistan, but they did not necessarily ask for the division of Bengal along religious lines. Nor did they propose a separate Muslim state without the non-Muslims. During the pre-British centuries of Muslim-dominated Bengal (and larger India), the Hindus and Muslims — separated by religion and other variables, lived side by side, mostly in peace until the dawn of the 20th century. Muslim identity had a built-in accommodation for mutual co-existence and survival. To me, Jinnah’s earliest but short-lived compliant message in Pakistan resonated emperor Akbar’s initiation of ‘sul-e-kul’, the Mughal dictum of a peaceful polity free from sectarianism. A revisit to those Muslim identity rhythms opens the windows of Bangladeshi political inheritances.


M Rashiduzzaman is a retired academic. The article is drawn from his recent books and current research. he occasionally writes about Bangladesh, social and institutional history of British India and Pakistan, political Islam and Muslim identity issues.

The article was first published in the New Age on Nov 28, 2022