Muslim psyche in colonial Bengal


From the Ground Up: Identity of Bengal's Muslims - The Friday Times - Naya Daur

Dhaka citizens wait to welcome the first Lt. Governor of the newly created province of East Bengal, October 1905

M Rashiduzzaman |  Jan 07,2023

ROOTED in the Muslim antipathy towards the British Colonialism in India, pejoratively distinguished as the Firangi Raj, the vast Indian Muslim community’s psyche carried a palpable ache for what they had lost to an alien rule. Did the known scholars or mainstream historians dive deep into that fractured Muslim mind since the initial phase of foreign occupation of Bengal? The term Firangi carried diverse meanings about the European foreigners or the European Christians — there are several books on the arrivals of such outsiders to India. Set in the waning years of 19th century and the first couple of decades of the 20th century, this narrative centres on the underprivileged rural Muslim community, not much on the left-over of the Muslim aristocracy at that time.

Besides Nawab Abdul Latif (1828–1893) in Bengal and Sir Syed Ahmed (1817–1898) in Aligarh as well as their contemporary reformist Muslim leaders, a bunch of historians, memoirists, popular authors, and essayists have written on the Muslims in colonial Bengal. Broadly, a few of them concentrated on the 19th century Bengal and others on Bengal’s Muslim politics in the 20th century.

Except WW Hunter, rare observers wrote so poignantly on the agonized 19th century Muslims in Bengal. Anisuzzaman, Rafiuddin Ahmed, Amalendu De, William Dalrymple, Sufia Ahmed, Asim Roy, Barbara Metcalf, John Broomfield, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Taj Hashmi, Neilesh Bose and Ahmed Sofa are amongst those who spelled the Muslim ego in what was once the united Bengal. Those who wrote on the late 19th century roughly depended on the newspapers, periodicals, folk lore, fictions, and non-fictions plus a range of other literary sources. John Broomfield primarily wrote on the Muslim fears in the 20th century ‘elite conflict’ in British Bengal. My recent book Identity Of A Muslim Family In Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History, Peter Lang, NYC 2021, primarily a grassroots Muslim historiography, overlaid the Muslim anxieties and thoughts in the British-held Bengal shared between the last two centuries.

The Muslim history in colonial Bengal and larger India passed the crossroads and dilemmas between their furies against the Raj, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Muslim spurs for modern education and the patronages that went with it. Away from the Orientalist patronisation of the Muslim mindset in Asia and the Middle East, this storyline is the modicum of a spill-over from my earlier studies of British India — this chronicle tallied the bottom-up approaches and a few grass-roots reminiscences, and reflections.


Human psyche from the old times cannot precisely go for contemporary fact-checking—their comprehensions often hinge on a range of proxy indicators lost in the yore. They do not always stitch a neat story of the Muslim psyche during the British Raj. In the backdrop of the British racial and cultural arrogance, this chronicle wades through the Muslim misgivings and distrustfulness in the direction of the Firangi rulers and their local allies.


The Firangi epithet of the British hegemony, with both religious and political stocks, goes back to Bengal’s earliest rendezvous with colonization. Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal (1733–1757) whom the British East India Company defeated and killed in conspiracy with the Nawab’s family members and the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (1755–1862) , whom the same Company ousted and exiled after the failed 1857 Revolt, were amongst the very few last Muslim rulers in pre-British India. The Muslims became the ‘defeated enemy’ of the British Raj and their native partners. However, their mental defiance to the new rulers did not transition easily—the wrinkles, anger and restraints found their outlets in their daily trek and occasional hostilities that fell short of success for many decades. More than the historians and social scientists, the creative writers, through historical novels, oral history, and victim interviews, captured the human suffering and the anguished psyche better. For example, the fictional recalls, memoirs, and the creative nonfictions more credibly depicted the Muslim (and Hindu) suffering in the post-1857 throes of violence perpetrated by the East India Company soldiers than the academic historians.

The Muslim aversion to the British rule resembled multiple withdrawal symptoms that were hard to exorcise. Prominent in rural East Bengal districts, the Faraizi Muslims declared a religious and political non-cooperation with the British while they urged their co-religionists not to attend the Jumma (Friday Muslim congregation) and annual Eid prayers while India was under the Firangi domination. Slowly, the drift towards gainful English education and government jobs became an enormous challenge for the Muslim antagonists, the dawdling Faraizi exponents, the purist ulema and the bigger Muslim community still caught in the torrent of frustration and humiliation. A band of Muslim modernists, led by Sir Syed and Nawab Abdul Latif, meanwhile, challenged the Muslim state of denial of the colonialist reality, which put the Muslims on a downward slope. It was a big contrast to the rising Hindu intelligentsia—the bhadralok — that dominated the economy and the professions under the government.


My grandfather (1845–1912) and his generation grew up with their ‘hang-over’ of the lost Mughal emperors and the vanished glory of Muslim power. But the mainstream narrators, both expatriates and locals, did not profoundly behold the emotive power of that eclipse of the past. At the dawn of the 20th century, my father occasionally saw a few neighbours beseeching Bahadur Shah’s help to deter the local robbers. But the last Mughal ruler was long dead in exile in Myanmar. Occasionally, my grandfather also entreated the East India Company’s power and implored Queen Victoria to prevent the local goons from stealing his standing crops. His sons interceded to correct that India was then straight under the British government rule from England, and neither the East India Company nor the deceased Queen Victoria ruled India in those days. But my grandfather habitually sneered at his teen age children: ‘no matter who controls Hindustan today, they are all Firangis — is it not?’ My grandfather’s poignant catapults hit the bull’s eye of the colonial juggernaut!


A visiting maternal uncle, with a degree from the conservative Deoband madrassah, once asked my father about his education and school around 1905 or so. When my father told him that he was a student at the local high school, the uncle nearly screamed: ‘do you want to be a slave of the Firangis by studying at their school?’ Truly, the Muslim likes and dislikes for modern school eventually bifurcated the Muslim community—between those who went for westernised education and professional careers and those who abstained from those opportunities—the ‘Muslim non-co-operators’ in the rural and urban areas. Delineation of such conflicting emotions is seldom prominent in the available Muslim historiography of British India.

The initial Muslim resistance to English education correspondingly resulted from the sudden replacement of Persian by English as the official language and the medium of schooling in 1835. For several centuries of Muslim rule in India, Persian was the state language—a semantic for the court, administration, and diplomacy. When English became the official medium, the multitude of Persian-educated persons lost their sources of living in literate professions.

My grandfather’s life-tenure paralleled with the high noon of the British Raj when, in the aftermath of the abortive uprising of 1857, the stretch was politically mute. My grandfather’s generation did not like the new breed of Zamindars earlier created through the Permanent Settlement; the latest land proprietors exploited the Bengali peasants, mostly Muslims, in East Bengal, now Bangladesh where once the anti-British and anti-Zamindari Faraizi movement thrived most.

With good reasons, the Muslims feared that the British Raj-sponsored Christian missionaries wanted to impose Christianity both on the Muslims and Hindus, according to William Dalrymple and a few other historians. Such fears of Christianisation further bruised Muslim psyche towards the European colonisers. A range of traditionalist Muslim movements challenged both the Christian Missionaries’ conversion practices and the emerging Hindu fundamentalists seeking to reconvert those Muslims who switched to Islam from Hinduism in the past. Those survival impulses were not necessarily the fanatical Muslim instincts, as portrayed by the recurrent pundits on Bengali Muslim history.

Superior in numbers, Bengali Muslims were the neglected majority dominated by the Hindu feudal dynasties and the soaring Hindu middle class which profoundly stirred the Muslim disposition in Bengal, according to John Broomfield, a reputable historian of South Asia. However, profound changes dawned on the Muslim thoughts and stances during the turbulent decades from 1905/1906 to the 1940s. But all those details do not fit into this chronicle stream. The Bengal Partition of 1905 suffered a perilous annulment in 1911 — the Hindu elite that vehemently campaigned against the split paid little attention to the Muslim mind that backed the short-lived Muslim-majority East Bengal province.

Amidst the post-1905 tumult of Hindu-Muslim bitterness, the Muslim League, established in 1906 as a counter to the Congress, similarly dented the course of Muslim political thinking. The 1909 political reforms introduced a separate electorate for the Muslims, a thorn between the Hindu-Muslim amity. But the new measure brought more elected Muslim politicians to the fore — it was the beginning of Muslim emancipation in Bengal. Between the two World Wars, the Muslim mind found new forums through the Indian central and provincial legislatures, parliamentary question hours, budget speeches, adjournment motions, Muslim memorandum to the Constitutional Reform Commissions (eg, Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms and the Simon Commissions) and the selective memoirs of important Muslim politicians. The academic writers and the historians are yet to make full use of those documents in assessing the Muslim mind in colonial Bengal.

To conclude with a personal note, I was greatly benefited by the surfeit of those materials at the London libraries when, in the early 1960s, I worked for my PhD thesis on the British Indian Legislature later published as The Central Legislature In British India 1921-47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, Peter Lang, NYC 2019 (earlier edition came out in Dhaka in 1965).


M Rashiduzzaman, a retired academic, writes on Muslim identity, history and politics.

The article was published in the New Age Bangladesh