Reclaiming the Margins of Faded Scrolls
Posted by bangalnama on October 25, 2009
The Mamar Bari is expected to play a central role in the life of any Bengali kid. I was no exception. It was the place Ma would happily run to once every week, and I would happily tag along. It was very apparent to me from very early on, that things here, in this stately, old, two-storied house, in an old fashionable South Calcutta neighborhood, were run differently from the small government rental flats in obscure neighborhoods of Park Circus or Lake Gardens, where I lived with my parents. One could play cricket in the roof or be wild in the garden with cousins. The floors had that shiny red hue that you see in many old Calcutta homes (though the period films always show the even more aristocratic black-and-white marble tiling), the DC ceiling fans looked and sounded different (the electric supply remained DC for a long time), and the windows were wooden, with the “Charulata” khorkhoris.
The heydays of the neighborhood as well the house were well past, and there seemed to be a certain disjunction between some of the trappings of aristocracy and some of the more modest modern additions. There were cured and painted deer skulls hanging from the walls and even part of a tiger skin, relics of the British Raj era passion for displaying hunted animals as trophies. Yet my grandfather, the man responsible for them (he had been a high ranking forest official), wore no snobbish airs about him and meticulously walked every morning to the bazaar or the bank like any dutiful retired Bengali gentleman. There were stately old bookshelves and almirahs made of solid dark wood with fat, dusty law books lining them. One could easily tell apart the more modern kitschy little things that my aunts had placed there. Frequently occurring in the glass showcases were also certain intricately carved metallic-looking cylindrical objects that I was never allowed access to as a child, and which consequently always evoked an irrepressible curiosity in me. The adults were patient enough to just tell me , that they were all manpatra ( essentially “scrolls of honour”) that had been conferred upon my great grandfather in the days of his being a minister in the Bengal cabinet of Fazlul Haque.
This maternal great grandfather, Mukunda Behari Mullick, had been one of the key leaders of the Namasudra movement in the years leading up to Independence, witnessing both the glorious highs and the depressing lows of this unique movement among Bengal’s “Depressed classes”, and directing some of it himself. A Pali scholar with a photographic memory and an extremely combative High Court barrister, Mukunda Behari was in a natural position to provide his community with the leadership that it so sorely needed in those days. The history of this sociopolitical movement goes back to the latter half of the nineteenth century when the Namasudra community rallied around a charismatic religious reformer called Harichand Thakur and began to demand greater recognition and rights from their caste Hindu oppressors. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a small section of this community had been able to equip itself with the advantages of western education and progressive thought, and were quick to see that the path to social upliftment for the vast majority of Untouchables lay in embracing the opportunities afforded by colonial rule, since appeals to mainstream Hindu prejudices were unlikely to produce any immediate results. This remained the thematic undercurrent of the political agitations of the Namasudras till the movement was superceded by larger political and social forces at work, but not before achieving some pioneering and dramatic results.
Mukunda Behari was from one such relatively prosperous landowning Namasudra family in Khulna (the story goes that his people were loyal soldiers in the service of Raja Pratapaditya and received some generous grants of land from him), which was able to send him to Calcutta’s famous Presidency College for higher education. Once there he was greeted with caste Hindu students refusing to share hostel facilities including drinking water taps with the Namasudra students. It was in this unfavorable climate that he set about rigorously training himself first in Pali and then setting himself up as a practicing lawyer and political activist. This choice of Pali couldn’t have been an accident, and parallels the later espousal of Buddhism as a means to protest Brahmanical Hinduism, by Ambedkar – who was to be in some sense his political mentor, and a close friend.
The Namasudra movement from its socio-religious grassroots inception was soon to be formalized by this comparatively wealthy, Western-educated elite into a program for constitutional concessions, that often ran contrary to the mainstream nationalist agitation, and with good reason too. The anti-Partition of Bengal Swadeshi nationalist movement, for example, has now been exposed by many historians to have had a very narrow class base. Often it was the upper caste Hindu landlord that was trying to protect his narrow class interests under the pretense of wider ideology. The interests of Muslims and low caste Hindus, both forming the bulk of the peasant class in Eastern Bengal, ran directly contrary to this. For such historical reasons, the Namasudras shied away from the mainstream Congress-led movement and cooperated or competed with the Muslims as and when required. By the time Mukunda Behari came to the stage, this process of demanding greater privileges in jobs and education from the colonial administration was well under way. Even little things like having separate hostels for Namasudra students in Calcutta where they could live with self-respect came at the price of repeated petitioning, and only in trickles as and when it suited the political interests of the colonial masters to do so. But by now the movement also began to be afflicted by problems of its own – an increasing distance between the leaders from the elite sections of the community, and the wider poorer peasant and working classes, for example. The Namasudra leaders always identified with their caste and community roots since this formed the very basis of their movement, but well-intentioned as they were, there could be a lot of criticism of how well they really understood the problems and requirements of their less privileged caste brethren. Mukunda Behari’s role as “Cooperative credit and welfare” minister in the 1937 Krishak Praja Party-Muslim League coalition government of Bengal for example came in for considerable criticism.
Such then was the rich political tradition of my Mamar Bari, the bari literally having been built by Mukunda Behari himself. But then nobody there talked about it any more. In the climate of post-Mandal acute anti-reservation grievances and when India’s political movements in the colonial period are viewed through the prism of the dominant Gandhian nationalist discourse, the more localized and communally organized social movements invite suspicion. While it is very commonplace for Bengali bhadralok to eulogize their heroes of the Swadeshi or the Communist movements without raising eyebrows, the architects of the Namasudra movement are not likely to be recognized in the same way, and even stand the risk of being vilified for their anti-nationalist stance. While we go gaga over the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda phenomenon, we would hardly be familiar with the Matua religious movement that was contemporary and very much influential in East Bengal, particulary the region dominated by the Namasudras ( primarily “South-central”, comprising the districts of Jessore, Faridpur and Bakerganj/Barisal).
My Mamar Bari has been very much assimilated into the bourgeoisie bhadralok class, and views its past with a mixture of familial closeness and ideological remoteness. While my mother would recall the workaholic ways of her grandfather with fondness, of how he effectively filled his role as a compassionate patriarch – directing and officiating in both the domestic and external spheres, providing employment opportunities to countess distant relations, but at the same time cleaning the sewers of his house with his own hands while showering cusswords on the servants who idled around nearby – she is wary of being drawn too much into the history and politics. The reasons could be many : a natural sensitivity against the casteist prejudice that exists even today among the educated usually upper caste Indian ( how common is the “all these Muslims…” or “these SC/STs and their quotas…” rant in our bhodrolok addas?) is I suspect the main. Additionally there is also the ultimate failure of the Namasudra movement and its loss of relevance in post-Partition South Asia.
I do not even feel the need to justify the admittedly anti-nationalist character of the political movement of the Namasudras, but for the sake of a probable uninitiated reader , I must. The Namasudra leaders had their own good reasons to try and seek favors from the colonial administration while remaining wary of the ideologically-driven nationalists, just as Netaji had his own reasons to ally with the Axis powers. While it was all very well for the upper castes to call for Swaraaj, and want the British kicked out, for others social empowerment was way more important than immediate political sovereignity. The Namasudras knew they had to be self-reliant and strike out their own path towards upliftment and equality. Petitioning caste Hindus has proved unsuccesful over millenia. Given the abiding circumstances, it was natural enough to see more hope in the colonial administration than in mainstream Hindu society, yet to be liberated from the shackles of casteist prejudice. Gandhi was the first major nationalist leader who realized the dichotomy between political self-rule and social empowerment, and the efforts that he took to remedy the imbalance, made him India’s first grassroots political leader. The Namasudras however took a different tack to Gandhi’s struggle for Harijan rights – this came from the peculiar advantages that Bengal enjoyed, both in terms of the relative laxity of the Untouchability system and the closer engagement with progressive Western values and education mediated via the Bengal Renaissance. While Gandhi organized marches for Harijans to be allowed into temples, and tried to rally them almost spiritually and somewhat condescendingly into a social force very much within the ambits of Hindu tradition, the Namasudra leaders made much more concrete and practical demands – greater representation in the political process, better access to education and jobs, and empowerment through the colonial western modes of power, that Gandhi was naturally wary of. The Mullick family epitomized this spirit and most of my great grand-uncles were ICS or other high-ranking officials in the colonial administration. The Namasudra movement thus was able to provide an alternative to the Gandhian model while still being very communal and localized. There are statistics in their favor too – for example the literacy levels in the community leapfrogged from 5% to 30% (quite close to the national average) in a mere twenty years in the beginning of the twentieth century. Such results would have been unlikely to come if the Namasudras had not mobilized themselves.
Ultimately though it all ends in confusion and the tragedy of Partition, where the Namasudra community lost its heartland and formed the bulk of East Bengali refugees. In the years leading up to Independence, wider and more powerful political movements hijacked the Namasudra agitation, internal dissension crept in within the elite leadership, and without direction the masses also organized themselves along newer lines of political allegience that transcended caste, but not necessarily community. I am of course talking about the Hindu-Muslim polarization leading up to Partition, where the Namasudras had to throw in their lot with the Hindu mainstream, although alternative models and alignments were always being proposed and attempted in this climate of political ferment. To take some examples, the Namasudra movement had always distanced itself from the Congress and cooperated with the Muslim League on occasions, but by the early 1940s a section of the leadership gravitated towards the Congress; one of the leaders stayed on in the Suhrawardy-led Muslim League government and faced much public criticism for being the only Hindu leader in a ministry that allegedly did little to control the Great Calcutta killings of 1946; some went with Ambedkar while even others went with Shyama Prasad and the Hindu Mahasabha. One of the Mullick clan for example worked closely with S.P. Mookerjee and Atal Behari Vajpayee when the specter of Partition began to haunt the Namasudra community.
Jessore and Khulna went to Pakistan despite having large Hindu, predominantly Namasudra, populations. The mass exodus of Hindu refugees that poured into India from 1947 to 1971 was largely made up of these people. The same people toiled hard in the barrenness of Dandak, dredged saline land in the Andamans, and made their stand at Morichjhapi. My south Calcutta Mamar Bari is insulated from this, having acquired all the trappings of bhodroloke status, and today my aunt performs Kali puja with Brahmanical zeal. Perhaps their strictly apolitical stance is a legacy of the last important Mullick. There’s this anecdote about Mukunda Behari that runs in the family : he apparently gave up politics after Partition with a disillusioned curse, “Politics ey shob shaala chor”, bellowed out in the general direction of the idling servants, as he went back to cleaning the sewers with his own hands. Meanwhile the “scrolls of honor” have been replaced with more kitschy and modern additions in my aunts’ showcases.
–By Kinjal Dasbiswas
(Kinjal has been supporting Project Bangalnama ever since its inception. He also blogs at the anachronistic aardvark burrows back.)
Note : The author used the following two books for reference besides family hearsay and anecdotes.
Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India : Sekhar Bandyopadhyay
Encyclopedia of Dalit leaders in India : Sanjay Paswan, Pramanshi Jaideva