Mainstream, VOL LV No 16 New Delhi April 8, 2017
The 2017 Namasudra History Congress, Kolkata
Sunday 9 April 2017, by
The first ever Namasudra History Congress, held on February 18-19, 2017 at Calcutta, was a novel event for the academic and cultural calendar of the Bengalis. Attended by Nama-sudra scholars, researchers, educationists and activists from various parts of India, the Congress attracted participants from Bangladesh too. The Namasudra Thinkers and Activists Forum organised the two-day symposium. Their objectives and purposes were outlined by Dr Atul Krishna Biswas, a retied IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar Bihar Uni-versity, Muzaffarpur in his keynote address. The Forum was fully conscious that the pioneering initiative might invite characteristic ridicules and invectives from mainstream historians, scholars and academicians. But the organisers believe that history of all margina-lised communities must receive attention for documentation. This, however, cannot be the job left to conventional scholars because of the narrow perspective dictated by the conflicting nature of their caste interest and dominance. Hence the organisers want all underprivileged people to document their own history.
The keynote address, in this perspective, pointed out that the mainstream historians and chroniclers by studied apathy and negligence shied away to document the role the populous Namasudras played in the social, political and cultural spheres in Bengal. Past experience demonstrated that many misrepresentations were made in history in the socio-political context of Bengali Hindus. These should have spoken for themselves. They erred and did injustice by assuming the role of the “the heaven-born historiographers of the masses”.1 Dominant interests and forces in historiographical docu-mentation tended to ignore, if not suppress, distort and sweep under the carpet the struggles for self-development of the Namasudras in the colonial era in the main. Their attitude to the low-caste status overshadowed their perception in faithful documents of socio-religious-political developments in the country.
Namasudras and Pods were Pionerers of Christopher Columbus
The keynote address made startling disclosures that the Namasudras and Pods, the two Bengali untouchable castes, discovered the Khulna and Noakhali districts long before Columbus discovered America. Dr Biswas cited sources in support of his contention. “As the deltaic area which is now Khulna district rose out of the sea, the first persons to penetrate its swampy forests were undoubtedly the pre-Aryan hunters and fishers who alone could find a livelihood to their tastes in its jungles and rivers. These tribes are now represented by the Pods and Namasudras who form the bulk of the non-Mohammedan population of the district. The term Namasudra is an euphemism for the detested Chandals who were held in lowest estimation of all the aboriginal tribes of Bengal by the invading Aryans. [.......] Both are dark- skinned, hardy races engaged in hunting and fishing and were particularly fit for the pioneering work of bringing the inhospitable jungles under cultivation.”2
The Sundarbans, now a great UN heritage site, “was discovered long before Columbus, whose maritime venture was liberally patro-nised by Queen Isabella. The Queen of Spain gave Columbus an annual grant of 12,000 maravedis (gold coin of 3.8 grams each) and part of newly conquered lands.”3 By the way, Pods were described as half-brothers of Namasudras in the colonial documents.
Youngest among all the districts in the Ganges delta, Noakhali has really no ancient history. Some 3000 years ago the district “became fit for human habitation”. The men who first settled in it and reclaimed the jungles were “the progenitors of the present Namasudras or Chandals, a Lohitik or Mongoloid race...., who, according to Mr O’Donnel entered Bengal from the north-east before the Koches, or they may be represented by the Jugis, now the principal Hindu caste of the district, though Dr Buchanan thought they must have come from Western India with the Pal Rajas.”4
This historical fact too failed to provoke academic curiosity of the mainstream historians of India and therefore is lost. It is not in their interest to document in history any event of pride of the people the Aryans conquered and subjugated. This called for the need and justification for the organisers to hold the first ever Namasudra History Conference.
Chandals Pioneer of Peaceful, Non-violent Noncooperation Movement
The credit for organising the ever first ‘general strike’ goes to the Chandals of Faridpur, Backarganj and Jessore in East Bengal in 1872-73. They waged a sustained movement for raising and bettering their social status, dignity and equal treatment in the eye of law. Their strike affected deeply the upper-caste Hindus and Muslims aggregating a staggering 5.5 million population in those districts. An inquiry conducted by the Superintendent of Police, Faridpur disclosed that the Chandals were treated a “little better than beasts” by the Hindus. The economy in the nineteenth-century Bengal was predominantly agricultural. The strikers, therefore, brought life to a standstill. The reason, as explained, was that “[......] the Chandals are not only agriculturists, but they are also boatmen, porters, carpenters, potters, and fishermen; on them devolve all the occupation and trades practiced by other castes in more settled tracts. The women of the poorer Chandals likewise attend hauts or bazaars for buying and selling purposes, on which account they have been despised by Hindus of the higher caste, who consider them only little better than beasts; the touch of a Chandal being defilement, renders it necessary for the man touched to wash away the contamination by bathing. The word Chandal is also used as an abuse and when applied to any one, expresses the degree of contempt and scorn in which he is held.”5
The district of Faridpur became the theatre of the strike, which began in a village neigh-bouring Amgram, Backarganj in 1872. The District Magistrate, W.S. Wells, who also conducted a personal inquiry, reported that “The Mohammedans and Hindus all complained that no a Chandal would work for them......They said that their living depended upon their field being cultivated, and that all were now fallow, with no prospect of the plough being ever used on them. They said that they were utterly unable to cultivate their fields themselves and were dependent on the Chandals, who appear to be the the helots of these parts, at least the poorer ones.”6
The Police Chief of Faridpur district, W.L. Owen, noted in his report that the “boats are built and manned by Chandals; those belonging to other castes would cease to ply and trade paralysed. Agricultural and domestic tools of iron would not be repaired; and in fact all relations of life between the Chandals and other castes would be completely deranged, enmity would spring up between them and eventuate in breaches of the peace. Arson are not unlikely, nor are murders and dacoity as retaliatory measures.”7
The Magistrate, on the other hand, had underlined the impact that “[.......] a large body of Hindus and Mohammedans came up to complain to me of ruinous effects to them arising out of the action of the Chandals .....the fields remained untilled, the houses unthatched, and not a Chandal in the service of Hindu or Mohammedan or a Chandal woman in any market....8 The repercussion of the strike by Chandals was all-pervading and paralysed everyone, Hindu or Muslim, in the focus areas.
The Chandals, when in jails as prisoners, were exclusively compelled to perform conser-vancy services. This was against their caste norms or tradition. On representation of the Hindus, the Government of Bengal was pleased to exempt the upper-caste Hindu and Muslim prisoners from the liability of conservancy services in jails. Making a direct reference to Chandal prisoners being forced to perform conservancy services in jails, the Magistrate reported that “I need not observe that it is a decided hardship to force the Chandals in jails to do duty as mehtars and sweepers for which their position in society and caste in no way renders them liable and I have referred this matter in my last reports on census. The Chandals, as I have before stated in several reports, are an industrious and honest class and are very seldom in criminal courts; perhaps they know too well the consequence of going to jail, and they are doubtless an oppressed and ill-used people.9 (Italicised by this writer)
Sekhar Bandyopadhyay holds that “Their first open attempt to rework the relations of power in the local society thus ended in a failure”.10 This view seems to be the result of a poor appreciation of the facts and circumstances that triggered the strike. He did not take into account the order his Excellency the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal issued on the subject to bring an end to the strike in adopting his above view. Sir George Campbell’s order mandated that “.........the Chandals should not in future be forced to do this work, but that any of them who choose to do it when its comparatively easy nature is pointed out, may be allowed to do it”.11
Was this order of the Lieutenant Governor wilfully disobeyed? This is a moot question in the context. Such an apprehension sounds highly plausible. Thirtyfive years after Sir George Campbell’s aforementioned order to end the disgraceful practice of forcing the Chandal prisoners to perform conservancy services in the jails of Bengal, a “resolution about raising the ‘Namasudras’ in society and expressing indignation at their being made to do Methar’s job in the jails......... was adopted” under the chairmanship of Rabindranath Tagore by the Bengal Provincial Congress in 1908 at Pabna.12
Bandyopadhyay’s assertion unmistakably underlines that the jail authorities had treated the order of the Lieutenant Governor with scant respect, if not malice, an extraordinary aberration for the British bureaucracy perhaps without parallel. How did this happen? Why and how did this practice continued in the teeth of the order of the highest authority of the province? Who violated the order and continued to harness the Chandals as methars in demeaning jobs in jails? A second instance of this kind in British rule, I dare say, is rarest to cite.
The upper-caste attitude to the Chandal was best exemplified by a carping opinion Dr B.N. Basu, MD, and Jail Superintendent of Faridpur, recorded. He was consulted by the District Magistrate, having regard for his long working experience of over 15 years, to understand how the Chandals came to be exclusively engaged for conservancy services in jails. In reply he asserted, inter alia that “.....a Chandal has no recognised stature in native society, and consequently he can lose none, whereas others similarly employed would forfeit whatever position they may affect or possess, and permanent degradation and excommunication would invariably follow”.13
We have little doubt, Dr Basu was one of the highly accomplished professionals with Western education, knowledge and skill. Did his malefic outlook befit the renaissance which Bengal is euphoric of? Most of the prominent heroes of the era were not only alive then but they were also at the pinnacle of their glory in accomplishment. Nonetheless they failed to bring about any modernising influence on the Hindu mind and attitude of the society at large towards, and parti-cularly for the underprivileged. The abomination of the upper castes for the Chandal ‘as little better than beast’ was reinforced by an accomplished medical professional. The renaissance ignomi-niously surrendered to caste prejudices as the Hindu attitude to the low castes marked a diabolical setback. This was the underbelly of the overrated Bengali Renaissance.
The Chandals were victims of illiteracy and ignorance and the prison authorities took advantage of their helplessness. The orders of the Lieutenant Governor were perhaps not brought to the notice of the victim of the vicious practice in jails. The jail authorities had reposed blind faith in the lower ranks of officers packed with Hindus, largely, if not entirely. So they violated the Lieutenant Governor’s orders with impunity ever after!
The Chandals, we must not overlook, were successful in conveying their objective to the target group against whom their strike was directed. They had brought total disruption in the life of the people but the Hindus were uncom-promising to amend their socio-religious attitude towards the strikers. It was the failure of the Hindus to take a relook at their own unbending opposition to the Chandal. Every mass movement, we may note, launched by M.K. Gandhi, an antagonist of the British rule, had, by and large, received a sympathetic response from the authorities. The Bengali Hindus, in truth, did not have the magnanimity the alien rulers displayed towards Gandhi and the Indians at large.
Unsung Chandal Heroes of Pathbreaking Strike Illiterate
Bandyopadhyay failed to note that the Chandal strike was described by a high official—A. Abercrombie, Commissioner of Dacca Division—as ‘a novel state of affairs’. The word boycott was yet unknown in English vocabulary. “Boycott” got into the English language in 1880—seven years after the Chandal strike. More than two decades later Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy published The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894) that had deeply influenced Gandhi in forming his philosophy of nonviolence and peace. At the time of the Chandal movement in 1872-73 Gandhi was about three-to-four years old. The agitating Chandals, therefore, eminently and justifiably merited the credit for contributing to the philosophy of non-violent, non-cooperation and peaceful movement that deeply impacted the human civilisation. Ray [Rai] Chand Mundle [Mandal], Nilmoni Biswas, Sibu Dhali, Ram Chandra Bugsha, Bhajon Bala and Charon Sapah motivated and guided the community to rise in peaceful, nonviolent and noncooperation revolt for social dignity and equality though they are unsung and unknown.14 Historians are blind to note and document their unique accomplishment.
Namasudra and the Partition of Bengal and Swadeshi Movement 1905-11
The partition of Bengal (1905) by Lord Curzon led the educated, urban and professional Bengali upper classes to drum up an agitation deman-ding its revocation. Boycott of foreign goods formed part of the agenda of the agitationists. Tall claims of success of the agitation were made. The movement was virtually a Hindu affair. In rural areas the landlords, mostly Hindus, and their servants, went berserk against the tenants. They were pressurised to boycott foreign goods leading to bad blood and violence. Most anti-partition meetings were held in the Hindu temple premises which, ipso facto, were out of bounds to the vast masses of untouchable and depressed classes because of caste-feeling. The Nama-sudras stood aloof from it ab initio.
One instance may be cited. Historian and former editor of The Times, London, Valentine Chirol, observed that the Brahmans carried out political propaganda amongst the Namasudras in Jessore and Faridpur districts of Eastern Bengal. They offered “inducement” to them in order to stimulate their nationalism that “the Brahmans would relax the rigour of caste in favour of those who took the swadeshi vow and it is stated that several villages where they succeeded in making a large number of converts, the Brahman agitators marked their approval by condescending to have their twice-born heads shaved by the village barber—an act, however trivial it may seem to us, constituted an absolutely revolutionary breach with a 3000 year past“.15 What a profound generosity towards the Namasudras! The movement leaders had invoked the destructive powers of goddess Kali to strike and instil terror in the minds of the people.
Printers and compositors in printing presses of the Government of India and Bengal Secretariat in September-October 1905 launched a strike. They were terrorised into joining it by divine threats. Two notices were posted on the day of strike at the Bengal Secretariat Press. ”One notice began with the invocation ‘Hail Mother’—Jai Maa Kali—and gave a warning that any man who failed to attend a meeting of the compositors of the Government of India press would be under the curse of having killed a thousand Brahmans. The other leaflet interdicted the use of foreign articles, directed that ten handbills of the same tenor were distributed by the reader, and that otherwise he would draw on his head the curse of 100,000 Brahmans.”16 The stature of the Brahman as a terror factor was enhanced to create a psychosis of fear and trauma with a view to compelling printers into joining the anti-partition movement and against the use of foreign goods under pretension for swadeshism.
Any claim of success of the swadeshi move-ment was outright debatable, if not laughable, in view of considerable increase in imports of most foreign goods including—hold thy breath—liquors through the Calcutta Port. Exports of raw jute, on the one hand, dramatically declined but exports of finished jute goods, on the other, registered a marked rise. The Muslims and low and untouchable castes, including Namasudras, of East Bengal were jute-growers who suffered terribly. The ‘golden fibre’, as jute was known, was the most important cash crop for them. The blessed upper social strata guiding the agitation were most unsympathetic to the masses in general. So, their victims did not join such agitation directed against the government. At this juncture Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea, a prominent swadeshi leader, earnestly urged Guru Chand Thakur, the Namasudra social reformer and religious leader of Faridpur, to join their agitation with thousands of his followers. In reply he wrote to Banerjea that the Namasudras were poor who purchased cheap imported clothes and salt. They did not afford to buy luxurious foreign goods consumed by the upper castes. The same upper castes, he also underlined, denied social privileges and political rights to the untouchables. Therefore the Nama-sudra guru told the rashtraguru, as Banerjea was known in certain circles, that the upper- caste Hindus better learn to fraternise the low- caste untouchable masses.
Sugar imports rose by 106 per cent; spices by 34 per cent; swollen goods by 38 per cent; and liquors by 30 per cent between 1905-06 and 1911-12. Raw jute exports crashed by 43 per cent while 36 per cent increase in the exports of jute goods was registered during the corresponding period. 17 Jute cultivators suffered extensive losses because of the swadeshi movement but the capitalists, including bankers, manufac-turers, exporters, transporters and traders, gained out of the insensitivity and insolence of the agitators. Rabindranath Tagore bemoaned that the cloth mill-owners of Bombay and Gujarat took fullest advantage of the boycott of imported foreign clothes and made exorbitant profits! There are many who consider swade-shism was patriotism. With these protagonists of swadeshi around, did our farmers, culti-vators, tenants need enemies to harm them? The Hindu zamindars enhanced rent and oppressed their Muslim and low-caste ryots, besides levying many invidious abwabs or salami.
Rabindranath Tagore had attended the Annual Namasudra Conference at Comilla district in East Bengal in February 1926. This occurred 12 years after the poet was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The poet attended the meeting of the untouchables 12 years after the Swedish Academy Prize. For a despised community to secure participation of Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner in their conference was a proof of spectacular organising achievement. The poet did not attend any other caste conference. The media blatantly censored the poet’s speech in the conference, attended by Namasudra representatives including women from all over East Bengal. While at Dhaka he had addressed the students at Johnathan Inter College and observed that by discrimination against the Namasudras the Hindus rendered themselves weak and vulnerable.
The All-Bengal Namasudra Association had submitted a memorandum to the Indian Statutory Commission under Sir John Simon as the Chairman in 1928. Their memorandum taunted the upper-caste leaders as “the heaven-born leaders of the masses” who, according to them, should desist themselves from speaking for them. The upper-caste Hindus, because of the conflicting nature of interest of castes, were not fit to articulate their interests and causes. The All-Bengal Namasudra Association and All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association jointly gave oral evidence to the Simon Commission at Calcutta in 1929 while the Hindu leaders were protesting against the Commission because it did not have any Indian member. The All-Bengal Depressed Classes Association, on the other hand, pointed out that untouchable patients for treatment were not allowed admission in the Medical College and Hospital, Calcutta. Hindu orthodoxy in Bengal or in Poona stood on the same footing. In 1896 when plague broke out in Poona, a Hindu Plague Hospital was established by leading Hindus including Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The rules of admission precluded admission and treatment of low-caste patients in the Hindu Plague Hospital!
Namasudras humbled the Hindu Vanity by Dr Ambedkar’s Election to Constituent Assembly
The election to the Constituent Assembly for drafting the Constitution for independent India was held in 1946. Dr B.R. Ambedkar was not nominated by the Bombay Provincial Congress Party as a candidate for election to the Constituent Assembly. The Congress had declared an all-out war against him. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had articulated the position of the Congress in brutal frankness: “apart from the doors, even the windows of the Constituent Assembly are closed for Dr Ambedkar. Let us see how he enters into the Constituent Assembly.” A faceless Namasudra lawyer, Jogendra Nath Mandal, invited Dr Ambedkar to contest the election from the Jessore-Khulna constituency and accepted fearlessly the daunting challenge. Largest numbers of voters—four Namasudra, two Rajbanshi and one tribal MLA—returned him from Bengal creating history.18
Dr Ambedkar had humiliated Gandhi in the Round Table Conference. His advocacy for a separate electorate for the untouchables was adopted by the British Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, who granted the Communal Award with separate electorates for the lower castes besides Muslims and Sikhs. Gandhi opposed it and went to fast unto death to blackmail the indefatigable leader. This conclusively signified his defeat. The multitudinous Namasudras of Bengal steadfastly rallied behind Dr Ambedkar all through his negotiations in the Round Table Conferences in London and against the Poona Pact. His powerful writings, based on painstaking research on the Hindu caste, religion, scriptures, philosophy, epics etc., left the Hindus deeply defenceless and angry to shape the attitude of the Indian National Congress against him. Opposition against the election of Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly in 1946 was the manifestation of their cumulative anger. The Namasudras effortlessly foiled and frustrated them although history did not acknowledge the extraordinary feat of the untouchables.
Pakistan and Homeland for Bengali Muslims: A Fallout of Hindu Hatred, Discrimination and Persecution of the Untouchables
Finally, the keynote highlighted the grave dangers and repercussion of the persistent hatred, discrimination, injustice, deprivation and dehumanisation of any section of people by a minuscule and privileged minority. A homeland for the Bengali Muslim was born out of the Hindu hatred against the followers of their own faith in 1947. The truth documented by the Census report in 1901 merits our attention. Then the Namasudra aggregated at 18,61,000 and the Pods nearly half a million; but the full strength of the two castes was concealed by large numbers of them being converted to Islam. There were ten-and-a-half million Muslims in the Dacca and Chittagong Divisions and the great majority of these were the descendants of converts from the rank of these two (Namasudra and Pod) castes. There were many converts of the same origin in the northern districts of the Presidency Division. “It would probably be safe to say that at least nine millions of the Muhammadans of Bengal Proper belong to this stock.”19
In 1872 Bengal, with 1,81,00,438, was a Hindu-majority province when Muslims were 1,76,09,135. The next decadal census saw Muslims returned at 1,83,94,426, in excess of Hindus by 3,23,130 souls. They marched ahead of the Hindus census after census. In 1947, the Hindus were 2,50,57,024 as against Muslims who numbered 3,30,05,434.
In seven decades between 1872 and 1941 Bengali Muslims grew by 87.4 per cent and Hindus by 38.4 per cent. But between 1901 and 1941 while the Hindus recorded a rise of 24.3 per cent, the Bengali Muslims registered 13.2 per cent growth. With 13.2 per cent increase, the descendants of converted Namasudras and Pods to Islam in those four decades contributed 11,88,000 souls to the Bengali Muslims. So, in 1941 their descendants totalled at 90,00,000 +11,88,000=1,01,88,000. With the descendants of the converted Namasudras and Pods numbering 1,01,88,000 in 1941 subtracted from the Bengali Muslim population, their number in East Bengal would have dwindled to 2,28,17,434.
The conversion of Namasudras and Pods in East Bengal—a direct result of upper-caste persecution, discrimination, injustice and hatred—was solely responsible for the Muslims gaining majority. Jinnah, without numerical superiority, would, therefore, have no ground for demanding a Muslim homeland in Bengal. The malicious treatment and persecution of the untouchables and underprivileged by a powerful section invited curse for India as a whole, a lesson the Bengali bhadralok did not learn even in an era euphorically described as renaissance! They blamed others for which they are solely responsible.
Their ultimate gameplan, however, succeeded. West Bengal, the inferior, moth-eaten part of erstwhile Bengal, had seen bhadralok at the helm of ruling affairs since 1947. They blame everyone but themselves under the sun for partition only for a cover for deception.
1. This is in paraphrase of a reference to the Memorandum submitted by All-Bengal Namasudra Association to the Simon Commission in 1929.
2. Final Report of The Khulna Settlement 1920-1926, by L. R. Faucus, ICS, Settlement Officer, Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta, para 58. The colonial bureaucracy considered “Pod as the half brother of the Namasudra”.
3. Durant, Will, The Story of Civilisation, Vol. VI, “The Reformation”. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957. ISBN 0-671-61050-3. p. 260.
4. Websters, J. E., ICS, Eastern Bengal & Assam District Gazetteers, Noakhali, The Pioneer Press, Allahabad, 1911, p. 14.
5. Letter no. 66 dated Bhanga, the 18th March 1873 from W. L. Owen, District Superintendent to the District Magistrate of Faridpur.
6. W.S. Wells, District Magistrate, Faridpur, letter No. 340 Khalia Khal, April 8, 1873 to the Commissioner, Dacca Division.
7. Letter no. 66 dated Bhanga, March 18, 1873 from W. L. Owen, District Superintendent to the District Magistrate of Fureedpore.
8. Letter no. 340, dated Khalia Khal, April 8, 1873 from W.S. Wells, Magistrate of Faridpur to A. Abercrombie, Commissioner, Dacca Division.
9. W. S. Wells, Faridpur District Magistrate’s letter bearing no. 272 dated March 19, 1873 to Commissioner, Dacca Division.
10. Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar, Caste Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal 1872-1947 (second edition), OUP, 2011, p. 35.
11. Letter no. 523T dated June 7, 1873 of Judicial De-partment, Government of Bengal.
12. Resolution No. 15, Bengal Provincial Conference 1908, pp. 55-56.
13. Dr B. N. Bose, MD, letter no. 106 dated Faridpur, the April 19, 1873 to W. S. Wells, District Magistrate of Faridpur.
14. Faridpur SP’s letter no. 66 dated March 18, 1873 para 12, p. 18.
15. Sir Valentine Chirol, The Indian Unrest, Macmilan & Co., London, 1910, p. 102.
16. The Administration of Bengal under Sir Andrew Fraser, 1903-1908, Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, Calcutta, 1908, pp. 25-26.
17. Biswas, A. K., “Paradox of Anti-Partition Agitation and Swadeshi Movement”, Social Scientist, Vol. 23, No. 4/6 (April-June, 1995, Delhi, pp. 38-57.
18. Biswas, A. K., “Ambedkar’s Odyssey to the Constituent Assembly of India through Bengal”, Mainstream, Vol LV, No 1, New Delhi, December 24, 2016 — Annual 2016.
19. Census of India 1901, vol. VI, p. 396.
The author, a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur (Bihar), can be reached at biswasatulk[at]gmail.com