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A Marxist interpretation of India under colonial rule

  • Published at 04:39 pm August 11th, 2018
Serajul Islam Choudhury

Review of Serajul Islam Choudhury's 'Jatiyatabad, Samprodayikata O Janaganer Mukti'

Before I start talking about the book, Jatiyatabad, Samprodayikata O Janaganer Mukti (Nationalism, Communalism, and Freedom of the Masses), a little preamble to my literary relationship with its author and his previous works, I believe, is in order.

I owe my love for literary criticism to Serajul Islam Choudhury, aka SIC Sir, his moniker which was handed down to us in the leftist circles of Bagerhat. 

My curiosity was piqued earlier when I had chanced upon an essay written by Kazi Nazrul Islam. Back then I was a student of class ten at a secondary school. So far as I can retrieve from vague glimpses of that essay, it was called "Bartaman Biswa Sahitya" (Contemporary World Literature). I still remember having felt boundlessly inspired about world literature, and also about how, according to Nazrul, its spheres were changing with the emergence of dissident voices such as Dostoyevsky. Among other books that he touched upon, now I only remember mention of and illuminating discussion about Crime and Punishment. Within a week or so, before I could move on to Rabindranath Tagore's Sahityer Pothe (On the Path of Literature) and all those wonderful essays written by Mohitlal Majumdar, I was summoned by one of my cousins to his book den which, to this day, I call the perennial source of all books on Marxism written in Bengali, though I believe his resources of Pragati Publishers series books have dried out by now. I was to be handed two books whose spines were naked and cover designs too blurred to be discerned—one was Plekhanov's Marxist reading of Pushkin's poetry and the other SIC Sir's Sharatchandra O Samantabad

I had thoroughly enjoyed both books but SIC Sir took hold of me, maybe because I was more familiar with Sharatchandra's works, and the time and society he depicted in them. There was a veritable storm building up in my brain, a whole new world of interpretive possibilities throbbing with intimations of a light that was dispassionate yet powerful enough to remove quite a few grey areas from my head. I never really ceased liking Sharatchandra's prose—he combines literariness and emotional appeal so gracefully that his prose still lingers in my memory. But the way SIC Sir explored the same stories and showed how their narratives served to express the interests of landlords in an agriculture-based feudal economy, gave a jolt to my yet-to-be-coherently-formed literary thoughts. Then came one by one Bangla Gadyer Samajik Byakaran (Social Grammar of Bengali Prose), Baconer Moumachhira (Bacon's Bees), Shakespeare er Meyera (Shakespeare's Women), Aristotle er Kabyotatwo (Aristotle's Poetics), Dwitio Bhuban (The Second Realm), Kumur Bandhan (Kumu's Ties) and many more titles which fed and largely shaped my literary sensibilities. I am also indebted to Jatin Sarker, Binoy Ghose, Badruddin Omar and Hasan Azizul Haque, among others, but they came much later in my life, after I finished my university education. 

SIC Sir was also the reason why I, later as a student of English literature, took a lifelong liking toward Ian Watt and Arnold Kettle's critical essays on English novelists. 

Like Tagore, he is one of those rare breeds of writers that ripens with age and writes even more profusely and maturely in later years. A distinguished editor of many acclaimed journals and magazines, SIC Sir continues to write in his lucid Marxist narrative about literature, history, and society.

The biggest chunk of his recent essays, published serially in Natuna Diganta (New Horizon), a magazine he himself edits, deals with history, with British colonial rule to be precise, and its darkest legacies. Samhati Publishers, a left leaning house, put them together in a voluminous Hardback in 2016. 

In this book which some have already termed his magnum opus on history, he discusses at great length most of the watershed events that led to the partition of India. Harking back to the absurdity of a partition enforced along religious lines, he shows—after digging through numerous documents, exchanges, and letters used and written by one or the other of British administrators, including Macaulay—how the British Raj adopted the old colonial trick of divide-and-rule as a policy and succeeded effectively in segregating Muslims from Hindus. SIC Sir’s conclusions are redolent of Romila Thapar and Pankaj Misra, among others, though the route he takes to reach them is unique as he brings into play a balanced combination of historical and literary studies. His analyses on historical episodes, events, and changes intersect with literary ones so discussions about Bankimchandra and Gandhi go hand in hand. 

He begins the book with a detailed discussion about the partition of Bengal (which happened in 1905) because, SIC explains, the seed of India’s partition was sowed during the fervent nationalistic movement which sought to annul the partition of Bengal. Lord Curzon’s role in instigating Muslims to demand a splitting of Bengal is no news; so SIC Sir casts his penetrating eye on the cultural currents and counter-currents in the run-up, first, to the Bengal Partition and then to its annulment. It is ironic, SIC Sir tells us, that religiosity along with a strong sense of communalism was deeply ingrained in this version of nationalism. Therefore, though it upheld the unity of Bengal, it also nurtured extremist elements, marking Muslims as “the other.” The subsequent history of Bengal reflects the overall political realities of undivided India under colonial rule.

In it SIC takes up many literary/historical points and theses he has already made and developed in his earlier books but he has considerably extended them and connected them to the larger political currents. He explores Bankimchandra’s Hindu revivalist projects which are propagandist in nature, and relates them to political ideologies echoed frequently by Congress leaders. He’s equally critical of the Muslim Leaguers, especially Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the way he put forward the two-nation theory, ensuring more division than any form of unity. The major political players during those turbulent days i.e. Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Shubhash Bose, Sarojini Naidu, and Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, among many others, are dissected as meticulously as Sharatchandra was in Samantabad yet SIC has never lost sight of their human agencies. Maybe that’s why he thinks Chittaranjan and Shubhas Bose were more politically correct leaders than any of their contemporaries. Conversely, Gandhi, SIC points out, had his limitations as regards political ideology, but he was nonetheless India's most influential leader on the ground that he let politics out of the elite cage and took it out to the masses; he was enormously adored by Muslims, too. 

As for Tagore, SIC amply praises Tagore for the latter's skepticism of religious nationalism and imperialism. 

It is indeed a Herculean task to delve into such large swathes of our colonial past with unrelenting clarity and preciseness, and SIC Sir has achieved this without ever losing his Marxist focus. The whole book can be said to have organized itself around a central theme: from time immemorial India never was a united whole rather it was and still is made up of a cluster of heterogeneous places and cultures. Therefore, any attempt to impose a semblance of unity on the basis of religion is arbitrary and politically motivated. In such a geographic and cultural context, the only logical solution is to encourage linguistic nationalism as opposed to religious nationalism, and go for a federal government where religious hegemony will be replaced by linguistic harmony.

Every page of this book is informed by a genuine willingness to resurrect a more inclusive progressive movement to bridge the gap and lack of trust between Hindus and Muslims, and also between the rich and the poor. This is an immensely important book. I can only hope that it secures a lasting place in our history catalogues, public libraries, and university curriculums. 

Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune