Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani -- The Mojlum Jononeta of Assam - Bengal

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A Sufi Pir and a Jihadi against the Julm and the Jalim

By Arupa Mahajan

Maulan’s Ideals

Moulana Abdul HamidKhan first journeyed to Assam in the year 1904 at the age of 24 from his birthplace of Tangail of East Bengal and he considered Assam as his homeland. At that time he was moved by the sufferings of the 2.5 million Bengali Muslim peasant. He worked for them and tried to organize them. He came again in the early 1930s and spent his 15 years of political leadership in Assam as an uncompromising voice of the toiling masses. The Moulana of Bhasanchar of Dhubri district became the folk hero of the oppressed peasantry whom he organized and led for their movement for justice and became popularly known as Moulana Bhasani.  His ideological position became amply clear when he told the great Chinese leaders Mao and Zhou that he was impressed with China’s progress and social transformation, and while he liked everything of them, regretted that Chinese lacked faith in God. To him struggle against all forms of oppression and discrimination was a religious duty. He used the religious ideas of rubu`biyah(anti-communalism) and jihad against oppression, discrimination and imperialism.

Secular Political Outlook

                 His secular credential was also apparent at the time of partition from his cherished dream of united Assam – Bengal which went against the notion of two-nation theory and he advocated a confederation of seven sisters of NE-India and East Bengal (Bangladesh) in his last days. That his demand to include Assam in Pakistan during partition had the connotation different from his Muslim League colleagues became apparent from the challenge of the Congress leaders by saying that : “One Moulana will be enough to divide Pakistan.” Historical documents further revealed that Moulana Bhasani irked Indira Gandhi and her government by reviving his old demand for uniting the peasantry of Assam, Bengal, and East Pakistan in a continued struggle for social and economic justice. During the war of independence Bhasani advocated that Bengalis be given the chance to win their own war even if it meant prolonging the guerrilla struggle against the Pakistani military. This stand, along with his known leaning towards Chinese communist dispensation and coupled with his pre-partition advocacy of a united front of peasantry cutting across national boundaries and his demand for an Independent Assam, made him suspect in the eyes of Indian leaders. After that he was almost under house arrest in India and returned to Bangladesh in March 1972.

   Uncompromising for the cause

          On the issues of the just cause of the toiling masses and most oppressed immigrant peasantry of Assam and building resistance  against  peasant-eviction and Bangal Khedao movement, he was so committed that he even openly criticised his Muslim league colleague Syed Saddullah whom he supported on many occasions against Gopinath Bordoloi in government formation in Assam assembly by saying that the apparent difference between these two political leaders was, in fact, a matter of a Tupi (a cap on Saddullah’s head) and a Tiki (a bunch of hair on the rear of Bordolo’s head). This revealed the fact that he was always against the landed gentry and the vested interests and unequivocally sided with the toiling masses even when he was fighting for his own religious brethren.

Secular Political leanings

           This widely revered Sufi itinerant being impressed by the sustained effort of Deshabandhu Chitta Ranjan Das to forge Hindu-Muslim unity joined Swarajya Party and acted as a grassroot level foot soldier of the party till the sudden death of C. R. Das in June, 1925. His journey as a Muslim league leader started in Assam in the year 1934 when he was elected president of the party and started organizing the migrant Muslim peasantry of Assam to fight against severe injustice and brutal repression. But within the ambit of the overarching Muslim League elite leadership, he established a different character of Assam Muslim League with his own brand of politics which was guided by the principle of the toiling masses, for the toiling masses and  by the toiling masses under his charismatic mass-leadership.  

During partition

           His role in Sylhet partition is often criticized by the Bengali Hindu leadership of Assam. But no attempt is made to view his role at the backdrop of his long unflinching role in Assam to build Hindu-Muslim unity. Despite the prevalence of serious Hindu-Muslim tension immediately before, during, and after the observance of Direct Action Day, no communal riot broke out anywhere in Assam mainly due to the non-communal nature of Bhasani’s struggle against the Line System and Bangal Kheda movements. Of course, a host of dedicated Hindu leaders in Assam (most of them critics of the Hindu Mahashabha’s communal policy) did lend support to Bhasani’s genuine efforts of maintaining friendship and goodwill between Hindu and Muslims even in the communally charged situation. The political situation at that time was very volatile because of the frequent confrontation between the supporters of Ambikagiri Roy Chaudhury, the general secretary of Assam Hindu Mahasabha and the chief leader of the communally-motivated Bangal Kheda movement during the years between 1945 and 1947 and the supporters of Moulana Bhasani, the undisputed leader of the Bengali muslim peasantry in Assam. After the installation of Bordoloi Government, the Bangal Kheda movement in the later part of 1946 and in early 1947 was intensified with demolition and burning down of the homes of several hundred thousand Bengali Muslim settlers in different areas, including Mongoldoi, Borpeta etc. Assam congress government with a view to gag a secular voice arrested him before partition period in 1946 and released him after partition of India and escorted him up to Dahuk of Sylhet to push inside Bangladesh at the dark night, during early 1948.

Grassroot organiser of the Immigrants

        Moulana Bhasani organized a huge Krishok Shammelon (Peasant Conference) at Char Bhasan in 1929 and since then he devoted most of his efforts to build up grassroot organization throughout Brahmaputra Valley. He organized agricultural labourer and landless peasant of Assam through the formation of Assam Chashi Majoor Samiti ( Assam Peasant and Worker’s Association). He even organized Bangla-Assam Proja Sammelan (Bengal-Assam tenants’ conference) in 1932 at the-then Pabna district. Summarizing Bhasani’s activity and rise as a political leader, Amalendu Guha noted, “From 1928 to 1936, while still maintaining his contact with Bengal, Bhasani used to move up and down the Brahmaputra to visit the riverside immigrant Muslim villages in accessible areas of Assam and organized them on the basis of a peasant programme including the demand for land. People, suffering under the oppression of Zamindars in Bengal, were in any case flocking to Assam in large numbers in Assam in order to settle on its beckoning wasteland.”  On the other hand, British colonial power also encouraged immigration which was considered as welcome phenomenon for labor-short, land-abundant Assam for the economic point of view, as the immigrants living the lives of inhuman amphibious turned thickest forests of Assam into smiling paddy lands yielding all kinds of crops, bringing prosperity, health and wealth to the province of Assam. By 1936, Bhasani became the undisputed leader of the immigrant peasantry and got elected in the Assam assembly from south Dhubri constituency in 1937. That he represented the peasant interest against the interest of Zamindars became aptly clear when he said, “The capitalist and imperialist government does not heed the problems of the poor peasant. This government continues to allow the zamindars to have the power of giving certificate. When zamindars can give certificate, it means they have the license to use machine guns to collect revenue.”

Ethnic politics

          By this time, the unabated immigration of the landless Bengali Muslim peasantry instilled a fear-psychosis of loosing land and identity in the minds of indigenous Assamese ethnicities. More imaginary than real threat that caused psychological fear of identity crisis that was brewing up during this period within the Assamese ethnicities was fanned by both the colonial masters and the Assamese Hindu ruling class leadership with a view to divide and rule. The British move to make Bengali the official language of the province was designed to trigger Assamese sentiment. The line system which was initially introduced to assuage the fear-psychosis of the Assamese ethnicities of losing their own land grabbed by the landless immigrants by containing the immigration was used as a tool to evict large-scale settlers and merciless killings. The Line System coupled with Bangal-Kheda then became the issues to be vehemently opposed and resisted by the masses under the leadership of Moulana Bhasani. On November 18, 1939, Bhasani declared in a conference of Assam Muslim League, “I have lost my patience on account of the inhuman oppression carried on the lakhs of poor Muhammedans of Assam by the Congress Government (under the leadership of Bordoloi). Not only do I kick at the law by means of which the houses of lakhs of people have been burnt down, … The whole world is docile before the mighty and killer of the weak….The days have come now to get your demands fulfilled by becoming Shaheeds(martyrs)”. He even compared the collective victimization of Bengali peasantry in Assam with that of Hitler’s Nazi tactics in Germany. That the colonial agents and the Assamese ruling class leaders played with the cultural difference of the migrants and the ethnic tribals and the sentiment of the Assamese ethnic communities became amply clear from the “irresponsible and unfounded” utterances of European member of ICS G.S.Mullan regarding the destruction of the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization by citing the rise of immigrant population in 1931 census. His mischievous intention even prompted the Governor to announce that ‘in spite of the large increase in the population of Assam at every census since 1901, the percentage of speakers of Assamese to the total population has remained very steady. It is clear from the figures of increase in the speakers of Assamese at the Census that the [Assamese] language is at present no danger of suppression’.

Role of middle class

            It is interesting to note that the Moulana Bhasani’s relentless struggle for the cause of the Bengali peasantry could not garner tangible support from both Bengali Hindu as well as Muslim upper class leadership as well as from the educated Bengali-speaking middle class. But this middleclass and uppercaste leadership of the both religious section of Bengali community jumped into the fray to woo the support of the completely shattered, brutally oppressed Bengali Muslim peasantry when the-then government made the unilateral determination in 1935 “to close down the Bengali classes in schools” to create another wedge between the Assamese and the Bengali. Moulana Bhasani being the folk-hero and a leader organically linked with masses who had faith on his divine quality and his uncompromising - self-sacrificing character, could only realize the intertwined relationship between the peasant question and nationality question, though this is only one of the vital components of complex and intricately related issues of  caste-class in the process of building a nationality and on the question of identity crisis. His realization of the intertwined relationship of peasant interest, religiosity and the linguistic nationality was also visible from his later role as activist and political leader in the independence movement of Bangladesh.

Beyond religious domain

           That he did not fight for a particular religion or race became clear when he urged to observe “Assam Day” on March 10, 1947 to demand independence of Assam and declared “My struggle is against the British imperialism and the misrule and atrocities of Assam Government and not against any particular religious or racial groups in Assam.”  From the dream of his last days also, it became apparent that he applied his mind for the cause of all communities of Bengal and North-Eastern region and this visionary folk-hero with his astute organizing ability could hugely surpass the mindset as depicted by Amalendu Guha, “The land-hungry Muslim immigrants from East Bengal segregated and fighting against all odds, never appreciated the Assamese point of view. If all men were equal in the eyes of Allah, why should thousands of acres of land remain waste, when men in search of a livelihood were available to turn them into smiling fields?”

Relevance of Moulana Bhasani

           At the present juncture, the history of Assam is repeating itself albeit in a different local-national and global perspective. The same migrant Muslim peasantry are being brutally killed and mercilessly evicted by demolishing their shelters. The land grabbing issue is similarly blown out of proportion by the vested interest to achieve narrow political ends. Extending the view of Amalendu Guha who described colonial Assam as a “case of contending hegemonies owing to the coexistence of pan-India nationalism and regionalism, the latter manifesting itself in the form of a struggle to drive out the Bengali immigrants from Assam”, one can depict the present Assam as a case of contending hegemonies of neo-liberalism and ethnic chauvinism, the latter manifesting itself as an ethnic-cleanser and the resistances of poor peasantry and toiling masses are tacitly directed against the neo-liberal policy drive of the Assamese ruling class in tow with their master in Delhi. In these circumstances, Moulana Bhasani has become more relevant for the religious as well as the left leaders to learn from his experience and to devise more cogent formulations for struggle for justice befitting for the present situation. Are these leaders listening? One will always become skeptical to give an answer.

((For the entire period of Bhasani’s activity in Assam, we draw on Anisuzzaman Chowdhury edited book titled Moulana Bhasani, Leader of the Toiling Masses” (Moulana Bhasani Foundation, NY, USA, 2012)         


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