Some Trouble with Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict / Edition 1

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Fascinating in its combination of personal stories and analytical insights, Some Trouble with Cows will help students of conflict understand how a seemingly irrational and archaic riot becomes a means for renegotiating the distribution of power and rights in a small community.

Using first-person accounts of Hindus and Muslims in a remote Bangladeshi village, Beth Roy evocatively describes and analyzes a large-scale riot that profoundly altered life in the area in the 1950s. She provides a rare glimpse into the hearts and minds of the participants and their families, while touching on a range of broader issues that are vital to the sociology of communities in conflict: the changing meaning of community; the impact of the state on local society; the nature of memory; and the force of neighborly enmity in reshaping power relationships during periods of change.

Roy's findings illustrate important theoretical issues in psychology and sociology, and her conclusions will greatly interest students of ethnic/race relations, conflict resolution, the sociology of violence, agrarian society, and South Asia.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520083424
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 8/24/1994
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 244
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Beth Roy lived in
India from 1965 to 1972 and has returned frequently. She is the author of Bullock Carts and Motor Bikes (1972) and On a Tree of Trouble: Tribes of
India in Crisis
(1974). She has a doctorate in sociology and currently lives in San Francisco, where she practices mediation and writes and teaches about communities in conflict.

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Read an Excerpt

Some Trouble with Cows

Making Sense of Social Conflict
By Beth Roy

University of California Press

Copyright © 1994 Beth Roy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520083424

The Quarrel Cows, Crops, and Communities

“There was trouble with cows,” said the farmer. “I tied my cow and went home. But the cow got loose and ate the [plants] in their field.”

By the time the “trouble” was over, masses of men had mobilized, several people had died, many were injured, and life in the village was altered forever after.

The problem, it seems, was that the cow belonged to a Muslim and the crop to a Hindu.

I first heard about the incident from an old woman named Basantibala Majumdar. Her family were acquaintances of mine, and I had come to pay her a condolence call, for her husband, a well-loved and ancient man, had died since my last visit to Bangladesh.1 The monsoon season had made travel slow and wet. A village boat, rowed, poled, and pulled by a bare-chested, bearded man, had transported us* through winding channels and flooded paddy fields to a muddy embankment not far from Basantibala’s home.

The house was one of the few in the village built of brick and plaster. The Majumdars were Hindus, poor relations of the local zamindar, or large landlord. Their two spacious rooms were crammed withpossessions. Old blankets hung from rafters; age-faded sarees and dhotis† and children’s clothing were draped over lines crisscrossing the moldy walls. Life filled the rooms. Women stood about the perimeter, briefly smiling at us, then drifting away to rejoin the endless flow of domestic activities we could glimpse within. Everywhere children peered from behind doorways, edging out into the adult spaces with growing boldness as my visit lost its novelty. A naked boy about ten, clearly retarded, lay on the floor playing with motes of dust in a shaft of sunlight and singing quietly to himself. People glanced benignly at him from time to time but paid him no real attention.

Over tea and biscuits, I told Basantibala that I had come back to her village to study conflicts. I didn’t happen to mention to her that I was especially interested in conflicts between Hindus and Muslims or that my study was designed to include places with no history of communal conflict as well as those known for overt fighting. Her village, Panipur, and Faridpur, the district in which it is located, fell into the “no conflict” category. So far, everyone I’d spoken to had confirmed that view: [A Hindu woman:]

No, we never had any communal disturbances.…Communal harmony was very much prevalent throughout the Faridpur area, even when there was trouble in Dhaka, Khulna, and many other places in Bengal.…Our Muslim neighbors, especially those who were highly respected people, used to assure us that they would not allow any such trouble here. They said that the Hindus should not be afraid of their Muslim neighbors.

[A Hindu man:]

We [Hindus and Muslims] were good friends. We played together. We read in the same schools together. We were on the same football teams.

[A Muslim man:]

Nothing happened here in 1946 [when there were massive riots in Calcutta and elsewhere]. In [1950, when major riots occurred in Barisal, near here] there were some little incidents.…It was not a plan. There were just some people, a few people.…We Hindus and Muslims were together.

[A Muslim man:]

In childhood, I had many friends, both Hindu and Muslim. We made no distinction. We freely visited each other’s houses, took food with no problem.

Were there ever any communal riots around here?

No.…The Namasudras [low-caste Hindu farmers] and the Muslims were both cultivators, they worked side by side, so there was no animosity between them.

When I asked Basantibala whether there had ever been fighting in her village, therefore, I was making conversation rather than expecting news. To my surprise, she answered:

Oh yes, there was, so many times. There were riots. Then all the Hindu people left.

I was flustered. “Oh, really? When?” I stuttered.

Our party included a young woman who assisted me in most of the interviews with interpretation and questions, and a staff member from the development organization hosting me, who happened to live in the village. Throughout my account I use “I” or “we” not quite indiscriminately; sometimes I mean to suggest the importance of the entourage (as in this scene in Basantibala’s house) or some question that evolved from a discussion between my assistant and me. I use “I” when an exchange was truly between me and the respondent.

A dhoti is the male equivalent of a saree; it is an unstitched piece of fabric worn draped as pants. Clothing signifies community; only Hindus, and upper-caste ones at that, wear dhotis.

Spilling the Beans

The room full of people suddenly became quiet, and then it erupted into chaotic debate. Several men first denied that anything had happened, but when Basantibala persisted, everyone began trying to place “oh-that-riot” in time, a creative process involving big storms, dates in the Bengali calendar nobody quite knew how to translate into English equivalents, disagreements over who got married when, and so on. Basantibala insisted that the biggest riot had happened in the British period, when she was newly married and had no children. She guessed her own age to be about seventy, so that would have placed the incident in the mid-1930s, a time, I knew, of considerable upheaval in other rural parts of East Bengal. I was surprised, but the news was believable.

By this time neighbors had begun to drift in. With helpful enthusiasm they muddied the waters even further. Mr. Ghosh, an unassuming, immediately likable man in his sixties who lived next door, reeled off a whole list of riots:

Which riot are you asking about? At the time of Pakistan, do you mean? Do you mean the one at the temple with the Buddha priest? Or do you mean at Partition [in 1947]?*

My head was spinning with this proliferation of mayhem. It didn’t help that everyone was talking at once, adding to the list, placing events in other towns at different times, and generally being most unhelpfully helpful. At last a young man quietly brought some order to the proceedings with authoritative hearsay:

I heard from my father that there was this trouble.

What did you hear?

There was some kheshari dal [a variety of lentil] planted in a field, and someone’s cows ate it. The fighting went on for two or three days.…

Hindus supported each other, and Muslims supported each other. Then the police came and made a temporary camp over there to stop it. It was at the time of British Empire, not after Independence. Both Hindus and Muslims participated.

Here we had a nicely objective statement. It was nobody’s fault: some cows ate some plants; the cows happened to belong to a member of one community, the plants to another; people fought, as people do over banal village disputes; the police came and stopped it. The young man had given us a skeleton of a tale. It was an incident that had happened many times in many places in India. But there were some tantalizing hints of bigger drama: the fighting went on for two or three days; the police not only came, they camped out.

Mr. Ghosh now took up the tale and began to hang flesh on the skeleton. Still contesting the dates, he nonetheless now understood that I was truly interested in this particular riot, and he set about covering the bare bones with tough sinews of intent and responsibility:

It was a very recent riot.…

Side by side were a Hindu piece of land and a Muslim piece of land. In both fields, dal [lentil crop] was growing. The Muslim farmer kept his cow so that it could eat a little bit from the Hindu field too. A few hours later, the Hindu farmer came and saw that some of his plants had been eaten by the Muslim cow.

So the Hindu man went to the Muslim’s house and said, “Your cow has eaten my dal. So I’m going to call a matabbar [village headman] and see what he has to say about it.”

The Muslim was not happy about that, so he put his cow where it could eat more plants. When the Hindu came to his field and saw more plants had been eaten, he became angry. So he took the Muslim cow, and the owner saw his cow was taken and he got a lathi [stick] and he ran after him and beat him. In the Hindu’s hand there was no weapon [he was unarmed]. So the Muslim beat him, then left his cow and rushed to his house.

After that, Hindu people took up koch [a fishing spear] and lathi and swords and rushed to that field. And Muslims, too, came armed with the same things to the field. They fought each other for a few hours.

Then night came, and they went home. It became too dark for them to see who they were fighting, at whom they were throwing the stick. Also local leaders came and stopped the fight.

When India became independent from the British and was simultaneously divided to form Pakistan, of which this area was a part.

The Caste Hindus

It was clear where Mr. Ghosh’s loyalties lay: it was the Muslim’s fault. The Muslim meant his cow (a “Muslim” cow) to eat the Hindu’s crop. The Hindu was innocent. All he did was to make a just complaint. Very reasonably, he proposed that the village authority adjudicate the dispute. The Muslim retaliated with more of the same injustice. Only then did the Hindu take matters into his own hands, seizing the cow. But then the Muslim escalated the fight to violence, attacking the unarmed Hindu. Outrageously provoked, the Hindus, now multiplied, took up weapons and fought, until night and local leadership intervened.

Mr. Ghosh was a Hindu. It made sense that he would line up with the Hindu protagonist. Mr. Ghosh himself was not a central actor in the Panipur riot, a fact established by his description of the morning after:

The next morning, I was going to the bazar [market] to buy milk. People were sitting and talking about the fighting the day before. So I stopped to hear what they were saying.

Were they Hindus?

No, they were Muslims. I heard them say, “We’ll fight.” I said, “No, why is it necessary to quarrel? It’s better to compromise. Local people, the matabbar, and the chairman* will decide it.” They said, “Don’t talk to us. Go and do your work.”

Then I saw that in the Namasudra area, at some distance, there was another group sitting together. I thought, “It will not stop; there will be another fight.” So I hurried to my house.

Just as I reached my house, I could hear the fight begin. The two groups were running after each other with knives and other weapons. But we were neutral, so we stayed at home. From a distance we observed the fight. One side ran at the other, and when they had a chance, they ran at the other side.

All this time Mr. Ghosh had been speaking in an even tone, while the roomful of people listened politely. Basantibala, thoroughly upstaged, slipped out to arrange another round of refreshments, since our visit was clearly taking on major proportions.

The elected head of Panipur Union. A union is roughly equivalent to a city ward; a cluster of villages, it is the level at which effective rural electoral power is brokered.

Castes, Fixed and Mobile

As he described how the fight escalated and the sides arranged themselves for combat, Mr. Ghosh introduced a significant distinction: “Then I saw that in the Namasudra area, at some distance, there was another group sitting together.” This was the first time he had mentioned that the Hindus involved were Namasudras. They were “at some distance,” and Mr. Ghosh hurried to distance himself even further: “I thought, ‘It will not stop; there will be another fight.’ So I hurried to my house.”

As a metaphor for relations between high- and low-caste Hindus, Mr. Ghosh’s description was perfect. He both identified with the warriors as Hindus and at the same time distinguished himself decisively: “[W]e were neutral, so we stayed at home. From a distance we observed the fight.” We in this case clearly did not mean Hindu but caste Hindu.

Mr. Ghosh was delineating distinctions of caste, class, and culture so complex they intertwine like columbines climbing an ancient wall. He and the man with the cow-ravished plant were and were not of the same group. Caste is easy to deplore, difficult to understand. Its complexities are legendary. Nehru repeated a popular conception of caste when he likened it to the medieval trade guilds of Europe.2 But to imagine that caste is simply a hierarchy of occupations is soon to become bewildered by modern-day exceptions. Indeed, exception was probably the rule even historically. To describe caste by economic function is to fail to describe much that is important about it. Caste is a rich mixture of ideology, ritual, highly internalized group identity and aversion, and practical community association.3

Of all that might be said about caste, three qualities are especially important to the Panipur story. First of all, caste is a paradox. It describes crystal-clear distinctions, and also a strong generic unity. At one and the same time it defines social distance and religious association. Almost everything about daily life signifies distinctions of caste identity: names (most surnames are caste identifiers); adornment (Brahmin men, for instance, wear a thread around their chests; certain painted marks on faces, or bracelets, or styles of draping clothing connote caste membership); food habits (what people eat and with whom); protocols of touch and proximity. The number of these signposts to membership in a caste testifies to the seriousness with which caste identity is taken.

But caste is more than distinction. It is also hierarchy. Caste is an endless ranking of status, Brahmins at the top, Untouchables (renamed harijans, or “children of god,” by Gandhi, but more commonly known by their post-Independence bureaucratic designation, Scheduled Caste) at the bottom. When Mr. Ghosh separated himself from the plans of the Namasudras, he not only distinguished activities suitable for his caste from theirs but also implied some disapproval.

Nonetheless, there is also a strong sense of an overarching bond among castes. Even as Mr. Ghosh disassociated himself (in the plural, “we”), he expressed a strong bias in favor of a fellow Hindu done wrong.

The second characteristic of the caste system significant in the Panipur drama is status mobility. As fixed as caste delineation is, as infinitely often described and thoroughly legislated by myriad details of ritual and universally understood distinctions, it is also changeable. Castes have throughout the centuries sought to upgrade their status. Western stereotypes of fatalistic Hindus passively accepting their plight in the lower reaches of an oppressive status map are simply untrue.

Finally, caste continues to have strong associations with economic privilege, even if it does not coincide with precise occupations. In East Bengal until 1947, when the British left and Pakistan was formed, landlords, moneylenders, professionals, educated people in general—a category know as bhadralok, literally “gentlefolk,” an ill-defined word which every Bengali understands precisely—tended to be upper-caste Hindus, whereas peasants, artisans, serving people were Muslims or low-caste Hindus. To be sure, the correspondence was not one to one: “In East Bengal, the landlords…consisted of a few big zamindars and numerous petty talukdars.* Most of them belonged to the upper Hindu castes,† but there were also a handful of Muslims.”4 In his autobiography the East Bengali writer Nirad Choudhury mentions a Muslim zamindar and a low-caste Hindu zamindar who figured large in his turn-of-the-century rural world.5 Nor were these relationships static. Throughout the twentieth century changes were afoot as the upper classes were threatened by economic reversals and Muslims campaigned for improvements in their status. But the majority of big landlords continued to be upper-caste Hindus, and the majority of poor cultivators were Muslims and Namasudras.

The coincidence of caste and class produces an overdetermined set of social relationships. The gulf between poor, low-caste cultivators and economically advantaged, high-caste Hindus is enormous. The latter constitute a little world of their own. In a village they enjoy an easy social familiarity, even though they may individually belong to different castes or occupations. Mr. Ghosh is a Kayashtha; Basantibala’s family, the Majumdars, are Brahmins.‡ The Majumdars are small landlords and schoolteachers, the Ghoshes small landlords and merchants. They are near neighbors and are in and out of each other’s houses—witness Mr. Ghosh’s arrival during my visit. The friendliness of the two caste-Hindu families is bounded by the many ways in which they maintain caste distinction. I do not know the Majumdars’ practices specifically, but Brahmin families commonly keep separate cups and silverware for other-caste visitors, and it would not be unusual for a Brahmin woman like Basantibala to refuse food and drink in Mr. Ghosh’s house even though she serves him freely in her own.

Zamindars are, roughly, big landlords or estate holders, and talukdars are intermediary landholders. For a thorough discussion of the zamindari system in Bengal I recommend Partha Chatterjee’s book Bengal 1920–1947 (1984).

The 1881 census showed only 12.8 percent of the Bengali Hindu population as belonging to the three highest castes: Brahmin, Baidya, and Kayashtha (Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims 1971–1906 [1981], p. 192 n. 9). In Faridpur district, which includes Panipur, there were about 150,000 Brahmins and Kayashthas in 1931 (Government of Bengal, Bengal District Gazetteer, B. Volume, Faridpur District, Statistics, 1921–1922 to 1930–1931 [1933], p. 6).

These are the two major castes in Faridpur district. Brahmins were traditionally priests, and Kayashthas were scribes and clerks (Bangladesh District Gazetteers: Faridpur [1977], p. 68).

Social Location

This endless delineation of relations and distinctions among groups of people reflects a very important aspect of an agricultural society like Bengal. Knowing exactly how your group, be it caste or community or class, is expected to behave vis-à-vis every other group establishes your own social location, a process which in the industrialized world is to a much larger extent left to each individual to accomplish. Indeed, the defining social transformation wrought by industrialization is precisely this dislocation of working individuals from their groups, their “liberation” into a wage economy. Each one, with an emphasis on the word one, must establish her own status and interactions with others, and the field on which that happens is believed to be primarily economic.*

But in an agricultural society economic position is far more fixed—although, as I’ve commented, not exactly cemented. The process of determining where people fit in is therefore given over to a much greater extent to groups. There is a common understanding of where any given group stands in relation to every other, and once an individual’s membership in a group or a series of groups is ascertained, so also is her place in society. When changes happen, often they are group changes, not individual ones. Of course, individual lives do change, sometimes every bit as dramatically as in American mythology. Rags-to-riches stories are not unknown, and twentieth-century upward mobility has become a prospect in the consciousness of modern-day citizens of the Indian subcontinent, if not a very common event. But the more usual and historic route to change, both economic and social, is through the group. One’s group identity, the group that claims one and with which the world identifies one, is therefore very central to one’s sense of self and treatment in the world. People in every agricultural society experience some variation on this same theme, however different the particularities may be.

The group defines for an individual not only how to behave, as the Panipur story well illustrates, but often how to feel and think as well. If life is to improve, the group as a whole must participate both in the process of gain and in the fruits thereof. It is in the nature of societies newly industrializing that this group-based mobility mixes with an individualized derivative. In Bengal during the 1950s the newly won independence of the country, combined with the formation of the entirely new nation-concept of Pakistan, unsettled old economic and power relations and opened up unfamiliar prospects. But people at one and the same time attended to their personal fortunes and experienced change in terms of their place in a group. Caste was an element in the definition, but the Panipur riot demonstrated how it intersected other identities, both economic and religious.

In actuality, social location in the industrialized world is more truly bounded by group factors—race, gender, class at birth, and so on—but that observation is obscured by myths of individualism.

Bias and Loyalty

When the gauntlet was down, for instance, Mr. Ghosh’s allegiance to his fellow Hindus won out over any class or caste estrangements. Even from a distance, he unselfconsciously revealed his affinities:

So many people gathered that each party had about two or three thousand people. The Muslims said, “We won’t allow any Hindus to stay here.” The Hindus were also saying, “We won’t let any Muslims stay on this side of the river. We’ll push them to the other side of the river.”…

The Namasudras were greater in number, and they were more courageous. They had a lot of food. But the Muslims, they didn’t have much—only some chal [uncooked rice]. They would eat a handful of chal and some water. Since the Namasudras had plenty of food, they had plenty of courage.

Food weighs heavily in the scales of significance in many cultures, and especially in South Asia. Over and over, people expressed distinctions of status and nuances of respect through food, not to mention using it as a material demarcation of position. To eat uncooked rice is unthinkable to a Hindu. From Mr. Ghosh’s tone of voice, I inferred that the Muslims eating it were, to him, inferior beings, a theme he elaborated as he continued his story:

The Muslims fell back a little, and the Namasudras advanced. Then Raghu Nandan [a Hindu police officer] said to the S. D. O. [subdivisional officer, a civil official], Raghubabu said, “Sir, this is the time to give the order to fire. Otherwise there will be a lot of bloodshed.”

So the S. D. O. said, “Inform both sides, if they don’t stop, we’ll fire.”

Then Raghu Nandan rode his horse and went to both sides and told them of the S. D. O.’s decision, and said, “I’ll raise a flag, and as soon as I raise it, you all leave this place. Otherwise we will fire.” As soon as the flag was raised, the Namasudras left. But the Muslims attacked. And the police fired. One or two—I’m not sure how many—were killed.

Not only had the police come and camped and stopped the fight, they had fired on the mob and killed people. Suddenly the stakes had risen dramatically. Mr. Ghosh’s point of view continued to be woven into his historic memory. The only named official was not the high-ranking S. D. O., but a Hindu policeman who played the active role. Mr. Ghosh called him Raghubabu, a familiar and respectful form of address to a Hindu bhadralok, thus suggesting that they were acquainted, that this man of power was on his side. The Hindus, in Mr. Ghosh’s account, continued to behave lawfully. They were stronger, more courageous; they advanced, but when the police told them to retreat they did so. The Muslims, on the other hand, disobeyed, moving forward, and so more of them were killed when the police fired. Mr. Ghosh managed to convey the notion that there was justice in their disproportionate slaughter. At first he seemed unsure just how many had died, but when pressed he gave us exact figures and an amazing interpretation:

Two Muslims were killed, and one Hindu. Since two men were killed on the Muslim side, they had to kill one more on the Hindu side. Otherwise it would look as though the police were partial. So the police later ran and killed a man on the Hindu side, to make it even.

Mr. Ghosh was clearly a reasonable and respect-worthy individual. Yet his construction of events seemed improbable. Biased accounts, memories at variance depending on the allegiances of the storyteller, were only to be expected. Who among us has ever engaged in contentious activity, from a fight with one’s mate to a union battle or a campaign for a favored political candidate, without skewing reality toward our own perspective? But bias is more than false representation. If we take seriously the accounts of those involved, what emerges is a history of differing realities. Not only did people remember differently, or report differently; they actually lived the experience differently.6

To understand an event, not to mention a phenomenon, we must encompass the varying experiences of that event, even though we must understand that what we understand is only an approximation. That the approximation departs from the experience of the actor is not a problem; it is the point. How experience is experienced is one topic of importance. But how that experience is formulated, remembered, and retold tells the hearer something beyond “what happened,” which we cannot in any case know and which did not in any case happen, since what happened happened to many different people differently. To add to the fun, what happened also changed as it happened and went on changing later. Memory is formed by past knowledge and experience, but it is also altered by the future. Each new experience, including each telling, changes the tale. The telling itself is part of the experience, for what we live combines with what we think to construct what we do, and all three in constant interplay define experience. When the experience is a social one, when the telling is done by members of a group about a group event, the history of memory sheds light on the history of events. Collective memory is social action in its own right, and it is part and parcel of every historical act.7

The Muslims

Riveted by Mr. Ghosh’s honest and forthright one-sidedness, I didn’t immediately register the arrival of a newcomer. He was hard to miss, though, an imposing presence in the crowded room. He was the elected chairman of Panipur Union, Altaf-uddin, the very man to whom Mr. Ghosh had referred a little earlier. He wore a long white beard, the long white shirt and lungi, or ankle-length skirt, favored by Muslim men, and an Islamic cap. Our guide to this village had scheduled us to interview him first, at his home. I had, it seemed, upset social protocol by dropping in before that to see Basantibala. Word spreads quickly in a village, and when he had heard we were there, talking in the Majumdar house, Altaf-uddin had determined to right the situation by bringing himself to us.

He also brought a marked change to the tone of the discussion. Once Altaf was settled, I turned back to Mr. Ghosh and asked him what his reactions had been to the battle. There had been a decided shift in Mr. Ghosh’s sails:

We had no adverse reaction.

Why not?

[With a sideways glance at Altaf:] Because there were influential elders in this area. So whenever there were tensions among us, they would intervene. So we lived as brothers.

Altaf, as influential elder, promptly agreed:

There were some small incidents [before the riot], but they were smoothed over quickly.…Once an incident began, all the Hindus would take the side of the Hindus and all the Muslims would take the side of the Muslims. The influential people, both Muslims and Hindus, would come forward to solve the problem.

I already knew that Hindus talked differently in the presence of Muslims, and the tension in this case was tangible. So I eased Mr. Ghosh off the hook, turning to Altaf and asking for his version of the story.

I got the news at night that there was a little conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and that the Hindus were already out organizing a riot for the next day. The reason was that a cow ate the lentils in one field. A Muslim’s cow ate the kheshari in a field of a Hindu. It was a very petty thing. For that, they had some chase and counter-chase in the late afternoon. A little fighting, too. Now the Hindus were out with their horses to inform the other Hindus to come next day, to riot.

Where before Muslims plotted in the bazar, now Hindus rode the countryside mobilizing warriors. If Mr. Ghosh spoke for caste Hindus, I thought, Altaf-uddin was about to give me the version of the Muslims.

Muslims in Bengal

Islam became a factor in the life of the subcontinent very early: Arab traders journeyed there within a few years of the death of Muhammad in 632. However, the Muslim community in India traces its roots to Moghul conquests much later, in the twelfth century. The first sultanate in India was established in Bengal, at Gaur in the district of Malda, in the early thirteenth century, and Moghul rule was consolidated elsewhere in the subcontinent only four hundred years later.8

The earliest Bengali Muslims were immigrants from central Asia, Afghanistan, Persia, Arabia, and northern India,9 but only a tiny minority of the subcontinent’s Muslim population today can trace their ancestry to immigration. Most are converts.* Until the British government’s first census of the area in 1872, Bengal was considered to be a Hindu domain. What that census revealed shocked both rulers and indigenous elites: Muslims constituted very close to half the population, and in some areas they were an imposing majority.10 Their distribution was uneven: some western districts, including those that had housed the earliest Muslim administrations, showed them in the minority. But in the east, around Dhaka, the capital of Moghul Bengal from 1612 on, Muslims constituted 60 percent of the population.11

Within that community there were vast distinctions. If the gulf separating high- from low-caste Hindus was enormous, that between upper- and lower-class Muslims was in some respects even greater. Class tended to coincide with origins. Upper-class Muslims traced their heritage to immigrants and claimed membership in a group called the ashraf. Converts, or the atrap, were drawn from the most oppressed among the population. While they were theoretically united by common worship and a theology lacking the sorts of rigid distinctions Hindus suffered through caste, ashraf and atrap Muslims were nonetheless severely alienated by culture and language. The ashraf prided themselves on their knowledge and use of Urdu, the language of the Moghul court at Delhi, which is spoken widely by Muslims in the northwestern parts of the subcontinent. To the ashraf in Bengal, Bengali was a crude and unworthy tongue. They especially disdained the dialects most common among the rural masses. Upper-class names, such as Syed and Shaikh, were similar to those current in Arabia and Persia. In fact, not all people with these names could claim direct descent from Arabian or Persian immigrants; high-caste Hindus who converted tended to be awarded these honorifics. People with Bengalified names, such as Mandal, Pramanik, Sarkar, were common among the peasantry and were held in contempt.12 So, too, were those Muslims who practiced despised occupations—weavers, shoemakers, barbers, and the like—all of whom, had they been Hindus, would have been Untouchables.

Between those who made clear claim to the distinction of ashraf and those who were atrap was a very small rural gentry. Although they occupied somewhat the same economic position as the Hindu bhadralok, and although they contributed some superb and beloved literary figures, they asserted far less cultural influence, for their numbers were minute. In the 1881 census, for example, only 0.92 percent of Bengali Muslim workers were listed as professionals, in contrast to 2.09 percent of Hindus. The commercial classes included only 2.55 percent of Muslims, 4.76 percent of Hindus. Fully 90 percent of Muslims were agricultural workers or laborers, compared to 76 percent of Hindus.13 But according to Rafiuddin Ahmed, a historian of Bengali Muslims, “numbers alone do not explain the insignificant role played by the middle income group and…their failure to act as a ‘link.’ ” The entire consciousness of these people yearned for acceptance by the ashraf. Among Hindus, the bhadralok may have shared with their Islamic counterpart a hearty contempt for manual labor. But they could speak with other Hindus, however low-class, in Bengali, a language to which they were all loyal and that was embedded in a mutually understood cultural history. Many socially ambitious Bengali Muslims, however, revered a culture from another land, using a language wholly unknown to their lower-class neighbors. As Ahmed put it, “No effective leadership could be expected from a group striving hard to adopt a class culture totally alien to the common man.”14

Sitting in Basantibala’s front room, however, Altaf-uddin seemed distinctly non-alien, a thoroughly Bengalicized version of Muslim gentry. Here he was, ensconced in powerful but friendly stature amid the beds and clothing of his Hindu neighbors. The scene before me could stand as a metaphor for Hindu-Muslim relations in the modern period: culturally both similar and different, socially both friendly and distant, historically both joined and antagonistic.

Some Bangladeshis oppose conversion theories, arguing instead for the more prestigious notion of immigration. Tamizuddin Khan, a founding father of Pakistan, wrote in his memoirs: “But immediate conversion does not seem to be a full explanation for the preponderance of Muslims in Bengal, where the caste system was far less rigorous than in South India, which saw no large scale conversions. There is reason to believe that in Bengal an additional cause for such a large concentration of Muslims was the fact that millions of Muslim[s of the] disintegrated Moghul Empire and of the innumerable provincial satraps and chieftains settled in the fertile soil of Bengal and most of them took to the cultivation of the land” (The Test of Time[1989], p. 51).

Culture and Community

When the British conquered India, the Muslim upper classes turned their backs pridefully on English education. Hindus, by contrast, and especially Bengalis, embraced it. Education was the entryway to middle-class life, and education in English, the language of the state, was most important. Before long, therefore, Muslims found themselves excluded from new arenas in which economic power was to be found within colonial power relations.15 This principled refusal to accept positions as agents of foreign rule further increased the class divide within the Islamic community. By the close of the nineteenth century, Muslims in Bengal accounted for half of the population, but only for 29 percent of those in schools. Among college students the picture was even more polarized: 93.9 percent were Hindus, only 5.4 percent Muslims.16

At the same time that the Muslim middle class turned away from British education, they sought to distinguish themselves culturally from their Hindu neighbors. “What is it that makes you as a Muslim different from Hindus?” I asked a religious man. He replied, in English:

Religious performances are quite different. We go to the mosque, wearing caps, saying prayers there. They go to the puja [ritual celebration] in the Kalibari [temple of the goddess Kali], beating the drums, et cetera, et cetera.

There are people who are very conservative in both communities.…In general, either a Muslim or a Hindu, they strictly follow the rules, the instructions of the religion, [which makes] differences come up. A Hindu makes water standing, and a Muslim just, what should I say…The Hindu is not wearing [a] cap, the Muslim is wearing a cap. Just see it, that I am wearing a cap.

Nowadays there is some slackness in the customs. I cannot find a Muslim or a Hindu out by what they wear. Now they are all alike. They are not wearing beards now. They are not wearing caps.

This man moved quickly from a consideration of religious ritual to very personal habits such as urination. With great seriousness he bemoaned the inclination of youth to blur distinctions of attire. At the turn of the century, those very distinctions had been adopted with great deliberateness by his forefathers:

Ibn Maazuddin Ahmad…[in 1914] found his Muslim identity totally incompatible with local symbols, dress, and language. He…dismissed dhoti and chadar [a shawl] as explicitly Hindu. To him a Muslim attired in dhoti-chadar was as distasteful as the Sanskritized Bengali of the Hindus. Ironically enough, his own [writing] style was highly Sanskritic whenever he was not watching himself.17

Rafiuddin Ahmed writes that the change away from such “everyday Bengali wear” happened over a period of two decades. Seventy-five years later, it was still effective. Muslim men quite universally wore lungis, and friends noted in casual commentary that the choice of attire was deliberate and politically motivated. Yet although Muslim men may not wear dhoti, Hindu men—all the men in Basantibala’s front room, for instance—do wear lungi for working or lounging. Sartorial differentiation, while significant, is not absolute.

Often people commented on the importance of being able to tell the affiliation of a stranger. “My identity as a Muslim was quite visible,” Altaf told us. “I wore this long kurta [knee-length shirt] and toupee [cap] and beard.” But identification is often not so easy. “I cannot find a Muslim or a Hindu out by what they wear,” as the religious man quoted above complained.

Among women, too, distinctions are common but not universal. Some Muslim women observe purdah, wearing the characteristic robes and face masks in public. The veil is limited to Muslim women, so its presence is a clear statement. Its absence, however, is not; many Muslim Bengali women move freely outdoors dressed in sarees. Similarly, a vermilion mark in the part of a woman’s hair tells you definitively she is Hindu, but since only married women wear it, its absence does not prove a woman is not Hindu. And some modern married Hindu women eschew the vermilion mark, so its absence is no longer even a conclusive sign of marital status among Hindus. East Bengali women of both communities are likely to wear costumes common among Pakistani women, or women in the western regions of India, where the Moghul Empire was centered in its later years. Kurta, salwar, and kameez, a loose-fitting tunic, baggy pants, and flowing scarf, are common both in the countryside and among modern city women.

Although in theory costumes identify religious affiliation, in fact dress is often influenced by class and function as well. Peasant women, for instance, often wear sarees without blouses, but Basantibala would not present herself to us blouseless, for it is improper to her station. Some among the younger women working in the Majumdar inner courtyard, however, wore no blouse, for comfort while doing domestic work in hot weather.

Many details of daily life are more alike across community lines than different. All Bengalis’ diet relies on rice, fish, and lentils; preparations may vary slightly, but often don’t. But Hindu and Muslim women concoct distinctly different sweets, and they revel in those differences and respect each other’s contributions. It is hard to distinguish a Muslim cultivator’s homestead from a Hindu’s, except by specifically religious signifiers such as altars. Relationships among both Muslim and Hindu family members are characterized by norms of generational and gender hierarchy, with decision-making dominated by elders and with men clearly ascendant.

Yet on the gender front important differences derive from religious practice, too. Islamic polygamy (now limited to two wives per Muslim man) combines with ease of divorce to disadvantage women decidedly. Muslim women, more influenced by rules of purdah to begin with (although many do not observe it, and some Hindu women, especially upper-class ones, are effectively confined to the home by tradition as well), are vulnerable to abuses from which Hindu women have greater (albeit not adequate) social protection.

People tend to socialize within religious boundaries. Everyone had stories of inter-religious friendships, yet such relationships were noteworthy as exceptions. Neighborhoods are organized by community. When a Muslim family moved into a Hindu neighborhood recently, their arrival was heartily resented. “They are so loud,” said the Hindu woman next door. “They quarrel and yell at each other, so we get no peace.” It is a stereotype that Muslims are more combative at home, one that would not stand up to detailed investigation, but this woman drew on it to express her social discomfort over her new neighbors’ proximity.

Underlying overt cultures and religious practices are personal habits that give people a meaningful sense of distinction, such practices as standing versus squatting to urinate. Hindus bathe midday before their major meal, Muslims may bathe any time it is convenient. While all Bengalis share many cultural attributes, these matters of personal habit are very influential. They cause people to “feel” their identities on a noncognitive level, and when people have contact within the other community it is often these details on which they comment most profoundly.

Nationalism and Partition

Through all such details of differentiation there nonetheless was created by British rule a strong impetus for unity. The two themes, of shared and competing interests, run richly through the experience of nationalist protest. It is perhaps a popular Western misconception of European colonialism in India that its rule went unchallenged for two hundred years. In fact, direct rule was established only after a serious rebellion in 1857 of Indian troops against the British army in which they were employed. The Indian National Congress, parent organization to resistance against imperial domination, was founded in 1885, and from the beginning of the twentieth century the British were faced with militant opposition.

At first, the Congress remained politely upper-class. In Bengal, though, other, more militant forces were brewing, especially in the eastern parts of the province. In 1905 Lord Curzon, then governor-general of India, partitioned Bengal into two provinces. Overtly, his reasoning was administrative; the existing united province included an enormous area, part of it non–Bengali-speaking. But in fact the motivation was political. “Bengal united is a power,” wrote the home secretary. “Bengal divided will pull several different ways…one of our main objects is to split up and thereby to weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.”18

When the division came, it reflected the lines of religious community. East Bengal was formed of Muslim-majority districts, combined with Assam and Burma; West Bengal contained the Hindu-majority areas, with Orissa and other Hindi-speaking regions. The eastern districts were especially mistrusted, “a hotbed of the purely Bengali movement, unfriendly if not seditious in character and dominating the whole tone of Bengal administration.”19

Partition evoked the first mass-based revolt. Called the Swadeshi (or Homeland) movement, it used the tactic of boycotting everything British: goods, education, offices, courts. Most students and officeholders, however, were Hindus, since the Muslims had eschewed British-tainted institutions from the start. But in East Bengal many merchants were Muslims. To refuse to purchase, indeed often to burn, British-made goods economically disadvantaged those shopkeepers. Muslims, moreover, appreciated Partition, because it gave them far greater access to power in East Bengal than they had had in Hindu-dominated united Bengal. It was a fact not lost upon subsequent historians that the first massive uprising against the British contained within it such powerful elements of hostility between Muslims and Hindus. “Divide and rule” could not have been more blatant. The British revoked Partition in 1911, but they had succeeded in heightening bitter rivalry between the communities.

Paradoxically, the first national campaign to challenge British rule was built on the cornerstone of Hindu-Muslim unity. The Congress was largely a Hindu organization, because at first it excluded all who were not English-educated and sought merely to negotiate more respect and privileges from the foreign rulers. With the introduction of Gandhi to leadership in the early 1910s, however, the Congress determined to move into the public domain. Gandhi set about building a controversial alliance with an Islamic movement called Khilafat. An international campaign was under way to restore the caliph, head of the Muslim world, to power in the aftermath of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, and Khilafat was its Indian arm, led by two dynamic brothers named Ali.20

Despite this auspicious early alliance, relations between Hindu and Muslim nationalists grew increasingly stormy. The Congress movement had notable Muslim leaders—Abul Kalam Azad, for instance, who was president of the organization during the final negotiations with the British—but many Muslims resented and resisted the Congress and eventually organized an independent movement under the aegis of the Muslim League. Although the League’s agenda was the protection of Muslims’ rights during the process of dismantling the Empire, only late in the struggle, in 1940, was the demand raised for a separate Muslim state.

It succeeded. Seven years later, when the British quit India, Pakistan was formed from the western and eastern Muslim-majority areas of the subcontinent, the two wings separated by fifteen hundred miles of India. East Bengal became East Pakistan.* Born in an explosion of communal bloodshed and bitterness, both wings of Pakistan were soon faced with the necessity of replacing the educated Hindus, who fled to India in great numbers. In Bengal, changes had been afoot throughout the twentieth century. The founding of Islamic schools was an important theme in Muslim nationalism. More and more Muslims were becoming educated. Responding to nationalist movements and negotiations, the British had granted, piece by piece, some elements of representational government. But still, newly independent Pakistan, especially East Bengal, had to rely on a grossly insufficient pool of Muslims trained for administrative or professional service. Those few who were educated passed into the period of Independence with distinct advantage.

For the East Bengalis, Pakistan was both a triumph and a tragedy. Bengal was one of two states cut in half by Partition, the west going to India, the east to Pakistan. Many miles of India separated East from West Pakistan, and no sooner were the flags raised than the troubles began. Bengalis were dominated and economically exploited by West Pakistan, where political power was concentrated. Finally, in 1971 the Bengalis revolted, aided by India, and succeeded in establishing the new state of Bangladesh.

Politics in Panipur

Altaf-uddin was one of the advantaged few, a local man whose father before him had been the elected chairman of the Union and who had himself succeeded to that position in the Pakistani period. In 1971, a quarter-century after Pakistan was formed, the Bengalis rebelled against exploitation and formed the independent nation of Bangladesh. Throughout these changes, Altaf remained in office. His position fell somewhere between that of county chairman and ward boss; his influence cannot adequately be described by the duties of his elected office. It was he who represented local wants to higher authority. He was the man on the spot with access to power, the liaison between ordinary folk and the distant and mysterious government. That relationship had remained constant through two generations and three eras—British, Pakistani, Bangladeshi—and through many changes of government. Altaf was a force to be reckoned with.

He lost no time in letting me know how central his role in the riot had been:

So at ten o’clock in the night, the Hindus came to me. First came the Hindus, then came the Muslims. I told both parties to stop thinking about rioting; “I’ll take whatever steps are necessary to prevent a riot.” But I was afraid that there might be a riot, in spite of my warning, because I knew that Hindus were already out recruiting other Hindus. So I informed the police station about this development, and asked them to send some forces to come here.

The police staff came to my house an hour before dawn. Then I took them to that locality.…I saw many people gathering already. Communal feelings had been aroused. Neither Hindus nor Muslims could be stopped.

No question about Altaf’s importance: both Hindus and Muslims called on him for help. Realizing, however, that he could not control the tempers of his people, he performed the prestigious task of calling in the police. They acknowledged his centrality by assembling first at his house and using him as their guide to the community. Altaf identified his role precisely: he was the connecting link between villagers and authorities.

He was also the only local player carrying a gun, a fact of symbolic significance in a number of later accounts, as well as his own:

I first went to the Hindus’ house. I had a gun with me. I asked them to hand over the cow to me. In the meantime, I asked the police officer to stay with the Muslims, to prevent them from doing anything suddenly.

Wait a minute: First I asked the policeman to go to the Hindus’ house while I stayed back with the Muslims. But the officer said, “No, I’ll stay with the Muslims, you go to the Hindus.”

It was not immediately clear to me why Altaf stopped himself to emphasize this seemingly trivial point. As he went on with his story, however, it seemed to me he was underscoring the courage he had needed to confront the rage of the opposing community. He was also suggesting once again that his position was that of nonpartisan leader of the entire community. Perhaps, too, he was letting me know that his presence at the Hindus’ compound was innocent, lest I suspect his complicity in what soon followed:

It was early in the morning, but there were already four or five hundred Muslims gathered. So I went to the Hindus, and they gave me the cows.

I was taking the cows back, when all of a sudden I saw the Muslims attack the Hindus’ house and set the haystack on fire. At that time, I was inside a Hindu house; I quickly left, afraid that they could harm me, too, because I am a Muslim.

I came to the Muslim side and yelled to the police officer, “Why couldn’t you stop them?” It had been his choice to stay back with the Muslims. After that I took the Muslims back to their side. Because there was a fire in the haystack, the Hindus couldn’t stay silent. They, too, started to come into the field with their weapons, dhal katra [weapons of war]. I was running from one side to the other.…

By ten o’clock in the morning, there were almost ten thousand people, altogether ten thousand on two sides. Now I no longer have enough courage to go to the Hindu side, because there are many unknown Hindus coming from other places. They won’t recognize me, so they might strike me. My identity as a Muslim was quite visible. I wore this long kurta and toupee and beard. I was all along asking the Muslims to stop. But they wouldn’t listen to me.

Who started the fire in the haystack was a point of some controversy among subsequent informants. Altaf’s story placed responsibility on the Muslims’ side, but his fiercest blame was for the police officer. He had chosen to stay with the Muslims and yet had failed to control them. It is not clear whether Altaf meant to suggest complicity, or simple incompetence. Certainly he was telling me that he himself was not responsible, since the police officer had directed him to the Hindus. In any case, once the Muslims moved, the Hindus, in his version, had no choice but to retaliate.

With the fire Altaf retreated to the side of his co-religionists: “I quickly left, afraid that they [the Hindus] could harm me, too, because I am a Muslim.” Still, he continued to run from side to side, until the numbers grew so large he feared that his reputation could no longer protect him. Too many among the mob were strangers. All the symbols of his person—his beard, kurta, and cap—identified him as Muslim, not as chairman. His influence over the rioters was at an end.

What Altaf described here was a clear point of demarcation in the progress of the riot. Local authority had lost its meaning as the crowd grew to include people from other localities. No longer was the fight about particular issues; it had become engulfed in something else, something that drew on more universal passions. It had become a “communal riot.”

The Namasudras

When we finally left Basantibala’s house, we headed to the homestead of Sunil Mondal, a Namasudra farmer and a representative of the third force in the drama. Our boat left the river and took us through the paddy fields. Now and then it became entangled in lilies or beached on a rise. But the boatman, with considerable lament and heroic effort, literally pulled us through. At last we landed on a steep and muddy bank at a homestead. We were still in Panipur Union, at a village called Shirachi. We walked past outbuildings and through yards filled with jute—green, cut jute in piles; jute poles bunched teepee-style to dry; jute fiber in huge skeins. Everywhere women and men were working. The women wore sarees, short and wrapped around their breasts, with no blouses. In the parting of their hair was the vermilion mark. One young woman was arranging food in front of a statue of Lakshmi, the elegant Hindu goddess of wealth.

At the third or fourth courtyard we came upon an older man, short, muscular, wearing a lungi hiked to his knees; he moved with efficient energy to finish his task of arranging jute skeins in the sun, and then he ushered us into a tiny outer room off the yard. The room was bare except for two wooden chairs and a bench, a large clay pot containing paddy, and a basket filled with some sort of seed, probably jute. The floor was covered with the beautiful, curved patterns of mud generally used to keep village homes tidy. Balancing the tape recorder on my lap, I asked Sunil about his farm. He began by bemoaning the declining fertility of the land. In his childhood, he said:

Crops were abundant, and people were well off and there were fewer of them.* Food was plentiful. But now we don’t get that much crop. We get a fourth of what we used to get. The land that used to produce one maund [in Panipur, a little over eighty pounds] now hardly yields ten seers [about twenty pounds]. The fertility has gone down that much.

Why has the fertility reduced so much?

Because of the silting of the river, we don’t get the rich soil we used to in the floods.†

As we settled in to talk, people wandered in and sat down. Sunil told us he owned about fifteen acres of land, a fair-sized farm in these parts, and that his farm had changed over the years:‡

I had people working for me, three or four men; I paid them a salary. I worked along with them.

Have you ever had any sharecroppers or subtenants?

No, not then. Now I have sharecroppers. Because now I can’t get good, sincere workers. These workers don’t want to work on a monthly basis, only on a daily basis. It’s more expensive that way.

When you used to hire workers, were they Hindu or Muslim?

They were all Hindus. Hindus had Hindu workers, Muslims had Muslim workers. The hired workers, too, would only seek work from people of their own community.

Why did you hire only Hindus?

I searched for Hindu workers because the person I kept on a monthly basis lived with us as a member of my family, so he had to be Hindu.

On a daily basis, it doesn’t matter whether they are Hindu or Muslim. They work for the day, then they go away. When the work was greatest, I would hire both Hindus and Muslims on a daily basis.

What kinds of problems would you have staying with Muslim laborers?

Eating, going to the kitchen, because the person who would work here would be a member of my family. He has to have access to each and every corner of my house. In the case of Muslims, there’s a communal difference. For instance, we won’t let him touch the altar of the goddess Lakshmi.

What’s the problem with eating?

Muslims take onion and beef. But we don’t eat those things.…We don’t use the glasses or p lates used by others. Also, we don’t touch the leftover food of others. But they don’t have those same prejudices, they don’t care. We care, they don’t care. There are some Muslims who mind, but nowadays not many have that attitude.

Sunil clearly expressed a religiously based sense of community, identifying himself as a Hindu in distinction to Muslims. But Sunil was a Namasudra, a person of low caste, and himself subject to discriminatory rules of precisely the same sort from Hindus above him in the caste system.

According to government figures, Faridpur’s population approximately doubled between 1931 and 1988 (Government of Bengal, Bengal District Gazetteer, B. Volume, Faridpur District, Statistics, 1921–1922 to 1930–1931 [1933] and Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Upazila Statistics of Bangladesh [1988]). It is somewhat problematic to compare figures, because districts were reorganized in the mid-1980s. The 1988 figures for Faridpur district are actually the sum of five districts which more or less coincide with the localities comprising Faridpur district in 1931. In 1931, Rajoir thana, the police district in which Panipur lay, had a population of 102,000. Rajoir upazila in 1988 shows a population of 174,000. A study in 1945–46 revealed that Faridpur had one of the highest population densities in Bengal, about 740 people per square mile (Partha Chatterjee, p. 163).

Soil erosion in the mountains north of Bangladesh, combined with river-course changes produced by hydroelectric projects in India, has vastly increased the amount of nonnutritive silt carried by floodwaters. These factors may also be stimulating more frequent and dire flooding. In 1987 and 1988 large parts of the country were under water, far in excess of the usual annual flooding. When I first visited Panipur in the winter of 1988, a few months after the floodwaters had receded, I hiked through ankle-deep sand—an entirely new phenomenon, according to local accounts. Floodwaters, which had always enriched agricultural land, were now instead smothering it in silt.

Sunil had inherited seven acres from his father in (by my calculation) 1936. “The rest I bought myself, through hard work,” he told me. Partha Chatterjee writes about this trend in the first half of the century, noting that “the process which brought into existence a new class of richer…peasantry in Bengal, accompanied by the corresponding spread of sharecropping, also resulted in substantial transfers of land from the hands of the poorer peasantry” (Partha Chatterjee, Bengal 1920–1947[1984], p. 142). Several post-Independence land reform attempts presumably presented Sunil with opportunities to acquire land from his richer neighbors as well.

History of a Tribe

The history of Bangladesh, and especially of this western district bordering India, is a drama with three characters: the Muslims, the caste Hindus, and a variety of low- or outcaste peoples and tribes who stood in the wings socially but center stage dramatically.

In the days of the British Empire, the Faridpur district population consisted of unequal numbers of Hindus and Muslims, and most of the former were Namasudras. Cultivators and artisans, they shared more customs and traits with their Muslim neighbors than with the caste Hindus who were landlords and moneylenders to both.

The origins and fortunes of the Namasudra community are interwoven with the history of the land. It is impossible to understand the character of these people without an image of the territory they occupy. Faridpur defies intuitive concepts of a fixed landscape. Growing up on the American continent, I had always relied on geology to stay put. “The land” as an expression was to me a metaphor for solidity, agelessness, groundedness. To be sure, I understood theoretically that the land had a history, but I believed that it moved in geological time, which is to say, so slowly as to be irrelevant. Bangladesh reeducated me. Time after time, people would point to some solid-seeming expanse of land many miles from anything wet and say, “Only a few years ago we used to catch the ferry here.” Rivers wander, villages disappear overnight, and new lands appear, fertilely beckoning to litigious farmers.

I had thought I understood about the rivers. Only slowly, though, as I learned the histories of the people settled here and as I traveled from one distinct geographic area to another only a few miles distant, did I come fully to comprehend what a living, changing thing this land is and how much its changes interacted with the histories of the peoples occupying it.

The Namasudras were historically fishermen and boatmen, occupying the swampy territories of the districts where even today most live and where six months of the year the land is under water. Adept at the amphibious existence their environment demanded, they were nonetheless scorned by their fellows, partly because of their work and partly because they were newcomers to Hinduism. They were originally a tribe:

[Their] Hinduisation possibly took place at a comparatively late period, when the caste system had taken its fully developed shape and outsiders were admitted reluctantly and only at the bottom of the structure. This explains, to a large extent, the social degradations [they] were subjected to.…Many branded them as the “lowest of mankind,”…whose touch defiles the pure.21

But in the nineteenth century, life began to change for the Namasudras. First, the swamps receded, leaving behind many square miles of fertile new farmland. This alteration in the natural and economic terrain was accomplished by British engineers, who cut a series of roads and drainage canals through the region, a land-reclamation project of gigantic proportions.

Traveling about Faridpur district is a journey into the lives of the waterways. Boats ply them, carrying passengers, jute, fish, and every other essential of village life. Bridges over them wash away in frequent floods. People bathe in them. Women launder clothing and small boys fish in them. Rural development projects are built on their banks. In the days of Empire, the waterways of Faridpur were a favorite topic for letters home from British officials and their wives. In 1884 Lady Beveridge wrote to her children a long account of a journey by boat through the domain of her husband, a district magistrate:

When we first started we were in a narrow river and our way lay through fields of rice without many houses but afterwards we came into a wider river and there were many houses on the banks each standing in its own grove of fruit trees. The country is flat and only a little above the water so that it is easy to see how bad the great storm waves must be when they come up from the sea and run over the land.22

In 1920 Lt. Col. L. N. Bavin described his adventures in the same territory in terms a good deal less favorable:

[It] was a terrible spot.…I used to tour about that country in a primitive houseboat called a budgerow, braving these perilous waterways, creeping up narrow creeks that wound on for miles from one river to another, crossing huge seas where you could get out of sight of land, and calling in at villages that were untouched by the waves of world upheavals.23

One can always tell canals from natural waterways: the latter wander all over the place; the former travel straight on for mile after mile. It is difficult to imagine the countryside without the canals, and easy to imagine what a difference was made by their construction. Their banks act as dams and their courses drain the channeled waters, leaving behind relatively dry land. Between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the area under cultivation rose from less than fifty percent of the total to almost eighty.24

To the lives of the Namasudras these canals made a profound difference. They opened up the possibilities of cultivation, and that transformation promised not only economic betterment but also a path to higher social status. Peasants enjoyed considerably more respect than boatmen and fishermen like the Namasudras. But little of the new ownership actually devolved on Namasudras. In the 1891 census, only fifty-seven Namasudras in Faridpur were reported to occupy land they did not themselves till; they constituted 0.04 percent of the Namasudra population. Even twenty years later, in the 1911 census, fewer than 1 percent of all Namasudras in Bengal owned enough land to receive rents.25 Namasudras farmed the land, but caste Hindus and some few Muslims owned it. What a given peasant farmed, moreover, was very little indeed, whether he was Namasudra or Muslim. By the end of the 1930s, 64 percent of Faridpur cultivators held less than two acres a family—a far greater level of economic deprivation than in many other parts of Bengal.26

Nonetheless, enough of the new lands reclaimed in the late nineteenth century were possessed by Namasudras to solidify a very small affluent class. But social uplift did not automatically devolve from economic improvement, so a campaign to upgrade the status of their community was launched by the newly well-off among them in 1872.27 As Rajat Kanta Ray points out:

Hindu society in Bengal treated other untouchable castes…with equal contempt. But in the case of the Namasudras their low ritual status coincided with an unusual amount of spirit and independence which did not make for tame submission.28

The Namasudras’ first attack was on social customs that made them vulnerable to contempt. Women, for instance, always markers of status and power, were prohibited from shopping in the bazar, for only low-class people allowed their women to appear in public. An attempt was also made to attack the economic basis of subordination; Namasudras were prohibited by their community from serving in the homes of caste Hindus or Muslims. The resulting economic hardship was, in theory at least, to be redressed by the community at large. Finally, ritual status markers were adopted. As Sunil suggested, food is primary among these, and Namasudras adopted ritual codes of purity paralleling those of the higher castes.

In time, these symbolic and economic efforts at uplift altered the political landscape of the province, bringing Namasudras and Muslims closer together. New political alliances emerged:

By the 1910’s, the high-caste, well-to-do Hindus were sharply polarized from the Muslim-Namasudra masses. Henceforth the peasants, especially the enfranchised section, defied the zamindars and the Hindu bhadralok classes in different ways.29

When the demand for a separate Muslim state was raised in 1940, Bengal was one of the more problematic provinces, since its population was close to evenly divided between the communities. Hard negotiating was employed to determine its destiny: did it belong by rights to Hindu-majority India or to Muslim-majority Pakistan? Sentiments ran strong and violent on both sides. In Calcutta, the mammoth capital city to the southwest of Faridpur, Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other, and violence seeped into some of the larger towns of East Bengal as well.

In this charged context it was extraordinarily significant for an entire Hindu community to opt for Pakistan. But that is just what the East Bengali Namasudras did, defining their interests on the basis of class, not religion, and confounding expectations that Hindus all over India were united in their desire for undivided nationhood. Their future, these Namasudras believed, would be brighter in a state devoid of high-caste landlords than in one ruled by people who shared their religion but nonetheless oppressed them. As I questioned Sunil about the changes in his community, he told me the history of the alliance between Namasudras and Muslims:

In 1947, when there was Independence, many Hindus wondered, “Will we be able to live in peace in Pakistan?” The caste Hindus left this land for India at the beginning. But our middle-class people and peasants didn’t want to go. Our—what’s his name?—Mandal, a very big man: Jogen Mandal [leader of an association of Scheduled Caste peoples]! Our Jogen Mandal made an alliance with Jinnah [the founding father of Pakistan]. Many of us believed then, “Let the caste Hindus go, but those of us who are peasants, whether Hindus or Muslims, can live together as brothers.”…

The sense of a division that we felt earlier was gone, because of what that minister [Mandal] said. We gained confidence that truly we could live together as brothers.

Group Identities, Solid and Fluid

Sunil’s language is revealing. When he referred to “us,” he identified his community as peasants, not as Hindus or Muslims. Indeed, he specifically excluded the religious identifier as being relevant: “those of us who are peasants, whether Hindus or Muslims.” But those whom he would just as soon see leave the country he identified as “caste Hindus,” not as landlords. “Peasants” opposed “caste Hindus”; not once throughout his long interview did Sunil use the name Namasudra. It was “middle-class people and peasants” who chose to stay in Bangladesh. When he did use religious-community signifiers, he stood the more common relationship between group and subgroup on its head. Everyone else used the name Hindu to mean something generic presumably organized around the centrality of those of caste and then designated the minority as Namasudra. Hindu meant the whole, Namasudra the particular, those with noteworthy differences. Only Sunil used the name Hindu generically and differentiated the subgroup “caste Hindus.”* As a consequence, he himself became undeniably Hindu and presumably central. At the same time he described community in terms of religious identifiers only in an appropriate context—when explaining his choice of laborers, for instance, or later when describing contending sides in the riot. In another context—when deciding whether to opt for India or Pakistan—he labeled his group in economic terms, “middle-class” or “krishak” (peasant), because that was the basis on which he made his choice.

Sunil’s language suggests his ambitions. Not only was he steadfast in his quest for social status improvement, but he was also intent on economic betterment. He was himself unusually prosperous for a Namasudra farmer; indeed, he had grown wealthier since the exodus of the caste Hindus, more than doubling his landholdings, and eventually renting to sharecroppers. He had sent his children to the university and was deeply desirous of their upward mobility, even though he himself continued to till the land with his own hands. When I asked him about his ambitions for his children, his point of reference was, interestingly, the community of caste Hindus. His answer well illustrated the long history of class ambitions among Faridpur Namasudras and the intermingling of individual and group status mobility. (Notice how he mixed religious and economic signifiers in the context of class ambition, too, contrasting “caste Hindus” and sometimes “those Hindus” with “peasants”):

Your children are all highly educated. What was it that made you so determined to educate your children?

There were lots of caste Hindus around our place. My grandfather used to go to their places. He saw their customs. The relationship between the peasants and the caste Hindus was different. The way the caste Hindus lived and the way the peasants lived, anybody with a little vision could see that we are working so hard and producing crops, food grains, but we can’t enjoy the fruits of our labor. We pay the price with our health.

On the other hand, those Hindus are living well, with just a little education. My grandfather realized it. I don’t remember my father because he died when I was three. But I knew that my father got a little education from the fact that when I grew a little older I found my father’s books from class nine, ten.

Even though my grandfather was overwhelmed with grief because of the deaths of my father and uncle, still he was conscientious about our education. Unfortunately, when I was in class seven my grandfather died. We lost our guardian, so we couldn’t continue our studies. But I was a very good student. I always stood first in my class. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t study any more. I knew that without a guardian I couldn’t study as much as I wanted. So I prayed to god, “If you send me any children, please give me the ability to make it possible for my children to have education.” So I worked very hard so they could study and become capable of mixing with [upper-class] people.

…My son asked me, “Baba [father], why do you work so hard? It’s so hard for you to afford my expenses at the university. It’s hard for you, and it’s hard for me.”

I replied that I have a dream. “To satisfy it, let me work hard. As for you, please try to have some compassion for my desire.”

[My sons] said, “You haven’t passed matriculation. You could stop sending us to school after we matriculated. We could try to send our children to the next level of education. Maybe their children will then try for a university degree. Then their children can try for a master’s.”

Then I told them, “The plan you are proposing will take four generations. I’ll take the trouble, you also take the trouble, and let’s do it now. Finish your education. I won’t stop until you get your M. A. But I will make you indebted to me.”

Then they asked, “What is the debt?” And I said, “Being a poor peasant, a simple tiller, I could make you an M. A. So you think about what you want for your children. I want you to think that your poor father got us through an M. A. degree, so you should have even higher ambitions for your children.”

Sunil projected his progeny’s destinies in a straight line upward. No land-tillers appeared in his idealized future, no followers in his own footsteps. After Jinnah’s death, Jogen Mandal was ousted from national power. Sunil explained:

We were very disappointed, we local people. Still, we were not willing to go to India. This is our motherland. We are tillers. Cultivation is our only job. Our forefathers were krishak [tillers], we were krishak, we thought our children after us would be krishak. We didn’t want to leave the land.

Sunil constructed a conceptual tangle of identities. His ardent wish was that his children and their children not be krishak. And yet it was precisely on the basis of his cultivation of the land that he proclaimed his rights to citizenship in a Muslim-ruled country. In one sitting, he spoke eloquently of his ambitions for class transcendence—and equally eloquently of his connections with the land he tilled. From his articulate tongue flowed the dilemma of the peasant, defensive of his work and rights, land-proud, yet wishing nothing more than that his children take their clean hands far away from that land, to the cities where alone his ambitions for wealth and status could be satisfied.

Most individuals can identify with any number of groups. Sunil is a krishak or peasant, and he is a landlord. He is both a Hindu and a Namasudra. He is a Bangladeshi. At what moment he chooses to see himself as part of one group or another is important, for it suggests the dynamics of identity. When hiring workers, Sunil’s view of himself as a Hindu is of primary importance, dictating that he hire only Hindus. But when his community faced a choice of nationality, of opting for India or Pakistan, Sunil’s interests as a peasant took clear precedence over his identity as a Hindu. As long as the Scheduled Caste alliance with the Muslims held firm, he and other Namasudras wholeheartedly supported the Muslim League and Pakistan. “Jogen Mandal,” he explained proudly, “was the leader in the Muslim League of the Scheduled Castes from before the Partition.” Even when that alliance broke down, he defended his roots in Pakistan, and now in Bangladesh, because of his relationship to the land. Presumably that relationship was not solely sentimental; to sell land in Pakistan and buy in India was beyond the limited means of a small owner like Sunil. Because of this crosshatching of identities and allegiances, this mix of consciousness and economics, the Namasudra community is a fertile source of understanding about group identities and their roles in social conflict.

But when it came to the riot, Sunil’s position was unconfused. I asked in general about conflicts in his village, and he promptly began to tell us about the riot. By this time, sensing unease on Sunil’s part, I had cleared the room of spectators, and he now vented his anger at the local Muslim leadership:

It started when a cow ate the crops in a field. The Muslims made the cows eat the crops of the Hindus. This fight was a result of the protest by the Hindus.

We complained to the leaders, but the leaders, instead of solving the problem, rather they said, “What is it? The Hindus are trying to live as they did in the past. Why are they making such a fuss about it? It was only a little kolai [another variety of lentil]. The cows could have eaten much more.” The leaders used these kinds of inciting words, and said, “Teach the Hindus a lesson. Call our community together.” So they did, and there was this communal riot.

So we too organized our community, in order to save ourselves. In actuality, they couldn’t beat us into submission. If we had the strength of mind, we could have overwhelmed them. But because we didn’t have enough strength of mind, we only stopped them and protected ourselves.

The Muslims were entirely to blame. They “made” the cow eat the lentil. The Hindus did nothing but protest. They were forced to organize their community for defense. Sunil’s riot devastated choice. For his people there were no decisions to be made. They were victims cast in poses of self-defense.

The set of decisions made between the first round of the Panipur fight and its explosion into mass action was clearly delineated by many of my storytellers. First came the space in which the communities considered what to do. Despite Sunil’s demurrals, he and his fellow Hindus participated in that process, too: [Sunil:]

I stayed home, but I directed others to spread the word throughout the community. The first day there was no fighting. It was all news. The next day early people began to gather.

[Mr. Ghosh:]

People were sitting and talking about the fighting the day before. So I stopped to hear what they were saying.…I thought, “It will not stop; there will be another fight.” So I hurried to my house.

Both Sunil and Mr. Ghosh made personal decisions about how to behave (directing others to spread the word; hurrying home). But those decisions were deeply informed by agendas that transcended the personal, that were located instead in the community.

Other Namasudra storytellers used a similar language structure. A teacher, for instance, described his community as Hindu until the moment when he explained the alliances forged by Jogen Mandal, the Scheduled Caste leader. “The Muslims were more angry at the Brahmins and the higher castes,” he told me. “We are Namasudras, and between us there was no enmity. It was restricted to the caste Hindus.”


Therein lies another story. My husband’s family lived on the Indian side of the border in another village called Panipur. During my first visit to Bangladesh, I went to India to visit my in-laws and commented on the coincidence of two villages named Panipur in what were now two separate countries. They exclaimed that the coincidence was greater than I knew.

When I had first gone to India as a newlywed, there had been an old man living as part of my in-laws’ family. Known to everyone as Mastada, or elder-brother-teacher, in his youth he had been hired to tutor my husband and his siblings, who were then children. Eventually, as his private students grew up and moved on, Mastada started a school for village youngsters and came to be beloved by a wider circle. When I first arrived, he was a glowing old man, still living with my husband’s family, the soul of gentleness, an elder to whom everyone referred and who spent his days cooing to the babies and making occasional comments on the life of the family like a loving guardian spirit.

Now, when I told my mother-in-law I had found a village called Panipur in Bangladesh, she said that Mastada, by then many years dead, had come from that Panipur, a coincidence cherished in the family for many years. With great excitement she said Mastada had had a brother there, a man he visited on rare occasions and who must be ancient by now, if he survived at all. “Go see if he’s still living,” she instructed me, “and, if so, give him our respects.”

I did, he was, and we had a tearful and touching meeting. It was this man who had in the interim died, and Basantibala was his widow.

Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1961), p. 261.

Partha Chatterjee contends that caste is inadequately described by notions of either class or superstructure; he tries to construct a Gramscian conception of caste as practical community. “Caste and Subaltern Consciousness” (1989).

Sugata Bose, Agrarian Bengal (1987), p. 21.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1969), p. 38.

An interest in experience appears in many literatures, existential, psychological, feminist, and others. R. D. Laing wrestled with a notion of experience when he formulated an approach to madness based on respect rather than cure. See his The Politics of Experience (1967).

Paul Connorton, How Societies Remember (1989); Stephen William Foster, The Past Is Another Country (1988); Fernando Coronil and Julie Skurski, “Dismembering and Remembering the Nation” (1991).

Peter Hardy, The Muslims of British India (1972), p. 5.

R. Ahmed, p. 8.

Ibid., p. 2.

Hardy, p. 5.

R. Ahmed, p. 6.

Census of Bengal, 1881, from R. Ahmed, p. 27.

R. Ahmed, p. 27.

Ibid., pp. 134ff.; Hardy, pp. 92ff. Hardy emphasizes more a religious disinclination to participate in British-sponsored education than a political one.

R. Ahmed, p. 135.

Ibid., p. 110.

Lord Risely, quoted in Rajat Kanta Ray, Social Conflict and Political Unrest in Bengal (1984), pp. 149–50.

Risely, quoted in Ray, p. 150.

Gail Minault, The Khilafat Movement (1982).

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, “Social Protest or Politics of Backwardness?” (1989) p. 174.

Annette and Henry Beveridge Collection, MSS. Eur. C. 176, India Office Library, London. It is an interesting sidelight that this document is typed. Since it was clearly written in transit, I wondered whether Lady Beveridge had ordered her bearers to carry her nineteenth-century typewriter along in her baggage.

Lt. Col. L. N. Bavin, “Lt. Col. L. N. Bavin, I. P. Bengal 1912–36,” MSS. Eur. D 1152, India Office Library, London.

Ray, p. 177.

Ibid., pp. 180–81.

Tajul Islam Hashmi, “Peasants and Politics in East Bengal, 1920–47” (1986), p. 177.

Ibid., p. 183.

Ray, pp. 78–79.

Ibid., p. 47.


Excerpted from Some Trouble with Cows by Beth Roy Copyright © 1994 by Beth Roy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Cast of Characters
Introduction 1
Pt. 1 Making Trouble
1 The Quarrel 13
2 The Decision 48
3 The Riot 72
4 Intervention and Punishment 91
5 Reconciliation and Thereafter 111
Pt. 2 Making Sense
6 Lessons of Panipur 125
7 Self and Decision 137
8 Community and Identity 153
9 History and Ideology 169
10 Bringing History Home 184
Appendix A: Chronology 195
Appendix B: Land Relations in Panipur 197
Notes 199
Names and Terms 211
Bibliography 217
Index 229
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