Becoming Hindu and Muslims-Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal 1342-1905
Book Review: Becoming Hindu and Muslims-Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal 1342-1905

East Bengal became ‘Muslim’ and West Bengal turned ‘Hindu’ over the centuries. What was the nature of the cultural encounter between the Hindus and Muslims during the period of Islam as a state power? Did it involve acceptance, or clash, or ambivalences?

Becoming Hindu and Muslims-Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal 1342-1905 by Saumya Dey has been published by  Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt.Ltd and is available on Amazon.


Bengal records one of the most difficult and complex histories- an overwhelming mix of religion, politics, culture, language, literature, and colonialism. Most of us are not even aware; and unfortunately, we know more about European treaties and Delhi rulers. Despite Islamic invasions in various parts of the country, interestingly the segregation of a state into two parts with distinct religious identities occurred only in Bengal.

East Bengal became ‘Muslim’ and West Bengal turned ‘Hindu’ over the centuries. What was the nature of the cultural encounter between the Hindus and Muslims during the period of Islam as a state power? Did it involve acceptance, or clash, or ambivalences? This wonderful book delves deeply and uses the literary sources of the period to construct the complex cultural picture of those times. It also deconstructs some of the dominant liberal-secular narratives.

History and demographic studies clearly show Islam as a story of violent expansion, forcible conversions, and iconoclasm. Ethnic cleansing of the non-believers many times follow. This has been a repetitive pattern over centuries and seen in the present-day Kashmir, Pakistan, and Bangladesh too. Remarkably, there is a strong and powerful secular-liberal discourse in the academic and media circles, trying to exonerate Islam from this picture.

The secular attempts range from blatant protection like government orders to remove entries of Muslim destruction of Hindu temples in history books to invocation of the peaceful Sufi mysticism- resembling Advaitic Vedanta. Or to make a claim that the Mughals were simply not interested in the conversion of local people or to present Akbar ‘the Great’ as a wonderful example of tolerance. He had a Hindu wife too! Another dominant theme would be to talk of a ‘syncretic’ culture, where Islam had a cohesion and assimilation into Hindu culture. ‘The invaders stayed here and became a part of us, you know.’

One major argument of the left-liberal academia is that prior to colonial rule, there was no cultural or religious consciousness as a Hindu, just as there was no political India too. In fact, the colonials united us into a coherent whole. We were a bunch of independent states at each other’s throats for most of the time. The censuses carried out by the British in the 19th century defined the Hindus as apart from Muslims. A further extension is by foreign historians like Richard Eaton proposing that there were even no Hindus before Islam came to East Bengal. This is an eerie narrative finding resonance with the secular-liberal intelligentsia who want to deny India any political, religious, cultural, or social past generating a collective pride.

The onus is unfortunately on the people calling themselves Hindus or Indians to prove that they had a history too. A counter-narrative has difficulties in penetrating this discourse simply because of power structures. A common abuse, of course, nowadays would be to shout ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Right Wing Fascism’ or such similar epithets. This densely researched and extensively referenced book using the literature of the crucial period between 1342 to 1905 refutes the dominant discourse strongly, but in a nuanced and an intellectual manner.

The Census of India was conducted periodically pre-Independence from 1865 onward to 1947- a story by itself. It created a permanent havoc with our social and cultural systems; and directly created a devious ‘caste-system’ based on a projection of Christian theology. This has been elaborately dealt by SN Balgangadhara and others in a recent book, ‘Western Foundations of the Caste-System.’ Deeply intertwined with the complex history of the land, Bengali language also underwent major upheavals.

Dr Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at OP Jindal Global University who got his PhD from JNU, Delhi. He is a prolific writer on various issues related to Indian culture and history; and has a special interest in countering the vicious narratives of the left-liberal-secular-Marxist-communist rainbow spectrum. The author uses the advantage available to him- a knowledge of the language- to establish a strong counter-claim. The author investigates extensively the Bengali literary works to establish that Hindu and Muslim identities clearly separated much before the colonials came with their census registers.

Three Periods of History

The book studies the literature in three important phases of Bengal history. The first period (1342-1757) starts with the violent conquests of Bakhtiyar Khalji over the Sena dynasty. The Sultanate of Bengal, the Mughal Empire, and the Nawabs of Murshidabad followed in succession until 1757, when East India Company annexed the region after the famous Battle of Plassey.

1757 to 1857 is the period of East India Company rule. In 1857, the first war of independence took place, which failed, but the Crown replaced the Company to rule India. The third period is between 1857 to 1905 when colonial rule destroyed a most prosperous region. In 1905, Lord Curzon split the Bengal Presidency encompassing present-day Bengal, Bangladesh, parts of Assam, Tripura, and Orissa into east and west for ostensibly administrative purposes.

This partition had important consequences like the hardening of religious stances, the independence movement, coming to the fore of major revolutionary movements, and laying the foundational principles of partition on religious lines. The partition stoked Hindu nationalism and Muslim separatism.

Hindus and Muslims did not arrive in history, fully formed, and with an innate revolutionary consciousness. It is unlikely that a vast number of people in the subcontinent discovered their passionately contested religious allegiances suddenly in the 19th century upon prodding by the white man. This has been the standard dominant discourse-a primacy attributed to colonialism in forming contemporary Indian identities. These kinds of analysis are ignorant of the cultural encounters between the two groups about perceptions of self, defining the other, and the anxieties to protect from each other as Islam arrived and spread in India. The colonials no doubt solidified the religious identities to form a political and social consciousness, but the process of becoming Hindus and Muslims was clearly in place in the pre-colonial times.

1342-1757: Emerging Discourses

14th century onwards, a prolific Bengali kavya tradition- the Mangala Kavyas (devotional odes to the demigods and goddesses) and the Vijaya Kavyas (singing the triumphs of these gods or of the Prophet of Islam)-nurtured by both Muslims and non-Muslims formed a huge repository of the emotions and experiences of the age. Their study gives an idea of the social organization and religious beliefs providing an ideal material to illustrate the process of becoming Hindus and Muslims.

Poetry of this era reveals a complexity of the manifold processes in the becoming of Muslims. This showed multiple subjectivities at the levels of religion, extra-territorial identification, necessity of the local language to communicate with the masses, the desire to communicate with a broad audience, and to finally have a dialogue with the opposite religion. It was a complex landscape for them to describe. This continues in Bangladesh even today, which swings between its Muslim and Bengali identities.

Muslim poets perceived a different parallel cultural cosmos whose verses do not show any sign of merging of deities across different belief systems. The poets speak with a distinct cultural thesaurus and are acutely aware of this fact. The Muslim poets revering the Prophet were often very anxious to escape the time and place from where they issued from, locating the stories sometimes in Arabia or Persia. The emotional association with a distant land had some of the poets taking an apologetic view of the local language in which they were expressing. The apparent contradiction between the belief system and the local language led to an interesting consequence of new vocabulary and idioms with their own significance.

The Muslim poets sometimes showed the Vedas revealed to the Allah and later dissolving them due to moral depravity; beating of foreign kings by the Prophet for believing in the Vedas; deities throwing off Vedas and sending for the Quran instead; and even the Prophet fighting ‘Hinduani’ (a Muslim word for Hindu culture) in his own family before he could establish Islam. There was tension but there was also an attempt to speak across a widening chasm; sometimes Allah spoken as a Niranjan or sometimes a Muslim character trying to stop a Qazi from destroying an altar of Manasa.

If Muslim poets talked of distant lands, the Hindu poets set their landscapes in distant Rajasthan where brave Rajputs or Hindu deities punished Muslim kings. The ambivalences of acceptance, rejection, suspicion, tolerance, aggression, and reconciliation displayed by poetry of both Muslims and Hindus show a clear separation of the two worlds. The author captures it beautifully, ‘As the middle of the 18th century dawned, the conversation of the two universes progressed apace like the shifting sands in a desert. But, soon, unvarying hills were to replace the permuting dunes.’

The non-Muslim kavya was very conscious of its distinctiveness, though sometimes permeated with ambiguities in trying to reconcile with the ruling and powerful political force. But they call themselves and their audiences ‘Hindu’ in a denominational sense. They are also clear about Islam forming a distinct cultural and belief system. The description of the Islamic world of Mughals, Pathans, or the local zealot Qazi hellbent on destroying Hinduani clearly show an anxiety and thus defining themselves as Hindu in response to Islam.

The Inheritance and Setting the Future Course (1757-1857)

Bengali had a transition of its own in the early part of 19th century with the introduction of printing press. The language acquired greater power and maturity too. Bengali became increasingly Sanskritised much to the discomfort of Muslim authors. Muslims increasingly used Persian, Arabic and Urdu words leading to the development of Musalmani Bangla. One could discern religious identities in the language of the poets, unlike in previous times. Bengali also moved into the age of prose with the establishment of Fort William College in 1800.

The kavya tradition of more than 400 years spluttered into its final stages. However, the previous centuries formed a huge emotional inheritance as far as the mutual perception of individuals and groups striving to be Hindu or Muslim are concerned. The moribund nature of the last of the kavyas betrays the anxieties of the previous times and pointed to the nature of things to come in the future. The themes were no way ‘syncretic’ as they always talked about conquest and defeat of the other.

If Hasan and Husain emerge from Shivas head in Manasa Mangal and get severe punishment for offending the goddess, panchalis written by Muslims had Satyapir battling and defeating Hanuman! Or even humbling the Ganges. Contrasting the medieval poetry, this tradition started a hero-villain duality to narrate its stories. The previous characters tried to aid a conversation between two sacral universes.

The ideological moorings grew stronger in the first half of the 19th century. Bibidharta-Sangraha, a journal started in 1851, clearly sought the Rajput and Sikh histories trying to fend off invading Muslims. The past became now a political-ideological formulation with a hero-villain duality, with the other cast in the mould of a finally defeated villain.

Becoming Hindus and Muslims (1857-1905)

Nabinchandra Sen, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Girish Chandra Ghosh, on the Hindu side and Kaikobad, Dad Ali, Hosain on the Muslim side are some of the poets whom the author discusses in the final chapters. The author clearly brings out the emotional complexities and the ambiguities with regards to the ‘other’.

The responses evoked were heterogenous and in a state of constant flux. Some remained on one side of it, some strived to straddle across and speak from both sides. These show that there were severe anxieties regarding the other; and a clear faultline existed between the two worlds.

The distinct identity of the self as the Hindu and the other as a Muslim of foreign origin came across unambiguously in the literature of this period. The Hindus are sometimes ambivalent towards and sometimes condemning the Muslims. There were attempts at reconciliation, but more effort was in subsuming and silencing the other. In Surasundari, the poet clearly says that Hindus and Muslims are like oil and water-never likely to mix.

Muslims found an inclusion in the imagined incipient nation by Hindu authors, but only as a foliage at the foot of a tree. Similarly, Tagore added to the polyphony of the age. He started with a praise of Sikh valour. In a later poem, Aurangzeb is a king free from malice. In another story, a Muslim girl and a Hindu Brahmin sepoy fall in love. Looking at the lukewarm Muslim response to the anti-partition agitation of 1905, Tagore finally felt that a primal sin haunts the dealings of the two communities.

The other side now found themselves as both Bengalis and Muslims with equal firmness. Bengali literacy became important for Islamic propagation. Muslim poets were also capable of contradictory emotional tones. While Hosain talked about sparing the cow or brotherhood; he could later talk of Hindu cunning trying to dominate the Muslims. Similar to Hindus, the authors straddled across various themes and spoke in various voices of co-operation, fear, or anger across the chasm.

All the literature suggests a deepening distrust between the Hindus and Muslims. That the English found a sympathy from both sides in their writings was because of the dislike and distrust for each other. The Muslims had a singular emotional and psychological conviction to place their trust in the British while simultaneously being aware of the anti-Muslim machinations of the Hindus. The anti-partition agitation of 1905 led to the final cleaving between the Muslims and Hindus.

Kaikobad shows the emotional complexities of the age. In his long poem called Mahasmasan, which is a paean to the crushing defeat by Afghan forces of the Maratha army, he refuses to paint the Hindus as cowards. But the ambiguities become clear as on the one hand there is glorification of Islam and on the other there is a Sanskritic imagery imagining Islam as a mother goddess.

The intelligentsia of Bengali-Muslim people through magazines like Islam Pracharak spoke initially of Hindu-Muslim amity, one describing Muslims as resembling better the Vedic Aryans because they do not observe caste, eat meat, and bury their dead. But the anti-partition agitation allowed it to take a clear stance against the Hindus. One author says, ‘We will no longer be swindled by the Hindus and invite trouble for ourselves. Our devotion to the British government is unshakeable. Though the foreign policy of the English is against our national interests, their India policy is wholly in our favour-this we must acknowledge in an uninhibited tone.’

Hence, by the time of cleaving of Bengal, the majority of Muslims and Hindus in Bengal were assuredly socially and politically distinct. They sought a clear political and geographical identity by ignoring the overtures of their compatriots.

Richard Eaton and the Secular-Liberal Discourse

Richard Eaton, a very influential historian, talks in his book, ‘The Rise of Islam & the Bengal Frontier 1204–1760’ about the Muslim domination of East Bengal in a remarkably secular fashion. The conversion to Islam was not by imperial and cultural aggression. From the 12th to the 18th century, Eaton believes that the religious leaders or Pirs led the transformation of forested land to a rice cultivating area in the region of East Bengal. The Eastern Delta had impregnable forest and wetlands where Islam spread the most.

A combination of Sultans clearing the forests for paddy cultivation; plate tectonics diverting the course of the Ganges and making it fertile; the building of thatched mosques as nucleus for agrarian conversion; and getting people to migrate made it a Muslim dominated area. This jungle area, initially sparsely populated, with domination of a fluid religious identity was not really ‘Hindu.’ These natives encountered a superior and structured literary religious system for the first time.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his wonderful book, The Black Swan, says that human beings have an amazing ability to indulge in retrospective explanations for many events. History is opaque to cause and effect. The biggest blunder is in assigning retrospective reasons for historical events, which is an outcome of thousands of unclear and intertwined factors. Taleb rues that the human mind suffers from three ailments as it meets history, which he calls the ‘triplet of opacity’: the illusion of understanding; the retrospective distortion; and the overvaluation of information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people. Eaton seems to be an example of this.

As per Eaton, Islamisation in Bengal was but one aspect of a general set of transformations associated with an economic frontier, taking place most dramatically in the Mughal period. Mughal state secularly oversaw the establishment of Hindu and Muslim institutions, but Islam had the edge because the Muslim institutions were more numerous and influential. Of course, he glosses over why they were more influential. By the early 15th century, the edges of the state softened and evolved a secular approach towards Bengali society and culture. Eaton draws attention to the ‘indigenous motifs and structural traits’ in the constructions of mosques showing some syncretism.

The religious identity of the people was a semi-permeable membrane allowing entry to elements from various belief systems. The local belief system was not Hindu or Muslim and people did not even conceive that they had to identify with a particular belief system. In their diverse cosmos of superhuman entities, they picked and chose whichever deity suited their circumstances the most.

Eaton feels that immigration, diffusion through conquests, conversions for political patronage, and a religion to counter the discriminatory Hindu caste system inadequately explain the Islamization of East Bengal. The Persio-Arabic-Mughal rulers were in fact extremely secular and not interested in conversions. In West Bengal, Islam could not spread as it faced a stronger foothold of the scriptural religion of the Hindus/Brahmanism, as opposed to the Eastern Delta, where Brahmanism was rudimentary. Also, the populations were aboriginal, tribal, and pagan.

The Author’s Rebuttal

Historians focus haphazardly on the dissemination of Islam in the framework of a Bengali Hindu culture or of establishing a network of continuity with the defeated Sena kingdom, says the author. An inscription upon a 16th century mosque built by one of the Ilyas Shahi kings invokes the almighty to give the king an opportunity to ‘uproot the enemies of Allah from among the unbelievers and polytheists.’ This contradicts a picture of secular Ilyas Shahis with regards to Bengali society, says the author.

Eton believes these communities were not yet into the Hindu social order giving the example of Chittagong. The author shows the fallacy by showing how Tripura next door had a very stable Hindu consciousness. Sri Rajamala– the royal chronicle of Tripura from the 15th to 18th century – elegantly describes Tripura and its Hindu customs. It makes light of the claims that there was a ‘diffuse, indeterminate religious universe.’ Sanskritization also had made enough progress in Tripura. The religious poetry of Nayanchand Ghosh, Srinath Bania, and Damodar Das clearly show homages paid to Narayan, Brahma, Siva, Kartik, Ganapati, Lakshmi, and Saraswati in the invocations as they begin their poetry. The texts yield evidence of Durga puja and the holiness of the cow.

Eaton says that integration of deities occurred in a three-tier fashion of inclusion, identification, and displacement. Eaton’s example of the integration of local deities is a single small piece from an East Bengal ballad. Bijoy Gupta had extolled an Ilyas Shahi king which Eaton quotes as an example of a peaceful acceptance that the dynasty had come to share with Bengali culture. The ideas of Eaton that pre-modern Bengali literature celebrating indigenous deities like Manasa, Chandi, Dakshin Ray ‘expanded’ to accommodate foreign superhumans melt in the glare of the massive evidence in the kavya poetry.

Eaton’s sweeping generalisations do not withstand the available evidence showing cultural contest and confrontation. The author says that the acceptance of Islam as the state need not mean an acceptance of its cultural manifestations and representatives at the local level. ‘Hinduani’ was a parallel universe lying on the other side of a cultural and emotional breach. The perception of Islam from the kavyas of the non-Muslim scholarship show a complex of emotions, sentiments, and anxieties making a cogent religious cosmos. The Hindu tradition and ethos were already existing, and Islam made forceful entry into an existing system and thus disrupting it.

Most of the folk deities were not amenable to identification with any outside deities out of the bounds of their own religious cosmos. Unlike what Eaton claims, Muslim poetry also reveal no perceptible sign of a process of merging of deities across the individual worlds. If Islam was merely fusing into an indeterminate and unresisting religio-cultural complex, then why is that Hindu poets express a ceaseless anxiety of their faith’s contamination?

The kavya tradition of Bengal from the 14th to 18th centuries reveal that both its Muslim and non-Muslim authors had an acute awareness of belonging to two cultural complexes. By 15th and 16th centuries, the dwellers of Bengal identified themselves a Hindus in a denominational and societal sense.

Asim Roy and His Theory of Syncretism

On the other hand, there are scholars like Asim Roy (Author: The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal) contending an ‘Islamic syncretistic tradition’ from the large body of Muslim kavya poets acting as ‘cultural mediators’. They had a deep sense of obligation towards the masses of the believers, with their specific needs and demands in the social and cultural milieu of Bengal. The anxiety of the mediators to illumine the indigenous masses ignorant of Arabic and Persian, but still bearing the detritus of the Hindu-Buddhist past, is evident in their literature.

Muslim poets do appear to have interacted with the parallel sacral universe and even borrowing elements from Hinduism, but it was not syncretistic as Dey says. It was more to sharpen their own sense of singularity and apartness to become more of Muslims. The Muslim poets come across as individuals in which three types of ‘Muslimness’ twined. They struggled to create a coherent whole with innovative ideas; they differentiated themselves from other sections of the population whom they recognized as non-Muslims; and they struggled to reconcile the ‘Muslim’ and Bengali writing halves of their selves. The author says that an outward ‘syncretic’ life was in fact fashioning of a vocabulary to demarcate their apartness and forge a new identity.

The author rejects music, harmony, and syncretism in the Muslim and non-Muslim voices. There was no music definitely intended in the two distinct melodies. One theme always played louder and more distinctly to muffle or subsume the other.


Dey, by taking help of the kavya traditions, shows in his book that while Asim Roy errs in suggesting a wilful obliteration of boundaries by a ‘syncretism’, Eaton errs by suggesting a complete absence of any boundaries.

Brahmanism, paganism, caste discriminations, colonial interventions, freedom to convert tribals, always creeps up in any secular-liberal discussion of Islam. It also exonerates Islamic rule going against the historical facts dealt by others, some not even remotely Hindu. These arguments find tremendous resonance with discourses fighting the ‘militant supremacist Hindutva’ revisionist history explaining Islamic spread with violence, forced conversion, and intolerance. The argument that the tribes are not of Hindu order is a favourite of the liberals continuing even today, and a base for evangelism to work on.

This book is an important reading to understand the complexity of the cultural encounters and not taken in by the simplistic explanations of foreign historians which a section of academia love to hear. There is however a need for an expanded version to deal with the history of the land, of the language, and of the colonial rule to even better appreciate Bengali literature depicted so beautifully in the book.

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