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Rulers of Bengal

The Independent Editorial Board
Rulers of Bengal
Bengal Partition

Part- VI of VIII

Keeping in mind the celebration of the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Mujib Barsha in 2020, The Independent took up a study to make a detour around Bengal’s political history from ancient period to the time when Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in 1971. The reason for undertaking this study is to find out 10 most influential rulers who ruled the geographical entity called Bengal during the time span of the last 14 centuries. To make this study successful, the newspaper’s Editorial Board talked to noted historians of Bangladesh namely  Prof. Syed Anwar Husain, Prof. Mesbah Kamal, Prof Dr. Aksadul Alam and Associate Prof. Sania Sitara all of whom are history faculties of Dhaka University. After research and interviews, it was found really difficult to single out 10 most important rulers of Bengal because in the last 14 centuries, many rulers permanently shaped the history of Bengal. Many may find the names in the final list incorrect, but few would disagree with the fact that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the first Bengali head of state—note the word Bengali—of an independent and democratic Bangladesh, notwithstanding the fact that in the different periods of Bengal history, the map of Bengal was much larger than the map of present Bangladesh. Our aim was not to make a historical research as historians would do on the topic, but we made an attempt to be factually accurate with available information in our hand. The 10 leaders in the study findings are: Shashanka, Gopala, Dharmapala, Vijaya Sena, Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah, Sher Shah Suri, Murshid Quli Khan, Siraj ud-Daulah and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.   


East India Company and

the British Raj

In the 18th century, Bengal was the richest of all Indian regions. The Fort William in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the first British stronghold in India. In 1717, the Company bribed the feeble Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II to give them a farman in Bengal—a decree that gave the Company the rights to trade duty free in return for a small annual fee to the Mughal court. The virtually independent Nawabs of Bengal resented this privilege that deprived them of tax revenue. Moreover, the farman was granted to the Company by a distant and weak ruler—the Emperor at Delhi— who had only nominal authority in the province. Despite relentless protests and even military actions from the local Nawab, the British increased their trading presence in Bengal. A military clash was inevitable.

After winning the Battle of Plassey Robert Clive, the head of the East India Company, immediately plundered Siraj’s treasury, leaving the new Nawab, Mir Jafar virtually penniless. Clive took for himself a jaigir, an endowment of tax revenue for life. The Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, recognised British power by granting the East India Company a diwani. This office gave the Company official authority to collect taxes on  millions of Bengalis, making the Company the virtual rulers of Bengal and Robert Clive became the first British Governor of Bengal Presidency–which included Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

The East India Company grew so powerful that the Nawabs succeeding Siraj ud-Daulah became its satellites. Only Mir Qasim put up resistance and tried to restore Nawabi power but he was ultimately defeated.  The last of these puppet Nawabs was Mansur Ali Khan.

After Robert Clive an important East India Company Governor General was Warren Hastings (6 December 1732 – 22 August 1818). He started his de facto ruler-ship of Bengal from 1771. In practical terms Bengal was in the power of the British, but there were few British involved in administrative affairs. Warren Hastings recognised that the British must take full responsibility to make their power effective, and involve themselves more closely in the work of government.  From 1772 to 1774, Hastings detached the machinery of the central government from the Nawab’s court and brought it to the British settlement in Calcatta under direct British control, remodelled the administration of justice throughout Bengal, and began a series of experiments aimed at bringing the collection of taxation under effective supervision.

Charles Cornwallis, as the Governor General, initiated a number of reforms. Criminal and civil justice systems in the company's territories were a confusing overlay of legal systems, jurisdictions, and methods of administration. Cornwallis had the company take over the few remaining judicial powers of the Nawab of Bengal, the titular local ruler of much of the Bengal Presidency, and gave some judicial powers to company employees. In 1790 he introduced circuit courts with company employees as judges, and set up a court of appeals in Calcutta.

He introduced the Cornwallis Code part of which was an important land taxation reform known in India infamously as the Permanent Settlement. This reform permanently altered the way the company collected taxes in its territories, by taxing landowners (known as zamindars) based on the value of their land and not necessarily the value of its produce. In the minds of Cornwallis and its architects, the reforms would also protect land tenants from the abusive practices of the zamindars intended to maximise production.

William Bentinck was another influential ruler.  He has a positive legacy as he was instrumental in abolishing suttee (cremation of widows), suppressing female infanticide and human sacrifice and ending lawlessness by eliminating the thuggee cult – which had existed for over 450 years.  After the failed Sepoy Mutiny (which many historians believe was India’s first war of independence) both the English East India Company and the Mughal Empire came officially to an end.

Then came the British Raj in India which lasted for nearly nine decades (1858-1947). Queen Victoria became the Empress of India and in her Proclamation of 1858 she announced that all Indians would be treated equally under British law regardless of race or religion. Failure of the Raj to live up to her promises would later become fodder for Indian national movements.

The stark contrast between British wealth and Indian poverty continued. In 1877, the year Queen Victoria lavishly celebrated her title as Empress of India, famine killed approximately four million Indians–many of them Bengalis.

During the British Raj railroad building increased under the Raj both to encourage economic growth and to expand the benefit of moving troops efficiently across the country for security. Interestingly the British Raj relied on Indians to do most of the work regarding imperial occupation and governance. As late as 1921, there were only 156,000 British citizens living in India, one for every 1,500 Indians.

Governor General Lord Curzon in 1905 decided to divide Bengal which was carried out mainly for the convenience of administration. A new province called Assam and East Bengal was created with Dhaka as the capital. The majority of East Bengalis supported the move. They believed that they would get more opportunities of services and advancement of agriculture.  

 The city of Dhaka, where the Muslims were in majority, was the centre of Muslim culture in Bengal. In Dhaka Muslims had a great chance of success for social and cultural advancement than in Calcutta.

However Lord Hardinge assumed charge as Governor General of India after Lord Curzon and under immense pressure from the Congress Party and extreme nationalists he annulled the partition of Bengal.  On the occasion of the visit of the British King George V to India and holding of Darbar at Delhi on 12th December 1911 the partition of Bengal was cancelled. United Bengal was placed under a Governor.  

During the visit of King George V the decision was made to shift the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi. The importance of Bengal in the all India context declined. There began a rift between the two major religious communities of the province, the Hindus and Muslims. During the Khilafat and non-cooperation movement against the British both communities participated. But soon many Indian Muslims felt alienated and a movement for a separate country for Muslims gained momentum.

The Muslim League established in Dhaka in 1906 became a prominent force by the 1930s. In 1935 through the Government of India act Bengal which came to be known as Bengal Presidency was granted limited autonomy by the British. There was a bi-cameral parliament. Bengal Presidency was the first region in India where Muslim League and Muslim dominated parties formed a government for three consecutive times.

Bengal Presidency had three Muslim Prime Ministers AK Fazlul Haque, Khwaja Nazimuddin and HS Suhrawardy. Though, they died on different dates, they were buried under the same roof, which is now known as 'Tin Netar Mazar', located at Shahbag, near Doyel Chattar.

AK Fazlul Huq, full name Abul Kasem Fazlul Huq, also known as “Sher-e-Bangla” (Tiger of Bengal), was one of the most popular leaders ever to emerge from Bangladesh. Huq transformed the All Bengal Tenants Association into the Krishak Praja Party. During the election campaign period, Huq emerged as a major populist figure of Bengal. His party won 35 seats in the Bengal Legislative Assembly during the Indian provincial elections, 1937. It was the third largest party after the Bengal Congress and Bengal Provincial Muslim League. The Congress refused to form government due to its pan-Indian policy of boycotting legislatures.  Huq formed a coalition with the Bengal Provincial Muslim League and independent legislators. He was elected as the Leader of the House and the first Prime Minister of Bengal. Huq ruled from 1937 to 1940. He raised the demand for Pakistan in his Lahore resolution in 1940 at the All India Muslim League’s 27th yearly conference. After creation of Pakistan, government of Pakistan elected him an Advocate in East Pakistan, and in 1956, he was appointed as Governor of East Pakistan.

In the election of 1937, Nazimuddin as ML candidate was defeated by Fazlul Haq, the KPP leader, in the Patuakhali constituency. But later, he won from the North Calcutta constituency vacated by Suhrawardy. But his early defeat so deeply affected him that later he always avoided to contest elections. He failed to emerge as a mass and popular leader, instead he concentrated his energies to oblige his political masters.

In 1937 Khwaja Nazimuddin who belonged to the famous Nawab Family of Dhaka was appointed Home Minister in Haq’s Coalition Ministry. On 1 December 1941, he resigned from the Cabinet because of differences between Haq and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Fazlul Haq was expelled from the League and his ministry gave way to another ministry in coalition with the Congress members. During the Shyama-Haq Coalition (1942 to 1943), Nazimuddin acted as the Leader of the Opposition.

On 24 April, 1943, Muslim League formed the ministry with Nazimuddin as the Prime Minister on the fall of Huq Ministry on 28 March 1943. The circumstances were unpropitious. The spectre of famine was increasing in Bengal. Nazimuddin and his ministry boldly faced the situation and resolutely set themselves to the task of overcoming the famine. Due to the machinations of the opposition and the shifting loyalty of some elements, Nazimuddin’s Cabinet was dissolved on 28 March 1945 and he lost the Premiership to Suhrawardy. However, he remained a member of the All India Muslim League Working Committee from 1937 to 1947.

Suhrawardy entered active politics in Bengal, from the platform of Swaraj Party, a group within the Indian National Congress, and became a keen follower of Chittaranjan Das. He played an important role in the formulation of the Bengal Pact in 1923. At the age of 31, in 1924, he became the Deputy Mayor of the Calcutta Corporation, and the Deputy Leader of the Swaraj Party in the Provincial Assembly. After the death of Chittaranjan Das in 1925, he disassociated himself from the Swaraj Party and joined Muslim League. He served as Minister of Labour, and Minister of Civil Supplies, among other positions, during Khawaja Nazimuddin’s Government.

Suhrawardy led the progressive faction of the Bengal Muslim League, against the conservative stream led by Nazimuddin and Akram Khan. In the light of 1946’s elections, he established and headed a Muslim League government in Bengal, which was the only League government in British India at the time.

When the demand for a separate Muslim state became popular among Indian Muslims and the partition of India on communal lines was very much expected by mid-1947; Suhrawardy presented his plan in a press conference, on 27th April 1947, for a united and independent Bengal to prevent the partition of Hindu-majority districts of Punjab and Bengal on communal lines. Suhrawardy’s plan, unfortunately, gained no popularity, and partition of sub-continent was made on communal basis.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy along with Mohammad Ali of Bogra were only two East Pakistani to become prime ministers of Pakistan. Suhrawardy’s initiatives as the Pakistani Premier included supply side economic policies, planning nuclear power and energy and reorganizing and reforming the Pakistani military. In foreign policy, he pioneered a strategic partnership with the United States. Faced with pressure from the bureaucracy and business community over his policies in aid distribution, nationalisation and opposition to the One Unit scheme, he was forced to resign on 10 October 1957.

 Next part tomorrow



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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