As a regional history, this dissertation examines Bengali Muslim politics of region, religion, and social justice from the 1840s to 1952. It argues that Bengali Muslim constructions of communitarian selfhood in the colonial and early post-colonial eras entailed a variety of approaches toward sameness with Hindus, local distinctiveness, and Islamic universalism. One element of this selfhood included the creation of a specifically Bengali Muslim literature and set of linguistic strategies. These strategies included insertions of both local Bengali Muslim and Muslim universalist themes into Bengali literature as well as excavations of early modern writings in Bengali by Muslims. Additionally, Bengali Muslim communitarianism included a gradual emphasis on the distinctive social experience of Bengali Muslims in relation to Bengali Hindus and within Bengali history. Finally, Bengali Muslim visions of their own community included an insertion into Islamic universalist discussions of a just society in the modern world.
Crossing the usual 1947 end point for histories of colonial South Asia, this thesis begins with a thematic overview of Bengali Muslim history from the arrival of Muslims in Bengal in the early thirteenth century through the early twentieth century. Within this chapter I focus on key moments in colonial history, such as the rise of the Faraidi movement, an agrarian movement that combined an aspiration for social justice with a social Muslim identity. I also discuss how the colonial state and broader all-India developments impacted the consciousness of Bengali Muslims in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I then include five thematic chapters, beginning from the 1918 emergence of Kazi Nazrul Islam, a modern poet-intellectual, through major points of departure in the Bengali historical trajectory until 1952. These points include the rise of literary societies in both Calcutta and Dacca from 1918 to 1932, the rise of peasant politics in the East Bengal countryside from 1933 to 1939, and the movement for Pakistan, particularly the Bengali component from 1942 to 1947. I also survey the first five years of the East Bengali component of Pakistan from 1947 to 1952.
Ideas of Pakistan appeared as central portion of Bengali Muslim versions of selfhood at the nexus of local and universalist aspirations. Contrary to interpretations of Pakistan as wholly foreign to Bengali conversations about Bengali Muslim politics, this thesis presents the Bengali movement for Pakistan, from 1942 to 1947, as an element of Bengali literary and cultural self-definition. It appeared both as a significant step in the formation of an all-India Muslim political community transforming its identity into a nation comparable to other nations, but also appeared as a part of the long-standing Bengali Muslim literary and intellectual engagement with Bengali culture. Part of this engagement included a continual investigation of the role of social justice in the Islamic tradition.
As I demonstrate in each chapter of my thesis, Bengali Muslim intellectuals from the 1840s to 1952 conceived of their religious and regional affiliations as a part of a broader conversation about being Bengali, not only being Muslim. Given the continual emphasis on Bengali-ness, Bengali Hindu individuals, and a consideration of the Bengali Hindu literary and intellectual contributions to the Bengali ecumene, figured into the imaginations of Bengali Muslim innovators of culture and identity. In conclusion, this dissertation argues that expressions of Bengali Muslim communitarian selfhood in the colonial and early post-colonial era cannot be adequately described solely in terms of "nation" or "religion," but rather within an enlarged historical framework that foregrounds Islam and Muslim social identities inside the construction of modern Bengali regional history.