East Bengal: Conquest and Culture Change
The instruments of Mughal conquests in Bhati, or eastern Bengal—the threat or the use of brute force and the use of sizable rewards for enticing enemy defections—did not differ from those used in the west or the north. Typical was Islam Khan’s annexation of the zamīndārī of Bhallua, in what is now the Comilla-Noakhali region of the southeastern delta. Around 1611 a force of four thousand cavalry, three thousand musketeers, and fifty elephants entered the territory of Raja Ananta Manik with orders to extend to the king the hope of imperial favors should he submit; and if he resisted, to bring to Dhaka either the king’s person or his severed head. Advancing into the Comilla region, the army easily reduced one of the king’s forts near modern-day Chandpur, while groups of Mughal soldiers pillaged the countryside and terrorized the peasants by killing or imprisoning those who refused submission. Here as elsewhere military sticks were accompanied by political carrots. After making overtures to Mughal officers, the raja’s chief minister was offered and accepted a middle-level imperial rank. His military and political positions thus undermined, Ananta Manik eventually abandoned his territories, which were forthwith annexed to Mughal Bengal.
About the same time, Raja Ram Chandra of Bakla in eastern Bakarganj, one of the “twelve chieftains” of eastern Bengal, was similarly overwhelmed. Although placed under detention in Dhaka, the ex-king wasallowed to retain enough of his former territory to maintain a navalfleet, while his remaining lands were handed over to Mughal collectorsand assigned to other jāgīrdārs. As we have seen, in the delta’s centraland northeastern sectors—today’s Dhaka, Mymensingh, and Sylhet districts—‘Isa Khan’s son Musa had already been defeated and integrated into Mughal service, and in 1612 ‘Uthman Khan, the last major holdout against Mughal authority in the province, was killed and his Afghan troops were absorbed into Mughal service.
Unlike the population of the northern frontier region, however, and despite the pillaging of village communities as had occurred in the campaign against Ananta Manik, the people of eastern Bengal did not mount a prolonged resistance to the imposition of Mughal authority. On the contrary, for much of this region’s population, political submission was gradually followed by the adoption of a distinctly Islamic identity. In the Dhaka region, Muslim peasant communities were reported as early as 1599, even as the balance of power in the region was shifting from ‘Isa Khan to Raja Man Singh. Such communities were also reported in the Noakhali region in the 1630s, and in the Rangpur region in the 1660s (see pp. 132–34 above). Map 3 indicates that by 1872, when the earliest reliable census data come to hand, Muslims predominated in Bengal’s eastern districts in proportions ranging from 60 to 90 percent, in contrast to western districts, where they shaded off from less than 40 percent of the total to virtually zero along the delta’s western edge.
Clearly, given its extraordinary incidence of Islamization, the cultural evolution of the east departed radically from that of the rest of the delta—or, for that matter, the rest of India. Yet Mughal policy, which in any case was not directed at converting the “natives,” does not appear to have been applied any differently in the east than in the west. Nor is there any evidence that Sufis were any more pious, preachers any more zealous, or warriors any more courageous in East Bengal than were those in the west. For so different an outcome to have occurred, there must have been other factors or forces operating in the east that were altogether unique to the region. In the next few chapters we shall explore this question in detail.