The Religious Gentry in Bakarganj and Dhaka, 1650–1760
Known in Mughal times as sarkār Bakla, and in British times as Bakarganj District, the lower Bengali coastal region consisting of the present-day Barisal and Patuakhali districts had long been an economic frontier zone. Lying in the heart of the active portion of the delta, Bakarganj is one of Bengal’s geologically youngest districts. The entire area is composed of an amalgamation of marshlands formed by the merging of islands brought into existence and built up by alluvial soils washed down the great channels of the combined Brahmaputra-Ganges-Meghna river systems. In the early thirteenth century, this forested region became a refuge area for Hindu chieftains dislodged from power in northwestern Bengal. Here they reestablished themselves along the banks of the great rivers and forest islands, far from the reach of Turkish cavalry. But, as J. C. Jack observed in his Settlement Report for the district, “the great rivers which put a limit upon the pursuit of their persecutors put a limit equally upon the size of their kingdoms, which clustered round the banks of the fresh water rivers and were surrounded by impenetrable forests.” At the time of the Mughal conquest, the centers of Hindu civilization were confined to northern and western Bakarganj, while the district’s southern portions remained covered by forests and laced with lagoons, which in time consolidated into marsh. The northwest was also the only part of Bakarganj where the Hindu population exceeded Muslims in early British census records, for as Hindu immigrants pushed into this area, those native groups already inhabiting the region—mainly Chandal fishing tribes—were absorbed into Hindu society as peasant cultivators. Today they constitute the Namasudras, the largest Hindu peasant community in eastern Bengal.
A second great period of economic and social expansion in the Bakarganj forests and marshes occurred in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Now it was Muslim pioneers who assumed the leading role. The emergence of Dhaka as the provincial Mughal capital in the early seventeenth century made the Bakarganj region more accessible to entrepreneurs and developers than at any previous time. But rampant piracy along the coasts and rivers of southeastern Bengal by Arakanese and renegade Portuguese seamen inhibited any sustained attempts by Mughal governors to push into the Bakarganj forests. After 1666, when Mughal naval forces cleared the Meghna estuary of such external threats, the Bakarganj interior lay ripe for colonization. Land developers acquired grants of plots of land, ta‘alluq, from provincial authorities in Dhaka or, after 1704, in Murshidabad. Abundant and easily obtainable by purchase from the late seventeenth century on, these grants tended to be regarded by their possessors, ta‘alluqdārs, as deeds conferring permanent land tenure rights on them. Having brought their ta‘alluqs into agricultural production, these men passed up the land revenue through a class of non-cultivating intermediaries, or zamīndārs. These latter, or their agents, typically resided in the provincial capital, where they had ready access to the chief provincial revenue officer (dīwān) or his staff.
The process of forest clearing and land reclamation in Bakarganj produced complex tenure chains extending from the zamīndār at the upper end down to the actual cultivator at the lower end, with numerous ta‘alluqdārs and sub-ta‘alluqdārs in between. “These talukdars,” wrote Jack, “had usually no intention of undertaking personally the reclamation of their taluks, and pursued in their turn the same system of subletting, but they generally selected as their sub-lesses men who were prepared to take colonies of cultivators to the land.” In other words, the agricultural development boom in Bakarganj afforded wide scope for countless intermediaries who were, in effect, capitalist speculators, or classical revenue farmers. Together, they created a complex subinfeudation structure described by Jack as “the most amazing caricature of an ordered system of land tenure in the world.” In fact, an expandable tenure chain proved an appropriate form of land tenure for an economic frontier that was itself expanding. As Jack himself observed:
This passage hints at the origins of the distinctive land tenure system that emerged in Mughal East Bengal. In order to maintain their claims to social dominance in a region chronically short of resident Brahmans, high-caste Hindus already established in the southern delta encouraged and probably financed the settlement of other high-caste zamīndārs in the region. But such Hindus predominated only at the upper reaches of the tenure chain, for, as Jack noted, social taboos prevented them from undertaking cultivation themselves. On the other hand, those same classes—typically Brahman or Baidya traders and moneylenders—had accumulated sufficient capital to advance loans to sublessees; and these, in turn, hired sublessees below them, and so on, until one reached the mass of cultivators at the bottom of the tenure chain. Whether recruited from amongst indigenous peoples or brought in from the outside, these latter worked as ordinary cultivators on lands newly reclaimed from the jungle.
Reclamation of forest was no easy task. It took three or four years to clear the land for regular cultivation during which cultivators and labourers had to be maintained in a country where communications were difficult, rivers dangerous and markets few. Such work was in any case easier when responsibility was divided and it happened that reclamation was taken up when Dacca teemed with men whose occupations were gone. Such men were eager to get rich and unable by caste scruples to cultivate; but their attraction was drawn to colonisation and to Bakarganj by the example of Raja Raj Ballabh and many lesser men who lived in their neighborhood. The owners of the estates who had neither the energy nor the resources to reclaim their forests unaided turned naturally to such men, often their friends or relatives, for assistance.
Crucial in this tenure chain were the Muslim religious gentry who typically occupied its middle ranks as ta‘alluqdārs, situated between the zamīndārs and the cultivators. Described in early British sources as qāẓīs, pīrs, or simply as “Shaikhs,” these men comprised a good part of that class of “Muhammadan adventurers” who, in addition to high-caste Hindu “capitalists,” spearheaded the colonization movement, according to Jack. Men of this class were often credited with the original founding of agricultural settlements in Mughal times. For example, rural surveys made between 1902 and 1913 record that in Barahanuddin Thana of Bakarganj, “This mouza [settlement] has got its name [Kazi Abad] from one Kazi [qāẓī, “judge”] who settled here first.…The population is chiefly Mussalmans.” In Gaurnadi Thana, “the Mahomedans owe their origin directly or indirectly to one Kazi who was one of the original settlers of this village.” Or again: “There are a few families of Mohamedan Kazis who are the original settlers of this village. They were once prosperous. The population is 715, mostly Muslim.” Similarly, in Narayanganj Thana of Dhaka District, the all-Muslim village of Kutubpur derived its name from a saint named Pir Qutb, who, we are told, settled in this area “when there was no basti,” or crude homesteads, in the area.
There were two patterns by which such men became established as members of the rural landscape’s religious gentry. Most often, they acquired ta‘alluqs from some higher authority, either a local chieftain or a revenue contractor in the provincial capital, and then went out into the forest or marshlands to organize the clearing and settling of the land. Speculators who agreed to pay the Mughal revenue demand hoped to make a profit by subcontracting the work of reclamation to sublessees. These latter established themselves as de facto landlords over whole regions, which eventually coalesced into settled communities. We see this happening in the following record concerning the establishment of a Muslim settlement named Mithapur in Patuakhali, deep in the Sundarbans forest. In the eighteenth century a certain Shaikh Ghazi
Here was the classic pattern of subinfeudation in the forests of eighteenth-century Bakarganj: an absentee Hindu acquired zamīndārī rights from the Mughal governor, permitting him to extract as much wealth as he could from a given ta‘alluq so long as he remitted a stipulated amount to the government as land revenue. The zamīndār then contracted with some enterprising middleman, typically a member of the Muslim petty religious establishment, to undertake the arduous tasks of organizing the clearing of the jungles and preparing the land for rice cultivation. In such cases the reclamation process often bridged communal lines. In the instance cited above, it was the Hindu Janaki Ballav Roy who had the contacts with the governor and who settled with the latter’s revenue officials on a tax payment. At that point Roy withdrew from the work of reclamation, getting “material assistance” from a Muslim whose name, Shaikh Ghazi, suggests religious charisma and who actually settled in Mithapur to organize forest-clearing operations.
befriended himself with Janaki Ballav Roy immediately after he [Roy] got the Zamindari of Arangapur from the Nawab [i.e., governor]. Janaki Ballav also got material assistance from this man in the work of reclamation of lands from Sundarbans [i.e., forest]. Shekh Gazi subsequently settled in Mithapur.
Thus, contrary to J. C. Jack’s picture of two distinct classes of developers—Hindu “capitalists” and Muslim “adventurers”—moving separately into the forests of Bakarganj, it appears that the two types moved in tandem with each other, although at different ends of the land tenure chain. Influential urban Hindus supplied the cash, or at least the commitment to pay the revenue to the government; and enterprising Muslims supplied the organizational ability and charisma to mobilize labor forces on the ground. This pattern of collaboration contributed to the characteristic configuration of land tenure in much of pre–1947 East Bengal, where high-caste Hindus, typically absentee zamīndārs, emerged at the upper end of the tenure chain, and Muslim cultivators at the lower end.
In a second pattern of land development, Muslim pīrs or qāẓīs went directly into uncultivated regions, organized the local population for clearing the jungles, and only later, after having established themselves as local men of influence, entered into relations with the Mughal authorities. In such instances the government endeavored to appropriate men of local influence by designating them petty collectors. In southern Dhaka District, the settlement of Panam Dulalpur emerged in the early eighteenth century around a pīr named Hazrat Daner Mau. Early in the history of this settlement, the inhabitants had given this pīr regular donations of nażr, or charitable gifts of money, “out of reverence for the good and popular religious man.” Later, this charitable gift crystallized into fixed amounts from each tenant in the village. Some inhabitants—we do not know who—refused payment and took the matter to the authorities in Murshidabad, but the latter declined to consider the case.
Hazrat Daner Mau’s transition from holy man to landholder was thus linked to the intervention of state power. With its hearty appetite for land revenue, the government sought to capture and transform into revenue-paying officials whatever local notables appeared on the horizon. In the above-cited case, the government exploited the refusal by some villagers to pay a charitable fee by establishing a fixed villagewide figure to be owed the pīr; it then redefined that fee as land tax, and the pīr as the revenue-paying landholder.
The people of Panam were thus obliged to come to an agreement with the Pir who agreed to receive a fixed amount annually from the inhabitants of the entire mauza. This amount was 118 siccas [rupees].…This became the fixed rent of the entire mauza of Panam Dulalpur, and the Pir whose name was Hazrat Daner Mau, became the landowner of the Mouzah and thus obtained the sanction of the Nawab of Murshidabad.
Where pīrs themselves did not become defined as zamīndārs, their sons and descendants often did, as was the case with the sons of Pir ‘Umar Shah of Noakhali, discussed above. But the relationship between the religious gentry and Mughal authorities was not always happy, since a pīr’s natural ties of authority and patronage generally lay with the masses of peasants beneath him and not with the governors and bureaucrats in distant Dhaka or, after 1704, Murshidabad. For example, in remote Jhalakati Thana in the Bakarganj Sundarbans, an eighteenth-century pīr named Saiyid Faqir wielded enormous influence with the cultivators of the all-Muslim village of Saiyidpur, named after the pīr. But a difficulty arose, noted a 1906 village survey, because “the people of this part looked upon the Fakir as their guide and did not pay rent to the Nawab.” In this situation, one Lala Chet Singh, a captain in the employ of the governor, “succeeded in persuading the Fakir to leave the country.” Though we do not know how the officer managed to dislodge the pīr from the village, he was evidently successful, since the authorities in Murshidabad rewarded him for his efforts by giving him the right to collect the pargana’s revenue. This suggests that on the politically fluid Bengal frontier, the peasants’ loyalty did not necessarily extend beyond their local holy man. From the government’s perspective, while it was always preferable when possible to coopt influential holy men, the Mughals did not hesitate, when necessary, to impose their own revenue machinery on rural settlements.
In the early twentieth century, the Muslim cultivators of eastern Bengal were described as an industrious, unruly, and socially unstratified population, with few loyalties beyond those given their pīrs. The population of one settlement in Bakarganj’s Swarupkati Thana, we read, consisted entirely of Muslims, who were “rather fierce. They played a conspicuous role in the history of the pargana. They were the first men who rallied around…[illegible]…when he created the taluk after the transfer of his zamindari.” Concerning a settlement in Bakarganj’s Jhalakati Thana, we find the following account, recorded in 1906:
Refractory or unruly as they may have appeared to law-and-order-minded British officials, these men—or, more correctly, their ancestors—were in fact the primary agents of the extension of agriculture in much of eastern Bengal. As one officer remarked in 1902 concerning another Bakarganj village, “The population are almost all Mohammedans, who have been trying their best to bring the waste lands into cultivation. In fact, the jungles have now been mainly cleared.” Or again: “There are a good many petty tenures in this mauza [settlement], all of which have been created for bringing the lands under cultivation. The population are Muhammadan.”
The village is now inhabited by Mohammedans. Formerly there were several families of Nama Sudras in the village, but for the oppression of the Mahommedans they were compelled to leave the village. Their lands and homesteads are now in possession of the Mahommedans. The people of the village are all very refractory and riotous. On slight provocation they can easily take the life of another. Criminal breach of peace is a daily occurrence here. The people are so irreligious that to take revenge from a man they never hesitate to bring false criminal case against a man. The river dacoits [bandits] of Bish Khali river are none others than the inhabitants of this village and of neighboring other villages, too.