The champion of the Bengali Muslim peasantry
AK Fazlul Haq burst into an all-Indian national political scene through the 1937 elections for the Bengal Legislative Assembly. The 1937 elections were held under very limited forms of self-rule that the British colonial masters had granted to Indians: the franchise was limited to about 12 percent of the population in Bengal, Muslims voted in separate electorates for Muslim representatives, and the victors’ control over the provincial government of undivided Bengal was limited by the power of colonial bureaucracy. Regardless of these limitations, the 1937 elections transformed AK Fazlul Haq into Sher-e-Bangla, the fierce champion of Bengal’s Muslim peasantry.
AK Fazlul Haq and his political party, the Krishak Praja Party represented the interests of the Bengali Muslim peasantry, against the pro-landlord and pro-capitalist Muslim League. The KPP’s 14-point programme was truly radical. It included the promise to abolish the zamindari without compensation, to settle outstanding debts to mahajans, to fix the minimum price of jute, and to introduce universal primary education. In the months leading to the election, the KPP’s signature slogan, “Shobar Jonno Dal Bhat,” rang through the small towns and villages of East Bengal, today’s Bangladesh.
The 1937 elections, from contemporary accounts, carried the excitement and festive air that we associate with elections in our country today. For the first time in our history, candidates used symbols for the election—palki, lantern, chair, etc. During polling days, candidates’ supporters chanted slogans with the candidate’s symbols and some reportedly painted the symbols on their foreheads. In several places, candidates arranged motorcars to transport voters to polling booths. The excitement around the 1937 election was due at least in part to the peasant populist programme of the KPP, its fierce rivalry with the Muslim League, the fiery rhetoric of its leader, AK Fazlul Haq.
The election also had its signature contest, Fazlul Haq against Khwaja Nazimuddin, the champion of the Bengal peasantry versus the aristocratic scion of the Dhaka nawab family. Fazlul Haq had challenged Nazimuddin to a contest in a constituency of his choosing. Nazimuddin chose the Rural Mohammadan Patuakhali North constituency, where the Dhaka nawabs held considerable zamindari rights. The other three independent candidates dropped out, focusing all attention on the two leaders going head-to-head. Fazlul Haq won in a landslide, receiving 70 percent of the vote.
The elections were not an outright victory for the Krishak Praja Party. The League had won more seats province-wide (39-36), though its alliance with the Tippera Krishak Samiti gave the KPP a slight lead (41-39). However, the KPP were the clear underdogs and a tie was construed as a victory. The KPP were poorly funded, three senior members of the party had defected to the Muslim League on the eve of the election, and the League had run a vicious campaign portraying the KPP as Hindu or Congress stooges sabotaging Muslim unity.
The Krishak Praja Party’s victories were almost exclusively in East Bengal, today’s Bangladesh. The party naturally dominated in Barishal, Fazlul Haq’s home district, but also in Khulna, Jashore, Rajshahi, Bogura, Mymensingh, and, after its alliance with the Tippera Krishak Samiti, in Comilla. In understanding the KPP’s success, we should follow Abul Mansur Ahmed’s advice and think of the KPP not as a political party but as a movement, the praja movement for peasant freedom and dignity. The larger argument one can make is that Bengali Muslim peasant politics should be located in a small-town or mofussil print culture, in the numerous poems and pamphlets written by a newly-emergent class of a mofussil Muslim intelligentsia, who were patronising, writing, and reading texts published in towns like Noakhali, Comilla, Mymensingh, Faridpur, Rangpur, etc., during the 1920s and 1930s.
Politically, this movement took on the form and shape of the Krishak Praja Party, albeit in the context of the limited forms of electoral and representative democracy under British imperialism. In the 1937 election, the KPP and its leader, AK Fazlul Haq, transformed the movement into a 14-point election campaign, into rallies, slogans, and speeches. Fazlul Haq deserves primary credit for this remarkable moment in our history: the rise of a populist party campaigning upon principles of social and economic justice with foundations in a grassroots movement of the peasantry.
AK Fazlul Haq was premier of undivided British Bengal from 1937 to 1943, when he was dismissed by the British governor and replaced by his old rival, Khwaja Nazimuddin. His parting speech to the Legislative Assembly recaptured some of the fire of his speeches from the 1937 campaign, as he directed his anger at the British officials, “the steel frame of the imperial service,” who had stymied many of his efforts to craft a pro-poor and pro-peasant government. This racist and imperialist bureaucracy was responsible for the famine that soon followed AK Fazlul Haq’s ouster, killing between 3 and 4 million through starvation during 1943 and 1944.
The Krishak Praja movement did not die with the famine, but the belief in the possibility of a pro-peasant government under the conditions of colonialism was extinguished. The Muslim League conducted the 1946 elections, the first since 1937 after a decade of depression, war and famine, as a referendum on Pakistan. As Taj Hashmi and Ahmed Kamal have shown, Pakistan was imagined as “peasant utopia,” “the land of eternal eid,” a place where landlords and moneylenders did not exist, the prices of commodities were fair, and justice prevailed through society. The Muslim League, under the leadership of its left faction, had adopted Krishak Praja demands and slogans, notably, the demand to abolish zamindari without compensation and the slogan, “langol jar, jomi tar.” In the words of Abul Mansur Ahmed on the eve of the 1946 elections, “today the Muslim League is the carrier and conductor [dharok o bahok] of the krishak praja movement… the Praja movement has been fully realised in the Pakistan movement.” The Muslim League, as champions of the ideas of Pakistan, achieved a thumping victory in the 1946 elections, winning 87 percent of the rural Muslim vote. AK Fazlul Haq was one of a handful of Krishak Praja candidates to be returned to the assembly.
AK Fazlul Haq did not create the movement that he represented. The movement had much deeper roots in the formation of a new community of Bengali Muslim peasantry under the conditions of colonial capitalism. In my book, I show how this community emerged from and was imagined within the broad transformations wrought by the cultivation and trade of jute, in particular, as fibre changed relations of town and countryside and created new accumulations of wealth and new forms of exploitation and impoverishment. Fazlul Haq’s peasant populist election campaign, particularly his fiery oratory, were critical in shaping this emergent Bengali Muslim peasant community into a political force. Sher-e-Bangla was the first political leader from this region to give this Bengali Muslim community, shaped and exploited by colonialism and capitalism, a voice and a champion in all-India nationalist politics and in the corridors of British imperialist power.
When the idea of Pakistan as peasant utopia was, in turn, betrayed by the Pakistani governing and capitalist classes, Sher-e-Bangla continued his lifelong fight for the Bengali Muslim peasantry. He played a key role, in partnership with his old rival, Suhrawardy, in the formation of the United Front and in their landslide victory in the 1954 East Pakistan elections. However, he served as East Pakistan’s Chief Minister for only two months before being dismissed, once again, by the unelected Governor of Bengal, this time Pakistani and, this time, purportedly for expressing the desire for the unity and autonomy of Bengal.
Tariq Omar Ali is Associate Professor of South Asian history at the School of Foreign Services, Georgetown University, and the author of A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta, published in 2018.