Bengal was the microcosm of British rule in India, the original seat of Imperial power, the base from which the East India Company set out on its career of aggrandisement, ending in the complete subjugation of the subcontinent from the Khyber to Cape Comorin. Private loot, the organized spoliation of commerce, industry and agriculture, far-reaching administrative innovations, educational reforms, the acceptance of new and liberating ideas from the West by a rising and articulate bourgeoisie, the intensification of certain archaic social relations by the colonial power—these were all part of the complex and contradictory fabric of colonized Bengal. It was against this background that initial indications emerged of an Indian national consciousness and of the rival forms such consciousness could assume. Through the prism of Bengal’s historical experience were to be refracted significant themes of the later development of India as a whole.

The environment of Bengal is formed by the confluence of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra which drain the upper Gangetic basic and Tibetan Plateau. The vortex of these rivers has created one of the world’s largest, most fertile and dynamic deltic expanses. And much of the specificity of Bengal’s social and historical experience in South Asia derives from the social formation arising in this unique delta. The aboriginal migrants who progressively settled the delta—and whose descendants constitute the mass of Bengal’s population today—developed techniques of deep water cultivation and fishing intimately suited to the fertile but inundated and shifting alluvium of the delta. A relatively low division of labour and exceedingly unstable communications produced a decentralized and undifferentiated society.footnote1 As a result it proved particularly difficult to raise or impose the types of socio-religious order characteristic of the more centralized and stratified Aryan civilizations emerging in the upper Gangetic plain to the Northwest. Moreover, situated in the extreme Eastern portion of the South Asian subcontinent, Bengal always remained peripheral to the processes of imperial consolidation of the earlier Hindu and Moghul periods. There tended to be a sharp division between the indigenous population of Bengal and those alien elites who conquered and reared a state apparatus above them. Moreover the Bengalis were often able to exploit the favours of geography—the inaccessibility and fertility of their land—to adapt to their conquerors on their own terms.

Brahminism spread to Bengal during the consolidation of the Gupta Empire in the 5th century while Islam followed in the wake of the Turko-Afghan conquest in the 13th century.footnote2 Both these invasions and their associated religions had similar effects on the indigenous population in Bengal. Both Hindu and Muslim conquerors promoted local conversion during their respective periods of rule. But the popular forms of Brahminism and Islam differed radically from the orthodoxy of these rulers.footnote3 The conquering castes of Brahman Baidya and Kayastha branded the local population ritually inferior and low caste, while the latter responded with mass support for every major antiBrahminical movement throughout Bengali history—Buddhism, Vaishnavism and Islam. And when approximately half of Bengal’s low caste local population converted to Islam after it became associated with state power, the converts found themselves little better off in the professedly egalitarian eyes of the Turko-Afghan elites of Islam. These claimed themselves to be Asharif—Noble Born, descended from the line of the Prophet—while condescending to label their Bengali brethren Ajlaf—ignoble—an Islamic equivalent of “low caste”.footnote4 Moreover, the Islamic conquest incorporated the upper class of learned and landed Hindu castes as the privileged functionaries necessary to mediate Islamic rule with the local population.footnote5 And just as wealthy Hindus served the Moghuls in administration, so they did in commerce as well. For the state formed an alliance with the House of Jagath Seth, North Indian banyans (a Hindu commercial caste), in order to develop luxury craft industries and commerce.footnote6 Historically Bengal specialized in the production of muslin and other high quality cloths.

The majority of the population of East Bengal were converted to the Muslim religion while the population of the smaller Western part remained Hindu. No adequate explanation of this differing pattern of conversion has been advanced, though it is clear that rejection of the Hindu religion by the low caste Bengalis was a form of revolt against the oppression and stigma to which they were subject. For a variety of reasons it seems that the traditional mechanisms of social control were more resilient in the Western part of Bengal and even the appearance of a Muslim ruling power was insufficient to break the hold of the Hindu religion. Historically West Bengal occupies the moribund region of the delta which is not subject to the massive annual floods which inundate the Eastern region. In the West there have long been more stable communications as a consequence and more sophisticated forms of cultivation and social differentiation. Better communications meant that West Bengal could be more securely integrated into the Hindu culture of the upper Gangetic basin. A more elaborate social division of labour multiplied the different categories of social and economic organization allowing caste organization to establish a firmer grip in the West than in the East. However it should be remembered that a sizeable majority of the population of Bengal as a whole did become Muslim. It was the prodigious growth of Calcutta which was later somewhat to increase the social weight of the Western part and hence of those Bengalis who remained Hindu.

Thus on the eve of the British conquest Bengali society displayed a complexity of social division reflecting caste, communal and status differences. But underlying all these was the basic class division between the bulk of the cultivating and artisan population in the villages,footnote7 and the elites who lived off their surplus in the forms of state taxes, feudal exactions and commercial profits. These elites formed a class alliance of the dominant higher caste Hindus and the Muslim aristocrats who controlled the administrative and military state machine, in conjunction with North Indian banyans who controlled commercial capital. The British disturbed this order, introducing a new structure of collaboration,footnote8 geared to the evolution of capitalism in Europe. As we have seen the Bengali elite had been able to accommodate to previous invaders on their own terms. But this new conquest brought in its train all the fateful and potent forces of ascendant capitalism and imperialism. The future was to show that the traditional mechanisms of accommodation and absorption were no match for these implacable furies. In a bid to adjust to the colonial system the order of dominance among the elites was to invert, while the mass of Bengal’s cultivating population was to experience a severe intensification of social oppression.

Attracted by the commercial profits to be gained from trade in the luxury commodities produced in Bengal, the East India Company quickly stepped in to exploit the political and social contradictions in this rich Moghul province and bring it under control. Colluding with a section of the landed Hindus as well as with the Seths, whose profit margins were hampered by Moghul impositions on commerce, the East India Company arranged their victory at Plassey in a manner which, in the words of K. M. Panikkar, was ‘a transaction not a battle, a transaction by which the compradors of Bengal led by Jagath Seth sold the Nawab to the East India Company’.

Once in control the Company rapidly opened Bengal to speculators and profiteers from Europe, and through vicious commercial exploitation directed the wealth of the province into the private fortunes and capital accumulation of the British.footnote9 In 1770, within two decades of British conquest, famine carried off 10 million people, or one third of the population of the province. This holocaust made it apparent even to the free-booters of the East India Company that only a productive society is worth dominating. Attention was turned to stabilizing the internal order of Bengal, and thus the British shifted from commercial plunder to more orderly and permanent forms of exploitation and government.footnote10