Riots and Victims: Violence and the Construction of Communal Identity among Bengali Muslims, 1905-1947

Gossman, Patricia

     Communalism, as examined in this dissertation, is not a 'given' political identity but a tool, a deliberate strategy employed to secure political advantages. The dissertation demonstrates by examples from pre-partition Bengal that the motives behind much of what has been described as communal violence are political; that violence is consciously chosen as a tool to discredit political rivals and challenge established authority; that violence is used as a symbol to identify one's own community as the victim and another as the 'aggressor'; and that the representation of violence itself becomes a symbol which helps freeze popular constructions of identity and redefine relations between communities.
     The dissertation examines major incidents of communal violence that took place in Bengal between 1905 and 1947, and how these incidents shaped an emerging Bengali Muslim political identity. In the incidents examined, political groups resorted to violence to discredit opponents, prejudice election results or the outcome of other official events, or destabilize a local government. Political leaders manipulated volatile symbols and created new ones out of each new incident of violence not only as part of a strategy calculated to polarize the Hindu and Muslim communities but also to elicit popular support for whichever political party claimed to represent a newly self-conscious Bengali Muslim community. The 'communal' violence of this period also reflected the renegotiation of political power within the Muslim leadership. Muslim leaders seeking to challenge those identified by the British as the 'natural' and legitimate representatives of the Muslim community used public spaces to assert their own claims to represent Bengali Muslims, interpret their traditions and establish themselves as spokesmen and representatives for their community. Because Bengali Muslim leaders were able to create out of the violence symbols that cut across class and religious divisions, they succeeded where peasant leaders and others had failed in identifying Bengali Muslims' sense of themselves as a threatened community, and linking that identity with the movement for a separate state of Pakistan.