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The Root of Bangladesh

Part-4


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The Root of Bangladesh

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The Muslim rule in Bengal contributed to economic polarization and cultural dichotomy. Except the brief interludes of the northern Indian empires, pre-Muslim Bengal was ruled by local potentates. Most of the Muslim rulers either acted as agents of Delhi or tried to use Bengal as a stepping stone for attaining political authority in Delhi. Economic exploitation intensified during this period owing to transfer of resources to north India. The main victims of this exploitative system were locally converted Muslims and low caste Hindus. The sole aim of the Muslim rulers was to mobilize as much resources as possible. The size of the immigrant Muslim ruling elite was small. Furthermore, different factions of the ruling elite did not trust each other. Consequently, Muslim rule in Bengal became, in effect, a coalition of immigrant Muslims and upper caste Hindus.

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The gradual process of conversion to Islam in Bengal resulted in an intense interaction between Islam and Hinduism. At the folk level, however, there was less confrontation and more interaction between Hinduism and Islam. A syncretic tradition developed around the cult and pantheons of pirs. The actual practices of local Muslim converts were an anathema to both Hindu and Muslim religious leaders. The orthodox Hindus, despite their political reconciliation with Muslim rulers, despised the local Muslims as untouchables (Mlechhas). The Muslim religious leaders were equally scornful of the customs and practices of local converts. Hated by immigrant religious leaders for their ways of life and by the local aristocracy for their adherence to an alien faith, local converts faced a dichotomy of faith and habitat which found expression in an emotional conflict between religion and language. This dichotomy can be traced in Bengali literature as early as the fourteenth century. 'Those who are born in Bengal but hate Bengali language", asserted the seventeenth century poet Abdul Hakim "had doubtful parentage. Those who are not satisfied with their mother tongue should migrate to other lands".

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The Glory that was Mediaeval Bengal
The Bangladesh region reached the zenith of economic affluence during the mediaeval period. It was known as one of the most prosperous lands in the world. The Moorish traveller Ibn Batuta who visited Bengal in the fourteenth century described Bengal as the wealthiest and cheapest land of the world and states that it was known as "a hell full of bounties". In the same vein, the seventeenth century French traveller Francois Bernier observed: "Egypt has been represented in every age as the finest and most fruitful country in the world, and even our modern writers deny that there is any other land so peculiarly favoured by nature; but the knowledge I have acquired of Bengal, during two visits paid to that Kingdom inclines me to believe that pre-eminence ascribed to Egypt is rather due to Bengal".

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Because of her fertile land and abundance of seasonal rainfall, Bengal was a cornucopia of agricultural products. Famines and scarcity were virtually unknown as compared to other areas of Asia. Bengal was the focal point of free trade in the Indian Ocean since the 14th century. She was the virtual store-house of silk and cotton not only of India and neighbouring countries but also of Europe. The Dhaka region used to produce the finest cotton in the world. A very large quantity of cotton cloth was produced in different areas of Bengal. The best and well-known variety of textile was muslin produced in Dhaka. Some of the muslins were so fine that, as the seventeenth century traveller Tavernier notes, "even if a 60 cubit long turban were held you would scarcely know what it was that you had in your hand". Some of the muslins were so fine that a full size muslin could be passed through a small ring. Bangladesh also had extensive export of silk clothes. According to Tavernier, Bengal silks were exported to other parts of India, Central Asia, Japan and Holland. The Bangladesh region was also one of the largest producers of sugar. The sugar from this region used to be exported to other parts of South Asia and the Middle East.

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