I met Layli Uddin in London, in the British Library.
She is of Bangladeshi origin and grew up in England. She has an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies from Oxford and has also studied at the London School of Economics and Harvard. She is now a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. The title of her thesis is: Mobilising Muslim Subalterns: Bhashani and the political mobilisation of peasantry and lower urban classes, c.1947-71.
Layli will soon be traveling to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in search of new sources and information on Maulana Bhashani.
This is how she describes her work:
Thus far, much of the academic work on East Pakistan and events leading up to the war of 1971 reflects an elite bias, with its overwhelming focus on the role of Dhaka and the urban intelligentsia. My work argues though that it is the active and forceful participation of the ‘subaltern’ i.e., the peasantry and lower urban classes in various protests, starting from the language protest in the 1950s through to the industrial and rural ‘gherao’ protests in the 1960s and the freedom movement of the 1970s which transformed the nature and dynamism of these resistances and presented a real threat to the a governing authority in West Pakistan. It therefore thrusts, and rather deliberately too, the neglected and marginalised subaltern in the limelight and looks at how they envisaged this ‘land of eternal Eid’ and why that rather Arcadian paradise soon disintegrated into a land stalked by angry and disenchanted peasants and lower urban classes. I look at the different forms and practices of subaltern resistance and attempt to excavate the consciousness of the peasant through the official records as well as other mediums such as folk songs, rhymes, ballads, anecdotes and literature of that period.
Maulana Bhashani plays a central figure in my work on restoring the creative agency of the ‘subaltern’ in the making and unmaking of Pakistan between 1947-71. Maulana Bhashani, who had made his mark as an unusually powerful pir, radical peasant leader and politician in colonial Assam went onto become one of the main dissenting figures to the rule of West Pakistan authority. American officials described him as ‘East Pakistan rabble rouser par excellence’, the Jamaat-e-Islami as ‘kaafir’ and the East Bengalis as ‘Majlum Jononeta’ (leader of the oppressed). My work seeks to understand the charismatic authority of Maulana Bhashani and his relationship with the peasantry and lower urban classes in East Pakistan. It is a charisma that befuddled many; the US Consul General, Archer Blood, when paying a visit to Bhashani was left bemused by the popularity of the bare-footed 88 year-old man, clad in a dirty undershirt and lungi who greeted him. My work looks at Bhashani’s network and spheres of influence, ideas on Islamic socialism and his strategies of political mobilisation.
It is difficult to summarise the enigma that is Maulana Bhashani and what a complex and exciting figure he presents for research – how did this Deobandi-trained maulana come to defend Tagore’s music and become the leader of Marxist revolutionaries in East Pakistan? Why did the founding father, Mujib, fear being upstaged by the septaguenarian Bhashani? How did Bhashani’s Islamic socialism ‘fit’ with the radical demands made by peasantry and lower urban classes in East Pakistan? My work has already thrown up some fascinating and tantalising information, which I hope to explore as research progresses – Bhashani’s relationship with radical ‘ulama in colonial India; his meetings and encounters with the grandees of the political left in Europe such as Attlee, Bevan, Bertrand Russell, Neruda, Hikmet and Ehrenburg in Europe and his other trips to Egypt, Cuba and China in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Admittedly, as a first year PhD student, this is all striking me as rather too ambitious, with perhaps all the pretensions of a Howard Zinn impostor, but nonetheless exciting, foray into a rather neglected yet critical part of Bangladeshi history.
My conversation with Layli got off to a good start because it so happens that I have actually met Maulana Bhashani. It happened when I was very young and I have no memory of the meeting: I know of it only because my father liked to tell the story. Apparently, when I was a little boy, the Maulana saw me at a gathering, somewhere in Dhaka, and hoisted me on his shoulder.
When I recounted this to Layli she was not at all surprised. Maulana Bhashani had many unlikely encounters, she said – including one with Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China.
My mouth fell open.
The Last Emperor and Maulana Bhashani? Had they really met? How could she possibly know?
Through the Maulana’s account of it, said Layli.
He had written about the encounter in his book, Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe (In Mao Tse-tung’s Country, by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani).
Quite apart from the inherent interest of a meeting between the last incumbent of the Qing dynasty and this leftist-Deobandi Maulana, I was also taken by the sudden shrinkage in the degrees of separation between myself and the last Emperor of China. I asked Layli if I could read the chapter and she was kind enough to provide me with a copy.
I was not disappointed: the Maulana’s account of the meeting is strangely compelling, and since it has never been published in English I decided to translate a few excerpts myself. These will appear on this site as a multi-part series.
File photo of Aisin Gyorro Puyi, Last Emperor of China
From Mao-Tse Tung-er Deshe by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, p. 42
I am on my way to meet the last monarch of the mighty Manchu empire: the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, Pu Yi. For 250 years the Qing dynasty ruled and misruled China; it was they who opened China’s doors for foreign looters …
Pu Yi conspired against the people of China with Japanese and Western imperialists. And now the same Pu Yi has committed himself to the building of a socialist society. What sort of man is this Pu Yi?
…At one time Pu Yi was training to be a curator in a Chinese botanical garden. But in 1961 a commission was specially created to write a new history of China and he was transferred to an office of the People’s Consultative Conference to help with the research. That was where I met Pu Yi. He is a slim, inoffensive-looking man of middling stature. I couldn’t find any resemblance between him and the Pu Yi of my imagination. His bright, smiling face and his shining eyes betrayed no signs of the sly conspirator. I was amazed – could this be the same Pu Yi who helped the Japanese against Chinese revolutionaries? Who wanted to keep China prone while he floated high on the froth of luxury? I could not quite believe it. How old could he be? Thirty, or at the most thirty-five? But Pu Yi corrected me himself, saying that he was actually 57 years old. He looked very young for his age.
I entered his office at four in the afternoon and when I left it was eight thirty.
[to be continued…]