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Special issue on 38th anniversary of the New Nation

Ataturk's influence on Bengali intelligentsia

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19th-Jun-2017       
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Prof. Mahmud Shah Qureshi
The recorded history of Bengal starts just at the beginning of the 13th Century when the Turkish General Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji conquered the country with a small troop of cavalry:1 Since then Turkish, Arabic and Persian cultural forces remained active for more than seven hundred years which contributed to the formation of the civilization of Bengal in general and to the culture of the local Muslim population in particular. The latter along with their coreligionists of other parts of India had been vigilant over the interests of the Ottoman Empire during the second and the third decade of the past century. An "altruistic adventure" known as the Khilafat movement initiated by the Muslims of India had also paradoxically signalled the struggle for independence of the subcontinent.2
However, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with his principle of "Peace at home, Peace in the World", urged them to abandon the idea in a very important telegram.3 In the meanwhile, 'In 1924 the Angora Assembly expelled the new Caliph and declared the caliphate unnecessary to Islam'.
The post-world war I generation of Bengal had already been imbued with ideas of Ghazi Kemal. From the Rebel Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam to the woman activist Begum Shamsunnahar Mahmud left considerable writings to prove this contention. Moreover, a very strong intellectual movement started at Dhaka as early as in 1926 by the Shikha (The Flame) group whose watchword was to establish "the emancipation of the intellect". Mostly students and teachers of Dhaka, they-often called themselves Kamalponthi or the Kemalists.5
This article would expose some of the ideas and activities of these young energetic writers in order to show the influence of the great Turkish leader on the Bengali intelligentsia in their search for liberty, democracy and secularism.
Ideas and actions have been so multifarious, absorbing and complex for the Twentieth Century Bengali intelligentsia that it is often difficult to follow the courses of their history or to interpret the God in a suitable manner. Ataturk's influence on them may also invite confusions in the mind of an intellectual historian or a casual observer as for why and how that could happen.
To understand the situation clearly and precisely, we must start from the beginning of the beginning. It has to be kept in mind that the recorded history of Bengal starts just at the outset of the 13 century when the Turkish General Ikhtiyar al-Din Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji conquered the country with a small troop of cavalry.6 It is now almost certain that the year was 1304 when Khalji made the conquest with his 'band of adventurous Turks'.7 About him and his short-lived reign a not - very - favourable Hindu historian Dr. K.R. Qanungo has to reveal us that Bakhtiyar Khalji "was not blood-thirsty and took no delight in massacre or inflicting misery on his subjects".8 Henceforward, the Muslim political expansion continued more peacefully than expected. Eventually Turkish, Pathan and Moghuls came to power in due course of history. But what is important for us to note that since then, for more than seven hundred years Turkish, Arabic and Persian cultural force remained active to contribute to the formation of the civilization of Bengal in general, and to the culture of the Muslim population in particular. The latter along with their co-religionists of other part of India had been vigilant over the interests of the Ottoman Empire particularly since the last few decades of the 19th century and the first 24 years of the 20th century. After the World War 1, an 'altruistic adventure' known as the Khilafat movement initiated by the Muslims of India had also paradoxically signalled the struggle for independence of the subcontinent.9
The British had deceived them by the annulment of the partition of Bengal (12 December 1911) which, as they declared earlier as a 'settled fact' and what was supposed to have been done for 'administrative need' in 1905 with an eye towards the improvement of the downtrodden Muslim community of Bengal.10 Now, with the renewed Islamic fervour in favour of Panis-Islamism, the latter became agitated due to Turkish distress of the years 1915-1920 as well as for the sufferings of other Muslim countries like Egypt,  Libya and Persia. For mostly Sunnite, the Bengalis would always have a different feeling for the Turks and their Sultan. The Muslims of India had confidence in the British justice, which was again shaken when they found the Sevre's Treaty as humiliating for Turkey.11 However, even a Pan Islamic journal reported that 'the Sultan had no real power and Mustafa Kamal as a leader of Turkish National party is trying hard to keep free the little geographical area of Anatolia and Kurdistan'.12 The Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22 made Mustafa Kemal a Ghazi (Victorious). He soon started the far-reaching reforms in Turkey. Apprehending the abolition of the Caliphate, Indian leaders approached him with a request not to undo this great Islamic tradition. But Ghazi Kemal with his principle of "Peace at home, Peace in the world" urged them to abandon this idea in a very important telegram:
'The drama of the centuries, cherished by Muslims that the Caliphate should be an Islamic Government including them all, has never proved realizable. It has become rather a cause of dissention, of anarchy, of war, between the believers. Better apprehended, the interest of all has made clear the truth: that the duty of the Muslims is to arrange distinct governments for themselves The true spiritual bond between them is the conviction that all believers are brethren'.13
A New National Assembly was elected in Turkey on August 11, 1923: It abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924, and expel1ed the new Caliph. Dr. R. Ahmed, a renowned Bengali politician notes that,
'The rise of new Turkey has influenced other Muslim lands very profoundly and has given an impetus to reform in Islamic traditions and customs.'14
The post World War I generation of Bengal had instantly been imbued with the ideas of Ghazi Kemal. It was Kazi Nazrul Islam, celebrated as the rebel poet, who became the first and the chief propagator. He himself was like Kemal's double in the field of contemporary Bengali literature. A passionate poet who revolted against social injustice, inequality, bigotry and religious fanaticism, Kazi Nazrul Islam brought about a new sense of reality in Bengali poetry. He was ful1y aware of the drama of his time, and his poetry and songs, fictions and essays became a means of stirring the people by providing them with an image of our common joys and sorrows. In 1922, he published two lengthy poems entitled "Bidrohi" (The Rebel) and "Kamal Pasha" in the same issue of the quarterly Moslem Bharat; both the poems, exciting and soul-stirring, brought immediate effect on the readers.15
While "Bidrohi" reveals the true identity of a committed humanist, "Kamal Pasha" appears as a short verse drama, rather unique in world literature. At times Kemal has became a Bengali hero here' a 'brother', 'mighty son of a mad mother'; 'mighty or irresistible' because he is empowered with a 'Turkish sword' and he must finish with the bandits who loot the resources of foreign lands as well as subjugate the free people of independent countries; his mother is 'mad' because of affection or of love and worries for her sons. The poem is almost untranslatable but it is quite comprehensive for any casual Bengali reader, although to get a fuller meaning, one has to know Bengali and Urdu, and about the International political situation of the 1920s quite well. Presented as a victory song, here the Turkish soldiers are returning to their camp after having completely destroyed the Greek army; they are singing while marching or rather dancing upholding Kemal in their hands'.
Undoubtedly such a verse-drama could have been written not only because our poet was himself a patriotic young man but also because he had just returned from Karachi military base. Trained as a soldier although without any real war experience, Nazrul Islam could, however, grasp the importance of the coordinated battle strategy of Mustafa Kemal which he thought as the most appropriate path for the freedom of his own country. In an article entitled' "Kamal" he loudly eulogized the heroism of Ghazi Kemal and tried to depict him as a truly Muslim hero.16
Even a year before the composition of "Kamal Pasha", the poet published a poem called "Qurbani" where he evoked the young Turks' struggle for existence.17 Another excellent poem, "Ronobheri" came out at the time while Nazrul Islam had learned that a decision was made to send ten thousand volunteers to help Kemal Pasha in the war against the Greeks.18 In an article entitled "Tourko Mohilar Ghomta Khola" he upheld the extra ordinary charm of the Turkish ladies and the idea of their coming out to participate in the ordinary working life with men, leaving aside the custom of purdah.19
Hence, since the beginning of his literary career, we find Kazi Nazrul Islam as a Kemalist. In fact, he was the first in Bengal to initiate the idea of Kemalism which incorporated the ideals of extreme patriotism, liberal and logical sense of judgement and lofty humanism.20 In his vision, Kemal was Kamal (fulfilled/successful) as he could put this ideas into action with success.
Names of two grand figures among the Bengali intelligentsia, both mentors and admirers of Kazi Nazrul Islam, may be mentioned here. They are Syed Ismail Hossain Shiraji (1880-1931) and Kazi Abdul Wadud (1894-1970).
The first one, Shiraji was a courageous and a colourful leader in the social, political and intellectual life of the Muslims of Bengal. In 1912 he went to Turkey alongwith Dr. Mukhtar Ahmed Ansary and Moulana Mohammed Ali, famous Muslim leaders both of whom later became Presidents of Indian National Congress. They went to Turkey as representatives of All India Red Crescent Society. Working in the Balkan War-Front, Shiraji's services were specially recommended to the Sultan of Turkey to decorate him with the title of Ghazi and many valuable gifts. His adventurous voyage was written lucidly in his travelogue on Turkey (Volume 1), a book on Turkish women and another on manners and etiquette. Unfortunately, three of his later works - the Turkish travelogue (Volume 2), Turkish diary and on New Turkey remained unpublished so far.
Shiraji, a very fiery orator and a generous soul was well-known for his activities to regenerate the spirit of his countrymen as well as to fight for the liberation of his country from the British occupation. His daughter, Syeda Ferdous Mahal wrote in her memoirs that Shiraji collected funds from the public with contributions from his savings and sent a purse to Kemal Pasha as help towards his efforts to get rid of the enemies of Turkey. As the amount was not a big one, he had asked the Turkish leader to keep it secret. Kemal Pasha supposed to have acknowledged it. She now discloses that the amount was Rupees 10,000/- which is equivalent to Taka 50,000,00/- or say US $ 1,00,000/today.21
Notwithstanding what we have said so far, Ataturk's influence on Bengali intellectuals or masses was rather superficial until 1926. No doubt, he was considered as one of the greatest heroes of all times in the history of mankind. His patriotism and stern action to drive away the inertia of his people was overwhelmingly appreciated by the downtrodden and desperate people of Bengal who as we have observed had traditionally remained friendly and respectful to their brethren in Turkey. But now came the time to implant more in-depth impact on a whole community, if not the total population of Bengal. Kazi Abdul Wadud, The second man we have named, himself a writer and an educationist of first order, wrote in this connection:
'The years 1926-27, a time when Nazrul was deep in mass contact witnessed the rise of a small group of Muslim thinkers in the University area of Dacca. "Emancipation of the Intellect" was their watchword and they proclaimed themselves "Kemalists". They were able at the time to influence Muslim youth towards a distinctive line of thinking.'22
Known as the Shikha (the flame) group, following their journal or as members of the Muslim Sahitya Somaj (Muslim Literary Society), some students, teachers, and intellectuals drew inspiration from Kemal Ataturk, Raja Rammohan Ray, Rabindra Nath Tagore and Romain Rolland, besides the classical examples they occasionally cited from the Prophet Muhammad (Sm), Persian poet Sa'adi or the German renaissance figure Goethe. Kazi Abdul Wadud was however, the most respected guide of this group and the chief Kemalist.
We would bring out the essence of K. A. Wadud's thought process from three of his many seminal essays. The first one, "On Mustafa Kemal" was published some seventy-four years ago. The very first lines of the essay indicate the stern method of Ataturk how he shunned 'the demands, applications weeping, shouting and jumping of the Muslim world, particularly of the Indian Muslims to keep the Caliphate which was ridiculous to the World of Powers'. However, the young poet Nazrul Islam voiced the feeling of the right thinking people of everywhere. Arguments against the detractor of Kemal Pasha who criticize his so called 'un-Islamic activities', 'imitations of the West', 'secularism, etc. are advanced. According to K. A. Wadud, Ataturk is 'an exceptional artist at the threshold of a new era for the reconstruction of the Muslim world very boldly and soberly.'24
In his article entitled, "Poth 0 Patheyo" (roads and money or food for the road) which is mainly about Iqbal as a promising intellectual leader of the Islamic world, Abdul Wadud writes, 'Perhaps there are not enough true admirers of Mustafa Kamal among Indian Muslims-if we are to listen to the Ulema, the leaders and the editors. Yet the young Muslims seem to look at him with respect, even if they do not completely realize the meaning of  his programme of action.'25
K. A. Wadud was even astonished to find that Iqbal, having had critical observation about the future of Turkey, still approved that in achieving a Renaissance of Islam ... 'we too one day, like the Turks, will have to reevaluate our intellectual inheritance ... The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber and attained to self-consciousness. She alone has passed from the ideal to the real-a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle. To her the growing complexities of a mobile and broadening life are sure to bring new situations suggesting new points of view, and necessitating fresh interpretation of principles which are only of an academic interest to a people who have never experienced the joy of spiritual expansion. It is, I think, the English thinker Hobbes who makes this acute observation that to have a succession of identical thoughts and feelings is to have no thoughts and feelings at all. Such is the lot of most Muslim countries today. They are mechanically repeating old values, whereas the Turkey is on the way to creating new values'.26
In another article, Kazi Abdul Wadud forecasts that despite the stronghold of Wahabite revivalism the unprecedented success of Kemal's scientism and nationalism would exercise its appropriate influence over the Muslim world in due course.27
To sum up, the ideals of the Kemalists of Bengal are, therefore, in politics, to appreciate the harmony of the religious communities and the institutions of the modern democracy by reinforcing the struggle for the liberation; in literature, their efforts had been characterized by a direct cooperation with the Hindus not without posing for them the question of persistent inequality between the two communities. They would also look for aesthetic research of high order on thoughtfully selective lines in between the Eastern and Western traditions. Hence, the promoters of the movement would have liked to integrate the secular elements, all the same, continuing to work for a social renewal.'28 
The Kemalist movement was quite active for about a decade, almost up to the death of their great preceptor Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1938. The annual sessions were considered as noteworthy events in Dhaka, the first one was attended by the most popular poet of the time Kazi Nazrul Islam and the tenth one by the most celebrated novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee.
Among other Kemalists we must mention at least the names of the mathematician and writer Dr. Kazi Motahar Hossain (editor of the Shikha), poet and essayist Syed Motahar Hossain Chowdhury, intellectual and educationist Shamsul Huda, novelist and essayist Abul Fazal, lawyer and thinker Syed Abul Hossain. They alongwith their enthusiastic followers tried their best to awake the society from its lethargic slumber. Of all the partisans of the movement, Syed Abul Hossain seemed to be the most brilliant and outspoken. Although a practicing Muslim himself, he used to disseminate the idea, at the risk to be condemned by the orthodoxy that the evolution of the human being has no limit and that one can enrich oneself more and more with the attributes of God (Takhallaku bi akhlakillah)'.29
The orthodoxy did not remain idle after the third annual session of the group. Henceforward, the activities of the Kemalists remained rather clandestine. Even among the moderate and liberal members of the population of India at large, fanatic sentiments grew more wider since 1937 and afterwards.
The influence of Ataturk on Hindu intellectuals was invisible or very nominal. During this period they were more inclined to either the non-violence movement of M. K. Gandhi, or to the Marxist socialism on the other.
Moreover, the extremist or rather obscurantist terrorist movements among the Hindus, contemporary to the rise of Mustafa Kemal may also have contributed to be neglectful so as to his ideals. However, poet Satyen Dutt wrote an excellent "Song of the New Turks" in Bengali. We must not forget that the Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore sent a touching message after the sad demise of Kemal Ataturk.'30
For the Muslims of Bengal, Mustafa Kemal has ever remained a legendary figure. His influence had always been felt when there was search for the ideas of liberty, democracy and secularism. So, tributes to him in the form of poems, essays, dramas or even comments in other writings are abundant. In this connection, we shall mention Ibrahim Khan's drama, Kamal Pasha which was quite popular for sometime. Ibrahim Khan was also a very respected educator and writer. Last but not the least, we would like to name one woman activist, Begum Shamsun Nahar Mahmud (1908-1964) who was a celebrity for her contributions in social, political and intellectual fields. In 1934, Madame Khaleda Edib Hanum whose daughter of Smarna was translated into Bengali, was a distinguished visitor in Calcutta and she exchanged ideas with Begum Mahmud. In 1952, while the latter visited Turkey, both the famous ladies met again. On return, Begum Mahmud describes her experiences of the land visited and its people in an excellent travelogue entitled, Amar Dekha Turosko.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is thus remembered by the Bengali-speaking people of Bangladesh and India. Even today, his name is so evocative that many people name their sons after him; there is even a college in his name in one of the provincial towns of Bangladesh and an avenue in the capital itself.
1. R.C. Majumder, ed. The History of Bengal, Vol-I, University of Dhaka, 1953; p. 223.
2. Dr. Ishtiaque Hussain Qureshi, The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947): A Brief Historical Analysis; The Hague, Mouton & Co. 1962, p. 255-278.
3. Dr. Rafiuddin Ahmed, "Romance of New Turkey", India and the World (ed. Dr. Kalidas Nag), Calcutta., September, 1932, p. 202-204.
4. Ibid.
5. Mahmud Shah Qureshi, Etude sur L 'evolution chez les Musulmans du Bengale, 1857-1947, Paris-La Haye, Mouton & Co., 1971, p. 143.
6. Dr. R. C. Majumdar, ed; The History of Bengal, vol. I, University of Dhaka, 1953, p.223.
7. CF 1ndian Historical Quarterly, June 1954, p. 133 sq.
8. As quoted by Dr. M. Mohar Ali in his History of the Muslims of Bengal, vol. I A; Imam Muhammad Ibn Sa'ud Islamic University, Riyadh; 1983; p. 51.
9. Dr. Ishtiaque Hussain Qureshi, The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947): A Brief Historical Analysis: The Hague, Mouton & Co., 1962, p. 255-278.
10. C.J. O'Donnel (M.P), The Causes of Present Discontents in India; London 1908; p. 631.
11. On this subject, an important document is preserved in the library of the Institute National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), Paris: Le Traite de Paix Avec la Turquie et I 'attitude des Musulmans del 'Inde. Adresse presentee par la deputation du Congres national del 'Inde pour la defense du califat au vice-roi a Delhi, Ie 19 janvier 1920 (Paris, Bureau d'information islamique).
12. Cf. Eslamabadi (Maulana Muniruzzaman), "Khelafat", Al Eslams, Boishakh, 1327 (1920) as quoted by Anisuzzaman, Muslim Banglar Samayik Potro (1831-1930), Dhaka, Bangla Academy, 1969, p . 184.
13. As quoted by Dr. Rafiuddin Ahmed, "Romance of new Turkey", India and the World (ed. Dr. Kalidas Nag), Calcutta, Sept. 1932, p. 202.
14. ibid., p. 204.
15. Kartik, 1328 of the Bengali calendar. Professor Abul Fazal, an ardent Kemalist and a reknown writer of later years confirms this in his autobiography; cf. Rekhacitro, Chittagong: Boi Ghar; 1968, p. 87
16. By-weekly Dhumketu (edited by Kazi Nazrul Islam) Calcutta: Ashvin 30, 1329.
17. Cf. Abdul Kadir, Nazrul Rochonaboli 1, Dhaka: Central Bengali Development Board, 1966; p.727.
18. Ibid. pp. 38-41.
19. Ibid, pp711-714.
20. Abdul Kadir, Editor's preface, op. cit.
21 Cf. Prekkon (ed K. A. Momen): Dhaka, Oct-Dec., 1997 pp.51, 107.
22. K. A. Wadud, Creative Bengal; Calcutta: Thacker Spink, 1950; p.13.
23. Mahmud Shah Qureshi, op.cit.
24. K. A. Wadud, Shashat Bongo; Calcutta, 1358 (1951), p. 371 (367-373).
25. Ibid., p. 228.
26. As quoted from Iqbal's Six Lectures on the Reconstruction of Religious thought in Islam by K. A. Wadud in Shashat Bongo, op. cit.; p. 230.
27. Ibid., p.112.
28. M. S. Qureshi, op. cit., p. 143.
29. Ibid, p.147.
30. We could not collect the message but we learn from the authentic biography of Tagore that following the reception of the news of Kemal Ataturk's death, schools at Santiniketan remained closed on November 18, 1938 and Tagore made a short speech in a condolence meeting. (Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadyay, Rabindra Jivani, Vol. IV [1417 B.S.]: pp. 161-163)

(The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Language, Communication and Culture Gono Bishwabidyalay, Savar Dhaka)
-(Journal of the Faculty of Basic and Social Sciences, Vol 1, No. 1. Gono Bishwabidyalay)

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