Nearly 190 years after his death, Syed Mir Nisar Ali, or Titu Mir, a peasant leader, who led the Narkelberia Uprising in 1831 — often considered the first armed peasant uprising against the British — has made a controversial comeback in Bengal’s politics through a chapter in a prescribed tenth grade history textbook.
Celebrated in folklore as a peasant leader, Titu Mir remains a controversial political figure in Bengal for his religious identity as an Islamic preacher after he converted to Wahabism.
The current row has been sparked by the chapter in the textbook, approved by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, that claims Titu Mir “killed” many Hindus and destroyed several temples.
Noted historian and scholar of Islam Gautam Bhadra, who was formerly with the Centre for Studies of Social Sciences, has challenged this assertion, while the Opposition described it as a “distortion of history.”
The chapter, titled Wahhabi Movement in Bengal, states that the Wahhabis under “Titu’s leadership destroyed many Hindu temples and killed several priests”, an assertion that Prof. Bhadra terms “baseless.”
“Titu destroyed one Hindu temple and killed one priest who worked in the temple of a talukdar (tax collector holding land) Deb Roy. (And) that is not because of any communal reason but because of the nature of his movement, [which was] directed against an irrational tax regime implemented by the land holders,” explains Prof. Bhadra, author of Iman O Nishan (Faith and the Flag), on the peasant movements in Bengal (1800-1850) which chronicles the Narkelberia uprising and Titu Mir’s role.
The controversial chapter goes on to say “thousands [and] thousands of poor and backward Muslims” joined Titu’s movement. Taking issue with the statement, Prof. Bhadra said, “Such phrases — ‘thousands (and) thousands’, ‘many’ or ‘several’— have no place in history. It was not the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 when ‘thousands [and] thousands’ would join a movement.”
The chapter further says that the Wahhabi movement “completely collapsed” following Titu’s death, an assessment questioned by Prof. Bhadra. “The Wahhabi movement continued in Bengal well after Titu’s death. There was a setback only in Barasat, following Titu’s death. The section is badly written,” Prof. Bhadra argues.
In his essay, Titu Meer’s Rebellion: A profile (1983), Prof. Atis Dasgupta, formerly with the Sociological Research Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, says Titu Mir adopted Wahhabism, and advocated Sharia laws, bypassing the “tradition of folkish Islam in Bengal”.
However, Dr. Dasgupta locates Mir’s revolt in the larger context of uprisings of peasants in Bengal, who were the first to suffer the impact of colonial systems of taxation and agricultural extraction. Dr Dasgupta writes that Mir refused to pay the enhanced tax imposed on poor peasants in North 24 Paraganas district and then organised and led protests, which irked the land holders, both Hindu and Muslim. Eventually the zamindars and British administrators jointly mobilised forces against Titu.
The essay records that a large British force was sent by Governor General William Bentinck to Narkelberia which laid seige to Titu’s bamboo fortress on November 18, 1831. The assault began on the morning of November 19 and continued for three hours.
Finally the fortress fell and Titu was bayoneted to death; 50 of his comrades were killed. At least 800 of Titu’s soldiers were captured and 140 were sent to prison.
In his extensively researched profile of Titu Mir, Dr. Dasgupta concludes, “In the stormy annals of anti-colonial peasant struggles in our country, Titu Meer and [his] Wahabi followers appeared as petrels with a message for a future peasant society, shorn of repression and exploitation.”
Given his complex historical identity as a peasant leader and an Islamic preacher, Titu Mir continues to present a problem for successive Bengal governments, which explains the absence of memorials even in Narkelberia.
The tone of the present chapter has prompted not just academic dissent but also political protests. Questioning the veracity of the information, CPI(M) State secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra tweeted that the “distortions of History continue in Bengal school text books”. He went on to charge that the Trinamool Congress government was colluding with Bharatiya Janata Party to communalise the State.
“Secular leader of d [the] oppressed Titu Mir [is] branded communal. A TMC-BJP joint venture,” Mr. Mishra tweeted.
Several calls made to reach Biswajit Bag, the author of the chapter went unanswered.