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Response to Review of Recasting the Region: Language, Culture and Islam in Colonial Bengal

I thank Dr. Markus Daechsel for his thoughtful and finely tuned reading of my book. Dr. Daechsel offers a generous and detailed engagement with my work as well as offers two particular points of departure, regarding sympathy with one’s historical subjects and the status of regional studies in South Asian history.

Dr. Daechsel argues that my own writing is ‘driven by a highly sympathetic understanding of the people and ideas presented’. On this point of overt sympathy with my subjects – Muslim intellectuals writing in Bengali in the late colonial period – I am guilty as charged. I did choose to write singularly about Muslims who wrote in Bengali but not, as is implied by this critique, to simply promote Muslim voices as if a quota of ‘Muslim’ writers/works/experiences would fix the Hindu-centric historiography of Bengal that historians of the modern world have to contend with. Rather, my book is an exploration of the very nature of a presumed regional identity’s role in South Asia when those positioned as ‘Muslim’ understood themselves as ‘Bengali’. When the burden is placed on what Muslims were actually writing, as opposed to simply following an assumption born out of either what is a national, post-1971 Bangladeshi identity (which I emphatically oppose, as Daechsel does recognize), then the regional complex of knowledge is itself held up to scrutiny, given not only the challenge to Hindu hegemony, but the very trans-regional, and fraught relationship with both Bengali and Muslim components of a potential identity. The goal of my work was to show how terms like ‘Bengali’ and ‘Muslim’ are quite meaningless on their own in terms of identity formation, and that investigating how Muslim intellectuals in the late colonial period thought about these issues in the Bengali language, yields reflection for future study on the under-conceptualized notion of a ‘region’ in South Asian historiography.

As Daechsel states, I do not analyze in any depth what constitutes a ‘Bengali’, and for this, I am accused of reifying the very identity I wish to problematize. I chose to delimit the ‘Bengalis’ via those who wrote in Bengali, and who cared deeply about Bengali (evidenced by ways they wrote in the language and wrote about its literatures), and who saw in the language a historically embedded critique of power relations. Given that the Bengali language has been the source of assumptions around Hindu hegemony and simultaneously assumptions about Bangladeshi nationalism, I chose to delimit my study using language as a parameter. The non-Bengali speaking and writing residents of Bengal (as Daeschsel correctly notes, reflective of a shifting geography) are therefore, categorically excluded from my vision. Shifting the focus to a broader understanding of the region that transcends the linguistic category would comprise a compelling intervention, but such an approach would lie outside the scope of the study. Also, viewing the marker of religion as a malleable point of reference points to other markers, such as caste, that have been obscured in the historiography of modern South Asia and could potentially reshape studies of the region in South Asia once the role of language in this region has been explored, heretofore primarily in reference to caste Hindus only. In this endeavor, the book follows, rather than overturns, scholarship in other regions such as the Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kashmir, and Tamil Nadu. The book’s singular focus on Muslims writing in Bengali, and not only writing in Bengali as if it were a blank vessel of communication, but rather a set of discursive parameters already constituted by particular power relations, therefore aims to contribute to a revised understanding of how regions in South Asia have been historically constituted as a part of, yet distinguished from, the history of nationalisms. As Daechsel himself notes, I demonstrate that Muslim intellectuals writing in Bengali confronted, examined, and ultimately used Bengali in multi-lingual contexts, and within a broad Muslim, and multi-religious landscape, and not at all determined by a pre-history of a monolingual or mono-religious nation-state. For me, identifying this history ultimately recasts any notion of a region that is uncritically tied to a later articulation of a nation-state. Sorting out details about the next layer of analysis will have to wait for future scholarship on the topic.