Jute in the Bengal Delta 1850s-1950s


A Review of The Envelope of Global Trade: The Political Economy and Intellectual History of Jute in the Bengal Delta, 1850s to 1950s, by Tariq Omar Ali.

Tariq Omar Ali’s dissertation synthesizes material and intellectual history, recasting the role of global markets in shaping the local history of the Bengal delta. The dissertation traces the ripples of the global production of jute on the delta’s social, economic, and political life. In the late nineteenth century, jute interwove the local space of the delta with markets worldwide. The cultivation and circulation of the fiber transformed the delta’s spaces and peasant politics in meaningful ways. Ali, however, warns that the delta’s global connections did not simply mark its transitions to capitalism. Offering fresh insight, the dissertation points to shifting trends in global markets that rebuilt deltaic spaces and made peasant politics even more dynamic.

The theme of cash crops substituting food crops has informed several scholarly debates in the studies of colonialism. David Washbrook, for instance, has shown peasant differentiation resulting in certain peasants benefitting from the cultivation of cash crops (David Washbrook, The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 68-93). Fred Cooper, on the other hand, has warned against overstating peasant differentiations (Frederick Cooper, “Peasants, Capitalists, and Historians: A Review Article,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 7(2), 1981, pp. 284-314). Ali’s research reveals an economic prosperity that jute offered its cultivators. Shifting focus away from the metropolis, Chapter 1 discusses jute cultivation shaping a distinct peasant “politics of prosperity” (p. 22). Employing the lens of consumption, the chapter shows surplus from jute cultivation enabling peasants to consume market goods alongside the state’s legal and educational services. More importantly, the chapter argues that consumption drove peasants to reject nationalist anti-market ideologies. With peasants increasingly consuming market goods, the delta remained incongruous to the nationalist portrayals of peasant pauperization. This forced the nationalists to target jute cultivators as indulgent, extravagant, and condemn the fiber for the nation’s poverty.

The strength of the dissertation lies in its exploration of a distinct muffasil identity. As gunny bags made their way across the oceans, new market towns or muffasils emerged at the delta’s intersections with the river. Jute traveling from the fields stopped at these muffasil towns for bulking and assorting before reaching the port at Calcutta. With the fiber tightly binding the muffasil with the city, Calcutta emerged as a “deltaic metropolis”(p. 75). At the same time, the fiber also carved a distinct muffasil identity independent of the intellectual ferment taking shape in Calcutta. The cultivation of jute fed popular imagination in the delta, inflecting muffasil self-definitions, peasant politics, and public opinion.

Chapter 2 is a major intervention in reconstructing muffasil nationalist politics. The chapter effectively points to the overlaying of class and religion in muffasil nationalism. When the Swadeshi movement broke out in early twentieth century Calcutta, the nationalists called for boycotting all goods manufactured in Britain. The muffasil middle classes followed similar strategies, forcing their brand of nationalism on the hinterland’s peasants. Their efforts, however, met with little success. Instead, differences of religion between the middle classes and the peasants compounded the nationalist ambitions of peasant mobilization. The muffasil middle classes were mostly Hindus. The peasants, on the other hand, were predominantly Muslims. With the peasants refusing to boycott British goods, what was essentially their rejection of middle-class nationalism now overwrote bigger categories of Muslim resistance to the Hindus.

Following from the intertwining of class and religion, Chapter 3 revises scholarship that describes deltaic politics as communal (Tajul Islam Hashmi, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920-1947. Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1992). Ali argues that peasant immiseration after World War I forced the muffasil intelligentsia to write instructional pamphlets on peasant reform. In a fascinating exploration of these boyans or pamphlets, Ali shows that the authors used the language of Islam to encourage peasants to be more industrious. Describing Islam as a way to self improvement, their writings did little to incite sectarian sentiments. The chapter goes on to argue that communalization of peasant politics took place much later, after 1935, when the communal award carved separate electorates along religious lines in British India.

Chapter 4 explores shifts in the global markets that dictated peasant populism in the delta. After World War II, the state called for an era of restrictionism, ordering peasants to sow less jute. Meanwhile Britain’s declaration of war on Germany improved the market for jute. The Indian jute mill association made a deal with the colonial state to export jute, but the provincial government in Bengal opposed it. Differences between the mill association, and the provincial government implicated the latter with charges of peasant populism and corruption. The chapter locates in these disputes an end to peasant populism.

Chapter 5 points to the overlaps, or the absence thereof, between Pakistan as a territorial entity and a peasant utopia. In 1946, the Muslim League leaders endorsed Pakistan as a just state that protected peasants from exploitative landlords. The chapter shows that when Pakistan finally took shape, it was more than a peasant utopia: it was an “economic territory” that housed a modern state (p. 244). The new government declared national sovereignty over the flow of jute. It drew arbitrary lines through the jute delta imposing strict rules to facilitate the flow of jute. The fiber that was earlier a commodity of the empire now transformed into a national resource. At the same time, Pakistan as a peasant utopia contrasted  with the territorial limits of the newly formed nation-state.

The dissertation is at its best in its methodological innovations. Going beyond studying jute within frameworks of labor history, the dissertation explores new questions of space, peasant politics, and communalism centering jute cultivation in the delta. Weaving together the history of peasant production, political history, and intellectual history, the dissertation traces an autonomous domain of peasant politics. Key to these new understandings are: one, the impacts of global markets on local spaces; and two, the argument that class can be a signifier of religion and vice versa. The dissertation makes possible this new theoretical framework by bringing together the Marxist categories of base/superstructure with spatial categories of the city, hinterland, and the muffasil. Challenging the urban roots of nationalism, the muffasil provides a lens to revise the histories of peasant politics, nationalism, and the birth of postcolonial Pakistan.

Nabaparna Ghosh
Department of History
Princeton University

Primary Sources

National Archives of Bangladesh, Dhaka
National Archives of India, New Delhi
India Office Library and Records, London
Dundee University Archives, Dundee
National Library, India, Kolkata

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 304pp. Primary Advisor: Sugata Bose.

Image: Piles of raw jute warehoused in Faridpur, in present-day Bangladesh. Wikimedia Commons.



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