Sunamganj may be the fascinating gateway to some of the most outstanding natural scenery in Bangladesh, but the number of historic buildings in the small town offer up a clue to a past that maybe hard to visualize in today’s small country town. It has its own history, unique, distinctive, and, in its own way, the epitome of a much wider history.
The history of mankind is littered with struggles for liberation from real, or perceived, oppression.
One of the claims to fame of the people of the lands of Bangladesh, and perhaps, in the great sweep of history, arguably the greatest, was the success of the kingdom, then known as Gangaridai, in the 4th century BCE, being the first to confront the army of Alexander the Great, and protected by the great Ganges, and the threat of their own large army, recorded by Greek and Roman historians as comprising infantry, cavalry, chariots and war elephants, put them into retreat. The first in the world to do so.
In more modern history, the movement of the people to conserve their language, their economy, and their own unique heritage, from the depredations of Pakistan, resulting in the Liberation War of 1971, and securing their freedom from outside oppression, laid the foundations for the nation of Bangladesh.
But, as one of the world’s greatest centres of trade from 2nd millennium BCE, right up to more modern times, and with one of the world’s more fertile lands, rich in agriculture and peoples, unsurprisingly, from the Khilji invaders of 12th century, Mughal of the 16th century, and British of the 18th century, they have found the need to constantly reassert their own liberties.
It was the Mughal rulers who confirmed the system of land holding that, right up until recent times bore a remarkable resemblance to what was known, more famously, in Europe, as the feudal system, administered by Zaminders, land holders who, owing tribute to the government, operated tenure on the same basis, with rents payable in kind, whether in produce, or labor, or both.
Such systems can offer security, when properly organised, depending on the degree to which the superior recognises the responsibilities that come with their rights. And, of course, the history of the world, right up to the present day, is rife with abuse.
But, in 1922, Sunamganj was at the centre of a movement, similar to others across the Indian subcontinent, as, over the centuries, across much of the developing world.
Known as the Nankar Rebellion, deriving from the local language of ,’nan’, for bread, and ‘kar’ for rent, which describes the system, under the Zamindari, established by the Mughals, for rents paid in kind or labor Especially in the rapidly developing economy enjoyed by India, at times, within the British Empire, although such rents were supposed to be fixed, unscrupulous landlords found ways around them, and, in some cases, somewhat unscrupulous tenants found the concept burdensome when they had better markets for their produce, and more profitable means of using their own labor.
Assignment of the dues, by the landlords, in payment for other services, such as those of their personal staff, also, inevitably, led to circumstances of abuse.
And it was in Sunamganj that such tensions erupted, although,in fact, like so often, the immediate cause of the uprising had nothing to do with financial arrangements.
Photo Courtesy: Kumar Bishwajit
Like Feudal overlords everywhere in the world, abuse of rights and privileges were commonplace. The cause of this outbreak was the kidnapping of a woman from a ‘nankar’ family by a Zaminder. The local nankar men responded by rescuing the woman from the Zaminder’s house. The rest is not hard to imagine; the British authorities probably didn’t approve of the actions of their local Zaminder, but felt bound to support their chosen local authority. The result was just one, of many such events, that only ended with the abolition of the Zamindari following Independence in 1947. Although it might be a brave person who assumed that such abuse of authority doesn't continue everywhere in the world, today.
But this was Sunamganj’s own, small, if not successful, Liberation War, at least assertion of the rights and dignity of the individual in the face of abused authority, and neglected responsibility.