TAPSA: Ethnographic Untouchables: Raciology, Ancestry, and Estrangement in Muslim Bengal: 1872–1905

November 17, 2022, 5pm

Foster Hall 103

Tamir Reza

PhD Student, SALC

A Bengali Muslim poet and essayist, Nowsher Ali Khan Yusufzai (1864-1924) wrote the following verse in a 1905 poetry anthology: “O India, the garden of eternal flowering, farewell, farewell, farewell now/ We had stayed for too long here, as your favorite guests.” That Yusufzai saw himself as a guest may appear puzzling. He was, after all, born and raised in rural Tangail, a subdivision of the Bengal province in British India. The connections that Yusufzai and his contemporaries drew between foreign ancestry of Bengali Muslims and their feelings of estrangement in a land they inhabited for generations seem to vindicate conventional wisdom about Muslim separatist tendencies and extraterritorial affinities. Based on a rich and varied archive, I argue in this paper that the feelings of estrangement and projections about foreign ancestry among Bengal Muslims were imbricated in a complex and multifaceted history—above all, they were embedded in the evolving knowledge of colonial raciology, supplemented by what I call an “Islamicate prototype of raciology” and a “discourse of pollution”. I bring together two narrative threads that have remained discrete in existing historiography: the first has to do with claims made by colonial administrators that the majority of Bengali Muslims were lower castes—“outcastes”—converts; a second thread concerns the development of a colonial raciology.