Identity and Politics in Eastern India

For hundreds of years before the British rule, there had seldom been major social disturbances and communal conflicts in Bihar, involving the two important religious groups, namely Hindus and Muslims. The reason was simple: a strong socio-economic interdependence. Production was organized primarily to meet the local needs. The role of market and money was limited mainly to facilitating the exchange of goods and services. There were very few needs for which people were dependent on the outside world. One of the goods brought from outside was salt. Even land rent was paid in produce, i.e., Bhowlee system of rent was in vogue. Market was thus, to borrow Karl Polanyi’s terminology, embedded in the society. As is known, land was not an object of sale and purchase, i.e., it was not a commodity. All members of the society, irrespective of their castes and religions, were dependent on one another. If there was any disturbance, the interests of all including the rulers were to be adversely affected.

Another fact to be noted is that the proportion of the descendents of the immigrants constituted a very tiny proportion of the total Muslim population in Bihar. The local converts were in overwhelming numbers. The conversion to Islam was due to a number of factors in which the role of force was seldom significant. In conversions, Sufi saints played a major role. The influence of Sufism cut across the barriers of religions and castes. To cite just one example, in Mehsi town of East Champaran district, the Dargah of Halim Shah is revered by both Hindus and Muslims. This shrine predates the establishment of Muslim rule over the district. At the entrance is the Samadhi of Mahesh, the chief disciple of Halim Shah, who did not convert to Islam and, according to popular belief, as per the mandate of Halim Shah, people entering the Dargah have to offer floral tributes first to Mahesh. The town is named after him. Such shrines are scattered throughout Bihar in dozens. As is common knowledge, both the communities took part in each other’s religious festivals with great devotion and enthusiasm.

The social fabric of the state started weakening after the establishment of the British rule, which, in turn, began destroying the existing structure and organization of production. Market gradually became disembedded from the society and the production for market took strong roots after the introduction of commercial crops like poppy, indigo, sugarcane, jute, tobacco etc. and the mode of rent payment changed from Bhowlee to Nakadi. Handicrafts decayed or were destroyed. The introduction of the Permanent Settlement weakened the traditional socio-economic interdependence and the British government, after the revolt of 1857, which demonstrated the unity of both the communities against the foreign rule, began a conscious policy of sowing the seeds of discord between the two. Even then it took a long time for the British to achieve its goal. As late as 1917, during the Champaran Satyagrah of Mahatma Gandhi, it could not succeed in breaking the unity of the two communities. Among the prominent lieutenants of Gandhi were Pir Muhammad Moonis and Sheikh Gulab who refused to succumb to the pressures from the British. Gandhi’s cook Buttuck Mian, though very poor, refused to be bribed into poisoning Gandhi.

The British, however, began achieving success from this time onwards. The first major expression of this came in the form of Shahabad communal riots of 1917 that took a heavy toll of human lives and property. From then onwards, communal chasm went on increasing and, even after the partition of the country, it has not stopped. The emergence of communal forces and organizations in both the religious groupings was actively encouraged by the British and the indigenous vested interests. They were provided with ‘sophisticated-looking theories and rationalizations’ to carry on their divisive activities. Even after more than six decades of the end of the British rule, communal divisions are not only there but also bursting, off and on, in violent forms. This is simply because the ideas and organizations left behind by them have been in tact, nay, getting strengthened.

This has been brought forth by Prof. Papiya Ghosh who met her tragic death a few years ago at a young age. At the time of her death, she was engaged in a serious study as to how and why Bihar’s social fabric was damaged by the virus of communalism. She had already published a number of research papers that had aroused great expectations from her.

The book under review contains ten papers by her, focusing on the rise of Muslim separatism, culminating in the partition of the country, and the exodus of Bihari Muslims mostly to the newly-created eastern wing of Pakistan. They deal, in great details, in the rising tensions and alienations between the two communities, leading to large-scale riots during 1946-47, taking heavy toll of lives and property. She has described at length the fate of the emigrants before and after the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh. They could not easily adjust themselves to environment of East Pakistan. Their language and culture proved to be insurmountable barriers. As Ms Ghosh has explained, most of the Bihari Muslim migrants to East Pakistan were from the lower economic strata of the society with no great skills which created difficulties for them in securing the avenues of livelihood. The rich had opted for West Pakistan, hoping that with their higher economic status and skills, they would be accommodated among the ruling strata, but their expectations failed to materialize and they, like their inferior socio-economic counterparts in East Pakistan remained alienated and this alienation continues even after more than six decades. While the former have not been able to get rid of their refugee status, the latter have met a worse fate, termed as agents of Pakistan; they have not been granted citizenship rights by Bangladesh while Pakistan has refused to allow most of them to enter it. A tiny number could succeed, with great difficulty, in returning to Bihar. Thus Ms Ghosh has brought home the point that the movement for Pakistan in which Muslim leaders and population of Bihar played a very important role led to great frustrations for them. Besides, Bihari society has been irreparably damaged and a space has come to be appropriated by communalists, be they Hindus or Muslims.

The first paper in the book discusses the theoretical basis of the separatist movement. Those who wanted a separate homeland argued that the Muslims constituted a nation of their own and they did not have much in common with their Hindu neighbours with whom they had lived for hundreds of years. To them, religion was the most important determinant of their identity. This proposition was not acceptable to the Jamiyat-al-Ulma and the Momin Conference. Looking at the socio-economic complexion of the protagonists and the opponents of Muslims as a separate nation, one finds that the former were mostly from the strata, comprising zamindars, businessmen and the English educated lawyers and civil servants, while the latter were tenants, labourers, handicraftsmen and so on and comprised what came to be known as Pasmanda Muslims. While the protagonists were not vociferous against foreign rule, the antagonists actively worked for Independence of India. To quote Ms Ghosh, "The Jamiyat-al-ulma … worked out a theory of Islamic nationalism, grounded in the basic tenets of Islam that is deployed against imperialism and subsequently the Muslim League’s communalism. Thus an important section of the ulama did not perceive their role only in relation to the community. They developed a theory of composite nationalism and intervened in politics through an integrated alliance with other groups and communities. Thus it was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s view that the prophet’s covenant with the people of Medina [AD 628], which included the Jews and pagans, was valid as a precedent for other situations and in other lands in the subsequent history of Islam and was, in particular, pertinent in India." Further, "Azad’s rallying point in forging Hindu-Muslim unity for the Khilafat movement was that the divide was not one between Muslim and non-Muslims but between those who do not attack Muslims (the Hindus) and those who do (the British). This he supported with a quranic quotation."

Similarly, Hussain Ahmad Madani underlined that Indian Muslims, in spite of following a different religion, were one with the Hindus in the endeavour to create a society and administration equally beneficial to both of them. "To the extent that contemporary nations were formed and defined by reference to land, Muslims were not a nation…. However, as a millat (religious community) they could co-exist with other religious communities not as a qaum (nation) in the modern sense, but as a qaum in the Quranic sense, that is, as part of a confederation of religious communities."

A.Q. Ansari who led the Momin Conference, comprising Muslim weavers and other handicraftsmen rejected the claim of the Muslim League to speak on behalf of the Muslims in general. In fact, according to him, it represented the upper socio-economic strata of the community (i.e., sharif), not the laboring population (razil).

Thus Ms Ghosh rightly concludes: "The inflation of religion to a foundational status in communitarian-identitarian and communal politics negated a whole range of social process that cross-cut the redefining and reformation of major religions in nineteenth-century north India. Homogenizing attempts succeeded only in segmentary ways. Given the deeply fractured and fragmented internal structures of the Muslim community, the organization of Muslims as a religious collectivity was and is based on mistaken assumptions. This the muhajirs, Partition’s refugees in Pakistan and Bangladesh, are still bitterly coming to terms with."

Though the first major Hindu-Muslim riots occurred in 1917 in the then Shahabad district, they could not cause a permanent breach between the two communities as was evident from the popular participation of both communities in Rowlatt satyagrah and Non-co-operation/Khilafat movement. This alarmed the British government which prompted both Hindu and Muslim communal outfits to cause dissensions and bring about a permanent breach. Big zamindars and traders on both sides became the instruments in the hands of the British. Hindu zamindars and traders patronized the Hindu Mahasabha while the Muslim ones promoted the Muslim League. To begin with, when communal characters of these outfits were not clear, a number of Congress leaders, without hesitation, associated themselves with either of them. In the 1930s they contested elections on either Hindu or Muslim planks. Except a few leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, Madani, etc. there was no sustained campaign by the Congress in Bihar to educate the masses of the real character of communalism and the dangers emanating from it. Whenever disputes involving religion took place, attempts were made to defuse the situation and pacify the masses, incited by communal propaganda. In fact, both Hindu and Muslim communalism fed each other. In communal riots, as it became crystal clear in 1946-47, it was the common masses that suffered. They lost lives, homes and movable and immovable property. Age-old bonds between the two communities were weakened and economic interdependence destroyed.

After Independence, the Congress successfully co-opted the leaders of communal outfits in the mistaken belief that it would cement the gap. On the one hand, the zamindars like Maharaja of Darbhanga and Kumar Ganganand Singh and the leaders like Jagat Narayan Lall, actively associated with Hindu communal outfits were given important positions, on the other, a prominent functionary of Bihar Muslim League, Jafar Imam, was inducted into the Congress and made a minister. It is needless to add that the erstwhile zamindars and businessmen, actively associated with communal outfits, rushed into the Congress and grabbed positions of power and influence. This had long-term implications and in the course of time eroded the mass base of the Congress. The seeds of poison sown by leaders like B.S. Moonje, V.D.Savarkar, Jagat Narayan Lall, Jafar Imam, Latifur Rahman, Abdul Aziz, etc. have not been eliminated even till today. Ms Ghosh has underlined this time and again.

Papers 4, 6 and 7 need to be read and pondered over carefully by all those who value secularism as the basis of our polity and realize that, without strengthening secularism, no sustained and rapid economic progress is possible. Every student of economic history knows that during the two centuries that comprise the period of modern economic growth, secularism has been one of the indispensable ideas. It implies the disengagement of society from religion that withdraws to its own separate sphere and becomes a matter for private life, acquires a wholly inward character and ceases to influence any aspect of social life outside of religion itself (Hamilton, Malcolm B., The Sociology of Religion, London, 1995, p. 166).

To strengthen secularism, it is necessary that one understands the nature and character of communalism and the factors that give rise to it and strengthen it. Looking at the fate of Pakistan and its present situation and the plight of its erstwhile protagonists, one can realize the damage it has done to the Indian subcontinent. Ms Papiya Ghosh’s book is a very valuable addition to our knowledge and there is an urgent need to continue the study begun by her and this will be the appropriate homage to her memory.

Girish Mishra

M-112 Saket,

New Delhi-110017



Leave a comment