Book Review: The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906, A Quest for Identity by Rafiuddin Ahmed

In these difficult days what does one do if not read? The only way to keep your mind off these extremely depressing times…

At the outset must confess, it is a fabulous book. It deals with the the development of Muslim communal consciousness in Bengal during the period 1870’s leading finally to the partition of Bengal. Drawing from hitherto unused primary sources, Ahmed tries to analyze the reason that contributed to the development of this communal consciousness amongst the Muslims of Bengal. This was not something natural he argues and states that ‘the objective differences between the two communities at the mass level were not by themselves strong enough to induce mutual conflict..it was only through skill manipulation of certain religious symbols and constant ideological propaganda that latent differences could be articulated and later used as a potent instrument in the conflict..’

The main reasons according to him were as follows;

1. Muslims in Bengal experienced a profound change in their religious ideology and social mores during the latter half of the 19th century which was induced by the religious reform movements of which the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya and Fairazi were the most prominent. These movements intended to purge the Muslim society of its age old un-Islamic beliefs and practices. Their principle ire was directed against the Pirs and the syncretic ‘Sufi’ Islam which was dominant in Bengal. These reformers joined forces with the itinerant religious preachers and village mullahs who commanded a great deal of influence on the Muslim peasantry. These preachers not only stressed on ridding Islam of all un-Islamic accretions from local beliefs and practices, but also prompted the masses to look beyond the borders of Bengal for their glorious Islamic past. Islamic identity as opposed to a Bengali identity was stressed upon, leading to the development of an exclusivist and separate Muslim identity. Open debates or Bahas in public gatherings were held as a means to establish proper definition of a Muslim, in which the local mullah was an active participant. All the so called Hindu accretions and practices, names, culture, even language was derisively rejected and Muslims were asked to desist from using them.

2. The Ashrafs who had been most hard hit by the establishment of the British rule enthusiastically joined and facilitated the ‘separatism’ bandwagon, when they realized that appeals to the majority Atraps/Ajlafs could be conveniently made on religion against the the Hindu Bhadralok, with whom they were locked in competition for jobs and political representation. The author argues that this was a tactical ploy to use the Muslim majority by the Ashrafs, who shared nothing in common with them, nor were even remotely concerned about their their socio economic upliftment. The book provides instances where the Ashrafs openly opposed teaching of these Atraps/Ajlafs beyond the primary schools, lest it destabilize society. They facilitated/established Anjumans who played an important role in carrying forward the agenda of Muslim separatism and exclusivity.

3. This ideological agenda was supplemented by the clash of economic interests between the predominantly Muslim peasantry and Hindu Bhadralok landlords and moneylenders, the grievances of the former soon acquiring a communal colour, such communal sentiments were further nurtured and promoted by the Ashrafs and the Anjumans.

4. The colonial government, on the demands of the Muslim notables, started a policy of preferential treatment for the Muslim community, both in education and for political representation. Instead of assuaging the Muslim insecurity, this in turn further heightened facilitating enhanced Muslim exclusivity. The author argues that the Ashrafs in Bengal suffered from a degree of xenophobia, even though they constituted a majority in the province. He states that these Ashrafs fundamentally derived their attitude from the UP Muslims, who by any standards were an extremely privileged minority, demanding ‘adequate’ representation for themselves in the services as well as in the elected bodies, in excess of their numerical proportion to protect their future in a Hindu majority province.

5. The rise of nationalism in Bengal, the leadership of which at times used symbols and slogans which could be construed as Hindu, like Kali Puja, use of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata, also became a source of Muslim alienation, not only from the national movement but also from the Hindus. One major cause of communal tension also leading to major riots, revolved around the issue of cow slaughter; the Muslims insisting on it while the Hindus opposing it. The hardliners of both the communities took an uncompromising stand on it, leading to massive and murderous communal riots in many places of Bengal.

A wonderful read.

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