Excerpts: Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857

The following has been excerpted from Mohammad Sajjad’s Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857  published by Primus (Ratnasagar): Delhi 2014, pp. xviii+265.

Contesting ColonialismThis monographic account on the Muslim communities of Muzaffarpur in north Bihar explores its history (1857-2012),  the socio-political behaviour, economic conditions and negotiation for share in power-structure, in three segments: (a) political evolution of the locality during the colonial era explaining the sub-regional socio-political setting; (b) their  participation  in  the  Congress-led movements till the 1930s,  (and tells largely untold story of Muslim resistance to League’s communal politics of territorial separatism despite their grievances against and alienation from the Congress during 1937–47); and (c) the post-independence experiences and political behaviour (their anxieties, problems and prospects) in  continuity with the one in colonial era characterized more by inclusive politics of communitarian collaborations and less by conflicts and exclusivism.

This is a mix of history from a local standpoint and also a local history, describing the broader events of the Indian politics in the context of the local political system as it evolved, and the participation as well as location of the Muslim communities in those events and processes. Inter-community cooperation and harmony prevailed over the divisive politics even during the most vitiated atmosphere of 1946–7.

It analyzes Muslim adjustment in the post-partition days, their engagement with the evolving secular democracy, seeking educational upliftment, and political empowerment through language politics (rather than insisting on the politics of religious identity) while not confining their politics only to sectional issues or groups. It also looks at the growing assertion of subordinated Muslim communities, and delineates fault-lines within the leaderships of the Muslim communities.  

This study attempts to explore the social features, political behaviour and economic conditions of the Muslims and the way the Muslims of this locality were negotiating for their share in the power-structure. Also, what are or were their anxieties, problems and prospects in this regard? The monograph attempts to enquire as to whether or not the localities mirror the regional and all-India setting. The regional and local studies would enable not only a ‘greater approximation to reality but also a more searching analysis’.

Major historical developments in the colonial period put forward challenges to the people of this area, and they, in particular, the Muslims, responded to these challenges in a conspicuous manner. For example, compared to the upsurge of 1857 in Meerut, the people of the district of Muzaffarpur combined the popular upsurge with those of sepoys (like Waris Ali, the policeman then posted at Baruraj) in a more significant manner. Peasantry participated in it much more visibly. The movement for modern education started by Muslims like Syed Imdad Ali (d. August 1886), the then Sadr Amin (subordinate Judge) and a local zamindar, Syed Md. Taqi, incorporated many non-Muslims in a much bigger way, compared to the Aligarh Movement of Syed Ahmad (1817–98). In fact, of the three vice presidents of the Bihar Scientific Society, two were non-Muslims, viz., Shiv Prasanna Singh, the Hardi zamindar, and Bhupati Roy. Moreover, its chain of residential Anglo-Vernacular schools for modern education spread in rural areas too. The Urdu fortnightly, Akhbar-ul-Akhyar, of the Scientific Society was edited by Ajodhya Parasad Bahaar. In 1871 the Scientific Society established Collegiate School, and in 1899, a College, which endures as one of the premier colleges of Bihar, now named after Langat Singh (1850-1912).

The three biggest mass movements of the anti-colonial struggle (the Non-Cooperation Movement, the Civil Disobedience movement, 1930-34, and the Quit India movement, 1942), said to have brought, ‘mass politics, indigenous languages, popular participants, counter symbols and counter authority to play an unprecedented role’, witnessed large participation of Muslims. It, therefore, calls into question the findings of a considerable number of historical works that have contended a relative aloofness among Muslims in the Civil Disobedience and the Quit India movements. Nationalist leaders like the Aijazi brothers (Maghfur and Manzur Aijazis), Shafi Daudi (1875–1949), and many more lawyers, along with other members of the modern-educated middle class, theological scholars (aligned in one way or the other with the Deoband inspired Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind, Imarat-e-Shariah, etc.), vernacular intelligentsia, and other public intellectuals, contested British colonialism as well as the Muslim League’s territorial separatism, regardless of their inconsistent and at times uneasy relationship with the Congress.

While the Hindi-Urdu conflict polarized the two communities (the Hindus and the Muslims) in colonial north India, the Muslims of Muzaffarpur, responded to this challenge rather creatively. Hafiz Rahmatullah Ahqar (d. 1927), in 1914, founded the Urdu Sahityik Sabha, to promote good relations between the two linguistic communities. He organized poetic assemblies, lectures, discussions, etc., that witnessed participation by the intelligentsia of both Urdu and Hindi-speaking communities. The first official utterance against Urdu was made at Muzaffarpur, by George Campbell (1871-4), the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, while addressing a public gathering, on the foundation of the College/Collegiate (7 November 1871) of the Bihar Scientific Society.

It was Muzaffarpur, from where the movement for Khari Boli/Devanagari Hindi was started by Ayodhya Prasad Khatri (1857-1905) of Muzaffarpur, who published his Khari Boli ka Padya in 1887, giving rise to pro-Hindi/anti-Urdu movements like the Nagri Pracharini Sabha (Benares 1893) and Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (Allahabad 1910). The provincial branch of the Sammelan was founded by, among many others, Lateef Husain ‘Natwar’ and Pir Muhammad Munis (1882–1949); and Muzaffarpur was probably the only place which was the venue of the annual session of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, being presided over by a Muslim, Pir Muhammad Munis, in 1919. His regular writing in Hindi, for Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s Hindi daily Pratap (Kanpur), nationalized the cause of the suffering peasants of Champaran and ‘enlightened’ Mahatma Gandhi to make a historic intervention. On the other hand, Ram Prasad Khosla ‘Naashaad’, a professor of History, in the GBB (L.S.) College of Muzaffarpur, was the President of the Urdu literary society, ‘Bazm-e-Sukhan’, of the college, during the 1920s; and Awadh Bihari Singh was a famous professor of Persian and Urdu.

From the 1920s onwards, like the rest of India, this area experienced communal riots. The Arya Samajists, Cow protectors backed by landed elites and trading communities, Sanatan Dharm Sabhas, Shudhi-Sangathan, and Tableegh-Tanzeem movements brought about communal riots and therefore political polarizations in electoral domains too. Leaders like Lal Lajpat Rai addressed public meetings contributing to such polarizations, and at many places the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha overlapped. It resulted into distinct marginalization of Muslims from the structures and processes of power. Muzaffarpur, however, remained relatively free from such violence in 1946–7. The Benibad riots (September 1946) was probably the only one that broke out during those tumultuous days. Contrary to general perception among academics (including the study by Stephen Henningham), the Muslims of Tirhut/ Muzaffarpur did not stay aloof from the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930–4. Their participation in it was significant, despite the fact that by this time, Bhumihar-Rajput domination as well as factionalism within the Congress had also become sharper. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Muslims played significant roles in building up and developing the local unit of the Congress (which gradually also worked towards creating misgivings). This monograph therefore contests both the ‘primordialist’ as well as the ‘instrumentalist’ theories of Muslim separatism. Instead, this study offers us alternative reasons (rather than mere communal separatism of the Muslim League) for India’s Partition in 1947, besides telling a story of Muslim resistance to communal separatist politics. The Muslims of Muzaffarpur resisted the communal separatist politics of the Muslim League during 1940–7. Maghfur Aijazi (1900–66) formed All India Jamhoor Muslim League (1940–7) to contest the Muslim League’s territorial separatism. With such mobilizations, this locality remained largely free from the communal frenzy in 1946–7, as a result of which no large-scale migration of Muslims to the new nation, ‘Khuda Ki Basti or the God’s own land’, took place. These legacies had their own impact on the inter-community relations and also on the politics in India past independence. By no means does this monograph intend to suggest that there was no space for divisive politics among the Muslim communities of this part of India. It only attempts at telling an untold story of Muslim resistance to the League’s separatist politics, and that the cultural and political trend of communal harmony was a more visible and consistent historical phenomenon of this locality.

In 1937, under provincial autonomy, the Muslim Independent Party (MIP) being the second largest, had formed its ministry (April-July 1937), as the single largest party, the Congress had refused to form demanding some assurances. The MIP with its agrarian concerns as well religio-cultural concerns of Muslims was overall a pro-Congress and anti-Muslim League political formation. The Congress refused to go for coalition with them, and after forming its ministry replacing MIP in July 1937, it failed to control some communal riots, failed to punish the rioters, many of whom were local Congressmen; many cases of anti-Muslim discriminations in education, employment, etc., came about. This alienated the Muslims from the Congress; the Muslim League made a rapid rise after 1938. Concurrently, the majoritarian communal chauvinist organization, RSS also made its rapid rise in Muzaffarpur as also in rest of Bihar. In the 1946 elections, the Congress refused to extend financial and political help to those pro Congress Muslim organizations which were resisting the League’s separatist enterprise.

It is probably one of the few places in independent India where the Muslim political leadership displayed a progressive outlook, rather than mobilizing people along emotive/religious, or exclusionary lines. Yet, it is quite intriguing that their share in political power has undergone a noticeable decline. Does it place some challenges before India’s secular, plural democracy? Is it that the contemporary situation of Muslim minorities in India have something to do with the way they engage(d) themselves with the colonial state and the nationalist movement? It is this question which has probably given birth to this monograph. In short, reasons for the contemporary problems of this region of South Asia are attempted/ sought to be understood by studying its colonial past.

In this story of Muslims’ adjustment in the post-partition days, and their engagement with the pluralist society and evolving secular democracy the book has attempted to understand the impact of the kind of politics pursued by the Muslim communities in colonial period. The extension of this study to the post-independence period is an effort to seek answer to a question as to why could not this locality throw up [Muslim] political leaders of some stature, despite having thrown such leaders like Waris Ali in the movement of 1857, Imdad Ali for the movement for modern education in post-1857, Shafi Daudi and the Aijazis during the National Movement. The Aijazis provided leadership to the ‘baffled’ community through inclusive politics, and sought educational uplift and political empowerment of the Muslims through language politics (rather than insisting on the politics of religious identity) while not confining the politics only to sectional issues/groups in a secular democracy which was evolving in the new nation. However unlike the landed Congress politicians of Bhumihar-Rajput, Brahman, Kayastha the Muslim counterparts didn’t develop a linear network of patronage nor did they open up schools, colleges which could have served many purposes-providing jobs to the fellow castes/communities in those educational institutions to be taken over by the provincial government besides the same employees could have acted as electoral-political resource persons and ‘poll-booth managers’ as well. In the 1990s, the social base of the power elites started changing. Thus, growing assertion of Ajlaf  (historically subordinated communitiies of Muslims) emerged to challenge the hegemony of the Ashraf (upper caste Muslims). Consequently, Laloo regime came which was failing to check the growth of communalism per se, notwithstanding the fact that Laloo-Rabri regime’s greatest achievement was supposed to be firm handling of communal riots, which fetched them very substantial, almost exclusive, Muslim votes. This was called secularism. But this regime had willful neglect of governance (in fact active patronage to gangsters), and also of even the basic developmental works like roads, public health, education, etc., besides deep involvement in corruption. These regressive developments posed an important question before the Indian polity and also before the political individuals/groups who claimed to be speaking for the Muslims. The questions they confronted were:

(i) What is the meaning of secularism? Do the Muslims (like any other citizen) need something more, besides protection of their life and property during communal riots or during any other form of the failure of law and order? (ii) While demanding prevention of communal riots how could they struggle for their genuine or concrete empowerment?

The last chapter (11) is an account of social change in a village of the district which has been added to put the (micro) history of Muslim engagement with politics in colonial and sovereign India in the perspective of, and in keeping with, the overall argument in the narrative running through the monograph.

This account further affirms the point that throughout the narrative ordinary Muslims of this village in hinterlands were equally opposed to the two-nation theory; and the communal divisive politics was weaker than the politics of communitarian cooperation and harmony. Besides, various strands along caste-based and maslak-based differentiations are also emerging in this village quite perceptibly, as it is evolving in the rest of South Asia, and even beyond, particularly among the diaspora of the South Asian Muslims. Besides, emergence of a Muslim criminal with active social support in the name of political empowerment has also been brought out in the narrative, demonstrating how grass root democracy and devolution of power to the local people and the desire of a religious minority relegated to the margins of the political process indeed extract a strange price—particularly in the State of Bihar! This ominous phenomenon may or may not be specific to this particular village, but, ‘the marriage of local power . . . with formal democracy is [often] mediated by crime’. This was the time when the political managers of the state were making flamboyant claim of being ‘secular’ by virtue of having prevented religious violence almost firmly, because of which huge chunk of the Muslim minorities invariably voted almost en bloc to the ruling political party, making it electorally invincible for a long time. But simultaneously the regime was found actively encouraging gangsters, was an utter failure in governance and crime control (and was arrogantly dismissive of paying attention to road construction, public health, education, electricity, etc.). This [willful] lackadaisical policing and criminal justice administration had given rise to criminals on a large scale whereby the politically protected gangsters turned legislators had become sort of role models for the unemployed youth. Against which only a majoritarian political formation in coalition with a regional, essentially casteist outfit, seemed to be raising voices in the midst of silence of other ;non communal’ forces or their collusion with the ruling regional outfit. Further, this kind of ‘secularism’ gave way to political rise and expansion of majoritarianism in the political space so much so that it could get enough number of legislators to become a ruling coalition in 2005. Micro-narrative of social change in a village makes this picture of historical process relatively much clearer to the readers.

The chapters on post-independence period narrate the story of success and unfinished agenda of India’s nation-building by the secular democratic state and also by a pluralist society. In this process it also takes into account the fault-lines within the political leadership of the Muslim communities, whereas rest of the account underlines the saga of the Muslim minority in overthrowing the colonial rule, where their participation was far more than what the proportion of their population could possibly suggest. It therefore derives that the story of the political participation of the Muslim communities in modern India is much less a story of isolation, separatism, exclusivism, antagonism, segregation; it is more a story of intermingling, cooperation, harmony, inclusivism, unity, consensus, and so on.

Sajjad_profileMohammad Sajjad is Assistant Professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University (India), where he teaches late-colonial and post-independence Indian History. Earlier, he taught History at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Having obtained a doctorate on the politics of Muslim communities in Bihar, he has published essays in several well-known academic journals. He also writes columns for Rediff.com. His forthcoming book is titled, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge, 2014).



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