Excerpts: Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours by Mohammad Sajjad

BiharMohammad Sajjad, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours

Routledge, London/New Delhi, 2014

This book is a study of participation of the Muslim communities, with their intra-community socio-economic stratifications, in the politics of India’s eastern province, Bihar, during colonial and post-independence period. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the resistance against the Bengali hegemony, the Urban educated middle class of Muslims along with their Hindu counterparts, more specifically the Kayasthas (the Hindu community of scribes), organized themselves along the lines of ‘regional patriotism’ or ‘subordinate nationalism’ and succeeded in creating province of Bihar out of the Bengal in 1912. The Congress made its significant headway in Bihar only after that. Gandhiji’s intervention (1917) in the Champaran Satyagraha (which had intermittently been manifesting since the 1860s under the leadership of local intelligentsia, and had re-intensified since 1907), and the subsequent Khilafat-Non Cooperation Movements (1920-22) galvanized the Bihar people in anti-colonial popular struggle once again, after the movement of 1857. In all these movements including the movements/initiatives for modern education in the nineteenth century, Muslims had considerable share. Subsequently, with the growing political strength of the Congress in the 1920s, rural landed elites like the Rajputs and Bhumihars started dominating the Congress as also in the structures of power like the local bodies created by the colonial state in accordance with the Act of 1919. It started creating misgivings among the increasingly politicized communities of Muslims about the Congress. This is also to be understood that from the 1930s onwards the Congress was under pressure from the landed elites because of which it had started developing sour relations with the emerging rural forces and the grievances of the intermediate castes; the Kisan movement, the Triveni Sangh, the Harijan assertion, the tribal movements, etc., had constant tension with the Congress.

An anti-colonial, anti-League, and pro-Congress Muslim political formation, the Muslim Independent Party (MIP) emerged in September 1936, putting more emphasis on agrarian issues besides championing the cause of protecting the religio-cultural issues related to identity, without compromising their firm and consistent commitment against colonialism and separatism. The MIP was an outcome of joint efforts of the modern educated as well as traditional clergy (including two most popular sufi shrines) of the Bihar Muslims. The MIP was an extension of the fiercely anti-colonial Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Bihar formed in 1917 and who had formed the Imarat-e-Shariah in 1921. Yet the Congress preferred to keep it out of coalition in the 1937 ministry, which had its impact upon the subsequent politics. The Congress’ vehement opposition of the MIP ministry (April-July 1937) and certain cases of anti-Muslim discriminations by the Congress ministry (1937-39) including denial of premiership/chief ministership to Syed Mahmud (1889-1971) started alienating them upon which the Muslim League started playing its own politics. In 1939, the MIP leader Maulana Sajjad (1880-1940) wrote a long letter, detailing the issues of discriminations apprising the top leadership of the Congress of the grievances and alienation. It was a confidential letter so that no political (mis)use could be made of the letter by the adversaries like the Muslim League. (It should be added here that the Kisan movements as well as the formations like the Triveni Sangh, besides the tribal populations of what is now Jharkhand, also had their own grievances with the Congress, which were much pronounced during the retreating phase of colonialism).

Bihar offers a story in sharp contrast with some of the sufi shrines of the Punjab and Sindh which had played crucial roles in the politics of separatism by making the Muslim League a successful player in the 1946 elections. Wading through all these developments in the Muslim segment of Bihar politics, the Prelude and three more chapters of this book have looked into the political evolution of the Muslim communities which were essentially anti-colonial, and anti-separatist, besides being pluralist and inclusive. This work has attempted to explore the inter-community cooperation (and conflicts too) in the process of their joint anti-colonial struggle. The stunted organizational growth, and chequered political base of the Bihar Muslim League, and its separatist politics, could hardly manage to find even a single leader of cognizable stature. Yet, it did achieve a significant support-base during 1938-46. Nevertheless, the anti-separatist politics of Bihar Muslims were formidably strong till very end. Muslim resistance to the politics of dividing India has been a very less attended aspect. In fact, even the Hindu majoritarian communal politics of the lower units of the Congress as also of the organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha has been rather less explored with notable exceptions of Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided (1995), William Gould (Hindu Nationalism, 2005) on the UP, and Neeti Nair, Changing Homelands (2011) on the Punjab, besides some essays of Mushirul Hasan, and of Papiya Ghosh. During 1938-46, there was massive rise of the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS political activities and was unprecedented expansion in its support base. The Congress-Mahasabha overlap was quite considerable in the leadership in the district units of the Congress.

The Chapter Four of this work therefore has attempted to fill this gap in the ever-growing voluminous literature on the historiography of India’s Partition. It has brought out the Muslim voices against the politically separatist and socially divisive politics aided and prodded by the colonial state. Such voices were raised by the Muslims elsewhere also. For instance, Syed Tufail Ahmad Manglori (d. 30 March 1946), an Aligarh alumnus in the fifth edition (December 1945: 598-629, translated into English by Ali Ashraf, 1994: 371-91) of his Musalmanon Ka Raushan Mustaqbil (first published in 1937), also reproduced in his Rooh-e-Raushan Mustaqbil (January 1946: 160-88). This section on a comprehensive critique of the idea and politico-economic viability of Pakistan has sub-headings like: ‘Historical background’, ‘Pakistan as big Hurdle’, ‘How were Muslim Majority Areas turned into Muslim Minority Provinces’ [in the Lucknow Pact, 1916, by Jinnah], ‘Nature of Pakistan’, ‘Economic Aspect of Proposed Pakistan’, ‘Educational Aspect of Pakistan’, ‘Pakistan as an Islamic Province’, ‘Transfer of Population’, ‘Pakistan from the viewpoint of Central Government’, ‘Resemblances in the views of Agha Khan and Jinnah regarding Pakistan’, ‘Prospect after the formation of Pakistan’, and ‘Prescription and Treatment’. “Tufail Ahmad based his opposition [to the idea of Pakistan] on more secular arguments-Indian Muslims’ interests being an integral part of the interests of the whole nation and wholesale transfer of populations not being in the realm of practicability, the creation of Pakistan would leave the problem of Muslims in the remaining part of the country where it was and [which would] make it even worse. …Concerning the circumstances which helped and paved the way for the demand for Pakistan, Tufail Ahmad, too, like Abul Kalam Azad, attaché[d] importance to the Congress refusal to form coalition government with the Muslim League in the UP in 1937, and to Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement regarding the absolute sovereign rights of the proposed Constituent Assembly, thus nullifying the agreement with the Muslim League on the Cabinet Mission Plan”. Likewise, Maulana Hifzur Rahman Seohaarwi (1901-62), a Jamiat-ul-Ulemae-Hind cleric brought out his comprehensive critique of the League’s idea of Pakistan on the eve of the 1945-46 elections, in his 64 page booklet, Tehreek-e-Pakistan Par Ek Nazar, published by the Jamiat-ul-Ulema; Seohaarwi has been publishing such contents in the Madina (Bijnour), owned and run by Maulvi Majeed Hasan (d. 1966) of the Mirza clan of Bijnour, edited by Mohd Hasan Mateen, launched on May 1, 1912, Madina, was initially a weekly published on 1st, 8th, 15th and 22nd of every month; from January 1917 it became bi-weekly; in 1936 some of the issues carried columns and editorials against Muslims’ communal-separatism, and also against Hindu majoritarian tilts of Indian nationalism (for example the issue of 21 January 1936). In the early 1970s it closed down.

Importantly, however, the lead in this was taken by Bihar’s Maulana Sajjad (1880-1940), being the leader of the Bihar wing of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema (besides the president of Muslim Independent Party, Bihar), who mobilized the masses to attend the Azad Muslim Conference, to be held in Delhi in 27-29 April 1940. There were at least three big mass mobilizations of Muslims against the politics of dividing India. These were in 1940, 1942, 1944, in Gaya, in Patna, and in Kishanganj. Then why and how did the Muslim League succeed in the 1946 elections? This question has been answered in significant details. A section of Chapter Four argues, among many other things, how the Congress had given up on extending support to the Muslims unequivocally opposed to the League. Rajendra Prasad was persuading Nehru to align with the Hindu Mahasabha and simultaneously he was opposed to any coalition with the pro Congress and anti-League Muslim political formations. This lack of support from the Congress was both political and financial. Besides, only a small section of the Muslims, mostly, Ashraf, were franchised in 1946.

After his death at the age of sixty, on 18 November 1940, his successors and comrades relentlessly confronted ideologically both the British colonial state as well as the League’s separatist politics; they formed ‘Muslim Nationalist Parliamentary Board’ in 1945 for electoral mobilizations of Muslims in favour of the Congress. They were in correspondence with the Congress leaders like Rajendra Prasad exchanging ideas on how to confront the League in the forthcoming elections of 1946. The Congress was intriguingly not paying much heed to these concerns. The Jamhoor League of Maghfur Aijazi (1900-1966) in Muzaffarpur, the Momin Conference, Rayeen Conference, Mansoori Conference, the Shia Conference, the Ahrars (who had become much vocal against the Muslim League ever since 28 October 1937, and reiterated its commitment against the politics of ‘Pakistan’ and ‘Akhand Bharat’ at its session in Saharanpur, UP, on 26 April 1943), etc., were some of the prominently strong voices against the League’s separatism (with stronger support-base in Bihar) which have remained largely unnoticed by the historians, except few lines on some of them in Humayun Kabir (1969), A. R. Desai (1976: 413-15), and few pages in W. C. Smith (1943: 241-69), etc. The mobilization of Muslims, strong and vocal, in rural as well as urban Bihar for the Azad Muslim Conference of Delhi on 27-29 April 1940, and also on 28 February-1 March 1942, precisely against the League’s divisive resolution of Lahore (23 March 1940), the growing assertion of the Khaksars against the Muslim League particularly after 1943, and emergence of the ‘Muslim Majlis’ on 6-8 May 1944 are, relatively speaking, new stories which this work is attempting to tell in its sections on colonial period. These were the forces which according to Tufail Manglori (1946: 159), considered the League’s proposal of Pakistan as a strong hurdle in the way of India’s independence. They had stood their ground even when the Congress under whatever circumstances had succumbed to the idea of dividing India in 1947. Nonetheless, all such narratives throw up a pertinent question. Despite all these mobilizations of the Muslim communities and groups why couldn’t they electorally marginalize the League in the 1946 elections? An attempt has been made to look into this vexing question. Some new sources, (un)published archival (including the Rajendra Prasad Papers) as well as un(der)used Urdu sources including memoirs of some insiders of the Congress and other contemporary observers, besides some Hindi memoirs, have been helpful in telling this hitherto untold stories.

This helped this book map certain kind of pattern and trend in the evolving political behaviour of the Muslim communities of colonial Bihar. Understandably, because of their anti-colonial and anti-separatist political engagement whereby they had opposed the religious basis of territorial separatist nationalism till the very end, they could re-organize themselves in post-independence period with certain degree of confidence, and sought their integration and empowerment through the politics of claiming the spaces guaranteed by the Republican Constitution for linguistic (Urdu) minorities. This is the theme of Chapter five. Relatively much deeper social stratifications among the Hindus and their manifestations of the antagonism within the structures and processes of power including the ruling Congress, in Bihar, helped the protagonists of Urdu in registering much success, both through the Congress and non-Congress regimes. The Urdu politics (re-)started in 1951 invoking the relevant Constitutional provisions, and penetrated into the rural and urban masses shedding its elite character both in terms of the methods of conducting the politics, idioms of mobilizations, and also in terms of its social base, which expanded much after 1971. The existing works (essays only) on [marginalized] status of Urdu in India have generally focused on state discrimination and majoritarian bias and also on non-democratic, elitist, approach of the protagonists of Urdu, whereas the chapter five looks into mass-based democratic politics of Muslim communities around the issue of Urdu and its success in securing significant ‘favours’ (linked with public employment) from the state during 1951-89.

From the late 1960s onwards the assertion of new social classes started chipping into the support base and political power of the Bihar Congress. It manifested in political instability, rising strength of the non-Congress forces, and in the 1970s the coming of the Janata Party coalition to power, implementation (1978) of the Mungerilal Commission Report (1971-76) for affirmative action/protective discrimination in favour of the historically disadvantaged castes in public employment and educational institutions had its impact on the relevant Muslim groups as well. The ‘Open Passport Policy’ of the Union government (1977-79) heralded an opportunity of employment for skilled as well as non-skilled labourers in the West Asian countries in the 1980s. The success of the Urdu politics, howsoever limited, the remittance economy from the Middle East, and the policy of protective discrimination started contributing towards affluence among the Muslim communities. The Hindu-Muslim religious strife however kept creating polarizations which worked towards suppressing the political manifestations of the intra-Muslim social stratifications. After 1992 the state appeared to becoming largely successful in containing the communal violence. This sense of security provided an opportunity to let the intra-community social stratification of the Muslims manifest which got catalyzed with the implementation (1990) of the Mandal Commission Report (1980) providing for protective discrimination in favour of the backward castes in the public employment. Sharp opposition to it in the 1990s had its impact on the Hindu society as also on the Muslim society. This gave rise to the emergence of Pasmanda-Dalit movements among the Muslims, besides gender-based movement as well. Some ‘influential’ works on rising political consolidation and assertion of the backward castes [like Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution (2003), and Blair, Voting, Caste, and Communities (1979), and his essay, “Rising Kulaks and Backward Classes in Bihar”, 1980], have ignored the political articulation, consolidation, and mobilizations of the corresponding groups of the Muslims. Exploring this story along with underlining their merits and limitations are the subject matter of the chapter Six. The political assertion of the low caste Muslims (Ajlaf and Arzal or PasmandaDalit) of Bihar in and after the 1990s has a history of such mobilizations in colonial period as well. The movements for Urdu and for the Pasmanda-Dalit and the women’s movement (Tehreek-e-Niswan) have progressed essentially along the constitutional lines with idioms of pluralist democracy, and starting from the intelligentsia-based leadership these movements went on to become more and more popular. This is how they have engaged and negotiated with the state as well as the society. This is probably the underlining feature of the politics of Bihar Muslims coming out of this study.

Thus, to reiterate, in the historiography of India’s Partition, Muslim resistance to the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ remains an underexplored sub-theme; and most of the works concentrate on the Punjab, the Bengal, and the United Provinces. Bihar offers an entirely different perspective of Muslim politics and it explodes many myths pertaining to the historiography of partition. In colonial Bihar, even the clergy stood against divisive/communal politics and insisted on pushing religion into the private domains of the religious communities. While challenging the British colonialism they were chafing under the Bengali hegemony and therefore their regional patriotism for creation of separate province of Bihar united the educated [essentially urban] elites of the Hindus and Muslims. Within the Muslim intelligentsia the clergy/vernacular and the modern educated ones converged with each other in appreciating and encouraging modern education, without neglecting traditional one. The Muslim voices (of clergy as well as of the intelligentsia with modern education) against the Two-Nation Theory were significantly vociferous in Bihar. This political legacy continued in sovereign India with features of inclusivism (inter-community harmony) and democratic mobilizations for constitutional rights. This book therefore is new in terms of the choice of the region with a lot of new and virgin sources/evidences (including Urdu sources, which are so crucial for exploring the socio-political behaviour of the Urdu speaking communities of India), as well as the theme is also quite fresh as most of the existing works on the theme focus more on Muslim responsibility of Partition. This difference in the political content and approach of the Muslim communities of Bihar in colonial period has had significant impact on its politics after independence, and the academic as well as popular perception of ‘Isolation Syndrome’ of the Indian Muslims is not to be found as strongly in the case of Bihar. Muslim politics of democratic mass mobilizations in the languages of constitutional, secular, pluralist democracy after [India’s] independence, in Bihar, may be said to be an outcome of the politics of inter-community collaborations forged during the anti-colonial struggle.

Political struggle of the Pasmanda-Dalit Muslims, since 1990s, for emancipation and empowerment in Bihar however remains oblivious to alternative cultural, social and development issues as well as to the question of the exploitation of the subsistence labour of women and peasants. An elaborate sustainable politico-economic programmes and promising models of development with equity, including the programmes like flood control, land reforms, power (electric) production and industrialization are still awaited. For which these movements may have to move ahead of caste-based ‘identity politics’. Further they seem to be looking more towards the state and less towards mobilizing their own community resources for educational uplift.

As of now, essentially speaking, there is no visible mass movement for Urdu or other issues, which could throw up political leadership. The Pasmanda-Dalit consolidation and assertion could throw up leaders for their parochial causes with their limitations. However, the history of their political struggle, informed articulation, and concerted mobilization shows that they have been successful in not allowing state policies to ignore them in the allocation and distribution of resources, be it the appointment of vice chancellors in universities, or conducting eligibility tests for school teachers. And most important of all, a fairly large number of Muslim communities have been listed as Ati-Picchhrha (Most or Extremely Backward Castes) for whom there are reservations in the three-tier rural and urban local bodies. (The group only feeling left out even in the Lalu–Rabri regime (1990–2005), is a heterogeneous caste group of EBCs who make up 32 per cent of the population but had less than 5 per cent representation in the Bihar Assembly). These perceptible efforts towards the empowerment of the historically oppressed communities seem to be giving way to the re-orientation of Bihar politics towards good governance, agrarian and industrial development, and welfare of the masses. This was partly testified by a massive rally, biggest after independence, in Patna on 4 November 2012, demanding the ‘special category’ status for Bihar. If granted this status, Bihar will get additional resource support through higher maintenance expenditure on irrigation, roads and bridges, higher central funding (90 per cent) as grants to the State Disaster Relief Fund, non-plan revenue deficit grants to make up for assessed deficits, and higher incentives for grid-connected renewable energy which will attract private investment engendering industrialization and generating employment.

It is said that the class and caste neutral economic policies of Nitish Kumar have broad sub-national support, and have triggered the formation of a ‘Bihari’ identity for the first time, especially after the implementation of positive discrimination for women, lower backwards, and the Dalits in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), and the Nitish Kumar led incumbent ruling party — JDU — essentially represents the agglomeration of non-powerful social categories (Ati-Pichhrha which also includes most of the Arzal and Ajlaf communities of Muslims, and Maha Dalit), especially after divorcing its alliance with Hindu nationalist BJP in June 2013. Many observers, like Shaibal Gupta, hoped that this breakup of the Nitish led regime with essentially upper caste and upper backward caste supported BJP would further brighten the prospects of the rise of the non-powerful social categories like Ati Pichhrha and Maha Dalit.

This work therefore attempts at adding new inputs about South Asian Islam.


Mohammad Sajjad is Associate 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. He has published two books: Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge, 2014), and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857 (Primus, 2014).