IN 1966, WHEN Muzaffar Ahmad was released temporarily from prison to attend the funeral of friend and colleague Abdul Halim. The Meerut arrests did little to stop the commitment of people like Muzaffar Ahmad and Abdul Halim, one within jail and the other outside.
FRONTLINE, Volume 28 - Issue 18 :: Aug. 27-Sep. 09, 2011,
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: GANASHAKTI
A historian locates the social and political growth of Muzaffar Ahmad in the intellectual byways and the slums of Calcutta.
BOOK REVIEW: “An Early Communist: Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta 1913–1929” By Suchetana Chattopadhyay, Tulika Books, May 2011, pp. xiv + 306 pages, List price: Rs 600.00 / $ 20.00
MUZAFFAR AHMAD (1889-1973) was born on Sandwip, a pirate's island in the Bay of Bengal, and died in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the city that he embraced and that in many ways made him. His remarkable talents pushed against the centuries of hierarchy that would have condemned him to a life at the margins of history. After running away from home, he was able to seize education from unexpected quarters and eventually came to Calcutta in 1913 to become a writer. Like many other young Muslim intellectuals of his social class, Muzaffar wished to become a cultural activist, eager to use his skills for the purpose of social reform among Muslims. The narrowness of this agenda became clear in the light of the nationalist movement and in the upsurge among the working class by the end of his first decade in Calcutta.
Muzaffar found the Congress suffocating, largely because it was dominated by people who were not embarrassed of their Hindu bhadralok cultural roots and indeed promoted this tradition in what is now known as Hindu revivalism. Muzaffar was too open-minded in temperament for this, and it of course helped him that his own Muslim heritage was repulsed by the cultural sectarianism of the Congress leadership.
What saved Muzaffar was Calcutta. In her remarkable book An Early Communist, the historian Suchetana Chattopadhyay locates the social and political growth of Muzaffar Ahmad in the city, not just in the intellectual byways of College Street but also in the slums of the working class, the area in the centre of the city where many of the streets are now named for Muzaffar Ahmed and his comrades (such as Abdul Halim). Unable to make a living doing radical cultural criticism, Muzaffar and his circle, which included the poet Nazrul Islam, lived in dire poverty, unable to treat their illnesses (Muzaffar had tuberculosis) and often unable to eat (as one police informer put it, “so long as they have got no money even for their food, I don't think that they could do anything”).
MUZAFFAR AHMAD (CENTRE) with B.T. Ranadive, Jyoti Basu, A.K. Gopalan, P. Sundarayya and other CPI(M) leaders in 1968.
This organic link to the working class that surrounded them was sharpened in the 1920s when the workers in and around Calcutta broke through their isolation in a series of remarkable strikes. Workers in paper mills and jute mills, butlers and chefs at major hotels and restaurants, and scavengers of the municipality seized the initiative as the lower middle-class unions, such as the Employees' Association (of clerical staff workers), vacillated.
“Workers disrupted routines of daily life,” Suchetana Chattopadhyay writes, “making other classes and class segments aware of labour struggles and politics.” Among those now mindful of the subjectivity of the working class and of its capacity to lead struggles was Muzaffar and his circle. These eruptions from the working class, a large number of whom were Muslim, marked Muzaffar.
In an essay from 1969, Eric Hobsbawm argues, “Each Communist Party was the child of the marriage of two ill-assorted partners, a national left and the October Revolution.” In Europe, older social democratic traditions that emerged out of a host of lineages and had covered considerable ground against feudal social hierarchies found themselves run aground by the Great War (1914-1918).
The War itself illuminated the descent of capitalist civilisation: it led to an immense cataclysm, one that discredited both capitalism and the rationality of European modernity. Social democratic parties that carried the ideology and programme of these older traditions collapsed when they walked away from their peace agenda in 1914 and adopted their national prejudices for the war. The October Revolution of 1917 came as a beacon of hope, and many militants and sections of the working class turned to the new communist parties, for “it seemed sensible to follow the recipe of success”.
Hobsbawm's formula does not easily apply to places such as India or indeed to the colonial world. In the colonial world, the communist parties emerged properly out of the marriage of two other ill-assorted partners, an anti-colonial mass upsurge and the October Revolution. The coincidence between the Bolshevik success in Russia (1917) and the rise of the Gandhian mass movement (1916-1922, in its first phase) is at the centre of things. In India, the anti-colonial movement had to confront the dross of inherited cultural traditions, including undaunted feudal arrogance and increased religious tension.
Confrontation with caste
The social reform movements and the peasant struggles of the previous century had made some important advances, but they had been thwarted by the colonial state's commitment to a reinvigorated feudalism after the uprising of 1857. No wonder that the memoirs of Indian communist leaders (such as P. Sundarayya, B.T. Ranadive, P. Ramamurti and E.M.S. Namboodiripad) often open with stories of their confrontation with the heinousness of caste oppression, the hallmark of social hierarchy in Indian society.
For Muzaffar, the immediate social issue was the rise of Hindu revivalism, which was the vehicle for the transfusion of the ideology of the landlords into both the Congress and Indian society. Muzaffar's break had to be complex: against colonialism (which was the easiest departure), against bourgeois-landlord nationalism (which was considerably more complex given the allure of Gandhianism) and against capitalism (which was harder in a context where alternatives had not been fully explored).
Nationalism's potential was thrilling in the context of the satyagrahas of 1919 and the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920-22. But its limitations became visible with the failure of the industrialists and the Swaraj Party-Congress during the working-class strikes of the 1920s. They would even refuse a demand for a minimum wage. Gandhianism could not exhaust the full imagination of the Indian people.
Gandhi's overwhelming influence held together an ensemble of diverse, even contradictory interests. Hindu revivalism gathered with pan-Islamism (Khilafat) in Gandhi's big tent, often at the expense of the broader needs of the people.
In the interests of property and propriety, as Suchetana Chattopadhyay puts it, landlords squelched the smallest demands of the cultivators, industrialists denied the claims of their workers and the socially oppressed had to accede to the reforms from their social superiors rather than wrest them through social struggle.
In periodicals such as Langal and Ganabani, Muzaffar tried to find a path beyond colonialism, capitalism and bourgeois-landlord nationalism. In an essay from 1926 called Bharat Kano Swadhin Noy (Why Is India Not Free?), Muzaffar constructed the granite block that held back the people: the imperialists who controlled the colonial state, the Indian capitalists, landlords and financiers who wanted to inherit the colonial mantle, and Hindu and Muslim clerics whose narrow ideologies corrupted the social body.
There is no sense in combating the latter, he argued in another essay from 1926 (Kothay Protikar, or Where Lies Redressal), by invoking the concept of “Hindu-Muslim Unity”. That assumed, as Suchetana Chattopadhyay puts it, that “the interests of ordinary people could only be expressed in religious terms”.
In 1927, in Ki Kara Chai (What is to be Done?), Muzaffar laid out the agenda of the Peasants and Workers Party of Bengal (PWP), which sought to produce mass consciousness ( jana-gana choitonyo) through militant trade unionism and peasant movements. This alliance of industrial workers and peasants marked the history of Indian communism, even as the PWP and Muzaffar had no luck in the countryside during the 1920s. The communist success in the countryside would come in later decades, validating the insistence that the peasantry be a co-equal social actor with the working class.
In the manner of a few years, Muzaffar produced the ideological basis for what would be the main lines of Indian communism. Contact with the literature of Marxism and with the newly emergent Comintern was minimal. Muzaffar seems to have read his Marxism as much from the few primers that came to him via a clandestine network that relied upon sympathetic postal workers as from the anti-communist books produced in cahoots between the colonial state and such reputed publishers as Oxford University Press (namely, Edmund Candler's Bolshevism: the Dream and the Fact, Oxford, 1920).
It was out of his experiences at places such as the Calcutta Docks and in books such as Lenin's Leftwing Communism (1920) and S.A. Dange's Gandhi vs. Lenin (1921) that Muzaffar charted what Abdul Hamid called their “unknown path”. Abani Chaudhuri called Muzaffar Darbeshda since “he resembled a darbesh [dervish]”. But Muzaffar was not fully confident, scared that he “was yet to acquire a firm grip over Marxism-Leninism”.
Nevertheless, what he came up with was unique, his writings on India not unlike those of his Peruvian counterpart, José Carlos Mariátegui (1890-1930), whose 1928 magnum opus is Seven Interpretive Essays in Peruvian Reality. As Suchetana Chattopadhyay puts it, not only did Muzaffar produce “the first systematic attempt to adapt Marxist-Leninist ideas to the Bengal context”, but he was first “among the communists in the colonial world…to write on and perceive fascism and imperialism as episodes in the enmeshed lives of class and capital”.
The work that Muzaffar and the very small party that formed around him did in Calcutta and in a few other parts of Bengal gave them the confidence to push back against any attempt to be directed by the Foreign Bureau of the Third International (Comintern). The shifts in the Comintern line in 1928 (keep distance from bourgeois nationalists) and in 1935 (form a popular front with bourgeois nationalists) did not fully mark the work in Calcutta.
Muzaffar was always wary of being subsumed by the Congress, and so the 1928 Comintern diktat had no especial bearing. The communists had already decided to build up their independent presence and to work in principled alliance with the nationalists and agrarian populists when it suited them.
Suchetana Chattopadhyay reveals the correspondence between Muzaffar (“Edward”) and M.N. Roy, where the former strongly criticised Roy for his flirtation with Hindu revivalism, notably the people around Atmashakti. Muzaffar wrote to Roy in January 1927 to point out that Shapurji Saklatvala, the British communist leader, had refused “to acknowledge the existence” of communists in India during his visit. In their March 1927 report to the Comintern, Mohammad Ali and Clemens Dutt criticised Saklatvala and others for a hierarchical attitude to the Indian communists, and validated the view that Communist Party of India leaders “do not see why they should accept instructions from any outside body”. The Comintern agreed. It gives us a sense of the fierce independence of a strand of Indian communism from the centripetal tendencies of Moscow's institutions.
Suchetana Chattopadhyay does an exemplary job in constructing the scene of the audacity of the communists. She provides a rich description of the obvious constraints they faced, notably from the colonial state (whose agents tried to isolate and destroy the militants at the same time as they provided a documentary record of their activities). But there are other less obvious, but equally important, constraints that Suchetana Chattopadhyay discusses, which are often elided in histories of communism: the militants often broke social taboos in their personal lives and that not only alienated them from their own class but kept them apart from the working class and the peasantry.
Communists are loath to talk about themselves. I remember going to interview veteran communist members in Bengal and being confronted with textbook accounts of history: if asked “what did you do in the strike of 1972”, they would say, “In 1972, the owners of the factory refused to….” Their own lives had been subsumed into their party and their struggle; personal destiny was not so significant to them. This is precisely why the memoirs of communists are so frequently without any discussion of personal feelings, and certainly not of personal ambitions.
It is to Suchetana Chattopadhyay's credit that we are able to understand so much about the everyday lives of the communists – how they slept, what little they ate, who they met, what they felt. This is not peripheral to the analysis. The early communists were mainly intellectuals from the lower or upper middle class (of the latter, the most interesting example is Soumendranath Tagore). Yet, they associated with the working class and formed friendships with people such as Shamsul Huda (a dock worker from East Bengal), Mastan (a match factory worker), Mohammad Haris (a tobacco worker) and Gulbahar Bibi (a rice-mill worker).
In their communitarian housing, Nazrul Islam was prone to break out into song (he wrote Bidrohi during the visit to India of M.N. Roy's associate Nalini Gupta in 1921). A Special Branch officer reported in 1927 that they “were generally disliked by others, on account of their questionable society”. Their unique mode of living incubated new forms of sociality. Gandhi's own community drew from well-regarded Hindu traditions of ashram life, but the communists seemed like down-on-heel bohemians rather than ascetics. The cultural gulf that opened up was hard to close, in particular because the communists wished to close it to their advantage.
One of their early periodicals, Dhumketu (The Comet), published an essay in 1922 by Mahamaya Debi (Narir Mukti Kon Pathe, or Which is the Road to Women's Emancipation?). This is at a time when Gandhi developed a re-engineered patriarchy, with women to enter the national movement but not as independent actors; they would come in the role of Sita (“it is your image we worship in the temples,” he said). The communists' new ideas of social interaction made them both beloved for their eccentricities and for their social generosity but also victims of gossip for their unusual or questionable lifestyles.
Writing about Communism
Suchetana Chattopadhyay's history of the early years of Muzaffar Ahmad's career, therefore, becomes as much a history of the early years of the communist movement. It could not be otherwise. Gramsci alerts us, in his Prison Notebooks, that “the history of any given party can only emerge from the complex portrayal of the totality of society and state (often with international ramifications too). Hence it may be said that to write the history of a party means nothing less than to write the general history of a country from a monographic viewpoint, in order to highlight a particular aspect of it.”
The author's task is not to write the history of the emergence of the Communist Party, but that is precisely what she has done, and she has located it in all of Gramsci's methodological particulars, attending to the dynamic between the people and the political economy, aware of the political formations that stood just outside the optic of the early communists, immersed in the complex battle between Muzaffar's circle, the granite block that opposed anti-colonialism and the nationalists. What we have here is adherence to the Marxist protocol of plotting the dialectical relationship between events and political economy, but written with an enviable elegance.
Indian history-writing has typically ignored the activities of the communists. The rise of Hindutva since the 1980s created a flurry of research activity to understand the social roots of Hindu revivalism and then of the way the formations of the Hindu Right prepared the terrain for their electoral explosion in the 1980s. It has been assumed in the first two decades after 1947 that the Hindu Right had been caged, and so history-writing tended to minimise its importance. Much has changed since then, and there is now an overwhelming corpus of work on the Hindu Right and its intellectual life (we have all read M.S. Golwalkar, whereas he would not have been read in his own day, largely because his writing is tedious and his logic is miserable).
There is, however, silence on the role of the communists in Indian history. Apart from too few memoirs of communist leaders and a few collections of their writings, as well as the collections of communist public documents, little is written about the parties and their impact. There are, of course, Cold War variety books, and a few books that do their very best to explore the work of the communists but cannot help but be repelled by their own prior prejudices.
The impact of the Subaltern Studies Group, one would have thought, might have revived the interest in the Indian Left, but it had the opposite effect: all the fragments of the Indian polity make their appearance, but the analytical fragment of “class” is almost seen as alien to the project as does the institutional formation of the Left. Muzaffar tackled this view in 1926, in an essay called Sreni Sangram (Class Struggle), where he pointed out that class is not a foreign idea, since “class struggle exists in society because classes exist”.
Trade union activity and communist organising is barely referred to in this scholarship – a gap that is all the more stunning if one knows the immense contribution made by ordinary trade unionists and communists in the lives of the vast majority of the population (into the shadow of history will go people such as Vidya Munshi and M. Singaravelan, B. Srinivasa Rao and Feroz-ud-din Mansur, as well as the remarkable Dada Amir Haidar Khan).
Muzaffar's party-building activities were disrupted in 1929 by state repression (he and 30 others were arrested and taken to Meerut for a trial that ran until 1933). Suchetana Chattopadhyay gives us a full sense of the massive intervention by the state into the lives of the radicals – with their mail searched, their friends harassed, informers on their tail, and jail as a constant theme.
The Meerut arrests effectively picked up most of the leadership and many of the main organisers. But this did little to stop the commitment of people like Muzaffar and Abdul Halim, one within jail and the other outside. Their relentlessness prepared the terrain for the transference of the allegiance of the peasantry from the agrarian populists and of the working class from the Congress-led unions to the Communist Party and its mass affiliates. That was to come in the period that sits outside this book.
Suchetana Chattopadhyay has the historical imagination capable of tackling the crucial period that follows, when the activities of the communists become more central to the life of Bengal, and of course India. I am waiting for that volume.
KOLKATA, August 6, 2011: The Left Front movement in West Bengal cannot be suppressed by force, coercion and violence, asserted Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat here on Friday.
Speaking at a public meeting here to celebrate the 123rd birth anniversary of Comrade Muzaffar Ahmad, the doyen of the Communist movement in India, Karat said the CPI (M) and the Left Front were facing severe attacks in West Bengal.
“We are confident that with the support of the people, with the public opinion that will be developed in West Bengal and the country, we will be able to withstand these attacks and once more take up the cause of the people,” Mr. Karat said.
Questioning the killings, attacks on party workers and offices, and intimidation of elected panchayat representatives, Mr. Karat said the Trinamool Congress had derided the CPI(M) for being an ‘authoritarian' regime, but was putting such a regime into practice now.
He called upon those holding public office to “respect the wishes of those who have pledged their allegiance to a different ideology and politics.”
Though largely conforming to the contemporary preoccupations of the Bengali Muslim intelligentsia, Muzaffar was also feeling increasingly alienated. He was not happy with the name of the Literary Society journal. He had proposed in 1918, that a name free of sectional identity be given. But the Society President had felt otherwise and stressed the need to attract a Muslim readership. Muzaffar had gone along with this since ‘we did not wish to lose our old President’. However two years later, he would oppose and thwart such a suggestion made by his then employer and leading Bengali Muslim politician, A. K. Fazlul Haq. Those at the fringes of these societies were being drawn into radical currents unleashed by the Russian Revolution of 1917. This process coincided with and also may have contributed to his gradual loss of faith in the leading figures of the community, especially in their social and political judgments. His correspondence with the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam between 1918 and 1919, and their eventual meeting in 1920 can be taken as a case in point. Nazrul had volunteered in the colonial army and become steadily politicised along anti-colonial lines during his stay in the North West Frontier Province of British India. This geographic zone, a source of alarm to the colonial state, was officially viewed as a dangerous meeting-point of Bolshevism and pan-Islam. News of the Bolshevik victory had reached Nazrul and he felt inspired to write a story, ‘Byather Dan’ (The Gift of Pain), published by Muzaffar in the Literary Society journal in early 1920. Muzaffar changed Nazrul’s explicit and eulogistic references to the Red Army as an unstoppable victorious and revolutionary force to avoid police censorship, even though he was impressed by its sentiments. 
Pabitra Gangopadhyay, a writer from Hindu middle-class background who met Muzaffar in 1919 and became his friend for life, was struck by Muzaffar’s inclination to oppose authoritarian figures. He first met Muzaffar with the intention of convincing him to vote against Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, a towering figure among the Calcutta intelligentsia, who was trying to bring the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat under his domination. Muzaffar had readily agreed on the ground that dictatorial individuals should be stopped from taking over organisations.
Though they had not met during the war years, their social situations were similar. Like Muzaffar, Gangopadhyay had been dependent, as a struggling lower middle-class writer, on leading lights of Hindu literary circles. He too had remained silent or conformed when areas of disagreement had arisen. One such area was the support among a section of Bengali Hindu intellectuals for the British war effort. Like Muzaffar, Gangopadhyay had also been dismayed by the loyalist positions assumed by the Congress leadership. The two men were part of informal political discussions among younger intellectuals in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, an event they had welcomed, precisely because the British government was against it. 
Shadow of revolution
Fragments of radical ideas could be often glimpsed in their intellectual milieu. These ideas, especially the revolutionary mood they conveyed, may have directly and indirectly encouraged the anti-authoritarian positions, taking shape among marginalised figures who could not agree with their elders and betters. Marx and Marxism were making their presence felt in Muzaffar’s cultural world from pre-war days. The Bengali and English version of Muzaffar Ahmad’s article ‘A Successful Musalman Student’ had been published in Prabashi and Modern Review, both edited by Ramananda Chattopadhyay in 1912. The same year Modern Review had published an article on Karl Marx by the nationalist revolutionary, Lala Hardayal.  Censored images of revolutionary Russia were also seeping in during the closing years of the war, preparing the ground for a more serious engagement of the intelligentsia with socialism. A British film on the February Revolution, celebrating the fall of Czardom and establishment of liberal-democracy, was released for general viewing in Calcutta during April 1917. From October onwards, the revolutionary upheavals came to be condemned in the European newspapers, especially The Statesman, the voice of colonial capital. Sensational accounts based on descriptions by western journalists were also circulating. Sarojnath Ghosh’s ‘Bolshevikbad ba Rusiyar Biplab’ (Bolshevism or Russian Revolution) and ‘Rusiyar Pralay’ (Apocalypse in Russia) belonging to this genre, appeared during 1919-20. Muzaffar himself was to notice a Hindi tract on socialism in 1919. Prabashi was the first journal to show enthusiasm about the revolutionary events in Russia in 1917. In 1918 other journals, such as Bharati and the Tattvabodhini Patrika, displayed a positive attitude towards the Bolsheviks. To what extent did these ideas circulate and influence men like Muzaffar? It is difficult to say. However, these journals were read and many of the articles published in them were reproduced in Bengali Muslim literary magazines. Muzaffar’s direct links with Prabashi are also recorded.
The lingering local patriotism of Muzaffar’s earliest writings in the urban environment acted as a source of divergence from an exclusivist identity. It was linked with ideas of ‘self-improvement’, implying a search for capitalist modernity by the rural intelligentsia. The high praise for academic merit in ‘A Successful Musalman Student’, written while Muzaffar still lived in the countryside, reflected this aspiration. Since the avenues of ‘self-improvement’ were restricted in Sandwip and Noakhali, those in the rural milieu who had the potential to emerge as its ideological architects, had no option but to move to the city, the showcase of colonial capital. Local patriotism and the logic of self-improvement in such a context could be read as manifestations of proto-capitalist thinking. The logic of agrarian improvement and ‘improvement literature’ represented an ethic of profit, productivity and property. They embodied a set of values shared by Hindu and Muslim respectable folk, and arguably by the impoverished as well as rural proprietors. The migrant-outsiders, who carried these values to the city, still related to the urban space as their temporary abode. This was the ‘world’, an impersonal environment, where one tried to make a living and improve one’s situation, forging non-familial yet close bonds and solidarities in order to survive socially. The demarcation between the public and the private, between the external material spaces and gendered domesticity could not be maintained here. ‘Home’ was a remote rural corner far away. The rural-urban dichotomy faced by migrants increased their sense of isolation in the city and made them search for collectivities based on religious, ethno-linguistic as well as regional loyalties. Their emotional and social roots in the countryside, compounded by a sense of displacement and insecurity in the urban environment, made them look back on their past lives and locations with a sense of nostalgia. Since a return to the place of origin was materially impossible, district-based associations were spaces designed by the migrants themselves to feel more adjusted and less isolated and home sick in the city. The need to associate with people from a similar background led Muzaffar to develop links with some students from Noakhali and lower-class Muslim sailors from Sandwip. His associate in the Bengali Muslim Literary Society, poet Golam Mostafa, was the assistant secretary of Noakhali Sammilani (Noakhali Union) in 1916, formed by some Noakhali expatriates as early as 1905 in Calcutta. Mahendrakumar Ghosh, a youth from a prominent Bengali Hindu landed family, was the secretary of this association. He displayed socially egalitarian concerns and had started editing the monthly periodical, Noakhali. The journal gave space to Hindu and Muslim writers, mostly students and other young people, who came from the district. The first issue began with an introductory poem by Muzaffar Ahmad. ‘Abahan’ (Exhortation) glorified the history of the district, an exercise possibly underlined by a sense of nostalgia. Muzaffar also attempted to establish a Minor School in Sandwip, requesting Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad, Literary Society President and Inspector of Schools to secure official recognition and funds for the project.
This partial reading can only represent the social as flexible yet static, and bereft of potential ideological departure. Instead, it is possible also to see in the fraction-formations, the material elements of a social tendency of dissent and disaffiliation among alienated segments of the younger intelligentsia. It contained dual and complex possibilities of remaining within as well as going beyond ‘compassionate protectionism’. The complex unfolding of this tendency involved looking for, identifying with and actively supporting the emerging counter-hegemonic and potentially transformative self-expressions from below. These intellectuals were being drawn into social maelstroms challenging their own class origins, thereby breaking, in some cases, with the proprietor aspirations they had been socialised into. The pull of radical currents could prove to be both temporary and permanent. A pendulum-like variability, covering a wide spectrum, could be recorded in the upheavals of intellectual consciousness. Depending on the political extent of social disaffiliation mediated through exposure to the forces below, it could prompt a return to paternalistic ‘compassionate protectionism’, disillusioned conformity or opportunistic surrender after a period of dissent, as well as radical departure and ideological transition.
Frequent visits to the Calcutta Docks
Regional affiliations and overlapping loyalties were also pulling Muzaffar towards the direction of workers. Muzaffar had known working-class segments in the Calcutta dock area since 1910s. As mentioned, for a brief period during the summer of 1915 he had taught at a Kidderpore madrasa, situated in the port area. Since his native island, Sandwip, supplied a huge number of seamen, he had got to know them. His initial aim may have been to keep abreast of news from home. It had developed into a concern over the conditions in which these sailors found themselves.  From police reports on post-war trade unionism in the dock areas, it seems that the majority of seamen, who came from the ranks of impoverished Bengali Muslims of Chittagong and Noakhali in Eastern Bengal, depended on brokers with underworld connections for work and accommodation. These brokers subjected them to extreme exploitation, appropriating the bulk of their wages. The shipping companies in turn tacitly encouraged the brokers. By controlling the work force, the brokers weakened the collective bargaining power of the seamen. All these factors were responsible for the growth of trade unions in the port area. The sailors fought the shipping companies and the brokers by forming a trade union in 1918 and through strike-actions in the early 1920s for better working conditions and wages. 
Muslims constituted three-fourths of the population in the Calcutta Port,  which played a crucial role in British war-efforts. The Port had been developed as one of the most capital-intensive zones of the city. Established in the late eighteenth century, it was the indispensable organ of surplus extraction from the colony. With the establishment of a state-of-the-art dock at Kidderpore in 1892, its profitability increased rapidly. It was directly connected by water and rail to the rising industrial complex on the Hooghly embankment and the import jetties. An electric tram service linked it to the commercial centre making it a modern marvel. Its wharves and sheds were lit by electricity at a time when the main thoroughfares of Calcutta were still lit by gas. Within eight years of its construction, this most profitable of all colonial public facilities in Calcutta was being prepared for further improvement. A contemporary account lauded this project and commented upon ‘the stupendous strides with which the port of Calcutta has reached in the last 200 years, its present position as emporium of trade of the first magnitude under the beneficent, all powerful and world-pervading protection of the Union Jack, in spite of the ceaseless freaks of a treacherous river.’ 
But ‘the beneficent, all powerful and world-pervading protection of the Union Jack’ was not extended to the workers of the Port area who kept this gigantic and profitable project running. Kidderpore was one of the poorest wards with abysmal living standards. It had the worst public health record in Calcutta, a product and illustration of the desperate material conditions. To the colonial authorities a major cause of concern was its unplanned growth, the fact that it was expanding ‘fast, badly, anyhow, criminally undisciplined, choking and diseasing itself, for want of order, plan and direction’.  In this area with its ‘acres of ramshackle slums, stalls and port facilities’  the population lived in the constant shadow of death. Throughout the second decade of the twentieth century, including the war years and their immediate aftermath, Kidderpore remained the unhealthiest ward in the city. It had the highest death rate in Calcutta with a high record of infant mortality. Each year, tuberculosis and other infectious and malignant diseases claimed their victims. The administrative report of the Calcutta Corporation (1912-13) held the ‘insanitary condition in the docks’ with the ‘place swarming with the flies’ to be responsible. It recommended that the port authorities take ‘immediate steps’ to ‘remedy the present state of affairs in the locality’. Despite such observations and suggestions the health situation in Kidderpore remained unchanged, indicating a deeper malady.
Not unexpectedly, therefore, Kidderpore’s dubious gift to the city was the influenza pandemic. Alongside plague and smallpox, it struck Calcutta in 1918. The highest mortality rate from influenza (64 per mille) was recorded ‘as usual’ at Kidderpore, as the municipal observers noted with resignation. This status placed it ‘way ahead’ of other disease-prone wards of the city. A global pandemic during the closing year of the First World War, influenza had arrived by sea. It infected Kidderpore and from there spread to rest of the city. Unhygienic living conditions, highest death rate and high infant mortality, which were already prevalent, indicated the weak physical resistance of the ward’s populations and made them succumb quickly. Inadequate medical attention and facilities made matters worse.  Throughout the hardship years Kidderpore suffered, its death rate (76.8) in 1920 exceeding the previous year’s record.  Caught in the web of exploitation, poverty and pestilence, the ward proved to be one of the liveliest centres of labour protest in the city during 1920-21,  a period when Muzaffar was turning towards labour politics and socialism. Muzaffar already knew the community of sailors. Muzaffar also knew some of their leaders, members of the Urdu and Bengali-speaking Muslim intelligentsia, through the convergences and connections between literary and political circles. 
The majority of those affected by the influenza epidemic of 1918 lived in municipal wards dominated by the working-class. That year, peace in Europe meant little to an ordinary inhabitant of Calcutta. Acute war-induced scarcity thrust the majority of its residents into hardship and made the disease-ridden city desperate. Prices of essential commodities such as rice, wheat, salt, cooking oil and cloth had shot up, making life difficult even for middle-class householders.  Violence flared easily in this environment. Marwari business firms were attacked and godowns looted. An irate Muslim mob accused them of hoarding and causing an artificial cloth-famine. The cloth riot, begun by the unemployed or semi-employed Urdu-speaking Muslim poor and directed against a section of non-Bengali Hindu rich, reflected the antagonistic divisions based on ethno-linguistic, class and religious identities among the diasporic communities of the city.  Next year, the very same segments would join forces against colonialism, by then identified as the primary source of hardship and indicating the social convergence of sectional and nationalist mass mobilisations in an altered political context. 
Reshuffle and transition
Exposure to working-class conditions and hardships during and immediately after the war brought Muzaffar closer to direct politics. From the realm of a muted distaste towards colonial authority, he was entering a zone of confrontational activism. This transition would make him oppose the rule of colonial capital and involve sharp divergences from the politics of mainstream anti-colonial nationalism as well as the claims of exclusivist religious and/or ethno-linguistic identities. 1919 was a turning point in Muzaffar’s career. His social milieu was being increasingly drawn into the post-war anti-colonial upsurge. Yet he was reluctant to commit himself to any of the existing political options. Throughout the year, a debate was raging within him. Was he going to remain a full-time literary activist or should he become involved in politics? In 1920, he would decide in favour of anti-colonial politics and take up political journalism. This in turn would involve him in the working-class movements being directed against both European and Indian factory-owners in and around Calcutta. These movements generated an interest in socialist literature and in 1921, the intention of forming a communist organisation. The social networks he had forged during the war years would continue to offer him support to a certain extent. Kazi Imdadul Haq, for instance, despite being a government employee, would ignore the possible repercussions, including the threat of police harassment, and send food to Muzaffar when the latter was in jail as the sole ‘State Prisoner’ in Bengal during 1923. Some fringe members of his circle would become his first colleagues. The lanes, by-lanes, lodging houses and addresses in and around College Street would continue to be useful to him as the principal means of diverting police attention. Unknown wartime visitors to the city would appear as political colleagues many years later. J. W. Johnstone, a British soldier stationed in wartime Calcutta, would visit the city as a representative of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) and the Communist International during 1928. 
Muzaffar Ahmad had wished to devote himself to thoughtful essays on the glories of Islamic culture. He gradually involved himself in political activities since, in his milieu, culture and politics had become explicitly intertwined. His political experiences as a marginalised figure on the fringes of society had made him focus on the larger anti-colonial struggle. It had also made him support the confused political ideology of Bengali middle-class Muslims who were unable to separate themselves from either sectional or ethno-linguistic identities. The contradiction bred by the forms of political consciousness made Muzaffar reject the cultural ethos of nationalism, dominated by a Hindu Bengali intelligentsia. However, opposition to British rule and friendship with non-communal, socially marginalised Bengali Hindu middle-class intellectuals made him oppose the orthodox elements within the so-called community and favour a united opposition to imperialism. He was unable to subscribe to the idea of a composite elite-formation either, disentangling himself from proprietor interests in every political form. He was beginning to harbour doubts about the claims of Muslim leaders who insisted that they represented the interests of all Muslims as well as nationalist leaders from high-caste Hindu property-owning backgrounds who claimed to represent all Indians. This position would be expanded to reject the social contents and programmes of nationalist as well as communally exclusivist identities. Involvement in militant labour politics, heightened during 1920-21 in Calcutta and its suburbs, a simultaneous switch to radical journalism which increasingly made him write about the political movements of workers and peasants, and a growing interest in Marxian socialism and workers’ power mediated by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, further weakened his attachment to a Bengali Muslim middle-class identity caught between sectional, ethno-linguistic and nationalist political considerations. City-life had encouraged gravitation towards new structures of social inter-dependence absent in the village. In the complex web of urban struggles, perceptions of the self and society were changing. Communitarian values, imbibed through Islamic congregationist religious practice as well as heterodox socio-literary collectivities, were being reconfigured and transformed to arrive at a social understanding and political recognition of transcommunal oppressions. This meant going beyond the community. In 1919, Muzaffar Ahmad was on the verge of an ideological transition. The war years, by reshuffling the social ingredients, which went into the making of his political consciousness, had prepared the ground for this shift. They opened up the prospect of future radicalisation, in more ways than one.
 Ahmad, Smritikatha, pp.1-2, 26-27, 105-110.
The first part of the article may be found at http://www.pragoti.org/node/1739
The second part of the article may be found at http://www.pragoti.org/node/1824
The flame and the flag of Islam
Various interconnected factors acted as the social stimulus for popularising political Islam in such an environment: official policy, especially the politics of colonial census, the complexities of mainstream nationalism which freely borrowed ideological symbols of Hindu revivalist politics, and competition with different ranks of the Hindu community over the restricted resources available to Indians in a colonial milieu. During the second decade of the last century, Muslim identity-politics displayed a confusion of social attitudes. The ideological fluidity accommodated sentiments both anti-imperialist and sectional in character. However, during and immediately after the war, the sectional components of identity thinking were largely superceded by the widespread grievance against colonial rule. The resurgence of pan-Islamist politics in the second decade was directly linked with increased Western incursions into Turkish territory. It influenced rising anti-colonial feelings among Muslim populations of the colonial world. The change in and struggle over the leadership of the ‘community’ reflected this political shift in the years immediately preceding the war.
The reunification of Bengal as an administrative unit in 1912 had meant withdrawal of social power and privileges which the Muslim proprietor classes had temporarily come to experience in East Bengal from 1905, resulting in acute political resentment not only towards the colonial government but also towards the loyalist, mostly Urdu-speaking aristocratic leaders. The capture of the leadership of the All-India Muslim League in 1912 by pan-Islamist and anti-loyalist forces and the Lucknow Pact of 1916 between the Muslim League and the Congress (to share seats in the elected bodies and exert pressure on the government to cede greater power to Indians after the war), contributed to the popularisation of a militant anti-government politics among the city Muslims. A. K. Fazlul Haq and Abul Kalam Azad, new leaders respectively representing the Bengali and Urdu speaking intelligentsia, were closely aligned with these developments. The different shades of Islamist politics they represented ranged from opposition to the government, as in the case of Haq and militant anti-colonial resistance, as was evident from Azad’s actions. During the war, arrests of Indian revolutionaries, mainly from a Bengali Hindu middle-class background, and of pan-Islamists who opposed and tried to subvert British war efforts, generated extensive joint campaigns for civil liberties. After the war, the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movements became the vehicles of this unity. For a small though significant minority, participation in and support for these anti-colonial mass movements would involve rejection of the political authority and ideology of pan-Islamist and nationalist leaders. From an anti-authoritarian communitarianism they would arrive at communism. ‘Reshuffled’ in the course of the war and reconfigured during the postwar anti-colonial mass upsurge, their politics would undergo a transformation.
In and around College Street
A climate of admiration and a certain degree of support among students enabled the nationalist revolutionaries to function. The student lodgings and college residences sheltered and provided them with new recruits. At the heart of student engagement with politics were the neighbourhoods in and around College Street, a central thoroughfare of North Calcutta. The site of top colonial educational institutions for Indians such as Presidency College and Calcutta University, the neighbourhood was also the centre of various institutions linked with the activities of the intelligentsia. The circular pond surrounded by a square, separating College Square from College Street, was also known as College Square and gave the street encasing it from the north and the east, its name. The pond was famous as a swimming pool and the square for political rallies. Students were a significant presence in these meetings. Political meetings were also held at various institutional halls established in College Square and the Albert Hall in College Street.
A concentration of the literati also made the locality a flourishing centre of the book-trade. Apart from the offices of most booksellers and publishers in the city, including the journals Muzaffar Ahmad came to be associated with, the second-hand book-market was one of the highlights. While the established booksellers and publishers mainly came from a Bengali Hindu middle and upper-class background, impoverished Muslims monopolised the used book-trade. They would spread their wares on jute cloths and sacks on College Street pavements, where middle-class clients came and browsed through page after page for hours. These traders, and the bookbinders, a profession also dominated by Muslims, created a daily social link between the urban working-class and the Calcutta intelligentsia. The burgeoning underworld, consisting of hoodlums and pickpockets, with a large proportion of unemployed Muslim working-class people who had turned to crime, also enjoyed a presence in this area. Though volatile and riot-prone in times of acute hardship, this section could also respond to the appeal of large-scale anti-state upsurge. This was going to be evident in the post-war period.
Large numbers of students flocked to the city from the countryside to study at the Calcutta colleges. Among these, a sizeable section came from East Bengal. Muzaffar was part of this in-flow. As aliens in a metropolitan milieu, students from outside Calcutta drew sustenance from district, communal, ethnic, linguistic, caste and provincial affiliations. A majority of students stayed together in lodgings on the basis of these linkages, often sharing with non-students who were part of the same identity-structure. It gave them the security of a collective existence in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. The maze of alleys, by-lanes and streets connecting College Street with the surrounding areas of the North were the heart of mess-life in Calcutta. It represented the world of the lone male who had left behind his family unit when he arrived in the metropolis in search of education and jobs.
Wealth and social status divided the mess communities. Lower middle-class students rented the stairwell of a rooming house as a place to sleep at night. Religious distinctions and their minority status within the student community often made it difficult for Muslim students from the Bengal countryside as well as other provinces to find suitable living space. The dearth of accommodation could force Muslim students to give up their studies in Calcutta and return home. In 1912, the year before Muzaffar came to the city, the plight of Muslim students refused admission to Calcutta colleges and hostels generated controversy. The lack of housing was highlighted in particular. Hindu landlords and mess-keepers often refused to let out their premises. But this was a wider social problem, reflecting the communal prejudices of Hindu property-owners; it persisted over the years. Some less prejudiced and economically pragmatic Bengali Hindu landlords were willing to rent out their property to Muslims. In 1918, the Bengal Muslim Literary Society, an association Muzaffar Ahmad had become attached to, was able to rent a portion of a house owned by a Bengali Hindu medical practitioner. A significant section was too poor to pay for a room and earned board and lodging as private tutors, staying with the middle-class Muslim families employing them. Muzaffar stayed with a family continuously for four years during the War, in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood close to College Street. However he was also familiar with shared lodgings since many of his friends stayed in such accommodation. The Muslim student lodgings in Mirzapur Street, connected to College Street, often hosted the meetings of the Literary Society, indicating a presence of Muslim students within the mess-system.
This was Muzaffar Ahmad’s material environment when he arrived in Calcutta and enrolled at Bangabashi College in a pre-graduation course. Bangabashi was part of a cluster of colleges set up at the initiative of Bengali Hindu intelligentsia to provide greater educational opportunities to the increasing numbers of Bengali middle-class students. In the hierarchy of colleges affiliated to Calcutta University, Presidency College was at the top and received state patronage. Below this ‘show-piece’ of the colonial higher education system were large numbers of colleges set up by Indians. These were self-supporting institutions, dependent on tuition fees. Bangabashi was one of the largest colleges and among several in the second rank. It attempted to involve students in social activities. It had a debating club founded in 1909, a drama club, a society for the support of poor students, and a night school for disseminating education among local working-class people. It admitted Muslim students unlike some colleges. Muslim lower middle-class students, in their turn, were attracted to institutions like these for their low fees. However, they were a minority compared to the Hindu students. Among more than a thousand students enrolled in 1914, when Muzaffar Ahmad was a student there, only 27 were Muslims.
Muzaffar failed to qualify in the pre-graduation examination and gave up his studies. Among Muslim and indigent students, this was not unusual. The percentage of successful Muslim students was low and poverty prevented the unsuccessful ones from continuing. A government survey, published in 1916, showed that out of the 399 students who replied to the questionnaire, ‘87 had given up their studies because of poverty rather than any other single reason.’ Nonetheless, though Muzaffar was a student only for two years in Calcutta, the patterns of social existence and political behaviour that permeated the student community became a part of his way of life. College Street and its surrounding neighbourhoods remained his regular haunt. During 1919-1920, he resided at the literary society office at College Street. He was a habitué of the Book Company. This shop opened in College Square in 1917, and quickly out-manoeuvred older, established European-owned book firms like Thacker-Spinck as the largest importer of foreign books. After Muzaffar became interested in socialist politics, he needed to get hold of foreign imports. The owner, Girindranath Mitra, was always welcoming even though the shop had begun to attract police attention for its stock of potentially seditious literature and its association with early communists like Muzaffar and nationalist revolutionaries. Some of these revolutionaries even secured employment there. The shop was also well known as a meeting point of Bengali writers and intellectuals from diverse social backgrounds and literary circles.
The bookshops, the mess-system, the cheap restaurants, the tea-stalls and the all-pervasive mess-life continued to provide the realms of social intercourse for Muzaffar, constituting the public sphere where he circulated. This environment integrally connected with nationalist as well as sectional forms of political consciousness, increased Muzaffar’s ambivalence towards nationalist politics. In an age of greater Hindu-Muslim co-operation and widespread Muslim antipathy towards the British government, he felt drawn towards the joint anti-colonial struggle. The Indian National Congress had extended its support to the government with the onset of war. The nationalist revolutionaries comprised the only branch of the nationalist movement, not to have done so. They were trying to subvert the war-effort and thereby weaken colonial rule in India. Muzaffar’s location made him quite close to their field of recruitment. Besides, their individual courage in the face of police torture and state repression made them the heroes of contemporary middle-class youth. But inspired by Hindu revivalist ideology they often refused to include Muslims. Members of the Anushilan Samiti were openly antagonistic to Muslims. The Jugantar group was less so but, like Anushilan, was saturated with Hindu imagery of nationhood.
How could a monotheist Muslim youth utter this invocation?
In nationalist political culture, the country was synonymous with a mother-goddess. Since idolatrous and Hindu chauvinist symbols dominated all branches of nationalism, they culturally excluded Muzaffar and other Muslims. Muzaffar was unable to commit himself totally to this form of anti-colonial politics. However, wider anti-imperialist forums and mobilisations continued to attract him.
Instead of direct political engagements, Muzaffar gradually turned to full-time cultural activism. While he was a student, like most lone migrants in an alien environment, Muzaffar had looked for some kind of an association, which would provide a sense of collectivity. He was already a published author and soon turned to literary circles. At the initiative of a group of students like himself, an association had been set up in 1911: the Bengal Muslim Literary Society (Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Samiti) devoted to the popularisation and strengthening of Bengali literature among Bengali Muslims. This indicates an awareness of being part of a minority intelligentsia, in a region where the Bengali intelligentsia was overwhelmingly Hindu high-caste in composition, prompted the formation of this society. Shunned by the ideological and social prejudices of Hindu upper and middle-class society, the tiny Muslim intelligentsia in Calcutta formed community-based associations of their own. Such associations indicated a reactive desire for religious consolidation along exclusivist lines, bred incipient competition with Hindus, and became platforms for the better-off segments to advance hegemonic claims vis-à-vis the community. But their appearance also indicated the isolation of disprivileged minority intellectuals and their search for the ‘heart’ of a ‘heartless world’, the ‘spirit’ of a ‘spiritless situation’. Similar organisations developed among Muslim workers also. The dialectic behind the formation of these and other organisations for migrants, minorities and marginalised segments represented a complex mosaic of identity and difference rooted in the social matrix of the city. Out of the contraction and expansion of various types of communities and networks, intersecting collectivities were being continuously constituted, reconstituted and dissolved. The social need propelling Muzaffar towards the Bengal Muslim Literary Society also made him associate with other non-exclusivist transcommunal associations.
Though the Bengal Muslim Literary Society aimed to work within the Bengali Muslim literate community, it developed a plural character. The organisation offered membership to Bengali Hindu intellectuals interested in promoting the Bengali language among Muslims in a province where majority of Bengali-speakers were classified as followers of Islam. It acted as a launching pad for budding Bengali Muslim authors. The ethno-linguistic cultural politics of this society made it contribute to rather than create a separate space outside the existing Bengali literary scene dominated by Bengali Hindu writers. It was therefore affiliated to the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, the federation of literary societies in Bengal.
When Muzaffar joined the society in 1913, it was in disarray. He contributed to its revival alongside prominent Bengali Muslim writers and political activists well known in the Calcutta literary circuit. These figures were Mozzammel Haq, Muhammad Shahidulla, Imdadul Haq, Mujibar Rahman, Akram Khan and others. Soon Muzaffar became a full-time literary activist. Many leading writers from a Bengali Hindu background, including one who never donated his novels on principle, gave their work to the Society Reading Room.
Work in the literary society helped Muzaffar develop connections with Muslim writers, journalists, political activists as well as members of the Bengali Hindu intelligentsia. A minor figure associated with this society, Abdur Rezzaq Khan, nephew and son-in-law of Akram Khan, became his first socialist colleague in the early 1920s. He also met his first recruit, Abdul Halim, in the Society Reading Room in 1922. A colleague from a Hindu background, who helped out with work in the Literary Society, Makhan Gangopadhyay, would suggest that he visit a nearby bookstore in 1921 when he was searching for socialist literature.
Since this was voluntary work, Muzaffar maintained himself by taking up various temporary jobs throughout the war years. Unable to retain any employment for long, he was forced to shift from one to the next: a madrasa teacher, a slaughterhouse clerk, a Home Department translator and finally a full-time journalist. While he was a student, during a summer vacation, he taught at a madrasa (Muslim religious school) in the Kidderpore dock area. No doubt his earlier madrasa education in the village proved useful here. He also worked as a private tutor, teaching young boys from Muslim families. In the course of his career as a tutor in Calcutta, he stayed with the family of a nineteenth century Urdu writer, Munshi Alimuddin. Alimuddin had already died and Muzaffar never knew him. But his family still occupied the same house at 3 Gumghar Lane, at the heart of Chandni, a buzzing Muslim commercial area close to College Street. It was an address where he was always welcomed warmly. Later when he became a political activist and a police suspect it provided both refuge and cover. Muzaffar also worked briefly at the office of the Inspector of Schools. Most of these jobs were probably secured through his acquaintance with members of the Literary Society. Maulavi Abdul Karim, the aged President of the Literary Society, was a retired inspector of schools, and Kazi Imdadul Haq, one of the most active members, was the headmaster of Calcutta Training School. As a well-known figure in the world of education he had links with the Education Department. Muzaffar was employed for the longest stretch at the Bengali Government Printing Press. His job was to sift through volumes of paper in the cavernous go-downs of Writers Building where the Press was located. He also worked as a clerk in a slaughterhouse. This entailed issuing tickets for the slaughter of animals. In his own words he was spared the unpalatable task of ‘slaughtering the animals myself’. He also accepted and soon gave up another unpleasant job. Despite a reasonable salary and the risk of future unemployment, he did not continue as an official translator of Arabic and Urdu material in the Home Political Department of the Bengal Government.
The realm of tangled cultural politics
The size of the Muslim intelligentsia was minute. According to the Census of 1911, less than 6000 Muslims belonged to the civil professions. As a white-collar segment they were ‘not only outnumbered by the Hindus (in the proportion of 7 to 1)’ but ‘even less numerous’ than the Christians. Yet their literary activities in Calcutta were attracting a great deal of official monitoring and censorship during the 1910s. The Urdu and Arabic Press were acting as vehicles of pan-Islamic ideas. The Bengali and English language organs controlled by Muslims also displayed a similar tendency. Anti-British and pan-Islamic sentiments were being voiced in the Urdu journal Al-Hilal edited by Azad, Mohammadi, a Bengali journal edited by Akram Khan, and The Mussalman, an English newspaper edited by Mujibar Rahman. They also stood for joint Hindu-Muslim action against the government. Other Urdu journals started by pan-Islamists who had flocked to the city around 1915 were the Iqdam, the Tarjuman and the Risalat. Many of them, like Al Hilal, faced prosecution.
Muzaffar’s work in the literary society transformed him into a prolific writer and facilitated his later turn to political journalism. The subjects he chose and the debates he participated in, reflected the gradual shifts in his own intellectual and political position. The larger political developments played a key role in changing the content of his writings. As a student in Noakhali he had been interested in politics. After the Lucknow Pact of 1916 when Hindu-Muslim unity was very much in the air, he had participated in ‘all kinds’ of political meetings including a protest rally demanding freedom of political prisoners. Muzaffar was also part of the audience that had gathered to listen to the speeches made at the Congress and Muslim League conferences held in the city in 1917. He knew political figures like Akram Khan and Mujibar Rahman, literary society members also prominent as Muslim League and Congress activists. This connection may have encouraged and enabled access to these forums.
However he had refrained from joining either organisation. His political position during this period was multi-layered and reflected a confusion of attitudes. In this sense, he was very much a part of the Muslim intellectual milieu in Calcutta, experiencing the pull of identity-politics from diverse directions. A brief examination of the writings published in Bengal Muslim journals reveal this fluidity of political positions. Muzaffar’s own writings were mainly excursions in cultural polemics, conforming to contemporary middle-class notions of a Bengali Muslim socio-cultural identity.
Among the literary journals and their editors Muzaffar came across between 1916 and 1921 were Al-Eslam edited by Akram Khan, Saugat edited by Mohammad Nasiruddin, Moslem Bharat edited by Mozzammel Haq, and Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, the organ of the Bengal Muslim Literary Society. Muzaffar worked as the assistant editor of the last organ. He also composed the news page of the Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika. It described the activities of the Bengal Muslim Literary Society and acted as a bulletin board He also compiled brief news clips, informing the readership of developments in the literary scene. By 1919 he had earned praise in the wider Muslim literary circles as a ‘skilled writer’ whose articles were a ‘pleasure to read’ and was listed as one of the leading Bengali Muslim essayists.The periodicals upheld the spirit of Hindu-Muslim unity and emphasised the ethno-linguistic component of Bengali Muslim culture. They also reflected the social aspirations of the Bengali Muslim middle-classes by stressing the cultural politics of ‘self-improvement’. The first issue of Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika published in 1918, while elaborating its principles, stated this agenda clearly. The discourse of self-improvement in the Muslim middle-class context included the goal of becoming equal to the Hindu middle-classes in terms of education, culture and socio-economic achievements. It was a fragment of the wider ideas on ‘improvement’ and had motivated both Hindu and Muslim members of the proprietor classes in Muzaffar’s rural milieu.
Emphasis on the ethno-linguistic cultural roots of Bengal Muslims plunged these journals into lengthy debates on the language question. A broad agreement persisted that Perso-Arabic traditions provided Muslims the world over with their spirituality and culture and that Urdu was the vehicle of Islamic glory in India. Yet the intellectuals writing in these journals felt it was Bengali more than any other language which was closer to the culture practised by Muslims of the region. These writings projected Bengali as the ‘mother tongue’ and the language of folk culture rooted among the masses. Muzaffar was heavily in favour of this opinion and, like the other writers in these magazines, stressed the Islamicisation of content rather than form. In an article Urdu Bhasha o Bangiya Musalman (The Urdu Language and the Bengali Muslim) published in Al-Eslam in 1917 he attacked all those who tried to impose Urdu on the Bengali Muslims in the most vehement terms. He stated that no ‘Islamic wave’ could rob the Bengali Muslims of their language and that such a move would meet with stiff resistance.
These intellectuals also argued against the deliberate suppression of Turko-Persian and Arabic words from the Bengali vocabulary by Hindu writers. Inspired by nineteenth century Hindu revivalist intellectuals such as Bankimchandra Chatterjee, they were sanskritising the Bengali language. But none of these journals employed a consciously non-Sanskritic prose. Famous authors revered by the entire Bengal intelligentsia were invited to write in these journals. Tagore was published and quoted regularly. The Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika consistently reproduced articles published in journals such as Prabashi. Exchange of ideas, debates and dialogues with Bengali Hindu writers was encouraged. This was not a self-enclosed world. Hindu women authors who wrote on the travails of the ‘respectable’ Bengali middle-class woman contributed to these journals and received praise. Many writers from Hindu Bengali backgrounds wrote on topics of interest to both the Hindu and the Muslim middle-classes.
The journals published articles in abundance on the ‘past glory of Islam’. The pre-history of Arabs, the might of the Moorish Kings in southern Spain and the literary and scientific achievements in medieval West Asia were some of the recurring themes. Clearly a usable past for Bengali Muslims was being constructed in these pages. Like the language question, the issue of cultural traditions was tied up with an attempt to create the ultimate definition of the ideal Muslim middle-class gentleman in search of an elusive embourgeoisment. Also published were articles on the status of Muslim women. They generally argued Islam had traditionally accorded a high place to women, emphasising the necessity of the veil as the marker and site of female and communal ‘honour’. Simultaneously Hindu writers were attacked for claiming Brahmanical culture had traditionally treated women better than Muslims while being saturated in customs such as ‘Sati’ (burning of widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands) and opposition to widow-remarriage. Muzaffar also participated in the ongoing debate on gender and argued in favour of female education as well as the veil. At this juncture, he still saw himself as a devout Muslim and was very much a contributor to the prevailing patriarchal discourse on the fashioning of the Muslim gentlewoman. Within a couple of years, in the process of becoming a radical activist disaffiliating from middle-class social concerns, he was to reject and question this position.
Apart from the ‘women’s question’, other sensitive topics discussed were Christian Anglicist and Hindu revivalist prejudices against Muslims and Islam. All these articles and debates in turn could be related to essays devoted to the place of enterprise in Islam, how Islam looked at capital accumulation and usury as well as the ‘empowering’ knowledge of modern economics. These could be matched with advertisements of handbooks, explicitly intending to advise ‘enterprising’ Muslims on the intricacies of business investments. These preoccupations revealed the emergence and evolution of a social mentality, strikingly similar to that of the Hindu middle-classes in search of capitalist modernisation. The ‘plight’ of wealthy tenant-farmers (jotedars) and peasants (rayats) in the hands of the predominantly Hindu landlords also found a space in the poems, literary pieces and advertisements devoted to agrarian questions affecting the Muslim middle-classes. This bred a sense of incipient competition with and contestation of the socio-economic power of the Hindu propertied elements.
A critique of mainstream nationalism, which deployed Orientalist concepts hostile to Muslims and made free use of Hindu revivalist symbols, was advanced through these journals. Though primarily structured to promote the social interests and shape the identity thinking of the Bengali Muslim middle-classes, this critical perspective had not evolved into an outright rejection of nationalism. It attempted to pressurise the nationalist leaders, who came from Hindu upper-caste backgrounds, into accepting Muslims as equals.
The underlying notion of ‘community advancement’ was not without problems and registered contradictions stemming from overlapping identity-structures and loyalties. Many of the articles reflected a sense of creeping doubt. Skepticism was expressed on the social and conceptual inadequacy of a monolithic identity centred on the idea of community, which never stated how individual freedom was maintained within its boundaries, while demanding absolute loyalty, and did not question its own hierarchical structure. These questions were indirectly referred to and left unresolved. This was a gray zone of irresolution, throwing up critical reappraisals of the components of community-identity and advancing ideas ranging from the emphasis on free thought within Islam to heterodox spirituality to a clear-cut rejection of all identities based on religion. The first part of Azizal Islam’s article ‘Nabajuger Katha’ (The Story of a New Age) in Moslem Bharat published in 1920, when Muzaffar was closely associated with it, tried to combine socialist ideas with community development, nationalism and freedom of the individual. The article did not really succeed in conveying any central ideological position. Another article by Muzaffar published during the same year in the Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika on the Persian Sufi saint Al-Ghazzali, stressed the saint’s stimulation of freethinking. According to Muzaffar, Islamic ‘orthodoxy’ had been unable to appreciate this aspect.
This ‘reformist’ position was not dissimilar to a bourgeois humanist critique of religion developing among a section of the liberal Bengali Muslim intelligentsia. This particular strand of thinking remained weak and was unable to hegemonise Muslim mass politics in the region since its social content promoted a ‘composite’ elite-formation. Yet, at this particular moment it indicated a sense of political directionlessness at the heart of community-oriented concerns: disquiet with the idea of a closed community as well as the social need to identify with it. Muzaffar’s engagement with Bengali Muslim liberal reformism proved to be brief. The pronouncements on gender and community in the essays he wrote during 1918-1919 indicate simultaneous adoption of conservative and liberal positions. None yielded a course of political action acceptable to him. In the postwar radical conjuncture, complex interactions between Muzaffar’s social location and wider class conflict facilitated the emergence of a new political agency and solved his dilemma. Reformist individualism, with its promise of a possessive bourgeois selfhood, would no longer appeal to him.
 Das, ‘The Politics of Agitation’, p.17. J. H. Broomfield, Elite Conflict in a Plural Society, Berkeley, 1968, pp.14, 62-65, 113-115, 117-122, 162-165. Kenneth McPherson, Muslim Microcosm, pp.1-19, 20-54. R .J. Popplewell, Intelligence and Imperial Defence: British Intelligence and the Defence of the Indian Empire, 1904-1924, London, 1995, p.79.
Author's Note: An extended version of this article has appeared in the autumn issue of the History Workshop Journal in 2007. The body of the text uses the old colonial spelling to refer to the city.
The first part of the article may be found at http://www.pragoti.org/node/1739