Before Communism: Muzaffar Ahmad and the war years in Kolkata (1913-1919)-Part Three and final part

Mon, 2008-09-08 19:04 Suchetana Chattopadhyay

Ties that bind

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. [1]

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. [2]

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. [3] 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.[4] 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.[5] Muzaffar himself was to notice a Hindi tract on socialism in 1919.[6] 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.[7] 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.

Derooted collectives

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

In a more immediate sense, contacts based on regional affiliations signalled cravings which could not be controlled within an exclusively Bengali Muslim middle-class environment. These associations were primarily born from a sense of district affiliation and regional loyalty. But, as social formations, they also contained the roots of another form of identity thinking which would, in a few years time, take Muzaffar elsewhere. This was being generated inside the milieu itself where the more sensitive segments responded to pressures from below and expressed social dissent along egalitarian lines. As if to indicate this, Noakhali’s opening poem, an exercise in local patriotism, was followed by an article from the editor, Mahendrakumar Ghosh. It criticised the government for setting up the Benaras Hindu University. Ghosh argued, this step could only strengthen Hindu high-caste tyranny, aid ‘those who profit from religion-as-business’ and undermine the educational drive necessary to improve the condition of low-caste labourers and peasants.[11] These and other anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian views indicated the emergence of a ‘class fraction’ [12] among younger members of the intelligentsia, rife with the potential to disaffiliate from the general directions of their class or class-segment. A mono-dimensional originary interpretation of emerging fractions as mutating exercises to reconstitute, redeploy and perpetuate the hegemony of the proprietor classes needs to be avoided in this context.

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. [13] 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.[14] 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. [15]
Muslims constituted three-fourths of the population in the Calcutta Port, [16] 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.’ [17]

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’. [18] In this area with its ‘acres of ramshackle slums, stalls and port facilities’ [19] 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. [20] Throughout the hardship years Kidderpore suffered, its death rate (76.8) in 1920 exceeding the previous year’s record. [21] 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, [22] 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. [23]

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. [24] 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. [25] 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. [26]

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. [27]

Muzaffar Ahmad had left behind a rural existence where communal, nationalist and ethno-linguistic components of social identity had not yet assumed a coherent political focus. In the city Muzaffar’s political position attained sharper contours. This process was mediated by his urban social milieu and the political trends, which touched the Calcutta intelligentsia during the First World War. In a semi-segregated colonial city registering material scarcity, state repression and racist violence during wartime, self-awareness as a racialised subject could give shape to an intense and desperate social hostility towards colonialism. Intersecting experiences in the city, therefore, prepared the ground for a more intensive process of politicisation in the years that immediately followed. The war years provided an ideological environment, complex and multi-layered. Changes in leadership, a direct result of alienation from the policies of the colonial state, temporarily acted as a bridge between mainstream nationalism dominated by the Hindu proprietor classes and the Muslim intelligentsia. Nowhere were the multiple layers of Muslim intellectual thought more apparent than in the cultural writings of the period, simultaneously revealing identity-formation and identity crisis. In the post-war period, anti-imperialist mass upsurge and labour militancy in his immediate environment and beyond, would facilitate a dialectical interplay between the two and open up various ideological options before the Muslim intellectuals, including the socialist alternative.


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.

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.
[1] Ahmad, Smritikatha, pp.1-2, 26-27, 105-110.

[2] Pabitra Gangopadhyay, Chalaman Jiban (Journey through Life), Calcutta, 1994, pp.66-67, 93, 100, 205.

[3] Modern Review, Vol. 11, No.3, March, 1912. In December 1912 Muzaffar Ahmad’s article ‘A Successful Musalman Student’ appeared in Modern Review. Its Bengali version was printed in Prabashi.

[4] Satis Pakrasi, Agnijuger Katha (The Burning Times), Calcutta, Third Edition 1982, pp.105, 109.

[5] ‘Introduction’, Sipra Sarkar & Anamitra Das (eds.), Bangalir Samyabad Charcha (Communist Thinking in Bengal), Calcutta, 1998. Sarojnath Ghosh, Rusiyar Pralay, Calcutta, 1920.

[6] Ahmad, Smritikatha, p.110.

[7] ‘Introduction’, Sarkar & Das (eds.), Bangalir Samyabad Charcha.

[8] Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Modernity, Postmodernity or Capitalism?’ in Robert W. McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood & John Bellamy Foster (eds.), Capitalism and the Information Age:The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution, Kharagpur, 2001, p.40. Meiksins Wood argues that a model of agrarian capitalism emerged in England, which found expression in a distinctive ideology of improvement. For recent treatments of ‘improvement ideology’ among Muslim agrarian populations of East Bengal, see Pradip Kumar Datta, ‘Muslim Peasant Improvement, Pir Abu Bakr and the Formation of Communalized Islam’, Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth Century Bengal, Delhi, 1999, pp.64-108. Also Sumit Sarkar, ‘Two Muslim Tracts for Peasants: Bengal 1909-1910’, Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History, Delhi, 2002, pp.96-111.

[9] The attachment of the first generation of metropolitan Bengali Hindu migrant middle-classes to their rural origins has been treated. See Sumit Sarkar, ‘The City Imagined’ in Writing Social History, p.170. Also Chatterji, Bengal Divided, p.7.

[10] Noakhali, 1, 1, B 1322/1916. Ahmad, Amar Jiban, p.83. Ahmad, Smritikatha, p.40.

[11] Hassan Mohammad, Comrade Muzaffar Ahmad O Banglar Communist Andolan (Comrade Muzaffar Ahmad and the Communist Movement in Bengal), Chattagram, 1989, p.99.

[12] Mahendrakumar Ghosh, ‘Katha O Karjyo’ (Word and Deed), Noakhali, 1, 2, B 1323/1916.

[13] ‘The Bloomsbury Fraction’ in Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture, London, 1980. Williams describes avant-garde intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Circle as a 'fraction’, isolated from the general directions of the upper classes.

[14] Ahmad, Amar Jiban, p.83.[

15] IB 294 A/20 (133/1920). IB 294/20 (134/1920). Ray, Urban Roots, p.96.

[16] IB 294 A/20 (133/1920). IB 294/20 (134/1920).

[17] Census of India, 1921, 4, 1.

[18] A. K. Roy, ‘A Short History’, p.130. For a detailed study of the Calcutta Port’s profitability and growth during the nineteenth century see P. Banerjee, Calcutta and Its Hinterland, 1833-1900, Calcutta, 1975, pp.24-69.

[19] E. P. Richards, ‘C.I.T. Report on the Condition, Improvement and Town Planning of Calcutta and Contiguous Areas, Hertfordshire, 1914’, pp.10-11, quoted in Ray, Urban Roots, p.5.

[20] McPherson, Muslim Microcosm, p.5.

[21] Report on Municipal Administration of Calcutta for the Year 1918-19.

[22] Report on Municipal Administration of Calcutta for the Year 1919-20.

[23] Report of the Committee on Industrial Unrest, 1921, pp.1194-1265.

[24] Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, p.20. Ahmad, Smritikatha, pp.2, 47.

[25] Kenneth McPherson, Muslim Microcosm, pp.33, 37. The same author has pointed out that in Calcutta by early 1918, prices rose by 78%. But wages had remained static since 1914 (p.35).

[26] Broomfield, Elite Conflict, p.122. Suranjan Das, Communal Riots in Bengal 1905-1947, New Delhi, 1993, pp.61, 67.Sarkar, Modern India, p.194.

[27] Ahmad, Amar Jiban, pp.38, 83, 113-114, 263-266, 268, 292-293, 460.
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

Before Communism: Muzaffar Ahmad and the war years in Kolkata (1913-1919)-Part Two

Thu, 2008-08-14 20:01 Suchetana Chattopadhyay

This is the second part of the article that examines the intersecting experiences of urban migration, political alienation, social marginalisation and a ‘reshuffling of the self’ in the colonial metropolis of Calcutta during the First World War. They acted as key components in the post-war ideological transformation of Muzaffar Ahmad (1889-1973). A writer turned activist, he went on to become the central figure of a socialist nucleus in the city as well as one of the founders of the Communist Party of India in the early 1920s.

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.[1] 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

Anti-colonial political Islam dominated the world of the urban Muslim intelligentsia when Muzaffar arrived in the city. His social milieu in Calcutta between 1913 and 1919 initially made him a part of the student community. He also developed closer and increasingly deeper links with the wider, mainly Muslim, middle-class intellectual circles. These literary associations, rather than the student community, would become the focus of his social existence in the city.

Muzaffar’s student life was short. However, he had become familiar with a mode of social existence and forms of politics associated with students. They remained with him and continued to shape and regulate his political attitudes during the War years. A constant interplay between the world of the intelligentsia and larger political developments could be registered throughout this period. Though not everyone was an active participant, politics was central to most discussions, as a vehicle of social aspirations and interactions between different sections. Students, as young members of the urban intelligentsia, displayed vigorous political interests. From 1905, students from a Hindu middle-class background became a visible presence in nationalist politics. The process had been followed by increased recruitment of Bengali Hindu middle-class youth, especially students, into the nationalist revolutionary networks, directing acts of individual terror against European administrators and their Indian collaborators.[2] Muzaffar was not unfamiliar with this form of politics. One of the leading students of Muzaffar’s class in the Noakhali District School had been initiated into nationalist revolutionary politics and served time in prison.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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 habitu√© 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.[9]

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.[10]

Muzaffar writes: Considering my mental condition in the second decade of this century and the romance that lay in the terrorist movement, it was not impossible for me to join the terrorist revolutionary camp, but there were…obstacles... The terrorist revolutionaries drew their inspiration from Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath. This book was filled with [Hindu] communal ill-will... The fundamental message of the book lay in Bankimchandra’s invocation Vande-Mataram.

The song contains the lines:

Thou, as strength in arms of men

Thou, as faith, in hearts, dost reign, …For,

thou hast ten-armed Durga’s power …

How could a monotheist Muslim youth utter this invocation?[11]

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.[12]

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.[13] 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-√†-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.

The emergence of the Bengal Muslim Literary Society also signalled the awareness of being a minority within a minority, producing the need to separate from Urdu-dominated literary culture. A mess run by a group of Muslim students living at Choku Khansama Lane in the north acted as its office.[14] This location itself was significant. Choku Khanshama Lane was one of the oldest streets in Calcutta and one of the many named after butlers (Khanshama), a profession dominated by working-class Muslims from the earliest days of city-formation. From the late nineteenth century, the Municipality became uncomfortable with streets named after lower-class individuals who were among the earliest residents of Calcutta and started changing these names.[15] Choku Khanshama Lane was one of the few to escape this zeal for gentrification. The society office would later shift to Mirzapur Street and from there to 32 College Street. Muzaffar was also to move in there in 1919.

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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]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.[23]

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.[24]

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.[25]

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.[26] 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.[27]

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.[28]

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,[29] 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.[30]

This ‘reformist’ position was not dissimilar to a bourgeois humanist critique of religion developing among a section of the liberal Bengali Muslim intelligentsia.[31] 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.



[1] 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.

[2] John Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj: The Social and Political Significance of the Student Community in Bengal c.1870-1922’, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Sydney, 1986, p.356. D. M. Laushey, Bengal Terrorism and the Marxist Left: Aspects of Regional Nationalism in India, 1905-1942, Calcutta, 1975, pp.6-7.

[3] Ahmad, Amar Jiban o Bharater Communist Party (My Life and the Communist Party of India), Calcutta, 1969, Fifth Edition 1996, p.24.

[4] Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj’, pp.305-306, 308-309, 352, 384. Ajitkumar Basu, Kolikatar Rajpath, Samaje o Sanskritite (Streets of Calcutta, In Society and Culture), Calcutta, 1996, pp.339, 342, 346-347. Debasis Bose, ‘College Street’ in Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, Vol. 2, p.219.

[5] Report on Native Newspapers, 1914-15. For a treatment of criminality in the city, see Debraj Bhattacharya, ‘Kolkata “Underworld” in the Early 20th Century’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.38, No.38, 2004.

[6] Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj’, pp.217, 246-253, 384. Chandiprasad Sarkar, The Bengali Muslims, A Study in their Politicization (1912-1929), Calcutta, 1991, pp.41-42. Muzaffar Ahmad, Kazi Nazrul Islam: Smritikatha (Kazi Nazrul Islam: Reminiscences), Calcutta, 1965, Ninth Edition 1998, pp.1, 16. Report on Native Newspapers, 1916. McPherson, Muslim Microcosm, p.4. Census of India 1911, Volume VI, Calcutta I. According to the Census of 1911, women constituted 15% of the city population. Among them, one-fourth engaged in various occupations. A quarter of these female workers were prostitutes.

[7] Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj’, pp.249, 253. Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, pp.20-21.

[8] Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj’, pp.135, 242-243, 249. Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, p.8.

[9] Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj’, pp.249-250. Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, pp.20, 25-26. Basu, Kolikatar Rajpath, pp.346-347.

[10] Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj’, pp.239-240, 305-306. Laushey, Bengal Terrorism, pp.10-11. Ahmad, Amar Jiban, pp.391-392.

[11] Muzaffar Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party of India 1920-1929, Calcutta, 1970, p.12.

[12] Ahmad, Amar Jiban, pp.27-28. Italics mine. The political dimensions of the song are discussed in Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism, Delhi, 2001, pp.176-181. Also Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Bande Mataram: the Biography of a Song, Delhi, 2003.

[13] This aspect is discussed later in the chapter.

[14] Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, pp.19-23. Ahmad, Smritikatha, pp.1-2, Ahmad, Amar Jiban, pp.35-38. Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, pp.19-23.

[15] A. K. Roy, ‘A Short History of Calcutta’, Census of India, 1901, Volume 7, Part 1.

[16] Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, pp.19-23. Ahmad, Smritikatha, pp.1-2, Ahmad, Amar Jiban, pp.35-38.[17] Census of India 1911, Volume VI, Calcutta I.

[18] Report on Native Newspapers, 1914-1916. McPherson, Muslim Microcosm, pp.29, 30, 41.

[19] Ahmad, Samakaler Katha, pp. 23, 84. Ahmad, Amar Jiban, p.30. Report on Native Newspapers, 1916. Berwick, ‘Chatra Samaj’, p.309.

[20] Ahmad, Smritikatha, pp.22, 26, 232. ‘Bir’, Al-Eslam, 1, 7, B 1322 /1916.

[21] ‘Samiti Sangbad’ (Society News), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 2, 3,B1326/1919, ‘Samiti Sangbad’ (Society News), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 2, 4, B1326/1919. ‘Sangkalan’ (Compilation), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 23 B1326/1919, ‘Sangkalan’ (Compilation) 2, 4, B1326/1919. ‘Sangkalan’ (Compilation), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 3, 1, B1327/1920. ‘Daktar Husayan’ (Dr. Husayan), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 3, 1, B1327/1920.

[22] Saogat, 1, 5, B 1325/1919.

[23] Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika 1, 1, B 1325/1918. Also Anisuzzaman, Muslim Banglar Samayik Patrika (List of Bengali Muslim Periodicals), Dhaka, 1969, pp.201-204.

[24] Anisuzzaman, Muslim Banglar Samayik Patrika, pp.203-204. ‘Urdu Bhasha o Bangali Musalman’, Al-Eslam, Sraban B 1324/1917. Chandiprasad Sarkar, The Bengali Muslims, A Study in their Politicization, pp.66-67.

[25] Anisuzzaman, Muslim Banglar Samayik Patrika, pp.201-256.

[26] ‘Patrer Uttar’ (Reply to Sudhakanto Raychoudhury), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 2, 4, B1326/1919. ‘Narir Mulya o Islam’er Jer-alochona (The continuing discussion on the status of women and Islam), Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 3, 1, B1327/1920.

[27] Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 1, 2, B 1325/ 1918. Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 2, 4, B 1326/1919. Saogat, 1, 1, B 1325/1919.

[28] Al-Eslam, 3 May 1915-5 May 1916. Saogat, 1, 1, B 1325/1919.

[29] Moslem Bharat, Asvin B 1327/1920. Also see Chapter Three.

[30] ‘Imam Al-Ghazzali’, Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, 1, 2, B1325/1918.

[31] Tanzeen M. Murshid, The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses 1871-1977, Calcutta, 1995, pp.130-131.

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

Before Communism: Muzaffar Ahmad and the war years in Kolkata (1913-1919)

Mon, 2008-08-04 20:45 Suchetana Chattopadhyay

This article examines the intersecting experiences of urban migration, political alienation, social marginalisation and a ‘reshuffling of the self’ in the colonial metropolis of Calcutta during the First World War. They acted as key components in the post-war ideological transformation of Muzaffar Ahmad (1889-1973). A writer turned activist, he went on to become the central figure of a socialist nucleus in the city as well as one of the founders of the Communist Party of India in the early 1920s. The article will focus on the war years and argue the dialectical interplay between Muzaffar Ahmad’s wartime experiences in his urban social milieu and the political trends which touched the Calcutta intelligentsia during the 1910s was crucial in making him turn leftward. A ‘reshuffling’ of the social self during this period, prepared the way for his political transition in the climate of post-war mass upsurge against colonialism and capitalism in the city and beyond.


Migration has acted as a ‘trope’ through which the journeys from the rural to the urban have been read. Autobiographical writings, fiction and historical narratives are replete with stories of collective and individual changes experienced by migrants. This article, however, does not focus on the process of migration from the countryside. Instead, it concentrates on the sources of self-transformation in the city. Taking the early urban experiences of an obscure and impoverished lower middle-class migrant intellectual from Eastern Bengal as a frame, it investigates the continuously shifting registers of alienation and marginalisation experienced by a migrant-outsider as well as opposition and resistance in a colonial city during the First World War. Muzaffar Ahmad (1889-1973) came to Calcutta in 1913. His ambition was to be a writer. When the war ended, he was rethinking his decision to be a cultural activist only. By 1922, his political activism had led him towards a Marxist perspective of society and he had emerged as the central figure of the first socialist nucleus in the city. The article examines the war years and argues they were crucial in socially ‘reshuffling’ the ingredients that went into the making of a changed political consciousness. It treats his urban social milieu and the political trends, which touched the Calcutta intelligentsia during the 1910s, as conduits of future ideological transition.[1]

Streets unknown

Why did he come to the city? In 1913, Muzaffar Ahmad was just one more in the sea of migrants. They crowded the urban space that was Calcutta in search of a better life. A contemporary, Abul Mansoor Ahmad, visiting the city nine years later, regarded the journey as a necessary step for aspiring writers keen on developing contacts in the centre of the Bengali literary world. While making acquaintances among writers and literary activists prominent in his milieu, he came across Muzaffar Ahmad.[2] Though Muzaffar had arrived with the same ambition as Abul Mansoor, he gradually ceased to display a strong attachment to his rural origins. Though a regular visitor to the city till the partition, Abul Mansoor’s political life as a praja[3] (tenant-farmer) leader prevented a severance of social ties with rural East Bengal. For Muzaffar, despite periodic absence, the city was to become the centre of social and political existence. He remained in touch with the milieu he had left behind. Yet it was no longer his world. Muzaffar’s immediate rural environment had propelled him towards the city. In the vortex of metropolitan upheavals, his life would take a completely different turn. A new political focus, previously absent, was going to emerge.

For those born in genteel poverty in the rural areas of Bengal in the 1880s, the city represented a gateway to material opportunities and social advancement. From the second half of the nineteenth century, the middle and lower strata of landed proprietors in the Bengal countryside were increasingly unable to sustain themselves from agrarian income. They could only prevent the impending loss of class and property by branching out to civil professions. Western education with knowledge of English as its focal point was the bridge that had to be crossed to make one’s way in a colonised society.[4] The material constraints in Sandwip, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, a part of the Noakhali district in Eastern Bengal at the time, compelled him to migrate to Calcutta.[5]

The familiar, unlit, relatively less crowded, sparsely built villages and district towns, suddenly gave way to an alien, luminous, over-populated, and densely constructed urban social space. This sharp change in the physical form of the material location could be experientially bewildering and visually staggering. Civic infrastructures gave Calcutta its distinct metropolitan features. By 1913, Calcutta had regained its status as the capital of reunified Bengal. It was no longer the administrative centre of British India. As if to compensate for the fall from its highly ambiguous pre-eminence as the centre of colonial rule, massive projects were being undertaken to spruce up its image as the leading centre of colonial capital. Even this position was to be taken away after the First World War.[6] But in the pre-war and inter-war years, Calcutta was still a showpiece of colonial urban development.

The pride and high hopes of the colonial municipal planners in 1912-13 in the ‘capital of the newly created Presidency of Bengal’ found reflection in the following pronouncement: ‘Its trade, commerce, industries and its civic amenities have all developed during the year and there seems no reason for doubting that its prosperity will continue or for apprehending that it may forfeit its claim to be the first city in India.’ Among the civic facilities expanded in the course of 1912-13, the report focused on the lighting system of the city. Proudly announced was the ‘illuminating power’ of the 443 new gaslights, bringing the total number of street-lamps fuelled by gas to 10,502. The proposal to install electric lights ‘in certain selected streets’ was also considered.[7]
City-lights beckoned though their dazzle could not hide the contradictions of urban existence. Uncertainty immediately engulfed the impoverished migrant upon arrival. ‘The transfer of the capital’ from Calcutta to Delhi in 1912, was drying up ‘major sources of government jobs and patronage’.[8] The racial hierarchy of a colonised city produced its own paradoxes. The groups and classes populating the city concentrated in different geographic zones, sharpening the existing social divisions. The neighbourhoods lying to the north and the east of the city constituted the ‘native’ quarters. This area of ‘intense density’, a maze of narrow alleys and main roads, housed principal Indian-owned markets, shops and business centres. The city-centre constituting Chowringhee, Dalhousie Square and Park Street, as well as areas lying south and west, were well-planned with wide roads. European-owned banks, government and public offices, leading hotels and the spacious residences of European business and administrative personnel were located in these zones. While the densely populated north was overwhelmingly Indian in composition, the ‘sparsely inhabited’ south was predominantly ‘European in character’.[9] Claims by civic authorities of developing the infrastructure were underwritten by hidden disparities in resource allocation. The lighting system, occupying such a pride of place in the Municipal Report of 1912-13, demonstrated a spatial hierarchy. Defective gaslights were installed, generating complaints ‘particularly’ in the northern wards inhabited by Indians that year. As for the proposal to introduce electricity, the area selected was Store Road in Ballygunge, a European neighbourhood in South Calcutta. It was supplied with free electric lights for three months as part of an ‘experimental demonstration’. [10]

The civic infrastructure was also not adequate in dealing with a substantial and escalating death rate from epidemics. Plague, dengue, malaria, smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, tuberculosis and respiratory diseases claimed their share of victims. However, the authorities did try to facilitate better funeral arrangements that year. The dead were classified and care was taken to dispose of their bodies according to religion. Various alterations and improvements of the cremation and burial grounds were effected. Iron railings replaced the old boundary wall of Gori Goriban Cemetary in Park Circus. A small piece of low land within it was raised and made available for fresh graves.[11] It was the cemetery where Muzaffar Ahmad was to be buried sixty years later.
The contemporary images of the city were also associated with impending social catastrophe in various forms. Newspaper reports spoke of traffic accidents, an indication that the ongoing ‘transport revolution’ made city streets unsafe:

walking in the Calcutta streets is gradually becoming full of danger. An enormous increase in the number of motor cars in the city is leading to almost a daily occurrence of fatal and serious accidents. In some cases the drivers of the cars running over people are punished in law-courts, but most of them are never detected and punished. Then, besides the motor cars, there are bullock carts, carriages drawn by horses and so forth. It is, therefore, easily conceivable how difficult and dangerous the Calcutta streets have become for pedestrians. The attention of the Municipal Commissioners is drawn to the matter. [12]

Other dangers also lurked in the street-corners. On the eve of the First World War and during the early years of the war, assaults on pedestrians by drunken European soldiers and robberies by organised gangs were also reported in Indian newspapers. A fracas between college students and European soldiers in the Sealdah Railway Station in 1914 led to demands for a government investigation. [13]

Reports reflected the growing involvement of the Bengal intelligentsia with economic and political issues coming to the forefront with the outbreak of war. As the colony was drawn more and more into an imperialist war-effort, gloomy and dejected forecasts of a regional famine in a climate of spiralling food prices and, paved the way for regular news of scarcity and starvation-deaths among the poor in the countryside. The attitude towards the poor ranged from a liberal-humanist, paternalistic and genuinely felt ‘compassionate protectionist’ concern to impulses of undisguised hatred, terror and loathing. A palpable anxiety centring on proprietor control over society could be detected. Middle-class demands for police protection were voiced from the fear that sections of the criminalised urban poor were about to take over the streets. At the same time, the colonial state could not be relied upon to uphold justice. An extension of police powers to suppressed openly rebellious members of the intelligentsia was condemned. There was outrage over racist attacks. Fatal beatings inflicted on domestic servants and workmen by European officials, officially treated as ‘accidental’ deaths from ‘ruptured spleen’, attracted attention. Anti-colonial sentiments were also expressed on what was perceived as the arbitrary detention of nationalist revolutionaries from a Hindu Bengali middle-class background and of pan-Islamic preachers under the wartime security acts. Outside Nakhoda Mosque, the most important monument to Islamic worship in Calcutta, the police picked up Maulavi Imamuddin, a pan-Islamist described as a ‘warrior’ of faith, in late 1916. The Muslim press claimed he ‘had no political interests whatsoever’ and his indefinite internment ‘will produce a baneful influence on the public mind’. The British surveillance network, throughout the war, was accused of manufacturing suspects to justify the repression of political dissent, officially branded as ‘extremism’ and ‘terror’. Press censorship, a strategy to prevent anti-colonial ‘sedition’ from spreading, also attracted strong criticism.[14] These extraordinary wartime social and political anxieties were to merge and pave the way for greater though temporary post-war solidarity among the middle and upper-classes of Indian society despite the community identities that had emerged under colonial rule in Bengal.

The configuration and reconfiguration of social classes and class fractions among the Indian population created highly differentiated social identities. They were to leave their imprint on city politics and assume institutional characteristics at various levels. The complicated relationship between social hierarchy and sectional configurations, phenomena made acute by the colonial circumstance, shaped the multi-layered political culture of Calcutta. Popular politics reflected the volatile inter-connections between nationalism, working-class unrest, and communal hostilities.

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.

Image: Courtesy Working Class Movement Library


[1] The phrase ‘reshuffling of the self’ has been taken from Carl E. Schorske, ‘Introduction’, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, New York, 1981, p.xviii.

[2] Abul Mansoor Ahmad, Amar Dakha Rajnitir Panchash Bachar (Fifty Years of Politics As I Saw It), Dhaka, 1968, p.47.

[3] Praja politics emerged in Bengal as a movement upholding the interests of rich and middle peasants, mainly Muslim, against the permanently settled landlords who were overwhelmingly high-caste Hindu in composition. Though claiming to fight for the entire peasantry, the praja movement was primarily dominated by Muslim jotedars (rich tenant-farmers), a factor that made it ignore or downplay the interests of the bargadars (share-croppers) and the landless. The praja movement led to the formation of a Praja Party in the 1920s, which changed its name to the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) in 1936. Its social base merged with the demand for Pakistan and contributed to the partition of Bengal in 1947. For a historical account, see Taj ul-Islam Hashmi, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920-1947, Oxford, 1992.

[4] Sumit Sarkar, ‘The City Imagined: Calcutta of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’ and ‘Renaissance and Kaliyuga: Time, Myth and History in Colonial Bengal’ in Writing Social History, New Delhi, 1999, pp.169, 190. Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu communalism and partition, 1932-1947, Delhi, 1995, pp.8-12. The social logic, which steered the Hindu landed gentry toward colonial education and white-collar jobs, could be extended to Muslim landed families also. For a detailed study, see Mohammad Shah, In Search of an Identity: Bengali Muslims 1880-1940, Calcutta, 1996.

[5]See Imperial Gazetteer of India, Eastern Bengal and Assam, Calcutta, 1909. J. E. Webster, Eastern Bengal and Assam District Gazetteers, Noakhali, Allahabad, 1911. W. H. Thompson, Final Report on the Survey and Settlement Operations in the District of Noakhali 1914 to 1919, Calcutta, 1920. Rajkumar Chakraborty & Anangomohan Das, Sandwiper Itihas (History of Sandwip), Calcutta, B 1330/ 1923-24. Also Muzaffar Ahmad, Samakaler Katha (Story of My Times), 1963, Fourth Edition, 1996, pp.6-7.

[6] Amiya Kumar Bagchi, ‘Wealth and Work in Calcutta 1860-1921’ in Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, Volume 1, Calcutta, 1995, p.216.

[7]Report of the Municipal Administration of Calcutta 1912-13, Corporation of Calcutta. For a treatment of the social impact of nocturnal illumination on urban existence, see Joachim Schlor, Nights in the Big City: Paris, Berlin, London 1840-1930, London, 1998, pp.58-59.

[8] Suranjan Das, ‘The Politics of Agitation: Calcutta 1912-1947’ in Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, Volume.2, Calcutta, 1995, p.16.

[9] Rajat Ray, Urban Roots of Indian Nationalism: Pressure Groups and Conflict of Interests in Calcutta City Politics, 1875-1939, Delhi, 1979, pp.4-6.

[10] Report of the Municipal Administration of Calcutta 1912-13.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Report on Native Papers in Bengali for Week ending 4th April, 1914, No.4 of 1914.

[13] Report on Native Newspapers, 1914.

[14] Ibid, 1914-1916. For a dissection of the apocalyptic mood which characterised major cities, such as New York, on the eve of the First World War, see Mike Davis, Dead Cities and Other Tales, New York, 2002, pp.7, 9. The ‘ruptured spleen’ syndrome, euphemism for racist homicide of ‘native’ domestic servants by European masters was also prevalent in other parts of the Empire. For a survey of the African colonies, see Jock McCulloch, ‘Empire and Violence, 1900-1939' in Philippa Levine (ed.), Gender and Empire, Oxford, 2004. The phrase ‘protectionist commpassion’ appears in Sumit Sarkar, ‘Vidyasagar and Brahmanical Society’ in Writing Social History, p.280.


The Remaking of Muzaffar Ahmad

War, Migration and Alienation in Colonial Calcutta: the Remaking of Muzaffar Ahmad

By Suchetana Chattopadhyay

Suchetana Chattopadhyay is Lecturer in History at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. She completed her doctoral dissertation on Muzaffar Ahmad and the early socialist movement in Calcutta during the 1910s and the 1920s at SOAS, University of London, in 2005. Besides the histories of communism and socialism, her research interests also include urban social history, working-class history, colonial surveillance and imperial masculinity.


This article examines the intersecting experiences of migration, alienation, marginalization and a ‘reshuffling of the self’ for Muzaffar Ahmad (1889-1973) in the colonial metropolis of Calcutta during the First World War, arguing that they were key components in his post-war ideological transformation. A writer turned activist, he went on to become the central figure of a socialist nucleus in the city as well as one of the founders of the Communist Party of India in the early 1920s. The article focuses on the war years and argues that the dialectical interplay between Muzaffar Ahmad’s wartime experiences in his urban social milieu and the political trends which touched the Calcutta intelligentsia during the 1910s was crucial in making him turn leftward. A ‘reshuffling’ of the social self during this period prepared the way for his political transition in the climate of post-war mass upsurge against colonialism and capitalism in the city and beyond.

· © The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of History Workshop Journal, all rights reserved.

'An Early Communist: Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta 1913–1929'

An Early Communist
Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta 1913–1929

By: Suchetana Chattopadhyay

978-81-89487-77-5, Tulika, May 2011, pp. xiv + 306 pages
Categories: History/All Tulika titles/Biography.
Hardbound: Rs 600.00 / $ 20.00
LEFTWORD Book Club Members price: Rs 450.00 / $ 15.00

About The Book:

From an occasionally employed, lower middle-class Bengali Muslim intellectual on the borderline of starvation in the city, he was to become ‘the chief accused’ at the Meerut communist trials started by the colonial government in 1929. What was the road travelled before challenging imperialism ‘from the dock’? In 1913 Muzaffar Ahmad (1889–1973) was just one more individual adrift in the sea of migrants arriving from rural Bengal to Calcutta.His ambition was to be a writer. Yet in the vortex of metropolitan upheavals, his life would take a completely different turn.

Taking Muzaffar Ahmad’s early career (1913–29) as its chronological frame, this book examines the dialectical interplay between social being and a wider social consciousness in late colonial Bengal which drew a section of Muslim intellectuals to communism. Muzaffar’s life converged with a significant phase in the social and political history of India and the world: 1913 marked the eve of the First World War, while the Wall Street stockmarket crash set off the Great Depression in 1929. During this period, especially after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, socialist ideas and communist activism became politically familiar in different parts of the globe.

In the post-First World War climate, many alienated urban intellectuals – from Cairo to Shanghai – stood at the crossroads of established identities and radical currents. Informed by working-class protests from below and a leftward turn in the literary/cultural fields, many in India were also moving away from the political routes open to those from their social background to combat colonialism and identifying with alternative visions of decolonization.

By tracing this process in the context of Calcutta through Muzaffar Ahmad’s transitions, the little investigated history of the left in Bengal prior to Meerut is unravelled, and is related to the convergences between individual radicalization and the emergence of a new political space in a colonial city. The connected histories of communism, port-cities, Bengal Muslims, workers,intellectuals, youth, migration, colonial intelligence, early left organization, radical prose, local regional activism and internationalist currents are also probed in this context.

The author

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. She studied at Jadavpur University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and has published articles in South Asia Research and History Workshop Journal.