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.


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