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 However, during and immediately after the war, the sectional components of identity thinking were largely superceded by the widespread grievance against colonial rule.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

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