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

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