The author, Mohammad Sajjad, from the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, has been studying the state of Muslims in Bihar with special reference to Muzaffarpur. He has chosen this town as he feels that it is one of few places in independent India where the Muslim political leadership has displayed progressive outlook rather than mobilising people on communal issues. Presently a commercial city of Bihar, Muzaffarpur was in the past the unofficial capital of upper caste Hindus and Bihar’s cultural capital. Historically, Muzaffarpur, named after Muzaffar Jung, who developed this town in the 18 century, has been in the forefront from early colonial rule. It had also drawn importance as a town of learning with the establishment of the Bihar Scientific Society, as early as in 1868 along with a chain of schools that taught subjects both in English and local language. In his elaborate preface and introduction the author sets out the theme of the book.
Starting from a brief history of the region till 1857, in 11 chapters that are chronologically sequenced, the reader is taken through the various stages of the place and the Muslim response to changing political situations. Thus the social features, political behaviour and economic conditions of the Muslims are narrated in depth along with the community’s anxiety to be in the power structure of the region.
When Bengal Presidency was formed, it was the largest among all in the British India. Madras and Bombay remained geographically unchanged but Bengal Presidency was subjected to repeated divisions. The state of Assam was the first to go out in 1866, to be followed by Bihar in 1912 and Orissa in 1935. Thus, during early colonial period, portions of Bihar were under the grip of Bengalis, when the new educated middle class comprising Hindu and Muslim communities in Bihar challenged the Bengali hegemony starting sometime in 1880s. Bihar was now articulating a regional patriotism for creation of separate region. The author shows how this led in 1908 to the formation of three organisations — the Bihar Provincial Association, the Bihar Provincial Muslim League and the Bihar Provincial Congress — thus creating an independent identity for Bihar Muslims who were opposed to colonialism.
Bihar Muslims played important role in maintaining unity among Hindus and Muslims and one of their leaders, Mazharul Haq, opposed separate electorates based on religion. Unfortunately, there were linguistic issues which brought about a polarisation based on language — Urdu and Hindi — bringing about a clear segregation between Muslims and Hindus. It was convenient for the ruling English to oust Persian language from courts assisted by Bengalis and dividing the community vertically based on language and religion. Even while such alienation was taking place, there were efforts, the author notes, to bring about unity, by establishing Urudu Sahityik Sabha in Muzaffarpur. There were many forward-looking Muslims, and a Madrassa with modern outlook was also founded, which in its curriculum had English literature as a subject.
The Freedom movement in India was going through changes and that affected Muslim politics, creating an independent political awareness. When the Ottoman Pan-Islamic movement was launched evoking religious passion, the Khilafat movement in India gained momentum and when there was agreement between this movement and the Indian National Congress — as it meant a combined effort to fight against the British — Muslim leaders from Bihar became important. In a special session of the Congress that was held in July 1920 in Calcutta, a large number of youth from Muzzafarpur attended it. It made participation in the freedom struggle an important feature of this town. The author notes that as a consequence of this struggle for freedom, honorary titles conferred by the British were returned by some local Muslims. Some Muslims sacrificed their lucrative law practice to join the freedom struggle. Gandhiji’s vist to Champaran in 1917 started the movement of Satyagraha in India and therefore struggle for freedom based on Gandhian ideals was deep-rooted in Bihar.
However, marked communal polarisation started in 1920s, especially after the Chauri Chaura violence broke out. Chapter 6 documents this process of communal polarisation. Tracing its history, the author says it started in March 1895 in Mathurapur village during a Muslim festival. The outbreak was caused by an agitation against the killing of kine launched by Gaurakshini Sabhas. The author fixes responsibility for the violence on organisations such as Arya Samaj and specially Swami Dayananda Saraswathi’s pamphlet Gaukarnanidhi (1881). The agitation launched in Bihar was aimed against Muslims, the author notes, seeming to question the association of Dr. Rajendra Prasad with the Hindu Mahasabha. He fixes equal responsibility on Pandit Malaviya too. According to him, the riots during 1927 were caused by Arya Samajists.
A chapter dwells on the reason for communalism in Bihar, showing Hindu activists as the main cause. In the District Board election results, deep-rooted communalism was seen and even Dr Prasad wrote about it calling it a tragedy. It was then that liberal minded Muslim leaders left the Congress and started communal bodies. Congress became to be known as a Hindu party, says the author quoting English historian G. Macdonald.
Historians recorded that Muslims who had earlier participated in freedom struggle drifted away from the Congress and were indifferent to the Civil Disobedience Movement. The author contests this and quotes several instances to show large scale participation of Bihar Muslims in the movement. In fact when the Lahore session of the Muslim League passed a resolution which later came to be known as the ‘Pakistan Resolution’, it was opposed by several Muslim outfits of Bihar.
The author says that the Muslims of Muzaffarpur had devised their own unique ways of repudiating the two-nation theory of the Muslim League.
When, the Suhrawardy-led government in Bengal unleashed the worst form of barbarism, it had its fallout in Muzaffarpur, as Calcutta had a large number of migrants from Bihar.
The accounts of communal disturbances in post-independent Bihar show clearly that most of them were politically motivated and the author takes pains to explain the causes and effects, quoting various authors and reports. Chilling accounts of communal intolerance is told in the chapter ‘Politics, Crime and Islamic Identities’. The author says with regret, “Grassroots democracy and devolution of power to the local people and the desire of a religious minority relegated to the margins of the political process indeed exacted a strange price — particularly in the state of Bihar!”
Concluding, Sajjad says Muzaffarpur Muslims did not suffer from an isolation syndrome; and the politics of communitarian collaboration was far stronger than the politics of exclusivism. The author laments that the fault line lies in the community leadership today, especially in Muslim education. The recent history of a village in chapter 11 ends with the author saying that while the level of Muslim participation in the freedom struggle was more than the community’s percentage in population, their political participation in independent India is far less, showing isolation, separatism and segregation.
A different book based on a Muslim individual’s introspection and therefore provides interesting material to read.