Rather than naseehat from Mamata Banerjee about obligatory fasting, the hungry Bengali mussalman might appreciate some food
In this subcontinent of a million gods, a cynical display of public secularism is played out on specific days that mark particularly holy events. Union ministers, Chief Ministers and other demi-gods gladden newspaper owners by buying full-page ads, typically exhibiting their own beaming faces, often with a nimbus that makes it hard to distinguish who the god or goddess of the day is — Durga, Krishna or the “dear leader.” The quarter page or full-page advertisements generally pass on bland greetings which sound uncannily like telegram messages to “the people” for this occasion or other. Given that a large proportion of the citizens of India cannot read, one wonders why almost all such greetings are directed towards the literate, but let’s put aside that macabre example of distributive injustice for the moment. There is a certain tragicomic element in the fact that people’s money is spent in crores to greet and congratulate them.
The Islamic month of Romjan (or Ramzan or Ramadan) has already seen its share of greetings in newsprint this year.
There was nothing extraordinary in these annual banalities till an advertisement from the Ministry of Information and Culture of the government of West Bengal came along. In newspapers and magazines, it has published a large advertisement that shows the smiling face of the Information and Culture minister (who also happens to be the Chief Minister) with the silhouette of a domed structure, ostensibly a mosque with two tall minarets — a design virtually unknown in West Bengal during much of the time Islam has been around in this area. Bengal developed its own exquisite syncretic architectural style of mosques which are as Mussalman and as Bengali as they get. Given that this advertisement is directed towards the “Mussalman brothers and sisters” of West Bengal, it was the first departure from things that are both Bengali and Muslim.
There is also a faint hint of an intricate design of Indo-Persianate extraction that is quite commonplace in the upper Gangetic-Indus plane but not in Bengal. For centuries, Bengal has had its own design traditions interwoven with its Muslim practices. This was the second departure, but the design is faint and presumably was the only thing that came up on Google image search that could be photoshopped into the design. So that is fine too, I guess. But the most striking feature of the advertisement is the text.
It starts: “The holy roja (roza) of Romjan, mandatory for the adherents of the Islamic faith, will start.” This is quite an extraordinary statement coming from the head of administration of West Bengal. The government, using public funds, has made a publicly advertised pronouncement on what kind of behaviour is mandated (or not) for adherents of a particular faith — something it has no business doing. However, the subtext is more important than the text. Mussalmans of Bengal are a varied lot. Some fast for the whole month of Romjan, some fast for a few days, some do not fast at all, some offer the namaz five times a day or more, some once, some do not, some are teetotallers, some drink. At its core, it is a human society — not marked by its fallibility but resplendent in its human variance and vibrations. When the government of the day makes it its business to point out what the some of them are mandated to if they are adherents of Islam, it is clearly overstepping its own mandate. What is more sinister is an official sanction and patronage of certain behaviour forms among the Musslamans of West Bengal, in effect delegitimising the Mussalman-ness of those who are doing (or not doing) certain things.
Much of this is posturing in front of a class of go-betweens that have developed between the government and the Mussalman communities of West Bengal. The government cynically uses Nazrul Islam to announce certain initiatives that carry the poet’s name more vociferously in Mussalman congregations. Recently the government has stepped up its patronage for Urdu in a state where Mussalmans are overwhelmingly Bengali-speaking. It has announced monthly stipends for thousands of imams and muezzins to be paid from the public exchequer. No wonder these divines are happy to advise the government on the faith as they see it. These divines need to remember that Bengali Islam is much older than they would like it to be and it was an adult confident faith acting as the ballast of millions well before Roja became commonly practised in Bengal or the Koran was translated into Bengali. Arabo-kitsch — like the palm tree motifs and the copied minaret styles — dwarf in front of the creativity and adaptivity that Bengali Islam has shown for centuries. It is largely Manik Pir, Satya Pir, Bonobibi, Bahar Shah, Bagha Pir and rice-eating Aulia-Ghaus-Qutubs who have made Bengali Islam what it is. Official patronage of the interlocuting divines, whose mindscapes are exposed by their frequent Hindustani peppered Bengali, can only diminish the potentialities of this deltaic faith.
Results of a survey
Talking to a community of people through the limited lens of religion is at best, ill-conceived and at worst, dangerous. It privileges certain kinds of voices within the community over others, who then go on to call the shots and seek to determine socio-political trajectories and limit the possible futures of the community. The Mussalman in Bengal is not only a Mussalman — he/she has aspirations not quite different from other inhabitants of Bengal, lives much more in the world of Bengali than in the world of Arabic, spends much of the day not praying, not in the mosque, not thinking about afterlife. And they are hungry. Very hungry. According to the National Family Health Survey III, 43.5 per cent of children (0-3 years) in West Bengal are undernourished. A 2006 study by S. Mallik and colleagues showed in a sample study that the proportion of children suffering from malnutrition is even higher among Mussalmans, at about 66.7 per cent. With two out of three Mussalman children in Bengal suffering from malnutrition, along with endemic poverty, it can be predicted with certainty that many of them will grow-up to be malnourished and diseased adults. Rather than naseehat about obligatory fasting, then, they might appreciate some food. In much of rural West Bengal, it is semi-roja through the year, whether they like it or not, and I suspect that this Romjan won’t be an exception. This is a world very distant from haleems and iftars.
It is Romjan. And in keeping with Bengal’s tradition, it ought to be a Romjan for Muslims – fasters and non-fasters, hungry and haleem-packed, Hindus and others.
Rather than posture about Romjan, the government might want to stamp out corruption from Wakf boards and ensure that encroachers of Wakf properties are brought to task. It just might want to think about employment — for Hindus and Muslims. Islam does not suffer from malnutrition or unemployment; the Mussalmans of West Bengal do. If a survey is done, I doubt the wish list of Mussalmans in Bengal will read — Roja greetings, Haj house, Imam and muezzin stipend and madrassah education. I have a feeling, food, shelter, employment and functioning government schools might top that list.
(Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral scholar in Brain and Cognitive Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)