Ziya Us Salam

Mass movements and a bit of amnesia

For a student of history, the most abiding memory of Bihar is of Mahatma Gandhi’s Champaran satyagraha. Of course, much before that, we had read about Nalanda and all the Buddhist shrines. Yet, somehow, in the mind of the common man, the role of Bihar in the independence movement has never been as well analysed. Even less so the role of Muslims of the State. Noted historian Mohammad Sajjad, assistant professor, AMU, has sought to fill this gap with a meticulously researched and insightfully analysed work, “Contesting Colonialism and Separatism”. Excerpts from an interview:

In your book you talk of Hindu and Muslim communalism feeding off each other in Bihar. Yet it has also been a State that defeated the Muslim League’s politics of exclusion and alienation, embracing Congress’s vision of pluralist India. How does one explain this seeming dichotomy?

This is not dichotomy, per se. Rather it is testifying to the presence of multiple political trends even within the Muslims of this part of Bihar; and this multiplicity was neither caste (biradri) specific nor class specific. Secondly, this ‘dichotomy’ demonstrates the complexity of the causations involved in the politics which eventually divided India. The Muslim League alone was not solely responsible for India’s partition. During the last phase of colonialism, the colonial state, the League’s communal separatism, and even the majoritarian communalism within and outside the Congress, all had their own share in this. The politics of making a ‘Hindu Nation’ was significantly ascendant specifically during 1937-47 when there was considerable overlap of the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha. This is what this book therefore amply demonstrates through the empirical details explored from various kinds of sources/evidences. Muslim resisted the territorial separatist politics of the Muslim League is another story that this account tells.

Tracing the roots of communalism in Muzaffarpur, you talk of the all-powerful Gaurakshini Sabhas, reminding a reader of similar bodies which have sprung up in recent times. Please elaborate on the Ploughmen’s Begging Movement and its possible link with the Cow Protection Movement.

From the 1880s onwards such movements sprung up at the initiative of the Arya Samajists; it enlisted support of the intermediate (peasant) castes like Yadavas who saw an opportunity to rise up in hierarchical social structure. The Ploughmen’s Begging Movement of Muzaffarpur sparked communal riots in Sheohar, specifically in 1895; it was closely linked with — in fact a variant of — the Cow Protection Movement. Cow protection, Hindi-Nagri marginalising Urdu, and music playing before mosques by the religious processions, have been the most prominent issues around which politics of communal mobilisations have been pursued and these invariably resulted in riots. Maulana Sajjad (1880-1940) of the Imarat-e-Sharaiah, was therefore, opposed to any religious rituals being performed in public spaces; he was for strict confinement of such practices in private domains. This is a point which found scholarly elaboration in Sandria Freitag’s work (1989) on colonial U.P., though she didn’t acknowledge Maulana Sajjad. She benefitted from the theory of ‘Public Sphere’ popularised by Habermas in the European context.

From the ’30s, Bihar saw a rapid expansion of the RSS. This decade also saw the Gandhi-Ambedkar Poona Pact. Did these developments alienate the Muslims, resulting in many switching loyalties from Congress to the Muslim League?

Yes, it did. In Bihar, during April-July 1937, the pro-Congress Muslim Independent Party (MIP), had formed its ministry, as the Congress, on technically least convincing grounds, had refused to form a ministry giving way to the second largest party, the MIP. There were demonstrations against the MIP ministry by the Congress and it had clear anti-Muslim overtones. The Congress refused to have a coalition with the MIP, when the Congress came back to form the ministry. Syed Mahmud (1889-1971) was not made Bihar’s Premier; rather Shri Krishna Sinha (1887-1961) was brought from the Central Assembly to take this assignment. Muslims saw it as a blatant denial of share in the structures and processes of power. The performance of the Congress ministry was found to be discriminatory against Muslims in many instances. There were riots and the Congress was not forthcoming in penalising the rioters. All these paved the way for the Muslim League’s sudden rise from December 1938 onwards. The Gandhi-Ambedkar (Poona) Pact, 1932 had conceded reserving seats for Harijans (with joint electorates) two times more than what Macdonald had offered to them with separate electorates. A similar offer was not made available to the Muslims in exchange for dropping separate electorates. All these contributed towards alienating the Muslims from the Congress. It gave a fresh lease of life to the hitherto defunct League in Bihar.

Noted historians like Sumit Sarkar and Papiya Ghosh have expressed their opinion about the alleged lack of enthusiasm among Muslims towards the Civil Disobedience Movement. Yet at the ground level in Bihar, as you point out, the reality was quite different... My study of Muzaffarpur in the book has found evidence of large participation of Muslims in the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-34). Imarat, the Urdu fortnightly of the Imarat-e-Shariah was gagged (in 1932) precisely for being vocal against the colonial state during the Civil Disobedience Movement, because of which they had to launch a weekly Naqeeb, which survives till date. Al Badr (Darbhanga), and Ittehad (Patna) were other Urdu periodicals fighting consistently against colonialism. There are police and intelligence reports testifying to the huge turnout of Muslims in Congress mobilisation efforts — the Congress in north Bihar had come to rely on its Muslim leaders for its mobilisation campaigns in the Civil Disobedience Movement 1930-34.

You seem to point out a way forward to the Muslims of Muzaffarpur through a process of engagement with secular democracy. Won’t it hold good for the community in large parts of North and central India?

Even though this work concentrates on a locality, it is not a local history. Rather, it looks at history of north Bihar (1857-2012) from both national as well as local perspectives and locates the position of the Muslim communities in those events and processes. Therefore, there is a continuity of narrative in pre and post independence periods. Muslim engagement with pluralist democracy of India has by and large taken care of their concerns of empowerment. For example, in the 1970s and to an extent 1980s also, Muzaffarpur was one of the nerve-centres of the mass struggle for Urdu’s Second Official Language Status. Inclusive politics and everyday lives could therefore possibly be a way forward for the rest of India as well.


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