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Can the Muslim Fight Back? Reflections from Fieldwork in West Bengal

By Abdul Qaiyum

The consistent rise in violence against the Muslims in India is somehow accepted with little outrage. On the contrary, the nature of the ‘rage’ found among the Dalits and its expression is absent among Muslims[1]. There are Muslim political figures which have emerged in the aftermath of the populist right wing discourse[2]; however, their reach and support is limited. The fractured nature of the Muslim body politic, thus, has given rise to responses which are atomized, local, and nowhere comparable to the Dalit movement. In the following paragraphs, I would like to argue that it becomes improbable for the Muslims to mobilise against such violence given the socio-economic circumstances they often find themselves in. I would turn to my field work in West Bengal to substantiate my argument.

Any discussion on contemporary Bengali Muslim life and politics has to keep in mind the historical fact of Partition of Bengal in 1947. The partition of the state determined the demography of the state and its areas, wherein certain pockets became Muslim enclaves and the community at large was reduced to a minority with little contribution to politics, culture, and economy.

For 34 years, the Left Front headed by the CPIM[3] was in power riding on the back of a land redistribution movement. They did manage to install a secular organizational system through their network of party cadres and members. It was because of the existence of the ‘party office’ as an institution that there were no major religion based riots within the state[4]. However, as an added consequence of the same, one does not find a huge presence of any major Muslim issue-based political party operating in the state,[5] or for that matter one cannot find any Dalit issue-based party in the state as well. The manner in which religion and caste became invisible in West Bengal politics was commendable; but the buck stops there. In terms of education, employment, and political representation, the conspicuous absence of Muslims[6] and Dalits reveals the reproduction of the same feudal structure of the past and the failure of the mainstream communist politics. Thus, the lack of riots or religion based violence does not take us away from the fact that there emerged, in the 34 year old rule of the CPIM, an institutionalized system of inequality. The land redistribution which was supposed to usher in a more equal society only managed to make a small dent in the existing system. Rather, what followed was a social structure, which inherited the inequalities of the past with a different veneer to it.

This was evident in a village near Manteswar block of the Bardhaman district, where I conducted my field work. Historically, the Sain clan, a Kshatriya sub-caste, had been dominant until a gradual shift of power towards the Muslims, the Sk. clan, who have become the majority population owning the lion’s share of land. The majority of Sain families have moved out of the village because of their urban calling and economic pursuits. The remaining population consists of older Muslim families along with an increasing number of new families, whether related by blood or marriage. The village also has a sizeable denomination of Scheduled Caste families. Nonetheless, as I observed during the course of my field work, the majority of the population owned less than one acre of land, the literacy rate[7] is 68.4% with a miniscule percentage pursuing higher studies[8]. In terms of occupational history of families, there was a change in the choice of work mainly among the age group of 15-40. I would highlight the travails of this age group as they could have been the harbingers of change with less vested interests than the ones older than them. The majority of the population in this age group has left the village to work in different states across the country. Low returns from agriculture produce on small pieces and the pressure to earn a standard amount of money like the rest by making use of the social capital at their disposal pushed these individuals into accepting manual work in the informal sector. The majority of these individuals are Muslims who time their travel according to the crop cycles. The ones who do not leave the state for work are engaged in the same old traditional work practices of ‘thika’ farming or work as agricultural labourers. This population of young individuals who have inherited either the work of a labourer or ‘thika’ tenancy from their fathers has very little to contribute to politics as discourse and practice as their socio-economic circumstances bind them to the big landlords they work for. The big landlords are the elites who control not only socio-economic processes but have a say in the politics in collusion with the upper caste Hindu elites.

The politics in the village now revolves around a few major issues such as, 100 days’ work under the MNREGA scheme, construction of roads and electricity system. Hence, what transpires is a tug of war between different political stakeholders to earn as much money as possible from the tranche of payment which trickles down from the coffers. It has gone to such an extent that there are two factions of the same ruling party within the village engaged in fights over who gets to control the flow of money. In such a scenario, what remains of the politics is a husk without its kernel, and dominated by individuals who have gained a reputation for themselves. More often than not, the majority of the population do not want to get  involved in the daily affairs, and are content with what the ‘comrade’(as one of the political leaders is called) has to offer them. There emerges thereby a disengagement from the process itself, which makes it impossible to mobilise them. If there are discussions on the state of Indian politics, it is limited to discussions among peer groups over ‘bidis’ or at tea stalls where the discussions are taken over by entertainment in the form of card games or television.

I would like to highlight the fractured nature of Muslim politics with the help of two incidents which happened in the village, the movements related to it, and the compromise and eventual betrayal by the senior leaders. The village under discussion has a neighbouring village with a majority Hindu upper caste population. The main market lies within the geographical vicinity of the above village. To cut a long story short, two Muslim entrepreneurs on two separate occasions were not allowed to open a permanent shop there, given the market being the stronghold of the neighbouring village dominated by upper caste Hindus. However, the majority of the villages surrounding this main market are Muslim-dominated, and, as expected, there were movements which were organized to fight against such outright discrimination. The movement petered out after a few days as there was a sustained effort from the powers that be to quell the movement as soon as possible. It was not a compromise that was reached upholding the secular ideals; rather what emerged was a collusion of the elites to defray the demands of the Muslims while certain vested interests were ensured. As a respondent of mine narrated the incidents:

I told them (CPIM party members), ‘If I associate with you now in this and help you in the issue, the moment you receive 2 lakhs from Putsuri, we would get backstabbed in return. As we have witnessed before as well, it is the Muslim brokers who give money to other Muslims and encourage them to buy from Putshuri or set up shop there, and then they would come and fight with us if we go against their wishes. So, why would we go under your tutelage to fight? You have lost that position as we had to return empty handed, embarrassed, and humiliated. So, there is no cause for us to go again. The fault is not of the Hindus but the Muslims who cannot sustain a movement….There is no problem with Muslims residing in the village but it becomes a problem when the Muslims try to do business in the same, then it becomes unacceptable for everyone and they can’t let it happen’. (Excerpts from the interview with Mr. I)

The incidents happened when the Left front government was in power. This brazen display of unhinged discrimination has its roots in the politics practiced during that period. The disenchantment from politics of one of the more vocal members of the party exemplifies the general mood of the people, and the reduction of politics to economic transactions. It is impossible for someone to keep faith in a party which betrays the people in successive incidents. In the above example, which brings out the inability of the CPIM to view the underprivileged as capable of politics, we find that the reproduction of inequalities of access to power is directly proportional to the access to different forms of capital – economic, social, and cultural. Those who can often wield the power of such capital can get away with deliberate acts of wanton discrimination. In the next few lines, we hear from a leading political activist of the village, who shifted his allegiance from the CPIM to the TMC. He highlights the inability of the left to declass itself and historicizes the eventual propagation of the same feudal system they were supposed to fight and overthrow.

When a bunch of illiterate Muslims, Scheduled Tribes stopped a bus by blocking the road, the Officer-in-Charge came in. Now the illiterate protesters are not able to converse with the OC, so someone like X (A landed upper caste, educated member of the Sain family) would go there posing as an intellectual and talk either in Farsi, Urdu or English and become the leader of these people. Gradually, the Left Front started taking this kind of people in the party and when the very same people like X started exploiting the poor, the Left front turned a blind eye towards all of it. (Excerpts from the Interview with Mr. L)

He went on to narrate the problems associated with the functioning of the party, the privileging of the upper caste as well as the eventual failure of the land redistribution in the village. The land redistribution was supposed to help bring in a more equal society; instead, it provided a modicum of change whereby the landless were provided with miniscule amount of low lying lands near the canal which was under water for six months and only one crop a year could be cultivated. The decreasing rate of profit from one cycle of crop has made it impossible to survive on agriculture. It is in this context that one can notice that the major portion of the population has to depend on other sources of income and employment.

These sources of income and employment become important when one considers the upward aspirations of the population, especially the younger generation and their inability to find the same in the old forms of work that their fathers were involved in. The need for smartphones, motorcycles, and clothes, along with modern urban amenities is concomitant to the need for land and big houses. This requires them to seek a life beyond agriculture. This has been detrimental as a very low percentage of the youth pursue higher studies. The lack of ample ideological as well as educational insight into politics has turned these individuals, even though intelligent and street smart, as pawns in the hands of the political parties. Because of the incessant need for more material gratification, coupled with the ‘development dole’ based politics in the rural areas, the political expectations have changed, and in its wake, there is a visible depoliticization or lack of serious engagement with politics.

If the Muslims could live together as one, as united, then whatever is unjust or wrong, one could have been capable of calling it what it is. No one should accept what is unjust. However, that ability to differentiate between unjust and just is not there among the Muslims anymore, that ability to decide whether to stand up against the unjust or fall back. The Muslims answer to money and do not take into account whether something is unjust or not. They are there wherever there is money to be had. This is what the reality is of the current generation; wherever there is money, there are Muslims. (Excerpts from the interview with Mr. I)

Even if the above statements sound harsh, they highlight a widespread rise of individualism under neoliberalism. An added consequence of neoliberalism is the uncertain nature of work, informal and manual, in other states, which often makes them anxious about their future. The lack of education or permanent employment, low returns from agriculture as well as the lack of politicization have made it impossible for this group of individuals to come forth and mobilise to redress the wrongs as they are stuck in a vicious circle. As another respondent, a 25-year-old mason in Kerala, put it: “I want to study but if I do that my home would slip back into poverty. Since I am the eldest of the family, I have to send at least Rs 10,000 a month which would be a great support for the family. If I don’t do it, then the younger ones would not be able to better their lives” (Excerpts from the interview with Mr. M). The struggle to improve their lives and that of their families emanates from systemic violence against the community; hence, leaving no time or energy to fight for the wider Muslim community.

[1] The recent demonstration by the Bhim Army at Jantar Mantar against the murder of dalits in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. A similar demonstration by the Muslims in such large number has seldom been witnessed.

[2] For example, Asaddudin Owaisi and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has become one of the more vocal Muslim voices. There are similar Muslim voices which such as Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Assam; but their reach is considerably small.

[3] Communist Party of India (Marxist) formed the government in 1977 and remained in power until 2011.

[4] I have borrowed from the idea of ‘party society’ formulated by Bhattacharyya (2009). See Bhattacharyya, D. (2009) “Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal: Local Government in Rural West Bengal”, in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, Issue No. 09, 28 Feb, 2009

[5] Siddiqullah Chowdhury’s party People’s Democratic Conference of India (PDCI) merged with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and contested elections in 2014. However, in 2016, Siddiqullah Chowdhury joined All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC), contested under its patronage, and won a seat. He went on to hold an important portfolio in the current West Bengal government.

[6] The Sachar Committee Report (2006) posited that the Muslims parallel the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in under representation in education, employment, and access to power. SCR(2006):GoI.

[7] Census Report (2011)

[8] Ibid.

Photo: Firstpost

Abdul Qaiyum is a Ph.D. scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research interests include social mobility among Muslims, village studies, development research, Indian politics, Muslims in urban spaces, and the tussle between religion and secularism. There is a bit of political activism left in him as well. Comments and criticisms are welcome at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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