Guest-Editorial: Writing Back to Bhadrolok Hegemony in West Bengal
By Mosarrap H Khan & Mursed Alam
As we started writing the editorial for this issue – “Muslim Life in West Bengal” – communal riots broke out at Baduria and Basirhat in North 24 Parganas, bordering Bangladesh. West Bengal has witnessed a number of riots in recent times, though their impact has always been limited to a particular area. The riots have once again made Muslims visible in Bengal, a community otherwise rendered invisible in all spheres of life. Under upper caste Hindu bhadrolok (gentry) hegemony – initiated in the colonial era with the amassing of cultural capital under British patronage, and consolidated in postcolonial India under different political dispensations – Muslims in West Bengal have remained a forgotten group, the marginal of the marginal.
Muslims become visible only in moments of violence, whether initiated by them or others. Their new-found assertiveness in the last decade is entangled with an ominous violent image. In the immediate aftermath of the Sachar Committee Report (2006), which highlighted their socio-economic depravity on all indicators, Muslims in the state went on a rampage in Kolkata protesting against Taslima Nasreen’s stay in Bengal and Nandigram land-grab. In many ways, Muslim assertiveness, apart from people’s disaffection with the Left Front government’s autocratic land acquisition method, contributed to the ouster of the Left government (1977-2011) and Mamata Banerjee’s rise (2011 – ) in state politics. There have been other recent instances of Muslim violence in Kolkata (2015), in Kaliachak, Malda (2016), and in Baduria (2017).
Every time Muslims in the state indulge in violence, the public discourse turns into one of appeasement of a fundamentalist, violent community by the friendly regime of Mamata Banerjee. The entrenched bhadrolok caste and class hegemony, coupled with the Hindu right wing prejudice, reinforces a wilful amnesia about the horrific economic and social conditions of Muslims in Bengal. According to the Sachar Committee, appointed by the Manmohan Singh government, Muslims in West Bengal ranked one of the lowest in the country on all important indicators such as access to education, health, jobs, housing, etc. The Left Front government had dismissed the report as ‘motivated’, since it was based on second hand information. However, a recent report, “Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal” (2016), prepared by Association Snap, Guidance Guild, and Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust, have meticulously collated data from households to come up with equally damning findings. To cite a couple of stats: nearly 80% rural Muslim households in the state have a monthly income of Rs 5,000 or less, which is barely above the poverty line. A little over 38% of these households earn less than Rs 2,500 a month. The literacy rate among Muslims in Bengal is 68.3%, which is 4% below the state average. Muslim representation in the agricultural sector is an overwhelming 47%, a meagre 1.55% in school teaching and 1.54% in the public sector. However, Muslims constitute 27% of the state’s population.
In such a scenario, there is a genuine need for Muslim empowerment in the state, in order to create a more equitable society. The present political dispensation in the state has tried to address some of the problems of the community by disbursing scholarships to minority students at a record rate, by including them in the Other Backward Classes list, which will ease the entry of Muslims into government sector jobs, by disbursing substantial amount of money to Aliah University, a minority institution, etc. However, after each cycle of violence by Muslims, the discourse of Muslim appeasement jeopardizes any effort at empowering an extremely marginal community. The success of bhadrolok hegemony and Right wing propaganda depends on how effectively they can turn the discourse of empowerment into one of appeasement.
This issue of Cafe Dissensus is an attempt to demystify an otherwise invisible Muslim community in the state, who have graduated from once working on Hindu zamindar’s land to owning marginal land, share-cropping, and working as migrant labourers in other states. How has the Muslim identity in West Bengal evolved over last two centuries in all its complexities in the face of two Partitions (1905 and 1947)? How have Muslims in the state challenged the politics of their own marginalization since independence, especially in the last 3-4 decades? How have Muslims started to write back to bhadrolok hegemony? How have the dominant majority community depicted them in media and films? These are some of the questions that this issue seeks to address.
Despite their bleak socio-economic present, Muslims in West Bengal have also experienced an educational and cultural Renaissance – after the Bengal Renaissance in the 19th century, which was predominantly Hindu – in the last decade or so. Owing to the efforts of community-led institutions – Al-Ameen mission, for example – there is now a sizeable number of Muslim professionals in the state. More importantly, we are witnessing the emergence of a nascent body of scholars and public intellectuals in the community, who are eager to critique bhadrolok hegemony and the absolute dominance of clerics within the community. This issue has been able to bring together some of these writers, scholars, and intellectuals, who would be, we hope, shaping the discourse of the community in the coming years. After Gramsci, we could term them ‘organic intellectuals’, who have risen from the ranks of the community itself. And interestingly, many of them are from the hinterlands of Bengal, without any significant cultural capital. However, we must also remember our allies from the majority community, who have written for this issue with a sense of solidarity.
Finally, there are so many aspects of the community we couldn’t address here because of lack of expertise or writers, who could have dealt with those issues. Hopefully, we would be able to address some of those issues in a future expanded book project.
To conclude, this issue of Cafe Dissensus is offered in a spirit of ‘writing back’. It is the duty of every marginal group to write back, a significant step toward empowering itself. Even a decade ago, we couldn’t have imagined publishing an entire issue on Muslims in West Bengal with the majority of writers from within the community. This issue is a testament to the new-found intellectual confidence within the community.
Hope you enjoy reading this issue!
Photo: Hindustan Times
Mosarrap H. Khan has submitted his doctoral dissertation – “Muslim Fictions: Toward an Aesthetic of the Ordinary” – at the Department of English, New York University, USA. He is also a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Email: email@example.com
Mursed Alam teaches in the Department of English, Gour College, Malda, West Bengal. His research areas include subaltern life and politics, Islamic traditions in South Asia, minor discourses, etc. He has published in journals such as Economic and Political Weekly, Rethinking Marxism, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Contemporary South Asia, South Asia Research, Kairos, and the Journal of Critical Symposium. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.