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The Bengali Muslim Writes Back: Hindu Cultural Hegemony and Muslim Self-fashioning

By Mursed Alam

The present essay proposes to investigate the minoritised and subalternised situation of the Bengali Muslims in West Bengal, India. The Brahmanical bhadrolok hegemony in the Bengali culture and politics has meant that the peripheral and minor voices, such as those of the Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis, etc., have remained unrepresented. And, as a consequence, their marginal social position has become further ossified and cemented. How are the Bengali Muslims negotiating with their minoritisation? This essay proposes to engage with this question by first talking about Hindu, i.e. Brahmanical bhadrolok, hegemony in Bengal and then taking into account the contemporary Bengali Muslim response to this hegemony through literary and critical writing and alternative political imaginary. The paper ends by suggesting few ways ahead for the Bengali Muslims.

The Hegemony

If you watch the new Bengal tourism ad featuring Shahrukh Khan (SRK), which is praised for its ‘authenticity’, you will see Bengal is presented to a foreigner by highlighting its cultural tropes from College Street to Bengali cuisine to Bishnupur to Durga Puja to Baul and Rabindra Sangeet to Dakshineswar to Mandarmani to Darjeeling. After watching the ad, however, one – a foreigner or someone from outside Bengal – would hardly realise that there are Muslims or any Islamic cultural tradition in the state. The same is true for the ads featured in dailies and magazines? How come that a people who are more or less a quarter of the total population of the state are completely absent from the official self-representation of the state? Is there nothing in the Bengali Muslim culture or history and architecture that can demand a representation in the narrative that Bengal presents before the world?

This is perhaps a symptom. If we look at the Bengali intellectual and cultural discourse since the formation of the state, there has hardly been any mention of Muslims. The culture of Bengal has been conceived willy-nilly as Hindu – or for that matter upper caste Hindu – culture. Thus, from its pedagogy and syllabification to its cultural and intellectual self-representation, political/sociological discourse and media preoccupations, Muslims are conspicuous by their absence. And the fact that such an absence of Muslims has been normalized shows the power of the hegemony.

Formation of the Hegemony

If we analyse the intellectual climate and cultural discourse coming out of Bengal for the last two centuries, we can easily perceive that there has been a predominant emphasis on the ethos of universalist secular modernity that seeks to eschew the anachronistic and particularistic demands of caste and religion. However, if we probe a little deeper, we can see that this emphasis on modernity and modern cultural and political institutions has quite paradoxically allowed the dominance of a particular section, namely the upper caste Hindu –the Brahmin, Baidya, Kayastha – triumvirate, in all the sections of Bengali life, be it political, cultural, professional, and intellectual. How can we account for this hegemony of a particular caste and class based on the universalist pretentions of modernity? How come that a tiny section of Bengal has been able to persuade the vast majority to accept its agenda as that of the entire population of Bengal? The answer perhaps has to be sought in the so-called Bengal Renaissance and the consequences of the Partition (1947).

When the British established its Empire in India with its capital in Bengal, it was the upper caste Hindu that responded positively to English education and its attendant cultural capital that the Empire, seeking legitimacy, brought to India. Naturally, it brought into being a professional and business class from the upper caste Hindu sections that gradually led to its dominance in the society with its newly gained cultural and economic capital. On the contrary, the Muslim response to English education was unsatisfactory as the community perceived a political and cultural threat from the Empire which wrenched power from it.  Moreover, owing to the poor economic condition, the community failed to send as many pupils to English education as expected.

However, this dominance was challenged in the last two decades before independence. The rise of an educated class from the rich peasantry since the last decades of 19th century and the popular political mobilisation mounted a serious threat to the dominance of the upper caste in Bengal. The prospect of a Dalit-Muslim unity under the leadership of Fazlul Haq and Jogendra Nath Mandal questioned the upper caste privileges. However, that challenge failed to achieve its stated purpose because of the historical fact of the Partition of Bengal (1947). Quite contrary to the popular narrative of the Bengal Partition being the sole result of  Nehru and Muslim League conspiracy or a pure case of Muslim separatism, it was the panic of the upper caste losing its dominance, as described by Joya Chatterji (1994) in Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition  1932-1947 that led to the Partition of Bengal. The upper caste leaders of the Congress, the CPI, and the Hindu Mahasabha were unanimous that Bengal must be portioned with a Western Bengal having a Hindu majority. This forestalled the challenge that the Dalit-Muslim alliance posed and re-established the upper caste dominance in Bengal.

The social and cultural consequences of Partition – the migration from East Pakistan, abolition of the Zamindari, formation of United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), and the Left politics with upper caste leadership – led to the formation of the ideology of progressive modernity that sought its legitimacy not in any particularistic demand but in the language of universalist citizenship and in the general idiom of social and class justice. Thus, as Partha Chatterjee (2016) writes, while talking about the disappearance of caste from Bengal after partition, the upper caste elite with its cultural hegemony successfully projected itself as a universal class that is above any ethnic or any other particularistic affiliation (“Partition and the Mysterious Disappearance of Caste in Bengal” in Chandra, Heierstad and Bo Nielsen ed. The Politics of Caste in Bengal). The ideology of a progressive secular modernity coded as Bengali culture, which is open to all, irrespective of caste, class, religion, and ethnicity, helped the upper caste Hindu secure its cultural hegemony, which in turn helped establishing its socio-cultural and political dominance. Thus, a ‘social counter revolution’ that restored the upper caste dominance took place in post-partitioned Bengal in a generation’s lifetime (Chatterjee, mentioned earlier).

Questioning the Hegemony

No hegemonic process, however, is complete once and for all. It has to constantly negotiate and reaffirm itself on a daily basis. It is this processual understanding of hegemony put forth by Gramsci and others that helps to locate the challenges and dissident voices against the hegemonic process. Next, I would try to locate such counter hegemonic narratives from the Bengali Muslims in the form of literature – critical writing and political writing – and political initiatives. My attempt is not to show that they are quite successful is challenging and changing the discourse of the hegemon. Rather, it is the very presence of such critical and dissenting voices that question the normalising tendency of the hegemonic narrative.

Literature of Silence: Minor(ity) Literatures from Bengal

‘Write your own story or you will be inscribed in other’s story’ – this valuable insight of a critic deserves special mention while talking about Muslim self-writing in Bengal. In his excellent introduction to Tahader Kotha (Their Story), Milan Dutta criticizes the fact that Bengali Muslims are totally absent from Bengali literature – canonical or otherwise. He seems to suggest that the onus is left on the Bengali Muslims to write their stories. However, instead of regretting it, the Bengali Muslims should take upon themselves the task of writing their own story, thereby inscribing their own self in the official cultural narrative of Bengal. This essay thus takes into account the works of Mustafa Siraj, Abul Bashar, Abdul Jabbar, Abdul Aziz Al Aman, Abu Atahar, Afsar Ahmed, Soharab Hossain, Dr. Nazrul Islam, Abdur Rouf, and others to suggest that these writings challenge the dominant narrative by bringing in the hitherto unheard of voices and their stories. I want to read this body of literature as, what Deleuze terms in his study of Kafka, Minor Literature. Minor literature, however, should not be confused with minority literature. It is the positionality of the writer which is minor as against the official discursive regime that defines minor literature. It is characterised by three elements – deterritorialization of language, politics, and collective value. The works by some of these Bengali Muslim writers seem to suggest the presence of these markers – they write in Bengali, but the inflection they bring in and the cultural flavour that is there supplement the sanitised Bengali of the bhadralok. They talk about the Bengali Muslim community and social group – their life-world, their beliefs, cultural pattern, and discourses – that is political by itself as it debates the canonical representation of Bengal where the Bengali Muslims are completely absent.

Critical Writing

Bengali Muslim writers are not hesitant to write about the prevalent socio-political and cultural discourses and challenge the ‘common sense’ about the Bengali Muslim life and culture, foregrounding the reasons for their backwardness. Writers such as Aminul Islam in  Satyer Sandhane Muslim Samaj (Muslims in Search of Truth), Mainul Hasan in Hunter Theke Sachar: Bharote Mussalmander Artho-Samajik Abosthan (From Hunter to Sachar: The Socio-Economic Condition of the Muslims in India), Imanul Hoque in Samprodayik Mon Dhormo Noropeksha Mukh (Communal Heart, Secular Face), Kazi Masum Akhtar in Bonchito Rakhar Sodojontro (Conspiracy to Keep Deprived), Dr. Nazrul Islam in Mussalmaner Koroniyo (A Discourse on Duty of Muslim Citizens) pose various uneasy questions, which can be perceived from the very titles of the books. They dig deeper to unearth the issues of deprivation of the Bengali Muslims, the historical amnesia, as well as the negative practices prevalent in the community. They also try to suggest ways ahead for the community to counter discrimination and change their socio-political scenario. [A detailed discussion of these writers’ works is beyond the scope of this short essay.]

Alternative Political Imaginary

There have been in the recent past attempts at forging a Dalit-Muslim alliance in West Bengal. Nazrul Islam, former IPS officer and a social worker, who is quite vocal about the marginalisation of the Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis in West Bengal, recently launched a party called The Mulnibasi Party of India in 2014. In his Mulnibasi Istehar (Manifesto of the Muslinasis), he identifies the Mulnibasis (autochthonous) as those who lived in India for millennia and did not come from outside. Thus, the STs, SCs, OBCs, Shudra, and untouchable converts to Islam are the ‘Mulnibasis’. However, such political initiatives premised on subaltern unity seem to suffer from few problems. At times such attempts seem to be motivated by the aim of drawing the attention of the ruling party and securing one or two seats in election from it. This seems to be the case with Rezzak Molla’s Bhartiya Naybichar Party (Justice Party of India), as he switched to the TMC and left behind the idea of building a Dalit-Muslim alliance. Attempts such as Nazrul Islam’s lack mass support because he built a party without a social movement. His is the case of an intellectual exercise without the preparatory groundwork. The concept of Mulnibasi might be culturally closer to the Adivasis and the Dalits, but Muslims might still hesitate, because of their religious identity, to be associated with the concept.

Problems and the Way Forward

My attempt here is not to suggest that the subaltern Bengali Muslims are engaged in an attempt to capture power in the recent future from the dominant hegemon, i.e. the Brahmanical bhadralok. But such counter discourses and political attempts at least challenge the prevalent narrative and seek their rightful place in the Bengali cultural and political imaginary and self-representation. However, they have a long way to go before this becomes a reality in the common perception about the Bengali. Few suggestions can be kept in mind. First, Bengali Muslims must tell their own stories. Thus, through literature, cinema, media, and other literary or non-literary media, Muslims have to inscribe their self by telling their stories. Second, an all-round effort needs to be made for the cultural development and intellectual enrichment of the community. Bengali Muslims also need to get out of a minority complex and assert their cultural heritage. Third, the points mentioned before would depend on solving the economic problem of the community. A concerted effort on the part of the Government and the community leaders need to be made. The inclusion of the Dalit Muslims in the SC category can ensure their job prospect. Fourth, efforts should be made to address the internal hierarchies of the Bengali Muslim community. The caste question and the gender question need to be addressed with utmost urgency. Fifth, along with the efforts by Al-Ameen and other such Missions, which are producing a good many number of Muslim doctors and engineers, the focus should also be on producing bureaucrats and administrators. Muslims must ensure their presence in the administrative organs of the state to counter the real or perceived prejudices and biases in those fields. Sixth, there should be an emphasis on creating alternative civil societal fora, where Muslims can voice their discontent and their legitimate democratic demands. Compared to the Dalits in India, who can organise and agitate against atrocities, the Muslims seem to lack political agency. They either fall back on the perceived secular parties to save them – the Congress, the CPIM or the TMC, in the case of contemporary Bengal – or suffer from a feeling of helplessness. They have to democratically assert their political agency and, in this respect, they can learn from the Dalit movement in India. Seventh, to achieve their political goals, Bengali Muslims need ‘organic intellectuals’ (Gramsci), who can lead the community, balancing the question of identity and social justice with the grammar of modern day politics in a democratic set-up.

Thus, the Muslim community has to think about appropriate ways of resisting their minoritisation. The way forward seems to be a multi-pronged or multi-layered strategy by the Muslim community. There is well-entrenched Brahmanical bhadrolok hegemony in Bengal and a clear absence of the Bengali Muslims from the prevalent discourse. The intellectuals from the community need to offer counter-hegemonic discourses to it. And in this, Muslims can think about coming together with other subaltern groups such as Dalits, Adivasis, and other minorities for a radically intersectional political constellation.

Photo: Aliah University

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 WeeklyRethinking Marxism, Journal of Postcolonial WritingContemporary South AsiaSouth Asia ResearchKairos, and the Journal of Critical Symposium.


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

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