Elusive homeland

Print edition : December 04, 2009

THIS book has been published posthumously, after the authors brutal murder in December 2006. It marks a sensitive attempt to visibilise the muhajirs, or migrants, who were caught between the borders that were created when India was partitioned in 1947. Papiya Ghosh has looked up a variety of sources, including Urdu and Hindustani material. The authors basic approach is to interrogate the received wisdom relating to complex historical phenomena, which include nationalism, communalism, Partition, and the homogenising tendencies associated with both the Indian nation and the Muslims. Further, by taking up crucial complexities that include class, caste and gender, the author problematises these categories and takes the reader to fascinating areas of social history.

Most studies on Partition focus on the Punjab and Bengal side of the story. Joya Chatterjis recent book The Spoils of Partition (2007) brilliantly delineates the manner in which Partition impacted the lives of people when the maps of the two nations India and Pakistan were drawn and the bankruptcy of the Congress governments in West Bengal and at the Centre, while negotiating the first two decades after Independence. By taking up colonial Bihar, just about 10 per cent of the population of which was Muslim, and examining the way the process of Partition unfurled there, Papiya Ghosh makes a major addition to existing scholarship.

In a very imaginative fashion, the author delineates the perceptions of Bihari Muslims. She questions the centrality of the argument that identities are premised on religion alone. Here she examines the relevance of other alternative possibilities, such as the association of identities with region, as in the case of the muhajirs and the labouring poor. While developing her arguments, she illustrates certain specificities of colonial Bihar and its Muslims and mentions the diverse interactions that took place in a volatile context. She examines the features that are often blurred, such as the functioning of the Congress, which led to a serious sense of alienation among the Muslims.

Papiya Ghosh develops her argument by mentioning the Congress association with the Hindu Mahasabha and with Bihars landed sections. These obviously undermined its capability to retain the support of the Muslim masses. Electoral politics, especially of the 1940s, contributed to a transformation of the Congress identity into a Hindu party in Bihar, she argues. In fact, as historians such as Joya Chatterji tell us, this trend is applicable to Bengal (and even Orissa, which had a very low percentage of Muslim population). This distinct Hindu identity and the fact that it was controlled to a significant extent by the landed sections made the Congress rather insensitive to the insecurities of Muslims in Bihar.

Papiya Ghosh also refers to the emergence of the Muslim League and the Socialists which challenged the Congress and its politics in Bihar. However, it was perhaps the Kisan Sabha that posed the most serious challenge to it. The power of the Kisan Sabha and the peasant struggles made the Congress adopt a supplementary draft, which advocated the abolition of the zamindari system in Orissa, in its election manifesto for the 1937 elections. Nevertheless, zamindari interests that were upheld by leading Congressmen in Bihar, including Rajendra Prasad [Indias first President], scuttled this move. Papiya Ghosh discusses the political implications of this process. Besides, she also shows how even the insignificant efforts of the Congress ministry vis-a-vis land reforms alienated it from the Muslim League over the 1938-39 period.

Looking at the picture holistically, Papiya Ghosh illustrates how these features together made it possible for the Islamic identity to be constructed as a homogeneous entity that seemed to remain uncomplicated by problems such as class, language or region. Here, she refers to the major role of the 1946 riots in Bihar, which created a whole range of what she identifies as sub-texts that remained vibrant right until July 1947. Thus, in many ways, the post-riots context provided solutions, such as the exchange of population that marked Partition.

As she puts it through her methodical research, these features made both the Ulema and Pakistan relevant. The author discusses the way in which these complexities triggered a search for a homeland outside Bihar. It saw the origin of the identification with East Pakistan. Nevertheless, the value of Papiya Ghoshs work is that it tells us how this process was contested by the Momin Conference which had its support base among poor Muslims even in the volatile context of the late 1940s.

Interestingly, while it began to question the exploitation of Momins by Muslim zamindars, it shifted to the political arithmetic of numbers to counter the homogenisation efforts that were being made about the community and assert itself on the basis of numbers. It argued that Islam was not in danger and saw the Pakistan promise as a diversionary tactic. In fact, it described the Muslim League as a body that was not the sole custodian of Islam in the country.

It was also extremely critical of the Congress, which had agreed to the retrograde step of partitioning of the country. Its condemnation of the Congress seems particularly striking; the Congress was described not only as antinational but also as being responsible for putting Muslims in a very difficult and awkward situation (page 107) by accepting the idea of partitioning the country.

Congress leaders Rajendra Prasad (right) and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in Patna. The author says that the Congress association with the Hindu Mahasabha and with Bihar`s landed sections undermined its capability to retain the support of the Muslim masses.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Papiya Ghosh takes up the question of the Hindu Mahasabha and its place in Bihars political domain for a serious analysis towards the end of the book. Perhaps this reflects the mature historian that she was, since the logic of the process clearly leads to this theme. Besides incorporating the body of existing research, she also dips into the materials relating to colonial Bihar. She is as skilful here in drawing out the often blurred connections between the Congress leadership in Bihar including that of Rajendra Prasad and the Hindu Mahasabha.

Coupled with this was the Congress close association with the landlords, which acted as a drawbridge between divisive politics and the landed interests. This provided the ideological and political basis for the drive of the Hindu Mahasabha to homogenise Hindus. Here Papiya Ghosh not only refers to its standard phraseology of Hindu Civil Rights and the theme of abducted Hindu women but also mentions the (mis)appropriation of Census figures relating to the Chotanagpur tract, which meant locating the tribal people as Hindus.

The author is clear about how the diversities of colonial Bihar saw this process being contested as well. Here she refers to features such as caste, peasant movements, and the predominantly tribal tract of Chotanagpur, which proved to be stumbling blocks in the homogenisation agenda of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Papiya Ghosh did not live to complete the book. Nevertheless, the plan for the last chapter, which is included in the Introduction, would have been a significant contribution. Here she had planned to re-assess the meaning of the two-nation theory on the ground during the last 50 years (page xxix). This would have told us about the 2,000,000 Biharis living in the 66 refugee camps spread across Bangladesh since 1971. It is in this context that the author perhaps included a poem (at the beginning of the book) often recited by muhajirs:

Watan tha to azadi dhoondta thaa, Ab azad hoon to watan dhoondta hoon.

(When there was a country I searched for freedom. Now I am free, but have to search for a country).

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