How not to love thy minority in Pashchimbanga

February is the month of Ekushe -- in both Bengals, East and West. A curious declaration may make it seem that the government in the West has lost sight of the political currents that led to that watershed moment of 1952. The Pashchimbanga governmenet has declared that the cabinet had decided that Urdu will now be treated as a second-language in those parts of Pashchimbanga where the number of Urdu speakers exceeded 10 percent of the population in the 2001 census.
Readers from the East might be astonished and may ask where in the West does the population or Urdu speakers exceed 10%. In fact, it does, in Kolkata itself and certain areas of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly industrial belt where there are large colonies of recent and not-so-recent immigrants of Bihari and Hindustani origin from the upper Gangetic areas.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this declaration. After all, preservation and the means to use one's mother tongue in all walks of life is an inalienable right of every human being. Of all people, Bengalees should be most sympathetic to this, something they tend to forget when they talk of Chakmas and Riyangs among others in Parbotto Chattagram (Bangladesh) and Tripura (India). Urdu, like any other language, is most dear to its native speakers.
However, the matter is not so simple. This becomes clear when one closely looks at page 42 of the English version "Vision document" of the ruling party of Pashchimbanga, the Trinamul Congress ( that was published in 2011, prior to the state assembly elections that brought it to power. It outlines its Action Agenda that it promises to implement within the first 200 days of coming to power. Most interesting is the sub-heading "Creation of new universities, colleges and schools to meet people's aspirations."
Among the 10 points under that particular topic, 6 are as follows: 'Muslim Universities & Colleges,' 'More Madrasas, and Urdu Schools,' 'Implement the recommendations of the Sacchar Committee and the Ranganathan Commission, where 10% Urdu speaking Muslims are there,' 'Set aside a portion of the State's Budget for plans intended for the educational and economic uplift of Muslims,' 'Give, without any hindrance, official recognition to Urdu educational Institutions, thereby facilitating them with all the constitutional benefits, which they lacked of hitherto' and finally 'Special Budgetary provision should be made for imparting technical education in Madrasas.'
That 6 out of 10 action items on the important front of creation of new educational institutions for the masses have kept the largest religious minority of Pashchimbanga in mind is certainly commendable. These points are revealing in so far as they give us a picture of how the party think-tank views the aspirations of the Muslims of Pashchimbanga and more importantly, their conception of Muslim polity in the state. The picture that emerges is extremely problematic, to say the least.
First of all, what is apparent that the government conflates Muslims and Urdu. Urdu is simply a language of communication like any other, not a 'Muslim language' ( whatever that strange entity might be). However the government thinks that by favouring Urdu, it is somehow helping Muslims. Note how Madrasas and Urdu schools come to mentioned together.
The Koran was not revealed in Urdu, so its relevance vis-a-vis Madrasas only show a shoddy attempt at clubbing together what the government conceives as 'all things Muslim' and making a curious goodie bag out of it.
At this point, it is important to remember that most Muslims of Pashchimbanga have no connection to Urdu whatsoever. To create this association willy-nilly is a high-stakes game for this game has a flip-side. The people of the majority faith are also being fed this rubbish that implies some intrinsic connection between Muslims in Pashchimbanga and Urdu. For right-wing bigots in the majority community of Pashchimbanga, this only helps consolidate their long-standing charge of Muslims of Bengal being less Bengalee than their Hindu counterparts.
Among the gadinashin pirjadas of Pashchimbanga who may at times suffer from Urdu-envy and consequently view Bangla as 'less Islamic' might do well to meditate about the long tradition of Bangla-speaking pir-aulia-ghaus-qutubs. Urdu belongs to a poor Bengalee Muslim in Murshidabad no more than the treasury of Murshid Quli Khan belonged to a landless Muslim farm-hand from Murshidabad. Bangla has no less class or gravitas in expressing matters of faith. By separating Urdu issues and Muslim issues, Ms. Bandhopadhyay's governnment shall do well not to fan the 'Muslim-ness' of Urdu. She must censure S. Nurul Haq, her minority affairs secretary and ask him to clarify what he means, when he says, "There are many borderline areas in the 2001 Census. In those places, the Urdu-speaking population must have exceeded 10 per cent in the past decade. Such areas will be gradually included."
Why would Urdu-speakers proportionally increase more than others? Does he not consolidate the existing prejudice regarding the greater population growth rate of Muslims? Irrespective whether that is factually correct or not, this public statement yet again considers Muslims and Urdu-speakers as one and the same, and even more ignorantly, the Muslim community as a monolith about which it can make random predictions about future population growth rates.
During British colonial times, Muslims interests in Bengal had been represented by a handful of non-Bengalee so-called sharifzada families stationed in Kolkata and Dhaka. Being largely alienated from their surrounding milieu, these intermediaries found solace and consonance in Urdu and things Islamicate in the North-Indian sense. Rafiuddin Ahmed, in his seminal work 'The Bengali Muslims 1871-1906,' has clearly shown the pernicious role played by these self-styled intermediaries of Bengal's Muslims to the British Raj, by recommending the compulsory study of Urdu, Arabic and Persian for Bengalee Muslims boys, but no Bangla. Times have changed, not as much as they should have.
Ms. Bandopadhyay's government may be earnest about the uplift of the lot of Muslims of Pashchimbanga. But it cannot do so by policies which separate Muslims from the mainstream. This is especially dangerous for one can never guess at what point some reactionary political current in the majority community may take an explicitly communal overtone.
This has not happened, but this is certainly not impossible, and is to be avoided at all costs. Creating a separate employment exchange for religious minorities as she announced is certainly not a step towards social cohesion. Faith is important to any community. However, making Aliah Madrasa into a university ( and ridiculously naming it Aliah Madrasa University) or building a much-needed new Hajj House for Umrah pilgrims are not the utmost priority for the Pashchimbangio Muslims. While such pronouncements and activities are instantly newsworthy and sources of cheap political capital, it is also myopic.
It may carry short-term favour with certain self-serving Muslim leaders, but in the long term, does nothing to address the issues that face most Muslims of Pashchimbanga, that is, food insecurity, lack of adequate and accessible health facilities, job opportunities and education that is relevant in contemporary society and economy. Unsurprisingly, these issues are the same when it comes to people of Pashchimbanga in general, irrespective of creed.
One thing most Bengalees irrespective of creed admire and hold dear is our poet Nazrul Islam. Ms. Bandopadhyay wants to set up a brand new Nazrul research centre. That is all very good. But when she goes on and on about it, especially when in a predominantly Muslim gathering, like the recent one organised in the Netaji Indoor stadium by the West Bengal Minorities Development Corporation, she is playing a dangerous game, and not a very subtle one at that.
While it may be sincere, to softly underline the Muslim identity of Nazrul Islam reminds me of that unfortunate off-hand line in a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay piece where he talks about a football match between Bengalees and Muslims. We know that these soft pronouncements of separateness and exclusiivity, declared or foisted upon, in time do become Frankenstein monsters.
Our subcontinent knows that only too well. When Ms. Bandopadhyay wants to deal with Muslims of Poshchimbongo, she may want to remember that the following line by Mashuk Chowdhuri hold true for her Western desh too, as much as it does for the East.
Edeshe aashe na fagoon, ashe Ekushe February.

The writer, a Teaching Fellow at Harvard, is a Researcher at MIT.


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