Margins of Citizenship is an interestingly written account of the everydayness of life in Kolkata’s predominantly Muslim area of Park Circus. It is a sympathetically written ethnography by one who is an outsider in two senses, the first being that she is not a resident of the area and second that she is not a Muslim. The book achieves two important things. One is that it supplements recent writings on Muslim urban experiences and ghettoization. Prominent examples of such writings are the edited volume by Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer, Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalization, Nida Kirmani’s book Interrogating the Muslim Woman which traces the lives of women in the Zakir Nagar area of South East Delhi, and the book by Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Siddique, People without History: India’s Muslim Ghettoes. Second, in writing a book on Muslim ghettoization in Kolkata, Chatterjee is clearly elucidating the formidable difficulties of what it means to be a Muslim leading his/her everyday life in contemporary lndia.
This set of writings by itself should be enough to dispel the notion of Muslim appeasement that has been so tirelessly propounded by the BJP and the Hindu Right for the past many decades. So powerful has been the notion of appeasement that it has found an uncritical acceptance even in some corners of liberal discourse.
Chatterjee’s book is made more significant by her focus on Kolkata, which is unarguably unique in terms of India’s experience of urbanization. The elements of this uniqueness have to do with Kolkata’s pre-eminence as the initial seat of the Empire, the visibility of the Bengali intelligentsia in the city’s cultural life and the prolonged rule of the Left front government for over three decades. More important for Kolkata is perhaps the fact that areas such as Metiaburz are associated with the exile of Wajid Ali Shah from Awadh and that the descendants of Tipu Sultan were exiled to Tollygunge in Kolkata, where subsequent generations have lived in poverty. The history of Kolkata reflects in a chillingly haunting sort of way the overall decline of Muslim power and wealth throughout the country and this is perhaps further and more concretely reflected in the experience of Park Circus itself, a once well-to-do area associated with the Muslim elite of Kolkata. Chatterjee does well in her book to bring out two important aspects of Park Circus, first, its advantageous central location in the city and second, how over the course of a century, Park Circus has been transformed from being a once desirable neighbourhood, to now becoming a stigmatized inner-city ghetto.
The residents of Park Circus in particular and more generally the Muslims of West Bengal is that they may not have suffered the more overt discrimination faced by their co-religionists in the northern Hindi heartland. One aspect of this has been that Muslims in Kolkata have generally not had to contend with the kind of communal violence and riot situations that have confronted Muslims in other parts of the country. Perhaps as a result of these advantages, the discrimination faced by Muslims in West Bengal has been far more subtle, but it doubtless existed and is testified to by low social indicators such as education and employment. It is in these more subtle forms of discrimination that the residents of Park Circus have had to weave their lives. Such compulsions have meant that a middle class Muslim of Park Circus would have to confront limitations to their aspirations that other similarly situated middle class Hindus would perhaps never even become aware of. Interestingly, the very fact that the larger majority of Kolkata’s residents remain blissfully oblivious to the difficulties experienced by Park Circus residents, tends to reinforce a set of communal stereotypes about Muslims amongst the Hindu middle class. This creates a kind of catch-22 situation for the Muslims of areas such as Park Circus. Many may not want to live in an exclusively Muslim area, yet the almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of renting or buying accommodation in mixed neighbourhoods, reinforces rather ironically, the impression that Muslims want to live exclusively among their own kind. This is of course a compulsion that operates from without on Muslims. This is further supplemented by fears of insecurity among Muslims during times of communal violence, which in a city like Kolkata has generally been much less compared to other cities across the country. However, this sense of relative communal peace in Kolkata was to receive a jolt in 1992 in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Chatterjee’s book tends to foreground strongly the prejudices operating externally on the Muslims of Kolkata and that exist in an obstinately grounded sort of way amongst the city’s Hindu middle class. Chatterjee attempts to confront this undesirable majoritarian prejudice which she may herself have been continuously aware of and has found distasteful. Despite this well-meaning intention, it is perhaps here that the book flounders, as the ethnography itself does not really seem to take her deep inside the inner workings of a Muslim ghetto such as Park Circus but merely skims the surface of the ghetto residents and their lives.
It is not as if the author does not try to uncover the layers of the ghetto to really get at the innards of its working. Chatterjee does make an attempt to look at the heterogeneity of Park Circus in terms of its Bengali and Urdu speaking residents, its Shia and Sunni components, and also the smaller Bohra and Ahmadiyya presence. However, every time she makes this attempt, she is almost instinctively and perhaps rather helplessly led to falling back upon and relying excessively on the perceptions of the larger Hindu middle class. Thus one of her Hindu respondents suggests to her that Muslims do everything opposite to what the Hindus would consider proper and desirable (p. 146). It almost seems as though the author’s immersion into life at Park Circus is never profound or prolonged enough to be able to overcome her own struggles with and distaste for the dominant stereotypes that are prevalent amongst the larger Hindu society. The author falls back on these as lodestones to guide her through the maze of the ghetto that is Park Circus, and which seems to remain obstinate in terms of its unwillingness to yield its mysteries. More significantly this may be a reflection of the very limitations of the ethnographic method itself that the author has employed.
A chapter that is perhaps most interesting in terms of its theme but which ultimately disappoints is the one on ‘Local Politics and the Everyday State’. It deals only with how local residents engage in a constant and often creative struggle with petty government officials and party functionaries. What the chapter does not engage with at all is how ghetto residents are mostly exposed to the ‘frowning face’ of the state in Loic Wacquant’s analysis. Here the repressive arm of the state comes down especially heavily on the ghetto and its residents while at the same time denying them the more genial and beneficial aspects of the state such as enhanced public amenities. An inability to analyse the ghetto and the state in this manner has resulted in a lop-sidedness in the analysis as a whole. Interestingly, Wacquant in his book Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Study of Advanced Marginality (Polity, Cambridge, 2008) has incorporated an analysis of Marshall’s account of citizenship and its three strands of the civil, the political and the social, while talking about the plight of ghetto residents. Chatterjee’s book also ends by invoking the Marshallian idea of citizenship, but this occurs in the conclusion as a hasty afterthought and does not sit very well with the analysis that is contained in the book itself, perhaps because of its inability to look at the especially difficult relationship that residents of the ghetto have with the state.
Despite the harshness and critical tone of this review, Anasua Chatterjee’s book is able to stand out as an extremely significant addition to the work on Muslim ghettoization, which seems to be the predominant form of contemporary Muslim urban experience. It deserves to be read, especially on account of its ability to dispel the falsehood of Muslim appeasement.
Amir Ali is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.