The book probes the nationalist trajectory of what Mohammad Sajjad calls ‘the lesser-known nation-makers of Muzaffarpur’ of north Bihar. Muslims of Muzaffarpur acquiring centre stage, within undivided and divided Bihar, in colonial and Independent India, places regional and community history objectively within the larger narrative of nation making that has remained a neglected area of study. The micro-study is essentially based on a vivid description of Muslim responses to nationalist developments and Muslim League politics in the region that Mohammad Sajjad argues as remaining just a marginal force (p. 11). It further delineates on the post-Partition challenges faced by the Muslims with the region ushering into conundrum of local, identity and caste politics in its conclusive chapters.
What makes this work interesting is that it stretches its research phase chronologically from the emergence of the region till contemporary times. It offers a cohesive understanding of major historical and political developments in Muzaffarpur to showcase the region’s uniqueness in responding to developments taking place in colonial India up to changes in recent times. Such narrative is important to link the vista of regional politics with the larger nationalist turf, thereby creating enough space to understand the connections and departures between the two. The author contests some major arguments of history, particularly built around Muslims’ monolithic response in favour of demand for a separate Muslim homeland along with shedding fresh light on engagements and predicaments of the Muslims. He weaves the region’s responses with a broader Muslim articulation in the province against operative colonial and communalist forces to further substantiate his arguments culled in favour of the community’s nationalist visions and endeavours. In several ways, Muslim responses were in tune with nationalist expositions, not only of support but also in initiatives. The language issue (Urdu being replaced by Nagri) did create tensions between communities but this was not to cause a sordid rift between Hindus and Muslims. The struggle for separation of Bihar from Bengal (eventually realized in 1912) was ranged more against Bengali bhadralok class, who gained most from dominance of Bihar in education and jobs. This tussle dominated early politics and emerges as an important example of Bihar’s uniqueness in forging Hindu-Muslim collaboration on matters of regional preference, with enthusiastic initiatives and collaboration coming from the Muslims. Even the idea of a separate state of Bihar was mooted for the first time by Murgh-e-Sulaiman, an Urdu daily of Monghyr in 1876 (p. 77).
The author adds interesting information on the administrative profile that underwent changes with interests of dominant groups occupying the region. Acquiring status as a military establishment of the Mughals in 1570s to eventually being a colonizers’ bastion are developments that are dealt with in the first chapter. There is an attempt to analyse the region’s significance as perceived within the framework of European colonial interests and the region’s response to this exploitative development. The oppression of peasantry in Tirhut region/Muzaffarpur in the form of commercialization of agriculture forced the peasantry to raise arms against European/British colonialists and their appendages, along with the disgruntled sepoys, with the second chapter dealing with the region’s response during 1857 which was violent and reclaiming.
With a legacy of resistance against colonial oppression, the region was catapulted once again to historic salience with Mahatma Gandhi coming in 1917 and successfully experimenting with satyagraha or passive resistance—a model that was to serve as the pivotal tool for contesting forces of colonialism and communalism in years to come. The author also argues that unlike the views held by some historians regarding Muslims aloofness from the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) including Sumit Sarkar and Gyanendra Pandey, the CDM witnessed swelling participation in Muzaffarpur where it was organized by Syed Mahmud (an eminent Congressman and later founder of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat) along with Md. Ismail. Sajjad elucidates that the Salt Satyagrahis also had women and ulema as protagonists and the movement had support from Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and Imarat-e-Shariah that spearheaded the movement at different places. Organizations like the Nationalist Muslim Party, Khilafat Conference, the Ahrars and the Khaksars collaborated with equal fervour in this nationalist adventure (p. 110). The author further argues, that in fact, in all major upheavals including the Noncooperation Movement and the Quit India Movement, Muslim participation was so encouraging that it weakened the Muslim League’s claim of two nation theory, not only at the level of the region under study but also within the State of Bihar. Even during the turbulent times of India’s Partition, Muzaffarpur remained resilient with the region witnessing very little exodus, primarily due to prevailing inter-community harmony and also because of the deep rooted realization of collaborating to face major challenging developments at social and political levels. The fact that no prominent Muslim League leaders of the province like Syed Abdul Aziz and Jafar Imam migrated from Bihar to Pakistan during Partition is also a testimony to the fact that the League was weak in Bihar with reference to its ‘separate homeland for Muslims rhetoric’.
The author makes relevant arguments on Muslims’ active participation in political developments, despite their getting alienated from the Indian National Congress in face of untamed communalism and lack of power-sharing. These experiences, however, did not work in favour of the Muslim League preventing the party from acquiring a firm footing in the region as well as in the province.
The region exhibited a sustained history of shared experience for political initiatives and social change, one important sector being the introduction of modern education with local support and enterprise. Regional leadership in developmental initiatives remained committed to catering to the needs of people of all hues, despite the fact that Partition did impact very negatively the prospects of Muslims that needed to be addressed with greater state interventions and not merely articulated by the community, its leaders or reformers. The post-Partition predicaments of Muslims found expression in articulations of nationalist leaders like Syed Mahmud and Maghfur Aijazi. The author argues that the community’s dilemmas also found vent in compositions of writers such as Abdus Samad in Khwabon ka Sawera, Do Gaz Zameen and poetic metaphors of Kaleem Ajiz. The cause for Urdu, tied with the economic prospects of Muslims, was one of the central concerns for the community during the post-Partition political scenario that again witnessed a relentless crusade with eventually Government according Urdu the status of second official language in 1980.
The last chapter interrogates the local history of a village ‘Turkauliya’, occupied largely by Muslims. It explores the dynamics of local responses amidst complexities of secular democracy and growing identity and caste politics. Despite Muzaffarpur acquiring importance as the ‘commercial metropolis of present day Bihar’, and has always been a ‘cultural capital of Bihar’, yet in many forms, it suffers from ‘all those ailments that characterize Bihar’ (p.10) and all these trajectories are well explored by the author.
Mohammad Sajjad’s effort is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the region and history. The author links the politics of Muzaffarpur with the State and then the politics of the State can be seen in the larger nationalist backdrop amidst all major political developments in colonial and free India. The rich corpus of sources is employed to construct the narrative of the region including interviews, memoirs, archival and secondary sources including those in Urdu. The micro-study is important not only for reasons of establishing historic linkages but also from the perspective of contemporary politics exhibiting unique strands that allows us to understand better—region, country and the community amidst all historical complexities.
Meher Fatima Hussain is Assistant Professor at Dr. K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.