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Kolkata Muslim Diary

By Yoginder Sikand

07 July, 2010

I am back in Kolkata (how I wish I could still spell it Calcutta !), the city where I was born, after a gap of almost two decades. Little has changed: the buildings are as dreadfully ugly and drab (or perhaps even more so) as when I last saw them; the traffic still snarls and moves at snail’s pace; and the pollution as dense and stifling. But this time I am in Bengal for something new: to do a quick visit of some Muslim institutions. I have little time to engage in anything even remotely resembling in-depth field-work, and so the impressions I gain are just that—impressionistic. But, still, I think I can get a sort of sense of things, a little more than just a glimpse of Muslim life in West Bengal —almost a fourth of whose population is Muslim.

The Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, located in what was till recently a Kolkata suburb, has organized a three-day conference on Muslims in Contemporary India, and I have been invited as a speaker. Apparently, this is the first time the Centre is conducting a seminar on a Muslim-related issue—an indicator, it seems to me, of how marginal Muslims generally are in contemporary Indian academic discourses in the social sciences (except now, with the burgeoning academic racket centred on ‘terrorism’). That impression is reinforced in the course of the next three days of ‘deliberations’—with the exception of two sociologists, the rest mumble banal generalities. Few, if any, seem to have done any field work at all. This is hardly surprising: after all, how many people really want to ‘dirty’ their hands in the field, tramping around hamlets and slums? If you regularly read newspapers, there was nothing new for you in what these wordy professors endlessly pontificated about all through those three days. One wonders what they do to merit the fat salaries they get—which have recently been made fatter by the recent pay-hike with the new Pay Commission. One wonders, too, at the point of these heavily-funded conferences. This one must have cost the public exchequer several lakhs, at the very least.

Most of the speakers make no startling revelations—nothing that most of us do not know about already. But it is certainly significant that a number of speakers from West Bengal, mostly non-Muslims, and including some government officials, openly recognize what they consider a structural bias against Muslims in the wider Bengali society and even within the state apparatus—and this in a state that has been consistently ruled by a self-styled ‘Leftist’ government for over three decades. Some speakers lament that the ruling Community Party of India (Marxist) has done virtually nothing to ameliorate the dismal plight of the state’s vast Muslim population, other than preventing communal violence. One of them pointed out—but this I knew already—that the level of Muslim representation in government services in West Bengal is much lower than even in Gujarat, which is ruled by a vociferously anti-Muslim dictator and where Muslims account for a much lower proportion of the population than in West Bengal.

Another of the few new things I learnt at the conference was about the once much talked-about ‘diversity index’ that the present Congress Government had wanted to offer as a sop to Muslims. It would measure ethnic and religious diversity in work-places in both the private and public sector, and would be used in order to provide appropriate incentives to further promote such diversity. But, the person appointed by the relevant ministry to devise this index revealed at the conference, the Government now seemed not at all serious about it.

That, in brief, concludes what I learnt from the conference. But the organizers had paid for my tickets, and I had used this as an opportunity to travel around West Bengal , for which I ought to be grateful to them.


After the conference got over, I spent a couple of days in Kolkata. Although, as I mentioned above, I was born in the city and I had spent the first fifteen years of my life there, I knew next to nothing about Kolkata’s Muslims. I set out exploring the streets on my own.

I first visited the office of the state unit of the Jamaat-e Islami, located in a crowded, largely Muslim-dominated mohalla in central Kolkata. The office was entered through an excruciatingly narrow entrance, just about broad enough for me to pass through, and then up a dark corridor lit by a bare bulb. There I met with Rahmat Ali Khan, the amir of the Jamaat, an amiable man who enthusiastically talked about the work his organization was engaged in. In recent years, he related, it had taken a growing interest in promoting modern education among the West Bengal’s Muslims, who were educationally far behind the state’s Hindus, most of them, especially native Bengali speakers, being landless labourers and small peasants. Accordingly, the Jamaat had established a technical school in a town in the Malda district, a girls’ academy in the South 24 Paraganas, where it also had a home for orphaned children, and was working on building a school in Howrah .

Khan repeated what some of the speakers at the conference had said: that the ‘Left’ Front government remained indifferent, if not hostile, to Muslim concerns, especially with regard to Muslim education and employment, that the numerous Muslim MLAs did little, if anything at all, for their co-religionists who had voted for them; and that the Muslims of the state were increasingly fed up of the self-styled Marxists and were rapidly shifting their support to Mamta Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, although he did have a few good words to say about the current government’s ability to control communal violence.


The Indo-Arab Cultural Association is another of the few Muslim institutions in Kolkata of any note. Set up more than 40 years ago by a group of Muslim academics, it is housed in a graceful colonial-style mansion off the busy Park Circus in the heart of the city. Despite its venerable age, I couldn’t help wondering how very little—or so it seemed to me—the organization had actually done over the years. It had, I was pained to discover, no publications at all—at least none on sale. It did not even have a leaflet setting out its aims, objectives and achievements. Its only scholarly achievement, in terms of publications, was the translation of some verses of the Quran into Bengali, which had been published years ago.

The affable 26-year old Sabir Ghaffar had recently taken over as General Secretary of the Association, and it was clear that he was trying to revamp things and infuse some life into what appeared a tottering institution with a pretentious name. The Association had recently launched a six-month Arabic language programme, but Ghaffar complained of high drop-out rates. It had also started English classes in a madrasa in the North 24 Paraganas district, and a project to feed thirty poor people in the streets outside its premises.

Two years ago, with support from the American Embassy, the Association had launched a madrasa teachers’ training programme. A training course under this programme was being held at the time I visited. I saw two women using flashcards and colour pencils, explaining pedagogical techniques to a class of madrasa teachers clad in caps and neatly-pressed kurtas and pyjamas. Under the programme, the Association had published a slim text, awkwardly titled ‘Colouring Islam’—a children’s coluring book using Islamic motifs. I expressed my reservations about accepting American government money for what was obviously, from the American government’s perspective, a politically-loaded project. Why couldn’t the institute generate its own funds for this activity, I wondered? Surely there were enough rich Muslims who would be willing to donate money for this worthy cause? Surely there were enough secular Indian NGOs willing to work for Muslims who might have been approached to fund a project on such a sensitive issue instead of having to approach the American authorities for help?

We set about discussing issues related to Muslims in the state. The Bengali Muslims (who include Muslims living across the border in Bangladesh ) are, Ghaffar pointed out, the single largest Muslim ethnic group in the world after the Arabs. ‘But still we don’t have much of a voice,’ he complained. The few Kolkata-based Muslim organizations that existed, he said, were dominated by Urdu-speaking Muslims, some of who continued to look down on their native Bengali-speaking co-religionists. On the other hand, the largely ‘upper’ caste Hindu or bhadrolok-controlled Bengali and English media in West Bengal turned a completely blind eye to the state’s Muslims—who Ghaffar estimated at 35 per cent of the state’s population, considerably more than what official figures claimed, the vast majority of whom were Bengali-speakers. ‘If at all they publish anything about them,’ he went on, ‘it is inevitably something negative or entirely sensationalist.’


I did a whirlwind tour of some government departments in the city that were ostensibly working for Muslim welfare. One of these was the West Bengal Urdu Academy , housed in a decrepit building in Taltola that bordered an enormous, and gravely neglected, rubbish-dump, where impoverished children dressed in rags competed with dogs for discarded vegetables and rotting fruit. The office was filthy, to put it baldly. Cob-webs, thick as curtains, crawled about the walls of the store-room, where the Academy’s books were dumped in towering piles, hidden under sheets of dust and grime. A glance through the Academy’s catalogue revealed that it had published nothing at all on the history and contemporary conditions of the state’s Urdu-speakers. All it had were a couple of tomes on Urdu poetry—whose titles did not rouse my interest sufficiently to ask to be shown them.

I avoided the Muslim Institute, located next door to the Academy—its shabby, heavily-stained walls, the profusion of boards that they had sprouted, and the din of disco music pounding out of its gloomy, diminutive gymnasium proving enough of a put-off. I headed, instead, to the neighbouring Madrasa Aliya, housed in a vast colonial building set behind an imposing wall, littered with political graffiti and posters of film stars. This institution has an impressive history—it was established in 1781 by Lord Hastings to train a class of Islamic clerics who could work with the East India Company. At its prime, the Madrasa Aliya was a noted centre of Islamic scholarship. Of that past ‘glory’, almost nothing remains today, however. A vast sea of slummy tenements, built with canvas sheets and slivers of tin over fragile bamboo frames, dotted with piles of accumulating garbage and hillocks of fresh human excreta encircles, the Madrasa’s walls. Women—desperately poor—cooked on paraffin stoves on the narrow pavement, while a team of toddlers whooped around chasing a deflated football through the enveloping filth.

I slipped through the gates and climbed up a flight of broad stairs, stained with streaks of paan-spittle, into the main building. I wanted to visit the library, which, I presumed, contained tomes dating back to Hastings ’ time, but it was shut. I peeked through closed wooden shutters into some of the classrooms: their floors were draped in dust, and tables and benches lay carelessly scattered about.

I trudged off to the premises of the West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education, located just across the street, beyond a serpentine drain clogged with garbage. I peered through a cubby-hole into an office on the ground floor. Seated behind a dizzying pile of files, I spotted a bespectacled woman, who sported a giant bindi on her forehead—evidence that she was probably a Hindu. I asked for the Information office. I spoke in English, but she shot back in Bengali, angrily. I understood not a word, but I made out from the direction in which she waved her hand that I needed to go upstairs.

I ascended the gloomy, poorly lit stairway, and passed by a couple of office rooms. Men and women clicked away at ancient typewriters, while others gossiped or slurped tea from saucers. Several chairs, set before file-laden desks, were empty, even though it was early afternoon—their occupants had, presumably, slipped off early for the day. Two men grunted in their seats in deep slumber. In one room, a giant poster of the late lamented Jyoti Basu, former ‘Marxist’ Chief Minister of West Bengal , graced the wall. ‘Jyoti Basu Amar Rahe!’ (‘May Jyoti Basu Live Forever!’), it piously screamed. I would have thought that a picture of Mecca and Medina would have been more appropriate here, but it was evident that the Madrasa Board was just another government agency, and a shabbily-run one at that. That confirmed what several Muslims I had met had told me—that the Board was used as a means to promote the ruling political party. They had also mentioned that it was rife with corruption and that the madrasas that were under its control were in a pathetic state.

I arrived at the office of the Secretary, where I asked him for literature in English about the Board. He did not have anything with him, he confessed, and advised me to approach one of his many subordinates, who was seated in another room, on another floor. This man leaned against a towering pillar of files, and was clearly not pleased with my arrival. ‘I am not sure if we have published any such literature,’ he grunted. He turned to his peon and asked, ‘Have we?’, but the peon was as clueless as he, and, before him, the Secretary had been. He asked me for my address, promising to post me something if he did come across it.

It’s been almost half a year now, but I have received nothing so far.

That, then, in brief, was what I saw of Muslim life in Kolkata in that hurried, week-long trip.