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Papiya Ghosh’s Writings on Bihari Muslims

Photo: Patna Daily

By Raziuddin Aquil

My aim here is to draw attention to Papiya Ghosh’s significant research on the despicable history of separatism, violence and displacement of the Muslim minority population of ‘Bihari’ origin through the major part of the twentieth century. No other historian of Islam and Muslims in the Hindu majority province of Bihar and its adjoining areas, including parts of eastern UP, has been able to come up with a more synthetic account of the murky history of the community, with all its social stratifications and religious diversities (ashraf/arzal, Shia/Sunni, etc.).

It is also amazing to think that it was possible for Papiya to work on this huge project from a place like Patna with no or little infrastructure and yet the results of her scholarship matches the best in the field. In fact, much of the standard literature on the theme of Partition and, more recently, on later memories, the Bengali or Punjabi experience, is highlighted; Papiya’s work calls for foregrounding the missing link involving Biharis, both in the contiguous Bengal and in the inhospitable terrain of Sindh (though Sindhi nationalists might be confused by the expression ‘inhospitable’ with their celebratory claims of 5000 years of continuous habitation since the time of Mohanjodaro).

Papiya’s work on Bihari Muslims was organized around three major book projects: (1) Pakistan movement in Bihar in the 1940s; (2) Partition and the Making of Bihari Muslim Diaspora in the latter half of the twentieth century; and (3) Dalit and backward Muslim contestation of the two-nation theory in the 1930s and 40s, linking it to non-Ashraf assertions in contemporary Bihar.

Of these, the second project was completed in the form of a fascinating piece of work, Partition and the South Asian Diaspora: Extending the Subcontinent (New Delhi: Routledge, 2007). Unfortunately, the two other projects remained unfinished, but a collection of ten of her essays, previously published in national and international journals and as book-chapters, shows tremendous promise of what was about to come in the near future. The collection of her articles, Community and Nation: Essays on Identity and Politics in Eastern India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008) reveals the depth of her understanding of Bihar’s Islamic tradition through the turbulent twentieth century and would appeal to a wide readership, mainly those interested in partition, refugee, diaspora, trans-national, and peace studies with examples relating to a set of beleaguered Muslims, identified as Biharis.

In fact, the very idea of a homogeneous Muslim community is interrogated in Papiya’s work through an analysis of the divergent, conflicting attitudes towards the two-nation theory and the Partition, involving leaders of the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Hind (and of the Imarat Sharia, which serves as a parallel shariat court), the Momin Conference of the Muslim weavers, the separatist Muslim League, and the nationalist Muslim Congressmen. The position of the latter group was particularly difficult as they went around talking about muttahida qaumiyat, or composite nationalism, even as leading Congressmen like Rajendra Prasad and Sri Krishna Sinha had strong links with the Hindu Mahasabha, scaring away Muslims of the minority province of Bihar to the fold of the Muslim League. Their exodus to Bengal and East Pakistan was marked by terrible violence back home.

As is by now common knowledge, ‘Bihari’ is a term of ridicule, even abuse, and may not necessarily indicate an ethnic or geographical identity, and would include Urdu-speaking Muslims from adjoining provinces like UP, though majority of them might actually have the province of Bihar as their place of origin. They may be especially noticed for their political assertiveness, even aggression, and visibility in public, and a particular sense of pride, the source of which I am not very sure about. In terms of the introduction to the grand tradition of Islam and the perceived superiority of a Persianate-Urdu culture, they might claim with some satisfaction an early exposure and sophistication when compared to the perceived cultural inferiority of rural Bengali Muslims, with whom they ran into trouble already in the 1940s.

A major part of Papiya’s work traces the troubled history of Islam, involving Biharis and Bengalis in East Pakistan (and in Bangladesh since 1971), which, by implication, further aggravated communal relations in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Biharis, who identify themselves as Muhajirs or Stranded Pakistanis, are at the centre of a major concern in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, in between affecting India as well. Whereas all three modern nation states, which perhaps are still in the making, have not been able to adequately resolve the problem of how to tackle a huge population within the framework of citizenship and rights (to which I shall return subsequently), many enterprising individuals have been able to establish themselves, after several rounds of displacement and migration (Patna-Calcutta-Dhaka-Karachi), in such places as the Middle East, UK, US, and Canada, creating a Bihari Muslim diaspora. Indeed, as some of Papiya’s biographies also reveal, the best of Muslim self-expression in the West has some or the other connection with Bihar (often stretching up to Awadh and connecting with major locations like Allahabad and Lucknow).

Papiya’s work, Partition and the South Asian Diaspora, closely follows the trajectories of several families and many individuals, who survived unprecedented carnage by sheer will power even as they were witness to many family-members and close relatives becoming victims of rape and murder sometimes in the name of religion (Islam and Hinduism) and sometimes language (Urdu, Bengali, Sindhi), major moments being 1946 riots in Bihar, Partition in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

The well-structured monograph consists of four evenly-sized and densely footnoted chapters, besides a succinct introduction, which contextualizes and connects the Bihari experience with the larger discussion on Partition and its aftermath and the question of the settlement of refugees, and a short, futuristic conclusion on the unfolding scenario on the ethnic and religious fronts (the burning question of how to deal with the increasingly assertive minority population, especially in contexts where majority aspirations also remain unfulfilled), creating anxieties in large parts of contemporary South Asia today. Central to the theme of the four chapters – titled ‘Negotiating Nations’, ‘Claiming Pakistan’, ‘Resisting Hindutva’, and ‘Redoing South Asia’ – is a huge Muslim population which had supported the idea of Pakistan, but was rendered stateless as the very idea of the nation-state based on religion, Islam, collapsed in less than twenty-five years of its foundation.

Papiya has knit together her account with varied sources: refugee statistics and reports, the archives of the diasporic repatriation activists, camp narratives, family histories, literature, interviews, and email exchanges with the affected parties and interest groups.

In particular, the focus is on the miserable condition of over 35000 families, comprising some 250000 individuals, languishing in hutments of the size of four feet by six feet (and exceptionally in six by eight) in as many as sixty-six camps run by international agencies in many parts of Bangladesh. These refugees, who like to be called, Stranded Pakistanis, were amongst those Urdu-speaking Muslims, who had opposed the Mukti Bahini’s liberation struggle, are languishing and waiting for their repatriation to Pakistan. Though many of the Bihari immigrants have been able to sneak away, before and after the creation of Bangladesh, to the territories of former West Pakistan and beyond, domestic political compulsions ensure that neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh are willing to provide citizenship rights to the stranded population which was at the centre of the horrendous idea of Partition involving massive displacement and migration, not to forget unprecedented violence both in 1946-47 and in 1971.

Whereas international law and norms and conventions for refugee settlements have been disregarded by Pakistan and Bangladesh with utter disdain, the Indian state’s position in the matter is also intriguing. The unfinished business of the transfer of population caused by the hurried manner in which India and Pakistan were created and the latter dismembered with the emergence of Bangladesh has meant that even if the boundaries of these nation-states are to be protected, political conditions within these countries are compelling sections of populations, mainly minorities, to relocate themselves which often require crossing national boundaries illegally. Thus, in terms of responsibilities, the Indian government and sections of Hindu intelligentsia might welcome Hindu Bengali immigrants, even if illegal, grant them the status of ‘refugees’ and help them settle down within the Indian territories (In the language of Hindutva, it is the national duty of the Indian state and Hindus generally to ensure that the persecuted Hindu population of Pakistan and Bangladesh are protected by facilitating their settling down in India). However, if the illegal immigrants happen to be Muslims, whether Urdu-speaking or ethnic Bengali, they are identified as ‘infiltrators’ (from Hindutva point of view, Pakistan was created for and by these people and they have no right to live within Indian territories). Accordingly, train-loads of ‘Bangladeshis’ are dumped at the border at regular intervals; they are a nowhere people left to fend for themselves, pressures from humanitarian advocacy groups notwithstanding.

Papiya has put together a heart-rending account of the struggles for survival, especially those who are identified as Partition’s Biharis, tracing also the extraordinary career of those who defied all the hardships to win a life for themselves even if they might have lost their original home and close relatives. The fierce struggle between the Bihari outfit, Muhajir Qaumi Movement, and the Sindhi nationalist organization, Jiye Sindh Tahrik, for the control of Sindh, and the larger struggle involving other ethnic communities such as Punjabis and Pukhtuns (as well as the entrenching of the Taliban and associated groups) have ensured that Pakistan as dreamt by Muslims in UP and Bihar in the 1940s was a weird concept. In many cases, the members of the extended family back in Bihar ensured that those who had migrated should not come back to claim their rights on their ancestral property by reporting to the police the overstaying of their relatives from the other sides of the borders. Elsewhere, in Western Pakistan, ‘Bihari Roko Movements’ have considerable support amongst other ethnic Muslim groups.

As shown by Papiya, in many cases, utter helplessness mark the Bihari reflection on what went wrong: they consider themselves as ‘heroes’ of the Pakistan movement, who were eventually reduced to the status of ‘zeroes’, as lesser-citizens and even non-citizens once Pakistan was created. In Urdu, they valued themselves as hiras (diamond) before Partition to become kiras (wretched insects) subsequently. Muslims have always celebrated their failures in Urdu poetry. Papiya has given several examples of the disappointments and hope expressed in Urdu verses. One of them quoted by Altaf Husain of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement hits at the crux of the problem: 

yeh waqt bhi dekha hai tarikh ke safhon ne
lamhon ne khata ki thi, sadiyon ne saza payi

(The annals of history have witnessed the phenomenon,
That blunders committed in a short span of time unleash punishment for centuries).

Raziuddin Aquil is Associate Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi, India. Email:


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Narrating Care: Disability and Interdependence in the Indian Context’, edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata, India and Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad, India.

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