An academic event solely focused on the Bengali Muslims evidently shows that “yeh qaum jaag chuki hai” (this community is awake now)……
By Nousheen Baba
KOLKATA—The City of Joy—has recently witnessed a historic event organized by Bengali Academia for Social Empowerment (BASE). A two-day international conference on Bengali Muslims at the Crossroads: Possibilities and Challenges itself is a proof that a section of the Bengali Muslim society is well aware of the challenges that the community is facing in the present socio-economic and politico-religious order. At the same time, they stress, since it is an academic organization, there is an open avenue of possibilities.
Coming back to the proceedings and the brainstorming ideas of the conference. Amitabh Kundu, a distinguished fellow, former professor of JNU and Chairman of post-Sachar Evaluation Committee delivered the keynote address. Wherever a Bengali goes, ‘the stamp of the region and the stamp of the language’ stay with him/her. A striking remark that he borrowed from Amartya Sen from Identity and Violence was ‘the political parties working for the Muslims should not be identical because there are multiple identities and there should not be a single way of looking at things’. There have been multiple questions raised by the audience on the identity crises that the Bengali Muslims are experiencing.
Bengali Muslims still have the imprint of the Dalits and Sudras (aar namasudra bhaap ta roye geche). It is because most of them are converts from the Hindu lower castes, remarked Ahmad Hassan Imran, Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.
Foreign delegates also visited Aliah University to participate in the Conference. Professor Muhammad Habibur Rahman, Department of Bengali, Kushtia Islami University swayed the auditorium with his secular and feminist ideas. This writer was desperate to ask him a question and finally an opportunity was grabbed. I asked, “what we know of the reform in the Muslim society, it is basically a derivative of religion and that too a pristine one, as considered by revivalist writers and scholars. How would you define reform?” His answer was: “A reform must be supported by the state and women participation. If the women do not awaken, the community would not awaken (naari naa jaagle jaati jaagbe na).
There were three plenary sessions and eleven parallel sessions. The sessions was not only cross-disciplinary but were also multidimensional. The writer has chosen only two from the dozens of presentations. One presented by Doctor Maidul Islam, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences and the other presented by the writer itself.
Dr Maidul Islam spoke on Representation of Bengali Muslims in Bangla Films in Contemporary West Bengal. His analysis reflected both the dimensions of research, qualitative and quantitative. Scrutinizing almost majority of the Bengali movies where there was a representation of the Muslims, Maidul said that the representation could be divided into three groups. One is ‘missing Muslim’, another is the ‘other Muslim’ especially the ones playing anti-social characters and the third is the protagonist.
Surprisingly the Bengali films hardly carried the sophisticated protagonist image of the Bengali Muslims. One of the movies he analyzed, was Rajkahini. The lead character, played by Rituparna Sengupta, in the movie was a Muslim. So, we have a lead Muslim character, right. But who was she? Not surprisingly, she was a prostitute who ran and owned a brothel. She was not even a Bengali because the language she spoke was a mixture of Urdu and Bangla.
Dr Islam’s analysis carried many arguments. One among the many issues was the issue of identity crises, another was how the Bengali society in general views Bengali Muslims because cinema is the reflection of the society one lives in.
This writer spoke on Reconstructing the Incoherent quotient between the Muslims of West Bengal. The paper projected that the true image of a Bengali Muslims is a complex one with minimum coherency. One group is seen in green turbans, others in Arabian thobe with scarfs just like the Saudis, and there is one more group that wears a Qadri cap, while others wear a tight skullcap. There are some who celebrate Milad-un-Nabi and the others do not. There is chaos between different mullahs regarding the sighting of the moon, so on and so forth.
The ashraf, ajlaf, atrap division is inevitable in a Bengal Muslim society. The rural-urban divide is an essential part of the Bengali Muslims. But the story does not end here. There is another group of Muslims who are equally Muslim as well as Bengali but are sometimes considered mushrik and to some extent murtad. The only problem with this kind of Bengali Muslims is that they try to rebuild the lost coherency between humans irrespective of class, caste, firqa, maslak etc.
To name a few, we have “Know Your Neighbour” where the founder members are Bengali and very much Muslim. They have been rigorously working on the cause of communal harmony. The next we have is Sirri Saqti Foundation Howrah Hamdard Orchid, which recently volunteered in a Guru Dwara on Prophet Muhammad’s birth anniversary. Then there is Qari Ahmar Foundation, the director of the organization, Zaid Anwar is popular among the poor and ‘poverty has no religion’.
To give the readers the feel of the conference, the writer would like to narrate a small incident from the valedictory address delivered by Professor Amit De, an expert in Sufi thought, Department of History, University of Calcutta. He dwelt on the thought of Abdul Wudud and connected spirituality with rationality, humanity and utility that he believes is impossible without ishq (love). While he was addressing the session Reyaz Ahmad, keeping in view the time constraints, was about to approach Prof. Amit De with the note of the time limit, then there were hands from the audience asking Reyaz to stop with request not to stop Amit De from speaking. This was the charm of the conference and a sign that ‘yeh qaum jag chuki’ (the community has is awake now).
The core members of the organization are young academicians like Abu Saleh, Muhammad Reyaz, Abdul Matin, Kaifia Ancer Laskar and the list of enthusiastic members are too long.