Category Archives: Bangladesh

Prelude to Partition in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 3380-3420:

The war was ending. The two main political parties, the Muslim League and the Congress, were arguing over the future constitution. Both sides knew the British would soon leave India. But in what state? Would there be one India or two, a Hindustan and a Pakistan? What would be the fate of Calcutta, which was India’s largest city and the capital of Bengal, its largest Muslim-majority province? Everything was up for grabs.

Initially, the League’s demand for Pakistan – a separate nation state for India’s Muslims – seemed more like a bargaining tool at the negotiating table. But when the discussions between Congress and the Muslim League fell through in the monsoon of 1946, the League’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared 16 August 1946 to be Direct Action Day.

In Bengal, the Muslim League had formed a provincial government. Its leader Husain Suhrawardy declared Direct Action Day a holiday and called a bandh. The league organised a major rally at the Maidan. On 16 August thousands of Muslim men walked to Esplanade from all over the city and its industrial suburbs. Some of the first clashes of the morning happened in Maniktala as Muslim labourers were crossing the Beleghata Canal heading to the Maidan. In front of Maniktala Market, League supporters fought with Hindu shop owners who refused to close their shops. By afternoon those areas had become war zones. Guns had been plentiful during wartime. A bottle of whisky could get you a revolver from a GI. The strongmen on both sides were ready with arms. About three-quarters of the city’s residents were Hindu and one-quarter were Muslim, not very different from what it is today. But back then, the layout of the city was completely different. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas, Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city.

On Direct Action Day, Calcutta was going to be liberated para by para. After the Muslim League’s rally, mayhem broke loose. Bands of men went lane by lane, house by house, burning, looting and killing. Smoke them out, burn them down, take over land. Drive the other side out. The strategy was area control. In Maniktala, Hindus drove out Muslims. In Park Circus, Muslims were driving out Hindus. In Kidderpur, Pakistan was being made, in Bowbazar, Hindustan. Barricades went up between neighbourhoods, like international borders that could not be crossed. On Chitpur Road, the buses stopped near the Nakhoda Masjid and detoured for several blocks before continuing onward. That stretch of Calcutta’s oldest street had become Pakistan.

In the first two days, the League had used its goons and guns to take the battle to Hindu paras. Worse, Suhrawardy used his power to hold the police back. Then the goondas of the Congress and the other Hindu parties had organised their war in Muslim paras. Even the full force of the state could not control the violence for several more days. The killings went on for a week. Hundreds of thousands were forced into refugee camps. Five to ten thousand people were killed; the actual figures will never be known. In the muggy August heat dead bodies began rotting on pavements as they had during the famine. There were so many bodies everywhere that the sanitation authorities could not figure out how to dispose of them. On the streets there were bodies being eaten by vultures. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga. Bodies were burned round the clock at Nimtala. Bodies were buried in mass graves at the cemetery in Bagmari. Bodies were chopped up into pieces and stuffed into drains. The water pressure of the city plummeted until, as the historian Janam Mukherjee wrote, Calcutta could finally ‘digest its dead’.

Partition was born on the cannibal streets of Calcutta. After this, there could be no more coexistence. There would have to be two nation states: India and Pakistan.

From August 1946 onwards the killings continued sporadically for months, first in Noakhali, then in Bihar, here and there across the land. It was a time when homemade bombs were going off in the Bengal countryside, when rumours of stabbings abounded. In their village, my uncles remembered Muslim schoolfriends suddenly brandishing knives and talking casually of murder. At that time, Dadu felt that it would be better to take the family with him to Calcutta. Not permanently – after all, his mother and brothers were still in the village, with families of their own – just until the ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ troubles died down.

On 15 August 1947, the British partitioned their empire and left. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, delivered the radio address on that day in his clipped English accent:

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’

At the moment that Nehru celebrated India’s half-measure freedom, Gandhi, his mentor, wasn’t making sweeping Hegelian pronouncements. He was keeping vigil in a house abandoned by a Muslim family in Beleghata in Calcutta, meeting with Hindu and Muslim leaders and pleading with them to hold back their goons. It was a year after Direct Action Day. Pakistan had come into being; Bengal’s Muslim League government was being disbanded. The Hindu thugs began the attack, dreaming of a redux of the previous year’s mass killing, only this time initiated by them and not the League. The violence had resumed in Calcutta.

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Religious Segregation in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2495-2525:

Imran lived in Kidderpur, a vast Muslim area around the port. His coordinates in the city were thoroughly different from mine, and that difference was coded by religion. Hindus lived among Hindus. Muslims lived with Muslims. Calcutta was a segregated city, and at least the Hindu side, the side that ruled, had long ago decided not to see this fact. One in four people in the state of Bengal was Muslim. At least one in five people in the city was Muslim. But you rarely found Muslims in newspapers, on television channels, on university faculties or even in government offices. A generation of Communist rule had stopped the riots and killings that happened elsewhere in India. The Hindu right couldn’t spew its ideology here. It was considered odious ‘cowbelt politics’, the madness of people from the North, with their backward, fanatical ways. When Bengali Hindus, whether Congress or Communist, spoke, they sounded like Frenchmen, parroting abstract universals. But like Frenchmen, they protected their bounded society with wordless codes.

The Statesman staff was full of Muslims. They worked in the kitchen, delivered tea, ran the presses. There were no Muslims in the newsroom until Imran arrived. There were no Americans either, until I did. But somehow I could slide back uneasily into a former self, Bengali, Hindu, bhodrolok. Imran had no such fallback. Our friendship, in turn, was often suspect. Was I a CIA agent sent by the Americans to uncover terrorist plots, recruiting a young Muslim to help me penetrate clandestine worlds? Such were the divisions in Calcutta that this sort of theorising seemed more plausible than the friendship of young reporters. The city to which I returned as a reporter was caught in a conspiracy of silence. The lines drawn by Partition went right through the city, pulling some people in and cutting others out. But everyone pretended not to see those lines at all. In the paper, there was no coverage of the Muslim parts of the city, unless there was a ‘communal’ issue, meaning when Muslims complained that their religion had been offended and took to the loudspeakers and the streets. What was the need? Everyone knew all there was to know.

One’s name and one’s neighbourhood are the dead giveaways. I was read as Bengali and Hindu. Doors opened and closed based on those two signifiers. Trust was given and taken away based on them. There were many times when a man would begin talking and then change his tune once he had found out your name and your neighbourhood. When I reported on problems at the Calcutta madrasa, Muslim students would complain about Hindus until they discovered I was not Muslim, at which point the mask would come on. They would mouth the rhetoric learned from political speeches and schoolbooks about how all of us were brothers.

What was unsayable politically was enacted everywhere else. In Hindu paras [= neighborhoods], a Muslim couldn’t rent a house. In many Hindu firms, a Muslim couldn’t get a job any more. In many Hindu homes, a Muslim couldn’t even work as a cook or a driver without taking on a fake Hindu name. There were no Muslim quotas for government jobs or college admission as there were for lower-caste Hindus, and little legal recourse for the daily discrimination, which was quite straightforward.

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Calcutta’s Mix of Migrants

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1140-1150:

Calcutta was a collection of the whims of the communities who migrated there and became rich – Bengali and British, as well as Armenian, Jewish, Marwari, Bohra Muslim, Haka Chinese, Punjabi, Gujarati, Portuguese, Greek and Dutch. In Phoolbagan, within walking distance from my house, there were graveyards of Jews and Greeks, Chinese and Bohras. Their tombstones told of men and women who had been born in Budapest and Constantinople and died of cholera in Calcutta. Sumitro and I had walked the city’s streets, discovering airy Sephardic synagogues, Armenian churches, and temples to the Jain saint Mahavir. In the old Black Town, we had mingled with the deity-sculptors among the lanes of Kumortuli, communed at the annual chariot festival at the Marble Palace and witnessed clandestine human hook-swinging during the Raas festival.

Off Beadon Street, in Satubabu and Latubabu’s Bazar, so named after the two nineteenth-century Bengali business titans who founded it, metal hooks were dug into the backs of penitent believers and then hung from what looked a great balance scale made of bamboo. Then the hooked swung high in the air around the pivot of the scale, like giant gliding birds. The practice had been banned for nearly two hundred years, but it still took place, surreptitiously, in the heart of Calcutta.

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Filed under Armenia, Balkans, Bangladesh, Britain, China, disease, India, migration, Netherlands, Portugal, religion

Madrasahs vs. Secular Schools

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3297-41:

Madrasah is a catchall term. A madrasah can mean something as simple as a Koranic academy where young children learn a few religious basics and practice reading from Islam’s holy book. Or it can mean a primary or secondary school meant to compete with national education; or a seminary established to train proper clerics in classical Islamic religious knowledge. Madrasahs, in other words, vary widely in what they teach, how they teach it, and what view of Islam and its place in the world they impart on their students.

Madrasahs are generally conservative and some are troublingly fanatical—some do indeed harbor and train jihadis and terrorists. These are a minority, however, and the problem is less extensive than is usually thought. To begin with, there are not as many madrasahs as common wisdom holds, and they train relatively few students. A Harvard University and World Bank study of Islamic education in Pakistan found that in 2002, fewer than 1 percent of all students in Pakistan were attending madrasahs. That number has risen but only to 1.9 percent in 2008. The report also found that over the decade leading up to 9/11, madrasah enrollment had risen by 16 percent, which was slower than the increase in overall school enrollment. Madrasahs were not gaining, but instead were losing part of an already small market share. Even in Indonesia, where Islamic education is on the rise, only 13 percent of the country’s 44 million students attend some form of Islamic education. The poor do flock to madrasahs, but more so in rural areas than in cities, and studies of students’ economic backgrounds reveal too much diversity to see Islamic education as the domain of the poor.

Terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey argue that the link between madrasahs and terrorism is weak. The anthropologist Robert Hefner estimates that of some 46,000 pesantrans (as madrasahs are called in Indonesia), no more than forty or so qualify as extremist. Perhaps a larger problem is that in many countries, the so-called secular schools teach a great deal of religion, often interpreted in illiberal ways, and sometimes push hair-raising intolerance. State textbooks in Algeria, Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all stand as cases in point. In Algeria, the battle against Islamic extremism now centers on changing school curricula that have long been under the control of conservative religious leaders. Sometimes, as in Jordan, the problem is that state authorities have tossed fundamentalists the education ministry as a sop. Better to give them that than have them clamoring for the foreign-affairs or finance portfolios, the thinking seems to have run. It is a worrisome reminder of the lack of seriousness with which these governments consider education.

In Pakistan, it was General Musharraf—an avowed secularist and admirer of Kemalism—who changed the law so that a madrasah certificate counts as well as a university degree in qualifying someone to run for parliament. Other rulers seem to feel that a religious formation for young people is preferable to the Marxism or Western decadence that might otherwise vie for youthful attention. Pakistan’s national identity is strongly Islamic, and Saudi Arabia sees Wahhabism as its national creed. Neither country can truly envision education as a secular enterprise. In this, they may not be so different from secular-nationalist regimes that seek to infuse young minds with an almost religious sense of national identity and cohesiveness. Madrasah-bashing will not clean up education; that requires pressing the governments not just the clerics.

Since 9/11, many madrasahs have in fact done better than governments when it comes to reform. The overwhelming bulk of madrasahs in Indonesia and Bangladesh have submitted to government oversight and implemented required curricular reforms. In general, madrasah reform progresses slowly, but in the meantime, Islamic education of a hopeful nature has been thriving outside of the madrasahs.

In one Pakistani poll, 70 percent of those surveyed favored reforming madrasahs to root out extremism and boost educational quality but also rejected secular education. That is not a surprise if you consider that secular education in that country has pretty much collapsed. Too many schools lack textbooks, desks, and blackboards, and too many teachers are underpaid and unqualified. There is very little in way of proper education in sciences and math. All around the Islamic world today, in fact, secular education draws little praise. The demand is for high-quality, useful Islamic education but not extremism; for teaching religious values but not political activism; and vitally, for providing children with the knowledge needed to make it in the competition of the modern, globalized economy.

In Pakistan, Islamic high schools cost far less than secular private schools while producing graduates who do better than average on college-entrance exams and standardized tests. Muslim parents can see the value for money here, especially in a country with numerous young people and a tight job market. In Bangladesh, almost a third of university professors are graduates of Alia madrasahs, a network of government-mandated seminaries that combine traditional Islamic education with English and modern subjects. Between 1985 and 2003, the number of Alia madrasahs in Bangladesh grew by 55 percent. If the goal is upward mobility, Islamic education is the rational choice for many parents in many countries.

In too many countries around the Muslim world, political parties have turned campuses into battlegrounds and gutted higher education in the process.

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