Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

May 2010
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In Search of Muslims in Bengal
By Nigar Ataulla
During the heydays of the DD, Satyajit's Ray's films were a treat to watch. Kolkata appeared totally serene. But today real life Kolkata seems to be eons away from that reel life portrayal.

Negotiating streets of Kolkata and West Bengal on my voyage of discovery of Bengali Muslims was no mean task. So there I was (my husband in tow), groping through crowded roads, traffic snarls, overflowing drains, heavily dented trams and honking taxis. We wriggled our way into the Indo-Arab Cultural Association. Even before I could catch my breath, I was unleashing my advice for Sabir Ghaffar, the enthusiastic youngster and general secretary of the Association: 'Why don't you compile a directory of Muslims in West Bengal just like our Millat Directory from Bangalore'. The Association helps Bengali Muslims 'to connect to their Arab roots'. But I wished the youth could have made much prudent use of their resources and energy by probing the reasons for mass poverty that is so omnipresent in West Bengal. It has brought out an Islamic colouring book so far.

Our next stop was Madrasa Aliah, founded in 1781 in Calcutta by Warren Hastings. He ran the institution out of his own pocket for 18 months till he was reimbursed by the Bengal Government. It was founded in Baithak Khana near Sealdah. But is currently located to the north of Wellesley Square renamed Haji Md. Mohsin Square in the Taltala area. Its first head was Mulla Majduddin who was succeeded by Muhammad Ismail in 1791. The school taught Persian, Arabic and Muslim Law (Fiqh) and its graduates were hired as interpreters for the British Raj. After facing financial crises, Captain Ayron a retired British army officer was appointed in 1819 to be on the Madrasa management committee for helping the Board of Revenue. Upon further financial and administrative deterioration, another European head, Aloys Sprenger, was brought in 1850.

The Madrasa has now been turned into Aliah University by an Act in 2007 and through section 3(3) has been conferred status of a minority educational institution under the Department of Minority Affairs and Madrasah Education, Government of West Bengal. Aliah has set up Centre for Vocational Studies and taken up several programme for the skill development among minorities.

No one seems to be more ardent believers in biodiversity on roads than Kolkattans. Roads just outside the Aliah University were lined up with huts with plastic roofs and spaces were shared with all kinds of cattle by humans.

When queried about the way to West Bengal Urdu Academy, a passerby had the following to say: Seedha jayen, ek kachre ke dheir ke pas wali imarat hi Urdu Academy hai!. (Go straight, the building near the heap of garbage is the one you are trying to locate! Grime infested books on the Victorian era shelves with garbage piles underneath the creaking staircase presented the tell-tale picture of the state of language in West Bengal. The West Bengal Madrasah Board has though huge space at its disposal, vies with the Urdu Academy for the dubious distinction for the most unkempt places. A grogy-eyed officials looked totally non-plussed at our request for any publication from the Board and promised to send them by post. We are still expecting the knock of the postman!

Murshidabad, on the southern bank of river Bhagirathi is four hours away from Kolkata by rail. It was the capital of undivided Bengal during the Mughal rule. Later Bengal nawabs retained this as capital. Royal buildings bear the glory of those halcyon days. The administrative headquarters of the district is at Berhampur. It was in 1704 that Nawab Murshid Quli Khan shifted the seat of government from Dhaka to Maksudabad, which was rechristened Murshidabad after him. The family of Jagat Seth maintained its position as state bankers at Murshidabad from generation to generation. Even after the conquest of Bengal by the British, Murshidabad remained for some time the seat of administration. Hastings removed the supreme civil and criminal courts to Calcutta in 1772 only to be brought back in 1775. In 1790, under Lord Cornwallis, the entire revenue and judicial staffs were fixed at Calcutta. Of historic interest are Nizamat Kila (the Fortress of the Nawabs), also known as the Hazaarduari Palace (Palace of a Thousand Doors), built by Duncan McLeod of the Bengal Engineers in 1837, in the Italian style, the Moti Jhil (Pearl Lake) just to the south of the palace, the Muradbagh Palace and the Khushbagh Cemetery, where the remains of Ali Vardi Khan and Siraj Ud Daulah are interred. Though Hazaarduari palace is in fine shape, Wasif Mahal, the palace of the last nawab is rotting in filth! Worse still is the fate of rich treasure of manuscripts that are decaying in the palace. According to a descendant of the nawab, a store-keeper here, the palace is under the state Government administration. Paid guides dole out all kinds of spurious and dubious versions of history. But the truth that may be lying buried in the manuscripts, needs to be unearthed. But who will unravel the truth?

Malda or formerly English Bazaar, is still five-hours away towards north of Murshidabad. An English factory was set up here in 1771. Malda is the base for visiting Gaur and Pandua. Gaur, capital to three dynasties of ancient Bengal—the Buddhist Palas, the Hindu Senas and the Muslim Nawabs—has seen three distinct eras of glory. Pandua, once the alternate seat of power to Gaur, has the third largest concentration of Muslim monuments in Bengal. Historical monuments include the Jami' Masjid (1566) and the landmark Nimasari tower across the river. During the 18th century, it was the seat of prosperous cotton and silk industries.

Gaur, 12 km south of Malda, right on the Indo-Bangladesh border, offers rich feast of history and archaeology. Monuments on the must-see list are Bara Sona Mosque, Dakhil Darwajah (built in 1425), Qadam Rasul Mosque, Lattan Mosque and the ruins of the extensive fortification. Pandua, 18 kms north of Malda, another important site of archeological importance has some impressive Muslim architecture including the vast Adina Mosque built by Sikander Shah in 1369. It is one of the largest mosques in India.

But present day Muslims of West Bengal, wallowing in poverty and illiteracy, seem to be the unworthy inheritors of the glorious past. No aspect of Muslim life in Bengal today offers anything positive that could provide room for hope.