As India descends into violence, we return to the early modern history of cow protection, anxieties around religious conversation and violence in Colonial Bengal with Historian Mou Banerjee. We speak about the history of cow protection, articulations around ‘Good Muslim’ and ‘Bad Muslim,’ and violence of defining the meaning of Indianness through the micro-histories of two protagonists – Mir Mosharraf Hossain, pioneering author of the Musalmani-Bengali novel Bishad-Sindhu and Munshi Mohammad Meherullah, a preacher, reformer and a tailor. We return to archives, micro-histories, and the fight between history and memory in colonial Bengal.
Dr. Mou Banerjee is a Harvard trained historian specializing in Modern South Asian History. Her research explores the dialogues and debates of Indian intellectuals with evangelical Protestant Christianity and missionaries in the nineteenth century, especially in the Bengal Presidency in India. In her analysis of these debates, Banerjee charts the development of a complex relationship of overt repudiation and covert fascination, where Christianity was perceived as a religion and a philosophy, a discursive and dialectical category, a denominator of racial and social difference, and as a repository of Enlightenment ethos and modernity. Banerjee investigates the way in which this examination of Christianity represents a philosophical engagement, leading to contestation over the nature of faith’s socio-political implications, and of the political responsibility of the colonized subjects.
Suchitra Vijayan: Mou thank you so much for joining us today as a part of violence lab conversations series. What I truly value and love about your work is how you look into these inner lives of historical instances that are often not written about and thought about. To weight them and illuminate them of what was happening in early modern South Asian history, but also how they are so relevant to today. Can you tell us a little bit about your work and how you think and work around these historical subjects that you work with?
Mou Banerjee: My interest in micro-histories emerges from an interest in storytelling. My previous training, before I was a historian, I was a scholar of literature, and narratives have always interested me. Narratives, not only those that are sanctioned in some way, thoughts that are permitted but the narratives that are lost, that are incomplete. Narratives that emerge from the margins. So, in a sense, the historian in me is always looking for voices who would otherwise be written out of any kind of recorded, macro-historical frame where we are talking about abstract literalness about rights of human beings, without taking into account the human beings that we are talking about, right.The historian in me is always looking for voices who would otherwise be written out of any kind of recorded, the macro-historical frame where we are talking about abstract literalness about rights of human beings, without taking into account the human beings that we are talking about, right.So micro history seemed to me to be one way to enter into this conversation, and I would say that I have two significant influences into doing this. One was Emma Rothschild whom I worked with when I was at Harvard, and in some senses, the way she looked at those in the margins and try to draw out more substantial arguments about their social, economic, political lives is very inspiring to me. The other significant influence on me was the Indian historian Ashin Das Gupta, who worked on the Indian Ocean Arena — talking about merchants, traders, people who would act as fixers, petty criminals. Somehow to me, there is a kind of story there, which contains within itself the possibility of, unearthing other kinds of ways of being in the world. Not only the elite, not only the middle class, not only the bhadralok, the gentlemanly people, but those who were not gentlemanly in any way. And a kind of digging out those stories, of modern South Asian history. Historiography has taken a legal turn, you yourself have worked with some fantastic legal historians. But the arena of law, though it provides us with a vast amount of resources and brings these marginal voices to the forefront, other areas need to be excavated. We are very fond of producing paper, and not at all fond of preserving paper. Things happen to paperwork in India and South Asia. Silverfish eat them. They are burnt. One day suddenly an important file goes missing from a particular ministry. In some ways, it is some kind of magical realism where narrative and history can change at the whim of whatever is surrounding the documentation. And to me, these are stories where the gaps cannot be fulfilled. The political, the social, and the everyday life to me that seems something that I could do by looking at — what I call archival ephemera — a newspaper, a periodical, a chapbook, which was published maybe for a year and whose entire print run, I cannot access because of the archival conditions in South Asia. We are very fond of producing paper, and not at all fond of preserving paper. Things happen to paperwork in India and South Asia. Silverfish eat them. They are burnt. One day suddenly an important file goes missing from a particular ministry. In some ways, it is some kind of magical realism where narrative and history can change at the whim of whatever is surrounding the documentation. And to me, these are stories where the gaps cannot be fulfilled. If I were a novelist or a storyteller, I could probably try and fill the gaps, but to me, the kind of unfinishedness, the rawness of these histories are also very very important.
In trying to show that there is something interesting, something, particularly illuminating about ‘very very ordinary lives’. You need not be someone whose name everyone would recognize, but you could still have produced something in your own milieu, a kind of mentality that that milieu might have inhabited. Which might give us a sense of the people whose voices are drowned out. What Ranajit Guha, the great historian, called the small voices of history. So that is my justification for doing the kind of history that I do.
Suchitra: And that brings us to one of the two protagonists through whom we would be excavating a lot of contemporary issues. The first is the question of ‘gau-rakshaks’ or cow life controversy in the Bengali Muslim public sphere in 1889 and 1890. And here the protagonist you write about is Mir Mosharraf Hossain. He is a journalist, someone you would consider elite. So tell us a little bit about the protagonist and how you came to trace the history and the arguments around cow protection in this part of the century.
Mou Banerjee: Cow protection has been written about quite extensively. Gyan Pandey’s early work, for example, Anand Yang’s work, Cassie Adcock is doing fantastic work at this moment. My dear friend, Rohit De who is at Yale, his forthcoming book has an excellent chapter on cow protection. But what I was finding when I was looking at all of this work was this. It was a documentation of violence that usually happened with three protagonists. The state: the British administrative state, the two communities of faith, which were coming into conflict with each other and in some sense this was also around a particular formation of a kind of Hindu identity, which I don’t think had existed before the decade of the 1880s. The man who began this mobilizing around the issue of cow protection in a very big way was the founder of the Arya Samaj, Dayananda Saraswati. He wrote a book called ‘Go Karunanidhi’, ( Mercy for the cow) in 1881 – 82. Within ten years, cow movements and violence related to cow protection had spread all over northern and northeastern India.The man who began this mobilizing around the issue of cow protection in a very big way was the founder of the Arya Samaj, Dayananda Saraswati. He wrote a book called ‘Go Karunanidhi’, ( Mercy for the cow) in 1881 – 82. Within ten years, cow movements and violence related to cow protection had spread all over northern and northeastern India.When I was doing my research for the second protagonist, Munshi Mohammad Meherullah, who I will talk about later, at the Dhaka University, I came across a bound volume falling to pieces of a particular newspaper called ‘Mihir-o-Sudhakar’ which used to be published from Calcutta and I found references to Mir Mosharraf Hossain and his writings on cow protection. He was being lauded for being, a rational, logical, well-meaning, well thinking, “good Muslim” because he was advocating for the fact that beef was not a part of daily Bengali diet and if this was causing so much tension, it was a matter of, trying to find a common space to live together, a matter of accommodation. That Muslims should probably think about refraining from cow sacrifice.
And I was very taken aback. I don’t think many people outside Bengal and Bangladesh know his name. Because to me Mosharraf Hossain, as I am sure to many other people, out of Bengal and Bangladesh, is more well-known, as a man who rewrote the entire story of the tragic events around Karbala. The moment when the fracture between the two major communities of faith in Islam breakaway, and he made that story very much about Bengali sensibility, about Indian sensibility if you will. So if you read the three volumes of his work, ‘Bishad Sindhu’, the sea of sorrows, which is a retelling of that particular history, you find that the characters are behaving very much as Bengali Muslims would have. Their diction, the way they love each other, they way they politically act, all of that was very very Bengali. This was in a way, bringing home a history that had existed in the larger world of Muslim believers. And for Bengali Muslims, this trilogy of novels had also acted for a very long time as a substitute for the Quran. Others have done fantastic anthropological work on Bangladesh’s folk music, folk theatre using Mir Mosharraf Hossein’s work. His novel, on the Karbala, had become incorporated into folk songs, into the theatre and he was someone who was very well loved by the general Muslim public. These works were sung out loud or read out aloud. And you can see that there is a growing tension and agitation, as he’s writing about cow protection. The violence is intensifying in this period. The records in the British Library shows us that there is a great deal of inter-community tension during this period around the issue of cow protection.
So for a man like that to have been writing about cow protection in this way was surprising. So a little bit more digging in the Dhaka library, in the rare book section, brought out the sections of the Ahmadi, the newspaper that he used to publish, and I found a series of articles that he had written. He came from an aristocratic family, he worked as an official for a larger zamindari land holding estate, and he had contributed for a very long time, to a number of Bengali newspapers. He was considered a great Muslim correspondent, the man who could give information to the Bengali elite in Calcutta about what was happening in rural Eastern Bengal. And you can see that there is a growing tension and agitation, as he’s writing about cow protection. The violence is intensifying in this period. The records in the British Library, (works that have been done by the historians), shows us that there is a great deal of inter-community tension during this period around the issue of cow protection.
And here is this man who had access to both of these worlds, to the rural Bengali society and the elite rarified often Hindu society of Calcutta. He was trying to find a middle ground, and that middle ground something I think he approached in good faith, something that he thought people would listen to, something that he had such power, you know that people looked up to him as an arbiter of what it meant to be a Muslim in Bengal. And the backlash I think took both him and the Bengali Muslim community in Eastern Bengal by surprise. The fact that there would be a backlash in of itself came as a surprise to this old gentleman, who had thought that he was trying to find a middle ground, to make it easier for the two communities of faith, to kind of work together.
Suchitra: I want to narrow in on this idea of the construction of the good Muslim and the bad Muslim. This sentiment has been articulated by many, especially since 9/11. But I was wondering if you could go back on this idea of the construction of the good Muslim. And if you can speak to this idea that he was trying to find a middle ground. So what do these qualities of “moderation” and “good Muslim” mean in relationship to the time and space that he was working in?
Mou Banerjee: This is an incredibly fraught issue in South Asian history in general during the 19th century. By 1857, the loss of prestige and honor associated with the Mughal hegemony has in a sense completely devastated the Muslim aristocracy and the gentry. This has been referred to as the ‘Zillat ka halat’ the term itself means one of debasement of the self. People like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan for example, the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University and the Aligarh movement, in general, are trying to find again, a space in a climate where the very vivid Islamophobia, the Muslamanophobia (recorded in many of the letters that young British civilians are writing back home) in the aftermath of the retribution that the British government is exacting on Indian citizens for the uprising of 1857. They’re trying to counter and figure out what it might mean for a Muslim man to exist in a society where their cultural, social and political prestige had definitely passed away.They’re trying to counter and figure out what it might mean for a Muslim man to exist in a society where their cultural, social and political prestige had definitely passed away. One form of it was, of course, turning away from British pedagogy, from British political institutions and holding onto or trying to hold on to a vanished way of life. The other form was what Syed Ahmed Khan and his followers propagated. Which was a wholesale investment in Western education, in trying to create a kind of new tehzeeb, a new way, a new mode of behaviour, mode of engagement in the politics and the society that was emerging at the high noon of imperialism and there is this idea of what constituted a good Muslim finds kind of fervent iteration, over and over again.
This is a person who is well educated in all the languages: Persian, Arabic that would give them access to their own culture, which still exists outside India, in the wider world of believers. But it would also behoove well of them that they were to, you know, have Western educations. Syed Ahmed Khan goes to England at this point of time, writes back a series of letters back home, trying to advise his audience about what it would mean for them to be a part, a contributing part; but at the same time, a distinctive, separate from a Hindu Bengali nation as he called it, people who could find a middle ground. And this largely, elite middle-class discourse. What brought me to a Mir Mosharraf Hossein, of course, is the fact that there are differences in class and social position even amongst the elite.What does it mean for a good Bengali Muslim peasant to be a good Muslim? It is significantly different from it might have meant for someone from Aligarh, or Lucknow or Delhi. And what Sir Syed Ahmed Khan would say is not applicable to Bengali Muslims, who, if you look at the district Gazette years, the rate of literacy is abysmal, it is below 1%. So how do you talk to these people? How do you talk to them about what constitutes the creation of an ideal citizen?Mosharraf Hossein is a Syed, as in you know, he belongs or claimed to descent from the family of the Prophet, he belonged to an aristocratic family, but at the same time, he is living and working in rural Bengal. He does not have any estate of his own. He works for someone else and the kind of community that he is engaged in, the kind of people who are his people, his milieu, the mentality he observes is very very different from the milieu, the mentality of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. And to me, this was important. To try and highlight that there was a very large Eastern Bengali Muslim population; the term middle class could only be affixed to them in terms of their aspirational value. A lot of them came from peasant Muslim backgrounds and you know the kind of fluctuations in world economy meant, at points of time, jute cultivation, other cash crop cultivation would mean that they had very significant stability in their lives. At other times, it would mean hunger and deprivation. And to create a good Muslim, out of this class, to try and think about a discourse of the good Muslim in this social milieu, is something that is new. I don’t think it has been looked into, you know, with as much detail, maybe Cassie Adcock adds to this, but when I was looking at it, I could not really find any kind of similar work, done on this on a historiographical level recently.
What does it mean for a good Bengali Muslim peasant to be a good Muslim? It is significantly different from it might have meant for someone from Aligarh, or Lucknow or Delhi. And what Sir Syed Ahmed Khan would say is not applicable to Bengali Muslims, who, if you look at the district Gazette years, the rate of literacy is abysmal, it is below 1%. So how do you talk to these people? How do you talk to them about what constitutes the creation of an ideal citizen? And the kind of work that you know, Mir Mosharraf Hossein is doing is also trying to create that kind of balance, between their beliefs, the kind of, you know, syncretic folk Islam, which is coming up against new or modernist beliefs in textual purity, stress on clear textual exegesis, not his kind of making the wider world Islam available to the listeners at home. And again, these divisions that crop up between various strata of society, of who could be a good Muslim man is very very interesting. To the larger Hindu audience; a good Muslim man is a man who compromises.To the larger Hindu audience; a good Muslim man is a man who compromises. The Bengali Muslim society that Syed Ahmed Khan has only very little idea about, and the one Mir Mosharraf inhabits, to give away that right of cow sacrifice, is a strike against the very belief. Strike against the very root of what might define themselves. What might define them and themselves as good Muslims? Because, of course, cow sacrifice is a big part of one of the chapters of the Quran, and what Mir Mosharraf Hossein kind of very softly elides away from his work, what the rural Bengali aalim [Naimuddin] was fighting against him, brings back, to say – your vision of Islam is not quite the same as my vision of Islam. Your vision of what a good Muslim might look like is not the same as mine.
Suchitra Vijayan: And one of the things that really resonate with me as I was reading your work… I don’t know if you remember, we had this conversation almost a year ago when I first met you. Work that you do with the past has such deep resonance to what’s happening in India today. With the recent killings, with this effort to not only rewrite what it means to be Indian, but what it means to be Hindu and Muslim and what it means to protect the cows, I was wondering before we go on to the next protagonist, if you could talk about the resonances of your work in particular to the kind of violence that’s emerged and is emerging out of India right now, around the same cow protection issues.
Mou Banerjee: I mean, cow protection in and of itself has become a metaphor for something. If you remember, the pushback against Mosharraf Hossein comes not only from Naimuddin but also from the Bengali newspaper journalist Reazuddin from Mihir O Sudhakar, who says, of course, this is nothing to do with cow protection. It is very much to do about how the majoritarian population, the Hindu community, with protection from the government, the Indian government, which is the British government at this point, would like to dictate their terms to their Muslim and Christian brethren, right. And I think what he says is very very poignant, that there is ‘ swajati’, my own people, because there is this idea about ethnicity, and with the Bengali people you cannot draw a kind of racial distinction. You cannot do that for the entirety of India as a matter of fact. “They are my swajati, they are my own people, but on the other hand, there are people who are of my own faith, my own community of faith, right. How can I say who I will stand for? But this much I can certainly say, if one community with the help of the government is trying to dictate terms of how to live, to give in to it is in a way to say my importance as a subject or a citizen in the eye of the government is less than the community, the members of the community who are dictating my own actions.” This is nothing to do with cow protection. It is very much to do about how the majoritarian population, the Hindu community, with protection from the government, the Indian government, which is the British government at this point, would like to dictate their terms to their Muslim and Christian brethren, right.
I think this is something that resonates across a century. I think, the fact that cow killing in the entire, the horrifying spectacle of lynching that you have written about as well right, and that other people like Supriya Nair has written about in The Atlantic, Atish Taseer has written about, this kind of making an example of, creating a kind of ritual sacrifice, to close down spaces of creative accommodation, to close down spaces of dialogue. To say, there is a particular way of being one thing, of inhabiting a particular identity, to me is against the very basic norms, both of decency but also politically of democratic rights as citizens.
And when I was writing this paper, the lynchings had not become something so routine that you read about them, and there is a sense of complete numbing pain and terror. I was beginning to realize that the kind of work I was doing had consequences. So, I was in Delhi, in the summer and I was again, giving a talk about this very issue and one of the questions was, “But so what? It might have been a good thing if the Muslims had compromised.” I was like, that is not the issue. The issue is here of living with a basic human dignity. Living our ordinary lives, unafraid, because there are certain protections promised to us constitutionally by the law. And I don’t think that answer went down very well. This idea there could be equal space of cohabitation, that minority and majority communities could have claims of equality before the law and before the state is something that is a notion that is eroding and eroding very very fast in India. And to me that is horrifying. That again, you know makes me more engaged to bring out this kind of marginal voices in my work. Because, once we forget about them, once an Akhlaq, a Junaid, a Rakbar becomes a mere statistic, is when you know, we know that the state’s way of producing consensus have triumphed over the rights of human beings to live with dignity.
Suchitra Vijayan: And I think that’s absolutely important when we think about not only in the future of India’s constitutional rights but also how the republic can survive. And that brings us to another fascinating and beautifully articulated paper that you wrote, ‘The Tale of the Tailor’, which is the story of Munshi Mohammad Meherullah, rather different from our first protagonist. This is someone who the post-colonial text would call sub-altern, not a Syed like Mosharraf he was a tailor and a preacher. Tell us about his life and his work.
Mou Banerjee: Again you know, a lot of my work is dependent on you know, happy archival discoveries. And I came across Meherullah when I was actually working on some of the district gazetteers that form so much of a basis of any work that you want to do, any work you want to do about rural Eastern Bengal during this period, any rural India as a matter of fact. And I was looking at some of the records of the Bogra district, which is now in Bangladesh. Among the many other things about the ratio of Muslim boys to Hindu boys going to school, the work of the missionaries, the kind of famines which were devastating the areas that I was reading about, I came across this very strange reference about a man called Meherullah, who had given a fantastic speech which had lasted many hours, and had managed to, this is where you know the kind of even through the dry language of administrative reportage this comes through, had managed to hold spellbound, actually two different and warring kind communities, one the Hanafis, one of the schools of Islamic jurisdiction, of juridical law, and what were known as the rafidaiyans. So you know, slight differences in beliefs basically, and they had been fighting for a very long time over doctrinal issues. And this man, Meherullah, had come and he had used the language of everyday life. He had used parables and held people spellbound for about seven or eight hours. Just listening to someone for seven or eight hours to me feels horrifying. As a teacher I can tell you, my students probably manage to listen attentively to about 30 to 35 minutes, then their attention starts wandering. Then you think back to the period that I am talking about, listening to such speeches, engaging in such kind of debates is a form of community entertainment as well. And I was like who is this man and what kind of effect might his words might have had that this finds a place in a very dry state reportage of facts and events and statistics.
So a bit more digging kind of, there are stray references to him in a lot of other work, but again fortuitously I found a biography or a hagiography of him written by someone who had been his spellbound listeners, and this copy, of course, exists only in the British Library. Again, you know Suchitra, one thing we should probably be aware of is when we do this kind of work and talk about it, is so much of it is dependent upon our access, to these high-bastions archives where things actually survive. There were things about him, family records, which were bought by the Dhaka library and are now untraceable. So they are in the catalog but I cannot find them. And neither can anyone else there, who have tried very much on my behalf.
But anyway, to come back to Meherullah. He is a nominal figure. At one glance there is really not much to talk about him. He is a tailor who is also a preacher, who is also a social reformer but within a very small milieu, within maybe three districts. Nodia, Pabna, and Jashore that he is working in. All of which is now in Bangladesh. And again, the scale of the work is about finding schools for children, finding money to have orphans educated, trying to keep people from converting. Remember there are a lot of famines and we have records from the 1850s onwards about indigo and rebellion around indigo. We have reports around how laying down the railway lines in this area devastated the natural water drainage systems, so there is a lot of illness, a lot of epidemics, including malaria. Economically this is a fairly unstable region as well. So for a man like him, a tailor, a mere tailor, trying to do a kind of work that he did, it would probably not have made, any kind of ripples. And if you are only to read from the elite or middle-class bhadralok records from this period, no one even knows who Meherullah is or who cares.
But if you look at the kind of newspaper reportage that is going on in the Bengali Muslim public sphere, for example in papers like The Mihir O Sudhakar, which again we know from the fact that it was one of the main antagonists of Mir Mosharraf Hossein. If you like at the kind of newspapers which are produced in, Gram Barta Prokashika for example, or The Musalmaan, which are being produced from rural Eastern Bengal, Meherullah is a name to reckon with. He is someone who has a kind of charisma, which goes beyond his immediate social and religious standing. And the more you kind of start digging, these fragmentary records start coming out.
I found an entire cache of his pamphlets, again survived by some miracle in the Dhaka university’s rare book sections and the language that is used there is not the chaste Bengali that you expect from a Bankim Chandra Chatterjee or Rabindranath Tagore. It’s very much a particular kind of dialect with a lot of usage of Persian and Hindustani words, Musalmani Bengali or Dobashi Bengali as it was called, and that language is the language of everyday life in rural Eastern Bengal. And the way in which Meherullah is talking to his convocation if you will, is that language of rural Bengal, very much particular to that place and time, and the experiences that his immediate audiences might have had.
Suchitra Vijayan: And that takes us to an important debate that he has with Reverend John Jamiruddin. Who also later reconverted to Islam, and also becomes a devoted disciple. Talk to us about Meherullah’s disciple and also within the context of the conversions that were happening.
Mou Banerjee: Again, I mean Jamiruddin comes from a much better social and economic background than Meherullah. Meherullah’s father dies when he is very young, his education is incredibly patchwork, the formal education I mean. He is trained as a tailor, catering to the district magistrate in Jessore, which gives him some kind of prominence but not enough. Wherein in Jamiruddin’s father actually has a bookstall in Chitpur, which was the center of indigenous printing in Bengal, the famed bototollah books, chapbooks, fables, candles, news-sheets all bring printed in great numbers for a reading-hungry public. So his father commanded more of a social and economic capital than Meherullah’s father did. He has better schooling than Meherullah, he goes to a very good English-medium school run by missionaries and it is here that pedagogy and evangelism are so closely tied in together in Bengal’s history and India’s history as well. He comes under the influence of his headmaster, who then sends him off to Allahabad. Again, an old Mughal center which had also become one of the major four Supreme Courts in India. He is sent there to be educated. He comes in contact with some of the most famous converts of his day, including Neel Kanthan Nehmiagore, who writes quite a lot about the syncretic relationship between Christianity and Vedanta. And Jamiruddin comes back and he is very very sure that whatever he is saying is correct. That kind of authority and prestige that a colonial education and a colonial bNilkantha Nehemiah Gorehacking, even if it is an exercise of soft power instead of official power, he is very sure that what he is saying is correct. And he does everything by the book. He references the kind of older works denouncing Hinduism and Islam, which had been written by major figures like Karl Pfander that I talk about here. Pfander is a very well-known name among historians who do work on the history of religions in India, including Avril Powell’s, fantastic work on this. So he comes and does this and out of nowhere this tailor hits back at him saying, not a single idea in your head is genuine, you haven’t read the Quran carefully enough, and you are symptomatic with everything that is wrong with the Muslim community in Bengal.
That we would just accept whatever is being told to us and not do our own reading, and there is this great textual emphasis which is very interesting to me. For a man who worked in a literacy aware society, not a literate society, to hit the man Jamiruddin, who he knows prides himself on his own literacy, on his own command of language, and the language of command if you will. To hit him and say your understanding is imperfect because you don’t read well. And to try and shift the discussion there and say, whatever you have learned is because your eyes are actually closed to the truth. And it’s very interesting to me that, this is a literal way of the empire, the subaltern strikes back if you will. The subaltern speaks and speaks in such a way that it drowns out the voice, the sanctioned colonial voice. Meherullah does it in a way where he basically makes of the kind of work, you know, the very careful, textual exegesis that is done by older missionaries and other converts, he turns that into a matter of mockery, because he already knows these debates are infinitely deferred. There is no win for anyone right. It cannot be by the very constraints that are on these debates. And he basically makes it into a matter of public laughter. Laughter, as we are beginning to see even in the current day, has a very very debilitating effect when you are trying to argue with logic and reason. And the fact that Meherullah is deploying both laughter and logic against only logic to me is very very interesting. The fact that Jamiruddin is overcome enough that he reconverts back is astounding. But even when he reconverts back, Jamiruddin says he is an outcast, he is not accepted back by his immediate community. And it is Meherullah’s patronage then who brings him back into the fort.This is nothing to do with cow protection. It is very much to do about how the majoritarian population, the Hindu community, with protection from the government, the Indian government, which is the British government at this point, would like to dictate their terms to their Muslim and Christian brethren, right.So there is a kind of constant tension between again the educated Muslim and the subaltern Muslim, but it is this one story here where you see the subaltern actually wins. And out of that victory emerges a kind understanding that those voices are not to be discounted. That the idea of a Bengali Muslim is dependent not only on how good a peasant he is, for all that work on liberalism and materialism, which is being done is fantastic work, but to discount religion, the practice of religion as a political voice needs also to be taken seriously. Because leaving that out of the kind of historiography that we are seeing so far has also contributed a lot to the fact that so many people are so taken aback by the fact that we are now living in a post-secular society.
Suchitra Vijayan: One of the things that I really wanted to go back and narrow in, on this struggle that I saw throughout your writing between these men to establish a certain hierarchy of knowledge that way of thinking. I was wondering if you see that struggle now being played out in India, the way it does, especially given that how many of the anti-secular forces are now trying to rewrite history as a history of antagonism between communities, and not a history of living together. Not a history of rights but rather a history of anger. Can you talk to us about that?
You put it very well when you say that this is a history of anger, this is a history of hate, this is a history of the division. What you will kind of find, when you are looking at the very micro level in the kind of stories that I am writing about, is that Meherullah’s audience is not only Bengali Muslims. It’s Bengali Hindu peasants from those strata of society, it’s kind of discussion that he continues having with British magistrates, Hindu Pandits as well as the Muslim Ulema and people like Jamiruddin for example, the converts for example. This dealing with an atmosphere of fear and atmosphere of hatred, the atmosphere of anger happens, side by side, with a history of living together. And while that is very clear to me when I’m looking at the sources and writing about his work, it might not be as clear if I were just to talk about Meherullah, as some kind of extreme opposition to a Mir Mosharraf Hossein. That is not the case. Both these men work and live in the same society, talk to similar audiences, and try to make sense of a lifeworld which is changing. In the present day, history has become a way of justifying a particular kind of differentiation. You know the idea of religion as piety as personal faith has given way to the idea of the religion of something that is a marker of difference. This again, is a process that through my work, I try to see happens very very early on. In a way to try and create, what we were talking about the ideal citizen right, the good Muslim or the good Hindu. Now to be a good Indian is to be a particular kind of good Hindu, which has very little textual analysis or historical analysis behind it.One thing that is at the background of all my work is the fact that statistically, conversion is minimal. There is almost like no increase in converts between 1870 and 1914, there is maybe like 1% increase in converts. And that holds stableAnother thing to remember is here, of course, is the kind of constant tension between history and memory. My memory, my inherited memory, of my social, and political and cultural capital might be very very different from the historical context of the world that I am inheriting that memory from. And in the present context that is something that needs to be taken into account. One thing that is at the background of all my work is the fact that statistically, conversion is minimal. There is almost like no increase in converts between 1870 and 1914, there is maybe like 1% increase in converts. And that holds stable. If you look at the population of India today, Christians about 1.7% or something, there is no way that demographically, historically, statistically, culturally, the majority community in India is threatened by anything that our minority communities might achieve on a demographic basis. What we have is an inherited memory of this kind of discourses which then are simplified further to create only black and white pictures. And that today, if that succeeds. Once you forget all the complexity of a lived world, where we have to have accommodation, where we have to have a creative understanding of how we fit together, what you have is a space where you have only consensus and no dissensus. Rancière talks about this. When a state starts producing all of the small fissures, all of the small fault lines, when we try and understand who we are, bearers of multiple identities get lost. And that is what has been happening in India. In terms of the way in which lynchings have happened, have been described in the press. The way in which the legal apparatus has remained either as an active collusion or as a silent bystander. There is this reported production of consensus dependent on faulty memory rather than a historical understanding of what makes India. When a state starts producing all of the small fissures, all of the small fault lines, when we try and understand who we are, bearers of multiple identities get lost. In terms of the way in which lynchings have happened, have been described in the press. The way in which the legal apparatus has remained either as an active collusion or as a silent bystander. There is this reported production of consensus dependent on faulty memory rather than a historical understanding of what makes India.
Suchitra Vijayan: And that brings us to what is a question that has haunted me for a while now. The process of trying to identify and fix, what it means to be Indian. You started your work in a time when India, it’s always been a violent country, but in the last four years what it is noticed, now we actually have data as a part of the Violence Lab that we do, that India has become increasingly more violent, and the nature of violence has also changed. So I was wondering if you could, kind of, pull all of these ideas together; I know I am asking something which is a bit of a tall order, but I can’t think of anyone doing this as well as you. How do we pull this together? Who is the perfect Indian? Can we locate a perfect Indian? And how do these work with the ideas of violence itself, mutating and changing over time?
Mou Banerjee: I mean, you know the search for the ideal Indian, the search for a perfect Indian in and of itself is a generator of a huge epistemic violence because Indians and human beings are not idealized perfect beings. We, behave, act, live, interact, react according to the particular situations that we find ourselves in. To hold up a kind of measuring tape and say, if you do this kind of particular things, you are a good Indian, a good national. There is something very beautiful even if perverted about the term: presstitute or sickular, where you turn secular into something that in and of itself is an infection. That yardstick again is not the same yardstick for me coming from the majority religion, coming from the highest caste as it is for someone like an Akhlaq, or a Junaid, or a Rakbar. Because what for me would be very easy is completely always impossible for a member of that minority community. As soon as will try and attempt anything on the basis of the guidelines that are being laid down implicitly with the kind of violence that is being generated in India; any time they try a new key, the lock will have been changed. There is no entry into that small airless, windowless box of what would constitute an ideal India with its ideal Indian citizens. And in my opinion, in the kind of work that I do, that you are doing amazingly with the Polis Project, to try and find a way out of that kind of binary division between violence and the lack of it, the search for the idealised Indian as opposed to the very imperfect citizens of a country with a 1.21 billion people, is to find a way to articulate that all of us belong to that nationalist discourse, without having to in some sense, cut away, do away with a part of our identity that makes us united, who we are. That space of living together, the space for having space to dissent from majority opinion, the space of having the space to articulate the rights even when, evil is being perpetrated, to have the kind of legal, constitutional, political safeguard to articulate a kind of dissenting opinion is very very important. And I think those spaces are slowly erased out of this shiny new vision, where an ideal Indian can think about an ideal India only through lenses of anger, of hate, of differentiation.
Suchitra Vijayan: Mou, thank you so much for being a part of this conversation. I can’t thank you enough for producing the kind of work you do but also making the time to talk to us about this.
Mou Banerjee: Suchitra, I’ve been you know, since I heard you speak at Tufts about a year ago, I’ve been in awe of the kind of work you do, the kind of moral, ethical center a person like you must have, to do the kind of work you do, in the kind of violent situations, context that we find ourselves in. This has been amazing. To have the kind of conversation with you, I think it made me think carefully about the kind of work that I do, the kind of impact that works might have had. So thank you for the opportunity. I hope we will have many more other conversations going forward.
Suchitra Vijayan: Thank you.
You can read both the essays here
The Tale of the Tailor: Munshi Mohammad Meherullah and Muslim–Christian Apologetics in Bengal, 1885–1907
Go-Raksha, the “Cow-Life Controversy” and the Bengali Muslim Public Sphere, 1889-1890
Suchitra Vijayan is founding director, The Polis Project, Inc. @suchitrav
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