Silencing Muslims in Jharkhand: Why a Token Namaz Room Is Not Enough

Though the move to allocate a namaz room in the state assembly premises is welcome, what needs to be done is to put an end to the deliberate invisibilisation of Muslims in Jharkhand by the political class, academia and media.

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In 1929, Belgian artist Rene Magritte came up with one of the most famous paintings, ‘This is not a pipe’. The artwork, while inviting several critiques and accusations against Magritte of nihilism, also an occasion for rethinking the idea of representation itself. In the face of criticism, Magritte said, “How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So, if I had my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying! [translated from French].” However, this is not a piece on that artwork, nor one to elaborate upon the politics of representation.

Rather, it is only the painting/statement that I recalled when I saw BJP MLAs creating a ruckus in the Jharkhand assembly against the notification allocating a room for namaz and demanding Hanuman temple in the premises.

Room No. TW 348 is no more a simple room, but it is a space of contestation and a mode of visibility for the Muslims of Jharkhand, who despite comprising 14.5% of the population have only four MLAs in the 81-member assembly. It hardly matters for the BJP MLAs that even in the old assembly building there was a designated place for the Muslim staff and MLAs to offer Jumma Namaz (obligatory Friday prayers).

The problem lies in the formal notification. The issue comes with the visibility of a deliberately silenced community. The notification officially recognises the presence of Muslims not with an assimilationist approach, rather with the due recognition of difference. So, the formal allocation of the room for namaz is more than mere tokenism.

TW 348 is no more a room, but it is the symbolic representation of Muslim presence in the history of Jharkhand. It is the bearer of composite nationalism (Mushtareka Wataniyat) that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad promoted during his internment in Ranchi (1916-1919). The room talks to all those academic and journalistic endeavours which maintain silence on Muslim participation in spite of their presence and participation in both colonial struggle and the statehood movement of Jharkhand.

BJP MLAs protest againt Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren and Jharkhand Assembly Speaker Rabindra Nath Mahato after the State Governments order towards allotment of a room in the Assembly House for the purpose of offering namaz, in Ranchi, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. Photo: PTI.

Since the publication of Mahtab Alam and Mary Abraham’s 2010 essay titled 10 years of Jharkhand: Whither Muslims? regarding the underdevelopment and invisibility of Muslims in the state, there have been very few essays mostly related to the socio-economic and socio-cultural deprivation of the community. Although Afsar Ali gave an outline of the Muslims’ contribution to the formation of the state in Milli Gazette, the most-read accounts of Jharkhand movements in prominent social science journals, like Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Social Scientist, Contribution to Indian Sociology, have remained conspicuously silent over the issue.

Significant books on Jharkhand statehood movement by Nirmal Sengupta (Fourth World Dynamics: Jharkhand, 1982), Victor Das (Jharkhand – Castle Over Graves, 1992), Kamta Chaube (Muslims & Freedom Movements in India, 1990), William Ekka and R.K. Sinha (Documentation of Jharkhand Movement, 2004) to name a few also didn’t take into account the presence of Muslims in these struggles. Either their presence has found a place in the footnote or as a single-line reference, marginalising the historicity that Muslims in the state deserve.

Also read: Jharkhand BJP MLAs Protest Against Allotment of a Room for Namaz in Assembly

This silencing of Muslim question in Jharkhand drove me to look into different archives. No sooner had I started my archival work, I found myself standing on the wrong side of history. There are mentions – there are references – however, few they may be – still they exist – fighting and struggling against their absolute elimination.

Michel Trouillot while talking about the early 19th century Haitian rebellion in his famous book Silencing the Past noted how the histories are produced along with silences in different stages.

In my search for histories of Jharkhand’s Muslims, I encountered multiple silences at different stages – source, archive and introspection. Here, I will give a brief historical outline of Muslims’ presence and participation in the land and its struggle for several centuries.

So, the notification of room no. TW348 is just (though a welcome move) a token of formal and symbolic recognition that stands against the political and academic invisibilisation of Muslims in the state.

Ranchi district gazetteers: Search for the Muslims in Chotonagpur in the pre-colonial and British days

Former Bihar governor R.R. Diwakar (1952-1957) in his book Bihar through Ages noted that Muslims have been living in Chotonagpur for around 800 years. They got mixed with the early tribal residents and the transactions resulted into, as per Father Hoffman, a German Jesuit Linguist, borrowing and amalgamation of different Arabian and Persian words in Munda dialects. Afsar Ali points out that the first mosque in this region was built around 1661 at Daudnagar (currently in Jharkhand).

Ranchi district gazetteers also refer to the Muslim presence in this locality from the early days. Machperson and Hallett’s (1917) District Gazetteer of Ranchi notes that the first reference to Jharkhand could be found in the chronicles of Ahmad Yadgar. He talked about Sher Shah sending an expedition to Raja of Chotonagpur to possess a ‘while elephant’ namely ‘Shyam Chandra’.

The legend goes that Sher Shah’s effort was related to his belief that the possession of a while elephant would be a sign of him being ‘Emperor of Delhi’ in the near future. Ain-i-Akbari points out that the expedition was led by Shahbaz Khan at a place namely “Kokrah, the well-cultivated district between Orissa and the Dakhin ruled over by Madhu Singh”. Raja’s belief that due to his geographical position, he would be safe was seriously damaged as Ain-i-Akbari claims, “Our men however entered the district and carried off much plunder. The Raja became tributary and was thus fortunate to get under the shadow of Imperial Government”.

Machperson and Hallett’s portrayal of Muslim rulers as plunderers and interested in diamonds, as found in the Gazetteer conforms to the oriental and colonial description of Muslims as invaders, greedy, licentious and aliens. The vilification continued and the image of the plunderer got strengthened with the reference to Jahangir. As per both the Gazetteers (1917 & 1970 by N. Kumar), Jahangir was lured away by the diamonds worth lakhs of rupees each and asked the then Bihar governor Ibrahim Khan to “invade the district and drive away the unknown petty Raja”.

In 1616, unsatisfied with the few diamonds and elephants that he received from Raja, Ibrahim Khan arrested Raja and produced him before Jahangir. Raja was given long-term imprisonment only to be released by his capacity to identify the original diamond. After this episode, as both N. Kumar (1970) and Machperson and Hallett (1917) pointed out that consecutive Rajas maintained nominal relations with the imperial power. Few invasions by different Subedars from Bihar were managed through offering of diamonds and other valuables.

In this context, Machperson and Hallett noted, “During this period there must have been a considerable immigration of Muhammadans into the country, as villages composed entirely of Muhammadans are found scattered over the district”.

It was during the first quarter of the 19th century that, as N. Kumar in the District Gazetteer of Ranchi (1970) points out, Muslims of weaving caste started settling in Chotonagpur. The major reason behind such migration was the collapse of the weaving industry in Biharsharif and Gaya. The promotion of British cotton goods coupled with the crisis of indigenous weaving tools engendered the migration.

Kumar also mentioned that during and from the 18th century onwards “local feudal lords encouraged Muslim military adventures from Bihar and up country to settle in this district to render them military service, not only against local risings, but also against external attacks”. However, people coming for the military adventure were very few and couldn’t contribute much to the growth of the Muslim population.

Another account for long settlement of Muslims in Chotnagpur in general and Ranchi, in particular, can be attributed to the survey of Ranchi city done by L.P. Vidyarthi and historian J.N. Basu during 1960-1962. In their survey, they found a few Muslim Gowala (milkman) families have been living in Doranda (a Muslim dominated locality in Ranchi) for more than 200 years. Their other statement significantly points to the indigeneity of Muslims – “tribals were the original inhabitants and among the non-tribals, the Muslims were the first early settlers in the Ranchi area”.

These scattered references together give a broader picture indicating that the Muslims in Jharkhand are as indigenous as the Tribals. The competitive marginality played by the political class that prioritised one against the other sustains through the inivisibilisation of Muslims in the state. As already noted, the silencing of the community through concocted production of historical narratives leads to the creation of an ‘othered’ Muslim image where the indigenous becomes diku (outsider).

Struggle for independence and Jharkhand statehood movement: Finding traces of Muslim leadership

There are several oblique references to Muslim participation in different movements in Jharkhand during British India. During the Khilafat movement, Kamta Chaube in the book Muslims and Freedom Movements in India notes how Muslims in Ranchi participated in huge numbers.

In Chaube’s words, “On December 14, 1919, a band of Muslims paraded through Baazar and explained the grievances the Muslims had against the Government and requested all people to boycott the peace celebrations. The Madrasa at Ranchi didn’t observe 13th December as a holiday. Practically all students attended their classes wearing black badges on their arms”.

The accounts of the non-cooperation movement led by Congress even talk about the important roles played by the Muslims. In 1920 during the annual Pinjarapol celebrations, Congress leaders like Padma Raj Jain, Bholanath Burman, Maulvi Zakaria, Abdul Razzak and Sundar Dutt came to Ranchi from Kolkata. Under their leadership and instructions, a hartal was observed from November 17 to 21.

As per the government reports (Letters from Mr. Whitty, Deputy Commissioner of Ranchi to I.F. Lyall, Commissioner of Chotonagpur, dated February 24, 1921) Md. Yusuf, Md. Ishak, Md. Alim and Ali Jan Suudagar were the chief Muslim leaders who were instrumental in organising meetings and propagating non-cooperation in between November 1920- February 1921.

On February 1, 1921, Usman, the head Maulvi of Anjuman Islamia Madrasa (the Madrasa was founded by Maulana Azad during his internment in Ranchi from 1916-1920) addressed a general meeting attended by different communities including Mundas, Oraons, Bhuiyans and other aboriginals along with barbers, chamars and other non-aboriginal castes. The police report mentioned that it was extremely well received among the audience – indicating the influence of Muslim leaders on both the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.

Also read: How a Fixed Gaze at the Muslim ‘Other’ Helps Political Parties

Not only in the struggle for independence, a few accounts, though less in numbers, refer to the leadership and participation of Muslims in the Jharkhand statehood movement. Afsar Ali in his article on Muslims’ contribution to the formation of Jharkhand refers to the formation of the Momin conference in 1923 near Ranchi. It was founded to uphold the cause of Muslim weavers who had been facing discrimination by the colonial government. When Bihar was carved out of Bengal as a separate province in 1912, several districts wanted to become part of Jharkhand were included in Bengal, whereas Chotonagpur and Santhal Pargana became part of Bihar.

At this point, there was one Asmat Ali who “guessed the impending danger in Bihar”. Convinced of the fact that the culture of Jharkhand would be compromised if it remains within Bihar, Asmat Ali “gave a call for separation”. I even found reference to Asmat Ali in Amit Jha’s significant work Contemporary Religious Institutions in Tribal India (2009). However, the rest of the works couldn’t find any mention of Asmat Ali and his call for separation of Jharkhand.

Chiragh Ali was another major leader who led the Jharkhand statehood movement during 1919. Interestingly the references to these leaders have been conspicuously missing from most of the accounts that researched on the Jharkhand statehood movement.

In 1936, the Momin conference passed a resolution to create a separate Jharkhand state. In 1937, R. Ali of the Momin Conference defeated the Muslim League candidate and became a member of the Bihar legislative assembly. This conflict between Momin Conference and Muslim league in this region was taken note of by late historian Papiya Ghosh in her unfinished book Muhajirs and the Nation. 

The Muslim weaving caste of Jharkhand never supported the call for partition, rather what they believed and practiced was the composite nationalism of Maulana Azad, who during his stay not only tried to develop the educational situation of the community, rather embedded a sense of nationalism and self-identification that was reflected throughout different struggles.

When parties in Chotonagpur submitted a memorandum for separate statehood of Jharkhand to the Simon Commission, apart from Adivasi Mahasabha, there were at least two other parties. One of them namely the Chotonagpur separation league had huge number of members from the Ansari community.

After independence, the Momin Conference supported the Jharkhand coordination committee, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the All India Jharkhand Students Union. On July 7, 1990, it made a pact with JMM and on July 6 of the same year, the All India Momin Conference passed a resolution under the presidentship of Zia-Ur-Rahman Ansari to form a separate Jharkhand state.

Another Muslim organisation that had played a pivotal role in the Jharkhand statehood movement was Jharkhand Quami Tehrique (JQT). The objective of the organisation was to support the statehood movement. In 1987, after several conversations and informal meetings among the community, Khalique Ahmed, Farooque Azam and Naram Ansari founded JQT as a platform for asserting both the statehood rights and the rights of the Muslims. As Ekka and Sinha (2004) rightly point out along with supporting the statehood, JQT also wanted to retain its own identity.

There was total disapproval of the Congress party and its vote bank politics. As the Ranchi riots of 1967, Jamshedpur riots of 1964 and 1979 happened during the Congress regime, JQT deliberately wanted some change and believed that the new state would end their exploitation. Referring to the economic and social backwardness of Muslims in Jharkhand, the organisation looked forward to new opportunities in the proposed state.

They shared their plight with the tribes and sent a memorandum with specific demands to the Jharkhand coordination committee on November 23, 1990 through Ram Dayal Munda. JCC approved the demands and JQT became an integral part of the broader movement. Few of the demands of JQT were also reflected in its first conference on July 23, 1989 in Ranchi. The major demands of JQT were regarding the formation of a secular Jharkhand state, no religious discrimination, minority representation, protection and recognition of minority language along with the formation of Jharkhand Minority Commission, Haj Committee, Madrasa Board and Waqf Board.

Though the boards, committees and commissions have been formed through a long struggle, the academic, journalistic and political invisibilisation of Muslims in Jharkhand goes on. The visibility needs formal notifications like the one regarding Namaaz Room TW348. It is only through continuous deliberations and memorialisation that Muslims’ participation in the formation of the state can be celebrated. The proportionate representation of Muslims in the assembly and other governmental offices and bodies should be the immediate prerogative of the Hemant Soren government.

Otherwise, TW348 will simply be a room, not a connotation for a new future where the recognition and remembrance will create an inclusive Jharkhand.  

Abhik Bhattacharya is a Doctoral Research Fellow, School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.