The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 24, 2002

When Bengali-Muslim writers paved the way for social regeneration
Vinita Gardner

Bengali Muslim Literati & the Development of Muslim Community in Bengal
Asoke Kumar Chakraborty. IIAS, Shimla. Pages 127. Rs 180.

Bengali Muslim Literati & the Development of Muslim Community in Bengal"SOCIAL structure provide crucibles in which identities are forged and interests developed. However, social patterns are not monolithic or static; by selectively highlighting certain elements within given cultures, political organisations may reinforce or reshape dominant patterns. A key instance is provided by the way that political organisations interpret the place of women: upholding women’s traditional roles often places inherent limits on the potential for radical change. Conversely an organisation that appropriates emancipatory themes from subaltern traditions stretches the limits of the possible in ways that go beyond conventional leftist agendas".

Ashoke Kumar Chakraborty’s attractively packaged Bengali Muslim Literati and The Development of Muslim Community in Bengal endeavours to elaborate upon some of the issues outlined above. He must be given credit for the earnestness which he undoubtedly brings to his field of study. Distilled in the crucible of painstaking research and serious endeavour, the book definitely adds to our knowledge of the development of a comprehensive model for social regeneration among the Bengali-Muslim society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


A new genre of Muslim writers emerged who believed in attacking with renewed energy the multidimensional ills prevalent in Muslim society in Bengal. Through a mass of new literature written in Bengali and through their literary organisations, these Bengali-Muslim writers "attempted to eliminate the illiteracy, prejudice, sectarian conflict, lack of faith in Islamic religion and other related barriers likely to retard the progress of their community". It would be prudent to mention that these Muslim literati sought simultaneously to unshackle existing Muslim religious ideas from superstitious accretions through the revival, recreation and reinterpretation of existing Muslim tradition, through the literary recapitulation of early Muslim glory via biographies and through historical writings. This inspired Kaikobad’s Mahashashan kabya, Shiv Mandir and Mahram Shareef, Mazammel Haque’s Hazrat Mohomed, Ismail Hossein Siraji’s Spain Vijay kabya Hamid Ali’s Qasimbadh kabya, Jainaludhar kabya, all sought simultaneously to present the past as an ideal, to create an emotional hankering in readers for bygone days; so too Mir Mosharraf Hossein’s Vishad Sindhu, Hazrat Umarer Dharmajiban Labha, Hazrat Belarer Jibani, Hazart Ameer Hamzar Dharmajiban labh, Madinar Gaurav, Moslem Viratta and Islamer Jay. While the former group of literary publications had basically a historical background and the latter group a greater propensity towards fiction, the underlying aims of both were the same.

Upon the firmament of intellectual and social ferment there appeared a colossus to champion the cause of Muslim women’s emancipation and intellectual advancement. She was none other than Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain, herself a victim of the suffocating practice of purdah since the tender age of five. A pioneer of the women’s movement in Bengal, she was a writer, an educationist, social worker and a visionary who worked unceasingly for women’s education which she considered the first pre-requisite for emancipation. Undaunted by narrow-minded, stifling prejudices and practices, Rokeya not only established the Sakhawat Memorial Girls School in 1911, in Calcutta, but also ensured she had enough students for the school to function effectively. She personally went from door to door, entreating guardians to send their wards to school, guaranteeing security and purdah by offering covered transport for the girls. Rokeya’s bold formulation of women’s emancipation as laid down in her numerous writings, especially in Street Jatir Abanati (The Degraded Condition of Women) and Ardhangi (His Other Half) is as relevant today, almost 70 years after her demise, as it was earlier. To her, women’s emancipation meant the establishment of equal rights for women in educational, economic and political spheres. And, ultimately, Rokeya won despite her orthodox Muslim detractors. Men and women from the Brahmo Hindu and Muslim communities from all over India congratulated Rokeya and lent her support. The Amrita Bazaar Patrika, along with liberal Muslim dailies and periodicals, supported the cause of women’s education. These included the Mussalman, Nabanoor Mohammadi, Al-eslam, Sadhana, Bulbul and Saugat. In a nutshell the entire gamut of issues pertaining to women such as purdah, polygamy, widow remarriage and the empowerment of Muslim women came up for redressal and were influenced by reformist ideas stimulated by the social and cultural transition and intellectual ferment in countries as far off as Turkey, Egypt and Iran.

Be that as it may, the pleasure of perusal of Ashoke Kumar Chakraborty’s book is marred continually by glaringly incorrect grammatical formations and sentence constructions. He should avoid convoluted prose and concentrate on an uncomplicated and cohesive literary style. Given his knowledge and vocabulary, I have no doubt that he can develop a stylistic literary finesse sans prose formation which will not in any way obloquy his literary merit.