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Communalism, Partition, Diaspora and Shifting Identities

Sudha Pai

By Papiya Ghosh
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 218, Rs. 595.00


Community and Nation consist of ten seminal essays written by Papiya Ghosh who is sadly no more with us.* Thus this review is a tribute to a distinguished scholar. Written in the course of her post-doctoral research, they have been competently put together with an introduction by Biswamoy Pati. The essays have already been published in reputed journals. However, putting them together has value as they provide a historical narrative of the gradual construction of a ‘Muslim identity’ under colonialism, changes due to partition and creation of Bangladesh and the subsequent worldview of the Muslim diaspora in the western world. The theoretical core of the book is the complex relationship between ‘community’ and ‘nation’ in the specific context of the ‘Otherising’ (p. x) or making of a Bihari Muslim identity in the colonial period leading to partition of the subcontinent. The first six chapters deal with various aspects of Muslim identity shaped during the colonial period; while the remaining four describe the exodus of Bihari Muslims in the post-partition riots. Ghosh’s research admirably shows how partition anticipated many of the questions raised across the subcontinent today: ethnicity, communalism, religious fundamentalism and cultural nationalism.   Critical of researchers who construct a ‘Muslim identity’ solely around Islam, based on ‘Mongol-Mughal’ ideas of the 16th and 17th centuries, which it is asserted had not been eroded by the 1920s. Ghosh forcefully argues that regional rather than religious categories had over a long period shaped the identity of Muslims in Bihar until the later 19th and 20th centuries when reformist orthodoxy and political communalism introduced change. Moreover, when questions were raised ‘who is a Muslim’ and what constitutes ‘Muslim identity’ there was no one set of Muslim assumptions of Muslimness irrespective of the specificities of class, region and ideology. The Deoband and the Aligarh trends took opposite stands towards the national movement. The Jamiyat al ulama i Hind and the Momin Conference in 1919 subscribed to a theory of composite nationalism in which Indian Muslims though separate from others in religion were ‘fellow-nationals’; they were not a nation, but were a millat that could co-exist with other religious communities as part of a confederation of religious communities. This view was in keeping with the lived experience of the people, but was not shared by the Muslim League, though its influence was not as great in Bihar initially as elsewhere.   Ghosh traces the hardening of relationships ...

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