In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois writes,
Born after the American Civil War and writing at an uncertain time for the ‘Negroes’ (as the Blacks or African-Americans were called then), Du Bois knew the perils of ‘double-consciousness’ – this sense of being always under the gaze of While folks and its power to define and fix.
It is the fate of marginal groups everywhere to bear the burden of this ‘double-consciousness’ – one’s self-worth, one’s sense of self is never one’s own, but always refracted through the eyes of the powerful, who gazes at him with ‘contempt and pity’. As time goes by, one starts believing in the narrative of the dominant group, one internalizes others’ judgements about himself.
The poor Muslims in Bengal, who once cultivated Hindu Zamindar’s lands and indigo for the British, through the nineteenth century, never figured in the imagination of upper caste Hindu bhadrolok. When Bankim was exhorting his fellow Bengalis (read, Hindus) to imagine a sense of history, he was addressing his Hindu brethren, the elites of Calcutta who attended Presidency College. The Muslim peasant, meanwhile, listened to the village mullahs and maulavis to seek solace from the day’s drudgery.
Bankim called him a ‘nere’; Saratchandra called him a ‘Musalman’, as opposed to Hindus, who were de facto Bengalis.
He was not part of the Young Bengal Movement; he was not throwing beef at people to show his progressiveness. He eked out a living, working on someone else’s land. He yearned to eat beef. His sense of history was tied to his land, to his village. The Wahabis and the Farazis came in the nineteenth century. They questioned his ignorance of Islam and asked him to regroup with other Muslims in their struggle against the landed Hindus. And much later the city-educated Muslims came to seek him out as an ally in their struggle for supremacy against Hindu elites.
Bankim called him a ‘nere’; Saratchandra called him a ‘Musalman’, as opposed to Hindus, who were de facto Bengalis. He was and still remains a ‘problem’, the way the Negro remained a problem for the White.
He still cultivates land – his meagre land, if he is lucky or as a bhaag chasi (sharecropper). He bends over saris to weave meticulous designs, which are sold for lakhs; he receives a pittance. His wife and his daughter make bidis, bearing searing pain down their back. He walks miles transporting cattle from cattle-markets and avoids lynching, if he is lucky. His son migrates to other cities, other states and works there as a goldsmith, as a mason, as a labourer.
He barely has access to tap water, to electricity. His children hardly have access to schools. His son would rarely make it to government or private sector jobs, unlike the children of Hindu babus.
And then a day comes, when his meagre sharecropping land is taken away from him for industry. He refuses to part with his land and is shot by the police. The despair grows. He is branded backward, an eyesore in the onward march of history of progress and development. He is taunted with a morphed image of his Prophet. He explodes. His leader, bred under political patronage, leads him to the path of violence. He lays siege to the police station and goes on a rampage.
Those sitting in news studious, newspaper offices, in universities, those who make opinions, those who have the wisdom to read his mind pity him, ridicule him. He has never known to be himself; he has always understood his self through others’ eyes. He bears the burden of ‘double-consciousness’.
He is your quintessential Muslim in Bengal. One who wishes to live a life of dignity, without being, as Du Bois said of the Negro, “cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”