Debate: Saraswati Pujas should continue to be organized in schools across Bengal


For the Motion: Mosarrap H Khan

First, the call for a stop to Saraswati Puja celebrations in schools (especially the public-funded ones) comes from a new-found religious assertion among Muslims, which was dormant during the thirty-four years of the Left regime but is now in ascendance with Mamata Banerjee’s rule. I am alarmed with the new assertion because it delinks religion from culture. I see Saraswati Puja as part of larger Bengali cultural identity (albeit, no doubt, undergirded by the Hindu majority identity). As Olivier Roy argues in the case of France, the new forms of fundamentalism and extremism among Muslims (and also among born-again Christians) are a result of de-culturalizing religion, which makes religion a transnational, ahistorical phenomenon. In India, too, such occurrences are common with the emergence of a new breed of Muslim tele-evangelists and internet preachers, who have been consistently trying to delink Islam from particular cultural moorings, for example, Islam in Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, each one of which bears distinct cultural marks. In Bengal, Saraswati Puja is part of that cultural mooring for me, even if one doesn’t offer pushpanjali (actual worshipping of the goddess).

Second, I’m aware that culture can operate as hegemony and build barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Mathew Arnold does it in Culture and Anarchy: culture is something that comprises of the best knowledge and thought. Anything that falls outside this is philistine and must be brought under the purview of culture. However, when I say Saraswati Puja is part of Bengali culture, I want to take a view of culture which Edward Said posits: that is affiliative, instead of filiative. We are born into families, tribes, extended network of caste, etc. That’s a filiative bond, something related to filial feelings. An affiliative bond can occur between people who are not necessarily bound by filial bond, for example, people of different castes, languages, etc. Similarly, my idea of Bengali culture is affiliative, across divisions of religion (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc). If we can identify ourselves affiliatively as Bengalis, then I don’t see why we can’t take part in Saraswati Puja as Bengalis (the way we do in the case of Durga Puja) or Pujas to be organized in schools. An affiliative identification is an attempt to make our horizons of belonging larger, more expansive.

Third, I want to take a more pragmatic look at this debate about Saraswati Puja celebrations in schools. In the last decade and a half, Bengali Muslims in West Bengal have made remarkable progress in the field of education. There is an emerging middle-class of professionals, intellectuals, despite the overall poor indicators of Muslim progress in the state. I don’t want us to fritter away this development over issues of Saraswati Puja celebrations. This will be a wrong battle to pick for Muslims in Bengal at this time. This is the time to consolidate our strength, to forge ahead, to harness our talents. Saraswati Puja celebrations can continue in schools.

Fourth, this one is a personal reason. I have grown up attending Saraswati Puja in my local school and later in my Hindu missionary school. I even used to offer pushpanjali, which my sisters too did when they attended school. The other day, I asked my mother, what she thought about it. She said, she didn’t see any problem in that. She is a practicing Muslim. The point I’m making is Muslims are diverse in their life-experiences and sensibilities. We shouldn’t turn Saraswati Puja into another essentialist battle of religions.

[Anyone wishing to write against the motion, do send an email to A 500-600 word write-up would suffice.]

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Yakub Memon, A MUSLIM, Was Hanged

As the tamasha of late night court proceedings unfolded, I had a sense of déjà vu. A blood-thirsty nation would have to be satisfied.

Yakub Memon must be hanged.

He was a conspirator during the Bombay Blasts. He had taken lives. We must have his life. Once the date of hanging was decided in advance, there was very little chance left.

Yakub ran a successful chartered accountancy firm with a Hindu, a Mehta. What could have drawn him into this plot for revenge? Did Yakub Memon feel angry when he saw hundreds of people killed, displaced, terrorized, and traumatized by the goons of Shiv Sena and other right wing groups?

Let’s hang on for a moment to the supposition that Yakub was directly involved in plotting the blasts. But since he had managed to escape to Karachi, along with his family, why did he return?

Read the whole piece on Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Posted in Activism, City, Civil Society, Communalism, Death Penalty, Hindutva, Identity, India, Indian Muslim, Indian Politics, Islam, Muslim, Religion, Secularism/Liberalism, Social Activism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Do we have the LANGUAGE to talk about Housing Discrimination against Muslims?

You read about a Muslim woman being denied an apartment in Mumbai.

Hashtags such as #MisbahQadri, #ApartheidTruth lasted for about 72 hours on social media.

Raging, raging, gone…

You know you have been there; you have heard that; you have been asked to f*** off. Because you are a Muslim.

You also know social media outrage is incapable of devising a language of pain. Yes PAIN, which lies at the heart of such experiences.

Are our personal narratives just one way to grapple with that language of pain, you wonder.


You are at the University of Hyderabad. You have just completed a master’s and are brimming with idealism. The highs of university life have made you confident. You think you can take on the world. At least, that’s what the university community made you feel.

You have left the memories of 1992 behind. Somewhat.

You want to spend an additional year in Hyderabad. Because your girlfriend is still completing her master’s. You drive a hard bargain with your dad, who isn’t very keen on funding your stay in the city for an additional year. Hyderabad is not yet a booming tech city, where you could at least land a language trainer’s job at a call center. But you somehow manage to convince your dad. You tell him you are preparing for Ph.D. admissions. And, of course, the Ph.D. would have to be funded through a scholarship. Goes without saying.

Since you have completed the degree, you can’t live in the university hostel any longer. You go house-hunting in the city. Mostly you look for modest places. “We don’t rent our house to Muslims,” they say. You are young. You are full of hope. You are never bitter. You have made good friends at the university. They never considered your religion important. And, of course, you are dating a non-Muslim woman.

Read the whole piece on Cafe Dissensus Everyday.

Posted in Activism, City, Communalism, India, Indian Muslim, Kolkata, Mumbai, Muslim, Religion, Secularism/Liberalism, Social Activism, Violence | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971)

After a brief visit of about ten days, I returned from Dhaka at the end of 2011, which happened to be the fortieth birth anniversary of Bangladesh. During my stay, I interacted with academics, scholars, and lay people about the legacy of Bangladesh Liberation War (1971), which severed Pakistan into two distinct countries. While in the genteel and more cultivated circles, the schizophrenic nature of Bangladeshi nationalism embodied itself as an entrenched ideological battle between the secularists and the Islamists (some of these Islamists have since been hanged following a controversial tribunal), this divide took on a more visceral turn on the streets of Dhaka, as bombs exploded and cars were set on fire. The recent killings of ‘secular bloggers’ have further intensified this divide. As I boarded the Friendship Bus (Souhardya) plying between Dhaka and Kolkata, I remembered Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s prophetic words in his poem, “Hum Ke Thehre Ajnabee”:

“Kab nazar men aayegi baidaagh sabzey ki bahar
Khoon ke dhabbey dhulain gain kinti barsaatoon ke baad”

(When will we see the unsullied green of spring?
After how many monsoons will the stains of blood be washed?)

Faiz – a humanist, a committed Marxist, and a poet of the oppressed – wrote this after his return from Dhaka in 1974. After forty years, Bangladeshi nationalism, like many of its Third World counterparts, still periodically reenacted its founding violence of 1971.

As an admirer of Faiz and his vision of justice, I have been asking myself: What was Faiz’s particular position on the Pakistani Army repression in East Pakistan which began on 25 March, 1971? What was his view on the East Pakistani resistance that culminated in the death of millions (this number has been contested often and no consensus exists) and rape of thousands of women? Faiz had already been a well-known poet in East Pakistan and many of his poems had been translated into Bangla. He was introduced in East Pakistan by Munir Chowdhury, a well-known professor in Dhaka and Faiz’s friend. During that official trip of 1974, where he accompanied the Pakistani Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, many of Faiz’s friends didn’t show up, either because they had disappeared during the Pakistani Army excesses or had decided to stay away because of what they had felt Faiz’s deliberate silence about army repression. As Bangladeshi journalist, Afsan Chowdhury, writes, “During those days, those who knew would ask, ‘What did Faiz say? Did he protest? Did he give a statement saying it was wrong?’ In fact, we do not know what Faiz did.”

Read the whole piece on Cafe Dissensus.

Posted in 1971 Muktijuddho, Author, Bangladesh, Death Penalty, History, Identity, Islam, Literature, Muslim, Pakistan, Poems, Postcolonialism, Religion, Secularism/Liberalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Eat Beef in Bengal?

We are a family of gastronomic dissidence, almost bordering on anarchy. My mother eats beef but no mutton. My father loves mutton but eats no beef. One of my sisters doesn’t eat any meat, not even fish. Another sister was gastronomically more adventurous until recently when she gave up eating beef. I haven’t eaten red meat since my childhood, owing to what I felt a strong smell (which made me nauseate) and thick fibers.

As in the case of political parties, someone sets the agenda in every family. In our home, it’s my mother. Since she never ate mutton, she made sure no mutton would ever be cooked at home. We siblings, therefore, never grew up developing a taste for mutton. My poor father, who really loved mutton, gorged on it mostly in weddings, until he gave up eating meat altogether. The health freak that he is we were not surprised.

But my mother loves eating beef. There is not a single part of the cow that she didn’t relish eating – from the meaty parts to entrails to legs. She grew up in a village where beef formed an important part of the diet. While extremely eclectic in her sartorial preference, honed by the limited choices in a small town where she went to school, she remained truly rooted in her village in gastronomic matters.

After marriage, she came away to live in a small town (more like a hamlet), where my father had already set up his business. The town, a Community Development Block, was more like an extended village with a state highway passing through the settlement. Houses began cropping up haphazardly, many of which were built by families that moved from villages, either to work in a few existent government offices or to start a business. Some other families moved to give their children a better education, albeit there was just one high school for the boys and one for the girls.

Read the whole piece on Antiserious.

Posted in Caste, Communalism, Hindutva, Identity, India, Indian Muslim, Islam, Life, Muslim, Religion, Secularism/Liberalism, Village | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What does AAP’s Victory in Delhi Assembly Election say about Muslims?

I must begin with a caveat: I am neither a political analyst nor a psephologist. Like many in India, I am an avid follower of politics and try to make sense of the happenings with common sense. This piece is an attempt to make sense of AAP’s victory in Delhi and situate this victory within the larger popular discourse about Indian Muslims, particularly their supposed victimhood, lack of leadership, and ghettoization.

What’s up with Indian Muslims?

Here I sump up very briefly the arguments from three newspaper articles about Indian Muslims, which give us a glimpse into the popular discourse about Indian Muslims.

In a well-intentioned piece, coincidentally published on the morning of 7 January, 2015, the day the Charlie Hebdo massacre took place, Sagarika Ghose recommends that Indian Muslims shouldn’t allow themselves to be pushed into perpetual victimhood over issues of ‘love jihad’ (inter-faith love/marriage between Hindus and Muslims)  and ‘ghar wapsi’ (religious conversion of minorities to Hinduism). She recounts the achievements of Indian Muslim icons and frames them problematically with Indian nationalism, “India’s exceptional Muslim citizens are icons whose achievements are proudly, subliminally claimed by Indian nationalism even if the ‘Muslim’ is apparently antithetical to it.” Ghose’s concern is borne out of the fact that Asaduddin Owaisi gained prominence as the ‘sole spokesperson’ of the Muslim community in India, after his impressive electoral debut in Maharashtra, outside his home-turf, Hyderabad. Further, Ghose answers why Indian Muslims might be opting for Owaisi’s supposedly communal brand of politics, “A leaderless community is now seeking refuge in their own demagogues, in the belief that they alone can offer an effective counterpoint to both majoritarian and flawed secular politics.” While she makes an ardent appeal for a modern, moderate Muslim leadership that can steer Muslims to national mainstream, her final message is one of self-congratulation: “Beyond the yelling bigots, there’s a silent more welcoming truth: Indian Muslims would not be the second largest community in the world, if the true Hindu was anti-Muslim.”

Read the whole piece on Cafe Dissensus Everyday.

Posted in Communalism, Delhi, Hindutva, India, Indian Muslim, Indian Politics, Muslim, Secularism/Liberalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Short Story: Mehru’s Dream

The dark clouds had been gathering for a while. The nor’wester would strike soon, bringing momentary relief from the heat and humidity. Mehru wiped the sweat off her face with the corner of her sari. The boy on the lap was tugging at her breast. He must be hungry. She lifted her blouse and held his mouth to her breast. The boy kept quiet and started suckling her.

Mehru was thinking of the cow she had tethered on the green patch a little distance from the house. The summer heat had parched most of the grass, forcing her to take the cow far. The calf had followed the mother eagerly. Should she go and fetch her? Worried, she walked out of the house, hoping she would chance on someone.

Boudi, are you looking for something?” Topu asked. He lived in the mohalla across the pond.

“I am worried about the cow. I tied her next to the banyan tree.”

“I am going that way. Should I untie it? Where is Ali?”

“Please do. He has gone to the market to buy manure for the sowing.”

“Don’t worry. You get in. I will unfasten it on my way,” Topu walked away with long strides.

Mehru sauntered in and put the boy to sleep on the cot in the verandah.

She picked the dry clothes off the line tied to two bamboo poles in the courtyard. She dumped them on the cot.

Read the whole story on Cafe Dissensus Everyday.

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