Book Review: Jeremy Seabrook & Imran Ahmed Siddiqui’s People without History: India’s Muslim Ghettos

[Previously published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.]

Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui’s ethnographic study, People without History: India’s Muslim Ghettosexplores the underside of ‘Shining India’ through a spatial narrative of Calcutta’s poor Muslims, who are predominantly Urdu-speaking. They choose Calcutta as the locus of ‘the fabric of daily life in poor Muslim communities’ for countering the claim of the erstwhile leftist government that it was able to catapult the Muslim population to a higher standard of living compared to the insecurity felt by Muslims in Gujarat after the state-sponsored pogrom in 2002.

This study is, as the authors claim, a ‘small corrective’ that ‘tell how things are with poor Muslims; their sufferings, but also their ambitions, their desire for stability and sufficiency, and their often thwarted faith in education and improvement.’ The depiction of everyday micro-practices serves to resist the western construct that poverty contributes to religious fanaticism and terrorism among Muslims. As such, this study raises and answers the following questions: How have the poor Muslims in Calcutta fared under the benign neglect of the Marxist government that ruled the state for more than three decades? Does poverty among Muslims naturally lead to fanaticism and terrorism as claimed by some western experts? What is the role of religion in the lives of the poor and how do they engage with the secular world?

The book is organized around four Calcutta localities – Topsia, Beniapukur, Tiljala Road, and Tangra. A chapter is devoted to each of these areas, followed by four short chapters that narrate stories of striking injustice meted out to individuals by the state. These localities are urban spaces in the very heart of city where ‘the rejected of rural life, the unwanted of the city’ live in squalor and deprivation, in a perpetual state of flux. As these spaces are undefined in terms of their specific legal status, the state acts as a domineering landlord who allows politicians, promoters, and mafia to regulate these spaces, build illegal structures, and rent them to the poor as well as raze them for making way to new structures.

The impermanence of space becomes a metaphor for ephemerality of lives. As globalization continues to de-skill Muslims who have been traditionally employed in ‘woodcarving, pottery, silk-weaving, embroidery and chikan-work, hand-made carpets, brass and metal work, tanning, leather and lock-making’, the people inhabiting these spaces take to the drudgery of recycling waste, manufacturing and mending shoes, butchering cattle, tanning leather, peddling drugs, pulling rickshaws, working as domestic help, and engaging in prostitution.

Despite poverty and the supposed state-apathy in promoting education in the vernacular medium among the Urdu-speaking Muslim population, the study also foregrounds the effort of non-governmental organizations in setting up schools and libraries. Muslim youth, girls in particular, seek to transform their everyday lives through education and engagement with the secular world: ‘The girls in the Urdu school are determined to rise above prejudice and ignorance…to take their rightful place in the world’. However, engagement with the secular world does not imply abandonment of faith. Rather, Seabrook and Siddiqui’s study illustrates that faith is the most important pivot that makes the dream of transformation feasible. Among the poor Muslims in Calcutta, faith thwarts the seductions of extremism and violence.

It might appear that the book merely provides a superficial account of the poverty and neglect of a crucial component of Calcutta’s population. One wonders if the authors would have executed their task more effectively had they dwelt at greater length on individual stories of deprivation. Yet, the authors seem to be aware of the paradox of conducting ethnography among the urban poor in Calcutta, whose biographies are as flimsy as the spaces they inhabit: ‘Just as the slum is believed to have no history, so the poor have no biography. A few sparse details sketch out their existence, usually illustrative of their ‘plight’…’

In addition, the study would have been more engaging had the authors chosen to ground their narrative within the spatial history of the city. There exists a genuine continuity in the spatial structure of the city since the colonial times in the eighteenth century. The poor who once serviced the high income colonial town are now engaged in producing much of the city’s wealth without benefitting from this.

Seabrook and Siddiqui undertakes the difficult task of retrieving the social biographies of nameless individuals – often invoked as a ‘semi-abstract entity’ by policy-makers, politicians, academics, and journalists – in the faceless spaces in one of India’s foremost metropolis. The significance of the book lies, however, in its ability to draw our attention to the spatial dimension of communalism. For far too long, communalism in India has been studied either as a consequence of colonial intervention and crystallization of communal identities or as a result of essential incompatibility between different communities, thereby neglecting how these identities are spatially deployed. Spatial segregation is an important strategy for marginalization of the vulnerable communities.

Lately, there has been a renewed interest in the communalization of urban space following the Gujarat riots of 2002. Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui’s ethnographic study, though without any scholarly pretension, contributes meaningfully to this emerging field of research.

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