How and why lower caste Muslims tried to stop partition

Why You Should Read This

  • Muslims are often understood as a single, unified community whose political aspirations are uniform. This perception has been fostered and used by Muslim, Hindu, and secular politicians for their own advantages.
  • Internal divisions within Indian Muslims — especially caste divides — are not recognised in political discourse.
  • This paper by Papiya Ghosh shows the disagreements that existed within the Muslim community on the idea of Pakistan.
  • While Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League were campaigning for partition based on the belief that a Muslim minority could never be safe in Hindu-majority India, a lower caste Muslim movement stood in active opposition to it. The Momins of Bihar opposed the idea of Pakistan, arguing that it was a creation of the same upper caste Muslims who were their oppressors.
  • We have condensed the original 13,000-word paper into 1,900 a word-summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 9 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 2 minutes.
  1. In the decades leading up to the partition of British India, the Julaha Muslims of Bihar and its adjoining regions began to call themselves by a new name — the “Momins,” which meant “faithful men of honour”. Traditionally involved in weaving, the community had been humiliated and oppressed by upper castes over the years and were now trying to craft a new, more assertive identity for themselves.
    • The Julahas were considered a lowly Muslim community and forced labour was taken from them in many areas.
      • Zamindars extracted an illegal tax on their handlooms, called kathiari, and a monthly royalty on the net profit of each loom, called masarfa.
      • In many areas, zamindars claimed an illegal house tax, called ghar dwari.
    • Julahas were often humiliated with derogatory slurs. There were many popular stories and proverbs mocking them that were popular across UP, Bengal, and Bihar – both in Urdu and in local languages.
    • Upper caste women rarely worked outside the house at the time. In Bihar in 1911, there were only 8 female workers for every 100 male workers among the Bhumihars and 29 female workers for every 100 male workers among the Sayyids. But most Julaha women went out to work. At the time, this was seen as a sign of the community’s backwardness.
    • From the late 19th century, many Julahas started to shed their stigmatized identity and started calling themselves “Momin”. Another name they took on was “Ansari” after their purported Arab ancestor who was also a weaver.
      • By projecting themselves as more Islamic, they hoped to gain respect from the upper class Muslims that had so far mocked and oppressed them.
  2. In 1933, an emerging Momin leader, Abdul Qayyum Ansari attacked the Muslim league, accusing it of being a party of elite or “sharif” Muslims. The organisation that he led, the Momin Conference, was attempting to raise its voice on behalf of the “razil” section of Muslim society — those who performed menial jobs, were looked down on, and discriminated against.
    • Ansari wrote a two-part article criticising “Muslim leadership” in Bihar for concentrating too much on the protection of so-called “Muslim rights,” which usually meant elite issues like reservation in civil services, while remaining “totally blind” to the needs and interests of poorer Muslims, who were the overwhelming majority.
    • Pointing out the sharif-razil divide among Muslims, the Momin Conference described the Muslim League as a party of “nawabs, capitalists and zamindars” that did not represent working class Muslims. Thus, it argued that the League’s claim of representing all Indian Muslims had no legitimacy.
    • Narrations of the oppression of the razil by sharif Muslims were common in the meetings of Momin Conference.
      • At the first provincial Momin Conference, A.A. Noor pointed out that while high class Muslims had in the past demanded a royal commission to inquire into their oppression by the Hindus, they seemed unmindful of the atrocities they had been perpetuating on labouring Muslims. He moved a resolution to form an inquiry committee to go into volumes of grivances that Momin conference had received about Muslim zamindars.
  3. In March 1940, the Muslim League passed its famed Lahore Resolution, calling for the creation of a new nation — Pakistan — out of India’s Muslim majority provinces. The Momin Conference declared that it would oppose partition tooth and nail. It argued that India’s Muslims were not a single unified group and that the oppressed among them saw no point in a Pakistan where they would continue to be oppressed by sharif Muslims.
    • The Momin Conference felt that the Muslim League’s slogan of “Islam in Danger” was a ploy to distract Momins from organising themselves.
    • They countered the League’s two-nation theory saying that Muslims of Bihar had more in common with the Hindus of Bengal than with Muslims from North West Frontier Provinces or with Arabs and Turks.
      • Asim Bihari said that “Momins had no religious, linguistic, or cultural fears” about the Hindu majority.
      • A.A. Muhammad Noor described Pakistan as “absolutely impracticable” since all of India’s communities had an “intermingled” existence.
    • While the Muslim League was arguing that carving a new nation from India’s Muslim-majority provinces would protect the Muslim community, the Momin Conference pointed out that Momins and other working class Muslims were treated as razil and oppressed even in Muslim-majority provinces.
      • A.Q. Ansari also pointed out that Pakistan would do nothing to protect Muslims who lived in provinces which had a Hindu majority.
      • The idea of Pakistan was also thought to be “un-Islamic” — every “true” Momin was expected to oppose it.
  4. At the time, voting rights were restricted to those who owned land, paid taxes, and had educational qualifications. The Momins pointed out that this was inherently undemocratic because it allowed the elite sharif Muslims of the League to become the representatives of all Indian Muslims, even though they were a minority among Muslims.
    • In November 1939, Ansari sent telegrams to M.K. Gandhi and Rajendra Prasad stating that India’s 4.5-crore Momins did not accept the leadership of the Muslim League.
    • In December 1939, at the All India Momin Conference in Gorakhpur, a resolution was passed demanding separate electorates for Momins.
  5. Since the Muslim league drew its power from projecting Muslims as a unified group whose interests it represented, the Momin Conference attempted to create a common platform with other oppressed Muslim communities to emphasise the difference between rich and poor Muslims.
    • The Momin Conference made bonds with the Rayeen (vegetable sellers and growers), Mansoor (cotton carders), Idrisi (tailors), and Quraish (butcher) communities. The stated aim was to unite 8 out of the 9 crore Muslim population of India — the razil — in order to overthrow the Muslim league leadership.
      • The Rayeens organised under the body of Anjuman Rayeen-e-Hind. Even though the president directed the community to stand behind the Muslim league in the crucial 1946 elections, there were several notable voices from within the community contesting the Muslim League’s politics.
      • The Jamiat-ul-Mansoor decided to vote for the Momin Conference. A resolution against the Muslim League noted that it had not provided any seats to the Mansoor community in the provincial legislatures.
    • The Momin Conference also attempted to raise its voice on behalf of Muslim Dalits as well, pushing for them to be given at least some of the recognition and benefits that had been granted to the Scheduled Castes among the Hindus.
    • Several associations and groups of oppressed Muslim communities sent in appeals to the Congress seeking protection from the hostility of upper class Muslims.
  6. In the 1940s, as the Muslim league focused on the Muslim identity in order to demand fair representation for Muslims from the British, the Momin Conference was arguing that seats reserved for Muslims should be further segregated and reserved for different Muslim communities based on their population.
    • Ansari responded to Jinnah’s call to come under the banner of Muslim League by making a charter of demands known as the Nukate Momineen, which were also submitted to the British government:
      • At least one minister of the central and provincial governments was to be from the Momin community and 50 percent of the seats allotted to Muslims in the federal and provincial legislatures should be reserved for Momins.
      • The reservation of seats in local self-government bodies and government and semi-government services for Momins was to be made in proportion to their population in the areas concerned.
  7. During the 1941 census, the Muslim league encouraged Muslims to leave out their caste and linguistic differences while the Momin conference encouraged them to make sure to enroll their caste so that the vast numbers of oppressed castes among Muslims would be visible.
    • The Muslim League directed all Muslim castes to enroll their religion as Islam, their caste as Muslim, and their language as Urdu.
      • Even linguistically, the Bihari Muslims were far from homogenous, with Awadhi, Maithili, Magadhi, and Bhojpuri being the prominent languages.
    • Momin conference saw the call for omission of caste as an attempt to reduce the number of Momins in census records, since Momins had demanded their rights on the basis of their vast population.
    • The Momin conference therefore called upon Momins to enroll themselves with their caste in the census, and not just as “Muslim”.
  8. In the crucial 1946 elections, the Momin Conference attempted to invoke the atrocities of the sharif Muslims involved with the Muslim League. Ultimately, it won only 5 seats, while the League swept 34. The Muslim League’s victory decisively pushed India towards partition.
    • A leaflet by the Momin Students Federation in Dehri-on-Sone spoke about how the Muslim league candidate Latifur Rahman was a cruel zamindar, who extracted forced labor from workers, and had neglected Momins during the yarn famine.
    • The Palamau Momin Conference campaign was directed against the vagueness of the Pakistani scheme and spoke of the abolition of the zamindari system.
    • In the 1946 elections, among the 40 seats reserved for Muslims, the Jamiyat-al-ulama-i-Hind contested nine seats, Congress ten, the Momin Conference put up candidates in 20 seats, while the Muslim League contested all the seats.
    • Out of these, the Muslim league swept 34 seats, the Jamiyat got none, Congress one, and Momin Conference got 5 seats.
  9. In October-November 1946, with India on the verge of partition, Bihar witnessed communal riots that left thousands of Muslims dead. As debates raged on about which areas would be included in Pakistan, the Bihari Muslim refugees who were forced to flee to Bengal after the riots were left stranded and uncared for. They felt that even though Pakistan had been created in their name, their blood sacrifice had been forgotten.
    • Following the riots, there were several proposals that sought to address the fate of Bihari Muslims.
      • At the Division of Bihar conference in April 1947, it was proposed that Bihar should be partitioned into two provinces — one Hindu and the other non-Hindu.
      • At a subsequent meeting, it was decided to inform Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, that it was an “imperative necessity” that one-sixth of the area of Bihar needed to be carved out “for the formation of a national homeland for the 50 lakhs helpless, unprotected, and oppressed Muslims of the province”.
      • Jinnah did not respond to the proposal. Instead, he proposed that Purnea district, which had a high Muslim population, should be merged with Eastern Bengal, which would become part of Pakistan.
      • This proposal prompted various local Muslims groups — including local units of the Muslim League itself — to begin lobbying for the inclusion of their area or district in East Pakistan.
    • By the last quarter of 1947, there was a growing feeling among the refugees that the Pakistani government had forgotten “the blood of the Bihari martyrs” which “served as the foundation stone to Pakistan” and had abandoned Bihar’s Muslims to their fate.
      • Many of these refugees were never resettled. Stranded in the refugee camps of East Pakistan, they faced homeless twice in the same generation: once in 1947, and again in 1971 with the birth of Bangladesh, which rendered them unwanted outsiders in a new nation.
    • By the 1980s, accounts of Bihari Muslims from Bangladesh’s refugee camps squarely blamed the Muslim League’s Pakistan logic for rendering them homeless.

Source text: Partition’s Biharis
Publication: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East
Author: Papiya Ghosh

Note: This summary reflects an argument put forward by one scholar in one paper that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It does not represent academic consensus on the topic, which is always growing and evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this paper, click here to see some of the works that cite it.