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Remembering Fakruddin H Bennur

A Marathi Public Intellectual

Ashok Chousalkar (suryakant.gn@gmail.com) is Editor, Samaj Prabodhan Patrika.

Fakruddin H Bennur was the driving force behind the Muslim Marathi Sahitya Parishad and Muslim Other Backward Classes’ movement in Maharashtra. He sought to counter the communal distortion of Indian history by questioning its assumptions rooted in orientalist historiography. Debunking the view that Muslims in India are a homogeneous monolith, he emphasised the regional, linguistic, cultural diversities and traditions of syncretism. 

Fakruddin H Bennur, a prominent public intellectual and political scientist, passed away on 17 August 2018, at the age of 80. He had taught political science for almost 32 years in Sangameshwar College, Solapur. His family hailed from Hubli in north Karnataka, but his father had migrated to Solapur. Bennur represented the synthesis of Marathi and Kannada cultures. He admirably harmonised his social activism with a career in academics, involving himself in public projects that had affirmative implications for social change. Though he was proficient in English, he chose to write only in Marathi.

He realised that partition in 1947 had put Muslims in a precarious position where they were likely to be accused of nurturing “extraterritorial loyalties” for Pakistan. Bennur was of the view that Muslims were considered a homogeneous monolith and even progressive intellectuals avidly discussed the “Muslim problem” in those terms. He was of the opinion that a majority of Indian intellectuals sought to understand Muslim history and society through the prism of orientalist historiography. In Maharashtra, there were three groups of intellectuals writing on the “Muslim question” (Muslim prashna). The first comprised Hindutva writers who liberally borrowed from British historians to substantiate their communal interpretations of Islam. The second group was made up of liberal and secular intellectuals who were genuinely interested in modernisation of Muslim society, but relied heavily upon orientalist historiography to make their arguments. Hamid Dalwai, A B Shah, Narhar Kurundkar, and M A Karandikar were prominent among them. They were influential intellectuals and at times their writings—particularly Kurundkar’s—shared a strange affinity with Hindutva views. The third set of intellectuals were Marxists who did not write much.

Identifying the principal problem facing Muslims to be the influence of the clergy and feudal values, Dalwai and his friends decided to establish the Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal (Society of Truth Seekers). Propagating the cause of reforms and gender justice ensured that Bennur was boycotted by the Muslim community of Solapur. He had joined Dalwai and was working with the satyashodhaks. Dalwai was a bitter critic of the Muslim clergy, subjection of women, and the stranglehold of religion on their lives. He demanded the enactment of the common civil code and urged Muslims to join the mainstream.

But, very soon, serious differences emerged between Bennur and Dalwai. Bennur contended that the Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal was received with hostility in the Muslim community and Dalwai’s method of reform alienated the common Muslims. His criticism of Muslims and Islam was misappropriated by the Hindutva forces to carry out vitriolic propaganda against Muslims. His knowledge of Islam and Muslim history was skin-deep as he was influenced by orientalist historiography. Bennur did not like Dalwai’s anti-communist position that both Islam and communism shared an authoritarian legacy. A bitter parting of ways followed.

Bennur decided to work with Moin Shakir and Asghar Ali Engineer. He joined Engineer’s Ekta initiative for communal harmony and organised a number of camps in different cities of the state. But, this was the period of rising belligerence of the Hindutva communal forces as they launched the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. They demolished the Babri Masjid, leading to unprecedented communal riots in different parts of the country. The Hindutva communal forces, which were on the margins of Indian politics, became one of the principal forces of mainstream politics. These developments disturbed Bennur.

Bennur argued against the communal distortion of Indian history, which rested on the narrative of religious war between the Hindus and the Muslims. This view asserted that the Muslims harboured separatist tendencies and refused to be Indian themselves. In order to refute this view, Bennur decided to take two initiatives, the first of which was rewriting of Indian history that was distorted by the communal historians. The second was the establishment of the Muslim Marathi Sahitya Parishad (literary association).

He relentlessly argued that the Muslim community was not a monolith as there is immense internal cultural and social diversity. That Indian Islam had creatively absorbed and assimilated local influences. In the history of Maharashtra, there were a large number of Muslim Marathi saints who wrote their spiritual songs in Marathi. There was a synthesis of the Sufi and the Warkari traditions. He argued that it is wrong to say that Urdu is the mother tongue of Marathi Muslims. Marathi has been their mother tongue and there are a number of Muslim writers who are writing in Marathi. Dalwai was one of them. The Muslim Marathi Sahitya Parishad provides a platform to these writers and organises sessions of these conferences. Important social, political, and cultural issues confronting the Muslims are discussed. Bennur posited that there is no connection between language and religion.

The Muslims in India have very strong regional identity and development of this identity is important. This will prevent their forcible appropriation by the communal forces. Such a position does not entail hostility towards Urdu, but in fact helps one understand the synthesis of Urdu and Marathi in the Dakkhani language. Bennur sought to highlight that Muslim culture in India had rich regional variations and that it has been a major component of Indian culture, which is syncretic in nature. It tries to absorb the best things from different cultures and allows them to retain their identity and encourages them to flourish. Rigid compartmentalisation was discouraged.

Bennur was a keen student of the political ideas of Jotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar. While studying the social structure of the Indian Muslim community, he realised that there was a deep-rooted caste system among the Muslims. This was possible because a large number of Muslims were converts from the Hinduism and they carried their caste along with them. But, the upper-caste Muslims denied existence of the caste among Muslims. Bennur and his colleagues decided to launch the Muslim Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs) movement to articulate their problems. The OBC Muslims are one of the most backward and neglected sections of Indian society as most of them come from the artisan and service castes. They are adversely affected by the forces of globalisation and privatisation. Most of them work in the unorganised sector. They lack education and suffer most during the communal riots as they can be easily targeted. Instead of giving them correct advice, the Muslim clergy seek to inculcate religious spirit in them.

Hence, it was necessary to organise backward class Muslims in a separate organisation so that their grievances could be properly articulated and eventually redressed. For example, these sections should be given reservations in the educational institutions and the government jobs as recommended by the Mandal Commission. The OBC Muslims should not become an instrument in the hands of the elite Ashraf Muslims or the Hindu communal forces. Instead, these should make common cause with other backward sections of the society. The movement has not yet made major headway in the states like Maharashtra, but Bennur hoped that through proper political education and organisational work, the movement would gather momentum. He held that, gradually, contradictions in the society would get sharpened.

Bennur wrote hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines, and delivered public lectures. He ceaselessly countered the Hindutva communal forces for vitiating the atmosphere and fueling religious polarisation to win elections. The growth of Hindu communalism had adversely affected the Muslim representation in the popular bodies.

On Gandhi’s Views

Bennur wrote four books. His first book was on the social structure and the consciousness of the Indian Muslims. The second was on Muslim political thinkers in India, and the third was on the Hind Swaraj of Mahatma Gandhi. His last book is on nationalism, colonialism and Islam. In this book, he pointed out that the third world societies are plural and multicultural societies, and it is the error of the colonial historians to look at them through the imposing lens of the Western model of nationalism.

In his critical analysis of Mahatma Gandhi’s seminal book, Hind Swaraj, he studied it through three perspectives. First, he posited that Gandhi challenged orientalist historiography for he argued that it was limited to the elites as it did not take into consideration activities and achievements of the common people. It was the history of kings and wars. He thought that communal history was the legacy of this historiography, which claimed that there was inborn enmity between the Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi said that this was not true as Hindus and Muslims had been living together peacefully since last 600 years, and political conflicts among kings should not be construed as conflict between the two communities.

Second, Gandhi’s criticism of modern civilisation was in fact criticism of Western capitalism and imperialism, which enslaved the Asian and African countries and plundered their wealth. He was not opposed to machinery as such, but held that in modern times it had become an instrument in the hands of the ruling classes to exploit the people. Third, for Bennur, Gandhi rejected the Western notion of nationalism and held that Indian nationalism was inclusive and democratic as it sought to empower common people.

Fakruddin Bennur represented a generation of Indian scholars who held a firm belief that the principles of democracy, secularism and socialism would gradually develop India into an egalitarian society, which did not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of caste and creed. Political developments since 1990 belied these expectations, but he remained hopeful that these trends would be reversed in due course of time.

Updated On : 6th Sep, 2018

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