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Muslims of West Bengal:
Glorious past, tattered present
By Muzammil Ahmad

Muslims of Bengal, who had a brilliant history of independence, governance and political freedom along with economic prosperity before Independence, are now facing economic deprivation. Bengal had been under the rule of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, Ali Wardi Khan and Nawab Sirajuddaulah.

Bengal was famous by the name of ‘Fertile Bengal’ on account of its agricultural products like jute and paddy. District Barisal of East Bengal was called as the granary of Bengal. This economic success and prosperity gave birth to the well-known humanitarian and philanthropist of Distt. Hooghly of West Bengal, Haji Muhammad Muhsin whose invaluable contribution and devotion to the educational progress of Indian Muslims will be written in letters of gold in the history of Indian Muslims. Before the partition of India there were two provinces which were under Muslim rule, one of which was Bengal.

In spite of this glorious heritage, Muslims of Bengal are now considered extremely poor and fit for ordinary labour. In spite of being skillful in various artistic activities or professions, Muslims of West Bengal are leading a life of poverty and deprivation. Business groups are exploiting them by giving meagre wages.

Giving a sketch of Muslim deprivation in Bengal, MKA Siddiqui writes: In Calcutta, which is one of the biggest cities of India and where Muslims are 15 percent of the population, 60 percent of rickshaw and hand-cart pullers, 90 percent of bidi makers and 100 percent of those engaged in embroidery work are Muslims. Their disproportionate employment in ordinary professions and extremely low representation in profitable arts, crafts and services is indicative of their social and economic condition. The number of Muslim capitalists in West Bengal who can manage their own trade is extremely low.

Bengal’s association with Islam had started much earlier than its conquest in the thirteenth century. Many Muslim thinkers and scholars are believed to have lived in Bengal much before its conquest. Islam had spread widely in rural areas. Many social, religious and political factors are believed to have given rise to the spread of Islam in Bengal. The preachers of Islam got very good opportunities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries for preaching and spreading Islam.

The noteworthy feature of the 1872 statistics of Bengal was that almost half of Bengal’s population, i.e., 48 percent, was Muslim, the majority of whom lived in rural areas. During the decade of 1941-51 political and historical factors changed the boundaries of the country. This also affected the population of present-day Bengal in India. A large number of Muslims left those regions which formed ‘West Bengal’ after partition and migrated to the Eastern part of Pakistan which subsequently came into existence as ‘Bangladesh’ in 1971.

According to the 1981 census, the total Muslim population in West Bengal was 11,743,259 of which 6,100,517 were males and 5,642,742 females. The districts with high percentage of Muslim population are Murshidabad, Malda, Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, 24-Parganas and Hooghly where Muslims are between 40 and 60 percent but in Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur they are more than 60 percent.

The economic condition of Muslims in West Bengal is not good. According to a survey, 70 percent of Muslims are living below the poverty line. Their ratio in various profitable trades and services vis-a-vis the total population is extremely low.

Under these circumstances there is a silver lining. Both the public as well as the Government are taking initiatives to improve the worsening educational condition of Muslims. As far as the Government is concerned, the Central Government has set up a Minorities Commission to focus attention on the difficulties of Muslims. Conditions have started improving , though not to the desired extent. As regards the steps taken by the public, the All-India Educational Move-ment has recently been established through the efforts of former AMU VC Saiyid Hamid. This movement has organized various conferences and seminars.

A body of Muslims has founded in 1984 an educational trust-‘Islamic Educational and Welfare Trust.’ In addition to this, some other organizations have taken notable steps for the improvement and welfare of Muslims.q

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