In post-independent Bengal, the Muslim factor had largely remained marginal in the politics of the state for decades. But the last decade witnessed a new turn that is creating anxiety among a section of intelligentsia.
AS THE popularity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rises in West Bengal, like elsewhere in the country, the purported “appeasement” politics of the current ruling dispensation, Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamul Congress (TMC) has become one of their chief planks. In post-independent Bengal, the Muslim factor had largely remained marginal in the politics of the state for decades. But the last decade witnessed a new turn that is creating anxiety among a section of intelligentsia. In this essay, I explore the increasing nature of Muslim assertion in Bengal and its impact on politics.
Choosing to remain at margin in post-partitioned Bengal
From being in majority in the erstwhile united province of Bengal, Muslims were reduced to a minority in West Bengal, although they remained in majority in Murshidabad and Malda districts (in Nadia, too, until the influx of Hindu Bengalis). The matter was aggravated by the fact that a large number of Muslim elites – most of the big political figures from Kolkata (then Calcutta) – had chosen to move to then East Pakistan. A large community (19% during Partition and presently 27%) was thus practically rendered leaderless for coming few decades, as none of the Muslim leaders from the state could match the stature of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrwardy or Fazlul Huq. Only in later decades, leaders like Abu Barkat Ataur Ghani Khan Choudhury from Malda or Abdul Sattar from Murshidabad gained some prominence.
Politics of the time demanded that “in bitterly anti-Muslim climate of post-partition” those who stayed in India in general, but in West Bengal in particular, retreat back. They were advised to ‘mainstream’ their polity, prove their loyalty, and appear secular and nationalist. In fact, some went so far as to suggest that Muslims should be happy so long as they get security even if it comes at a cost, as second class citizen.
As decades passed, the disenchantment and anti-incumbency among different social groups impacted the Left parties, but the political narrative here never took overtly religious tones and, consequently, identity politics never grew firm roots in Bengal. After the 1964 Calcutta Riots, Bengal largely remained free from communal riots, except in 1988 at Katra or during LK Advani’s rath yatra and riots following Babri Masjid demolition, when 32 people were killed in the state capital. This provided a sense of security at a time when communal riots occurred in north India frequently.
When it came to socio-economic aspects, however, respective governments failed to take any major affirmative action for the community. Muslim-dominated villages are less likely to have access to education facilities or health care. The 2006 Sachar Committee Report noted, “The poor performance of Muslims is also observed in almost all the states, particularly in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh” (P. 56). Nonetheless, in the few decades, globalisation offered new opportunities to some sections of the community. Many of those who migrated outside their districts for work – to Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, etc. or to even gulf countries – send steady flow of money. Consequently, some have even set up their own works in villages or in the outskirts of towns, particularly in places, closer to Kolkata. That is to say, a small, confident neo-middle class is gradually emerging among Muslims in Bengal, who have aspirations for a better life.
As the TMC was trying to counter the politics of the Left Front and emerge as an alternative, its leader, Mamata Banerjee, popularly known as Didi, tried to co-opt different movements that were rearing to emerge after years of being pushed under the rug towards the fag end of the Left Front rule. She gave tickets to some of the poorest candidates, and pandered to different religious groups – Dalits, Muslims, disenchanted upper caste Hindus, et al. Not much attention has been paid to this interesting social-engineering she was trying to do to cut into votes of the Left Front, despite the debacle in 2004 general elections, when Banerjee retained the sole seat in Kolkata South.
Consequently, in 2011 assembly elections, for the first time after independence, more than 50 Muslim representatives (59) from different parties sat in the West Bengal assembly (20%), 13 more than in 2006 (which was itself highest till then). In 2016, the total figure remains at 59 but the TMC tally has risen to 32 from 25. Unhindered by criticism, in 2016 elections, she further consolidated her position among Muslims by co-opting different religious groups, from the popular shrine at Furfura Sharif to giving tickets to state president of Jamiat-e-Ulama Hind, Siddiqullah Chowdhury, and the former CPIM leader, Abdur Rezzak Mollah.
Once in power, Banerjee kept the portfolio of minority and madrasah education to herself and took many decisions that can be easily dubbed as populist, such as announcing monthly remunerations for imams and muazeins and attending annual Eid prayers or iftar party.
However, she did take some other initiatives like putting almost 87% of Muslim communities of the state in the OBC list (many of them have not been recognised by the central government yet), setting up hostels in district headquarters, scholarships under different categories for minority students, soft loans, micro-finances, schools, colleges and health clinics in Muslim dominated pockets, building a new Hajj House at New Town, etc. Although Aliah University was set up during the left rule (2008), she continued to extend generous financial support to the newly established state minority university.
Accesses to education, housing, and other resources are taken as a right by residents of a state. India also has precedence of taking affirmative action to help historically disadvantageous communities overcome backwardness. However, if any government attempts an affirmative action for Muslims, it is immediately dubbed as appeasement politics, even by the most liberal people and media.
Nonetheless, the gap is still very vast as is clear from a voluminous assessment report in 2016, Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal by Association SNAP and Guidance Guild, in association with Amartya Sen’s trust, Pratichi India, which concludes that Muslims are still “disproportionately poorer and more deprived in terms of living conditions.” It notes that about 80% of rural Muslims are “at the bottom of the economic ladder”, and nearly 47% of Muslims are either agriculture labourers or daily wage earners.
New Muslim middle class and identity assertion
A new generation of emerging middle-class Muslims, emboldened by whatever little wealth they amassed in last few decades, coupled with current populist political patronage, have increasingly become assertive and confident about their rights as equitable citizens. They have got active on social-media as well as on the streets, during protests organised by Jamaat-e-Islami in solidarity with the leaders of their counterparts in Bangladesh, who they believe were unfairly targeted, or while demanding higher remuneration for madrasah teachers or most recently to garner support in favour of triple talaq by Jamiat-e-Ulama e Hind. Moreover, the religious processions on different occasions – from Muharram to Nabi-dibas or Eid-Milad-un-Nabi – have only got bigger over the years.
Although a new, small but significant aspiring middle class has gradually emerged, Muslim leadership still largely remains in the hands of traditional clerics or strongmen from a particular area, who provide muscle power and resources to the party.
Consequently, despite need for libraries, parks, better infrastructure, affordable housing, drainage, sanitation, etc., the first thing that Muslim localities demand is permission to use loudspeakers during jalsa(socio-religious gatherings), milad or wedding parties till sometimes 4 o’clock in the morning, defying the Supreme Court order.
This creates anxiety and resentment among the majority community, although all communities get such leverages during festivities in Bengal. Durga puja was always grand in Bengal, but now even Ramnavami or Hanuman Jayanti processions (earlier not associated with Bengalis) are getting bigger.
This Muslim political, cultural, and religious assertion creates tensions on ground. Nothing explains this better than the controversy surrounding celebration of Nabi-Dibas and Sarswati puja at a school in Howrah district.
In fact, when Durga Puja and Muharram were celebrated around the same time in 2016, the state government sought to restrict the timing of immersion of idols to 4 pm, so it does not coincide with Muharram procession in the evening. However, when this was challenged in the Calcutta High Court, even the court judgement did not shy away from terming the state government’s decision as an attempt to “pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section.”
Communal fault lines, however, existed in Bengal even before independence. In her seminal work, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, Joya Chatterji has extensively documented “the construction of bhadralok communal identity” in the first half of the 20th century.
However, after the shock of partition and particularly under the Left regime, these fault-lines were pushed under the rug – barring some glaring examples – as politics was more about class and struggle for resources. The state has a history of political violence and, on many occasions, the poor party workers, who faced lathi or bullets, were Muslims – for example, Nanoor massacre of 2000 where CPIM cadres murdered 11 landless Muslim farmers.
Nonetheless, the anxiety explained above is fast turning into anti-Muslim feelings among a section of the population, and perhaps that explains the rapid rise of the BJP in the state in last couple of years.
The rise of the BJP
On May 25, 2017, a protest organised by the BJP in Kolkata turned violent as the police had to resort to lathi-charge and water-canon to control the protesters, who torched police vehicles. According media reports, around 20 thousand people had turned up at the protest.
Till only few years ago, the BJP was not even a force to reckon with in the state, but are witnessing a meteoric rise since 2014. With only 3 MLAs and 2 MPs from state in its kitty so far, BJP is now targeting states like Bengal that they have never won.
BJP hopes to emerge as the main opposition party by next elections, which may not be an impossible task if the recent by-election result of Kanthi Dakshin assembly constituency could be taken as a prelude. Although the TMC candidate won comfortably, the BJP came second with a rise in vote share to 31% from 9%. The party has appointed a former RSS pracharak, Dilip Ghosh, as the state president. There have been media reports of a spurt of activity of the RSS and the BJP in the state.
The cadre of the Left Front has almost been decimated and many of them are deserting the communist block to side not only with the TMC but also with the BJP. Since the opposition has become very weak in the state, the vacuum is being filled by the saffron party.
In contrast to senior Left leaders, who would practically find it impossible to join the BJP due to huge ideological differences, their pragmatic cadres who had been struggling for years against the TMC workers on the ground find it convenient to switch to the BJP as a survival strategy. In fact, according to political watchers, a new communal equation is evolving where the same person, acting as a TMC cadre during the day, turns into a VHP activist at night. Afraid of shifting Hindu voters, several TMC leaders and workers themselves participated in large numbers in Ramanavami celebration, although it was being organised across the state by the RSS cadres.
Like elsewhere in the country, the BJP has invested a great deal on social media, leading an aggressive campaign to discredit the TMC and its leaders, focusing on corruption charges against its leaders as well as capitalising on purported appeasement politics of Banerjee. In social media propaganda, many refer to Didi as Mumtaz Begum and use her photo at Eid prayers or iftar party. Playing on the tested formula of “Hindu victimisation”, they often use morphed photos or videos. On social media, exaggerated reports of Hindus’ persecution in neighbouring Bangladesh are often pushed as reports of communal skirmish in West Bengal. They are now even organising arms-training camps for Hindus in Muslim majority Murshidabad district, where according to media reports, they received “enthusiastic response” and around 100 youngsters from various districts of the state participated in it.
To make the matter worse, the new found identity assertion by Muslims in the state is seen by a large section of Bengali population as their radicalisation. This certainly contributes to aversion of a section of the majority population towards the TMC. The BJP has thus succeeded in changing political debates in the state that famously gave refuge to a victim of the 2002 Gujarat riots who had become the face of the anti-Muslim pogrom. Incidents like recent Basirhat riots, Dhulagarh riots, Canning riots (2013), or the violence at Kaliachak in Malda are used by the Sangh Parivar in their propaganda.
Similarly, rabid motor-mouth clerics like Maulana Nurur Rahman Barkati, who was seen as close to Didi till recently, do the community greater harm by their irresponsible statements.
The resolution, passed during the national executive meeting of the BJP in January 2017, expressed its displeasure at what it termed “extreme appeasement politics of the governments in the states,” that are leading to “severe communal tension and strife”. It had, in particular, highlighted “the failure of the TMC government in Bengal in safeguarding the majority law-abiding community… in the recent Dhulagarh riots where the rioters went about torching houses…while the state police had looked the other way.”
Since the state government has failed to produce adequate job opportunities, many educated Bengalis have begun to discuss if it is going against the interests of Bengal to always have a government that is in direct opposition with the centre. The hope of allusive achhe din has touched the erstwhile citadel of Communists as well.
Issues of illegal migration, benefits of OBC reservation going to Muslims, Banerjee’s pro-Muslim image and her purported appeasement politics are aggressively being debated in addas and drawing room discussions. Thus, the BJP seeks to directly import the politics of north India in the state and, in short term, they appear to be succeeding. It is ironical that although the TMC is now going all out to stop the spread of the BJP, it was the same party which the saffron brigade indirectly used to expand its network in the state in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When the TMC was in alliance with the NDA, BJP had used the alliance to develop grassroots workers in several panchayat levels in some pockets.
Intellectuals in Bengal are, however, resisting the onslaught of saffron politics and are invoking syncretism in the land of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. It is interesting to note here that Banerjee in the past invoked the national poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam, in her speech and has named a university, a metro station in Kolkata, a sector in New Town among others, after him. And now, even the BJP is eulogising him as a “good Hindu”.
From Dhulagarh to Basirhat, and beyond different grass-root level initiatives are being taken in an attempt to bridge the gap, not just by intellectuals but even by people from the local communities.
Nonetheless, the right-ward shift of identity politics in Bengal is a reality and the future course will largely depend on how political parties play their cards. The onus is partially on Muslim population as well to steer clear from rabid communal elements, lest it harms them more than anyone else.