Bengal: Can the Furfura Sharif Cleric's New Party Erode TMC's Support Base?

Abbas Siddiqui is a popular preacher with a distinct supporter base. But will this yield dividends in the election?

Kolkata: The cleric of the prominent religious shrine Furfura Sharif, Abbas Siddiqui, launched his political party the Indian Secular Front (ISF) on Thursday at the Kolkata Press Club.

“We believed in Mamata and supported her. But we feel deceived now, her party created a divide between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. So, I thought let’s not depend on others this time and form our own party,” said ISF’s chief patron Siddiqui.

The 34-year-old preacher has significant clout on social media and has, of late, been drawing huge crowds at meetings. Furfura Sharif is in Bengal’s Hooghly district. Siddiqui has been speaking out against the state government, holding it responsible for corruption and underdevelopment of Muslims.

On January 3, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) supremo Asaduddin Owaisi came to Kolkata to meet Abbas Siddiqui and chalk out a plan for the upcoming assembly elections in the state. After the meeting, while interacting with reporters, the AIMIM chief said, “We will work with Abbas Siddiqui. We will work behind him and support whatever decision he takes.” Ever since this meeting, Siddiqui has become a talking point in Bengal politics.

Owaisi had earlier stated that his party would contest the assembly elections in West Bengal. A section of political experts in Bengal believe that Owaisi joining hands with Siddiqui could pose a threat to Trinamool Congress and could make a dent in the ruling party’s minority vote bank.

However, there is more to Siddiqui’s politics and the upcoming assembly polls will likely not be a cakewalk for him.

Twenty-six-year-old Sabir Ali from Uluberia works as a carpenter in different parts of Kolkata and frequents Siddiqui’s meetings. When asked if he would vote for Siddiqui’s party, he said, “He is not a political leader. For us, he is a religious leader. He should not have entered politics. This is not just my view; many think similarly. We attend his meetings but this doesn’t mean we will vote for him.”

Also read: Owaisi Joining Hands with Abbas Siddiqui Could be a Red Flag for Mamata Banerjee

Muslim politics in Bengal

Bengal’s Furfura Sharif is considered among the holiest mazars in the country. There are over a dozen spiritual leaders from the shrine, including Abbas Siddique and his uncle Toha Siddique, who hold significant sway over their followers.

The political dynamics of Furfura Sharif are complex as the Siddique family has been engaged in a power struggle over property. This has had an impact on their followers.

“Disciples of Furfura Sharif are divided between Abbas Siddique and Toha Siddique (Abbas’s uncle), so no one has complete control,” Maidul Islam, a professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata told The Wire.

Additionally, the rise in popularity of the Tablighi Jamaat, an international Sunni Islamic missionary movement, over the years has coincided with a decline in Furfura Sharif’s influence over followers.

Among the other Muslim organisations is the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, which has considerable influence in Bengal. It’s Bengal unit president Siddiqullah Chowdhury is a minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet.

Asaduddin Owaisi (L) and Abbas Siddiqui (R) meeting on Sunday. Photo: Twitter/Asaduddin Owaisi

Chowdhury has significant control over the minority community, and the organisation he represents controls a wide network of mosques and madrasas across Bengal. Chowdhury also played a crucial role against the 2007 land acquisition movement in Nandigram, where he mobilised Muslims peasants in the East Midnapore district against the Left Front government.

Samirul Islam of Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, an apolitical group working on social issues, told The Wire, “If Abbas Siddique can successfully forge an alliance with the Congress-Left group and AIMIM, only then can it have some impact electorally.”

Fear of CAA-NRC

Since the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in parliament, and with the fear of the planned National Register of Citizens (NRC) looming large, fear amongst members of the Muslim community in Bengal, which constitutes over 27% of the state’s population is palpable.

Also read: How AIMIM Has Emerged As the Principal Challenger of the BJP, Not ‘Secular’ Parties

A recent visit by this reporter to parts of the South and North 24 Parganas, which has significant Muslim population, revealed that a large section in the community believe that the 2021 assembly election are extremely crucial and that they should do everything to stop BJP from coming to power in Bengal.

“Stakes are really high this time, people are aware of it. We know that if BJP comes to power here [Bengal], our life will be hell,” Firoz Mondal of Andulpota village of Bashirhat II block told The Wire.

Speaking to The Wire, a senior leader from TMC, who didn’t wish to be named, said, “Muslims from Murshidabad, Malda, North Dinajpur, are historically aligned with Congress. But in the last one year or so, especially after CAA, they have shifted towards TMC in a huge number. This is because they now understand that only TMC can fight against BJP and stop them from coming to power.”

CSSS professor Maidul Islam said that Muslims in Bengal have gained on various counts during Mamata Banerjee’s rule and with the issue of CAA-NRC looming large, they “won’t shift” allegiances that easily. “At best, the Siddique-AIMIM combine could be a spoiler by eating into TMC’s vote share in some pockets,” he said.

“There is no doubt that Abbas Siddiqui is quite popular in some districts owing to his lineage and also the political language he is speaking. But how much of that will be covert into votes would be difficult to say. As of now, I don’t see anyone other than Bhaijan (Abbas Siddiqui) as a winnable candidate if they can forge an alliance, but it seems certain that he may cut into a few thousand votes in some constituencies in this crucial election,” Mohammad Reyaz, head of the department of mass communications at Aliah University, Kolkata told The Wire.