Ensconced in a black sofa, single-seater, Abbas Siddiqui appears stubby with a face resembling that of a junior teacher of a high Madrasah, a higher secondary school. As he stands, he neither appears short – he could be over six feet – nor young and rather convinced about what he was saying: “I am not here to ensure Didi’s victory.”
Siddiqui has repeated the line many times as he thumps on the podium, speaking to many thousands of his Murids – the followers of a Sufi saint. He swings a bit as he talks, slowly raises the pitch and stops in between to seek approval, ‘Bolen ha ki na.’ Tell me yes or no – a time-tested technique in a jalsa, Bengal’s religio-cultural congregations – to connect with the audience. Abbas Siddiqui, who hails from the family of Sufi saints in Hooghly’s Fufura Sharif, has polarised Bengal.
The left-leaning urban class is debating if Siddiqui and his party – Indian Secular Front (ISF) – is communal or secular and whether it was ideologically wise for the Left to align with him; the Muslims are debating if he is the person to vote for – instead of Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress – facilitating BJP’s victory and the Hindu right is divided on whether it is ideologically justified to go soft on a Muslim man to win a mere election.
BJP did not have even one Muslim member in parliament in either 2014 or 2019 – a first in India which has witnessed a drop of Muslim MPs from 9% in 1980 to 4% in 2014 – and did not nominate any in Karnataka or Uttar Pradesh with substantial Muslim population. But the Hindu nationalist party is reasonably vocal about granting political space to ISF.
Sometime in the middle of last January, BJP’s state president Dilip Ghosh argued in a public meeting in Howrah district that “Abbas Siddiqui and Asaduddin Owaisi have as much right (to contest elections as BJPs; leaders). Why Didi is getting nervous, if Owaisi contests in Bengal? If she has worked for the Muslims, why is she worried?” Siddiqui interprets such comments as an attempt to “defame” him. BJP even has nominated six Muslims until the third week of March.
The population of Muslims in Bengal is a little over 27% according to the 2011 census and is expected to have risen by another 3% over the last decade. If so, then every third voter, in the state of 100 million, is a Muslim. A 2016 report on the living conditions of Muslims by Pratichi Institute of Professor Amartya Sen and SNAP, a social organisation, indicated on basis of the 2011 Census that 149 (43%) of the state’s 23 districts have more than 25% Muslims. About 20% blocks have a Muslim population of over 50% making it difficult to ignore Muslim votes like in other states.
Following the Left’s dislodgement, AITC has been accruing Muslim votes in south Bengal over the last few elections, despite a very wishy-washy minority policy. The party had given a subsidy to Imam’s and Muezzins (prayer callers) – “dividing the society”, argues Siddiqui – without any serious contribution to uplift the Muslims.
“It was a mistake,” rued one of Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim ministers, sitting in his office about two months back.
“Didi thought that Muslims are instrumental to her victory. It is partly true and partly it was the optics; wherever she went (in the initial years) Muslim boys thronged in thousands as they were extremely disappointed with the Left for multiple reasons. It possibly made her feel that she should do something for the Muslims and ended up giving a tiny stipend to the Imams.” The minister went silent, perhaps wondering why he did not stop Didi.
“I too was not sure at that point if giving a stipend to clerics is good or bad.”
She was on billboards with her head covered, hands folded in front of her face in the presence of clerics at a time when the country was riding a Hindutva wave. Oblivious to Bengal’s history, Banerjee possibly did not register the risk of offering a prayer or two in public surrounded by Muslim clerics and her ‘apparatchiks’ or routinely using words like ‘Insha’Allah’ or ‘Bismillah’ in public meetings. This cosmetic approach to associate with Muslims was systematically used against her on social media, consolidating the Hindu vote. The BJP’s Hindu vote bank witnessed an unprecedented escalation from 21% in 2014 to 57% in 2019, pointing to deep polarisation, prompting Banerjee to offer a stipend to Hindu priests and chant Chandi mantras in public meetings.
It has pleased the Hindu right, deeply disappointing the Muslims.
In essence, she messed up the main political driver of South Asia – the Hindu-Muslim relations – in a state with 30% (three million) Muslims.
‘Hindu-Muslim interests never identical in Bengal’
An authoritative book – Muslim Politics of Bengal, 1937-1947 by Sheila Sen – has argued that following the first election in 1937 and the formation of Fazlul Huq’s ministry (1937-41), one central strand of Bengal’s politics was mutual disdain which had its roots in British rule. Sen noted, Krishak Praja Party’s popular leader Fazlul Huq led a coalition government with Muslim League and managed to “strengthen its hold over the Muslim masses as well as the elite and emerged as the most representative body of the Muslims in Bengal”.
It resulted in “constant opposition and criticism of the ministry by the Hindus – Congress and non-Congress – clearly brought home to their mind that the Hindu interests and Muslim interests would never be identical in Bengal. This helped to strengthen the polarization already existing in Bengal politics.” Sen described how this animosity grew over hundreds of years, despite an eagerness to also cohabit. Nonetheless the differences were always pronounced and nearly 50 years of the Left’s rule – considering that the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) first came to power in 1967 in a complex coalition – “managed to secularise” the Bengali society, said political scientist Ranabir Samaddar.
“There was an inflow of refugees and the colony areas – Jadavpur, Bagha Jatin etc in south Kolkata – developed. Indeed there was a Hinduised development in those areas. The word secularism is problematic but I am using it here. Despite the memories of partition, division of the country or riots in Calcutta, Communists managed to secularise the society with some degree of enlightened policies, by preaching tolerance, peaceful coexistence,” said Prof Samaddar in an earlier interview to the author.
The Left never let Muslims grow in electoral politics. Iqbal A Ansari’s Political Representation of Muslims in India (1952-2004) indicated between 1977-2001, during the peak of the Left’s rule, the percentage of Muslim members in the state’s assembly was near constant, between 12.5 to 13.5%, despite the population being 20-23%. The Left knew well that the interests of the communities “would never be identical in Bengal” and any visible escalation of Muslims in the assembly or the workplace will also enhance the deep anxieties of the majority community. The Sachar Committee report (2006) indicated that a mere 4.2% Muslims had government jobs with a 25% population.
AITC’s systematic mishandling
Being unaware of Bengal’s history, AITC and its chief not only introduced stipends for clerics but also augmented the Musalman’s participation in politics. In 2011 – when AITC came to power – Muslim representation went up to 20% in assembly, with majority of MLAs from the ruling party. It remained the same in 2016 but expected to fall in 2021 as AITC nominated 46 Muslims in 2021 compared to 57 in 2016.
However, it did not help the Muslims much, argued a section of the community. They argue, Muslims’ living condition has not improved. In their report Pratichi Institute and SNAP indicated that the literacy rate of Muslims is “7 per cent lower” than the state’s average, while the number of health facilities are substantially low in Muslim majority administrative units in the state. Muslim participation in government jobs – went up from 4.2% in 2006 to only 5.73% in 2015. Muslims eventually started aligning with identity based politics, argued Sabir Ahamed, national research coordinator with the Pratichi Institute.
“Barring few areas – like Muslim participation in primary education, minor uptick in jobs or stalling of major communal incidents – overall condition of the Muslims has hardly improved, 15 years after 2006 Justice Sachar Committee report (on socio-economic status of minorities in 2006) underscored the deprivation. Many thus are willing to vote for Muslim identity based political outfits. But they also are apprehensive if it would open doors for the Hindu right in the state for the first time,” Ahamed said. This has led to the rise of an identity-centric movement capitalised by Abbas Siddiqui in Bengal.
How Abbas may damage AITC
However, neither Siddiqui nor any other political party members are sure about Muslim votes – if the community would vote for ISF enhancing BJP’s chances in south Bengal or they would stick to AITC. Opinions are divided.
The Siddiqui supporters believe that the fear of Hindutva has never let a Muslim leader or party grow in post-1947 Bengal and the time is best suited to have a party of their own which would speak for Dalits and the indigenous population as well. The others believe it would split Muslim votes – like in Assam in 2016 – facilitating BJP’s victory in ‘deep south’ of Bengal.
The four ‘deep south’ districts of West Bengal, South and North 24 Parganas, East and West Medinipur – with 95 (32%) of 294 seats – are AITC’s stronghold owing to a very long history of land and peasants’ movement. AITC is nearly unbeatable in South 24 Parganas with about 35% Muslim votes. In its worst electoral performance since 2011 AITC bagged 31 out of 31 assembly segments in South 24 Parganas in 2019 national poll. It is a dampener for the BJP, considering it bagged 121 assembly segments in 2019.
The BJP has damaged AITC substantially in deep north Bengal’s seven districts and ‘Rahr Bangla’ – the Bengal between middle districts and the deep south – but AITC managed to retain its base by scoring 82 out of 95 (2016) and 74 out of 95 (2019) in ‘deep south’. If Siddiqui can damage AITC in South and North 24 Parganas and the renegade of Purba (east) Medinipur – Subhendu Adhikari – in his home turf, AITC may succumb.
The Hindu right – thus – depends to a reasonable extent on a young Muslim cleric to dislodge AITC in its core area in the 2021 assembly elections.
Suvojit Bagchi is a senior Journalist who has previously worked with BBC and The Hindu.