Kolkata: On August 10, a group of Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporters allegedly heckled Abbas Siddiqui.
Siddiqui is a pirzada – a pir’s son or religious leader – of Furfura Sharif, one of the most popular Islamic religious institutions in West Bengal. He had recently revealed plans for launching a political party to represent the interests of the Muslims and Dalits and to field candidates in at least 44 seats in the 2021 assembly elections.
Video clips circulating on social media showed a group of purported TMC supporters encircling a house at Bhangar area where Siddiqui came to pay a visit to one of his followers. The agitators were seen hurling threats and abuses at Siddiqui and slamming the windows of the house. The heckling followed with protests, including road blockades, by Siddiqui’s supporters in some places. A section of Muslim leaders condemned the attack.
Saokat Mollah, the TMC’s Canning East MLA who allegedly masterminded the heckling of Siddiqui, accused the religious leader of ‘spreading terrorist ideology’ and acting on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s behalf.
“He is trying to brainwash the Muslim youths just like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Kashmir-based terrorist organisations do,” alleged Mollah. “No one touched him. People merely protested. He is spreading lies and trying to serve the BJP’s purpose,” Mollah said.
Siddiqui, who had earlier triggered controversies with conservative remarks, rubbished Mollah’s charges.
“The TMC is trying to hold Muslims as ransom by propagating fear of the BJP. My followers have been facing TMC’s atrocities over the past few months and the attack on me was a culmination of this escalating tension. This will be avenged in the elections,” said Siddiqui, who heads the Furfura Sharif chapter of Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat, an Islamic sect.
Siddiqui later submitted a deputation to Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who, incidentally, had accused Mamata Banerjee of ‘shameless Muslim appeasement’ a few months ago.
The TMC did not take the incident lightly and organised, on August 16, a massive gathering – largely violating COVID-19 lockdown protocols – at the same place where Siddiqui was allegedly heckled. At the event, Saokat Mollah, TMC’s Bhangar strongman Arabul Islam and TMC Rajya Sabha MP Subhashis Chakraborty blasted Siddiqui for spreading communal hatred and working at the BJP’s behest.
A majority of Bengal’s influential Muslim faces remained silent on the heckling. Siddiqui did not even find two of his uncles – senior Furfura Sharif clerics Tawha Siddiqui and Yusuf Siddiqui – beside him.
Meanwhile, the BJP state unit president Dilip Ghosh has referred to Abbas Siddiqui as a ‘respectable person’ and condemned the heckling. CPI(M) state unit secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra, too condemned the attack, described Siddiqui as ‘a relentless fighter for the unity of the oppressed young people’. Mishra has also demanded the arrest of Saokat Mollah.
While Furfura Sharif has a history of influencing election results, none of its religious leaders have joined electoral politics. The aspirations of Abbas Siddiqui are therefore a first.
Siddiqui, however, is not the only Muslim leader to take on the Mamata Banerjee government in the recent months. The Hyderabad-based All India Majlis Ettehad e Mussalmeen (AIMIM) is also alleging that the state’s TMC government is allowing them no space and implicating its organisers in false cases to foil AIMIM’s planned launch in Bengal.
“The TMC is going all-out to prevent our entry into Bengal but we have made our preparations despite that. Party president Asaduddin Owaisi is expected to announce a formal committee for the state very soon. As of now, we are contesting the Bengal elections,” said Syed Asim Waqar, AIMIM’s national spokesperson and Bengal in-charge.
Political observers feel the recent developments reveal the TMC’s anxieties about a possible split in the Muslim votes should these organisations gain grounds. The TMC is heavily depending on Muslims, who form 27% of the state’s population, to return to power for a third term.
Muslims and Bengal politics
The historical backwardness of Muslims in Bengal has generally been attributed to two factors – the origin of Bengali Muslims, many of whom converted from lower Hindu castes, and the Permanent Settlement of 1793.
According to the Census of 1872 and 1901, William Hunter’s 1871 book The Indian Mussalmans, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar’s History of Medieval Bengal (1973), and Richard M Eaton’s 1993 publication, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1204–1760), large-scale conversion from Hindu lower castes and outcasts helped Muslims outnumber Hindus in Bengal by 1881. Since these conversions continued even after Muslims lost their rule to the British and prestige to the Hindus, historians gave more stress on voluntary conversions due to the Hindu caste system than on the forced conversions during the five centuries of Islamic rule.
These converts, who mostly came from the socio-economically weaker sections, made up the vast majority of Bengali Muslims.
William Hunter’s book pinpointed the Permanent Settlement of 1793 as the decisive blow that ruined Bengal’s Muslim aristocracy by reorganising the revenue collection system. “The whole tendency of the Settlement was to acknowledge as the land-holders the subordinate Hindu officers who dealt directly with the husbandmen,” he wrote. According to him, it was in lower Bengal among the whole of India where “Muhammadans have suffered most severely under the British rule.”
The Permanent Settlement and other reforms subsequently triggered the Muslims’ alienation from and disaffection towards the British government and education, and led to the gradual decline of the Muslim society. Muslims found no employment in the Army, had no more role in the collection of taxes, found too few appointments in government offices, and the end of the Islamic legal system rendered more people jobless.
“If ever a people stood in need of a career, it is the Musalman aristocracy of lower Bengal,” Hunter wrote, and added, “There is now scarcely a government office in Calcutta in which a Muhammadan can hope for any post of above the rank of porter, messenger, filler of ink-pots and mender of pens.”
This socio-economic decline of the Muslims simultaneous to their increase in numbers eventually led to the birth of Muslim separatism at the turn of the 20th century, which was first reflected in Muslim-dominated eastern Bengal’s lukewarm response to the call of Swadeshi movement (1905-1911) against the first Partition of Bengal, and then with the Muslims’ demand for a separate electorate in 1909.
According to Koushiki Dasgupta, with the Partition of Bengal on religious lines in 1947, a large number of the wealthy Muslims – most of who were Urdu-speaking traders – went to East Pakistan, leaving West Bengal with mostly a community of peasant Muslims.
In post-Independence West Bengal, Hindu political parties Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad contested the elections with little or no success. But no Muslim political party was in the fray at all, until the birth of the short-lived Progressive Muslim League in 1969. Bengal’s Muslims preferred either the Congress or the communists.
However, despite the Congress’s rule of two decades and a half and the Left’s uninterrupted 34 years, the socio-economic status of the Muslims did not improve much, as was evident with the publication of the report of Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee in 2006. It revealed, among other aspects, that while Muslims made 25% of the state’s population in 2001, Muslim representation in government jobs was a mere 4.2% and they occupied only 5% of the ‘key positions’ in the judiciary.
The publication of the Sachar Committee report along with the Left Front government’s land acquisition drive in two areas dominated by Muslims – Nandigram and Bhangar – are mostly cited as the triggers of Muslim disenchantment with the three decade-long Left rule. Their swing towards Mamata Banerjee – with Islamic religious leaders crowding her daises onwards 2008 – played a pivotal role behind the TMC’s historic success in 2011.
According to sociologist Abhijit Dasgupta, a former head of the department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics, Bengal politics witnessed a tectonic shift in 2007-08 when Muslims, for the first time, started asserting themselves as a political block. He said that revelations of the Sachar Committee report was a key factor behind the Muslim assertion of their identity as a political block, something that they did not resort to since the Partition.
“Since 2007-08, Banerjee’s way of directly addressing them as a community has increased their aspirations, while the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has increased their communal insecurity and anxieties. Even though she has taken some significant steps towards meeting the Sachar Committee recommendations, she has altogether given more lip-services. Muslims of Bengal are standing at a critical juncture and that’s one of the reasons new players are trying to exploit the turbulent Bengali Muslim mind,” Dasgupta said.
Mamata Banerjee and the Muslim vote-bank
The TMC chief, who had been in alliance with the BJP on and off between 1998 and 2007, started making overtures to the Muslim population, and especially its religious leadership, after testing her first success in getting Muslim votes – in Nandigram and Bhangar in the 2008 panchayat elections. Banerjee was seen wrapping her saree around her head emulating a hijab at Muslim functions.
Since coming to power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee announced the establishment of hundreds of new madrasas, monthly stipend for the Imams and their helpers (muezzins), included majority of Bengal’s Muslim population under the Other Backward Communities (OBCs) – which was a recommendation of the Sachar Committee – and controversially tried to restrict Durga idol immersion processions to facilitate rehearsals of Muharram processions.
It is through their campaigns against Mamata Banerjee’s ‘appeasement of the Muslims’ that the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), started gaining grounds in West Bengal since 2013.
With the BJP’s rise at the Centre and in Bengal after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Muslims votes further consolidated in favour of the TMC, as was evident from the 2016 Assembly election results. Analysis of the 2019 Lok Sabha election results revealed a near-complete polarisation of Muslim votes in favour of the TMC, except in two districts. Significantly, these districts are the two of Bengal three Muslim-majority districts – Murshidabad and Malda.
The TMC, therefore, is aware that it not only has to retain the existing Muslim votes but has also to win over Malda and Murshidabad, which together have 34 of the state’s 294 Assembly seats. In 2016, when the Left and the Congress fought in alliance, TMC won only six of these 34 seats. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, TMC won only two of the five Lok Sabha seats in these two districts, while the Congress won two and one went to the BJP, courtesy a split in the Muslim votes.
The BJP impact
The massive Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions organised by various organisations affiliated to the RSS, and joined by BJP leaders, in 2017, had left Mamata Banerjee puzzled. She sensed the formation of a Hindu polarisation in favour of the BJP. She initially tried to dub Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti as ‘north Indian culture’, ‘alien to Bengal’; but later made her party compete with the saffron camp in organising Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti functions. TMC leaders were also seen organising conferences of Hindu priests, felicitating Hindu religious singers and taking on greater participation in Hindu religious festivals.
However, amid all her overtures for the Hindus, she took no such step that could irk the Muslims. Apart from vehemently opposing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) throughout 2018-19, she firmly stood against the CAA, taking the risk of antagonising a section of Hindu migrants who hoped to gain from the legislation.
When the Tablighi Jamaat event at Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi (March 2020) hogged the headlines in national and regional media, her was the only government that did not made details about Markaz-returnees to the state public. She said, “It’s not a communal virus,” and blamed the Centre of callousness for letting the gathering happen.
In August, her government changed the dates for day-long complete lockdown in the month four times in as many days to ensure they did not fall on days of Hindu and Muslim religious festivals, including Rakhi, Janmashtami, Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi. But the government did not heed the BJP’s repeated demands for withdrawing the lockdown on August 5, the day of Ram temple’s bhoomi pujan.
Voices critical of Mamata Banerjee from among the state’s Muslim leaders started getting louder soon after the BJP’s stupendous electoral performance in Bengal in 2019 – when the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally rose from two to 18 and the TMC’s dwindled from 34 to 22.
The likes of Abbas Siddiqui and Md Kamruzzaman, the president of Minority Youth Forum, launched a sustained campaign against the Mamata Banerjee government, accusing it of giving the Muslims nothing in return despite receiving their fullest support. The AIMIM, having stepped up activities to launch a party in Bengal, pegged their campaign on similar lines.
Recently, Abbas Siddiqui, Kamruzzaman and AIMIM’s Bengal organisers expressed their deep concerns over recruitment in teaching positions in government-run English-medium madrasas. List of appointees in geography, history and English had only eight Muslim names among the 36. Muslim leaders questioned the government’s decision of conducting the recruitment process through the Public Service Commission, instead of the Madrasah Service Commission.
“I condemn the attack on Abbas Siddiqui. However, it would not be right to blame Mamata Banerjee for Muslims getting fewer appointments than Hindus in the madrasas. Historically, a majority of Hindus have made up the teaching staff in the government-run madrasas,” said Md. Yahiya, the chairman of the Bengal Imam’s Association.
According to Yahiya, Muslims benefitted from Banerjee’s rule as much as the Hindus did. “She did no special favour to the Muslims and there was no particular discrimination towards the Muslims either. Muslims benefited from her social welfare schemes and infrastructure development projects, and suffered from corruption and highhandedness of TMC leaders, as much as the Hindus did,” Yahiya said.
Political analysts Biswanath Chakraborty and Maidul Islam said they suspect the BJP’s hand behind the sudden escalation in the activities of the likes of Abbas Siddiqui and AIMIM organisers. Also, the revelation of the TMC’s critical dependence on Muslim votes may have prompted these leaders to bargain with the TMC.
According to Islam, who teaches political science at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, Banerjee’s nine-year rule has seen the TMC giving importance to mostly the Urdu-speaking urban Muslims as leaders, whereas more than 85% of Bengal Muslim population are Bengali-speaking and rural.
“The TMC’s failure in bringing Bengali-speaking, progressive Muslim faces have left a scope for disassociation and disenchantment with the rural Muslims. Fringe Muslim organisations are trying to benefit from it. These fringe organisations mostly profess to conservative views and their assertion of the communal identity would help the BJP further polarise the Hindus,” he said.
“What TMC needs at the moment is progressive and Bengali-speaking Muslim faces who would speak less on the religious grounds and more on economic issues and the Bengali identity,” Islam said.
Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, said that despite growing discontent among a section of Bengal’s Muslims against the TMC rule, the state’s political situation is likely to prevent a split in Muslim votes.
“There are marginal farmers who now think they were better off under the Left rule. Muslims have also suffered the most due to political violence. The BJP is trying to secretly back fringe organisations to fuel discontent among the Muslims. However, Bengal’s political situation is such that the Muslims are likely to vote for the TMC in bulk simply to keep the BJP at bay,” Chakraborty said.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist and author.