The two-and-a-half crore Muslims of West Bengal, whose ancestors chose in 1947 not to follow their community’s ‘sole spokesman’ Muhammad Ali Jinnah to land up in the-then East Pakistan, are now caught in an existential crisis.
Though mostly representing the state’s peasant stock—it’s only recently that the green shoots of a middle class are germinating—the community was taken for granted by successive governments as a ‘vote bank’ and nothing more. With their 28% votes that, by popular imagination, were thought to be driven in a single file—the general direction being towards the secular option that is likeliest to win — West Bengal’s Muslims enjoyed a trouble-free existence.
Their representation in the government and social platforms, of course, remained limited. Under the supposedly secular CPI(M), which ruled the state for 34 years, the Bengal unit’s topmost troika or quartet never had a Muslim (Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the founders of the communist movement, died in 1973).
The stark fact of the community’s low representation among the lawmakers and in public employment in the country first came out in Justice Rajinder Sachar’s report in 2006; the record of West Bengal was even lower than the nation’s. A study by economist Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust, conducted across Bengal as late as in 2016, showed that only 2.7% of the state’s literate Muslims held a graduate degree, and 80% of the Muslim households in rural West Bengal had monthly income of Rs 5,000 or less.
The fact that even such a marginalised community could kindle Hindu ire, “Muslim appeasement” being the main ground for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) beating out its state rival Trinamool Congress (TMC) in an unprecedented 18 of the 42 seats, shows two things. First, Trinamool leader and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s strategy of making an exhibition of her sympathy for Muslims boomeranged as it irked the majority community so much that it decided to shake off its general indifference and “teach her a lesson” on the EVM. But by far the strongest prodding to Hindu communal feelings came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s powerful oratory, and the strategic control of the electoral battlefield masterminded by Amit Shah, then BJP national president and now home minister.
The communal feeling of the Bengali Hindu, as mentioned above, is different from that of the Hindu from Maharashtra or Gujarat. It comes historically from cultural snobbery. In undivided Bengal, the Hindu was often the vassal, or even the feudal lord, while the serf, or proja, was Muslim. A veil of indifference separated the master from the proja.
The British, through the Communal Award of 1932, tapped into the seams of the Bengali Hindu pride. For Bengal provincial elections, as many as 117 seats were reserved for Muslims while there were 70 seats in the general category. Historian Joya Chatterjee, in her book Bengal Divided, cites the secretary of state for India, Marquess of Zetland, who served as governor of Bengal and therefore knew the people, pointing out that “it (the Communal Award) will enormously increase communal bitterness” and “it will create (among the Hindus) a sense of injustice which will not easily be forgiven or forgotten”. He was correct as the segregated electorates tore away the feudal veil between Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims, and they fought on and on in the elections and in the killing fields of Calcutta or Noakhali in 1946. The rivalry changed its nature with the 1947 partition, which at last separated the rebellious serf from the humiliated master.
In the Indian part of the truncated Bengal, the Muslims’ numerical inferiority in a way reverted them to their old marginalisation. They were a quarter of the population, and now marching towards getting a third. Yet they are a ‘non-people’. Seldom do they live with Hindus in an apartment block or join the same club.
Much of it appeared to change since 2011, when Mamata came to power. It was her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, a reform-minded communist, who had laboured for long against his party’s entrenched bureaucracy to implement a key recommendation of Sachar, that of including Muslim groups in the OBC category. “It was a positive step for which the Muslims of Bengal will remember Buddhadeb,” says Abdus Sattar, former member of the Left Front cabinet, who has now shifted to the Congress.
But Bhattacharya lost the election, and, as Mamata replaced him, she was quick enough to turn it into law. She claims 90% of West Bengal Muslims are now counted as OBC. It has led to a small but visible rise of Muslim employment in government service — from 3.4%, as Sachar reported, to 5.73% now. “Following Muslim inclusion in the OBC category, there is a perceptible rise in the presence of Muslim students in university and college campuses,” says Syed Tanveer Nasreen, head of the department of history and women’s studies at Burdwan University.
But Muslims are far from being equal yet to Hindus of Bengal by the social, economic or political yardstick. To achieve proportionate representation of the minority community, the government requires both will and resources. Unfortunately, Banerjee chose to cut corners. Wrongly thinking that Muslims are always and everywhere led by their clerics, she arm-twisted the exchequer to pay allowances to the mullahs and even the muezzins. Till recently, come Eid and she had to do an interminable round of Iftar parties with, inexplicably, a hijab on her head. The very sight of every non-Muslim biker in Kolkata riding with a helmet, but the one with the Islamic skullcap zipping down unfazed, invariably attracted expletives aimed at the chief minister rather than the rider.
Sattar argues that even though Mamata has “wrong notions about social equality”, the community stood by her for security. In the final three days of voting, from May 6 onwards, when 24 seats went to poll, Muslims, as Sattar says, were “electrified” by reports of the BJP sweeping across north Bengal and they “rallied round”. It is largely due to their rearguard action that the BJP could not dent the TMC citadel in and around Kolkata, nor could it nick into Banerjee’s other bastions, the Purba Medinipur district of rich farmers and the Dalit-inhabited South 24 Parganas district.
However, Mamata befriended the community over many years for their votes, not much else. She got their support on the understanding that she’d keep commanding substantial Hindu support to stay in power. The loss of 18 seats to the BJP means that she is failing to live up to her end of the bargain. If she falters in 2021, when Assembly elections are due, and the BJP captures power, the Muslims have few options. Some of them are fraternising the local ‘saffron’ leader clenching fists to forget where they figure in the RSS scheme of things. But that’s unlikely to work nor can they fight the city hall. They will recall Zetland’s foreboding that their Hindu neighbours may not “forgive or forget” such crimes as riding in the city without helmet.
(Sumit Mitra is a political analyst and independent journalist)
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