Bengal polls 2021: Fear and anxiety among Muslims, but also a new churning to challenge binaries
It is the third day of Ramzan. Farida and her husband have just broken their fast. They offer their visitor from Delhi an assortment of jol khabar (teatime snacks) served in delicate bone china crockery. There is an air of genteel calm in their drawing room. The polished red oxide cement floor, the ebony and glass showcase filled with silver enamelled artefacts, the unflashy furniture and the understated carpets, evoke an old-world charm far removed from the raucous din of Park Circus a stone’s throw away.
Farida’s husband – let us call him Farooq – traces his ancestry to Avadh but has lived in Calcutta all his life. It is a city he loves without reservation, a city where his religion or his language never made him feel alien. On the first day of Ramzan, he tells us, a Hindu Punjabi neighbour sent a platter of food for iftar. The next day, haleem came from the home of a Sikh friend. This year’s Ramzan is special – their younger daughter will keep the first roza of her life. In Muslim homes, a girl’s first ever day of fasting -- known as roza khushai – is celebrated with a big feast after sunset. Although the festivities will be scaled down this year on account of the raging pandemic, Farooq makes it a point to mention that a “Bengali Hindu” friend is sending across choice Bengali sweets for the occasion.
“This is the city I grew up in, a city full of love and affection,” he says, and wonders how long it will remain that way. Though he speaks in gentle tones, never raising his voice in agitation or anger, he admits being horrified by “the amount of poison, the anti-Muslim venom, the lies and fabrications” being spread via Whatsapp, and often echoed by colleagues he had never suspected of harbouring such prejudices.
The prospects of BJP coming to power fill him with dread and despondency. So even if he and Farida are not unabashed admirers of Mamata Banerjee and even less so of the TMC, they have “no choice” but to vote for the incumbent party.
Nasir Ali and Jamat Ali live in a very different world – bereft of both refined elegance and quiet despair. Their fear is raw, their anger vocal. Nasir is perched inside a hole-in-the-wall kiosk selling pan and bidi in a small junction called Horibari that falls under the Haroa assembly constituency in North 24 Parganas. “Ekhane aamra chirokal ek thala te bhaat khai, (Here we all eat from the same plate),” he says. There is no question that “Didi” will sweep Haroa for one reason and one reason alone: “The BJP is out to divide people; Didi stands for unity.” Jamat Ali, a much older man who joins in the conversation, is seething with anger. Many of the villagers in these parts make a living out of fishing in the bheris that abound. Others till the soil. “We have lived here for generations. This is our land. This is our water,” he says. But their way of life, their life itself is under threat if the BJP wins. “Haven’t you heard the speeches of Dilip Ghosh?” he asks, and he almost breaks down with the lament: “Ora jodi aashe, NRC kore aamader taraabe, taraabe, taraabe. (If they come, they will use the NRC to kick us out).”
Farooq and Nasir have very little in common. But in this assembly election, every effort is being made by political leaders and the media alike to bracket them together, to see all Muslims as one monolithic whole. If the blatantly divisive speeches by local and visiting BJP leaders are aimed at stoking animus among the majority community against an undifferentiated Muslim “other”, Mamata Banerjee has cast herself as their sole protector and is banking heavily on a “consolidated” Muslim vote to secure a third term in office.
But as we travel through some of the Muslim dominated areas of Bengal, it soon becomes clear that the reality on the ground is far more complex than what the pundits of polarization assume; that beyond the emotions of fear and anxiety there is also a new churning within the Muslim community that challenges the double binary of Hindu versus Muslim, BJP versus TMC.
We first get a glimpse of it further down the road from Horibari. In Aminpur Bazar, also in the Haroa assembly constituency, a large group of men in a roadside chai stall speak out strongly in favour of Mamata Banerjee. But even while attacking the BJP, their bigger target is “Bhaijaan” – the popular name for Abbas Siddiqui who heads the Indian Secular Front (ISF) which has joined hands with the Left and the Congress to form the Samyukta Morcha, colloquially referred to as “Jot.”
Their anger is understandable because the main fight in Haroa is not between the TMC and BJP but the TMC and ISF. Most of the people we meet do not even know the name of the BJP candidate. They only speak of Haji Nurul Islam, the sitting TMC MLA who is contesting again and his principal challenger, Qutubbudin Fatehi of the ISF. If the supporters of the TMC are more fervent in Haroa, it is the converse in the neighbouring constituency of Bashirhaat North. The trees and lamp posts that line the road that snakes through this seat are festooned with the ISF’s blue, green and white flag embossed with the image of a large white envelope.
In a small marketplace called Swaroopnagar which falls under the seat, there is a chorus of voices rooting for ISF candidate Baijid Amin. One reason is that the TMC’s Rofiqul Islam Mondol is seen as a turncoat. He had narrowly won the seat last time as a CPM candidate but has since switched over to the TMC. But won’t a division of votes between the TMC and ISF help the BJP win? An elder in the group patiently explains why they have no such fear. “There is no BJP here. Have you seen a single BJP poster? The party does not even have workers to put up posters. Here it is hadda haddi lorai between Rofiqul and Baijid.”
“Hadda haddi lorai” is a phrase we come across in yet another constituency in the district. The phrase, whose Hindi equivalent (kante ki takkar) is a stock response of voters in north India, denotes a very close contest between two strong candidates. In the Deganga seat in the same district, we are told that the “hadda haddi lorai” is between TMC’s Rohima Mondol and ISF’s Karim Ali. The third contender in the fray is Hasanujjaman Chowdhury – but he belongs to the Forward Bloc and not the BJP. Here too, there is little fear that a three-way division of the Muslim vote might help the BJP candidate Deepika Chatterjee.
While TMC supporters decry Bhaijaan as a “BJP dalal” or dismiss him as a passing phenomenon with no roots on the ground, many ordinary voters seem to be drawn to the ISF because of their disenchantment with the TMC. The Muslim dominated belt across the districts of North and South 24 Parganas faced the brunt of the Amphan cyclone, and the mismanagement of Amphan relief funds is a raw wound that is yet to heal. We hear the same complaints of “cut money” culture and TMC “goondagiri” that was voiced by voters in other parts of the state. As Azizul Islam, a shopkeeper in Deganga, cynically puts it: “Jodi CPM chilo ek nombor chor, era holo dosh nobor chor (the TMC workers are ten times more corrupt than the CPM used to be).” The anti-incumbency sentiment, it would appear, cuts across district borders and religious affiliations – with one crucial difference. If elsewhere the criticism of TMC is invariably followed by a stated desire for poriborton (which usually means a vote for the BJP), in these areas it largely translates into support for the ISF.
The varied political response of Muslims in seats such as Deganga, Bashirhaat North, Baduria, Bhangor and Canning East reveal another irony. They are among the 31 assembly constituencies across the state where Muslims account for over 60 per cent of the electorate. In a polarized election, therefore, these ought to have been impregnable TMC bastions. But ground realities often throw up surprises. In areas where the Muslims form a majority, the fear of the BJP is relatively muted. The election becomes much more normal as a result: issues of land and livelihood, governance and delivery rise to the fore. In contrast, where the Muslim community has a moderate to sizeable presence (between 20 to 50 per cent), the BJP’s thoughtless polarizing campaign is likely to impel large sections of them to vote for the TMC.
But whether or not the ISF does well in the elections, the presence of this untested new force is part of a much bigger churning within the Muslim community that has been going on for some years now -- even if it has not gained the kind of attention as the rise of the BJP and its much touted “subaltern Hindutva.”
Although Muslims comprise 27 per cent of Bengal’s population (the highest in the country after Kashmir and Assam), there was never a “Muslim factor” in the state’s politics. Neither the Left nor the Congress stressed on communal identity. Moreover, unlike in the rest of India, Muslims in Bengal are predominantly rural. According to a well researched report titled “The Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal” brought out some years ago, their rural roots made them “almost invisible in urban public domain -- educational institutions, public services, media, cultural platforms, and other podiums of importance.” In rural Bengal, they belonged to the ranks of small cultivators and sharecroppers, and were part of the CPM’s formidable “mass base.”
Muslim activists and scholars say that a turning point for the community was the publication of the Sachar Committee Report in 2006. The committee, headed by Rajinder Sachar, was appointed by the UPA government to examine the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in India. The findings were particularly startling in the case of Bengal. Although Muslims in the state had a sense of security under Left Front rule, the report revealed that they remained among the poorest and most deprived in terms of access to education, health, and other key amenities.
But before the contents of the report could be analysed and acted upon, rural Bengal was wracked by unrest following the Left Front’s attempts at land acquisition for industry. Muslims formed a predominant section of the small cultivators who lost their land to build the Rajarhat township on the eastern fringes of Calcutta that forms part of South 24 Parganas. The Singur and Nandigram agitations further alienated them from the Red Flag, and they began gravitating to the TMC – a move that contributed in no small measure to the debacle of the Left Front in 2011.
On assuming power, Mamata Banerjee promised to set up a high-level committee under the same Rajinder Sachar to go deeper into the state of Muslims in Bengal and suggest measures to improve their status. Sabir Ahamed, a researcher who has done extensive field work on the conditions of socially disadvantaged communities in Bengal, rues that Mamata never set up the committee. Instead, she started relying on “dubious clerics”.
But Ahamed is appreciative of the plethora of welfare measures undertaken by the TMC government which made a material difference to the lives of Muslims. Abdul Matin, a young lecturer at Jadavpur University who has done his doctoral research on Furfura Sharif, is far more critical of the TMC than Sabir Ahamed. But he too concedes that the TMC government made a genuine effort to address the socio-economic concerns of the Muslim community in its first term from 2011 to 2016. These included the setting up of Alia University in Rajarhat, expansion of OBC reservations for Muslims (95 per cent of Muslims in the state fall under the OBC category), scholarship schemes for students, a moratorium on further land acquisitions and greater political representation at the lower levels for members of the community.
But things changed sharply in her second term. With the BJP coming to power at the Centre and making inroads in the state, Mamata Banerjee began wooing Muslims by resorting to an overt religiosity. Her pro-Muslim “optics” -- such as attending the Eid namaaz at Red Road, putting up giant hoardings to greet departing and returning Haj pilgrims, covering her head in the style favoured by Muslim women, organising qawwalis and mushairas, giving monthly wages to imams and muezzins – “only helped create an impression among Hindus that the TMC is appeasing Muslims,” says a Muslim academic who preferred anonymity. Mamata Banerjee, he adds, was “not sensitive to the fact that Bengal has the history of Partition. It is not Kerala. She has made the community much more vulnerable.”
Such optics are not the only thing that has helped the BJP. “In the last three-four years, Mamata Banerjee did not leave any space to the Opposition parties, whether Congress or the Left. On the other hand, you see a lot of shakhas coming up all across Bengal,” points out Matin.
It is in this backdrop that the ISF phenomenon must be seen. The ISF may have been formed just on the eve of the assembly elections, but its roots go much deeper into the past. The founding peer of the shrine, Abu Bakr, was active in the reform movement among Muslims in the late 19th and early 20th century. But after Partition, when the majority of middle class Muslims migrated to East Pakistan, the shrine’s role also shrunk in the social and political arena. With the Left dominating the political discourse in post-Partition Bengal, there was little space for any autonomous leadership to emerge based on religious or caste identity.
But after the defeat of the Left ten years ago, there has been a sea change in the state’s socio-political scene. The stranglehold of pure “class” politics has been broken by the encouragement as well as the assertion of caste and communal identities. A Left leader points out that while Mamata Banerjee started identity politics among communities such as Rajbonshis, Koch, Nepalis, Lepchas, Bhutias, and Muslims, the BJP started focussing on the sub-castes within these categories as part of its “micro social engineering” project from 2016.
The BJP’s aim in Bengal, as elsewhere, is to knit these various castes and sub-castes within a Hindutva framework. Projecting the Muslim as an enemy is central to this project and perhaps explains why Amit Shah keeps harping on the “infiltrator” theme even when it is not electorally necessary.
The ISF, which claims to represent not just the Muslim peasantry but also similarly disadvantaged dalit, adivasi and OBC groups, is part of efforts to create an alternative platform for Bengal’s “bahujan samaj” (a coalition of the underprivileged) to counter the Hindutva offensive. Joining hands with the Left and Congress has only strengthened that possibility.
Much like Kanshi Ram who coined the term “bahujan samaj” four decades ago and then set up the Bahujan Samaj Party, Abbas Siddiqui’s efforts too may get eventually lost in the quagmire of power politics. But right now, movements like the ISF seem to represent a rural, vernacular, agrarian, democratic and radical impulse that is very different from the top-down imposition of “Left, democratic, secular” ideals that was long the norm in the state till a decade ago.
As far as this election goes, Mamata Banerjee is certain to garner the bulk of the Muslim vote. But in the ideological and political battle that looms ahead, the new forces that have emerged on the Bengal scene could well play a bigger role.