West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s policy towards Muslims, a community that can be a deciding factor in as many as 85-100 seats, or more, in the 294-member Assembly, hinges on treating them as a monolithic community guided by conservative, even radical clerics. Her government would prefer to keep them backward and thus beholden to their religious leaders. This way they are an easy vote bank to prey on. This is a view held by some Muslim intellectuals in Kolkata. As Kazi Masum Akhtar, the principal of Talpukur Ara High Madrasa, who faced the ire of conservative clerics for not being “Muslim enough” and for opposing their stand against singing the national anthem in his school, says, “You keep the clerics happy, pander to their sentiments and the vote comes to you. That’s the easy way of getting votes.”
“Appeasement” calls it Shahnawaz Ali Raihan, who is doing his PhD on the left movement at the Oxford University and was in Kolkata for his research. Populist policies like giving cycles to girls do not do anything to Muslim education. “There is no infrastructure to develop their condition”, he feels.
Mamata Banerjee has been taking several “Muslim friendly” steps including giving imams a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000, promising to regularise “10,000 madrasas”, wearing the hijab and performing the namaaz at Muslim functions, where she appears with imams in tow. She has made Jamiat Ulama-E-Hind’s leader, Siddiqullah Chowdhury, who publicly supported the extremist Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh, her party’s candidate in Mangalkot in Burdwan district. In 2013, her government ensured that a TV serial based on a script written by exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen was shelved, after protests by Muslim groups. The talk in Kolkata is about how senior clerics such as Furfura Sharif’s Maulana Toha Siddiqui and Kolkata Jama Masjid’s Imam Barkati wield immense influence on the Mamata government, even though scholars like Raihan believe that these religious leaders will not be able to dictate the way the community will vote.
Kazi Masum Akhtar says that as the Sachar Committee report has shown, Bengali Muslims are among the most backward in India in terms of education and livelihood. “This ‘backwardness’ is being used by some religious leaders, who have nothing to do with religion. And vested interests in government have ensured that some of these clerics are in charge of the Muslim community.” He gives the example of Kolom, a magazine run by Ahmed Hassan Imran, a Trinamool Rajya Sabha member who was quizzed by the CBI in the Saradha scam: “Clerics dominate these magazines. They are painted as Muslim leaders, while progressive Muslims are ignored.”
According to Kazi Masum Akhtar, the principal of Talpukur Ara High Madrasa, the Mamata government has created such a situation that even the “godless” CPM is running to the clerics to seek the community’s vote.
According to Akhtar, the Mamata government has created such a situation that even the “godless” CPM is running to the clerics to seek the community’s vote.
He believes that it is because the Trinamool government is kowtowing to conservative clerics that fundamentalism is on the rise in state. “Progressives are to be attacked and even physically harmed. The progressives have to be finished just the way they are being finished in Bangladesh. This is the Bangladeshi Jamaat effect,” says Akhtar, who has had major run-ins with fundamentalists in his madrasa. He has not gone to the madrasa for a year now and is under police protection.
Raihan says that the Bengal CM’s notion of the Muslim community is flawed. Thanks to the Chief Minister, Kazi Najrul Islam, the “bidrohi kobi (rebel poet)”, one of Bengal’s most famous, is now a “minority poet”. An academy was built in his name, but the expense was shown under the “minority development” quota. “So, according to Mamata Banerjee, Muslims do not read Rabindranath Tagore or Jibanananda Das, they only read Najrul, a ‘Muslim poet’. All this is very problematic. You are talking about their empowerment but somehow marginalising them by identifying them according to their religion,” says Raihan.
Mamata Banerjee has made madrasa education the lynchpin of her Muslim policy, even though both Raihaan and Akhtar point out that around 10% or less of Muslim students go to madrasas.
“The problem starts when the whole debate on Muslim education gets diverted to madrasa education. Bright students who have the potential to enter IIT do not get the relevant coaching. Girls coming to Kolkata for studies do not have hostels to stay in. If you provide all this, that is what uplifting a community is about,” says Raihan.
A few Muslim students have cleared the West Bengal Civil Services examination, and the government has tom-tommed this feat as a major achievement on its part. In fact, in the heart of Kolkata’s congested Burrabazaar constituency, Maulana Shafiq, the Imam of one of the largest mosques in the city, Nakhoda Masjid, highlighted this aspect as “real development” done by the Mamata government. However, Raihan counters this argument by saying that these students cleared the examination on their own merit; the government did not play any role.
Mamata Banerjee has increased the state budget for minorities and madrasa education from Rs 472 cr in 2010-11 to Rs 2,383 cr in 2015-2016. According to Akhtar, West Bengal has 614 government recognised madrasas, which are like regular schools and teach all subjects, as well as Arabic. The Talpukur Ara High Madrasa, which he heads, is one such “government school”. These madrasas also have Hindu students. The rest, around 4,000 madrasas are khariji (unrecognised) madrasas and teach only the Quran and the Hadis. The Chief Minister had promised to regularise 10,000 madrasas, although all Muslim scholars and leaders spoken to said that the state does not have that many unrecognised madrasas.
However, not all is well in this area as well. In fact, the teachers of unrecognised madrasas sat on a relay hunger strike last year, demanding that around 500 madrasas be brought under the Madrasa Education Board of the state. Yunus Ali, the secretary of the West Bengal unrecognised madrasa teachers’ union told this newspaper that 160 madrasas have been given recognition, and around 340 are still left. “They said the elections are here, we will give you recognition after the elections,” said Yunus Ali.
According to CPM leader Fuad Halim, “People have sold their land to set up madrasas but now the permission is not coming through. Teachers are not being paid.”
The president of the Welfare Party of India, Dr Raisuddin—who avers that it was because of Muslim support in 2011 that Mamata Banerjee was able to defeat the Left Front—says that the Bengal CM’s Muslim policy emanates from a “superficial thinking”.
The president of the Welfare Party of India, Dr Raisuddin—who avers that it was because of Muslim support in 2011 that Mamata Banerjee was able to defeat the Left Front—says that the Bengal CM’s Muslim policy emanates from a “superficial thinking”. “Some Muslims may be thinking of voting for her by getting carried away by her promises on madrasas and stipend to imams, but in reality she has not done much in these areas.” Dr Raisuddin, who is fighting the Assembly elections from Magrahat West in the district of South 24-Parganas, also expressed his reservation about the government’s “attempt to politicise the mosque”, thus venturing into the “green zone of Muslim autonomy”. “When you are highlighting stipends to imams, identifying wakf properties, etc., as achievements during your election campaign, you are playing politics with the mosque,” he says.
In fact, there is some resentment in the community about the misuse of wakf property as well. According to Kazi Masum Akhtar, the state has around 184,200 wakf properties that have been “usurped”, of which the government has been able to identify only 23,000.
“Kolkata race course is on wakf land. There are several other cases like that. If the CM had just identified and returned all the wakf land to Muslims, the community did not need any quotas or sub-quotas,” Raihan says.
The other complaint is that even though the majority of Muslims in Bengal are Bengali speaking, the CM has been listening to those who are primarily Urdu speaking. “Her leaders do not have much of a hold over the community, but only over their areas. She does not understand that there is a plurality among Muslims, who are geographically scattered and accordingly they may have different demands and needs,” says Raihan. “Muslims have a lot of skilled labour and artisans. In Medinipur they are famous for their zari work, for gold work in Hooghly, silk in Malda. No effort has been made to develop these skills, to market these products.”
Will the Muslims stay with Mamata Banerjee this time? A large section will, thinks Dr Raisuddin. Raihan too thinks so. “That is because it’s for the first time that anyone mentioned Muslims by name; said that one was doing something for them,” says Dr Raisuddin. “The Left did not do even the little bit she is doing. During the Left’s time, the minority development fund given by the Centre would go back unutilised. She is at least giving some scholarships, cycles, etc,” says Raihan.
When asked about this, CPM leader Fuad Halim differs. “In Muslim majority districts like Murshidabad and Dinajpur, Mamata Banerjee does not have even a toehold. She is trying to enter Malda by engineering defections (from the Congress). In Murshidabad, all the MPs are either from the Left or the Congress. Yes, in south Bengal, in districts like North and South 24 Parganas, she has sizeable support. So the minority community in West Bengal does not think as one.”
He describes the Sachar committee report on the plight of the Muslim community in Bengal as “incomplete” for not including a chapter on the “ownership of land”. He mentions a recent report by Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute, which has apparently shown that the Muslim population in Bengal has “sizeable ownership of land”. That right to land was delivered during the time of the Left Front government during the land reform movement, he says. That Bengal did not see any major incident of communal nature during the Left’s 34-year-rule was also of “concrete benefit” to the Muslim community, he claims. He cites a “25% decrease in the number of applicants for Haj” this year as a mark of the economic problems facing the Muslim community during Mamata’s rule.
Meanwhile, on Zakaria Street, in front of the Nakhoda Masjid, the talk among the Muslim hawkers of religious trinkets is about the “development” “Didi” has done. “Of course she has done a lot of work. Check out the roads near Bally (in Howrah district) and the bridges. They are spectacular.”