Mamata’s ‘Mir Jafar’ moment in Bengal?


New Delhi: Very few are aware of the “Black hole” massacre which took place on the night of 20 June 1756 in which 146 British prisoners, that included children and women, were stuffed into a room at Fort William, Kolkata, that measured 14×18 feet for one night by the forces of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the then Nawab of Bengal, after a short battle between the forces of Nawab and the Britishers.

By the time the Nawab woke up next morning and ordered their release, only 23 of the poor soul were found to be alive.  This massacre has lost its place in the memory of many because this tragedy led to a much bigger development; the defeat of Siraj-ud-Daulah by British Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive in the historical Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757.

Clive, who was in June 1756 leisuring in Madras, was asked by the Britishers to go to Calcutta and avenge the death of its 123 men, women and child that happened in the “Black hole” massacre.

And he avenged it with luck and with the help of Mir Jafar, who was then the Commander of the Nawab of Siraj-ud- Daulah’s army.

Jafar agreed to betray his Nawab in lieu of the promise made by Robert Clive, who assured him that he will make him the Nawab of Bengal, though he would be a puppet of the Britishers, if he agreed to betray his master, Siraj-ud-Daulah.

Jafar did this betrayal by holding back his men even as Clive, with just 3,000 of his men, attacked Siraj-ud-Daulah who had 50,000 men with him. The internal information provided by Jafar led to Clive defeating the much larger army of Siraj.

And thus was established the biggest act of betrayal and treachery in Indian history which allowed the Britishers to expand their presence across India, a betrayal that led to India being under chains for almost 190 plus years till the time it was able to secure its independence in 15 August 1947, 69499 days or 190 years after Jafar’s betrayal.

Jafar was later buried in Jafarganj Cemetery, Murshidabad district of West Bengal after his death in February 1765. Today, Murshidabad is the district with the maximum (66.2 %) Muslim population across the state, followed by Malda (51.25%) and Uttar Dinajpur (50%).

And almost 255 years after his death, Jafar has come back alive in the run-up to the West Bengal elections.

Last week, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee equated her former colleagues like Suvendu Adhikari who have left the TMC to join the BJP, as Jafars. “Thank God ‘Mir Jafars’ (traitors) have left (TMC). I am relieved. It has saved us,” said the CM during a rally in Purba Medinipur district.

However, what remains to be seen is whether the Muslim voters, who play a crucial role in at least 105 of the 294 seats, stay with Mamata Banerjee as she claims they will, or they too turn into “Mir Jafars” just like the Adhikaris and others have.

Mamata has fielded 42 Muslim candidates, 15 less than what she had fielded last time while the BJP has fielded 8 Muslim candidates.

West Bengal-based political observers believe that the love for Mamata Banerjee, which the Muslim voters have had for the last 10 years, is likely to decline this time in a significant number and the often quoted statement by the media that “Muslim voters vote for a party en-bloc”, which is based on no empirical proof, is going to fall flat on its face in Bengal like it did in Bihar.

According to them, a significant portion of that affection is likely to go to candidates of India Secular Front (ISF), a newly formed political front led by Furfura Sharif’s influential cleric Abbas Siddiqui, whose influence, as per intelligence reports, is seen across 1,500 plus mosques across the state. The ISF has so far announced candidates for 27 seats, in its first election which it is contesting in an alliance with the Congress and the Left.

A majority of Bengal’s almost 30% Muslim population, are followers of either the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (which conforms to the Deobandi ideology) or that of Furfura Sharif. Furfura Sharif, which is a village in Jangipara block of Srirampore subdivision in Hooghly district, has a mosque which was built in 1375. It also has the Mazaar Sharif (Tomb) of Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddique  and his five sons, popularly known as the “Panch Huzur Keblah” who founded the order of Furfura-Sharif.

While followers of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind are centered in and around mostly Kolkata, Howrah, and the two Dinajpur districts in north Bengal, the followers of Furfura Sharif holds sway in south Bengal—in districts like as Hooghly, Burdwan, Murshidabad, Malda and North and South 24 Parganas, which account for 120 of the 294 Assembly seats.

The followers of Furfura Sharif vastly outnumber those influenced by the Jamiat, and the shrine has a huge mass base and influence among the Muslim community. Words coming from the mosque at Furfura Sharif are treated by many as the last word when deciding critical issues, including voting patterns.According to officials tracking the development, the weaning away of Muslim voters from Mamata Banerjee, a notion which Banerjee believes is never going to happen, will happen not just because of the religious identity of ISF.

As per an intelligence official, the “cut-money syndrome’ that has affected a large section of TMC leaders, especially those who are more active in village and block levels, coupled with siphoning away of even the compensation money that was released by the state government to deal with the aftermath of Amphan cyclone, and “large scale corruption” in ration distribution during the Covid-19 lockdown last year, had affected the Muslim voters too.

“In many cases, the number of Muslim families—devoid of their basic civil amenities because of their socio-economic conditions and inability to pay cut-money—is more than the Hindus. People (referring to media) are not talking about this, how there is a large-scale disenchantment with the Muslim voters for the TMC government due to the large-scale corruption. For these poor people, even paying Rs 1,000-Rs 2,000 bribe is a very big deal and they are tired of it. These Muslim voters may be scared of the ‘communal’ nature of the BJP, but they are also aware how Muslim families in neighbouring Bihar and Jharkhand have benefited from the central schemes. In Bihar, many ‘Muslim booths’ saw a sizeable number of votes for the BJP candidate both in 2019 general election  and the 2020 Assembly polls. It is a big talking point here,” the official said.

A prominent topic of conversation that is being discussed among the Muslim voters in this election is how they have been “misused” earlier by the Congress, Left and now by the TMC despite being loyal to these parties. “The youths are especially angry that no real development has taken place that can elevate the status of the community in the state. All studies show that the Muslims are among the most marginalized section when it comes socio-economic strata parameters. This anger is going to make its presence felt when the voting starts,” the official added.

Districts like South 24 Parganas and Howrah, which TMC considers “crucial” for staying in power and which have more than 35% of Muslim population, are also witnessing unhappy faces within the Muslim voters due to the rampant corruption indulged in by local level TMC leaders. “There is a lot of suppressed anger, in both Hindu and Muslims, against the local TMC leaders due to the excess corruption that they have engaged in the last few years. People say that Mamata Banerjee did nothing to stop it despite being aware of it,” a police inspector with a local police station in South 24 Parganas said.

According to an assessment by a government agency, the twin factors of a local strong option (ISF) and the fact that the BJP has given tickets to eight Muslim candidates and its leaders have (so far) stayed away from giving provocative speeches, is going to eat away into the Muslim votes that the TMC was so accustomed and assured of.“The ISF candidates may not win on all the seats and the BJP candidates too might not win on all the eight seats, but the Muslim voters are angry with the TMC because despite voting for the TMC, they were subjected to demand of bribe and once you take that into account, it becomes easier to accept why ISF and BJP candidates stand a very good chance of springing surprises in a sizeable number of seats in the state,” another official with a central agency who has been posted in West Bengal added, while sharing videos and pictures of the crowd that has been gathering at ISF rallies that are being held in the Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas.