Of the long litany of complaints against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, including her style of governance or the conduct of the ruling Trinamool Congress, the accusation of ‘appeasement’ of Muslims—at a time the BJP is aggressively trying to expand its beachhead in the state—carries the greatest sting. Such allegations began with one of her earliest decisions, in 2012, a year after she came to power, to apportion a monthly honorarium of Rs 2,500 a month for each of Bengal’s 30,000 Imams out of tax-payers’ money. In February 2012, she had declared that Urdu would be given ‘second language status’ after Bengali, and during a religious meet later that year had announced plans to introduce a scheme in which “landless, homeless” Imams would be eligible for three kottahs (one kottah is 720 square feet) of land each to construct a house, which would be funded by the government. Since then, other fiats by Mamata, like the announcement that 10,000 madrasas would be affiliated to the government, entitling these to apply for various grants, created controversies and moved critics and rivals to shrill protest.
At the forefront was the BJP. In 2014, it insinuated that Trinamool was “going soft” on Muslims with links to terror groups from Bangladesh, because the state government was initially reluctant to allow the NIA to probe the bomb blasts in Burdwan district’s Khagragarh in October which killed two, and was later suspected by the central anti-terror outfit to have been triggered by a module of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). “Why is the Bengal chief minister not allowing the NIA to do its work?” asked an incredulous Amit Shah during a visit to the state. And when Banerjee nominated Ahmed Hassan Imran, editor of Dainik Kolom and founder of the Bengal chapter of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), to the Rajya Sabha in January 2014, it was as though she was deliberately provoking her fiercest critics.
Allegations of appeasement reared their head again before this year’s Durga Puja, Bengal’s grandest festival, when the state government announced that immersion of idols would not be allowed to take place from late hours on Dashami, September 30—the final day of the festivities, marking the start of the immersion process—and through the next day, October 1, which clashed with Muharram. Amid howls of indignation, a petition was filed against the directive, and the Calcutta High Court stayed the order, as it had done last year too, after a similar government restriction. It called the police to demarcate separate routes for idols and tazias, provide security, and asked puja committees to seek police permission for immersion on October 1. However, few puja organisers chose the option; most stayed away and Muharram passed peacefully.
Mamata’s detractors termed the episode a notorious display of her “divide and rule” policy. “It is her way of pitting Hindus against Muslims and so trying to garner the all-important, 30 per cent Muslim vote, which Bengal’s parties think is the surest way of winning elections,” says BJP’s Chandra Kumar Bose. Even though the court intervened, Bose claims Mamata had achieved her goal. “More than any fear of clashes between the two communities, since that has not been a major cause for concern in the past,” notes Bose, “it was an attempt to create an effect that she was taking the side of a particular community”.
Yet, for all her perceived partiality, Mamata’s gestures are mere tokenisms, as opposed to solid on-the-ground benefits accorded solely to Muslims and excluding others. Many of her schemes are yet to be implemented or are sporadically operational. Members of the Muslim community agree.
Khadija Bano, head of an NGO in Murshidabad district, which has one of the highest concentrations of the minorities in the country, tells Outlook about the disappointment Muslims, especially Muslim women, feel. “Initially, Muslim women were ecstatic when Mamata came to power. Here was a chief minister who was not only a woman but also seemed to take interest in the community. But over the years, we are disillusioned. After the SC verdict this year on abolishing triple talaq, there was not one congratulatory word from her.”
However, political commentators point out that while no generalisations can be made, there is a distinction between what Muslim women consider ‘benefits’ and what her male counterparts do. Prof Afroza Khatun, who teaches at Calcutta’s Surendranath College for Women, tells Outlook, “As in other communities, often what a woman wants from a political party is different from that of what a man does. Though both Muslim men and women have earlier adhered to rules laid down by community elders, including which party to vote for, it did not always determine that the ‘development’ she was expecting from that party, especially in terms of ideological or gender, was the same as those of the males.”
Are Muslim men, then, happier with Mamata and what she has done for the community? There are those who are content enough with the fact that Mamata seems to be, as Afsar Ahmed, a Calcutta carpenter, says, “on our side”. While admitting that the community has “not been inundated yet with monetary benefits, doles or sops or even educational or employment privileges” such as reservation, “the fact that she cares comes across from what she says”.
“Mamata tries to make up for her disregard for Muslims by vacant shows of empathy,” says Abdul Mannan.
Others are not so sure. “I can see through the attempt to please the Imams,” says a Calcutta businessman. “Her attempts to win us over by good gestures as doing namaz and attending Iftar parties don’t mean anything. There have been some infrastructural developments under Mamata, like villages receiving electricity and road connectivity, but to say that she stands for the progress of Muslims is going too far. Progress, development, improvement are not about pandering to a community’s religious dogmatism, but about ensuring that it is integrated with mainstream society. Muslim progress entails children’s education, women’s rights and equality with others.”
Mamata’s political rivals in the Muslim community go a step further to claim that the populist doles are cover-ups for the shoddy treatment of the community in Bengal. Congress leader Abdul Mannan tells Outlook, “She is trying to make up for her total disregard for Muslims with these vacant shows of empathy. During her rule, innocent Muslims died in Bhangar (a Muslim-majority area in South 24 Parganas district where a people’s resistance against the construction of a power plant was forcefully quashed). Never before had so many communal clashes taken place as now, whether it is Kaliachak or Bashirhat.”
CPI(M) MP Mohammad Selim agrees, “She has been trying to win the community over by donning the hijab. But no work has been done on the ground.”
Murshidabad MP Adhir Ranjan Chaudhury says that the premise that Trinamool will win the confidence of the Muslim community with gestures, such as banning public Hindu festivals on days of Muslim festivities, is also flawed. “It exposes the Trinamool’s deep ignorance about Muslims,” he says. “Muharram is the holy festival of Shia Muslims, who make up a very small percentage of the community in Bengal.”
When Outlook asked about it to both Shias and Sunnis, the responses varied. While carpenter Afsar, a Shia, feels that Didi’s gestures showed that she “cared for the community”, Reman Hussain, a 30-year-old vegetable vendor, a Sunni, said that he had been taking part in Durga Puja immersion processions for 20 years and did not appreciate the sudden ban.
Coming to the current government’s rescue, however, is Rezzak Mullah, formerly a Left strongman, who is now a minister in Mamata’s cabinet. Dismissing the use of the term ‘appeasement’, ‘doles’ and ‘sops’, Mullah claims that “real development” has taken place in the community and as an indication of that he points out her continual winning of elections by the widest of margins. “If she wasn’t doing anything for the community, why would the almost 30 per cent Muslim vote go to her?” Since these gestures are seen to deliver the goods, this might indicate that Mamata will stick to more of the same.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta