Taha Siddiqui, Pirzada of Furfura Sharif, Hooghly, a leading conservative Muslim voice in West Bengal, is angry with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government. He has voiced his disenchantment in public, saying archly that Mamata must not take Muslim voters for granted, knowing that the TMC can ill afford to ignore discontent within the community that comprise 28 per cent of the state’s electorate, that too months before Lok Sabha elections, wherein Muslim voters’ support is crucial for the TMC to thwart the growing threat of the BJP. At a protest rally in Calcutta, Siddiqui said the TMC was as adept in communal politics as the BJP.
The immediate ‘provocation’ was a recent decision made by the government to give a Rs 10,000 grant each to all the community Durga Puja committees this year. For 28,000 such pujas across Bengal, the total expenditure from the exchequer would be Rs 28 crore. Openly questioning Mamata’s secular credentials, he said the government should not sponsor any particular festival. And if so, such grants should be given to other religious festivals too. Whether the government’s use of state funds violates India’s secular framework is now being debated in Calcutta High Court, after a PIL was filed against the rationale of such a decision.
The grant to community Durga Pujas has brought another aspect of the TMC’s political stand under scrutiny. From 2011 onwards, when the TMC government assumed power, Mamata took extra care to appease the Muslim community. In 2012, it started monthly allowances to imams and muezzins, to have cost the exchequer Rs 126 crore annually. Later, the HC struck it down, ruling it unconstitutional and not in public interest. Undeterred, the government took a circuitous route through the state Wakf Board to continue with the pay-outs. Despite his secular posturing, the Pirzada was evasive on this, saying the allowances were from funds generated by Wakf properties.
After the sharp decline of so-called secular parties like the Congress and the Left, Bengal politics is careening ever more towards communal planks, with the entrenched TMC and an ambitious BJP battling it out. Congress leader Abdul Mannan, opposition leader in the state assembly, laments, “Nowadays, almost all parties are actively pursuing communal politics. Mamata is sometimes playing the Muslim card, sometimes the Hindu one.’’
Though the BJP’s appeal is restricted to Hindus, it never could muster enough votes to make its presence felt in the state. In 2014, the Modi wave lifted BJP’s voteshare up to 17 per cent, winning two LS seats. But in the 2016 assembly polls, its share fell to 10.3 per cent—it contested 291 of the 294 seats and won a dispiriting three. Compared to that, the TMC has 211 assembly seats with a 45 per cent voteshare. Despite this, BJP leaders, including Amit Shah, consider Bengal to be a prime target. A series of communal clashes and introduction of statewide, raucous celebrations of Hanuman Jayanti made them more visible. BJP sources also claim that their support for the abolition of triple talaq made them more acceptable in Muslim society. “BJP is no longer considered to be pariah by Muslims. Our stand on triple talaq will get us Muslim women’s votes,’’ says BJP leader Jayprakash Majumdar.
To ensure access to the Muslim votebank, Mamata has been cultivating Muslim leaders. Of them, Siddikulla Chowdhury, leader of Jamiyat Ulema-e-Hind, is a minister in her cabinet. Noor-ur Rahaman Barkati, former Shahi Imam of Bengal, was close to Mamata, but now has joined forces with Pirzada Siddiqui to put pressure on the chief minister.
Former TMC leader Mukul Roy, now with the BJP, is close to Siddiqui; TMC sees his hand in Siddiqui’s angry outburst. That, says the TMC, has got nothing to do with real issues afflicting Muslims. “Whatever he is doing, it is for his personal benefit,’’ says Tapas Roy, a TMC MLA. Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty observes cautiously, “It is difficult to understand Siddiqui’s motives, but one can infer that TMC’s misrule has come to such a pass that even its close allies are compelled to voice their opposition.”
In this time of competing communal politics, Mamata’s move to give doles to Durga Pujas is perceived as a balancing act, an answer to the BJP’s accusation that she neglects Hindus and panders to Muslims. Even if the Calcutta HC vacates its interim stay order on the Durga Puja pay-out, there is a possibility that it’s further grist to Bengal’s simmering communal mill.
- In 2012, Mamata announced allowances to imams, attracting the charge that she appeases Muslims
- Now, her decision to give Rs 10,000 each to community Durga Pujas has angered Muslim conservative leaders
By Rajat Roy in Calcutta