January 27, 2021
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Kolkata Korner

Islamic fundamentalists have tasted victory once by making the CPI(M) and the state government buckle under its pressure over Taslima Nasreen. Only a matter of time before they start raising more outrageous demands, and Hindu fundamentalists also jum

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Kolkata Korner
Kolkata Korner

Underbelly Exposed
Wednesday's violence in large parts of central and east Kolkata has laid bare the city's ugly underbelly. That a large section of the inhabitants of what many like to call the 'city of joy' are so unhappy, deprived and frustrated shows that, contrary to what many Kolkatans proudly proclaim, this is not a city that cares. Had that been the case, lakhs of people would not have been living in such dismal conditions without life's basic necessities, without education, means of livelihood and without any hope for the future. An overwhelming majority of these people are, unfortunately, Muslims. And more sadly, Kolkata has no concern for them.

Those so-called intellectuals who transport into convulsions of righteous anger at various injustices at home and abroad have shown no distress for the lakhs wallowing in poverty, despair and dissatisfaction right under their noses. The thousands of young boys and men who hurled stones, bricks, acid and soda water bottles and Molotov cocktails and set vehicles afire on Wednesday emerged from the slums and decrepit tenements. They may have been misled into staging such violence, but it's only the poor, the uninformed, the uneducated or semi-educated and the frustrated and the angry who can be misled into committing violent acts.

It's unfortunate that attempts to analyse the causes of Wednesday's violence have been fatuous and superficial; Kolkatans should realise that the city cannot progress and be a happy place to live in when a large section of its populace lives in such dismal conditions and are so acutely unhappy. Kolkata cannot be a city of joy for some and despair for the rest. If a city is known by how it cares for its minorities and the weak, Kolkata would be placed at the bottom of the pile. Even Gujarat's Modi-scarred Muslims are better off (in the socio-economic sense) than their counterparts in Kolkata and Bengal. I am not making it up, the Sachar Commission has said that.

Air Of Superiority
There is, however, little hope of Kolkatans (especially the Bengalis) realising this stark fact. For everyone, starting from Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to the media and the man (Bengali) on the street, has been trying to vainly re-assert Kolkata's moral superiority over other cities in the aftermath of Wednesday's violence without caring to go into the real causes that sparked the trouble (no, it wasn't Taslima Nasreen or Nandigram).

Bhattacharjee called the violence "an insult to Kolkata", while Bengali TV channels and local newspapers have been going to great lengths to suggest that violence is alien to Kolkata. This could have been a golden opportunity for politicians, for the media, for the majority community and for civil society to go deep into the causes of the violence and make an honest attempt to reach out to the Muslims and heal the festering wounds. But we've let this chance slip by.

All that's happening is vilification and demonisation of the rioters and those from the minority community who organised the protests against Taslima's stay here. Many prominent Kolkatans, including some self-styled intellectuals at TV talk shows, have gone to the extent of trying to distinguish between Bengali Muslims and Muslims who've migrated from other states, who speak in Urdu and wear lungis. Such attempts to divide Muslims with the sole purpose of maligning the Urdu or Hindi-speaking Muslims as 'outsiders' who created trouble are condemnable and prove that the majority community have no interest in reaching out to the Muslims (irrespective of their mother tongue), understanding them and helping them emerge out of their poverty and backwardness. This being the case, Wednesday's violence could be the first in more such ugliness to follow.

Virtual Tinderbox
Few from the media or even the ordinary Bengali Hindu has ever cared to go into a Muslim-dominated area in Kolkata and see for himself or herself the living conditions there that beggar description. Overflowing drains, malnourished, dirty and half-naked children running around, groups of boys playing cards and whiling away their time, women in tattered clothes engaged in their daily chores, narrow crowded lanes with unemployed men lounging around or smoking pot and a general air of despondency.

Almost all families—and most of them are large, with at least six to seven members—stay in one small room where the bed is the only piece of furniture, whose legs are kept on a pile of bricks: that's to raise the height of the bed so that people can sleep under it as well. Most of the children don't go to school, most of the ones that do drop out before high school as their parents can't afford school fee and the standards in the free schools run by the government are too pathetic.

Thus, the young people know they have no hope for the future, save for some odd jobs or a life of animal-like drudgery as 'mazdoors'. They are angry and frustrated with their lot and know that life has bypassed them. The sight of the gleaming malls, the flashy cars, the rejoicings over the rising Sensex and the rise in living standards of others, mostly Hindus, not so far away adds to their anger and frustration.

In such a situation, when some irresponsible leaders, religious or otherwise, of the community tell them they're ignored and discriminated against since they're Muslims, most among these deprived people get all fired up. And they willingly go on a rampage to let out their frustrations by striking at symbols of the unfair and discriminatory state. I've spent long hours in such areas and count many people living there among my close and dear friends. And I know it's an explosive situation that exists there. All it needs is a mischief-maker to ignite unrest.

Pre-planned Violence
It's no secret that Wednesday's violence was planned meticulously to unnerve a defensive state government and demonstrate the might of the organizers of the violence. The way the attackers tried to fool the police by surging forward and then suddenly withdrawing into the narrow lanes only to emerge elsewhere, the way the violence spread within minutes without any apparent reason, the suddenness and viciousness of the attacks on the police, passersby and vehicles, the fact that the mobs were armed with brickbats, soda and acid water bottles and Molotov cocktails (and some even with swords, knives, small arms and bombs) all proves that some organisation or organisations had planned it all very meticulously.

There seems to have been a sinister design to provoke the cops into opening firing and injuring or killing people; that would have justified more violence and, ultimately, things would have spun out of control. That is exactly what the organizers of the violence wanted. Who exactly was behind all this is still unclear: the Congress-aligned All India Minority Front just doesn't have the muscle to do this, but the Jamait-e-Ulema-e-Hind is a suspect, as may be the Islamic Students' Organisation and some other bodies. This is under investigation now and it would be premature to name any one right away.

But the good thing is that the state's political leadership and the media pulled no punches in attacking the Forum (which organised the demonstrations against Taslima that degenerated into violence) and the Jamait. That put Idris Ali of the Forum and Jamait's state secretary Siddiqullah Chowdhury on the defensive and denied them the opportunity to pose as responsible spokespersons of their community. This is one good thing that emerged out of black Wednesday.

Competitive Politics
The selfish and irresponsible desire and ambition of people like Idris Ali, Siddiqullah Chowdhury and some politicos like Trinamool general secretary Sultan Ahmed has led to their indulging in insidious competitive politics that can only harm the Muslim community. CPI(M) MP Mohammad Salim has rightly commented that such competitive politics turns even moderate leaders—Ali has been, by all accounts, quite a moderate—into hardliners. To gain their community's support, these leaders compete with one another in highlighting the sense of deprivation and frustration and egging the community on to a violent show of protests as a means of demonstrating the community's might. This provides fertile ground for the religious fundamentalists to sow their seeds of hatred and dogmatism and ultimately, the community gets more alienated from mainstream society and more radical. It then becomes a happy head-hunting ground for recruiters from Islamist radical organisations like the Lashkar. This also leads to the emergence of a deep communal divide.

If Kolkata is to avoid a communal polarization, responsible leaders of the community should emerge to guide the Muslims along the path of democracy and liberalism. The Muslims need a responsible leadership that can resist the urge to attribute the poverty and deprivation that stalks the community to their being followers of Islam. Religion has nothing to do with it; the Blacks in the USA are similarly deprived and poor. Education, proper healthcare, employment-generation schemes, mother and child welfare schemes, housing, proper sanitation, electricity and water supply and a fair and responsive administration is what the Muslims require, as do all sections of the people. If all this is provided to them, as is their due, there would be no reasons for Muslims to get carried away by rhetoric and take to the streets over issues that have no bearing on their present state (like Taslima Nasreen's stay in Kolkata).

Not The Issue
As many have said, Taslima Nasreen's stay in Kolkata can't be the reason behind Wednesday's violence. It was converted into an emotive issue by selfish, radical Islamists who are the bane of the Muslim community. Nandigram also could not have been the issue, more so since the attempts to takeover farmlands there and the subsequent political battles and the role of the administration have evoked widespread condemnation from all sections of society. Some Muslim leaders cite the Rizwanur Rahman case as an example of the injustice the community faces; but many more Hindus than Muslims have protested the injustice towards Rahman.

As for Taslima Nasreen, one may dislike her writings and her contentions, but one can't deny her the space to write and lead a normal life free of fear and persecution. India cannot shed its liberal character and deny fundamental rights and liberties to its residents just because some fundamentalists who've been misleading the Muslim community to demand so. These fundamentalists who preach hatred should also be prepared to get prosecuted under the law.

In Nandigram, the victims and the perpetrators of the violence are mostly Muslims; that's because 72 percent of the population there is Muslim and there are Muslims in the CPI(M) as well as the BUPC. For people like Siddiqullah to say that Muslims have been persecuted there and that Nandigram was chosen as the site for the chemical hub because it is a Muslim-majority area amounts to spreading lies. Singur was a Hindu-majority area and that didn't stop the government to take over land there. Hindus, and Muslims, co-habit in refugee camps at Nandigram even today.

Leadership Failure
Why, then, did all that violence happen? I think because the politicians who claim to represent the Muslim community have failed their constituents. These MLAs and MPs who get elected from Muslim-majority areas of Kolkata have done precious little for the community. This is not to say that non-Muslim politicians have cared at all for Muslim residents of their constituencies; far from it. But the elected Muslim representatives ought to have had the primary responsibility of improving the conditions of the people. All that they've done is indulge in petty politics, advancing the interests of their parties and themselves. They've always taken their community for granted and many have even had a vested interest in keeping them poor and backward. That's because education would spread awareness among the people and that would lead to the Muslims questioning and challenging the inaction of the self-serving and petty politicians who represent them. Hence, it is better to keep the community poor and away from educational institutions.

Even the CPI(M) MPs and MLAs from the Muslim community are guilty of having ignored their community and keeping them backward. The Muslims have started realizing that their political leaders have failed them. This has added to their sense of frustration and despair. And this is where religious fundamentalists have stepped in with their insidious agenda. But its no point blaming the Muslim politicians only. What about the leaders of the parties they belong to? Don't Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Mamata Banerjee and Pranab Mukherjee have the responsibility of ensuring that the weaker sections are targeted for accelerated development and their party MLAs and MPs perform their duties?

Intelligence Failure
Many meetings were held in Muslim areas of Kolkata in the run-up to Wednesday's violence to plan the concerted and simultaneous attacks. Preparations like stockpiling bricks, soda water bottles and even arms started from Monday. People, according to some reports, came in from outside Kolkata to help plan the attacks. The places the attacks were to be launched were carefully chosen—narrow lanes buffeted by buildings from which launching attacks and retreating into is not only easy, but if the cops venture inside, they'd get trapped.

In fact, reports suggest this is exactly what the organisers of the violence had wanted—that policemen, chasing rioters, would enter the narrow lanes and then they'd be showered with brickbats, acid bottles and Molotov cocktails from the rooftops. Once trapped, the injured cops would have been lynched. That would have led to a strong reaction from other cops and the situation would have gone out of hand. Fortunately, the cops didn't go into the lanes and the evil designs of those who planned the violence was frustrated. But then, the state intelligence machinery failed miserably to gather advance information on the plans.

That the Special Branch, the agency tasked with this, failed in this manner shows it has no sources in the Muslim community. The Special Branch of the Kolkata Police has become a dumping ground for inefficient officers and transfer to it is considered to be 'punishment posting'. No wonder, then, that the agency lacks motivation and dedication to carry out its mandate. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who has kept the Home portfolio to himself, ought to look into this right away and get the Special Branch back on its feet again.

>Why Army?
The Chief Minister's decision to call out the army to tackle the situation on Wednesday smacks of an ulterior motive. He instructed the police to refrain from firing at the riotous mobs at any cost. The cops, he passed strict instructions, ought to retreat when faced with an unmanageable situation rather than even fire in the air to disperse the mobs. The police, thus, could do little to contain the violence when things could have been nipped in the bud by some strong action. Police inaction only emboldened the mobs to indulge in more violence. And then, Bhattacharjee called out the army that was not asked to refrain from firing at the mobs if the situation so demanded.

Bhattacharjee knew the army doesn't fire teargas shells or direct water cannons or carries out a baton charge; the only way the army handles a violent mob is by opening fire, first in the air and then into the crowds. Thus, the only reason that he called out the army is to protect his police force, and himself and his government and his party, from criticism and censure in case of casualties. He wanted to fire the gun from the army's shoulders. He cared little if the army, a fine and perhaps the most respected institution in our country (apart from the judiciary) draws flak for any drastic action the jawans may have taken. This is condemnable and contemptible. And it leads one to wonder what the state police are meant for. If the CRPF has to be called in to tackle the situation in Nandigram and the army to take care of Kolkata, is the police meant only to deal with petty crime and collect bribes from trucks on the highways?

Taslima Banished
At the end of the day, however, Kolkata stood battered, bruised and shamed, its ill-deserved reputation (as a caring city and humane place) torn to shreds and, most important, the organizers of the violence being handed victory on a platter. Taslima's ouster from the city under a cloak of secrecy and her banishment to Jaipur only means that the state administration and the CPI(M) buckled under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists to bundle Taslima out of Kolkata.

That she was sent to BJP-ruled Rajasthan has also made it possible for the BJP to feel avenged for the shame of the face of the Gujarat riots—Qutubuddin Ansari—being granted shelter in Kolkata by the CPI(M) that obviously wanted to curry favour with Muslims through this move. But that's another matter.

The Islamic fundamentalists have tasted victory once. It is only a matter of time before they start raising more outrageous demands, and Hindu fundamentalists also jump in to fish in troubled waters, thus vitiating communal harmony and taking the state down the path to turmoil and more violence. Had the CPI(M) and the state administration been firm and rejected the fundamentalists' demand while telling them to tone down the rhetoric or get ready to be prosecuted under the law, the mullahs would have lost face and would have had to back down.

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