After the violence in West Bengal on March 22 where eight people, all Muslims, were burnt to death, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi alleged that the ruling party in the state uses Muslim as foot soldiers for petty, political gains.
“Rather than giving education and jobs, they have given swords and bombs in the hands of Bengal’s Muslim community” said Owaisi. His statements found resonance among the educated section of the Muslim society in Bengal, which found a pattern in the nature of these cases of horrific violence. More than inter or intra party violence, as it appears in the media, there is a clear Muslim angle to it.
Be it the killing fields of Keshpur and Garbeta in the 1990s or early 2000, or the Nandigram violence in 2007, one can find a significant number of Muslim names in rival political camps. During the bloody panchayat elections of 2003, where 76 died due to political violence in the state, 45 deaths were in Murshidabad district alone. Not surprisingly, in a district with a two-third Muslim majority, most victims from all sides belonged to the same community.
The trend continued in the 2008 panchayat election, when clashes between the Congress and Communist Party of India-Marxist supporters led to 14 deaths in the district while the state’s total toll was 18. In most cases, the attackers and victims both belonged to the Muslim community.
In 2000, in one of the worst massacres in West Bengal’s political history, 11 landless Muslim labourers were murdered in Nanoor in Birbhum, the district where the most recent killings took place as well. In November 2010, the Calcutta High Court had sentenced 44 members of the Communist Party of India-Marxist and local leaders, many of them Muslims, to life imprisonment for the Nanoor massacre.
Even the first political martyrs of the Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal were Muslims, for whom the first central team was sent after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
Most analyses on West Bengal violence have remained distant from the trappings of religious identity as one of the primary markers. Scholars and commentators have explained the role of violence in Bengal’s rural society through the hackneyed use of the term, “party-society”.
Academician Partha Chatterjee writes: “In [West] Bengal, the key term is ‘party’. It is indeed the elementary institution of rural life in the state – not family, not kinship, not caste, not religion, not market, but party.”
So you may belong to the same family, or go to the same mosque for Eid prayers, but local networks of privileges and patronage work along the lines of who belongs to which political party. But “party-society” does not explain the prevalence of violence in the Muslim-majority rural parts of West Bengal, as elaborated above.
There exist two Bengals. One is celebrated for its rich intellectual history and celebration of high culture with a remarkable contribution to literature and cinema. The other is bemoaned as something distant and detached from the other world but raises its ugly head sometimes due to mindless political adventurism.
Historian Ramchandra Guha had published a column in 2015 titled “Why Bengal is to India What France is to the World”. To characterise Bengal society, he quoted French historian Jules Michelet who wrote, “We gossip, we quarrel, we expend our energy in words; we use strong language, and fly into great rages over the smallest of subjects.”
However, such a continued celebration of Bengali identity and culture has always excluded the Muslim, who has remained outside of the imagination. Take the films of greats like Satyajit Ray or other prominent filmmakers such as Rituparno Ghosh or Aparna Sen and you see that Bengali Muslims in post-Partition West Bengal are absent from any cultural representation.
In the cultural sphere, Muslims in Bengal were pushed to the margins and systematically ignored by Bengal’s intelligentsia, while on the social and economic front, the Sachar Committee in 2006 revealed their sad state of affairs. With only 2.1% holding government jobs and the third highest dropout rate among school-going students after Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the committee put West Bengal in the “worst-performer” category on minority welfare.
Though little empirical research has been done, it would not be wrong to claim that Muslims constitute a large chunk of the migrant workers working in other states of India. The issue hit national headlines in October 2019 when terrorists in Kashmir killed five Bengali Muslim labourers from Murshidabad district. Inspite of this, then state BJP president Dilip Ghosh claimed “no Bengali had died”
A 2019 report Shoaib Danyal published in Scroll.in highlights the plight of Muslim migrant labourers from Malda, another district with a large Muslim population and prone to violent political conflict. While pointing out the high percentage of landlessness and marginal land holdings in Malda, the author said that there are no targeted schemes by the Mamata Banerjee government for migrant labourers.
Lumpenisation of politics
The absence of job opportunities and the presence of a large number of migrant labourers among the Muslims of Bengal have contributed to the certain lumpenisation of the community. Be it the Communist Party of India-Marxist in the past or the Trinamool Congress today, rather than offering social mobility through education and jobs, the political leadership of the party in power has relied on these lumpen cadres to ensure their dominance in rural Bengal.
There is a clear corelation between the social, economic and cultural marginalisation of the Muslim community in Bengal and the continued violence affecting the community. A case in point is the the rise of Anarul Hossain, the main accused in the March 22 violence, from a simple mason to a “king without a crown” living in a palatial building.
Or Mohammed Majid Ali alias Majid Master, a former leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Mohammed, who was referred to as “the uncrowned monarch of the money spinning bheris of Shashan” in Uttar 24 Pargana district.
Be it Anwarul Sheikh or Majid Master, they behave like what anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen called “local sovereigns” by recruiting cadres from the community in exchange of patronage and favours. In return for their political and economic favours for the ruling party, they enjoy protection from the legal machinery, and an elevated status in society.
Those like Anwarul Sheikh or Majid Master might not share the stage with Mamata Banerjee in Biswa Bangla Sammelan or with former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya at the Nandan cultural festival unlike other big names. But the survival of the Left regime or the Trinamool Congress government depends on the political control of these local leaders.
Adil Hossain is an Assistant Professor at the School of Development, Azim Premji Foundation.