Last October, the Shiv Sena objected to a pre-scheduled concert in Mumbai featuring ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali of Patiala Gharana, who happens to be a citizen of Pakistan. The event was cancelled. This cancellation became a minor public relations embarrassment for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, which also happens to be in power in Maharashtra in alliance with the Shiv Sena.
Various non-BJP leaders from other states, eager to score brownie points on "tolerance", invited Ghulam Ali to perform in their respective states. Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, was among the first to do so. On January 12, Ghulam Ali performed to a nearly 15,000 strong audience at Kolkata’s Netaji Indoor stadium. The organisation and preparations for the event were personally overseen by Banerjee, who also felicitated the singer. The ghazal maestro returned the favour by piling effusive praise on the chief minister. “I am grateful to her,” he declared, among other things. “She has done us a favour in the form of Saraswati”.
This hosting of Ghulam Ali, rich in its symbolism, certainly goes a long away to send a strong message to certain kinds of intolerant forces that the India is not united in its attitude of boycotting all things Pakistan. In the macro-politics of the subcontinent, this can only be a good thing. However, when one looks more closely at certain details, things are not so simple in terms of what this means for West Bengal’s own political scenario in terms of signals and symbols and how this fits into the communal/secular divide in West Bengal.
One would have thought that the West Bengal government’s ministry of culture would have hosted the Ghulam Ali concert, since the whole point was to show Hindutva forces that music has no religion. Or was it? But the Ghulam Ali concert was actually hosted by the West Bengal Minorities Development and Finance Corporation. It is unclear how minorities of West Bengal, who are more than 90% Muslim, have anything “special” to do with a Pakistani singer unless the West Bengal government wants to suggest that Ghulam Ali of Pakistan belongs more to West Bengal’s Muslims than the rest of its people. Neither is Ghulam Ali’s Urdu a shared bond since only a minuscule percentage of West Bengal’s minorities speak Urdu. This suggestion by which a large section of the population of West Bengal is reduced simply to being Muslim and, after that , that flattened identity is not-so-subtly connected in some special way to a Muslim-singer from Pakistan, provides fuel to the worst kind of stereotypes that exist about Muslims in India.
Such a conceptualisation of the West Bengal Muslim is hardly different from the Hindutva concept of Muslims being suspect citizens harbouring a special warmth for Pakistan.
In May 2015, Banerjee’s government had hosted the stalwart Urdu poet Allama Iqbal’s grandson Waleed Iqbal in Kolkata. Waleed, a Pakistan citizen, came from Lahore, on the invitation of the state government-funded West Bengal Urdu Academy to receive an award on behalf of his long deceased grandfather. Again, while there’s nothing wrong in felicitating a famous Urdu poet, the Muslim connotation that Trinamool adds to Urdu makes this instance equally troubling.
This is also apparent from Trinamool Congress’ 2011 Lok Sabha election manifesto where it effortlessly mentioned madrassas and Urdu schools together, thus revealing what it thinks of Urdu and Muslims. In text, it conflates Muslims and Urdu and in the subtext of concerts and felicitations, it conflates Urdu and Pakistan and perhaps most dangerously, Muslims and Pakistan.
Representation vs tokenism
More than 90% of West Bengal’s Muslims are Bengalis who speak Bangla as their mother-tongue and have nothing more to do with Urdu or Pakistan or Ghulam Ali or Allama Iqbal than their Hindu Bengali counterparts. Muslim Bengalis form nearly 25% of the state population but are thoroughly under-represented in the Muslim leadership of the Trinamool. Given the relatively minuscule population of non-Bengali Muslims in West Bengal, these MPs serve the dual purpose of not having a mass-base to bargain with the Trinamool leadership but come handy for the party to showcase its Muslim-representation credentials.
And here lies the heart of the matter: Representative leaders of Muslim Bengalis in West Bengal would be people with an autonomous mass-base, who could therefore pose a threat to Trinamool’s Muslim vote-management policy. In the pre-Partition period, Sher-e-Bangla AKM Fazlul Haque, the prime minister of undivided Bengal, created precisely such an independent power base among the Muslim Bengali peasantry – by struggling against feudal caste-Hindu Bengali interests aligned with the Congress and feudal and ashraf non-Bengali interests aligned with the Muslim League. West Bengal’s Muslim Bengalis today lack their Fazlul Haque, thus allowing Banerjee to under-represent them in favour of the Urdu clique.
The hosting of Ghulam Ali and Waleed Iqbal must be seen in this context.
Certain kinds of pronouncements of separateness and exclusivity, declared or foisted upon, however much in the garb of “acknowledging” a community, can become Frankenstein’s monsters. This was apparent during the recent Malda violence when a call for blasphemy protest about an old incident in far away Uttar Pradesh brought out tens of thousands of West Bengal Muslims.
In 1992, West Bengal witnessed the other side of this long-range solidarity when many in central Kolkata bought bricks at a premium for funding the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. This wicked form of “solidarity politics” that joins Muslims of Malda to “blasphemy” in Uttar Pradesh and beyond, and also joins Hindus of central Kolkata to Hindus of UP, is destructive to the core.
Politics of real empowerment of West Bengal’s Muslims is long and arduous, can be unpopular to start with, and may face opposition from entrenched Kolkata ashrafs and other powers. But who said it would be easy?