The most striking recent addition to Kidderpore in Kolkata in an obelisk in the middle of a roundabout with Iqbal’s stirring paean to India, Saare Jahaan se Achchhaa, engraved on it. Even more impressive is the fact that the Urdu poem is inscribed in three scripts: Perso-Arabic, Devanagri and, most bravely, Bengali. On a tree, across the road from the monument is a board advertising free career counselling services organised by the Dawat-e-Quran Education and Welfare trust. Behind that is the office of the area’s legislator in the West Bengal Assembly: Farhad Hakim or, as he’s more popularly known the area, Bobby-da.
Urdu, Islam, aspirational students and the Trinamool: this one visual snapshot sums up Kidderpore in 2016 quite well.
Kidderpore is one of Kolkata’s oldest neighbourhood and home to the first deep-water port in India, established in 1780. Given that caste rules meant it was primarily Muslims who served in the riverine port, it is an overwhelmingly Muslim area with small pockets of Anglo-Indian residents. Later, the area would be home to jute mills – the economic engine of colonial Kolkata – drawing in again largely Muslim labour from all across north India. This pattern of industrial migration meant that Urdu-speaking Muslims from small towns and qasbas across north India came to dominate Kolkata even as Bengal’s large Muslim cultivator class stuck on in the village.
In spite of their small numbers, Kolkata’s Urdu-speaking Muslims have dominated politics in Bengal being more visible that the much larger population of rural Muslim Bengalis. Till 2011, they were also one of the Left’s most loyal supporters. However, in the five years since Mamata Banerjee came to power, clever politics and some actual development work in the city’s Muslim slums has meant that the city’s Muslims have now mostly switched over to the Trinamool.
“Paani ka maslaa hal kar dees hai, Mamata,” said Shamima Akhtar decisively, arms akimbo. Mamata has solved the water crisis. “She replaced the thin pipe with a thick one. Now we get plenty of water, thrice a day.”
Located on the twin deltas of two massive rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, Bengal is the last place that should suffer from a shortage of water. Yet, Kolkata’s unplanned growth has meant exactly that. The city’s slums, which house three-fourths of its residents, have historically struggled for water. Long queues at the neighbourhood “pipe” – municipal tap – at the start of the day were an irritating if necessary chore. Water was therefore one of the Trinamool’s key focus areas as the party that controlled the Kolkata Municipal Corporation from 2010-’15. New booster stations, fresh pipes and a new treatment plant at Dhapa has mean that Shamima Akhtar is quite pleased. Although this work was done by the Trinamool-controlled Kolkata Municipal corporation, the party has a fair chance of converting this goodwill into votes in the Assembly elections as well.
Hospitals and colleges
And while water might be the biggest improvement to Kidderpore, it’s not the only one. In 2014, Mamata Banerjee refurbished the local maternity hospital and placed it under the state’s largest government hospital SSKM. Right now, construction is on to add a paediatric wing and a blood bank.
Abdul Mannan is waiting outside the hospital, as his daughter-in-law is in labour. “Earlier, this place was very basic and didn’t do ‘Ceasers’ so we had to go to SSKM,” he said referring to the caesarean section. “But now having this in Kidderpore is a big help, since for poor people like us going to a private nursing home isn’t an option.”
And also education: there is a new women’s college in the area, offering undergraduate courses targeted specially at minorities.
Garbage and toilets
Shabir Khan, a taxi driver, picks out Bobby Hakim for special praise. “Idhar kaa sab o hee kiyaa hai”. He’s done everything here. “The garbage dumps are gone, they have built toilets in the basti and installed lights. Trinamool has a good chance here in the port area,” Khan surmised.
Kolkata is one of India’s dirtiest cities. Under the Trinamool, the cities municipal corporation has done away with open vats of garbage, replacing them with modern compactors. Dotting Kidderpore, easily one of the dirtiest parts of the city, they’ve made a significant difference. And even as Mumbai takes to cruelly punishing the poor for public urination, Kolkata has taken to building toilets. The KMC claims it built more than 5,000 sanitation latrines in Kolkata’s slums in 2012-13 alone.
Outside Kidderpore’s Sola Ana graveyard, the city’s largest Muslim burial ground, there have been installed the Trinamool’s characteristically wonky trident street lights. At a pan-and-cigarette shop outside the graveyard, Aman Sheikh says this is the first time this area has been lit up. “Sola Ana graveyard used to always be dark and the lights never worked.” From 2010-15, the KMC claims to have installed more than 11,400 new light posts all across the city.
From Left to Trinamool
This sort of development meant that the Trinamool swept the Kolkata municipal elections in 2015, winning 80% of the wards in the city. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) came in a very distant second with 10%. Even though the scale of the defeat was shocking, the CPI(M) was always a party uneasy in Kolkata. The true paradigm shift in the 2015 KMC election was maybe reflected in the way Kolkata’s Muslim neighbourhood’s voted.
Kolkata’s Muslims have been strong Left supporters, since the Communists ended the city’s bloody tradition of communal riots that were an endemic part of Congress rule in West Bengal. In 2015, however, Kolkata’s Muslims – in areas such as Park Circus, Rajabazar and Kidderpore itself – voted in large numbers for the Trinamool, swayed largely by the party’s development work in the slums. Indications point to the fact that even in the Assembly elections, Banerjee has maintained this Kolkata Muslim support.
Playing the Muslim identity
Unfortunately, the Trinamool hasn’t only stopped at development work in its wooing of Kolkata’s Muslims – it has also descended into the politics of communal identity. Something the Left did not do; or at least did not do on the Trinamool’s scale. In Delhi, the imam of the Jama Masjid cynically supports political parties (his admirable flexibility on the matter means he has backed both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party at different times). Mamata Banerjee has now bought this odious practise to Kolkata, canvassing for the support of the imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan’s mosque.
In this politics of Muslim identity, she has also conflated Urdu with Muslimness, hosting Urdu soirees and inviting Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali to the city on state expense. While Urdu is the language of most of Kolkata’s Muslims, a vast majority of the state’s Muslims – making up 27% of West Bengal’s population – have Bengali as their mother tongue. This Trinamool bias towards Kolkata’s Muslims is reflected in Banerjee’s cabinet as well, which has three Urdu-speaking Muslims and 2 Muslim Bengalis. Under the Left in 2006, in comparison, only one Muslim minister out of 5 spoke Urdu.
That said, in the 2016 Assembly campaign, the Trinamool stuck admirably to the issue of development in Kolkata’s Muslim neighbourhoods. At least for now, the party feels it has a comfortable hold on the demographic and there is no need for communal rhetoric.