It has become commonplace in some circles for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to be attacked for seeming to appease Muslims in West Bengal. While some of that criticism is justified, it is more accurate to read Banerjee’s politics under two different rubrics: there’s Muslim appeasement but there’s also Muslim empowerment.
Banerjee’s decision to pay a monthly remuneration to imams is certainly an act of appeasement. However, giving scholarships to Muslim students and to include the community in Other Backward Classes should be seen as an act of empowerment. Such affirmative action is vital: according to the Sachar Committee’s report of 2006, Muslims in Bengal are the poorest in India after their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Distinguishing between acts of empowerment and acts of appeasement has become especially relevant because the recent spurt in violence in Bengal is interpreted in some quarters as being the result of a fundamentalist community having been emboldened by a friendly government.
A recent report, titled “Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal” and prepared by the Social Network for Assistance to People, Guidance Guild and Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust, states that nearly 80% rural Muslim households in the state have a monthly income of Rs 5,000 or less, which is barely above the poverty line. A little over 38% of these households earn less than Rs 2,500 a month.
The literacy rate among Muslims in Bengal is 68.3%, which is 4% below the state average. Muslim representation in the agricultural sector is an overwhelming 47%, a meagre 1.55% in school teaching and 1.54% in the public sector. Muslims form 27% of the state’s population.
After taking power in 2011, Banerjee has sought to address this. Her government disbursed scholarships to Muslim students, allocated substantial funds to Aliah University, a Muslim minority institution, included Muslims in the OBC list, named a university after Kazi Nazrul Islam and set up a research dedicated to the iconic poet. More importantly, perhaps, Muslims feel included in state-led development.
The use of violence by Muslims in Bengal in recent times needs to be placed in context. Towards the end of the Left Front rule, around the time the Sachar Committee report was published in 2006, Muslims were frustrated about their poor socio-economic deprivation: they fared abysmally on indicators such as health, education, public sector jobs, access to drinking water, electricity. But instead of taking out processions demanding jobs, Muslims in Bengal often resorted to violence as their frustrations were transposed to religious matters by an irresponsible political leadership. For instance, in 2007, Muslims in Kolkata, under the banner of the All India Minority Forum, went on rampage, demanding that Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasrin be expelled from the state. It was later revealed that the protest had been staged at the behest of the Congress leader and president of the Minority Forum Idris Ali. “I feel proud to have been associated with the movement,” Ali claimed when his handiwork was exposed. He was subsequently suspended by the party.
Ali’s case shows how easily the line between empowerment and appeasement blurs in Bengal. Most mainstream parties, including on the Left, hand out patronage to Muslim leaders in order to manage the minority community for them. Ali, for one, has now resurfaced in the ruling Trinamool Congress, giving credence to accusations about Banerjee’s politics of Muslim appeasement.
Having seen leaders such as Ali face no consequences, ordinary Muslims have felt emboldened to express their disappointment through violence: in 2015, for example, a Muslim mob barricaded roads when it became known that the police had detained a group of madrassa boys at Sealdah station, travelling from Bihar to Pune. In 2016, Muslims in Kliachak, Malda, resorted to violent protests after Hindu Mahasabha leader Akhilesh Tiwari made offensive comments against the Prophet. Most recently, Muslims in Baduria, North 24 Parganas, laid siege to the local police station and damaged Hindu homes and businesses in response to an offensive Facebook image of the Prophet. Each of these incidents had a common trigger – “hurt religious sentiment”.
There is no doubt that Hindutva groups are stoking communal tension in a concerted effort to win Bengal for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The success of communal forces depends on how effectively they can blur the line between empowerment and appeasement. It is imperative for the state’s Muslims, particularly their misguided leaders, to rethink their strategies.
Mosarrap H Khan is a founding editor at Cafe Dissensus.