In the immense crush of the crowd, young Abuzar Gafari stood out because of his printed t-shirt. “Bhaijan amar jan,” it read in Bengali. My life for bhaijan.

The bhaijan or elder brother is Abbas Siddiqui, a peerzada or descendent of the 19th century sufi saint Abu Bakr Siddiqui, who played a significant role in making Furfura Sharif, a sufi shrine less than two hours from Kolkata, into a magnet for Bengalis Muslims spanning present-day West Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh.

Gafari was one of the lakhs who attended the Isal-e-Sawab, the annual religious pilgrimage at Furfura Sharif, held in the first week of March this year.

The pilgrimage took place with assembly elections in the state barely weeks away – elections in which Abbas Siddiqui is making his political debut through his newly formed Indian Secular Front.

When he launched the political outfit in January, Siddiqui was propelled to the top ranks of the state’s politics almost immediately, with his importance being underlined by the fact that the Left Front as well as the Congress agreed to ally with him. On February 28, as this new formation held its first rally at Kolkata’s iconic Brigade Parade Ground, Siddiqui emerged as the star, garnering more cheers, applause and media attention than veterans in the Left and Congress.

The 2021 Bengal election is complex as it is. The entry of the wildcard Siddiqui has made it more so. Will Furfura’s stronghold over the Muslims of South Bengal convert into votes for the ISF – thus undercutting the Trinamool’s support base? Or will Mamata Banerjee’s appeal hold fort?

Either way, the ISF’s emergence represents a new phase in Bengali politics, capturing some of the churn that the state’s rural Muslims are experiencing.

My life for bhaijan – “elder brother” Abbas Siddiqui.

Furfura Sharif

To understand the appeal of Siddiqui, it is important to first understand the incredible hold of the Furfura Sharif shrine on Bengali Muslims.

Located in the district of Hooghly, the complex dates from the 14th century. However, it owes much of its current popularity to the efforts of Abu Bakr Siddique, who combined his role as a religious guru with offering guidance in education, social issues and politics to Muslims in 19th-century Bengal.

“Pir Abu Bakr Siddique must have built hundreds of madrassas, hospitals and community centres as well as overseen more than a dozen Bengali publications,” said Abdul Matin, a political scientist at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University who has extensively researched the role of Furfura. “The use of waz mehfils or religious congregations in Bengali helped him reach Muslims across rural Bengal.”

“This massive outreach using the Bengali language was critical in shaping the construction of a Bengali Muslim identity in the late 19th and early 20th century,” Matin explained.

The result of the missionary work that Abu Bakr started – and his descendents continued – can be seen in the annual congregation at Furfura Sharif that attracts millions of Bengali Muslims across West Bengal, Bangladesh and Assam.

Assam’s Shah Jamal was one of the attendees at this year’s congregation. “We set off with 21 buses from Assam’s Darrang district and took two days to get to Furufura,” Jamal said, explaining that his village by the Brahmaputra – a thousand kilometres from Hooghly – had been connected to the shrine by missionaries conducting waz mehfils since colonial times.

Furfura Sharif is crushingly crowded during the Isal-e-Sawab, with lakhs in attendance in order to receive benediction from various peerzadas or descendants of Abu Bakr. In spite of these massive crowds, Furfura Sharif and its hold on rural Muslim find little mention in Bengal’s mainstream media. Even the Muslims of Kolkata – largely Urdu speaking – know little about it, in fact.

Shah Jamal from Assam's Darrang district at Furfura Sharif.

Enter politics

The first to recognise the political potential of Furfura was Mamata Banerjee, who turned to the shrine’s hold on rural Bengal in order to help her unseat the Left – part of the Trinamool’s general outreach to subaltern identity groups, both Hindu and Muslim – that had written about in 2016.

For this, Banerjee roped in Toha Siddique, also a peerzada at the shrine, who extended support to the party. A decade later, the Left is now attempting to beat Banerjee at her own game.

In a conversation with, Mohammed Salim of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that ISF represents backward caste rural Bengali Muslims. “This is a churning where rural, marginalised sections are taking power,” Salim argued. “Islamia college, Mohammedan Sporting Club or Muslim Orphanage [prominent centres of Kolkata’s Urdu-speaking Muslims] don’t represent Bengali Muslims.”

While Abbas stuck to bread and butter issues durng his Brigade speech, the only hint at identity was his unmistakable emphasis on the word “pani” – the Bengali word for water used specifically by Muslims (Hindu Bengalis use “jol”). Like Salim, it was clear that Abbas knew the identitarian angle ISF was targetting.

And while Furfura might have entered politics via Toha Siddique, at the 2021 Isal-e-sawab, the largest, most enthusiastic crowds were reserved for his nephew, Abbas Siddique. The road outside his house swelled dangerously with young men, desperately eager to see him. As they waited, their enthusiasm found vent in a chant: “shirai shirai rokto, bhaijaner bhokto”. We are devotees of Abbas till there is blood in our veins.

Radical popularity

Abbas Siddique’s popularity has received mainstream attention only now – but it is not new. For the past five years now, he has cultivated a wide following amongst the rural Muslims of Bengal, using both his position as peerzada as well as his fiery oratory which freely spans religion, social issues and, increasingly, politics.

Cultivating an audience that is almost exclusively young and male, many of Siddique’s positions are radical – a fact that has created problems for him of late with two of his videos going viral. In one, delivered after the 2020 Delhi riots, he asks for a “virus” that would “kill 10-20-50 crore people”. In another, he attacked Trinamool MP and actor Nusrat Jahan for “putting up a charade using Islam”. “You will go to mandirs and mosques – is Islam your father’s property? Leave Islam – become a Hindu or a Christian, we have no problem,” he said in the undated video. “If Abbas ever comes to power, he will tie you to a tree and thrash you.”

Till now, Siddique has provided little by way of an explanation for these videos. In one interview, he asked for his statements prior to January 2021 – when he formally entered politics – to be ignored: “That Abbas was of a different ideology, leave him be.”

A large crowd of young men to see Abbas Siddiqui at Furfura Sharif.

Ambedkarite template

As part of this “different ideology” since forming the ISF, Siddique has stuck scrupulously to socio-economic issues affecting Muslims as well other backward groups. In multiple public statements since then, he has mentioned Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram as role models, clearly trying to imitate the Bahujan Samaj Party’s mix of backward identity and socio-economic issues. Following that script, the ISF’s first candidate list for the upcoming elections is only half Muslim.

Much of this is also reflected on the ground in ISF’s political mobilisation. While Siddique’s support base is limited to Muslims and often rests on the popularity of the Furfura shrine, the ISF’s talking points are mostly about remedying socio-economic backwardness. “TMC has carried out open loot in this area,” points out Munshi Baqi Billa, an ISF worker in Tona village in South 24 Parganas district. “All the Amphan money [sanctioned by the state government as relief after the May supercyclone] was taken by local leaders. We didn’t see a paisa.”

Conversations with ISF members in fact repeatedly bring up the 2005 Sachar Committee report which showed that while Indian Muslims as a whole suffered from debilitating economic and educational backwardness, Bengal’s Muslims were a laggard even compared to other Muslims. “We know Muslims here are very backward. But instead of jobs and education all we got from Mamata was Hindu-Muslim,” argued Mohammed Faizul Islam, an ISF worker in North 24 Parganas district.

Attacking ‘appeasment’

While Mamata Banerjee has long been accused of “appeasement” by the BJP, the ISF cadre also blame her for using Muslim symbols – but doing nothing substantive for the community. “Mamata does drama,” said Munshi Abdur Rahman of Tona village. “She wears the hijab and says inshallah, mashallah, subhanallah and we think she is ours. But she does no actual work for Muslims. Instead she has created a Hindu-Muslim divide.”

This idea, that Banerjee has engineered a communal divide for political reasons comes right from the top in the ISF. “What was the need to stop Durga Puja to allow for Muharram,” Siddique said in February referring to a controversial 2017 incident where the Trinamool adminstration put restrictions on idol immersion citing a clash with the Muslim festival of Muharram. “They have been held together in Bengal for thousands of years but under your leadership today it is causing a problem?”

Outside the immediate ISF support base, though, such ideas taper off quickly. In his mid-50s, Rafiquddin works as a decorator and is a self-confessed Trinamool voter. He accepts that the ISF has support in his area, the Bhangar Assembly Constituency in the South 24 Parganas district. But he rejects as impractical, accusations that the Trinamool is not doing enough for Muslims. “See what Modi is saying about [Muslim] appeasement. So Muslims will have to adjust here,” he argued. “Look at Uttar Pradesh. Muslims get no seats there. What will happen if ISF cuts the vote and BJP comes [to power] here?”

Elderly Rafiquddin argues that Muslims in Bengal must be temperate in their demands given that a split in Muslim votes might lead to the BJP coming to power.

‘Vote cutter’

Siddique, meanwhile, rejects the charge that by splitting the Trinamool’s Muslims vote, the ISF will help the BJP. “The Muslim vote is not Mamata’s personal property,” he argued. “It was earlier with the Left now is with the Trinamool and can come to me.”

In his argument, the ISF would do exceedingly well in its debut, winning all 37 seats assigned to it as part of the coalition. “Wherever I put up candidates, we will win. There, it will be the Trinamool who cuts my votes.”

Siddique, in fact, counters that if anything, his Left-led coalition will cut BJP votes. “The Leftist who joined the BJP are now returning after the Brigade Rally,” he proposed, referring to the February 28 rally held jointly with the Congress and the Left.

Two weeks after the rally, however, in the main support bases of the ISF in North and South 24 Parganas, there was little sign of Left activity. “For a long time Left workers have not been allowed to do politics here,” admitted Nur Amin, a Trinamool worker in Gosainpur village under North 24 Pargana’s Haroa assembly constituency that has been allotted to the ISF. “Not much has changed till now. They are not doing any election work in the open.”

Rather than the Left or even the ISF, most of the opposition in the Muslim-majority area in fact comes from the Trinamool itself. Amin’s local panchayat head is involved in a protracted war with the area’s party head. While this model has caused immense resentment, with ordinary villagers disgusted with the chaotic corruption it has spawned, the Trinamool could have reason to be satisfied that its main opposition is in-house rather than from a different party.