On a balmy evening, a non-secular denizen of India left a message in my mailbox which mocked the Left Front’s alliance with Abbas Siddiqui’s newly-created political party Indian Secular Front (ISF). The message contained a sickle and hammer in green, as opposed to the customary red, along with a distorted name-Communist Party of India. The attempt to mock was in no way a worry about the slide of the Left into the communal abyss—which is certainly not the case—but the unease an elite-caste chauvinist Hindu faces when he sees Muslim assertion.
Prejudice and bias against the Muslims have been historically belied. And what a trick Clio the Muse of history played on the sub-continent wherein it was not a pious maulana who went ahead with the bloody vivisection of the country but a secular, modernist and suave lawyer, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Jinnah’s main allies were the feudal lords who feared dispossession from an impending bourgeois-democratic India. Obversely, undivided India produced forward-looking Maulanas, such as Maulana Hasrat Mohani, the earliest member of the Communist Party of India, who gave us the revolutionary slogan of Inquilab Zindabad later popularised by Marxist revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh and his comrades and the left-wing within the Congress party.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad of the Congress also remained steadfastly with the idea of a secular and undivided India and became independent India’s first education minister. The moral of the story is that it is not the skullcap but the brain underneath it which carries the message of progress or regress.
The Indian Muslims according to the Sachar Committee report carry a double burden i.e., they are accused of being “anti-national” and “appeased” at the same time. This makes their position and any affirmative action favouring them doubly precarious. No wonder that the Dalits, the Ajlafs and the Arzals within the community remain extremely marginalised and not even subject to the benefits of reservation.
Even Dr BR Ambedkar did not give sufficient attention to the plight of the latter. Had he done so, the clarion call given by him that “I will not die as a Hindu” would have reverberated with the marginalised Muslims too and allowed the latter to question the hegemony of the Ashrafiyat and their constricting grip over the community at large.
The end result of this nonchalance was three-fold—even when the Buddhists got a pie in the reservation cake through a Presidential Ordinance in the 1950s and the non-elite Muslim castes are largely kept out, rent-seeking leadership within the Muslims became the chief cashiers of what came to be pithily known as the “vote-bank” and the failure of a bottom-up movement allowed regressive bodies such as the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board to direct unctuous politicians in their nefarious ways.
The situation has become so bad that now it was for the BJP to act on instant triple talaq, albeit in a manner which best suited their political tactics, and the mantle of the leadership of the Muslims has fallen upon the likes of AIMIM’s Owaisi brothers who play second fiddle to the BJP, carry the distinction of being the only political party in India of having no electoral manifesto and have a feudal lineage in the Razakars of the Nizam’s Hyderabad.
The economic plight of the Muslims in India can be gauged from the fact that 84.5% of Muslim households spend no more than Rs. 20 per day and Rs. 609 per month and belong to the “extremely poor”, “poor”, “marginal”, and “vulnerable” sections of the population. The middle-income group which constitutes 13.3% of the Indian Muslim households spend only a meagre Rs. 1,098 per month or Rs. 37 per day as per capita consumption. Only 2.2% of Indian Muslims, who are regarded as a high-income category, spend Rs. 2,776 per month or Rs. 93 per day. As per the 2011 Census, the average literacy rate among Muslims is 59.1% as opposed to 65.1% of the Hindus.
It is also interesting that the average literacy rate of Muslim males is 67.6% as opposed to 76.2% among Hindu males, a gap of 8.6%. Whereas among Hindu and Muslim females the average literacy rate stands at 53.2% and 50.1% respectively, a gap of only 3.1%.
Between Hindu males and females, the average literacy rate stands at 76.2% and 53.2% respectively marking a massive gap of 23%. However, between Muslim males and females the average literacy rate stands at 67.6% and 50.1% respectively, marking a gap of 17.5%.
So, in both cases, women are lagging much behind their male counterparts. The data also demolishes the myth that the Muslims are an inward looking community and particularly conservative on the question of education and empowerment of women.
TMC’s misrule for the past ten years has not only made things difficult for the people of West Bengal but has allowed for the meteoric rise of the BJP. The latter has brought out the communal ghost which the Left had bottled up and buried under the ground during the 34 years of its rule. Both the people and political observers of Bengal are flummoxed at the deteriorating communal situation in the state.
All are wondering how, despite the presence of a so-called secular TMC regime, communal clashes are becoming commonplace along with the venomous communalisation of the peaceful public sphere.
The answer lies in history. Since its birth the TMC has been an opportunist political party. It allied with the BJP from the beginning and the state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and other leaders of her party were cabinet ministers in former prime minister the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet.
After milking the BJP, the TMC chose to go it alone and forge a new social arithmetic, which if found in the Muslims of Bengal, who constitute around 27.3% of the state population. Banerjee cited the Sachar report, used the death of Rizwanur Rehman and many other instances to rally Muslims behind her against the Left. The price the people of Bengal have had to pay is heavy.
After officially parting ways with the TMC, the BJP sold to the people of Bengal, especially the Hindu majority, that the Muslims are being appeased by Banerjee. However, facts do not sustain this false declaration. An important post-Sachar study of the condition of Muslims conducted by renowned economist Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute found that only 1% of the Muslims have salaried private jobs, 47% of Muslims in rural Bengal are agricultural and non-agricultural labourers, 80% of Muslim households in rural Bengal earn only Rs. 5,000 a month, 38% earn less than Rs. 2,500, and socially, more than 97% of Bengal’s Muslims are in the OBC category. This is the plight of Muslims in Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal! It is through a rampant misinformation campaign run by the BJP through WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and the incendiary speeches by the state BJP leaders that the Muslims are being declared “winners” under Banerjee’s rule, which is certainly not the case.
TMC’s secularism can also be gaged by how its main leaders become members of BJP almost overnight! Another interesting development that goes against the Muslim appeasement thesis is the formation of the Indian Secular Front by Abbas Siddiqui. The fact that poor Muslims have got a very bad deal from Banerjee’s TMC is what led Siddiqui to float a separate party and align with the Left Democratic and Secular Front.
The BJP marked its rise from the city of Asansol, also called the City of Brotherhood. Unfortunately, it is the brotherhood that has declined under the TMC’s rule, and the BJP has risen on the back of the communal tide and successfully polarised the city’s citizenry. The working poor of the city, Hindu or Muslim, are extremely ill-paid. The lack of industry and manufacturing units has seen the mushrooming of service sectors in the city. This adds to the already pre-existing merchant economy of the city which consists of retail and wholesale shops, workshops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, malls, small and medium manufacturing units.
The working conditions and the life of workers are miserable, to say the least. Despite the Government of West Bengal’s average minimum wage stipulation for unskilled labour which stands at Rs. 8,530 per month (2020), not more than 1% of the working labour get the stipulated wage. In Asansol, the average rate, in a sample survey conducted of 50 such establishments, is not more than Rs. 6,000 per month. Such a paltry amount fails to sustain even a family of four members.
Such injustices are primarily because of the immense weakness of workers solidarity in Asansol and the absence of unions in the unorganised/informal sector. However, merchant capitalists have three organised chambers of commerce to rally the ruling government in their favour. Things have become worse because the BJP is channelising the anger of the working poor for its egregious communal-electoral agenda.
Asansol and adjoining areas have seen two major communal incidents. The history of communal riots establishes that it is not the rich who suffer and die in them but the poor, from both Hindu and Muslim communities. During Left front government’s 34-year term, inter-religious peace prevailed.
Left-liberal commentators are seeing the ISF’s alliance with the Left as opportunist and pregnant with the possibility of fanning the raging flames of Hindutva in Bengal. But this alliance clearly undercuts the “wholesale appeasement thesis” bandied about by the BJP. Yes, there are instances of the Peerzada’s excesses especially regarding his comments on women, insistence on following the “right” Islam and his condescending demeanour towards allies in public.
But these cannot blind us to the possibilities of this alliance. Abbas has made it clear the ISF is not a sectarian political party but would cater to the plebian classes of all denominations, Hindu, tribal, Dalit and Muslims. The President of ISF is a tribal. Progressives should also wager on the possibility of Abbas becoming a mature politician with a sense of responsibility, something which is inevitable given the threat that Hindutva poses.
The author is a research scholar with the Department of World History, University of Cambride. The views are personal.