Kolkata: Two important developments are expected to make an impact on West Bengal politics in the weeks ahead – one to be announced on January 21 and the other initiated quietly in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad in the first week of this month.
On January 21, Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif, a well-known Muslim pilgrimage in Hooghly district, will announce the launch of a political party, which is expected to have some bearing on the upcoming Assembly elections. Muslims form a sizable electorate in the state.
On the other hand, at a three-day Samanvaya Baithak in Ahmedabad held from January 5, the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is understood to have counselled Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Jagat Prakasah Nadda to exercise restraint on admitting Trinamool Congress (TMC) members into the party just for the sake of swelling its ranks and fielding defectors with some base as candidates in the Assembly elections due to be held in the summer this year.
New Political Front
Under normal circumstances, launch of a political party by a Muslim cleric even in West Bengal, which has a strong Muslim presence, would not have attracted as much attention as has the move of Abbas, who appears to have broken ranks with Pirzada Twaha Siddiqui, the dominant personality at Furfura Sharif. For a fairly long time, Siddiqui has been a supporter of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
In recent days, Abbas has given two indications; first, his party is interested in tying up with a big, national party with strong secular credentials, and secondly, his party will be a platform, which will accommodate organisations representing backward classes irrespective of their religion or faith. In this context, it may be mentioned that two senior Congress leaders, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Abdul Mannan together met Abbas in recent weeks. Mannan separately had a follow-up meeting with the cleric a few days back.
Also significant is the observation made by the state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Suryakanta Mishra at a recent TV discussion on the subject. “Abbas has said that he will broad base his party with outfits representing socially oppressed people and backward classes. We are aware of what had happened in Bihar,”Mishra told the anchor who had asked the CPI(M) leader about the association of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen with the proposed party of the Furfura cleric. Owaisi has made it clear that the AIMIM will fight the West Bengal elections under the leadership of Abbas and given the language barrier, will field their own candidates only in a small number of constituencies.
Which Way will Muslims Sway?
Keeping in view the AIMIM factor and the apparent split in the top echelon of Furfura Sharif, NewsClick spoke to a number of influential persons from the Muslim community in a bid to gauge their thinking and assessment of the emerging situation.
According to Census 2011, West Bengal had 27.1% Muslim population and is behind Assam, whose Muslim population was placed at 34.22%. West Bengal ranks fourth if the Muslim population of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep (96.68%), and Jammu & Kashmir (68.31%) is reckoned. Further, in West Bengal’s three districts--Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur--their share tops 50%. There are other districts with a sizeable Muslim concentration as well. Overall, they are a factor to reckon with in close to 90 constituencies, which is over 30% of the total 294 seats. It is widely believed that in the 10 years since the last Census, the numbers might have only risen.
President of the West Bengal branch of All India Imam Muezzin and Social Welfare Organisation, Maulana Shafique Qasmi told NewsClick that people in the state are secular in their outlook and divisive forces would not succeed in their game. “The TMC ministry has done a lot of work; some deficiencies are there and will be there. AIMIM is only testing the waters,” said Qasmi, who is also the Imam of the well-known Nakhoda Masjid in Kolkata and vice-president of All India Milli Council.
General secretary of the Murshidabad unit of the national Imam outfit, Abdur Rajjak echoed Qasmi’s assessment and claimed that the beneficiaries of their welfare activity always include Hindus, adivasis and also people from other faiths. “Because of our secular stance, communal forces do not succeed in their game plan in our district. We are very particular about preserving communal amity,” Rajjak said.
“Bengali-speaking Muslims are committed to preserving communal harmony in the state. Communal forces can’t divide them,” asserted Abduf Salam, general secretary of the state unit of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind.
Beyond the communal amity aspect on which they are unanimous, they made certain interesting observations. Qasmi said they were in favour of bringing back the ballot paper system. “From time to time, aberrations of the EVM mechanism have surfaced. But we are sticking to it. Doubts linger about the results of some 25 constituencies in Bihar,” he observed.
Rajjak made two points—firstly, the Furfura situation reflects clash of personalities and there is no need to take note of it; secondly, the Muslims should have more opportunities for improving their quality of life.
Salam told NewsClick, “We are regularly trying to assess how much the Hindus are getting influenced by the BJP’s high-decibel campaigns and assurances to make the state ‘Sonar Bangla’.” It may be mentioned that his organisation is a partner of the TMC and the organisation’s president Siddiqullah Chowdhury is the minister for mass education and library services in the present government.
BJP’s Bid to Win Without Turncoats
It is apparent that Muslim outfits in the state have taken note of the aggressive campaign by the BJP and its often-repeated intention of grabbing power for the first time in West Bengal. They are already on the job of alerting people about the dangers they will face should the BJP succeed. “They want religious leaders to guide the electorate tactfully” -- this was one of the forceful pleas at the well-attended gathering on January 10 at Berhampore in Murshidabad district, where Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury, who represents the constituency in Lok Sabha, wields considerable influence.
Sources from informed quarters suggest that at the Ahmedabad baithak, the RSS top brass made it clear that they want the BJP leaders to be choosy in accepting defectors from the TMC so as to ensure that the “chal, charitra and chehra” of the Sangh family is not dented. A screening committee comprising experienced RSS functionaries will assess the aspiring party members and their crime record, and satisfaction of the screening panel should be the only criterion for the person’s admission.
Prant Karyavah of West Bengal, Jishnu Basu told NewsClick that the BJP has grown in the state and the party is better placed to take care of its requirements. But then, there is a need to ensure that a balanced view is taken and if the situation warrants RSS intervention, the needful is done.
Against this backdrop of the conclave in Ahmedabad, it may be mentioned that Nadda was in West Bengal for the party’s ‘Connect with Farmers’ programme on January 9, that is, after the Ahmedabad meeting. Significantly, there was no “switch-over and, therefore, no ceremonial handing over of the BJP flag”. The RSS stance should be comforting for Mamata and her party if the BJP leadership follows their ideological guide’s caution in letter and spirit, say political observers.
“Keeping in view the growing instances of infiltration from Bangladesh and instances of Islamic radicalism, raising awareness among the people is being given top priority,” Basu said.
Meanwhile, the Election Commission is making assessment of the prevailing situation in the state at short intervals by deputing Sudeep Jain, the deputy EC.