Lessons from Bengal & Jahangirpuri: Lip service to Muslims

AAP, TMC & SP have all received support from Muslims but in return have paid lip service to the community. Efforts by the UPA to ensure equality & security, though inadequate, were stalled by the BJP

Lessons from Bengal & Jahangirpuri: Lip service to Muslims
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Rahul Mukherjee

The Aam Aadmi Party Government in Delhi remained conspicuously silent following the communal violence last month in Jahangirpuri, a resettlement colony in NE Delhi where people evicted from JJ colonies were settled in the 1970s. The party did engage with the BJP in a slanging match regarding the political affiliation of Ansar, the main “accused”. AAP leaders like Atishi and Raghav Chadha then issued statements alleging that the BJP-led central government had settled Bangladeshis and Rohingyas all over the country with the objective of inciting riots.

It did not matter that almost all residents, Hindus or Muslims, in Jahangirpuri had been residing there for decades; that many of them originally hailed from Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, South 24 Parganas and West Midnapore districts of West Bengal. Significantly, while some Bengalis voiced their outrage at the treatment of originally Bengali speaking Muslims from the state, the Bengal Government and Trinamool Congress remained silent.

But what was lost in the slanging match was what actually drives so many, more Muslims than Hindus, from Bengal to other states in search of livelihood? What exactly is the condition of Muslims, who account for nearly 30% of Bengal’s population? Significantly, the Mamata Banerjee government, or her party, AITC, are yet to issue a statement condemning the labelling of the state’s citizens as “Bangladeshis and Rohingyas”. Both AAP and AITC of course take Muslims’ support for granted.

In 2011, former Delhi High Court Justice Dr. Rajinder Sachar met Mamata Banerjee, then the chief minister of the state, as well as the minister of minority affairs on the sidelines of a seminar in Kolkata. But 11 years later, expectations that issues plaguing the Muslims in the state would be dealt with fairness and objectivity have been belied. It was expected that Development Deficit in socio-cultural, education and employment sectors would be identified and measures would be initiated to address the same on a war footing. But that was not to be.

The Sachar Committee report provided a heartbreaking picture of the backwardness of Muslims in India compared to other communities. Numerous reports and recommen-dations have been tabled since then, but no qualitative change has been observed in the lives of Muslims. Recommendations of the Sachar Committee remain just that, recommendations.

The current dispensation at the Centre has further complicated the issue of Muslims and their identity as Indians, to the extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a good Muslim and a patriotic Indian at the same time, as if they are mutually exclusive. The situation is no different in West Bengal, generally known to be the flag bearer of secularism, plurality, peace and progressive politics and policies.

Bengal however is no stranger to communalism. Successive state governments have nurtured communalism, either overtly or covertly. As a result, our identity as a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian has come to the forefront, and politics in Bengal has been gradually transformed into a wrestling arena where communalism is the weapon of governance and minority development has taken a backseat.

Though the UPA by the Congress and the Left Front government in Bengal took steps to address the concerns raised by late Justice Sachar, these initiatives remain too little and came too late, though they serve as a benchmark.

Bengal has been free of communal riots” and “We have managed to stop BJP in their tracks” have been offered as consolation by the Trinamool Congress for its failure to implement concrete policies for the upliftment of Muslims.

The state government, instead, has increasingly resorted to “tokenism”. This has had a counter reaction in the form of consolidation of Hindu votes in the state in favour of the BJP. The ruling dispensation, smug in the belief that Muslims do not have an alternative to Trinamool Congress, have neglected other avenues of development. Instead, there has been a blatant attempt to counter the aggressive Hindutva of RSS-BJP through state sponsored events like conclave of priests, distribution of Bhagvad Gita, Ram Navami celebrations etc.

During the tenure of the UPA at the Centre and the Left Front in the state, significant sections of the Muslim population in Bengal were declared OBCs and were thus beneficiaries of 10% reservation in government jobs. The Aligarh Muslim University campus in Murshidabad came up as a shining example of Centre-state joint initiative.

The UPA government also came up with the “Prime Minister’s 15-point Agenda”. This was applicable in 90 districts where Muslim population was 20% or more. This is what we know as the MSDP, a programme geared towards compre-hensive development of the Muslim community. It is worth mentioning that West Bengal, under the seventh Left Front government, was the first among the major states in India to implement this development project.

But that is all in the past. Let us examine, what the current state government could have implemented with respect to the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report.

1. Creation of Equal Opportunity Commission: Recommended by the Sachar Commission in 2008, the commission was meant to ensure that every citizen, irrespective of caste, religion and creed would be entitled to equal opportunities in receiving the benefits of government schemes. While the present Union Government is unlikely to set up such a commission, there is no reason why the state government cannot.

2. Participation of Muslims in governance: The minorities or their elected representatives do not seem to have any say at all in framing of government policies that affect them. Seven Muslims have been made either cabinet or state ministers in West Bengal but in reality, there is hardly any work for them. Individuals affiliated to the RSS have found themselves in important committees in the state, but Muslims rarely do. Muslims clearly do not have proportional representation in the state government, despite the oft-repeated canard of Muslim appeasement.

3. Muslim representation in Parliament: There are 16 MPs in the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal, 14 are from the Trinamool Congress and two from Congress. Only two belong to the minority community, both from the ruling party in the state. One of them is an editor of publications, Kalam in Bengali and Akhbaar-e-Mashriq in Urdu. It is hardly a coincidence that both these publications are mouthpieces of the ruling party and the government, but fail to voice the concerns of common Muslims.


4. Representation in Municipalities and Panchayats: The Left Front government had enacted a law to empower people belonging to other backward classes (OBCs) in the Panchayati Raj system. But the backward classes in West Bengal are classified into two categories, ‘A’ and ‘B’. In section ‘A’, 90% or more belong to Muslim backward classes and in section ‘B’, the majority belong to other religious communities. But in the last 3-tier panchayat elections, these two sections were allegedly merged to the detriment of Muslims. Concerted attempts are on to silence the voice of the minority in the rural areas.

5. Urbanization of Muslims: West Bengal has the least number of Muslims in urban areas. There has been no noticeable change since the Sachar Commission took note of this. The minister in charge of Urban Development belongs to the minority community but it is not known whether any plan is afoot to change the situation.

6. Formation of Waqf Corporation in the State: The Congress government at the Centre had constituted a Waqf Development Corporation under the aegis of the Waqf Council. Rs.100 crores were allocated for the purpose of identifying properties under Waqf Boards and developing them as educational and training institutions, housing and generating employment for the minority communities. There are many such properties in West Bengal. Kolkata alone has 14 such properties. But relevant documents and records are gathering dust in the offices of the Waqf Board.

7. Legislation to reduce communal tension and riots: Despite the traumatic Partition based on religion, fissures between the two main religious communities had rarely come out in the open. But the events of the 1990s, especially the Ayodhya Movement, destroyed any semblance of communal harmony in the state. The Congress government had introduced ‘The Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, 2005’ in the Rajya Sabha. The bill could not be passed in the face of stiff opposition from the BJP. The Congress government again tabled an amended, ‘Prevention of Communal Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2013’. This Bill again met the same fate as the previous one. But why can’t state governments, especially in Bengal, table and pass similar Bills in the state legislative assembly?

In Bengal, some of the groundwork had been done by UPA at the Centre and the LF in Bengal. Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee, could and should have built up on that foundation. But forget new schemes and initiatives or policies, this government has failed to sustain and preserve what it inherited. This is symbolic of the apathy faced by Muslims in Bengal in all walks of life, under different governments, in various degrees.

Trinamool Congress, which is into their third successive term in the state, clearly takes minority votes for granted. This was evident when it nominated BJP turncoat Babul Supriyo as its candidate in the Ballygunge assembly constituency bypoll. The same BJP MP and Union Minister Babul Supriyo who was accused of instigating the Asansol riots.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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