Last year, a group of prominent Muslim citizens shot out a letter to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after a couple of incidents, which took place in June and shook the city of joy. While a junior doctor at one of the large government hospitals was brutally assaulted, former Miss India Universe Ushoshi Sengupta was harassed by a gang of bikers. In both cases, there was evidence of involvement of people from the minority community.
“Bring the assailants to book not just in these two instances but in every single instance where Muslims are involved. They should not be allowed to get away because they happen to be Muslims (as is a growing perception). This will send out a message that members of one community are not being shielded or appeased (as most people believe),” the letter read.
There is also a growing perception of Muslim appeasement. Consider this: In 2017, the two-time Chief Minister imposed restrictions on immersion of Durga idol after the five-day Puja celebrations. Reason? It coincided with Muharram. Durga Puja, incidentally, is the biggest festival in the state.
All’s not well in the state
Evidently, there is a perception among the residents of West Bengal that the Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) is into Muslim appeasement, much like the Left Front, which ruled the state for 34 years.
“West Bengal under Banerjee has witnessed riots repeatedly and has severely affected the communal harmony in the state,” a report, published earlier this year, by news organization The EurAsian Times said.
Referred to as Didi, Banerjee, often seen with her head covered in a fashion matching the hijab, stormed to power in 2011 after defeating the Left Front. This was possible primarily because the TMC leader was able to swing the Muslim vote share to her favor. Muslims comprise over 27 per cent of the total population in the state.
In the 2019-20 state Budget, the Banerjee government allocated over Rs 4,000 crore to the madrassas in the state while Rs 3,964 crore for higher education.
“It is no secret that the Chief Minister is into Muslim appeasement, whether or not the mainstream media wants to report these incidents,” a 70-year-old resident of Belgachia, a locality in Kolkata bordering a Muslim-dominated area, told IndiaNarrative.com on condition of anonymity. “It is naturally to win votes,” the resident said.
Communal tensions have been slowly but steadily rising in the state. Citizens of West Bengal blame the state government and its overt efforts to please the minorities for the rise in such instances.
Even as the West Bengal government blamed the Centre and the Bharatiya Janata Party for creating the narrative, locals are not willing to buy it. “Demographic changes in West Bengal have been going on for years under the watch of various governments. Illegal migration and settlement of Bangladeshi Muslims in search of a new life into West Bengal have been taking place for decades,” the EurAsian Times report noted.
“Everyone knows that the India-Bangladesh border has remained porous to ensure easy migration into the country, something that boosted the vote-bank of the Left Front and now the same is being followed by TMC but now there is also a growing sense of frustration,” an executive engaged with a multinational company said.
Reservation benefits or farce?
Most Muslims in the state enjoy reservations under the other backward class (OBC) quota. The state government has claimed that 99 per cent of Muslims have been brought under the OBC categories to ensure that the benefits of reservation reach them.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 set up a high-level seven-member committee under Justice Rajindar Sachar to analyze the socio-economic as well as educational status of the Muslim community in the country. There are two categories under the OBC quota—A and B. OBC A includes ‘more backward classes’ as compared to those categorized under OBC B.
While Muslim representation has increased as Banerjee implemented several recommendations of the Sachar Committee report, there is growing discontent as the gap between promises made and actual deliveries is huge.
Notwithstanding Banerjee’s indiscreet vote bank and Muslim appeasement politics, many Muslims living in the rural areas complain that their condition has not changed much in the last several years. “Nothing has changed for us in the last few years. Promises were made but most of them remain unfulfilled even after several years,” said a native Muslim, who has had to move out of the state in search of a job.
High unemployment among Muslims continues to irk the community. The 2006 Sachar committee report highlighted that Muslim representation in government jobs in the state was only 2.1 per cent. While the state’s ‘Staff census report: 2014-15’ released by the Bureau of Applied Economics & Statistics said that the Muslim share in government jobs increased to 5.73 per cent as on January 31, 2015, concerns remain as the percentage is still embarrassingly low.
Analysts said that the situation has not improved significantly in the last five years.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP bagged 18 seats. TMC got 22, reflecting the growing discontent among the residents of the state, which include Muslims too.
“With the growing disenchantment with the Mamata Banerjee government, the Muslims are looking for an alternative,” a report in Dawn said.
Just four years ago, a report titled ‘Living reality of Muslims in West Bengal,’’ prepared by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute along with non-profit organizations SNAP and Guidance Guild highlighted that even as Muslims constituted 27 per cent of the state’s population, 38.3 per cent Muslim households in rural areas had a monthly income of Rs 2,500 or less.
The Indian Express quoted Sen as saying, “The fact that Muslims of West Bengal are disproportionately poorer and more deprived in terms of living conditions gives this report an inescapable immediacy and practical urgency.”
A conference, organized by Aliah University in association with Bengali Academia for Social Empowerment (BASE) last year brought together eminent voices to focus on issues like unemployment and under-representation of Muslims in the social framework of the state.
State election in 2021
As the state election inches closer, Banerjee’s concerns are mounting especially as many see BJP as an alternative.
Many Hindus as well as Muslims in the state believe that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act were welcome steps to address the issue of illegal migration.
“Indian Hindus and Muslims have lived peacefully in the state but it is the question of illegal migration, this has to be addressed,” said another observer, who refused to be identified.