By an order dated April 19, 2012, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee started riding a tiger.
In this order, 11 months after she had stormed to power ending 34 years of Left rule, the state’s department of minority affairs and madrassa education released guidelines for a Rs 2,500-a-month honorarium to imams and Rs 1,000 a month for muezzins.
Not a small amount in a Bengal village. The state’s per capita monthly income was around Rs 4,500, rural incomes still lower.
Among those howling in protest were even ordinary Muslims. What had an imam done to deserve a state salary to top earnings from Waqf, masjid funds, Quran recitation, prayers, traditional medicine? Didi’s government went ahead with it, till the Calcutta high court struck down the ‘imam bhata’ in September 2013.
In 2012, a proposal to build a hospital exclusively for Muslims at Bhangar in South 24 Parganas was floated, but the government did not proceed following sharp criticism.
But by then, Mamata had lodged herself firmly on the tiger’s back. From announcing separate engineering exams for minorities and a Rs 500-crore plan for upkeep of mosques and clerics’ dole to allowing a massive rally in Kolkata in support of the mastermind of 1971 Bangladesh genocide, she rode on.
In Bengal, the minority votebank is especially attractive. The Muslim population is 26%, almost double the national average. Latest Census data shows a 5-7% increase in just 10 years in districts of Assam and West Bengal bordering Bangladesh.
Migration from Bangladesh has traditionally been for livelihood. But lately the concern has been about radical elements chased away by the Sheikh Hasina government finding protection in Trinamool Congress-ruled Bengal for votes and muscle power.
This creates ripe ground for the BJP and RSS –– on a remarkable rise in the state –– who complain about open cow slaughter being used as a tool to intimidate and drive back Hindus, cow smuggling and rising crime by Bangladeshis. All this while “Mumtaz Begum” looks the other way, they say.
The year 2013 started with Syed Noor-ul-Rehman Barkati, the shahi imam of the Tipu Sultan mosque, bragging that he stopped writer Salman Rushdie’s entry into the cultured, literary Kolkata of our memory by a mere phone call to the CM.
The year ended with the Kolkata police reportedly stalling indefinitely a TV serial, Dusahobas, scripted by Taslima Nasreen after Muslims groups complained that it would hurt religious sentiments.
While all this was happening, NGOs Snap and Guidance Guild came out with a report mid-2013 on the ‘Status of Muslims in West Bengal’. More than 200 people surveyed around a lakh households.
As Didi bowed in sajda from thousands of billboards and posters across the state, the report said nearly 65% of Muslims households in the state were engaged in “petty, low-income and precarious livelihoods”. In 51% households, no member had studied past primary school, and 17% households did not have a single literate adult. The Sachar report in 2005 had similar things to say about the state Muslims under the Left rule, leaving the Reds red in the ears.
But if the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government was being accused of “minority appeasement” so far, lately it has started facing charges a lot more portentous.
The CBI is probing the angle that money from the Saradha scam was diverted to Bangladeshi Jamaat jihadis fighting against the moderate and friendly Sheikh Hasina government. It is also investigating links of TMC MPs and other leaders with extremist outfits.
And then a bomb goes off in Burdwan district this month, in a house owned by a local TMC leader, killing two who the NIA suspect were making bombs for jihad in Bangladesh.
Read: NIA files FIR, CID confirms Bangladesh angle
Even on this, the local police are accused of delaying and destroying evidence.
If these allegations are true, things have gone much beyond appeasement, to compromising national security. Bangladesh can even accuse an Indian state of sponsoring terror on its territory.
The tiger has broken into a run. It will now be daunting for Didi to keep hanging on to it, and fatal to get down.
Read: Larger terror design behind Burdwan blast?