By an order dated April 19, 2012, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee started riding a tiger.
The state’s department of minority affairs and madrasah education released guidelines for a Rs. 2,500 a month honorarium to imams and Rs. 1,000 a month for muezzins. The state’s per capita monthly income was around Rs. 4,500 and 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 and traditional medicine? The state 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 the upkeep of mosques and clerics’ dole to allowing a massive rally in Kolkata in support of the mastermind of the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, she rode on.
In West Bengal, the minority vote-bank is especially attractive. The Muslim population is 26%, almost double the national average. The latest Census data show a 5-7% increase in just 10 years in the districts of Assam and West Bengal bordering Bangladesh.
Migration from Bangladesh has traditionally been for employment. But lately the concern has been about radical elements chased away by the Sheikh Hasina government finding protection in Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal for votes and muscle power.
This creates ripe ground for the BJP and the RSS –– on a remarkable rise in the state –– who complain about open cow slaughter, cow smuggling and rising crime by Bangladeshis.
Last year 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 100,000 households.
As Mamata bowed in sajda from thousands of billboards and posters across the state, the report said nearly 65% of Muslim households in the state were engaged in “petty, low-income and precarious livelihoods”. Seventeen per cent households did not have a single literate adult. The Rajinder Sachar report in 2005 had similar things to say about the state of Muslims.
But if the state 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 the 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. Even on this, the local police are accused of delaying and destroying evidence.
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.