Bitter harvest: Mehdi case shows enough ground for radical Islam's rise in Bengal

  • Paramita Ghosh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2014 16:54 IST

On a dead-end street in north Kolkata, Mehdi Masroor Biswas, 24, is not a byword for radical Islam. He is the local boy who aspired for all the right Bengali things - he had English, engineering, and a regular salary - but met tragedy the Bengali way. "Fell into bad company," sums up his neighbour Mehboob Rahman, "plus internet. Must have pressed the wrong key somewhere". Rahman and Biswas are residents of Kaikhali, a mixed-population locality, where, lately, the mosque's Imam has stopped calling out for prayers. "We don't use the loudspeaker. It may disturb people," says Rahman. And that's perhaps a bigger tragedy.

"A safe Bengal. A secular India. A republic India - I've read about it," says Abdul Matin, a research scholar at JNU, Delhi. "If I greet someone with 'Salaam', I am told, 'Don't Talibanise the Bengali culture'. Bengalis consider me Muslim. When I am outside Kolkata, Urdu-speaking friends call me Bengali.' Seen in isolation, and minus the Muslim history of post-Independence Bengal, it may be easy to dismiss these remarks as breast-beating. But they express a deep neurosis that is confronting the community, especially the new urban, educated middle, which finds avenues of employment and a better life blocked, its political leadership missing or lumpenised, its religious identity suspect or ridiculed - at times, by its own leaders for personal gain.

At the Nakhoda Masjid, in the Burrabazar area of Kolkata. It is the city's principal mosque

"Educated Muslims told themselves Gujarat was a political agenda, not a religious agenda. The Burdwan blasts are said to be a move to create an undivided Bangladesh. What's the connection?" asks media professional Najib Anwar, who says locals are upset that booklets found on the blast site have been reported to be al-Qaeda manuals just because they are written in Arabic. "West Bengal has 25% Muslim population. Only 1% have government jobs, 11% never went to school. Yet Imams flock the dais of political leaders. They allow a chief minister to hold iftaar parties on a full stomach, without observing roza… A vulnerable mind may be confused, angry and hurt by all this," he adds. How dare Mehdi take it all personally?

Until December 13, Mehdi Biswas had been commenting or retweeting posts or videos, some of them bloody, about issues that may interest a person keen to know which way power flows in the world. The postings included the IS advance in Syria, the torture at Abu Ghraib as well as some grandstanding with an address to "my Arabic tweeting followers". There is little reference to, or evidence of negativity, about India or his home state, West Bengal. Bengali Muslims would, however, like to separate his case from the growing anger and frustration of Muslims saying that "a single Mehdi" should not criminalise the community, but that there are enough grounds today in this "once secular" state for giving rise to one.

Make space - below

Much before West Bengal's Left Front government adopted the policy of backing industry over agriculture and made the state an agent of land acquisition in the early 2000s, a shift which hit the Muslim farmer the hardest (33% rural poverty among Muslims vis-a-vis 21% upper-caste Hindus says the Sachar committee report 2006), Bengal's powerful have always been considerate of socio-economic privileges of the upper-castes. In Musalmanner Katha ('The Muslim's Story'), a film by Soumitra Dastidar, IPS officer Nazrul Islam says, even Rabindranath Tagore (the zamindari of the Tagore family was in East Bengal) "signed an appeal that said upper-caste Hindus are better educated and Muslims and Scheduled Castes cannot rule over them." Syama Prasad Mookerjee (founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, BJP's precursor) who believed Muslims should not be given high posts as they were low-caste Hindu converts had also signed the same appeal. Post-Independence, that power structure remained intact under successive Congress governments, and even under the 34-year-long Left Front regime that decided 'class', not caste, had to be attacked - the top leadership was upper-caste Hindu, and Brahmin, after all.

The Trinammool Congress, too, does not give Muslims their due, says Islam. Seventy percent of the TMC government's cabinet is upper caste. Islam, who makes no bones about his family being a lower-caste convert, says that in his entire IPS service, of 1981 to 2014, he was never made the SP of a district, DIGP of a range or IGP of a zone. "I was not promoted from ADGP rank to DGP. My juniors were," he says.

In his long career with the CPI(M), Abdur Razzak Molla, a veteran peasant leader, had to wait for 65 years to become part of the state committee. Harvard-returned Ashim Dasgupta reached it in three. For the Bengali Muslim, Molla was, and is, more than a politician. He is an idea, a symbol of the space rural Bengal had in a party of sharecroppers and landless labourers before its middle-class turn in the 90s. He now leads the Bharatiya Nyaybichar Party aiming for Muslim and Dalit votes in the 2016 assembly elections. For such a man to be forced into doing 'Muslim politics', one has to ask why. Many young Bengali Muslims were rattled by his marginalisation and then expulsion from the CPI(M) in 2014. "If I was ever to become chief minister, I wouldn't be able to function. The bureaucrats, police, judiciary are mostly all upper caste," says Molla in his office, in half-jest.

Political parties, without exception, says Matin, draw the "rotten elements" to it and promote them in the name of representation. "An Idris Ali whips up frenzy to drive away writer Taslima Nasreen from Kolkata. Arabul Islam, the TMC MLA, is a goon. What impression goes out? Muslims are violent," he says. As an educated Muslim youth, would he join a party to negotiate his community's share? He wouldn't be useful, he says. "I would be expected to talk of identity. I would rather talk of jobs, education, scholarships."

A large section of urban Muslims have grown up in this climate of ever-shrinking political opportunity and economic participation. That large-scale riots have not happened in West Bengal since 1947 is unlikely to assuage them. Safety cannot be an alibi for other injustices, they say. If a fire or a riot breaks out, they don't have shops or rice-fields to save. The class that does get patronage is different. An Arabul or Moin-ur-Islam are also the middle-class's oppressors. The BJP, says locals, is trying to woo them saying they will save the bhadrolok Muslim from the lumpen Muslim. "A weak Left, TMC disgraced, these are confusing times. The social realities that radicalise a section of Muslim youth are never addressed," says Sundandan Roychowdhury, convenor, Forum for Peace and Democracy, Kolkata.

Sheth Hafizur Rahman, assistant secretary, Al-Ameen Mission, that has been coaching scores of young boys and girls to be doctors and engineers

Sheth Hafizur Rahman, assistant secretary, Al-Ameen Mission, that has been coaching boys and girls to be doctors and engineers, says the hype about the Mehdi case will be difficult to live down for young job hopefuls. "Government jobs are rarely open for us. Private companies discriminate less. but now when companies see names like 'Hakim,' 'Salim,' will they not tighten their recruitment process?" he asks.

Communal cauldron

The closet communalism of the Left Front regime until 2011 followed by the overt, even absurd pronouncements of the TMC ever since, has pressure-cooked the atmosphere such that it has given birth to a strange religiosity, a sharpened embittered sense of identity, or an identity-crisis, says Molla. "The new religion seems to be, 'we'll not follow the system, we can do it ourselves.' When my friends, say 'Babri', I say, 'do you also have to attack a temple? No. You have to go to the court'," says a student in a Kolkata suburb on condition of anonymity.

There has also been a blurring of lines at various levels. Political points (and alliances) are being made with religious considerations, or vice-versa. "Jamat-e-Islami, Hind, has floated a political party in 2011 - the Welfare Party of India. Its students wing was SIMI. After, SIMI was banned, it students wing work as SIO (Students Islamic Organisation). Generally the madrasa-educated, religious minded Muslims are involved in it," says Islam. "The increased activities of organisations like the RSS and the utterances and patronisation of Mamata has helped the organisation to grow."

Muslims are 30% of West Bengal's population. 11% of Muslims have never attended school, 19.1% of those who did, never went beyond upper primary

"In the 24 Parganas, Mamata Banerjee announced that she would open a Muslim-only hospital! Cycles for girls but only to poor Muslim madrasa girls. What about poor Hindu girls? The Left at least did not do such nonsense. She polarises the already charged atmosphere which the BJP may harvest," says Anwar. Mamata's overt appeasement of Muslim fundamentalists, says Mohammad Salim, MP, CPI(M), "is part of her pro-Muslim turn to atone for her previous alliance with the BJP that had led her party to an electoral catastrophe in 2004."

In the communal cauldron of today's Bengal, and of India in general, a young urban Bengali Muslim has no role model, no party, or guideline to follow. He feels stuck, nothing fits quite right. The city and the country he grew up in is making him feel different. Or worse. Sitting in his one-room flat in a city far from home, he may start connecting his anger as a Muslim, to the other Muslim questions of the world. At some point he may want to pick up a stone. Or he may log on to the computer and press a button to see where it might lead him.

(Inputs: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya)

In conversation with Dr Nazrul Islam
Dr Nazrul Islam is a well-known IPS officer and author from West Bengal. He retired in 2014. Paramita Ghosh interviews him on whether an ongoing radicalisation of Muslim youth is happening in West Bengal and its possible causes.

Mehdi Masroor Biwas, a young Bengali Muslim boy has been caught in Bangalore for being an alleged IS sympathiser, the radical group that is fighting for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Why are the reasons why radicalisation is spreading in Bengal so that a middle-class, educated, MNC employed boy, like Mehdi, can still identify with the IS?
There are about 3 crore Bengali Muslims in West Bengal. About another half a crore are scattered in other parts of India. Many Bengali Muslims live in other countries like UK, USA-Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and Nepal. Only one of them was arrested for being a sympathiser for the establishment of Islamic State. It is an exception.

Are there any cultural, socio?economic churn in Bengali society today that's been creating confusions/frustration/anger about India/Bengal that is providing the trigger for eventual radicalisation?
Educated people use the latest communication technologies. We live in a global village; frustration anywhere in the world creates reaction. The injustices perpetrated on Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan affect the most. Muslims the world over are powerless people. Even all the Muslim states of the world are not able to match the military might of the USA. There are some sensitive Muslims who feel for the plight of other Muslims.

What professional or personal challenges did you face as a Bengali Muslim as compared to a Bengali Hindu of the same class/profession? Were these challenges different under the Left front regime vs the TMC regime?
The most important reason for discrimination against me was my inability to become a yes-man of the leaders of the ruling parties, who were mainly high caste Hindus. But my birth in a Bengali Muslim (Mandal) family, who are converted from the so-called low-castes is one of the reasons for the discrimination.

There is not much of a difference in the leadership of the Left parties and the TMC or Congress. Their leaders are invariably Brahmins. The CPI(M)-led Left Front was in power. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a Brahmin, was the CM. TMC came to power. Mamata Banerjee, a Brahman, is the CM. The leadership in the Left Front were very much non-communal in speech. But they are core-communal in their decisions about the due share to other varna and dharma people. The Left regime, however, did not deny me the due promotion but TMC regime denied me the promotion also.

Is the political culture of the Left Front and the TMC governments responsible for the radicalisation? How are they same or different from each other?
The Murshidabad district of West Bengal has the distinction of housing the maximum number of Muslims in a district in the whole of India. But till date, there is no University. The Basantapur Education Society, established by us, which has already established Schools, Colleges, Engineering Colleges, B.Ed, M.Ed Colleges submitted proposal for the establishment of a university. If the state government was not interested to grant the money, the Society said, in the proposal that it had procured the land and would collect money required if it is permitted to establish the university. The Left Front government passed an act to allow a trust of the Ambanis to establish a University at Kalyani. It did not pass any law for us. The TMC Government passed an act to allow the Techno India of the Chaudhris to establish a University at Salt Lake. It did not pass any act for us.

Is it true that Urdu speaking Muslims are better off politically, educationally and socially in West Bengal than Bengali?speaking Muslims?
Urdu-speaking Muslims mostly live in Calcutta and its suburbs. As they sit for competitive examinations in Urdu, it gives them some edge over Bengali Muslims who write exams in Bengali. Because they live in Calcutta, some Urdu-speaking Muslims get admission to the good schools. This helps them get jobs. Moreover, being speakers of Urdu, which is nothing but Hindi language written in Persian script, they enjoy the advantage in All-India politics. Take the example of the present ministry. Though the Urdu-speaking Muslims are only about 2% of the population and Bengali Muslims are 25%, all the Muslim ministers of the present TMC government, except only the Minister of State, Giasuddin Molla, are Urdu-speaking.

In what way has the Left Front and the TMC prepared grounds for the rise of BJP in Bengal?
The cheating of the Muslims by the TMC supremo has helped the rise of the BJP. The announcement of recognising ten thousands madrasas, of giving doles to Imams-Moyazzins, of giving cycles to only Muslim girls of madrasas; the attending of iftar parties; and the 'monazat' for Hajj Pilgrimmage did not help the development of the Muslims. It actually helped the rise of the BJP backed by the RSS. The involvement of the top leaders of TMC in the chit fund companies damaged their reputation and helped the BJP, whose leaders of this state were not involved that much. By patronising corruption and nepotism, and criminalising politics, Left Front indirectly create an advantage for the BJP, because the people angry with TMC are not able to turn to them.

How do you view the Jamaat politics in Bengal?
A The Jamat-e-Islami was established in undivided India with its headquarters in Lahore. After 1947, the Lahore based organisation became Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan. Their persons in India named the Indian counterpart Jamat-e-Islami, Hind. The Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan, was against the liberation movement of Bangladesh in 1971. So its activities were stopped till the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, when it organised as Jamat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. Later on, it changed it to be the Bangladesh Jamat-e-Islami.

Jamat-e-Islami, Hind, has floated a political party in 2011 - the Welfare Party of India. Its students wing was SIMI. After, SIMI was banned, it students wing work as SIO (Students Islamic Organisation). Generally the madrasa-educated, religious minded Muslims are involved in it. The increased activities of organisations like the RSS and the utterances and patronisation of Mamata Banerjee helped the organisation to grow.

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