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Muslims, Marxists & Mamata

Vision 2011- The Left in Bengal is trying to wean away Muslims from the Trinamool through job quotas. But Mamata Banerjee’s party is confident this strategy won’t work, reports Anirban Choudhury.

kolkata Updated: Feb 15, 2010 00:49 IST
Anirban Choudhury

Abdul Ghani (42), a teacher in a primary school in Kolkata, is not taken in by the West Bengal government’s decision to reserve jobs for backward Muslims.

“Of the 20 million Muslims in the state, only 1.7 million will benefit. It’s too little (compared with) what is needed,” he said.

Traditionally seen as supporters of the Left Front, there has been a shift in the community’s allegiance to other parties over the past four years — this is roughly the period when the state government began in right earnest to re-industrialise West Bengal. The issue has generated a critical debate on the loss of farmers’ livelihood because of the state government taking their land to set up industrial units (the state’s powers to take property for public purposes is called eminent domain).

The Muslim vote, as in many states of India, has been the deciding factor in elections in West Bengal. Their growing number and rising voice have forced the leaders to take note of their issues.

Today the community has become a cause for concern for both Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his principal adversary, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, because of issues like jobs, education, civic amenities (urban areas in which Muslims live have a lot of scope for improvement) and acquiring agricultural land for industry.

The Muslims of rural Bengal sharply reacted to the state government’s land acquisition and have started siding with the opposition — the Trinamool Congress, the Congress or any party that resisted the process. This shift in sentiment rattled the Left Front government, which announced 10 per cent job reservation for the socially and educationally backward Muslims last week. The battle for the Muslim vote has been elevated to a higher plane.

Banerjee has been playing the Muslim card meticulously for the past few years. The Muslims were apprehensive of her stance in the late nineties because her party was in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the organisation that wants to build a Ram temple on the ruins of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and introduce a uniform civil code for all citizens of the country. It was a sort of a stigma that Banerjee wanted to remove. Her chance came during the Nandigram disturbance in 2007, when she spearheaded the agitation against the setting up of a petrochemicals complex in an area where 70 per cent of the population is Muslim. Her alliance with leaders like Siddiqulla Chowdhury of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind (an Islamist organisation) sent a clear signal to the Muslims that she was alive to the community’s concerns.

“The issue is land. It was land reforms that kept the Left Front in power for the past 32 years. It is again land that has increased the distance between the Left and the farmers, particularly those who are Muslim,” said Anindya Sengupta, a journalist.

“Banerjee has realised one golden truth — industry is the future but agriculture is the present. With the assembly elections a year away, Banerjee couldn’t be bothered about the distant future,” he said.

The change did not come overnight. Bhattacharjee’s call for rapid industrialisation, particularly after the allegations of forcible land acquisition for the Tatas’ car factory plant at Singur (50 km north of Kolkata), sent an ominous signal to the farmers.

The more than 100-km highway between Barasat, 30 km north-east of Kolkata, and Raichak, 40 km south of Kolkata — one of the chief minister’s favourite projects — cut through large tracts of land owned by Muslim farmers of South 24 Parganas district. The reaction in Muslim-dominated areas was one of anger. In the panchayat elections in 2008 and the Lok Sabha polls last year, the Left was routed in the district. The highway project was put on hold.

However, some left-wingers are confident. “We will regain the support of the minorities. The adverse comments of the Sachar Committee (which studied the condition of the Muslims in the country) report had an impact on the Muslims. The 10 per cent job reservation has been a masterstroke,” said a state committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on anonymity.

“(The reservations) will be implemented at the earliest. The Ranganath Misra report (which recommended job reservation for Muslims all across the country) was tabled and that’s why we have taken this decision,” Bhattacharjee said, clarifying that this had nothing to do with the imminent elections.

Hindustan Times has learnt that the CPI(M) is preparing for an aggressive campaign in Muslim-dominated districts of Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda (central and north-central West Bengal) to highlight what the state government has done — reserving jobs being one of them — for the Muslims.

Predictably, the Trinamool Congress is dismissive about the whole thing. “There will be no effect of these cosmetic measures. The government has neglected the minorities for the past three decades. We have been fighting for their rights. They are with us,” said Partha Chatterjee, Trinamool Congress MLA and leader of the opposition.

The Muslims will decide the outcomes in nearly 80 seats in the assembly, which has 294 seats. The number (80) can determine who forms the next government in West Bengal.