A gathering at the Brigade Parade Grounds rally, organised by the Left Front, Indian National Congress and Indian Secular Front (ISF), ahead of the West Bengal assembly election in Kolkata on Sunday. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)
A gathering at the Brigade Parade Grounds rally, organised by the Left Front, Indian National Congress and Indian Secular Front (ISF), ahead of the West Bengal assembly election in Kolkata on Sunday. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

Not just Cong, Left leaders also divided over tie-up with cleric Abbas Siddiqui

Forward Bloc, the party formed by Subhas Chandra Bose, has sought proof of ISF’s secular credentials while some CPI(M) leaders are talking of ex-minister Subhas Chakraborty being pulled up for offering prayers at a temple in 2006
UPDATED ON MAR 02, 2021 04:59 PM IST

The electoral alliance the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), has forged with cleric Abbasuddin Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) in poll-bound Bengal—an unprecedented move by the Marxists—has raised questions not only within the Left Front and the Congress but has rattled senior members of the Siddiqui family of Furfura Sharif as well.

On Sunday, shortly after Siddiqui appeared alongside Left and Congress leaders at the CPI(M) rally in Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Grounds and swore to overthrow Mamata Banerjee and defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), signs of discomfort appeared on some faces on the dais.

A senior leader of the Left Front disclosed to HT that on Saturday evening, barely 12 hours before the rally, Forward Bloc, the party freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose formed in 1939 after quitting the Congress, which is a part of the CPI(M)-led Left Front, refused to attend the mega event because Siddiqui had been invited.

Also Read | West Bengal: How the Left diluted its own politics to try and outmanoeuvre TMC

“Naren Chatterjee, the Forward Bloc state secretary, wrote a letter to Front chairman and senior CPI(M) leader Biman Bose seeking proof of the ISF’s secular credentials. Three leaders of the Bloc took the letter to the CPI(M) office at Alimuddin Street. Bose called up Chatterjee and somehow convinced him to attend the rally,” said the Left Front leader. Chatterjee refused to comment on the issue.

A member of the CPI(M) state committee, who did not want to be named, said there are many in his party to whom the idea of walking alongside a religious leader on the campaign trail goes against the fundamentals of Marxist ideology.

“I can’t help looking back at 2006 when Subhas Chakraborty, one of our most popular leaders and minister, was pulled up by the party for offering prayers at the Tarapith temple in Birbhum district. He was made to explain his action before the leadership and the media,” said the CPI(M) state committee member.

“In sharp contrast, another popular former minister, Abdur Rezzak Mollah, was allowed to visit Mecca during Haj after we were voted out of power by the Trinamool Congress (TMC). He sought permission from the party but the letter did not mention the word Haj,” the state committee member added.

While Chakraborty died in 2009, Mollah joined the TMC in 2016.

On Monday, serious differences appeared in the Congress as well over the party’s Bengal president and Lok Sabha member Adhir Chowdury sharing the dais with Siddiqui at Sunday’s rally. The CPI(M) wants Chowdhury to spare some more seats for the ISF but the talks have hit a roadblock.

“Congress’ alliance with parties like ISF and other such forces militates against the core ideology of the party and Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism, which forms the soul of the party. These issues need to be approved by the CWC,” Anand Sharma, deputy leader of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha, tweeted on Monday evening.

Abbasuddin Siddiqui’s entry into politics has also caused discomfort among senior members of his family, which is the custodian of the famous Furfura Sharif shrine, one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Bengal. Furfura Sharif is built around the mausoleum of Pir Abu Bakr Siddiqui. There is a mosque built in 1375 on the premises too. Furfura Sharif draws millions from across the country during the Urs festival and the annual fair dedicated to the Pir.

Bengal’s Muslim population stood at 27.01% during the 2011 census and is projected to have increased to around 30% now. The clerics of Furfura Sharif are believed to have influence on Muslims in all south Bengal districts and parts of north Bengal as well.

Abbasuddin Siddiqui’s uncle Toha Siddiqui on Monday met chief minister Mamata Banerjee and invited her to the three-day annual festival which starts on Saturday. “No government did anything for the development of Furfura Sharif, but Banerjee did a lot,” said Toha Siddiqui, who earlier criticised his nephew in public.

Also Read | Cong divided over Bengal election tie-up with cleric

Significantly, Pir Qutubuddin Siddiqui, the oldest among the surviving descendants of Pir Abu Bakr Siddiqui, has circulated several leaflets urging Muslims to support Banerjee. “Opposing the TMC cannot be approved. Mamata Banerjee has struggled against the BJP and the National Register of Citizens, National Population Register and Citizenship Amendment Act,” one of the leaflets says, citing Islamic law.

“There can be difference of opinion in any family. People of Furfura Sharif will give their reply. We are not in this contest for political gain. We represent all secular forces, the Dalits, the backward classes and the tribal people,” ISF president and Abbasuddin Siddiqui’s older brother Nausad Siddiqui told HT.

Reacting to the allegation that Marxists have joined hands with a religious leader with an eye on the elections, Biman Bose said, “Siddiqui may be a religious leader but ISF is a secular front. He will not field Muslims only. Members of the tribal community and backward classes will also contest.”

Some political experts feel that the vitriolic speech Siddiqui made against Banerjee may pay dividends to her.

“When a popular Muslim cleric brands the chief minister as a non-performer and swears to turn her poll tally to zero, he automatically counters the BJP and the Left who have accused her of appeasing Muslims. The more he speaks on these lines, the better it will be for Banerjee,” said Kolkata-based political science professor and election analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay.

Netizens, too, have raised questions and many have shared videos of the cleric giving sermons to his followers. Prominent among these critics is writer Taslima Nasrin, who had to leave Bangladesh, her country, because of a fatwa triggered by her writings.

“It makes me extremely sad when I see Marxists joining hands with Islamists. I don’t know how ideologies that are poles apart can become bedfellows…,” Nasrin wrote on her Facebook page. She found refuge in Kolkata during the Left Front regime but had to move out after a Muslim cleric in the Bengal capital issued a fatwa against her.

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