Calcutta Notebook


Recently the Calcutta High Court, in a judgment, has declared Mamata Banerjee government's payment of allowances to the Imams of Masjids unconstitutional. There were various counter-reactions to this step. One was the question: would Mamata Banerjee make provisions for similar allowances to Brahmin priests? A large section of the literate Bengali Hindus echoed the traditional propaganda about appeasement of Muslims. Interestingly enough, one section of the Muslim leaders, most prominently Siddikullah Chaudhuri, opposed the measure arguing that only one portion of the Imams would benefit, while many others would be left out. The implicit suggestion was that had all the Imams been granted these allowances, it would have been a noble step. The critics of this step, unfortunately enough, missed one important point, namely that they failed to note the plights of ordinary Muslims. Those who brought the issue of Brahmin priests are overtly Hindu communalists and their image of India is Hindu India where all the religious minorities would have to live in an atmosphere of suppression. The talk about ‘appeasement of Muslims’ is also hollow in the sense that these Imams, whom the official charity was lavished on, are not true representatives of the Muslims. Most of the Muslims of West Bengal are poor, and have very little representation in government jobs, and they have nothing to gain if some Imams get official patronage. Mamata Banerjee did not think of the welfare of the Muslim community as a whole; she only wished to create some loyal agents in the community as vote catchers. Had she spent the money on education and enlightenment of the community, she would not have been able to create such loyalists, although the distribution of benefits would have been taken place in a more egalitarian fashion, which was socially much more desirable.

One major reason why these Imams have a lingering influence, which Mamata Banerjee wanted to exploit, on the Muslims of West Bengal is the lack of education among the latter, and the lack of democracy in the political-social environment, which have continuously forced Muslims to withdraw into their shell of religion, or to be exact, religious obscurantism. The stunted growth of democratic value senses is, on the other hand, due to the covert communalism that continues to rule the minds of the majority community. This communalism works not only in the attitude to Muslims, but to other communities as well. Some glaring instances may be given to illustrate how the mind of the Bengali Hindu gentry operates in their attitude to religious minorities.

The first one relates not to Muslims but to Sikhs, but it demonstrates the power of Hindu communalism in India even in secular Bengal. In 1984, more than three thousand Sikhs were killed in Delhi; their property was looted and their women raped. Even after nearly three decades, justice has been denied to the victims and their near relatives. And now no less a person than Rahul Gandhi admits the ‘crime’ somewhat naively, hopefully to pacify sub-terranean anger and buy vote. In West Bengal, there was a serious effort to maintain peace and prevent communal riots in the wake of the genocide, but there was virtually no mourning for the killed Sikhs. Many were, and still are, prone to believe that the massacre of Sikhs was due to spontaneous, angry outbursts of the people, against the assassination of Indira Gandhi, although enough evidence was there on the deliberate participation of some prominent Congress (I) leaders. The reaction in Bengal to this massacre was at best lukewarm. While talking on this gruesome massacre with a principal of a college, who was a person with brilliant academic records, he told this correspondent, ‘‘But the Sikh leaders did not condemn the assassination of Indira Gandhi’’. When asked if that was reason enough for the large-scale killing of Sikhs, he did not reply.

When Iraq was invaded by the USA on the patently false charge of accumulation of weapons of mass destruction, there were many Bengali Hindus to support it, although not so overtly. Even educated Bengali ladies and gentlemen were seen rejoicing saying that Muslims should be killed. They were foolish enough not to consider that had Vajpayee's India in possession of huge oil resources, and if Vajpayee were unwilling to hand over the resources to US multinationals, his fate would not have been dissimilar. They also did not consider that in the event of Saddam’s ouster, another government constituted by Muslims, would come to power in Iraq. Communalism destroys the sense of reason of the people. The mass-scale slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra episode was sought to be justified by many in such words ‘‘After all, the Godhra incident cannot be denied’’. It was useless to try to argue with them that the carnage of Gujarat was in no way comparable to Godhra and that the RSS chief Pravin Togadia's joyous exclamation that their Gujarat experiment had been successful was solid proof of the pre-planned nature of the massacre. Some openly supported the massacre saying that Muslims should be killed and their women raped. A Bengali newspaper circulated stories of the import of arms from Pakistan into the refugee camp. This was a most inhuman way of treating Muslims. Muslims, having lost their near and dear ones and their property, were forced to take shelter in camps and even after that they were charged of being Pakistani agents. Such newspapers have contributed in no small measure to communal tension in West Bengal.

Of course, there are many who do not think in such terms. But the ugly tentacles of communalism are very much real in West Bengal and the major plank of this communalism is the Bengali educated gentry. In this respect Bengal does not lag much behind other states.

Vol. 46, No. 33, Feb 23 - Mar 1, 2014