In the wake of the Canning riots, the party cannot afford tension in a State that remained clash-free throughout Left rule

An uneven, dusty stretch of land on the edge of the road in Sorberia is awash with people, some sitting on plastic chairs, others milling around in small groups. There don’t seem to be any women. It’s an hour or so before sunset on April 18. I am driving past, on my way from Canning to Bhangore in South 24 Parganas district. I stop to enquire why people have gathered here. It turns out that a local Trinamool Congress leader, Showkat Mollah, has called a shanti michil — a peace meeting.

On April 16 — Mr. Mollah explains when I catch up with him — provocative speeches at a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) meeting in neighbouring Faqirpara led to a clash between local Hindus and Muslims. The police had to be called in to deal with the situation, but 48 hours later, the area is still tense. “I’ve called this meeting,” Mr. Mollah says, “to prevent any escalation of tension. Hindu fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists are poisoning the minds of the people by introducing religion in politics.”

Mr. Mollah, dressed in a smart maroon T-shirt, trousers and a tattered pair of black loafers, gestures towards those who have gathered and says they are members of the intelligentsia, local notables and schoolteachers. All faiths — Hindus, Muslims and Christians – he stresses, are represented. “We believe we can control the situation,” he says, but he looks harassed as our conversation is repeatedly interrupted by calls he is getting on his mobile phone.

Mr. Mollah has reason to be concerned, for his party cannot afford to see Hindu-Muslim clashes spreading in a State that remained remarkably free of communal tension through 34 years of Left rule. There are panchayat polls in the offing, and the Lok Sabha polls are just a year away.

Besides, the incident he is referring to comes in the wake of a widely-reported incident in another part of South 24 Parganas district: the murder of a Muslim cleric in the Canning sub- division on February 19 earlier this year led to his supporters torching 137 Hindu homes in the villages of Naliakhali, Herobhanga, Gopalpur and Goladogra, as the police did not respond in time. Angry crowds blocked traffic at several places in the district including on the Kolkata-Basanti highway, and disrupted rail services. But in the months since, the government has acted, compensating those whose houses have been burnt, and calm has returned to the area.

The first sign that the BJP was growing in the State came last October during the by-election to Jangipur, the Lok Sabha seat vacated by Pranab Mukherjee, who had by then become President. Though his son Abhijit Mukherjee won the seat on a Congress ticket, marginally ahead of the CPI(Marxist), the BJP’s Sudhanshu Biswas surprised everyone by securing about 10 per cent of the votes, a significant rise for the party, which had got only 2.33 per cent in the constituency in 2009.

Left leaders say Hindu communal forces have grown over the last two years as a result of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s brand of minority politics. They stress she has focussed on wooing Muslim religious leaders rather than on measures to ameliorate the condition of members of this community, a majority of whom are socially and economically disadvantaged. They cite the government stipend for imams that have come in for criticism even within the community.

Perception of partiality

In Kanthalberia village, on the edge of the Sunderbans, in the Basanti sub-division, Abdul Razak Lashkar says, “Why should only imams receive stipends, not the pandits of the Shiv mandirs? Hindus and Muslims live in peace here, but when such doles are given only to one community, it disturbs the equilibrium. We Muslims become targets.” He says this is why the RSS and the VHP are growing in the area.

In Bardhaman district’s Bhattar block, local Muslims in Kaluttak village add that government stipends deny ‘namazis’ the right to choose their own imam. “This is all politics,” Sheikh Shahabuddin says, “Only imams registered in the government records will receive the stipend, but they may not necessarily be the ones selected by the people.” Indeed, recently, an IPS officer earned the State government’s wrath by writing a controversial book on the subject. He wrote: “Those who have seen the activities of the leaders of the ruling party will have no doubt that they will not select the eligible person, but the one who supports them. This supporter can be the most detestable person in the eyes of the namazis, and worse, once his name is registered, whether he remains an imam or not will not depend on the namazis but the ruling party.”

Of course, even though these stipends have grabbed the headlines, to be fair to the Mamata Banerjee government, it has also launched several welfare schemes for the community: in 2012-2013, 21 lakh minority students received scholarships for not just pre-matric and post-matric studies but also PhDs, schoolgirls of Classes 9 to 12 in madrasas have begun to receive bicycles besides a monthly stipend of Rs.100 in addition to scholarships. To discourage child marriages — rampant particularly among the Muslims — any girl (not just from the minority community) who studies till the age of 18 will receive Rs.25,000. Then, there is a reservation for OBCs in government jobs — and this includes Muslim OBCs.

As I travelled through the South 24 Parganas, Bardhaman and West Midnapur districts, the impact of these schemes appeared to be uneven. In some areas, people have begun to receive benefits; in others, they are struggling to secure OBC certificates.

Unfortunately, the State government has not been able to highlight these welfare schemes as much as it should have — and it is the stipends for the imams that have taken centre stage. The fact that Ms. Banerjee often dons a headscarf and drapes herself in a ‘chador’ at public meetings in deference to Muslim custom has not helped either. In a State which now boasts but a 30-per-cent Muslim population, politics for the likes of Mr. Mollah will be difficult unless the party leadership treads carefully.