“ Allah ho Akbar ,” she cries out, adding, “ La Ilah Ilalah Mohammad un Rasool Allah. Inshallah, paribartan hobe (God willing, there will be change).
For West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, no stump speech is complete without a string of invocations aimed at Muslims, who number close to 28 per cent of the State’s population.
If it is a Muslim-dominated area (a third of the 294 Assembly seats have minority populations ranging from 30 per cent to over 50 per cent), Ms. Banerjee even uses the white muslin chador, now part of her attire, to cover her head, a concession to the “ammis” and “abbas” whom she exhorts to vote for her party. And finally, she never forgets to quote from Bengal’s other great poet, Nazrul Islam.
In the five years she has been in power, she has sought to consolidate the Muslim vote: there have been the controversial stipends to imams, the setting up of Haj houses, a new campus for Aliah University, sanction for 400 madrasa hostels, and scholarships for Muslim students.
Barring the last, the others have made little impact on Bengal’s rural Muslims (who form the bulk of the community here). Indeed, Ms. Banerjee’s most loyal supporters are to be found among the Urdu-speaking Muslims, whose forefathers came from Bihar or eastern Uttar Pradesh, and who are to be found largely in Kolkata and its now decaying industrial hinterland.
In Kamarhati, in the shadow of a now-almost-defunct jute mill in the district of North 24 Parganas, is the Badi Masjid. It is set in an insalubrious neighbourhood, dotted with shanties and overflowing drains. The only redeeming feature is an open space in front of the mosque where children play football.
It is here that Ismail tells me he quit the mill in 2011, because he lacked the skills to work the new machines, but he retired in 2014. He is yet to receive his gratuity or pension. Khurshid, still in his 30s, also worked in the mill, but with no work there, he has become an itinerant seller of clothes.
Both say that the CPI(M) union that controlled the mill ruined it, but admit that the Trinamool “has not paid any attention to re-opening the mill.”
But who will they vote for? Ismail, Khurshid and the others who have gathered around by now, all Bihari in origin, chorus, “Madan Mitra.” He, of course, is Ms. Banerjee’s candidate, contesting this election from behind bars. But that does not matter: apparently, he is the face of development here.
But travel to villages in the interior and the story is different. In Bardhaman’s Rupsona village, Abid Ali Shah says, “We choose our Imams, and then we collect money and pay him. It’s wrong to take money from the government; it is like taking bhikhe [alms].” In fact, he points out that now the Trinamool picks the imams, who double as party activists.
Sheikh Salim agrees, and then adds, “When Mamata Banerjee says ‘ La Ilah Ilalah Mohammad un Rasool Allah ’ from a political platform, she is mocking us. We find it offensive.” They stress that this sort of behaviour has given the BJP a toehold in Bengal.
Can this help the Left Front-Congress alliance? Muslims, who had traditionally largely voted for the LF, had abandoned it in 2011 because they felt betrayed. One, the Sachar Report made clear that the community had lagged behind in socio-economic terms; two, the events in Nandigram, that has a 50 per cent Muslim population made the community feel they were being deliberately targeted to separate them from their land.
Today, rural Muslims in many parts of Bengal, largely secular, are rethinking their 2011 decision.