West Bengal: Left flag is coloured Red with Muslim blood

by Sharjeel Imam and Saquib Salim

In common perception, Left parties in India have been seen as “secular” at best and “pro-Muslim” at worst. This perception was part of the phenomena that brought the Left parties to power, and resulted in the defeat of Congress in two out of three states (West Bengal and Kerala) with the highest percentage of Muslim voters in post-partition India. Muslims constitute over a quarter of voters in both Bengal and Kerala.

Specifically in West Bengal, where they came to power in 1977, the Left front enjoyed consistent and overwhelming support from Muslims; it was one of the primary reasons that they enjoyed uninterrupted power for over 34 years there. It would be expected that with all their secular rhetoric, Left governments would have helped Muslims enjoy a significant share of power and equal opportunities in the economic and social spheres. However, when we take a closer look, a different picture emerges.

Let us take CPM, the largest party of this bloc, for example. Although Muslim support has been crucial for their ascension to power, till 2008, there were no Muslim members in the politburo, the highest executive body of the party. This is highly surprising for a “secular” party ruling over states with large Muslim populations. Even in 2015, only two of 17 politburo members are Muslim, and even this seems like a forced gesture made necessary by their defeat in West Bengal.

A Muslim supporter of the CPM offers prayers during a rally in Kolkata. Reuters file image
A Muslim supporter of the CPM offers prayers during a rally in Kolkata. Reuters file image

In contrast, even the most supposedly “anti-Muslim” party, BJP, has had at least one Muslim in its highest executive circle from the time of its inception in 1980. Sikandar Bakht was general secretary, and later vice-president, while Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi is still serving as vice-president.

In terms of ministry distribution, the performance is equally poor. When at its electoral peak in the 2001-2006 period, the Left government had three Muslim ministers in a 33-member Cabinet in West Bengal, around 9 percent. Interestingly, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya held the minorities development portfolio himself.

Even BJP does not show such confidence: In the Centre, where it has no Muslim in the Lok Sabha, Najma Heptullah was brought in through Rajya Sabha to take charge of minorities affairs; and in Uttar Pradesh, where it has no Muslim MLA, Mohsin Raza was made minorities development minister through the legislative council.

It becomes clear that Muslims have been kept out of the important decision making offices and posts in the Left parties’ governments.

If we look at the socio-economic indicators in West Bengal, it paints an even worse picture. Since Kerala has been ruled by the Congress-led UDF alliance as well, and has a significant regional party, Muslim League, which caters to local Muslim demands, Bengal provides the only example of uninterrupted Left rule. And 34 years of a stable government should have led to decreasing disparity between Hindus and Muslims. However, this did not happen.

In fact, the disparity has worsened in many fields. The Sachhar Committee report from 2006 is an illuminating document in this respect. West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Kerala are the states with largest Muslim populations. Barring the more prosperous Kerala, the other four states have significant disparity between indicators for Muslims and Hindus. However, it is West Bengal that shows maximum disparity and deterioration in many crucial fields, such as employment, education and poverty.

Let’s begin with state employment. Muslims comprised around 3.4% of all state employees in West Bengal in 2006, following around three-and-a-half decades of Left rule. In contrast, in 2016, following five years of Trinamool Congress (TMC) governance, the figure now stands at 5.7%, which is a significant increase. This figure alone is enough for indicting the Left regime and for describing them “anti-Muslim”.

The TMC government partially achieved it by including a large number of backward communities in the OBC fold, something which had been denied to the backward Muslims by successive Left front governments.

In terms of education, the mean year of schooling (MYS) for West Bengal was 3.58, while for Muslims it is far lower at 2.58. SC/STs have fared better with 3.12 years of schooling on average. In literacy, the figure for Hindus was 72.4, while for Muslims it was 57.5. In contrast, Bihar had 47.9 percent Hindu literacy and Muslims had 42 percent literacy. Although Bihar was generally more illiterate, the gap between Hindus and Muslims was definitely lower than West Bengal.

More surprising is the percentage of matriculates. Around 24 percent of all Muslims had completed matriculation in India. However in West Bengal, only 12 percent Muslims were matriculates, while the figure of SC/STs and caste Hindus was 13 and 38 respectively. Even in Bihar, a poorer state, 16 percent Muslims had passed the matriculation exam. In terms of graduates, the scene is equally poor: Around 5 percent of Muslims were graduate in India, while caste Hindus had around 13 percent graduates. In West Bengal, the percentage of graduates among caste Hindu was around 14 percent, while the figure for Muslims was around 3 percent. Even in this case, Bihar can be used as a contrast: Caste Hindus had around 10 percent graduates, while around 5 percent Muslims were graduates in Bihar.

On all the three levels of education — literacy, matriculation and graduation — Muslims in West Bengal lag behind the national Muslim average. In addition to that, the disparity between Hindus and Muslims is greater than the disparity in poorer states like Bihar. And as far as matriculation and graduation is concerned, Bihar’s Muslims have a higher percentage than Bengal’s Muslims, even though Bihar is far more illiterate.

Another important economic indicator is the poverty index. In urban Bengal, 10 percent of Hindus were below the poverty line, while the figure for Muslims is 27 percent. In rural Bengal, 21 percent of Hindus were poor, as against 33 percent of Muslims. Much of West Bengal’s Muslims are rural. In Bihar, 34 percent of rural Hindus and 38 percent of rural Muslims were poor. Hence, although it is a poorer state, the disparity is definitely less than West Bengal.

Another important dimension is over Waqf property. The Waqf property are the assets of Muslim communities which are used for the welfare of the community. West Bengal, according to the Sachhar Committe report, has the highest concentration of Waqf properties. The damage done by the Left government to the Waqf properties has been noted by the committee. We quote the report directly:

The West Bengal Assembly in 1981 enacted a Thika and Other Tenancies and Lands (Acquisition and Regulations) Act, popularly known as Thika Act, which was amended in 2001. By virtue of this Act, the tenants of a large number of properties across the state became their owners. While the Act exempts the application of Thika Act to the government and municipal properties, the same benefit was not extended to cover the Wakf properties. Consequently the Wakf Board lost a large number of properties and income there from. Efforts have been made by the Wakf Board and NGOs to seek exemption of Wakf land from the Thika Act. The West Bengal Government may be advised to accord the solicited exemption.

West Bengal is probably the only state with a significant Muslim population where the Muslims, who started with better condition at Independence, have fallen behind SC/STs in almost all major indicators of socio-economic development. Successive Left front governments are also responsible for this stunted growth as well as deterioration among Muslims in West Bengal.

To conclude, if anyone talks about the mainstream Left parties’ struggle for liberation of minorities, especially of Muslims, please ask them to cast a cursory glance at the Sachhar Committe report; it would become evident that the Left flag is coloured red with Muslim blood.

[ Source: Sharjeel Imam and Saquib Salim, In Bengal, Left parties’ secular ideology, posturing has done nothing for development of Muslims, firstpost.com,   

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