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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Bengal's rough and tough underbelly

Mamata Banerjee is not doing enough to help a relatively depressed Muslim community in the state — and this is breeding communalism, originating in the Garden Reach industrial suburb

Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

My fear is that the riots reportedly sparked by the murder of a Muslim cleric in a south Bengal village following the February 12 killing of a police officer during a Kolkata college union election, and followed by the more grim Hyderabad bombings might further embolden the saffron brigade to project their hero, Narendra Modi, as the nation’s only saviour. West Bengal has been spared communal bloodshed in recent years but that doesn’t mean antagonism doesn’t simmer below the surface among people who revere Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha’s founder, as Bengal’s martyred son.

Mamata Banerjee, who was reported saying “Gujarat can do riots, we can’t”, cannot have overlooked the danger of Hindu stalwarts exploiting the tension. She is certainly right if she means West Bengal cannot afford an orgy like Gujarat’s pogrom in 2002, or that after the horrors of Nandigram, no state government can turn a blind eye to – leave alone condone – pre-planned violence against a particular community. But claiming that Bengalis are incapable of such enormities is relying too much on cultural tradition, while ignoring the social roots of crime.

Those roots flourish in the Garden Reach industrial suburb where sub-inspector Tapas Choudhury was shot dead. A deputy commissioner of police, Vinod Mehta, was also tortured and killed in 1984 in this derelict stretch of factories, slums and dockland. Neither murder was communal, though both victims were Hindu and Garden Reach is predominantly Muslim. The names confirm that. Sheikh Subhan is accused of pulling the trigger on Choudhury. Idris Ali, who murdered Mehta, himself died mysteriously during questioning in police headquarters. Some say Subhan’s real target was another local tough, Abdul Rahman. Others say it wasn’t Subhan of the Trinamool Congress who shot the sub-inspector, but the Congress’ Mukhtar. Taher Hussain, Churi Firoz, Mohammad Shakeel and Mohammad Raj are four other toughs now in custody. Mohammad Mohsin Hussain Sayed, also of Garden Reach, was arrested in 2006 as a Pakistani agent.

Subhan’s alleged accomplice, Mohammed Iqbal, Munna to buddies, a Trinamool Congress councillor, appears to have disappeared after Choudhury’s killing. Much higher up the ladder, the episode (which has already cost Kolkata’s police commissioner, Ranjit Panchnanda, his job) casts a shadow on Munna’s friend, West Bengal Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim, known as Bobby, who represents the area in the Assembly. A key figure in Banerjee’s strategy of wooing Muslim voters, Hakim acts as party and government spokesman. Munna was his contact man during the Assembly election.

This is Kolkata’s rough and tough underbelly. Many men here go about their business honestly but many others run protection rackets or are in the extortion business. Some supply casual labour to the dying port. More have lately muscled into the city’s booming construction business. They control unions in the port, shipyard, textile factories, brick kilns and what is said to be the world’s largest kite-making business. Now, they want to take over students’ organisations as well. The railway workshop, wagons and sidings provide rich pickings. Poverty and ignorance breed lawlessness as Shanti Swarup Dhawan, West Bengal’s governor during the Naxalite upsurge, noted. He startled well-fed Rotarians by telling them if you force people to live like animals, they will behave as such.

Garden Reach is part of a bigger social, political and economic problem with international ramifications. But it’s worth asking why Muslims, comprising only 27 per cent of West Bengal’s population, account for 48 per cent of jail inmates. A partial answer may be found in the Sachar Committee’s disclosure that Muslims hold only two per cent of government jobs. A Pakistani diplomat before 1971 when Kolkata’s Pakistani mission defected to Bangladesh, would mock that for all its secular intellectual culture, Bengal could trot out only one Muslim Indian Administrative Service officer.

No one doubts Banerjee’s sympathy for the underdog. She sometimes sports a hijab and laces her conversation with “khuda hafiz” and “salaam aleikum”. She has offered stipends to imams and official recognition to madrassahs to study Islam. But these token gestures don’t promise social or economic upliftment to a relatively depressed community. At the same time, they are likely further to antagonise Hindus who fear being swamped by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Resenting being disturbed by the azan call to prayer, they wonder where the money for the splendid new or renovated mosques sprouting everywhere comes from. The reported murder in a south Bengal village of Maulana Ruhul Quddus, maulvi of a city mosque, may suggest a dangerous backlash. As Nehru warned, majority communalism is the most dangerous.

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First Published: Fri, February 22 2013. 21:34 IST