Both Bengals Turning Islamist

Both Bengals Turning Islamist

by Jay Bhattacharjee - Wednesday, May 27, 2015 12:30 PM IST
Both Bengals Turning Islamist

While Bangladesh has a somewhat secular government mercifully, our West Bengal is dangerously pampering the radical elements.

A couple of caveats are in order before one proceeds further in this essay. This writer, as a wide-eyed probashi (expatriate) Bengali, spent his salad days in college in Calcutta in the early and mid-1960s, but never went back to live in that vibrant city or in our Bengal after that. It must also be stressed that a vast majority of expat Bengalis in our generation, my confreres from that era, had a deep cultural and civilisational affinity with the language and history of this green and fertile land and its people. For this, we have to thank our parents, who never allowed us to become deracinated and rudderless cosmopolitans.

Therefore, I continue to follow sociopolitical and cultural developments both in our Bengal and in our eastern neighbour as closely as I can. And the primary issue that stares me in the eye, apart from the terminal economic decline of West Bengal, is the growing Islamic fanaticism in both the Bengals. While the Awami League government under Sheikh Hasina is overtly anti-Islamist and quasi-secular in its philosophy (more on this later), Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal is merrily cavorting with the worst type of Islamist forces that openly advocate political Islam of the most regressive variety.

I can give two vignettes of West Bengal from my personal experience in the last two years. The first dates back to April 2013, when lakhs of Muslims in Kolkata held a mammoth meeting in the Maidan, right next to Fort William, the Headquarters of the Army’s Eastern Command. The reason for this rally was to protest against the war crime trials in Bangladesh against the razakars and pro-Pakistani militia that had assisted and abetted the appalling genocide of Bengalis by the Pakistani army during the 1971 liberation war. Readers will rub their eyes in disbelief when they realise the ramifications of what happened. Indian Muslims in West Bengal and their ideological mentors were stridently defending the persons who had fought the Indian armed forces, not to mention their fellow Bengalis. The Kolkata mob was carefully mobilised in far-away districts of West Bengal and was brought in buses to the meeting in an organised manner.

The crowd shouted the most virulent Islamist slogans and carried incendiary banners. The Mamata Banerjee government did nothing to either control the patently illegal gathering or to ask the Muslim leadership in Bengal to dilute its posture. In fact, the TMC cadre was enthusiastically helping the rally organisers and encouraging the crowd to increase their decibel count. A young Army officer posted in Fort William, across the Maidan, told me that he, his brother officers, and the jawans were extremely upset by the disgusting spectacle played out before their eyes.

My next first-hand encounter with the changed mores in West Bengal was during a visit to Kolkata last autumn. Travelling from the city’s swanky new airport to the town centre, visitors were confronted by two grand arches, elegantly designed and crafted, that conveyed greetings and bon voyage messages to Haj pilgrims on their outward and return journeys. The beaming Banerjee, the lider supremo, like her North Korean counterpart, of course, occupied centre space in the arches. This was such a flagrant assault on one’s sensitivities that I took the trouble, during my stay in the city, to find out if the residents of the metropolis could remember similar efforts for pilgrims leaving for other religious shrines, like the Golden Temple, Vaishno Devi etc. No one could.

Typical Bengali bhadralok cynicism carried the day. An old college classmate, derisive and sardonic like all the Bengalis who had stayed behind, had to come out with his bon mot. Don’t fret, he said airily — at least the messages are still in Bengali. Within a few years, they will be written in Urdu. This was the Bengali intellectualism at its witty worst.

The recent incidents in Bangladesh are, of course, most tragic. These are the brutal and calculated assassinations of three committed secularists, all of whom were idealists and intellectuals steeped in the quintessentially Bengali humanist cultural ethos. All three murders have been proudly claimed by assorted Islamist terrorist groups and the authenticity of these claims has been accepted by the official investigating agencies.

There was very little public condemnation of these horrendous crimes, even from Awami League circles. The dwindling nationalist-secular forces in Bangladesh have become a beleaguered minority. Occasionally, they do surface, as in the case of public rallies in 2013, demanding punishment for the perpetrators of the 1971 war crimes. However, the mainstream political parties, including the Awami League, are reluctant to openly side with groups that oppose Islamic fanaticism.

The overall ambience in our eastern neighbour is that of a deeply Islamic country and society that merely speaks Bangla. The primary commitment is to Islam; the ideals and principles that formed the backbone of the  country’s liberation struggle are a distant second.


In Bangladesh, the national socio-political framework has become almost inseparably tied with Islam and pan-Islamic philosophy. Somewhere in this haze, the Bengali identity and culture have become mere shibboleths. In this Islamist thought process, the overwhelming priority is the restoration of the caliphate in the Indian sub-continent. Whether or not this is a semi-delusional notion, the mosques and the madrassas have almost unanimously been propagating the idea that this new order is indeed feasible in the Indian sub-continent and the Indian Republic’s days are numbered.

The time-frame is not short-term; indeed the chosen method of achieving their objective is not armed conflict (in which even they know they have no hope of defeating the Indian Republic) but another slower strategy that can be more lethal. This is the route of demographic change.

There is an oft-repeated dictum, often attributed to Auguste Comte, that demography is destiny. Although Comte’s authorship is not proven, the concept itself has enormous ramifications. It is also emotive and is used in tandem with others like “revenge through the cradle”. What started in the aftermath of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan conflict as a slow trickle of Bengali-Muslim immigration into Assam has now become a full-fledged torrent of Bangladeshi Muslims flooding into West Bengal, Bihar and Assam.

From the late 1980s onwards, the incessant flow of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has irretrievably changed the demography of West Bengal and its political landscape. What was originally economic migration now has distinct religious and socio-political underpinnings. The leitmotiv in this entire exercise and process is slowly bringing about a new ideological framework in our Bengal. Already, the Islamic clergy and their lay allies are calling for a legal and political framework in West Bengal (and by extension, the rest of India) that is in consonance with Islamic theology, or at least closer to it.

The TMC regime of course, shamelessly played along with these forces, and went to the extent of paying the allowances of the Imams of mosques from the state government’s exchequer. This was such a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional decision that the Calcutta High Court had no hesitation in striking it down in 2013 in a very strongly-worded judgement (Writ Petition No 358 and others, 2 September 2013). The state of West Bengal was the primary respondent in this batch of petitions.

If this was a limited setback for the pan-Islamic movement, the rest of the scenario was far from bleak for its advocates. This is because the Indian Republic and its administration have proved themselves woefully inefficient and inadequate over the last five decades in actually identifying the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and deporting/expelling them from our country.

The state of Assam was the initial target for illegal immigration from Bangladesh. There were warnings from various authorities, including the state’s Governor Lt General (retd) SK Sinha, who told the Union government in November 1998, about the grave danger to national security and to Assamese society and economy, because of unabated illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

However, this and many other warning bells did nothing to remove the inertia of the Central and Assam Governments. Two stinging judgements of the Supreme Court in 2005 and 2006 on this issue were also swept under the carpet by New Delhi and Gauhati (Sarbananda Sonowal vs. Union Of India and Anr – Writ Petition (Civil) 131 of 2000, decided in 2005 and Sarbananda Sonowal Vs Union Of India, Writ Petition (Civil) 117 Of 2006).

The lethargy of the Indian state in tackling this existential threat was once again critiqued severely by the apex court in December 2014. The bench, while ordering the Union of India and the border states to take urgent measures to strengthen the physical anti-infiltration infrastructure on the Bangladesh frontier and to expedite the identification of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, also remarked ruefully:

We are given to understand that the entire border between India and Bangladesh is roughly 4000 km. The White Paper shows that large portions of the border with Assam are yet to be fenced with double coil wire fencing, making the border an easy place to cross. Also, we are given to understand that most parts of the border with West Bengal and other North-Eastern States are also porous and very easy to cross. We are at a loss to understand why 67 years after independence the Eastern border is left porous. We have been reliably informed that the entire Western border with Pakistan being 3300 Kms. long, is not only properly fenced but properly manned as well and is not porous at any point.

The demographic danger, therefore, is accentuated by the failure of the Indian state machinery to protect vital national interests. What is new in this, one might well ask. To compound its sins, the babus and the netas, have also shamelessly delayed the official release of the 2011 Census data of the religious composition of the nation’s population. The grapevine says that at least 4 border districts of West Bengal (Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur and the North 24 Parganas) that already had a high Muslim population, have now become Muslim-majority districts, as a result of the demographic onslaught from across the border.

How all this will pan out is not clear, but it is evident that the overall security environment of India has certainly been gravely imperilled by these externally superimposed population changes.

Jay Bhattacharjee is a policy and corporate affairs analyst based in Delhi.
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