Demand For Proportional Representation By Muslim Leaders In Bengal Resurrects Partition Ghosts

Demand For Proportional Representation By Muslim Leaders In Bengal Resurrects Partition Ghosts A person offering namaz at Nakhoda Masjid in Kolkata. (Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Prominent Muslim community members met in Kolkata recently and demanded that the Trinamool Congress take care of the community’s demands.

    Among the demands is proportional representation for Muslims in politics.

    This demand has resurrected the ghosts of partition, say Hindu community leaders.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Bengal, and the percentage of Muslims in the Trinamool Congress-ruled state will soon reach the pre-partition figure of 30 per cent. And asserting their growing clout, influential sections within the community have started demanding proportional representation for the community as well as an adequate share of government jobs commensurate with their numbers in the state.

While various religious leaders of the Muslim community in Bengal have been making these demands for some time now, prominent members of the community have started lending their voices to the demand. This has especially gained traction after Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011.

Last weekend, a closed-door meeting of 350 prominent members of the community – serving and retired bureaucrats, professionals, academics, politicians, and clerics – held at Milli Al-Ameen College for Girls in the heart of Kolkata demanded that the ruling Trinamool Congress take care of the community’s demands (read this report). Senior Trinamool leaders, including Sudip Bandopadhyay, Derek O’Brien, Nadimul Haque, and Ahmed Hasan Imran were present to reassure the community leaders that their demands would be considered.

At the meeting, a small but influential Muslim body called the All India Naba Chetana voiced the demand for proportional representation for Muslims in politics. The body’s convenor, Faruque Ahamed, said if the Trinamool was serious about the welfare of Muslims, it should reserve at least 14 Lok Sabha tickets (that is, one-third of the total number of 42 Lok Sabha seats from Bengal) for Muslims in the general election next year. He said at least 98 seats in the state assembly (one-third of the total strength of 294) should be reserved for Muslims. At present, there are six Muslim Lok Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs) from Bengal, with only two of them belonging to the Trinamool Congress. There are 55 Muslim Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the state assembly, most of them from the Trinamool.

Muslims form about 6 per cent of the government workforce in Bengal, up from 3.4 per cent a decade ago. This ‘under-representation’ of Muslims in government workforce in Bengal was one of the highlights of the Sachar Committee report that had embarrassed the then Left Front government in Bengal. The report, submitted in November 2006, triggered Muslim disenchantment with the communists and ultimately led to the nearly wholesale shift of Muslim support from the Left Front to the Trinamool in the 2011 polls. This was the primary factor behind the Trinamool’s sweep of the assembly polls that year. Banerjee succeeded in shoring up the support of Muslims through a slew of measures – reservation of government jobs for Muslims, doles for the community, and many other sops that justifiably earned her the ‘minority-appeasement’ tag – and that was how her party improved its performance in the 2016 assembly polls.

But, says prominent cleric Qazi Fazlur Rehman, who leads the biggest Eid prayers at Red Road in Kolkata, Banerjee has not done enough for Muslims (read this report). Rehman was present at the meeting of community leaders on Saturday (22 September) and demanded that concrete and time-bound measures be taken for increasing the number of Muslims in government jobs to at least 30 per cent and to improve madrasa education in the state.

Rehman reminded Saturday’s gathering that the Trinamool had implemented only six of the 12 demands (mostly relating to reservation in jobs, livelihood schemes for Muslims, and other welfare measures exclusively for the community) made by the community in 2011 as a pre-condition for extending support to the Trinamool. Rehman, who is known to speak his mind, reminded the Trinamool leaders at Saturday’s meeting that Banerjee had, at that time, promised to implement all the 123 demands after coming to power. He reportedly warned that the support of the Muslim community cannot be taken for granted.

According to Trinamool insiders, there is a growing acceptance in the Trinamool leadership for proportional representation of Muslims in politics. “There should be no problem in fielding 14 Muslim candidates in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, even though Muslims are in a majority in only five Lok Sabha seats. People of Bengal are mature and secular and don’t vote on religious lines. Any candidate who has Mamata Banerjee’s endorsement will win,” said a senior Trinamool leader. An influential section of the party also believes that based on this ‘proportional representation experiment’ in next year’s Lok Sabha polls, the party could repeat it in the 2021 assembly polls so that the number of Muslim MLAs increase in the House and the community finds adequate representation in the political arena.

As for reservation in government jobs, the Trinamool claims that nearly 97 per cent of Muslims in the state have been included in the list of OBCs, thus entitling them to reservation in government jobs. This, say legal experts, is a backdoor reservation for Muslims since reservation on religious lines is unconstitutional. Banerjee, say the experts, has actually subverted the Indian Constitution by doing so. “And there is no caste or class division among Muslims. So how can Muslims be included in the list of OBCs? This can be easily challenged in court,” said lawyer Sukhendu Palit (read this). It is estimated that if the ‘backdoor reservation’ for Muslims in government jobs continues, the number of Muslims in state government workforce will increase to about 10 per cent by 2021 and then to 15 per cent by 2027.

But Muslim community leaders are not leaving it to the “good sense” of the Trinamool leadership to get their demands for proportional representation in politics and at least one-third of government jobs fulfilled. They have charted out an elaborate plan to apply overt and covert pressure on Chief Minister Banerjee to concede to their demands. Muslim religious leaders, including imams and muezzins from across the state, will congregate in Kolkata on 3 October to pitchfork these demands of the community on to the political centre stage in Bengal. A series of meetings between Muslim religious and community leaders and elders and the Trinamool leadership (Banerjee and her closest lieutenants) have been lined up, ostensibly to make Banerjee and her party colleagues aware of the concerns of the community.

“The primary purpose of all these meetings and interactions between Muslim leaders (who are not aligned with the Trinamool) and the Trinamool leadership is to create pressure on the latter and make the Trinamool leadership realise that the crucial support of the Muslim community that helps it win elections can only be retained if measures like proportional representation to Muslims to meet the rising aspirations of members of the minority community are taken by the Trinamool,” said a retired professor of political science who did not want to be named. He had attended Saturday’s meeting and is closely involved in plans to facilitate interactions between Banerjee and Muslim community leaders from across the state.

The demand for proportional representation for the Muslim community has resurrected the ghosts of partition, say Hindu community leaders. “The Muslim League under Jinnah had demanded proportional representation for Muslims based on their population in the different provinces and that led to partition of the country in 1947. The Muslim League carved out a separate homeland for Muslims out of two parts of the Indian subcontinent (East and West Pakistan). It is alarming that with the Muslim population in Bengal reaching the pre-1947 figure, this demand is being voiced once again,” said a leader of Hindu Samhati.

A Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) leader contended that the demand for proportional representation for Muslims is a mischievous and sinister one. “Bengal did not witness a complete exchange of populations and while the number and percentage of Hindus in Bangladesh has come down drastically, the Muslim population in Bengal has increased from 19.85 per cent in 1951 to 27.01 per cent in 2011 and nearly 30 per cent today. Muslims have become a majority in many parts of the state and with the growth rate of Muslims being more than double that of Hindus, it is only a matter of time before Muslims gain predominance in politics and other aspects of life in Bengal. Once that happens, Hindus will have to flee Bengal, quite like how they are fleeing from Bangladesh due to persecution,” said an HJS leader.

Except for the four districts of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Purulia, and Bankura, all the remaining 19 districts of Bengal have a significant Muslim presence of at least 10 per cent. Muslims are in a majority in Malda, Murshidabad, and Uttar Dinajpur, and have a large presence (nearly 40 per cent) in Birbhum, Dakshin Dinajpur (25.8 per cent), Howrah (27 per cent), Cooch Behar (27.4 per cent), Kolkata (22 per cent), Nadia (nearly 28 per cent), North 24 Parganas (nearly 27 per cent), and South 24 Parganas (37 per cent) districts. Many sub-divisions in these districts have become Muslim-majority areas, and it is estimated that by 2035, South 24 Parganas and Paschim Bardhaman will become Muslim-majority districts and the percentage of Muslims in Bengal will be more than 37 per cent. Since Muslims are estimated to largely vote en mass at the dictates of their religious leaders, they form a captive vote bank that politicians find attractive; such politicians then feel obliged to allow implementation of the Islamist agenda (read this and this article). This is exactly what is happening in Bengal.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.


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