West Bengal Elections – Muslims Must Put their Act Together

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Key Contests

The State will be going to the elections in the next two or three months. This offers the major opportunity for the community to assert its right as well as gather its numerical might to demand a change in their social, economic and educational condition.


By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

The results of the SNAP-Guidance Guild Survey of nearly one lakh Muslim households in West Bengal paints a very bleak picture of the community in the State where Muslims’ share in the population is 27 per cent. Perhaps Muslims constitute the largest single social group in that eastern State which has suffered the massive economic decline during the 35-year long Marxist rule. The State will be going to the elections in next two or three months. This offers the major opportunity for the community to assert its right as well as gather its numerical might to demand a change in their social, economic and educational condition. Given the level of economic deprivation, even an economist of the stature of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has termed the report ‘an empirical recognition of the large scale deprivation’ of the community and urged special measures to uplift them.
It is now pretty clear that while the Marxists did not allow the communal mischief-mongers to create social disharmony in the West Bengal during their long tenure in power, they were extremely insincere in enabling the community to come out of the economic morass. It is just another matter that the Marxism lost its ideological appeal and sheen all across the world precisely during this period, given the disintegration of the Soviet empire, mighty fall of Russia and China’s subtle but definitive shift towards American styled market capitalism. It were the solid Muslim votes in the rural hinterland of Bengal that allowed the CPI(M) to march to the Writer’s Building unhindered by the downswing elsewhere.

Facts Speak
This should not happen with the new incumbents in power, the Trinamool Congress, which looks set to score an encore, going by the pre-poll surveys. The survey is revealing in that the Marxists were intent upon keeping the Muslim illiterate (it shows barely 60% literacy against the State’s average of over 76%). Fifty two per cent Muslims do not go beyond primary level education, a condition where most people revert to illiteracy. The average of high schools and higher secondary schools per one lakh population in Muslim dominated districts of Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur is around 7 against average 10 in the State. Muslim representation in Government jobs is less than two per cent. What is clearly visible is that the Marxists believed in illiteracy being the surest guarantee of a rich electoral harvest in the Muslim inhabited areas.

Consolidating Votes
Modern education and attendant facilities in Muslim areas should occupy top priority for all those who intend to impart some direction for the Muslim preferences in the forthcoming West Bengal Assembly elections. This is much within the realm of possibility. Dr. Syed Zafar Mahmood from Zakat Foundation of India has done good homework on electoral demography in the State. (I am quoting his latest article in Urdu daily Rashtriya Sahara). According to him, of the 294 Assembly segments in the State, 144 have Muslim votes ranging between 20 and 89 per cent. These are not reserved for the SCs and STs. If Muslims could devise a strategy, these constituencies should return either a Muslim or a candidate genuinely interested in wellbeing of the community. But this would involve all Muslims casting their votes and should be voting solidly in favour of a single party and a candidate. (Let us remember that the survey says that 13% adult Muslims do not have voter cards with them).
Furthermore, there are another 58 unreserved constituencies where Muslim vote share is between 10 to 20 per cent. Here it is possible to influence the voting trend in favour of a candidate who is acutely conscious of community’s developmental needs. The State has 61 reserved seats for SCs and STs. Among the 33 reserved segments, Muslims range from 20 to 53 per cent while in other 28 reserved category seats, they command votes ranging between 10 to 20 per cent. Dr. Zafar Mahmood calculates that Muslims could easily get around 80 members elected from their community while in nearly half of the remaining they can influence the election in a manner that the outcome will not be against their wishes and interests. The current West Bengal Assembly has 59 Muslim MLAs.

Route to Reservation
Reservation for the community in public employment and educational institutions should also receive due attention. When Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu””where Muslims appear much more educated and well off””could have reservation for Muslims, why not in West Bengal where their plight is much more pathetic. The community must explore the various options to seek reservation. Karnataka offers them 4 per cent reservation as a special (2B) category under the OBCs. Kerala has 12% reservation for Muslims while in Tamil Nadu, both Muslims and Christians were given 3.5% reservations during the previous DMK rule. Kerala introduced the reservation for Muslim in 1970s. In Karnataka, a comprehensive survey by the Minorities Commission (where virtually every minority household was counted) in 1994 resulted in the creation of the 2B category and it proceeded in stages, first in CET, then its extension for the subsequent years and then its extension to Government jobs. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian party governments had sought special provision to extend the reservations to 69% (much beyond the Supreme Court cap of 50%). Backwardness of the Muslim community was too evident to be excluded from this category.
In the former Andhra Pradesh, the bid to seek reservation for Muslims proved abortive twice as the Hyderabad High Court pointed out procedural deficiencies in establishment of backwardness, although it did not oppose religion based reservation per se. Currently, in the newly carved Telangana state, a Commission headed by K. Sudheer, former Special Chief Secretary, is once again figuring a way out for reservation for Muslims. The Commission has Dr. Ameerullah Khan of Indian School of Business, Dr. Abdus Shabaan of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Prof. Abdul Bari on its panel of members. The Commission has completed hearings in six of the 12 districts in the State where Muslims constitute 12.68% of the population. It is to present its report to the government by March 31.
These should serve as precedents for West Bengal Muslims in the next five years to press their case for reservation. The election offers an opportunity for pressing this demand and inclusion in the manifesto. Muslims should neither follow AIMIM style of communal politics, nor the Muslim League pattern of Kerala would suit them. The solidarity should be brought forth on the basis of socio-economic and educational needs. They should not even be asking for wages for imams and the mosques. These are private religious needs of the community and should not be sought from the State. They should be wary of political parties that promise salaries for imams and teaching facilities of Arabic in the State. No pampering of religious sentiments should ever be entertained.