On 20 May 2011, Mamata Banerjee was sworn in as the first female chief minister of West Bengal, bringing an end to thirty-three years of CPI(M) rule. ‘Poriborton!’ screamed the morning papers, echoing Trinamool Congress’s catchphrase for bringing in change.
A decade later, amidst allegations against the TMC of political violence, syndicate rule and institutional corruption, the Bharatiya Janata Party has sent out a new war cry.
The upcoming state Legislative Assembly election promises to be a historic one. Ahead of the elections, journalist Deep Halder recounts his interactions with Bengal’s biggest stars-turned-politicians, refugees who want to become permanent citizens, and travelled as far as the Bangladesh border to gauge the mood of the people, in his latest book, Bengal 2021: An Election Diary.
Deep Halder has been a journalist for 17 years, writing on issues of development at the intersection of religion, caste and politics. Currently, he is the executive editor at India Today Group Digital.
We present an exclusive excerpt from the chapter titled Nusrat Jahan and the Muslim Question in which the author explores the religious identity as a factor in the battle for Bengal.
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Nusrat Jahan and the Muslim Question
Nineteen years ago my first newspaper report, ‘Guns n’ Golf in Squalor Slum’, appeared in Hindustan Times’ Kolkata edition. The story was about a Muslim-majority shanty town named Madartala, a basti located behind the boundary wall of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, India’s oldest golf club, in the Golf Gardens area of south Kolkata. Many of the inhabitants of this slum have turned full-time golfers after working as caddies and have won major trophies. Some of them have criminal records. The story got front-page lead space, and since then Madartala’s golfers have been featured by other print journalists and television reporters several times.
The reason I remembered the story all these years later was what Bhondor Ali, a caddie-turned-golfer, who was rechristened John after he turned a full-time golfer, had told me.
In 2001, I had asked Bhondor while writing my story: How did he see himself? As a Muslim? A petty criminal? A golfer? Bhondor? Or John? Or all at once?
‘I see myself as a human being,’ Bhondor had answered.
Bhondor came to mind during my conversation with Nusrat Jahan, in the run-up to the 2021 Assembly elections. The BJP has consistently blamed the ruling Trinamool Congress government of minority appeasement. And there is fear and loathing among some sections of the community over the CAA and a possible NRC at some future date. Nusrat is the Trinamool Congress MP from Basirhat, a crazily popular Bengali film actor who has now shifted to politics, a Muslim married to a Jain, an eyesore for mullahs on account of her open participation in Hindu festivals, and an ambassador of sorts for Mamata Banerjee’s secular brand of politics.
‘I see myself as a human being first,’ Nusrat Jahan tells me, echoing Bhondor’s words from years ago.
I had asked Nusrat if she sees herself as a Bengali first or as a Muslim, an actor or a politician. ‘I see myself as a human being first. But I know what you are hinting at. I see no problem in celebrating Hindu festivals or Christian ones for that matter, while not letting go of my faith. You know, I grew up during the nineties in Park Circus, a Muslim-majority area in the heart of Kolkata, and say, there were ten Hindu families surrounded by a hundred Muslim houses. Such was the culture there that we would put up a tarpaulin during Qurbani so that the sensibilities of vegetarian Hindus are not offended. Again, during Kali Pujo, we would hear Shyama Sangeet from Hindu houses and were perfectly okay with it.’
But surely there are divergent voices in the Muslim community? ‘Yes, there were people from my community who had expressed their reservations about my marriage, my lifestyle, my participation in Durga Pujo. My father had asked them politely to let me be. But then there are radicals in all religions.’
Does she not sense a sharp polarization in Bengal? ‘I do, and that is politics. There is a political agenda behind dividing people along religious lines. There is a party with a lot of money and muscle and media support that is dividing people. Then there are television anchors who call maulvis to their shows every evening and help stereotype Muslims in a certain way. These maulvis neither represent me nor my community.’
Her leader Mamata Banerjee has been accused of minority appeasement. ‘Appeasement? Is caring for minorities a crime? And like a mother, she cares for all her citizens. My party doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion. That is not who we are. Look at what is happening in the rest of the country. Let’s not make Bengal like that.’
For the Bhadralok Bengali, Nusrat Jahan is in a sense the very idea of secular Bengal, the sankha-pola-wearing Muslim who celebrates Durga Pujo and Eid with equal elan. But there is a Bengal beyond that multiculturalism of Kolkata.
I interviewed Nusrat in July. In early August, a news report appeared in New Indian Express of a Muslim-majority village in Bengal’s Murshidabad district where simple joys of life, like listening to music, playing carom, watching television or buying lottery tickets, are banned. A fatwa by the heads of Adwaita Nagar village, with a population of around 12,000, is armed with penalties for those who flout it. The Trinamool Congress-dominated panchayat chief reportedly said there is nothing wrong about this.
The fatwa was issued on 9 August under the banner of a ‘social reforms committee’, New Indian Express reported. ‘We decided to impose a ban on a series of activities to stop the young generation from adopting methods which will lead to their moral and cultural degradation. We cannot allow them to listen to music and watch movies and serials which do not fit our religious culture,’ said Azharul Sheikh, secretary of the Adwaita Nagar Social Reforms Committee, to New Indian Express.
Predictably, the report drew sharp criticism on social media from the Hindu Right and a somewhat awkward silence from the centrists and those Left of Centre. There was some fear that West Bengal would be partitioned again on religious grounds.
This took me back to my time in Kolkata. Growing up during the eighties, when the Left Front was in power, there was a sense that Muslims were different, in their names and customs, but they were not the ‘other’. I had Muslim friends in school and college and they were all part of the larger (then) Calcutta story, where every festival, from Saraswati Pujo to Durga Pujo to Eid was celebrated and many Bengalis have grown up eating beef chaanp, chops and parantha in the hotels in the New Market area. Yes, a Hindu–Muslim marriage would perhaps raise a few eyebrows, but that was about it, and the fate of such marriages would often be as good or bad as that of any other marriage! But that was what Calcutta and Bengal has for long remained – a one-city state in terms of perception. Which is why, even if you were politically aware, you never really knew what was happening outside the city. Or sometimes, inside.