Asghar Ali Engineer


Prior to the formation of the Left Front government in West Bengal, communal riots between Hindus and Muslims plagued that region. The Left government put an end to it and was generally supported by Muslims. For reasons analyzed in this article, there has been significant erosion in the Muslim support for the Left Front.


Recent election results of Municipal Corporation of Kolkata and other Municipalities in West Bengal were shocking for the Left Front. Of course there are very complex reasons for Left Front loosing its grip over voters of West Bengal. Experts and academics will analyze these results over a period of time. One of the important factors, as admitted by some Left Front leaders also, has been the loss of Muslim votes.


Before the Left Front came to power in West Bengal, it was communally very sensitive state and number of riots had been taking place since, of course, 1947. The Congress Government, for reasons not to be analyzed here, never showed determination to put down these riots in which Muslims greatly suffered. The Communists had always been sympathetic to minorities and were against communal divide and, much more, against communal violence.


When they came to power in West Bengal they put a stop to communal violence and in past 30 years West Bengal did not see any major outburst of communal violence. The priority of West Bengal Muslims during this period was their security and they preferred to vote for Left Front for this very reason. Also, land distribution brought benefit to a section of Muslims in certain areas and this section was also won over by the Left Front.


Then what went wrong and what alienated West Bengal Muslims from the Left Front? Some reasons are of course common to all people of West Bengal and some are specific to Muslims. We will deal here with these specific problems to understand the Muslim electoral behaviour. Both in Bihar as well as in West Bengal one pattern emerges that to begin with minorities’ top priority is security in view of recurring communal violence.


Bihar has very similar case. Bihar too witnessed great deal of communal violence until 1990. But when Lalu Prasad used MY (Muslim-Yadav) formula for winning elections he too showed determination to put a stop to communal violence in Bihar and for 15 years that he lasted in power, he did not allow Bihar to witness communal frenzy. But after 15 years Muslims deserted him and voted for Nitish Kumar.  Lalu Prasad was dethroned.


In both the states security did not remain top priority as security was ensured but apart from security Muslims have problem of grinding poverty and unemployment. After experiencing security, they want problem of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment to be addressed and that comes to be prioritized. Same thing happened to an extent with Mulayam Singh Yadav in U.P. too. He too came to power in U.P. on ‘MY’ formula but Muslims deserted him when he gave major chunk of jobs to Yadavs and left Muslims high and dry. Muslims switched their vote to Mayawati but she too is disappointing them. One has to see what happens in the next election in U.P.


West Bengal has about 28% Muslim population. It is a big chunk of population with concentration in certain areas like Murshidabad and this big chunk of votes cannot be ignored by any party which aspires to come to power. It is unfortunate that Left Front did not pay adequate attention to economic problems of Muslims and that became a cause of alienation. 


The Sacchar Committee data showed that Muslims in West Bengal were far behind, of all other things, even in government jobs and other indicators. The average literacy level among West Bengal Muslims was found to be 57.5 per cent as against national average among them of 65 per cent. It is interesting to note that in Kerala which is also often ruled by Left, though not always, the literacy percentage is 89.4, quite high. And in U.P. and Bihar it is 47.8 and 42 respectively. Thus Bihar is of course far worse in this respect.


Incidence poverty among Muslims in West Bengal has reduced from 53 per cent in 1987 to 44 in 2004 as compared to Kerala from 56 to 31 percent in 1987 and 2004 respectively. And in U.P. and Bihar it was found to be 43 and 57 per cent in 2004. Thus Bihar is again worse. In Government employment Muslims were found to be just 4 per cent in West Bengal which is quite low.


But then West Bengal Government acted fast and gave 10 per cent reservation to Muslims in Bengal. However, it seems it did not have much impact in the present Municipal elections on Muslim voters. May be it will take time to sink among Muslims to create political impact. Also, what happened in Singur and Nandigram some Muslims also lost their land and Jamiat al-Ulama also had joined in protests. Thus Muslims lost faith in the left and switched their votes to Mamata Banerjee.


Now it is a big question whether Mamata will be able to deliver at all. Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad did not go beyond providing security and hence Muslims left them too. But it appears, Mamata too may not prove any better as she has no ideological commitment at all. She is quite mercurial and also she had, in search for power, joined hands with BJP and was part of NDA. She left NDA, among other things, to woo Muslim voters.


One lesson which politicians must learn is that now minority votes, especially Muslim votes cannot be taken for granted by any political party or alliance. When there was no alternative to the Congress up to late eighties, it (Congress) not only became complacent but often manipulated communal sentiments and even local congress leaders joined hands with communal outfits benefiting two ways: by seeking subtle support of such communal organizations (Mrs. Gandhi even sought support of VHP and RSS in early eighties) and also made Muslims feel only Congress is the secular alternative and were forced to support it.


However, this reality changed since nineties and many regional caste outfits after implementation of Mandal Commission Report appeared on the scene and Muslims found other parties to vote for in U.P., Bihar and some other states. That is why the Congress lost power at the Centre and could come to power in 2004 only by forming UPA. Now the left which has always championed minority cause is facing the same situation in West Bengal. Trinamool Congress is wooing Muslim voters as an alternative to the Left Front.


Our political culture, though democratic, is still not all inclusive. Political power and fruits of economic development are monopolized by upper caste Hindus, on one hand, and, a trickle is passed on to OBCs which support some political parties. Minorities like Muslims are left high and dry.


Democracy has no meaning if minorities are not secure and also do not get proper share in economic development in proportion to their population. The Muslims in India are a largest minority, around 15 crore (150 million) and yet are far from being in happy position. Sacchar Committee has shown, through formidable statistical data that they are slipping below dalits.


Now that a modern educated middle class is emerging among Muslims, it is acutely conscious of this reality and would not sit back with folded hands and watch the situation helplessly. Though yet, it is not as influential as the traditional ulama but it cannot be marginalized either. It is articulate and is becoming active. It is, what is more interesting, challenging the traditional religious leadership even on religious issue.


And if modernizations of madrasas, as some middle class Muslims are demanding, goes through it will have far greater impact on Muslim politics and voting behaviour in India. On one hand we have process of globalization and liberalization which tries to marginalize the poor and the weak which include Muslims who are at the bottom. But, and it is important to note, it also increases awareness of their rights through use of modern technology and makes them better organized political force.


Even madrasas these days are using modern technology like computers, creating their websites and discussions are raging on various minority issues which tremendously boosts not only information but also political awareness. Many madrasa graduates are now opting for university courses and imbibing values of modern secular education developing better outlook on democratic and political rights.


Thus our attitude towards minority problems has to change. Indian Muslims have all the advantages of secular democratic culture and cannot be manipulated by traditional religious leaders as in most of the Islamic countries. To the contrary, traditional Muslim leadership can no longer take Muslims for granted. Though India has more Muslims than even in Pakistan yet religious orthodoxy and sectarianism is not as strong as in Pakistan.


Islam, in India, has very different image and Muslims are not involved in any international terroristic activities. In India the Jami’at al-Ulama-i-Hind organized, among Muslims, huge demonstrations against terroristic attacks and even Jamat-e-Islami-Hind also had to accept secular values and is now even thinking of joining democratic political processes which its founder once had declared haram in Islam.


Thus, if secular forces realize involvement of and all inclusive approach to political and developmental processes it would tremendously boost India’s progress. Muslims, like others, can provide great human resources which still lie dormant because of poverty and illiteracy and exclusivistic policies.




(Secular Perspective June 16-30, 2010)

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