Muslim Question in Bengal: Countering Neoliberal Propaganda
Before coming to the question of contemporary Muslim situation in Bengal and a calculated neoliberal propaganda orchestrated by bourgeois media and political parties like Congress and Trinamul, one needs to first analyse the contemporary situation of Indian Muslims as a minority group to which Bengal Muslims are only a part of that larger social group. In education, poverty, income and employment statistics—Indian Muslims are comparably more deprived than other religious communities along with Dalits and tribals as observed by Sachar Report. Arjun Sengupta Report has recently shown that Muslims along with dalits and tribals are the poorest communities in India and the poverty has increased among the Muslims during the phase of neoliberal economic reforms. 84.5% of Indian Muslim households spend not more than Rs. 20 per day and Rs. 609 per month. 13.3% of Indian Muslim households belonging to the Muslim middle income group as per the parameters set up by the above report spend only Rs. 1098 per month or Rs. 37 as daily per capita consumption expenditure (DPCE) which is not very high given the high persistence of inflation in the economy. Only 2.2% of Indian Muslims who are regarded as high income category by the report spends Rs. 2,776 or Rs. 93 per day.
The partition led to the migration of Muslim elites and a sizeable section of upwardly mobile Muslim middle-class to the then West and East Pakistan. Most Muslims who remained in India particularly in the bordering states like Bengal were poor and uneducated Muslims comprising a significant section of peasantry. Thus, even a cursory glance at the living conditions of Indian Muslims unravel the fact that the Muslims are the non-dominant community and a socio-economically, and educationally ‘backward community’. In terms of political marginalisation and under-representation, the Muslim political elite are almost negligible, as Muslims do not provide the economic and political leadership in the national mainstream. The gross under-representation of Muslims in various legislatures of the states and at the centre also affects the socio-economic development of the community, as the grievances of Muslim constituency are not addressed properly. Recently, the West Bengal Chief Minister said that the Minority question has to be addressed from a class perspective (Ganashakti, 6th Jan., 2008).
There is beyond doubt that the Muslims in Bengal like its all-India compatriots are victims of neoliberal policy regime. Today, the Muslim identity is overlapped with the identity of a poor and marginalised citizen under neoliberal dispensation. This overlap with the Muslim identity with the identity of poor and country’s labour force is an important caveat to keep in mind when we want to understand the current neoliberal propaganda of bourgeois media in connivance with bourgeois political parties like Congress and Trinamul against the Left and to accuse that nothing has happened to Muslims under Left Front regime in last 32 years and even saying that Muslim situation has worsened off in Bengal under the Left. This allegation against the Left vis-a-vis Muslims in Bengal is nothing short of a calculated strategy of the neoliberal nexus of bourgeois media and parties like Congress and the Trinamul to divide the unity of the working people—comprised of a significant section of Muslims and to malign the image of the Lefts to serve the vested interests of the ruling classes.
The concrete realities of Muslims in Bengal reflect to the fact that the identity and security of the community is guaranteed in the state under the Left Front regime. It is a well accepted fact that Muslims are more secure in Bengal than any other place in India without any communal riots and the Leftwing success of marginalising communal politics of BJP in the state. Furthermore, the identity of Muslim community as a distinct religio-cultural group with freedom of practising faith, establishing and running institutions of learning like the madrasas are also well acknowledged by both inside and outside the Muslim community in Bengal. Now, in terms of the question of equity, the Bengal government has addressed the issue in the past and initiated some important measures in the present for the overall socio-economic development of Muslims in the state. A summary of the relevant data, statistics and information regarding Bengal Muslims and the approach of the Left are of the following:
--The success of land reforms under the Left has significantly benefited the Muslims. 30.9% of the rural households in West Bengal are Muslim households having access to 25.6% of the total cultivated land in the state (second only to Jammu and Kashmir with 30.3%). During 1992-94, landless Muslim peasants were 40% and currently reduced to 20%.
* --Bengal government has already put in place a 15% state level budgetary sub-plan for the advancement of minorities in the state since 2007. This step will ensure a targeted spending for Muslim minorities in all aspects of governmental expenditure. In all welfare schemes, specific attention for minority communities has paid dividends, eg. Among all self-help groups with access to institutional credit, 21.8% are groups with Muslim members (formed on the basis of same residential area). Among 17,512 ICDS projects in the State, 6,431 are working in Muslim areas employing anganwadi workers and assistants from the minority community.
* --The role of the state government in taking development initiative for the minority community has also been praised by the National Minorities Commission. Out of the 36 new colleges that have started in the state, 26 are situated in minority dominated areas. Out of 1600 new upper-primary schools, 800 would be set up in minority concentrated areas with 282 already given approval. For minority girls, 18 residential schools are being built. Within Kasturba Gandhi girl’s project, already 15 schools are built. In 2008-09 financial year, 23 more schools would be built for minority girls. To balance the teacher-student ratio, 4800 new teaching posts have been created with 2400 posts allotted for minority concentrated areas.
* --Till last year, when the Budget of the entire Central government for the development of minorities was at Rs. 1000 crores, West State Budget provided about Rs. 400 crores towards this department. All the 7-8 departments concerned with the development of the minorities have a special cell aimed towards efforts for the upliftment of the minorities. If we segregate the planned and unplanned expenditure that has been incurred by the Bengal government in the current financial year, then out of Rs. 100 crores are allocated in this regard and has already been overspent by the government amounting to Rs. 111.35 crores. Out of the Central grant to Bengal of Rs 68 crores, Rs. 3.27 crores are yet to be disbursed by the Centre. The unplanned expenditure of the state government in this regard has been a whooping Rs. 476 crores, whereas no other state government has allocated so much on the minorities’ development. Bengal CM has already approved Rs. 52 crores for educational development of Muslims.
* In 12 districts, where Muslim population is relatively high, special offices have been opened to facilitate the development of the minorities in these regions. West Bengal is also the first state to plan in such a manner.
* --West Bengal has also started a new university named as Alia University aimed at providing quality education to the minorities with already 28 faculties being fully operational. In 2006, Alia Madrasa with a prolonged colonial history and its unique heritage has been transformed into a College status and an additional Rs. 30 crores have been spent for developing infrastructural facilities. In Bhangor (South 24 Parganas), a full fledged modern campus for this university would be built on 50 acres of land. Notably, this initiative in the recent past was also opposed by the Trinamul and created road block for this land acquisition process.
* --To increase vocational skills among minority students, the government has also given more than Rs. 5 crores. Over 1 lakh students hailing from the minorities’ community has also got scholarship from the state government as incentive to continue their education.
* --A scheme has been taken by the state government where Rs. 20-40 thousand will be given to women hailing from minority community to start commercial ventures. No guarantors will be required to avail these loans. About Rs. 20 crores have been provided by the state as capital to continue this scheme. Another Rs. 10 crores will be extended in the next financial year.
* --10 Muslim girl’s hostels have been already built and 4 more are going to be finished soon in the state. For maintenance of these Muslim girls’s hostels, Rs. 4 crores have been allotted. In Kolkata, Rs. 2 crores have been sanctioned for building a working hostel for Muslim women. In the recent past, merit and need-based scholarships for Muslim students have been given through Chief Minister’s development fund amounting to Rs. 4.49 crores for 6197 students at pre-matric stage and Rs. 5.03 crores for 2223 students at post-matric stage. In 2008-09, 8500 Muslim students would be given scholarships of total Rs. 6 crores. For studying medical and engineering courses, 429 Muslim students have been given interest free loans amounting to Rs. 2.10 crores in 2007. In 2008, it has been increased to Rs. 3 crores for 500 Muslim students. Rs. 1.40 crores have been given to Techinacal Training and Cottage Industry Corporation to train Muslim students.
* --In the sphere of madrasah education, West Bengal has a unique system of running its 506 madrasas, affiliated with West Bengal Madrasa Board. Already, Rs. 6 crores have been spent for the second administrative building of Madrasa Board in Salt Lake. The curriculum of these madrasas combine subjects of English, Modern Indian languages, social studies, sciences, maths, Islamic history and Arabic. 110 junior madrasahs has been uplifted to the status of senior madrasahs in the state in the last financial year. In the current financial year, steps have been taken to set up 66 new madrasas, upgrade 110 junior high madrasahs to high madrasas and 89 high madrasas to senior madrasahs. More than 3200 posts have already been created to facilitate this development effort. West Bengal government bears the salaries of the Madrasa teachers of the state, a step which is unheard in many states. West Bengal has also constituted Madrasa Service Commission to impart quality and trained teachers at the Madrasas of the state. More than 52% teachers in Muslim dominated Murshidabad district are from the minority community.
* --In Urdu speaking areas, 200 nursery schools and 300 madrasas would be given approval shortly. 32 Alim madrasas have been upgraded to Fazil stage. In 125 higher secondary madrasas, librarians have been appointed. Rs. 50 lakhs have been allotted for libraries in these madrasas. Recently, in 100 madrasas, laboratories are made. With 300 new set-ups and 400 junior-high madrasas have been given approval to transform into high madrasas in the near future.
* --The Bengal government is also concerned for the promotion of Urdu language and for this purpose, Rs. 2.70 crores have been allotted for Urdu academy in the last financial year.
* Rs. 4 crores have been approved for setting up boundary walls for graveyards meant for the Muslim community.
* --Rs. 2 crores additional grant with a total grant of Rs. 7.60 crores have been given to the Wakf Board. This grant can be increased in future if necessary. In Bengal, Wakf property reclamation, registration and survey work is going on.
* --Rs. 35.74 crores have been disbursed by the West Bengal Minority Development Corporation as loans to the people belonging from minority community. The state is also the first to create a minority development and welfare fund to cater to the minority community. West Bengal is also the first among the country in terms of success of giving loans to Minority community through the West Bengal Minority Development Corporation. The entire Rs 22 crores allocated in this fund have been spent for developmental purposes of the minority community.
* --In the state budget plan outlay for the Department of Minorities Affairs and Madrasa Education, an increase from Rs. 110 crores in the current year to Rs. 121 crores in the next year has been proposed. Since the entire responsibility of teachers connected with madrasah education has been taken by the State Government, the total budget of this department will be raised to the level of Rs. 524.11 crores in the next year. No other government has allocated so much money for the minority development in its state budget. An additional sum of Rs. 20 crores have been allocated by the State Government for this Corporation by way of assistance for training to further employment generation (already included in the programme for combating recession).
* --A second Hajj house namely Hajj Tower cum Empowerment Centre has been built near Kolkata airport. For Hajj pilgrimage facilities, an additional grant of Rs. 20 lakhs has been spent by the government. In 1977, only 600 people from the state went for Hajj pilgrim, while last year, 7996 people have enlisted themselves for the Hajj, and bulk of them is from the rural background. This increase is a result of the empowerment of rural masses due to the pro-poor policies of the state government. West Bengal is also the first state in the country to publish a guide book in the regional language for the benefit of the Hajj pilgrims hailing from the state. The state also started a website for the Hajj pilgrims and free SMS service to facilitate the Hajj pilgrims. In the field of housing, special emphasis has been given to allocate houses to the minority community.
All these combined efforts of the various departments have resulted in paving the way for all round development of the minority community in the state. This is not to say that there is no scope for further improvement of the Muslim community in Bengal. However, the CPI(M) led Left front government is determined to continuously work for the development of minorities and address the daily livelihood questions and better the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in Bengal. Furthermore, it is also determined to carry forward its political agenda in opposing imperialism and communalism. This consistency of fighting against both communalism and imperialism have been correctly noticed by a number of Muslim groups who have decided to support the Left and other non-Congress secular parties top form an alternative non-Congress and non-BJP government at the centre