Why Rushdie could not go to Kolkata

The bar on writer’s visit is Trinamool’s bid to regain the fast-vanishing trust of the Muslim vote bank ahead of panchayat polls this summer

kajal-basu

Kajal Basu | February 1, 2013



The Kolkata Police’s ‘advisory’ (read ‘warning’) to Salman Rushdie to stay away from the ‘cultural capital of India’ was not based on anticipation of Muslim volatility in Kolkata (or, indeed, any other part of West Bengal): It was based purely on political exigency as the police’s bosses in the Writers’ Buildings perceived it. It had nothing to do with law-and-order precaution. It had everything to do with the Trinamool Congress grabbing an opportunity to regain the fast-vanishing trust of the Muslim vote bank, which had been central to its ascendance to power.

The Muslim vote bank comprises 30 percent of the state electorate, and almost 80 percent of it votes in unison. There is barely any time left before the panchayat elections scheduled for May 2013 — the results of which can either make the Trinamool’s day or ruin its life — and for which the party hasn’t even cranked up its jerry-built, malfunctioning machine of mass engagement. The news of Rushdie’s whistlestop visit, therefore, came as a gift to chief minister Mamata Banerjee from a heaven that had lately been cold-shouldering her.

The sequence of events that led to the Kolkata Police’s stay-away caution to Rushdie says it all. News that he would make a guerrilla appearance at the ongoing Kolkata book fair made its way to Pirzada Mohammad Toha Siddiqui, the highly-politicised maulana who calls himself “chief and director” of one of the country’s most important Sufi pilgrimages, the Furfura Darbar Sharif just outside Kolkata in Hooghly district. Siddiqui has had a rollercoaster of a relationship with Mamata Banerjee: as recently as January 17 this year, he had given her an ultimatum to fulfil her promises to the state’s Muslim community, saying, “If you still don’t make amends, this is only quarter-final, after three and a half years of your tenure, I will play semi-final and after four and a half years, there would be final... [I]t is highly unfair and a lie on the part of the CM to claim that she had done 99 percent of whatever she had promised to the Muslims of the state.”

His words carried the clear threat of an engineered, consensual Muslim electoral desertion of the Trinamool not only during the panchayat election but also the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 Assembly elections.

Siddiqui’s rebellion gave the Trinamool a panic attack. It was entirely unexpected: in January 2011, when Mamata Banerjee was the union railway minister, the maulana had cheerfully ‘convinced’ people in his domain — some of the most impoverished in West Bengal — to surrender land for the construction of a new 19-km railway line from Dankuni to Furfura Sharif. He had also applauded Banerjee’s cynical announcement in April 2012 of a monthly honorarium of Rs 2,500 to each of the state’s 30,000 imams to be routed through the Muslim Wakf Board.

None of this lasted long, of course — Banerjee’s job-for-land promise, which drove land acquisition for the Dankuni-Furfura Sharif line, came to a sorry end in August 2012, when she realised that she didn’t have the wherewithal to fulfil it; the honorarium for imams was handed out for two months before it petered out after three instalments as her urban prettification policy began emptying the state’s coffers.

Toha Siddique began to steam.

When Rushdie’s impending visit became known, Siddiqui immediately phoned urban development minister Firhad ‘Bobby’ Hakim, who is Banerjee’s Muslim-action go-to guy. Hakim called her — and she spotted the gift of reconciliation with Siddiqui, which came with no strings attached, or at least strings such as opposition from Kolkata’s buddhijibi (intellectual) crowd that she could afford to ignore. Immediately after it became public that Rushdie wouldn’t, after all, be gracing this embattled city, Siddiqui did the turnaround that Banerjee required of him and declared himself satisfied — and, by extension, his huge flock, which extends as far as the Muslim-majority districts of Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur and well into the 100 Muslim-dominated blocks in the state.

The Rushdie fiasco wasn’t the result of a precedent set by Taslima Nasreen’s massively hostile eviction from West Bengal in November 2007; or of the Trinamool version of the reactionary quasi-secularism that infects the Indian polity today. It was the result of West Bengal electoral politics. What Mamata Banerjee doesn’t know is that this tactical cynicism and runaway minoritarianism is going to hurt her and her party for a very long time in ways that she cannot even begin to imagine.

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