Barkati and Themis
Recently in Kolkata, a compelling saga played itself out. Barkati, the infamous Imam of the famous Tipu Sultan mosque situated in central Kolkata was removed from his position by the mosque authorities amidst huge protests against him by fellow Muslims.
This character who styled himself as the "Shahi" Imam is a non-Bengali import into Bengal. There is nothing Shahi about his position – the mosque committee in charge put him there. It is true that this mosque is part of the waqf estate of Tipu Sultan's descendants, but no reigning king with any royal charter created this position. Be that as it may, Barkati had long been a prominent imam in Kolkata – partly from the prominence of the mosque he controlled and partly because of the distance of the mosque from the main newspaper media district of the city such that he came handy whenever journalists wanted a "Muslim divine" angle to some story.
Barkati played up this prominence and hobnobbed with political leaders across party lines – a good indicator of his networking skills. Though his original base was limited to the non-Bengali Sunni Muslims (Urdu speaking Muslims would be an imperfect but workable short-hand) of central Kolkata, he styled himself as the guardian-custodian of all kind of Muslim interests across Bengal. Nearly 90 per cent of Muslims in Bengal are Bengalis whose allegiances and loyalties lay elsewhere.
This ethnolinguistic divide had other dimensions. The non-Bengali Ashraf Muslims have always been over-represented in Bengal's political scene by their self-certified claim of community leadership, which is only a veiled way to hint at their Ashraf extraction and non-Bengali, non-South Asian origin – thus being more 'authentic' Muslims. This hegemonic relationship has a much longer past and has weakened severely over time but has far from disappeared.
When Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee's political ascent started in West Bengal, she did court many Muslim divines quite publicly. Barkati was one of them – a prominent one at that. She rode to power in 2011 by toppling the 34-year incumbent Left Front, and the Muslim consolidation behind her party was one of the principal factors behind her victory.
However, her all-too-public hobnobbing with these divines raised Hindu eyebrows. She started facing the charge of "Muslim appeasement" with epithets like "Mumtaz Begum" and "Jihadi Didi" being hurled at her ('Didi' or elder sister in Bangla is the near universal name by which Mamata Banerjee is known to everyone - an image she has inculcated with incredible finesse). Some of these charges stuck to an extent, thanks to the Hindi-Hindu nationalist BJP's aggressive communal campaigning in West Bengal, emboldened by Narendra Modi's victory in 2014 (in 2014, BJP performed miserably in Bengal).
Mamata Banerjee, always quick to learn from backlashes and public mood shifts, reduced the number of occasions of public bonhomie with Muslim divines. Much to her embarrassment, Barkati would often claim that he held enormous powers over the West Bengal government, that he put the present party in power or even threatening Narendra Modi in very direct, inciting terms. This kind of braggadocio raised Barkati's stock among his followers but irked not only Hindu Bengalis but also Muslim Bengalis who saw this kind of talk giving fodder to the Hindu right wing for no good reason.
The last thing a ruling party wants in a communally sensitive region like the subcontinent is to be identified as some special agent for minorities. Such charges have undone many a political career in the Indian Union and Pakistan. At present, Sheikh Hasina, the supremo of the Bangladesh Awami League and the Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, is regularly portrayed as such by the opposition, while in reality her government has been ceding space to Islamists at an alarming rate on various issues, including the live issue of removal of the sculpture of a sari-clad Bengali woman holding the scales of justice behind the front gates of the Supreme Court in Dhaka.
It is true that under Mamata Banerjee's Chief Ministership, Muslims in Bengal have gained prominence in public and political life but that is in keeping with their numbers in West Bengal where they constitute around 27 per cent of the population according to the 2011 census. If anything, this marks an acknowledgement that was long due. West Bengal is among the few states in the Indian Union where cow slaughter for religious and consumption purposes has always been legal.
This marks out Kolkata as the only metropolis in the Indian Union where beef biryani or beef haleem actually has beef and not buffalo meat – so much for the so-called "liberal" and "cosmopolitan" bastions of Delhi and Mumbai. Kolkata's cosmopolitanism is a part of its publicly lived urbanity and not some private self-image of rootless elites projected on to a metropolis. While this is an ideal campaign point for the BJP, it has never been able to get any serious foothold either in Kolkata or West Bengal, with vegetarian Hindi-speakers over-represented in their support base in a 98 per cent non-vegetarian, 85 per cent Bengali state.
When Barkati public defied a blanket ban on the VIP-style coloured lights atop cars claiming quite comically that the British gave his position special rights and that the West Bengal government was with him, things moved fast. The West Bengal government removed the lights. This was again becoming one of those issues in the hand of the Hindu right. Muslim Bengalis and others protested against Barkati.
The "Shahi" divine was unceremoniously roughed up by local Muslims. Enough pressure was mounted by Muslims so that the mosque committee removed him from his position. Barkati has now been cut down to size, marking a certain maturation of Muslim politics in West Bengal with Muslim Bengalis coming on to their own vis-a-vis a faction of their Ashraf co-religionists. The community has taken a decisive stance against a self-serving demagogue who spoke in the name of their creed.