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Overpromising and Underdelivering: The Reality of West Bengal Muslims Under TMC Rule

Muslims, who hold sway in at least 125 assembly seats in the state, has been largely backing Trinamool Congress since 2011 elections. Yet, their socio-economic and political reality remains unchanged.
The migration of Muslims to East Bengal after Partition has largely been ignored. Representative image of contemporary Bangladesh: Ahron de Leeuw/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The partition of 1947 precipitated a lasting societal dislocation in Bengal, wherein certain less overt ramifications failed to permeate the public consciousness. One such repercussion was the migration of affluent and middle-class Muslims from West Bengal. Seven decades later, the state continues to grapple with devising mechanisms to adequately support a vocal middle-class Muslim intelligentsia. However, constituting 27% of the population, this demographic cohort remains integral to the political landscape, with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) presently commanding a significant portion of their allegiance. An inquiry into the lived experiences of this demographic under TMC rule thus becomes imperative.

There are 125 assembly seats in West Bengal where the Muslim voters hold considerable sway. The CPI(M) led Left Front won 102 of them in 2006 as it bagged a whopping 235 seats in the assembly election. But in the next five years, winds of change swept the state from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The picture flipped in 2011 as the TMC-Congress alliance picked up 95 of the 125 Muslim-dominated seats. Stagnation in agriculture, Singur, Nandigram agitations, the Sachar Committee report, and Mamata Banerjee’s numerous promises to the Muslim community culminated in the historic win of TMC in 2011. But how has the Muslim community fared under the TMC rule so far?

A critical inquiry into the socioeconomic trajectory of the Muslim community under the TMC government requires an examination of their representation within the upper echelons of governmental power. What has been the trajectory of Muslim representation in the cabinet of the West Bengal government and the legislative assembly? The victory of TMC in 2011 caused an uptick in the number of Muslim cabinet members. But it continued to fall in the subsequent elections, and in the last election of 2021, it eventually fell to 2006 levels. The share of Muslim MLAs followed the same path. TMC even fielded less number of Muslim candidates than the LF+Congress alliance in 2021.

Muslims are not doing well financially either. There is a disparity in employment opportunities for Muslims in West Bengal compared to the national average. Data from the nationally representative Periodic Labour Force Survey 2018-19 indicates that only 13% of Muslims in the state hold regular salaried jobs, compared to the national average of 22%. Conversely, casual work is more prevalent among Muslims in West Bengal, with 34% employed in such positions compared to 26% nationally. Additionally, the survey suggests that even salaried Muslim workers in West Bengal earn less on average than their counterparts in other parts of India, with a salary difference of approximately Rs 3,500.

Smaller, more targeted surveys paint an even grimmer picture. A study prepared by SNAP, Guidance Guild, and Pratichi Trust showed that in rural Bengal, around 80% of Muslim households earn only Rs 5,000 per month, which is very close to the poverty line income for a family of five. It’s alarming that 38.3% of Muslim households here earn Rs 2,500 or less, which is just half of the poverty line. Only 3.4% of households earn Rs 15,000 or more monthly. West Bengal Muslims are significantly more precarious than the average Indian Muslim.

The districts of Murshidabad, Malda, and Uttar Dinajpur, where Muslims form the majority, are among the most backward areas in West Bengal. According to the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) from the National Family Health Survey -5 (2019-21), these districts have poverty rates of 16.55%, 15.57%, and 21.65% respectively, compared to the state average of 11.89%. Despite making up about 15% of the state’s population, these districts have only around 3% of the government medical colleges. This means that the existing medical colleges in these areas have to serve almost three times as many patients as those in other parts of the state. This highlights significant disparities in access to healthcare and resources, contributing to ongoing socioeconomic challenges in these districts.

Also read: Rethinking How We Talk About the History of Bengal’s Muslims

The disparity in educational attainment for Muslims in West Bengal extends to higher education as well. Despite constituting 27% of the state’s population, Muslims comprise only 12% of students in higher education, as reported by the AISHE for the academic year 2021-22. This imbalance is particularly stark in premier educational institutions within the state.

For instance, in Jadavpur University during the 2015-16 academic year, out of a total enrollment of 8,329 students, only 50 (0.6%) were Muslim. Similarly, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), a central government-funded institution, enrolled merely eight (1.08%) Muslim students out of 740 in the same period, according to the AISHE report. Rabindra Bharati University, with an enrollment of 46,522 students in 2015-16, had only 2.34% Muslim students, while the University of North Bengal in Siliguri had 2.6% Muslim students.

Moreover, data from the same report reveal a significant underrepresentation of Muslims among college teachers. In 2012-13, only 3.12% of college teachers were Muslims, a figure that increased to 7.8% by 2018-19. However, this apparent rise loses much of its significance when considering that teachers from Aliah University are excluded from the calculation.

Government jobs are still seen as the golden goose of generational upward mobility. Muslims are underrepresented there as well. Between 2008 and 2016, the representation of Muslims in government jobs in West Bengal saw a marginal increase, rising from 5.19% to 6.08%. However, this remains significantly lower than their population share of 27%. In comparison, Scheduled Tribes (STs) hold 5.07% of government jobs, closely aligning with their 6% population share, while Scheduled Castes (SCs) hold 17.66% of such positions, despite comprising 23% of the state’s population. The Govt has stopped releasing the Staff Census ever since.

The Bengali political landscape buzzed with discussions when Firhad Hakim, a Muslim, assumed office as Kolkata’s first Muslim mayor in independent India. However, the civic body severely lacks Muslim representation. An RTI application uncovered that in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) until 2019, the percentage of Muslims stood at 5.2%, up from 4.5% in 2008. However, due to decreased recruitment and increased outsourcing, the absolute number of Muslims in civic services decreased from 1,555 in 2008 to 1,126 in 2019. In the Kolkata Police, Muslims comprise only 11.14% (2,897) of the total force of 25,999, a decrease from 9.13% during the Left Front rule in 2008. The Muslim presence in the police force increased by just 2.01 percentage points between 2008 and 2019.

Despite this wide-ranging inequity, the last resort of the non-BJP-ruled states remains the age-old “safety and security” argument. Even that argument falls apart in front of data. Communal violence has significantly increased under the TMC rule. As per the research of Subhasish Ray and Suman Nath, The number of riots in West Bengal was 15 in 2011. It shot up to 58 in 2017. Hajinagar, Baduria, Basirhat, Asansol, Purulia, Dhulagar – the list of big communal incidents is never-ending. Some of the accused have been welcomed into the TMC fold within a few months of the incidents. According to the response to the RTI filed by Biswanath Goswami, the Howrah City Police alone registered 59 cases of rioting in just 18 months (36 in 2021, 23 in 2022). Political violence has increased significantly since 2011. The heightened precarity and proletarisation of Muslims have led to them losing their lives in the highest numbers due to election violence.

According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, TMC secured an impressive 75% of the Muslim vote in the 2021 elections, relying heavily on this demographic to counter the BJP. However, despite this strong support, recent municipal, Panchayat and by-elections elections have revealed a notable shift of Muslim voters towards the Left Front and Congress. While it’s unlikely that this trend will fully manifest in the general election, the TMC should take heed and reflect on its electoral strategy. Continuously relying on overpromising and underdelivering can only maintain success for so many election cycles before the tide eventually turns.

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