Two of Hinduism’s greatest deities, Ram and Hanuman, were profoundly insulted by a riotous mob of alleged Hindus in Jharkhand when 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari was lynched in their name. No god is ever honoured by being associated with murder.
The brutal deed at once recalls the dramatic photograph of another Ansari from 17 years ago. That was Qutubuddin Ansari, then 28, pleading for help in a blood-stained shirt. Taken by the BBC’s Arko Datta, the picture’s caption read “An Indian Muslim stranded in the first floor of his house, along with a few other Muslims and surrounded by a Hindu mob begs to the Rapid Action Force (Indian paramilitary) personnel to rescue him at Sone-ki-Chal in Ahmedabad, March 01, 2002.”
The publicity that the picture received cost the older Ansari his job, security and peace of mind. But unlike the hapless Tabrez, he was able to save his life by fleeing to the more enlightened space of West Bengal which is still free from the Sangh Parivar’s bloodthirsty bigotry. If West Bengal Muslims are now in the news, it’s largely because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s post-election propaganda, Chief Minister Mamata’s own Banerjee political entanglements and the difficult situation in which the state’s 25 million Muslims find themselves. More than 50 of them – doctors, writers, educationists and others – recently wrote to Ms Banerjee saying, “We are grieved and embarrassed.”
As S M Murshed, a veteran member of the Indian Administrative Service, wrote after the Babri Masjid was demolished, “Muslims are subject to a double tragedy – first at the hands of their religious foes and then at the hands of the police, the two not infrequently acted in concert.” This is certainly true of West Bengal where Muslims form 27 per cent of the population, and are in the majority in the three districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur. They are of course the overwhelming majority in the adjoining independent republic of Bangladesh (once East Bengal) and a substantial if controversial minority in the Indian state of Assam, further to the north-east. It has become standard practice for Hindus, even those outside the BJP’s ranks, to accuse the ruling Trinamul Congress leader of showering favours on Muslims in order to gain their electoral support.
Claiming to speak for “thousands of silent sufferers”, the letter-writers noted – this was before the brutal Jharkhand lynching — two recent incidents, both with communal overtones. One was the assault on a junior doctor of Kolkata’s Nilratan Sarkar Medical College, and the other the harassment of a former Miss India Universe, Ushoshi Sengupta. Muslims are accused in both cases, with the BJP’s state leadership making every effort to exploit them, especially the hospital crisis, to foment Hindu-Muslim friction. The saffron party seems to be following a twofold strategy. In the short term, it calculates that rising tension between the two religious groups can lead to a breakdown of law and order, providing an excuse for the imposition of President’s Rule. In the long run, the aim seems to be to fan the majority’s fears of deprivation to ensure that no Hindu political leader will again dare to support Muslims as Ms Banerjee does so ostentatiously.
The letter-writers argued that her administration has two options. It should bring the accused in both (and other) cases to justice regardless of faith. “Bring the assailants to book, not just in these two instances but every single instance where Muslims are involved. They should not be allowed to get away scot-free because they happened to be Muslims [as is the growing perception].” This alone would help to dispel the popular notion that Ms Banerjee is shielding Muslims. Secondly, they urged the government to run gender sensitisation, civic consciousness and law compliance programmes for Kolkata’s Muslim youth.
This refers to Ms Sengupta’s complaint of being chased by a group of bikers while returning home from work in an app-based cab. The model claimed that she had sought help from officers of the Maidan police station in the heart of the city, and later at the Charu Market police station in South Kolkata. According to her, the police in both outposts told her that the incident did not happen in their jurisdiction. As this account went viral, netizens slammed Kolkata police for its apathy. Seven persons have now been arrested in connection with the incident.
A senior police officer said, “Those arrested seem to be locals who have been violating traffic rules for quite some time. We are hopeful of nabbing the others from the CCTV footage of the surrounding areas.” As noted earlier in this column, the other incident related to the attack on an intern in the NRS Medical College by a deceased patient’s relatives.
Health services, especially outpatient departments were crippled across the country as doctors boycotted work to show solidarity with their striking colleagues in West Bengal. The strike finally ended when Ms Banerjee met a delegation of the protesting junior doctors. Both sides were looking for a way out of the stalemate and were able to ignore BJP provocation.
That does not, however, solve the larger challenge of an inclusive Indian culture in which Hindus and Muslims alike are not called upon to demonstrate their loyalty. Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand was reportedly hit repeatedly with a wooden stick and ordered to chant “Jai Sri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” until he succumbed to his injuries. A welder and labourer in Pune, he was likely to have been married during this Eid visit to his native village. His cruel death hammers yet another nail into the coffin of the caring and cultured India that men like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru dreamt of.
Murshed’s article describes a more sophisticated version of the same persecution. He was a senior home department official under Jyoti Basu, the Marxist barrister and deputy chief minister who also held the home portfolio, when the Centre issued a circular saying that Muslims should not hold any sensitive government post. “There was a companion circular to the effect that Muslim applications for passports should be subjected to severe scrutiny.” Apparently, these notifications were first issued in the 1950s, and reiterated from time to time.
Basu had the circulars reprinted in the state government’s weekly journal with the declaration that they would not be followed in West Bengal. Politically, he and Ms Banerjee may have been sworn enemies. Culturally, they are both heirs to the secular liberal renaissance that created modern India and which alone can hold the country together.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.