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Home > General > And meanwhile, in Kolkata …

And meanwhile, in Kolkata …

by udayanc, 4 April 2013

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Scanned copy of KALAM newspaper


For any non-Bangladeshis even remotely following politics and events in that country, it is clear that the situation on the ground is getting very bad. But not to worry. When things get too problematic, you know you can always rely on your armchair activist brothers across the border to speak up for you. Heard that before? If not from us your interfering neighbors, from your domestic dalals selling your country’s interests? Well, here’s news about an unusual show of support just a hop and a skip away from Satkhira.

First, there were rumblings, not widely reported, of an interesting protest called by a coalition of 15 “human rights” and “minority” organisations. Friends and family in Old Calcutta reported fiery street corner speeches in the days leading up to the big event against Sheikh Hasina and in favor of some random names they could not recognize: “Shohidi? Shiraji?” my uncle repeated back to me. “They say he needs to be saved from hanging. Why all the fuss about some unknown man?”. Don’t forget, we (choose to) know very little or nothing about what goes on in your country.

Then, hardly mentioned in the mainstream Indian press, a huge rally was finally held on 30th March at the Maidan (Shahid Minar), Calcutta’s most prominent venue for speeches and protests, where up to 100,000 demonstrators (claimed by the organizers) came to voice their rage at “disrespect to Islam in Bangladesh”. I heard about the event first from concerned relatives and friends who caught the odd line from the volatile speeches while conducting their shopping in New Market across the street. Among the demands: banning Sheikh Hasina from India and worse (use your imagination), freeing Sayeedi, and punishing (again, use your imagination) the atheist bloggers across the border.

There was only limited coverage that I could find on the internet from my usual sources of Calcutta news. I don’t know if it made it onto TV. One new source was KALAM which I understand is part of the SAPTAHIK KALAM group, a new media house focusing on a Bengali Muslim audience, and patronized by the Trinamool Congress. The only other major report I could find was in another Indian Muslim news site, TWO CIRCLES.

Kolkata-Bangladesh-protest-PTI-300x225

Source: PTI

Now without even getting into the specific issues being protested, there are many questions here. From an Indian and West Bengali perspective, I would want to know how important and representative each of these 15 groups involved in the protest are. West Bengal’s Muslim population – 25% and rising – is becoming more vocal (not a bad thing in itself, given the state of that specific demographic’s affairs and its shabby treatment by the political classes since 1947); the last two state elections were effectively determined by “the Muslim vote”. But I am curious – is a secular / more moderate Bengali Muslim voice – one that is not calling for the punishment of foreign leaders or Taslima or Salman Rushdie, for instance – also as organized? Are there, as is often whispered, linkages with deadly groups from 1971 (and after) across the porous border, who go back and forth with ideology and dollars? Is there really a nucleus of defeated 1971 forces living a trouble-free existence beneath the radar in Calcutta instigating trouble on the other side that spills over with increasing frequency? One might start believing some of these persistent rumors seeing and hearing the support for figures such as SaQa Chowdhury, Golam Azam and Delwar Hossain Sayidee at the Calcutta Maidan last Saturday.

And most importantly, why was this news relegated primarily to parochial publications? Is it dangerous disinterest, or rather worrying censorship, however sincere the intent? You see, we all mutter beneath our breath that our politicians patronize a select group of untested Muslim leaders in order to make a quick trade on a hapless vote bank. Our communalism some will say. But this is also what a lot of ordinary Muslims themselves complain about the loudest when they see the annual spectacles performed by our leaders on festive occasions. “Where are they the other days of the year” is a frequent quote in newspaper articles reporting the Muslim response to, for instance, a modestly clad Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hob-nobbing with the Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan Mosque (pictured) on Eid day, along with complaints on the lines of “why do they give so much attention to these so called [Muslim] leaders who do not speak for us”.

Mamata Banerjee-S M Noorur Rahman Barkati

Source: Nabajug Media Group

Let’s take this gentleman as an example of the situation I am trying to understand. He holds an important and prominent position. I am not sure how he was selected or who he answers to. He is entitled to his opinions, as is the Chief Minister, and as is every citizen. He performed funeral prayers for Bin Laden on the streets of Kolkata, and issued a fatwa against Taslima Nasrin. Exercising his freedom of religion and expression? Ok. He participated in the rally last Saturday. His democratic right? I could buy that. But is Mamata Banerjee’s average supporter – Hindu or Muslim – aware of the Imam and his position on the current events in Bangladesh and globally? What am I missing in the disconnect between a state polity committed to secularism and pluralism (endorsed and held inviolable by the two major political groupings of the state) and support for individuals with ideologies that somehow don’t seem to fit with the middle class sensibilities of the Writers Building.

So let’s take a moment to get into the specifics of who these people – like the Shahi Imam, and by extension, the politicians who patronize him – are supporting. It comes pretty close to home. There are many hundreds of thousands – perhaps more – living in West Bengal and other parts of India – who have very personal experiences of the events of 1971 and for whom mere mention of the names being chanted in slogans last Saturday bring back horrific and painful memories. Is it really so simple as to say that no-one has connected the dots for them on a rather ridiculous situation going on here? Has the “delicate balance” that defenders of this type of politicking point to started tilting beyond a reasonable equilibrium?

Anyway, we don’t have to solve for these questions right now. Just be assured, friends across the border, you who worry that we do not take a balanced interest in your affairs, that within our very diverse and pluralist community there are other voices increasingly speaking out for you as well.

Other coverage:

Editorial: Kolkata’s shame

In Kolkata, rally for Genocide


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