Battleground Bengal: Notes from Furfura Sharif and village bylanes

Bengal Election

An expanse of lush green paddy fields on both sides, surrounded by the rippling waters of water ponds. A distant temple shines in the sun. At the crossing of Banmalipur, two women in red saris wait for a shared auto. At the Siddheshwari Ma Mishtan Bhandar a bare-bodied man in a lungi, is making khoya mishti. The inside of the shop in this laid-back and solitary crossing is dark with the lingering fragrance of sweets floating like a familiar substance of daily temptation. He is cutting the mishti into neat rectangles while he talks, shifting his political position continuously, uneasy, not ready to talk to strangers. He seems dead serious, and he seems to know his mind. However, he meanders here and there and takes us for a jolly good ride in the first instance.

It seems he is backing the BJP. “Why not, everyone says they will come,” he says, emphatically. So Didi is out in this area? Has she and her government done nothing to deserve a re-election? “Nothing,” he says. “She deserves to lose.” But, why vote for BJP? What will they bring? “Why not,” he says. “Everyone says they will come.”

So Didi is so bad, is she? “Oh, well, the truth is,” he says, Baam, the Left Front, was a thousand times better.”

So that is it. His inner truth has been finally revealed.

He backs the Left Front, remembers it with longing and nostalgia, and finally agrees that it is a straight fight in these assembly constituencies between Didi and the ‘Jot’. Indeed, he says, it is not a Modi versus Didi fight out here at all. It is a contest between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) versus the United Morcha of the CPM, Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) led by Abbas Siddiqui — fiery speaker, rabble-rouser, orthodox religious hardline preacher, young inheritor of the famous Furfura Sharif with its famous Sufi Dargahs.

His younger colleague in the sweets shop disagrees; he is clear and categorical. He says that Didi has done a lot, for school students, for ordinary people, for farmers, for the poor, for women. He cited the example of the Kanyashree project, cycles for girls and working women, better roads and law and order, and rice and other essential food commodities given till this day since the lockdown to the poor. “Electricity supply is good, there is no water scarcity, all is well,” he says. “She has done in 10 years what the CPM did not do in 35 years.”

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She will win, he is emphatic. There is no doubt about it.

Scores of people ratified his statement. Even those who seem strongly critical of the TMC. The BJP has no chance here, they say.

Banmalipur is a lazy and quiet crossing between Balrambati on the Howrah-Bardhman main line and Furfura Sharif and Singur. Next to the quiet Balrambati railway station is Haripal, an assembly constituency with lush green paddy fields and a small market. The three constituencies are in the Hooghly district and close to each other: Haripal, Singur and Jangipara.

The area is rich with water and fertile land, and is well-connected with transport and railways. Paddy, potato, jute, vegetables and other agricultural products grow in abundance here. Literacy is almost 80 per cent but poverty the line still floats around 30 per cent. Hooghly district also has a tradition of craft, embroidery, zari work on saris, terracotta, silk and cotton printing, brass and metal work, though jute is in decline. There are several jute mills next to the river Hooghly which are shut and which had rendered thousands of workers jobless during the Left-front rule.

These geographically close constituencies, now peaceful with no apparent unrest, and a mixed population with a history of shared and syncretic traditions will obviously influence each other in political perception, local, current and long-standing issues and social content. Just beyond the station at the railway crossing there are half-a-dozen BJP flags, a rare sight in this area. Soon even the few lotus flags disappear and the walls are overwhelmed by the TMC symbol: jora ghas phool (two flowers on grass).

Wall writing and posters are scarce, but mostly dominated by the TMC, except in Furfura Sharif, where a few hand-written walls display the name of Sheikh Moinuddin, the ISF candidate, along with some red CPM flags on the Muslim-owned shops. It is a hot Wednesday afternoon, and the streets are empty.

This seems like a laid-back and quiet moffusil town with some madarsas run by the state government, and some government schools also. Students from other countries come to study Arabic here, said the locals, and subjects like science and social science are also taught. Earlier, before partition, lot of people from East Bengal (Bangladesh) would come here, to visit the Dargahs and to study Arabic.

Young boys wearing long colourful kurtas much below the knee and lungis walk in groups on the lanes. Three rich teenagers are driving a brand new open jeep through the same thin lanes. People just ignore them. Locals sit listlessly outside shops, seemingly bored and passing time. A saintly old man near a madarsa is preching life’s lessons to a group of ardent listeners. Not all girls and women wear hijab or burqa. A young Muslim girl wearing lipstick is all decked up for a party, walking briskly with her purse, confident and happy.

The ISF office is shut and there are no party activists around. It looks rather eerie during election season, considering that Abbas Siddiqui is being talked about all over the place, especially over the vicious, violent and sexist video against TMC MP Nusrat Sultan, in which he calls her (dirty) names, and says that she should be tied to a tree and beaten up.

“He just said it at the spur of the moment,” says a student who studies in Delhi. He is clear that that the basic thrust of that speech is fine. Religious sanctity is supreme, he says, though he believes in secularism. He refuses to be recorded on video nor speak on record. Indeed, everyone around has been seemingly told to keep their mouth shut and be discreet with the media. Even local sweet shops owners refused to speak on video, as did youngsters, one of them sporting a Virat Kohli hairstyle.

Women are not allowed at the Dargahs and no photography permitted either. There are two prominent Dargahs, of Chote Huzoor Dada and Huzoor Dada, in memory of the two branches of the family tree, a student informs. The story is that the first Sufi settlement here was established during Akbar’s time. Women are still visiting the Dargah premises near the gates with their children, however, seeking blessings, solace and wish-fufilment. There is no incense allowed, nor chaddars, gifts or flowers, locals say. There are a few sweet shops in the neighbourhood, that is all. It is all very simple and stoic out here.

Now Abbas Siddiqui and his older uncle the Pirzada, Toha Siddiqui, are the two important symbols. The Pirzada had earlier said sarcastically that Abbas is a kid and now he has become a comrade – after he joined the CPM-led rally at Brigade Ground in Kolkata. The latter continues to support the TMC. He told a TV channel that he has criticized Mamata Banerjee when it comes to it, but will back her because Bengal stands for brotherhood and communal harmony.

Abbas Siddiqui is not in his office today; he sits here on Fridays. Everyone calls him ‘Bhaijaan” here. On Tuesday he had addressed a reasonably good meeting at Haripal. Some Left Front activists had come from Basirhat to ask him to come for a rally there.

A youngster informs obliquely that all is not well in Furfura Sharif. While no one speaks openly about it, how much influence Abbas Siddiqui has on the population is still not clear. While Abbas is aggressive and a rabble-rouser par excellence, Toha has been discreet, committed quietly to Trinamool.

The youngster, as usual, beats around the bush, only to disclose that not all the people here support ‘Bhaijaan’ or the alliance with CPM. “They are still screaming Didi, Didi,” he says, bitterly.  Others are clear that he will cut Muslim votes, but the large chunk of Muslim votes in this area are going to Trinamool. Besides, his influence is limited in the three constituencies.

In all the three constituencies, the BJP seems to be not in the running, on the face of it. Their absence is visibly stark, though they might have their silent supporters. Anwar Hussain from Barasat says that after the vitriolic speech by Yogi Adityanath, people in Bengal are not going to go for the BJP. “We have shared each other’s festivals, food, cultures and public spaces. How can they dare to even think of dividing us with their hate speeches,” he says.

Anwar will support the Left alliance this time – he has been a Trinamool supporter, but says he has got disillusioned with the tacit manner they have allowed the Hindutva forces to enter Bengal. “Without the Trinamool, the BJP just could not have entered Bengal. They have a stake in it, to polarize votes,” he says. This is also the dominant CPM line among many Left supporters in Bengal.

His friend Neelmani Mandal, a committed CPM supporter for more than three decades, says that Muslims and Hindus eat from the same plate here. “How can they divide us?” He blames the Trinamool for the violence unleashed on CPM supporters after they won the elections. “My house  in my village, Shashan, in Barasat, was burnt down. I have no fear in saying that the Trinamool unleashed violence against us,” he says.

However, both agree that the fight here is between the United Front of the Left, Congress and ISF and Didi’s Trinamool. Modi and BJP will destroy the syncretic and secular traditions of Bengal, they are unanimous. They just should not be allowed to enter anywhere in the vicinity, they say it, again and again.

Indeed, it seems they are right. Across the spectrum, even those who think the BJP will help them, such as those in the private transport service like auto drivers, finally go round and round and agree that the BJP support base is very small in Singur, Jangipara and Haripal, that it’s a straight fight here between the United Front and Trinamool, that Abbas Siddiqui’s influence is limited even in Furfura Sharif and that he will have very little impact in other places, and that the Trinamool candidates will romp home comfortably because they are popular, accessible and they have done good work in the area.

“I am telling you,” said an old Muslim man from a nearby village. “One brave woman is fighting their entire formidable machinery. She has done enough for us. Abbas has little influence in Furfura Sharif. Didi will win another term, undoubtedly.”

(To be continued…)

(Photos by Amit Sengupta and Snehasish Mistri)


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