Phenomenon of Furfura Sharif: Decoding minority vote in Bengal
Though the ISF claims it is a secular party which works for all downtrodden people in rural Bengal, most of its leadership and party rank and file are Bengali Muslims.
WEST BENGAL: The verdant green of the sprawling farmlands of West Bengal’s Howrah and Hooghly districts fades out as the state highway turns into the dusty little town which has grown around the mazaar of Pir of Furfura Sharif, believed by many to be the second holiest Sufi pilgrimage after Ajmer’s Dargah Sharif.
This tiny town of 7,000 people is also the nerve centre for a new party – the Indian Secular Front – floated two years back by Islamic clerics, descendants of Muhammad Abu Bakr Siddique, the first Pir of Furfura.
The ISF, despite garnering just 1.35 per cent of the popular vote in the 2021 West Bengal assembly election and getting one legislative seat, was and is still seen as a threat to the mainstream TMC, Congress, CPI(M) and the BJP for a share of the state’s 27 per cent Muslim vote, because of the popularity of the Furfura Sharif shrine among poor Bengali Muslim farmers who believe in a folksy Sufi version of Islam.
“We used to do NGO work in villages during cyclones… but we realised that charity alone will not help people. We have to come to power to be able to bring change,” said 30-year-old Nawsad Siddique, ISF’s lone MLA and a Pirzada of the Furfura Sharif mazaar in a free-wheeling conversation with PTI as he prepared for the campaign trail ahead of West Bengal’s panchayat election next Saturday.
Though the ISF claims it is a secular party which works for all downtrodden people in rural Bengal, most of its leadership and party rank and file are Bengali Muslims. Abbas Siddique, Nawsad’s elder brother founded the party in 2021 and managed to wrangle a seat-sharing deal with the Left ahead of the assembly election, which has since broken down.
“The 2021 election became a binary one… the Muslims wary of a rising BJP decided to vote for the strongest party – TMC. In the process, the rise of the ISF which had been attracting huge numbers at rallies was stalled and the Left and Congress were wiped out in their traditional bases in industrial and North Bengal respectively,” explained Rajat Roy, political analyst and an advisor with the think tank Calcutta Research Group.
However, since then, livelihood issues, proliferation of scams and anti-incumbency besides a rise in religious-ethnic sentiments may threaten TMC’s iron hold over the minority vote.
“Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s charisma is waning, her policy of tokenism for various communities is not helping… the scams have had an effect on people’s psyche,” said Saira Shah Halim, CPI(M) leader in West Bengal and daughter of Lt Gen Zamir Uddin Shah, a distinguished soldier.
ISF’s Siddique added that his party was concentrating on raising issues which could make both TMC and BJP uncomfortable, such as “price rise, falling income for farmers, corruption and lack of jobs”, and claimed that people were responding to these everyday problems.
The panchayat polls are expected to be a litmus test of these and other hypotheses expounded by political pundits in the state.
Before India’s Independence, Bengal’s Muslims were evenly split between supporting Congress, a peasants’ party – Krishak Praja Party led by Fazlul Huq – and the Muslim League.
After the Congress, the largest single party in the province in elections held in 1935 spurned an overture by Huq to form a coalition government in Bengal, KPP joined hands with the Muslim league to form a ministry and eventually merged the party with the League.
Post-independence and partition riots, Muslims in West Bengal gravitated towards Congress led in the state by the charismatic first chief minister Dr B C Roy and after his death slowly shifted towards the CPI(M) which was advocating peasant rights through the ‘Tebhaga’ (one third) movement.
“The ISF is copying the KPP’s and CPI(M)’s playbook and is trying to woo peasants and small farmers… the difference is that it is seen as a party led by an Islamic religious leader,” explained Roy.
The ISF has been showing off some muscle in rallies it held in Kolkata and South 24 Parganas. Nawsad Siddique was among those arrested after a large rally turned violent in the heart of Kolkata in January this year.
However, this tussle on the ground may not mean much as Roy points out the minorities have old loyalties towards the Congress and CPI(M) which have provided strong Muslim leaders such as Syed Badrudujja, Hashim Abdul Halim, A B A Ghani Khan Choudhury and Mohammed Salim, since Independence.
Halim said, “The new party resonates only with a small section of conservative Muslims… but then another section of conservatives support Mamata too. We are confident our voters, regardless of religion, are coming back to our fold.” A few kilometres from Furfura, Santoshpur village’s tea shop owner Debasish Basu felt the Left was indeed making a comeback in parts of rural Bengal but added with “vote kata kati (vote division)”, the result may go either way. His friend and farmer, 60-year-old Binod Mal agreed that ultimately TMC may prevail.
The TMC too has been showcasing Firhad Hakim, Kolkata’s mayor as its Muslim face in the pockets in Howrah, Hooghly, South and North 24 Parganas as well as Birbhum which has a sizable minority vote and in Muslim majority districts of Murshidabad and Malda.
Regardless of who wins the elections and posts pointers for the way Bengal votes in the 2024 parliamentary elections, for the time being, the battle of flags seems to have been won by the ruling TMC, whose grass and flowers signage outnumbered the ‘hammer and sickle’ of the CPI(M), BJP’s Lotuses and ISF’s envelope signs on the roads winding through Bengal’s heartland in Hooghly and Howrah districts.