Abbas Siddiqui might struggle against TMC – but represents a churn amongst Bengali Muslims
In the immense crush of the crowd, young Abuzar Gafari stood out because of his printed t-shirt. “Bhaijan amar jan,” it read in Bengali. My life for bhaijan.
The bhaijan or elder brother is Abbas Siddiqui, a peerzada or descendent of the 19th century sufi saint Abu Bakr Siddiqui, who played a significant role in making Furfura Sharif, a sufi shrine less than two hours from Kolkata, into a magnet for Bengalis Muslims spanning present-day West Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh.
Gafari was one of the lakhs who attended the Isal-e-Sawab, the annual religious pilgrimage at Furfura Sharif, held in the first week of March this year.
The pilgrimage took place with assembly elections in the state barely weeks away – elections in which Abbas Siddiqui is making his political debut through his newly formed Indian Secular Front.
When he launched the political outfit in January, Siddiqui was propelled to the top ranks of the state’s politics almost immediately, with his importance being underlined by the fact that the Left Front, as well as the Congress, agreed to ally with him. On February 28, as this new formation held its first rally at Kolkata’s iconic Brigade Parade Ground, Siddiqui emerged as the star, garnering more cheers, applause and media attention than veterans in the Left and Congress.
The 2021 Bengal election is complex as it is. The entry of the wildcard Siddiqui has made it more so. Will Furfura’s stronghold over the Muslims of South Bengal convert into votes for the ISF – thus undercutting the Trinamool’s support base? Or will Mamata Banerjee’s appeal hold fort?
Either way, the ISF’s emergence represents a new phase in Bengali politics, capturing some of the churn that the state’s rural Muslims are experiencing.
To understand the appeal of Siddiqui, it is important to first understand the incredible hold of the Furfura Sharif shrine on Bengali Muslims.
Located in the district of Hooghly, the complex dates from the 14th century. However, it owes much of its current popularity to the efforts of Abu Bakr Siddique, who combined his role as a religious guru with offering guidance in education, social issues and politics to Muslims in 19th-century Bengal.
“Pir Abu Bakr Siddique must have built hundreds of madrassas, hospitals and community centres as well as overseen more than a dozen Bengali publications,” said Abdul Matin, a political scientist at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University who has extensively researched the role of Furfura. “The use of waz mehfils or religious congregations in Bengali helped him reach Muslims across rural Bengal.”
“This massive outreach using the Bengali language was critical in shaping the construction of a Bengali Muslim identity in the late 19th and early 20th century,” Matin explained.
The result of the missionary work that Abu Bakr started – and his descendents continued – can be seen in the annual congregation at Furfura Sharif that attracts millions of Bengali Muslims across West Bengal, Bangladesh and Assam.
Assam’s Shah Jamal was one of the attendees at this year’s congregation. “We set off with 21 buses from Assam’s Darrang district and took two days to get to Furufura,” Jamal said, explaining that his village by the Brahmaputra – a thousand kilometres from Hooghly – had been connected to the shrine by missionaries conducting waz mehfils since colonial times.
Furfura Sharif is crushingly crowded during the Isal-e-Sawab, with lakhs in attendance in order to receive benediction from various peerzadas or descendants of Abu Bakr. In spite of these massive crowds, Furfura Sharif and its hold on rural Muslim find little mention in Bengal’s mainstream media. Even the Muslims of Kolkata – largely Urdu speaking – know little about it, in fact.
The first to recognise the political potential of Furfura was Mamata Banerjee, who turned to the shrine’s hold on rural Bengal in order to help her unseat the Left – part of the Trinamool’s general outreach to subaltern identity groups, both Hindu and Muslim – that Scroll.in had written about in 2016.
For this, Banerjee roped in Toha Siddique, also a peerzada at the shrine, who extended support to the party. A decade later, the Left is now attempting to beat Banerjee at her own game.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, Mohammed Salim of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that ISF represents backward caste rural Bengali Muslims. “This is a churning where rural, marginalised sections are taking power,” Salim argued. “Islamia college, Mohammedan Sporting Club or Muslim Orphanage [prominent centres of Kolkata’s Urdu-speaking Muslims] don’t represent Bengali Muslims.”
While Abbas stuck to bread and butter issues durng his Brigade speech, the only hint at identity was his unmistakable emphasis on the word “pani” – the Bengali word for water used specifically by Muslims (Hindu Bengalis use “jol”). Like Salim, it was clear that Abbas knew the identitarian angle ISF was targetting.
And while Furfura might have entered politics via Toha Siddique, at the 2021 Isal-e-sawab, the largest, most enthusiastic crowds were reserved for his nephew, Abbas Siddique. The road outside his house swelled dangerously with young men, desperately eager to see him. As they waited, their enthusiasm found vent in a chant: “shirai shirai rokto, bhaijaner bhokto”. We are devotees of Abbas till there is blood in our veins.