Beyond the Bluster-Equity and Justice in West Bengal: Abusaleh Shariff and Tanweer Fazal


One of the key issues being keenly watched in the recently concluded assembly elections in West Bengal was the direction in which the Muslim vote was going. Muslims constitute 25 per cent of West Bengal’s population. Despite such high concentration, the near absence of Muslims from public arena—art, culture, literature, public service, education—is alarming and should cause consternation in any polity, especially one that claims its legitimacy in the name of the poor and the marginalized. However, any suggestion that the long Left Front rule had rendered Muslims of West Bengal poorer and deprived than other social groups was taken as an affront to the so-called ‘exceptional’ record of the Left Front. Figures were trotted out, statistics read out in support of this track record. However, there is a difference between sops, assurances and promises made in an election year and the actual performance of a regime that has ruled a state for more than 30 years.

In an ‘editorial article’ in The Hindu (dated 14th April 2011)—a straight lift from the CPI (M)’s election campaign material titled, Left Front Government and the development of Muslim minorities in West Bengal, supplemented occasionally by the state finance minister’s budget speeches (mind you, not reports about the utilization of funds promised or audits of welfare schemes introduced)—the errors are sought to be rectified on the basis of ostensibly ‘new data’ and figures. Note that the evaluation and assessment of mass welfare and development programme is at best left to the experts such as the Indian Statistical Institute which is located in the heart of Kolkata or better still with the National Council for Applied Economic Research, New Delhi, where one of the authors of this article works.

There is an accusation that 2001 census figures are misleading and that one should instead rely on the NUEPA state report cards, which show the Left Front rule in a rather positive light. But how reliable are these report cards, based on data provided by the state governments? The report card itself comes with the statutory warning that “in no way it (NUEPA) is involved in data collection as such and therefore the accuracy and truthfulness of the data rests with the states/ UTs” (State Report Cards, 2008-09, p. xxv). What is most striking about these NUEPA report cards is that in several states, the proportion of Muslim children at the primary level is much higher than the share of Muslims in the state population. For the recent year 2009-10; West Bengal boasts that 32.3 of every 100 school children were Muslims, in Assam where Muslims comprise 31 per cent of the population, 40 percent of children enrolled in primary schools are Muslims; in Karnataka, where Muslims are only 12.2 per cent, enrollment is a whopping 35.5 percent at the primary level. It should be obvious that these State report cards cannot be used to trash the figures and trends generated through the census. Note that the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) for the 2010 brought out by a well known civil society organization PRATHAM reports that only 60-70 % (page 41- Map of India, it is in the red band) of all the enrolled children continue to attend the first 4/5 years of schooling in West Bengal and this proportion is expected to be much lower for the Muslim community. Another analysis by Rakesh Basant and Gitanjali Sen which suggests that overall, the share of eligible (20 years old and above) Muslims in higher education is a meager 3 per cent, compared this with about 2.5% for the SCs (as expected) and a staggering 15 per cent share amongst the upper caste Hindus (Economic and Political Weekly, 25th September, 2010).

The Census of India and the household surveys are dependable sources for such data. Since Census is undertaken once in ten years, the NSSO (GOI) surveys are good source for assessment during the interim period. It is clear from the data below that there has been some improvement in enrollments at the primary and elementary levels but there is stagnation at the levels of matriculation and higher levels in West Bengal. But the startling fact is the discrepancy between various communities continues to be large, especially so at higher levels. Even in the year 2007-8, Muslims had the lowest enrollment at the primary level at 85 per cent followed by 50 per cent at middle level, which is the least and even lower than the SCs/STs. But the disparity is many folds higher at matriculation and higher levels: at only 15 per cent (note a 3 per cent point increase over the 2001 level of 12 per cent) for Muslims compared with 39 per cent amongst the group other than the Muslims and the SCs/STs.

Educational Level Differentials in West Bengal, 2001 and 2007-8

Muslim SCs/STs Others
2007-08 2001 2007-08 2001 2007-08 2001
Matriculation & above 15 12 17 13 39 38
Middle 50 26 52 30 62 58
Primary 85 50 90 54 93 80

Source: (i)  Estimated by Dr. Abusaleh Shariff from the unit level records of the 64th Round NSSO Survey for the reference year 2007-08; (ii) Census of India, 2001

The West Bengal state government today gloats over the huge expansion in budgetary allocation for madarsa education – up from Rs 5.6 lakhs in 1976-77 to Rs 574 crores in the current budget. But this is precisely the problem. Madarsa education been the typical response of governments across the board towards Muslim educational needs and reflects the utter refusal of the political mainstream to see beyond madarsas. Note that just about 2 per cent of the school-going Muslim children attend Madarsa educational institutions in West Bengal—the remaining go to government, aided and increasingly unaided schools. There is a suggestion that employment of Muslims in the education sector should include the 20,000 teachers employed in the madarsas. It is ignored however; that the data cited in the Sachar Report was based on the data provided by the state governments—that too after much persuasion; obviously, the West Bengal government did not deem the madarsa teachers as government employees in 2005. Moreover, the West Bengal Madrasah Service Commission was established only in 2008, when the Party, smarting from the peasant resistance in Nandigram, and the urban unrest over Rizwanur’s death, was already in salvage mode. Does it really think that this gesture can be seen as anything but an election ploy—given especially the chief minister’s statement in 2002 that madarsas in Bengal were hotbeds of anti-national activities (but of course following an uproar he claimed that he had only been asking for modernization of madarsas).

Among its flagship measures, the Left Front government claims to have extended the benefits of reservation to 85 per cent of the Muslims through an expansion in the list of backward classes. Indeed a hurriedly promulgated government notification (no.6309- BCW/MR-84/10) has been produced in this regard. But it is here that the Left has much more to answer than it can rejoice over. Crass electoral calculations is clearly the motivation rather than any commitment towards advancing equity and deepening citizenship, for the same regime had kept the OBC question in West Bengal more or less at bay by mischievously understating the presence of OBCs, particularly Muslim OBCs in the state. As a result of such a prejudicial politics, a large number of backward groups in Bengal were denied reservation benefits for decades. Now suddenly, when faced with an imminent erosion of popular base, the government came to realize the existence of this large chunk of Muslims – some 50 odd caste groups – as backwards. The Left Front apologists would prefer to hide behind the recently submitted Ranganath Misra Commission report to explain away the delay, but can they answer why the Left Front failed to implement the Mandal Commission report since 1990? Apart from Mandal Commission, various state governments instituted their own state backward classes commissions such as the Mungeri Lal Commission (1975) in neighbouring Bihar, the Havanur Commission (1972) in Karnataka or the Ambasankar Commission (1982) in Tamil Nadu – only the Left in Bengal remained unfazed by these currents. Even now, the Left Front’s discomfiture with the caste-based OBC reservation is evident by the fact that it still remains shy of exhausting the full quota of 27 per cent despite having now enlisted more than 100 caste groups as OBCs. The quantum of OBC reservation in West Bengal rests at 17 per cent despite the recent enhancement.

The claims of reserving 10 per cent quota exclusively for Muslim groups is erroneous as the actual government notification stays clear of any religion-specific quota, and the only sub-categorisation is that between backward and more backward groups. Muslim groups tend to populate both the sub-categories; yet they cannot form the entire 10 %. The reason for this obfuscation is simple. Since a caste reservation is purported to bring little political dividends, the Left propagandists rush to flag it as ‘Muslim reservation’. Further, in the absence of any caste census, the claim that the 10 per cent enhancement in OBC reservation would cover 85 per cent of the Muslim population is at best speculative, and at worse, deceptive. The seriousness of the exercise also comes to be questioned as after this notification, West Bengal for all intents and purposes, remains the only state in the country where the number of Muslim OBC groups is more than those from the majority community.

Now let us take a look at a few popular appointments made in the state of West Bengal during 2009-11. Kolkata Police has appointed eleven Muslim sergeants from out of a total recruitment of 511, a mere 2.2 per cent. Similarly, Fire service appointed nine  Muslims from out of 605 (1.5 per cent), the Food Corporation of India twelve out of 564 (2.1 per cent) and Home Guards 35 out of 1607 (2.2 per cent). These appointments are close to the share of Muslims in the total state government employees in West Bengal—which is a paltry 3-4 per cent.

The authors of the article cite the state government’s successful implementation of land reforms as an instance of Muslim amelioration. However a 2008 study based on NSSO 61st round and prepared for the Department of Minority Affairs and Madrasah Education, Govt. of West Bengal (‘Employment and Economic Status of Socio-Religious Communities in West Bengal’, by Zakir Husain, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, 2008:p.24) expose the emptiness of such claims by drawing attention to the fact that the average size of land holdings continues to be the lowest among Muslims when compared with other socio-religious categories such as Hindu upper castes, backward classes and other minorities. The difference is particularly glaring when compared with Hindu upper castes who own and posses nearly 0.4 hectare per capita while for Muslims it is slightly more than 0.2 hectare per capita. For Hindu backward classes the average landholding was close to 0.3 hectare per capita. The yield from agriculture is also registered as least for the Muslims (Rs. 141 per hectare as against Rs. 183 per hectare for Hindu upper castes) thus suggesting inferior quality of land holding. This persisting agrarian inequity seems to have hurt them the most as more than 80 per cent of Bengal’s Muslims live in the villages and the state’s land acquisition policy too, whether in Singur or Nandigram, remained insensitive to their felt-needs.

The protagonists may revel in the ‘impressive track record’ of the West Bengal government in implementing various welfare measures—reports from the ground do not seem to share their optimism though. A study conducted by the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi, found that in the district “24 Parganas…only 2.2% minority BPL households have been covered by the self-employment SGSY scheme, and less than 1% of the households have actually received bank credit. In the year 2010, right up to November, not a single Muslim SHG received bank credit. Likewise, in MGNREGA, although Muslims constitute 36% of the population and 45% of the job card holders, they account for only 13% of the wage employment generated under the programme.” (Promises to Keep: Investigating Government’s response to Sachar Committee recommendations, p. viii). Further, the “utilisation of MsDP funds for 2010-11, was a mere 22 % by the middle of third quarter for the whole country. Expenditures were as low as 18 % in Bihar, and a little higher at 30% in West Bengal.” (ibid., p. vi) Sure, West Bengal performed better than Bihar or many other states in terms of expenditure, but with 70 per cent of funds still unspent, it was hardly the sterling example of welfarism that it has been recently trying to project itself as.

This is a lesson here for the new government as well, particularly so when it has been the recipient of wide Muslim support .

Abusaleh Shariff, Chief Economist, National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi, formerly Member Secretary, Sachar Committee.

 Tanweer Fazal, now teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; formerly a consultant with the Sachar Committee. The views expressed in this article are personal.

4 thoughts on “Beyond the Bluster-Equity and Justice in West Bengal: Abusaleh Shariff and Tanweer Fazal”

  1. the communist parties in bengal are upper-caste dominated and are likely to remain so. why only education, depiction of muslims in bengali films made in west bengal is abysmal, unlike kerala. nor do they figure in other fields where muslims have a string presence in other parts of india.


  2. Communists advocate anti-capitalism.
    But almost all Communist leaders children are living USA/EU in the pretext of higher education.

    Communism is a tool/trick used by the forward caste community to manipulate & use BC/SC/ST/Minority communities in India.


  3. I hold no brief for Left Front.I find this piece problematic because it lacks a rigorous analysis and statistics is given without any explanation for factors/reasons. There are
    many errors/short comings in this.
    ‘the Food Corporation of India twelve out of 564 (2.1 per cent)’
    Food Corporation of India is not run by West Bengal Government.There can be many reasons for Muslims remaining backward and many of them can be due to their attitude, faith and practices.What prevents them taking up higher education – is it just poverty or social backwardness or a combination of many factors.You cannot blame the state for all the ills of a particular community because state is not acting against them.It has no policy that discriminates them.If Muslims dont practice family planning how can the state be blamed for it.
    ‘In the year 2010, right up to November, not a single Muslim SHG received bank credit. Likewise, in MGNREGA, although Muslims constitute 36% of the population and 45% of the job card holders, they account for only 13% of the wage employment generated under the programme’.
    Banks are not under control of WB govt. and they have their own policies. There can be many reasons that many who hold job card may not prefer MGNREGA or may get better
    options.To know the reasons/factors one should probe further and find out whether is there gender divide in this, whether all Muslims having job cards depend only on MGNREGA and whether there is any bias against mulsims per se.
    Finally why should the secular state spend so much resources exclusively for a particular community and why they deserve any special treatment. What is the rationale in terms of
    economics for such policies. If Muslims are backward it can be due to many reasons.Sachar Report points out that muslims in south fare better than mulsims in UP, Bihar and WB.
    One reason for that is that the souther states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu fare better than
    BIMARU in HDI and their economies are doing better than BIMARU. Those who want
    more sops for muslims are not looking at this reality.
    ‘The difference is particularly glaring when compared with Hindu upper castes who own and posses nearly 0.4 hectare per capita while for Muslims it is slightly more than 0.2 hectare per capita. For Hindu backward classes the average landholding was close to 0.3 hectare per capita. The yield from agriculture is also registered as least for the Muslims (Rs. 141 per hectare as against Rs. 183 per hectare for Hindu upper castes) thus suggesting inferior quality of land holding”
    What is the average size of a muslim family. Yield can be low or high depending on many factors.


  4. Though most of the previous comment is rather circumscribed in its world-view and understanding,and does not really warrant a reply. However, there is one thing than can be pointed. In all the statistics of the conditions of the Muslims presented, our observer choose to point out the validity of a few which dont really come under the jurisdiction of the state govt.
    But is it a coincidence that the government’s performance regarding the minorities and the performance of those that do not fall under it, are similar? Any one knowing anything about how things function here will know how the state circumscribes, or, actually and unofficially sets down the policies that companies and other interests need to follow?


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