ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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On the Margins: Muslims in West Bengal

The marginalisation of dalits and backward Muslims in West Bengal has brought into focus the issue of affirmative action for Muslims in the state. Despite indicators pointing towards backwardness, as many as 56 different castes, communities, and occupational groups are included in the Other Backward Classes list in the state, while deserving dalit and backward Muslims have been excluded. There has also been a change in the contours of local level politics in the state, resulting in more community-centric mobilisations of Muslims, which has prevented the continued mainstreaming of the community in West Bengal.

At the time of Partition in 1947, 19.85% Muslims turned into a religious minority community in West Bengal, and the same was the fate of some 22.03% Hindus in the then East Pakistan.1 Partition dramatically changed the demographic profile of Muslim population of West Bengal; it did the same to the Hindus in East Pakistan. Massive displacement of population partly explains this. In West Bengal rehabilitation and resettlement brought about much needed stability, and both the communities lived in peace. However, occasionally communal conflicts did mar the harmonious relation between the two communities in two parts of Bengal. For instance, in 1965, at the time of war between India and Pakistan, the two communities experienced the worst crisis, which eventually led to loss of life and displacement. In 1971, during the liberation war for an independent state of Bangladesh, large-scale violence took place once again which displaced nearly 10 million Bengalis.2 In spite of these events there were uniting forces that helped the minority Muslim community to live in peace and harmony. They remained an integral part of Bengali society. However, of late, some exclusionary state policies are drawing lines between the majority and the minority communities. This is one of the factors that led to the marginalisation of Muslims in West Bengal. This paper deals with some issues that are linked with the question of social exclusion of the minority community in the state of West Bengal. Two broad areas that have been addressed here are: affirmative action for “dalit” and “backward” Muslims, and local-level politics. I would like to examine why these issues are crucial to an understanding of relations between the majority and the minority communities in the state.

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