AIMIM chief Owaisi’s first stop on his visit to Bengal in early January has generated a lot of attention in political circles.
Teeming with thousands of people who travel here in hundreds of vehicles, Furfura, a village in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, about 50 km from Kolkata, transforms every Friday morning into a major pilgrimage centre. Before the afternoon prayers, people queue up at the mazar (shrine) of Hazrat Abu Baqar Siddique (1846-1939), a prominent peer (holy person) of the town. While locals hesitate to say how old the tomb in a light green shrine with golden domes might be, they agree that this is the second most prominent mazar in the country after Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan.
Over the past several elections, politicians have been visiting Furfura Sharif to offer prayers, and meet the family members of the peer to seek their blessing and support. This election season, the visits have started quite early, even before the dates for the polls were announced, and political parties are already putting up their flags and posters here.
On January 3, 2021 All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi visited Furfura Sharif and met Abbas Siddique, the peerzada and secretary of Furfura Sharif at his office-cum-residence a few hundred metres away from the shrine.
Confluence of groups
Furfura Sharif was the first stop Mr. Owaisi made during his visit to Bengal earlier this month, and the meeting generated a lot of attention in political circles. It became the first instance of the coming together of the minority Urdu-speaking and majority Bengali-speaking Muslims of the State. The AIMIM chief unequivocally announced his support for Abbas Siddique in the upcoming Assembly polls. “I realised that if I have to make the Majlis (AIMIM) flag strong, I have to pay obeisance to Furfura Sharif,” Mr. Owaisi had said.
Fridays are also the days when Mr. Siddique, a young peer, is not addressing rallies in the nearby districts of south Bengal, and meets people and followers in and around Furfura. While he admits that the meeting with Mr. Owaisi was fruitful and even points at the room in which they met, Mr. Siddique lays emphasis on the creation of a Muslim tribal front in the State.
“We are in the process of forming a Muslim tribal front in West Bengal and are in talks with several groups, including Left parties and the Congress. The meeting with Mr. Owasi is also a part of a series of meetings we are having,” he said.
The religious leader claimed that he would announce the front by the end of January, and that the front would put up candidates for about 100 seats. Identifying these 100 seats spread across several districts of the State, Mr. Siddique said that there were 60 to 70 seats where Muslims would be a deciding factor in the poll outcome, and tribals would be a decisive force in the remaining 30 to 40 seats.
Elections to the West Bengal Assembly with 294 seats are scheduled in the next few months. The State has a 27.01% minority population as per the last Census conducted in 2011. The minorities in the State have overwhelmingly supported the Trinamool Congress since 2011.
Asked whether this front would not split the Muslim votes and help the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr. Siddique said there was a not a single flag of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in West Bengal before 2011. “It is only because of Mamata Banerjee that the BJP has been able to have a foothold in the State and the very existence of Muslims is at stake,” the religious leader, surrounded by his supporters, said.
In another hour, the number of people gathered outside the newly constructed house had swelled. Some among those gathered suggested that Mr. Siddique should come to Murshidabad and that there were many supporters waiting to join him. The young peer is always surrounded by supporters who record on their mobile phones every word he speaks in public or to the media.
Almost a kilometre before the entry to the village, a bright and towering structure is hard to miss. Toha Siddique, another representative of the family, is holding his daily durbar. Scores of people, including a few youths, who will join a madrassa run by institutions of Furfura, are waiting for his blessing.
“Furfura is not a place for political activity, it is a place of religion. Abbas Siddique is young, but we will not allow any development that will malign the image of the place and help communal forces,” Toha Siddque said.
Scepticism about Owaisi
The middle-aged religious leader straightaway makes a point on the meeting between Abbas Siddique and Asaduddin Owaisi. “Owaisi is an agent of the BJP, the whole country knows about it. You are all aware of what role he played in Bihar,” he said. Toha Siddique dared his cousin Abbas Siddique that if the latter got into the field of politics, he should not cry foul when someone commited a foul.
The developments at Furfura have created ripples in Kolkata. Representatives of the Imam Association of Bengal issued a statement saying that Muslims in Bengal could not be divided. Md Yahya, the president of the Imam Association, targeted Mr. Owaisi and said that some sections were trying to create a divide among Muslims, which the people of the State would never allow.
The people at Furfura are also tight-lipped on the subject of whom they would support when members of the Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddique are divided on political lines.
Significance of Furfura
According to West Bengal Tourism Department, the mosque at Furfura was built by Muqlish Khan in 1375 is a site of Muslim pilgrimage, especially during the “peer mela”. The Muslims of this region, it is believed, are chiefly Ashrafs, descendants of Muslims who invaded Bengal in the 14th century.
Sabir Ahamed, a well-known social and political commentator, said that the history of Furfura stretches back to the early medieval period. “Along with religious significance, Furfura and its peers have contributed immensely in field of education. The holy place is visited by Muslims not only from West Bengal but also from the adjoining States and the northeast,” Mr. Ahamed said.
Many madrasas in the region were constructed five to six centuries ago, and it was the commitment of the religious leaders of Furfura Sharif to social reform that is the reason for the huge support base of Furfura Sharif, Mr. Ahamed added.