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Sunday, 6 April 2014

Kolkata's shahi imam wary of Narendra Modi's ascendency

Prashant Jha , Hindustan Times  Kolkata/Malda, March 30, 2014
First Published: 18:32 IST(30/3/2014) | Last Updated: 00:00 IST(31/3/2014

Inside the precincts of the Tipu Sultan Shahi mosque is an office, the board announcing it to be property of the Prince Gholam Mohammed Waqf Board. On the first floor, up a narrow staircase, sits the shahi imam NR Barkati.

It is late afternoon and Barkati is resting on a mattress on the floor. He gets up to outline the history of the mosque.

It was set up by Tipu Sultan's son Ghulam Mohammed in 1805 and the trust that runs it have a "lot of property" in Kolkata's prime areas, from which they get rent. His father was the Shahi Imam for 50 years, and he himself has been at the helm for the last 27 years.

Barkati has been in the news recently.

He told chief minister Mamata Banerjee in mid-March to emulate Rahul Gandhi and criticise Narendra Modi more. The chief minister appears to have heeded his advice, and stepped up her rhetoric after that. This has increased his political weight.

In Kolkata's circles though, Barkati is often mocked and dismissed for being an 'opportunist', for being on the side of whoever is in power -– be it the CPM or now the Trinamool -- and even called 'lal-batti imam' for allegedly driving around in a car with red beacon.

Barkati, however, rubbished this perception. "I have never been with CPM since they are atheists. I believe in the Congress party but they are too weak here. Mamata is born from the womb of secularism and so I support her. I have told her to speak against fascist forces, and she is doing it."

He will campaign extensively for Trinamool "like I did in 2011".

The shahi imam has a high impression of his role and power.

"I made her win last time. Even now her party people need me." West Bengal, he claimed, has 70,000 mosques, where he and other imams can wield influence.

Others however have real doubts about whether his appeal stretches that far and wide.

"He has been close to TMC, so Mamata listens to her. But no one controls anyone's votes as he claims," said a top Left leader of the state, who wished to remain anonymous.

"You must understand we ruled Hindustan for 1,000 years.  But we never made Hindus slaves here, like the British did. We want to live in harmony now," Barkati added.

But he claimed that Narendra Modi presents a real "threat" and has a warning. "If BJP comes to power, implements the RSS agenda, if they impose uniform civil code, if they stop us from praying, the Muslim clergy and scholars will discuss it and can even proclaim jehad."


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