Kolkata: Most Muslim preachers, or imams, in West Bengal have spurned chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Rs.2,500 monthly allowance, saying it was against their tenets to accept money from any source other than religious endowments. About one-third of them have sought the allowance.
Banerjee had announced the payment in April, lower than the Rs.10,000 promised earlier. It was estimated at the time that there were about 70,000 imams leading prayers at various mosques in West Bengal.
About 20,000 imams have applied for the payment, according to officials in the state’s minority affairs department who didn’t want to be named. The move had been welcomed initially as one that would alleviate poverty among the clerics. It was later regarded by many of them as being anti-Islamic, government officials said.
Despite its stressed finances, the state government had released Rs.22 crore for payment to the imams, said Muhammad Abdul Gani, chairman of the Waqf Board—the state-controlled body that oversees Islamic religious endowments—through which the allowance is being paid.
The move would have benefited at least 30,000 imams registered with the Waqf Board, but even others not immediately registered with it could apply for the allowance provided the mosques at which they led prayers were built before January 2012.
When announced in April, the move attracted criticism from political parties such as the Bhartiya Janata Party. It said this was an overt attempt by the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party to consolidate minority votes ahead of the 2013 panchayat (village council) polls in West Bengal.
A swing in minority votes was crucial in the TMC victory in the 2011 assembly in election in West Bengal in which the Left Front was ousted after 34 years in power.
Alongside the stipend for imams, the state government had also announced that it would recognize some 16,000 madrasas (schools) to study the Islamic religion.
However, this too has received a tepid response from the Muslim community with only about 300 madrasas seeking state government recognition until now.
“What is the point of recognition if it does not result in any financial assistance from the state government?” asked Abdur Rezzak Mollah, a lawmaker and a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM.
A section of Muslim leaders in the state say they are disappointed with the TMC government for not implementing the recommendations of a committee headed by former justice Rajinder Sachar, which was tasked with evaluating the social condition of Muslims in India.
The party had said in its 2011 election manifesto that it would offer more government jobs to Muslims and create reservations for the community in higher education in line with the recommendations of the panel.
The Sachar committee had pointed out in its report that during the Left Front’s 34-year rule in West Bengal only about 2% of government jobs had gone to Muslims.
In a last-ditch effort to make amends, the CPM had announced that it would create a 10% reservation for Muslims in government jobs, but the party was voted out of power.
“We want jobs for Muslim children, reservation in higher education and government offices, not honorarium for imams,” said Touha Siddiqui, imam of Furfura Sharif, a mosque that’s more than 600 years old and is a pilgrimage destination. “This government hasn’t so far kept its promises to our community.”