Kolkata: Siddiqullah Chowdhury, West Bengal’s Minister of State with independent charge for Mass Education Extension and Library Services, has always had a knack for controversy. The latest is that the Bangladesh government has denied him a visa for a five-day trip.
Senior officials of Bangladesh’s Deputy High Commission in Kolkata said Chowdhury’s application was sent for adequate approval to Dhaka, and has not yet been cleared.
“We are shocked to know that he was denied visa. This has been taken up at the highest level. Siddiqullah ji is an influential leader, and a minister in our government. His chair should have been respected,” said a colleague of Chowdhury in the Trinamool Congress who did not wish to be named.
Chowdhury was scheduled to leave for Dhaka and Sylhet with his family members on 26 December. On 25 December, the minister said his visa application had been denied.
Speaking to ThePrint Thursday, Chowdhury said he has written to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee about the “insult” and “harassment” he faced.
He said he had travelled to Bangladesh on several occasions, for work and family reasons, and this is the first time in decades that he has been denied a visa — that too, without any “solid reason”.
“Bangladesh not only insulted the friendship that the two Bengals share, but insulted a minister and the chief minister of West Bengal, who has always seen and treated the Bangladeshi PM as her elder sister. I got clearance from the state and central governments for the visit. I have no idea under what pretext they denied me the visa,” Chowdhury told ThePrint.
“I have written to the chief minister and requested her to look into the matter. I was insulted and harassed.”
A Deoband graduate with some extreme views
The 65-year-old Bengal minister has been a prominent leader of the Muslim community since the 1980s, and has drawn flak for his speeches, which have often been called “inappropriate” for a person holding public office. At times, leaders of his own party, Trinamool Congress, have also disowned his comments, saying they don’t reflect the “party’s stand”.
Chowdhury is a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, and is known to have some extreme views. He has been fighting elections since 1984, but was only acknowledged as a strong force in Bengal after his contribution to the Nandigram movement in 2007, when he consolidated Muslims in the East Midnapore district against the Left Front government.
Chowdhury often raised his voice against the 34-year Left government in the state, and held it responsible for the under-development of Muslims.
The Left, in turn, downplayed his influence over Muslims.
Reacting to the news of his visa rejection, former CPI(M) MP Mohammad Salim said, “Bangladesh knows what would be right for it as a country, and did it. He is too insignificant to be commented on. People know what politics he does and has been doing in Bengal.”
Trinamool Congress leaders are divided on Chowdhury. Some Muslim leaders say his views, though politically incorrect at times, are for the good of the Muslim community. But a sizeable section of leaders says Chowdhury needs to exercise restraint as a minister.
Once a Mamata opponent, now a minister
Three years ago, before the 2016 assembly elections, Banerjee brought Chowdhury, head of the Bengal unit of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, into the Trinamool fold. It was seen as a political masterstroke, because the body controls around 980 madrasas, with more than 2 lakh students. It was also unusual, because Chowdhury had been a vehement critic of Banerjee and her policies.
In 2011, he had formed the People’s Democratic Consolidation of India (PDCI), which contested elections on 32 seats but didn’t win any. In 2013, his party contested panchayat elections and tasted some success. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, PDCI contested nine seats and managed to get about 7-8 per cent vote share.
Banerjee, whose electoral politics depends heavily on Bengal’s 30 per cent minority vote, certainly took notice of the PDCI’s performance.
Before the tie-up, Chowdhury had demanded around 20 to 25 seats, but he was given only two — one each in Bardhaman and Malda districts. Chowdhury himself won from Mangalkot in Bardhaman.
Chowdhury had earlier been associated with the Congress, as well as Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front, the regional party in Assam. But after Chowdhury’s tie-up with Banerjee, Ajmal broke the ties between their organisations.
A critic of Sheikh Hasina
Chowdhury has been an outspoken critic of the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh. Sources in the country’s Deputy High Commission in Kolkata said he is perceived to be close to Begum Khaleda Zia’s opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and against Hasina’s Awami League.
The biggest flashpoint between Chowdhury and the Hasina government came in 2013, during the trials of the Razakars — a force created by the Pakistani Army during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971. Chowdhury held meetings in support of the Razakars, and hailed them as “religious leaders”. After the country’s courts pronounced the Razakars guilty and awarded punishment, Chowdhury also labelled it a “conspiracy” on the part of the government.
Chowdhury’s confrontation with the Awami League dispensation reached such a level that his organisation demanded the removal of a statue of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, called the father of Bangladesh, from a college hostel in Kolkata. Rahman was Sheikh Hasina’s father.
CAA protests and comments about Amit Shah
A senior civil servant in the state government said a reason for the denial of visa could be Chowdhury’s comments about Union Home Minister Amit Shah a few days ago.
At a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in northern Kolkata, he said he would not allow Shah to leave the airport if he ever visited Kolkata.
Chowdhury himself hinted at a possible “conspiracy” against him, but reiterated that he would stand by his comments on Shah. “I would repeat that if the Modi government does not withdraw this Act, we will not allow the home minister to enter Kolkata. He has to go back from the airport itself. If they try to use force, they’ll have to drive the car over our dead bodies,” he told ThePrint.
“I will never apologise for my comment. I have no idea what prompted the Bangladeshi government to take such a decision. I think they read too much between the lines. They are a different country, and they do not need to indulge in politics here.”
However, another state government official said there’s a bigger chance that his visa was denied due to his relentless criticism of Sheikh Hasina’s government and his proximity to Khaleda Zia’s party.
Earlier run-ins with Modi govt
The comments on Shah aren’t the first time Chowdhury has taken on the Modi government. He had also refused to abide by the law against the Islamic practice of Triple Talaq passed by the government.
“It is not possible for the community to comply with such a law, which is an attack on Islam. We do not like this law; it will increase the atrocities on Muslim women,” he had said.
A few years before, when there was a debate on a Uniform Civil Code, Chowdhury had said at a rally the government will never be able to implement it, and if it forces this law on Muslims, the results will be “disastrous”.