West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Friday declined to meet visiting US Ambassador Nancy J Powell in Kolkata, apparently to ensure that no “wrong signals” went out to Muslim voters ahead of elections.
Enquiries by The Indian Express revealed that several powerful Muslim outfits in Bengal had asked Mamata not to meet the US ambassador at this time.
Mukul Roy, all-India general secretary of the Trinamool Congress, said the CM had told him that the US envoy was not given an appointment. But there “may have been such a request from their side”, he said.
At the state secretariat, a visibly irritated Mamata told reporters, “In my appointment card, there is nothing of the sort (meeting with Powell)… It is a problem that you make up such news.”
The news of the meeting had, in fact, been put out officially by Mamata’s Trinamool Congress party. And both the Kolkata Police and the secretariat had made preparations for it. Muslims are 30 per cent of Bengal’s electorate.
Powell, who met Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on February 13, had sought a meeting with Mamata next. The ambassador arrived in Kolkata on Thursday, but returned to Delhi on Friday after meeting only Governor M K Narayanan and some schoolchildren.
Mohammad Quamruzzaman, general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, said he had sent an email to the Chief Minister’s Office four days ago, asking Mamata not to meet any representative of the US.
“This is a historic decision by our chief minister,” Quamruzzaman said on Friday. “We are happy that she has always seen the interest of her minority brothers. We sent an email to her on February 17 requesting her not to hold any meeting with a representative of a war-mongering country like America. And today we saw that she did not disappoint us. This is a good decision. Before the general election, minorities would never like the chief minister to meet people from the US.
“She has in fact never disappointed us,” Quamruzzaman added. “When controversial author Salman Rushdie wanted to visit the Calcutta Book Fair, we requested her not to allow him into the city. We also appealed to her not to allow a television show based on a story by Taslima Nasreen to be aired on a Bengali channel recently, and it was taken off air,” he said.
The All Bengal Minority Youth Federation has in the past claimed to have kept Rushdie away from the Kolkata Book Fair in 2012, and lobbied against US politicians visiting Bengal for Vivekananda’s 150th anniversary celebrations. The federation held violent demonstrations against the US in Kolkata in October 2012, forcing the American Center in the city to shut down for two days.
Moulana Noor-ur Rehman Barkati, the influential Shahi Imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan Mosque and one of Mamata’s close aides, said, “After I came to know about the likely meeting, I advised Mamataji not to talk to representatives of America. It would have sent a wrong signal to the minority community. Mamata took a bold decision. She will get the results in the general election. She will secure maximum votes from the minorities.”
The US Public Affairs Office in Kolkata confirmed that it had sought a meeting between Powell and Mamata, but “it did not occur”. Joanne Joria, director of the American Center, said, “I will not say it is disappointing, but surely it is something that did not happen. It could not be accommodated. We are not in a position to say the reasons or if the chief minister had other engagements.”
Joria said it was part of protocol to send a request for a meeting with the chief minister and governor whenever the US ambassador visited an Indian state. She pointed out that the news about a meeting between Powell and Mamata had been tweeted by the Trinamool Congress.
Besides the official tweet, the Trinamool Congress had also announced the likely meeting on its official website earlier. The Lalbazar police control room confirmed on Friday that its engagement logbook for the day had listed a meeting between Powell and Mamata between 1.30 pm and 1.50 pm. A similar entry was made at Nabanna, the state secretariat, but it said “not confirmed”.