Known for his flowing burgundy beard, Kolkata’s Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati has also built up quite a reputation for his acerbic tongue.
The head of the famous Tipu Sultan mosque at the heart of the city’s business district is in the habit of issuing fatwas or religious rulings at regular intervals and hogging the headlines. He did it again last week, issuing an edict against none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his demonetisation drive.
Claiming that many have been forced into penury in the wake of the scrapping of high-value currency, Barkati announced a cash reward of Rs 25 lakhs for anyone who blackens Modi’s face. His latest diktat outraged many and the BJP lodged a complaint with the police, seeking his immediate arrest.
But Barkati is unfazed and continues to roil others with his fatwas. His place cemented as “Bengal’s fatwa man”, he is continuing to stand his ground.
“I stand by my fatwa against Modi … He is also responsible for the death of the 127 (so far) who died queuing up in front of banks and ATMs after demonetisation,” Barkati told Hindustan Times.
He even claimed to have received hundreds of congratulatory phone calls and messages from different cities after his latest fatwa.
Before targeting Modi, he had directed his ire at Dilip Gosh, the West Bengal BJP president for his alleged disparaging comments against chief minister Mamata Banerjee. “He (Ghosh) should be pelted with pebbles and kicked out of Bengal,” said the imam, who has headed the Tipu Sultan mosque for three decades.
Others in his line of fire included author Salman Rushdie, Bangladesh-born writer Tasleema Nasreen and Canadian columnist Tarek Fatheh.
Nasreen, in fact, had no less than three fatwas issued against her by Barkati: once in 2004 for her reported anti-Islamic comments, then in 2006 and again in 2007. Each time he issued a fatwa, Barkati hiked the bounty on her head.
Successive governments in West Bengal, with a Muslim population of about 30%, have chosen to ignore his seemingly incendiary acts. During the Left Front rule, he used a car with a red beacon. Since Banerjee stormed to power, Barkati has graced the stage at rallies of the Trinamool Congress.
His proximity to the ruling party has prompted the BJP to accuse Banerjee of Muslim appeasement.
“He is a stooge of the chief minister. She is using him for promoting her policy of appeasement. She will bend every law in the book to protect him,” said BJP national secretary Sidharth Nath Singh.
Even some Muslims are aghast at Barkati’s brazenness.
“Those who are issuing fatwa on political issues are abusing their positions,” said Kazi Masoom Akhtar, a Kolkata-based schoolteacher.
But Barkati insists his bluster is for the good. “I am fighting for preserving the secular character of our society and will continue to do so. Will I keep quiet when so many innocent people are under attack in the country?” he asked.
What is the source of his courage in taking on the high and mighty?
For the record, Barkati says it is the almighty who gives him protection. But the fact is Kolkata Police provide him with round-the-clock security.
“When I walk on the roads, four policemen protect me. My fatwas are true and I don’t care,” Barkati said.