West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who generally reserves the choicest of her criticisms for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its top brass, was on Tuesday locked in a war of words with an unlikely adversary - Asaduddin Owaisi.
While addressing a gathering in Cooch Behar, Mamata made a reference to 'minority extremism' by some leaders who have their "base in Hyderabad." Without naming the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad Muslimeen chief, Mamata cautioned minority voters against those "taking money from the BJP."
Mamata alleged that the AIMIM thrived by dividing people on religious lines and asked minorities not to make the mistake of "trusting these forces".
"There is a political party... just like there are some extremists in Hindus, same with minorities. They take money from the BJP. They stay in Hyderabad, not here. Don't fall into the trap, my minority brothers," DNA quoted her as saying.
Mamata's comments assume significance as this is the first time that she has made a reference to "minority" extremism as she looks to woo Hindu voters in face of an expansionist BJP and at the same time guard against Owaisi making inroads in a state where she had carefully cultivated Muslim support.
Owaisi, who is looking to expand his party's base beyond Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, had in June this year announced that it will contest the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections. He had also asked TMC to decide whether she considers the party as a friend or a foe. Mamata seems to have made a choice with her latest remarks, and Owaisi did not take the attack lying down.
Taking to Twitter, the firebrand Muslim leader said that it's not religious extremism to say that Bengal's Muslims have one of the worst human development indicators of any minority. "If Didi is worried about a bunch of us 'from Hyderabad' then she should tell us how BJP won 18/42 LS seats from Bengal," he wrote.
He also added that Mamata's attack against him proves that his party is a force to reckon with in West Bengal polls due next year.
"By making allegations against me you are giving the message to Muslims of Bengal that Owaisi's party has become a formidable force in the state. Mamata Banerjee is showcasing her fear and frustration by making such comments," Owaisi told ANI.
Mamata's statement came after she offered prayers at the Madan Mohan Temple in Coochbehar and then visited the Rash Mela on the Rajbari grounds, News18 reported, which is why her comments are being seen as attempts to reach out to majority Hindu Bengalis and Rajbanshi voters in the region.
Meanwhile, AIMIM may have riled up Mamata as it recently made inroads in Bihar's Kishanganj, a town bordering West Bengal and part of the Seemanchal region that has been at the centre-stage of Muslim politics and influences Muslim voters in constituencies along the Indo-Nepal border up to West Bengal. This stretch has high concentration of Muslims varying between 20 per cent and 70 percent, News18 reported.