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‘Erasing history’ — why Mamata’s plan to create new districts is causing protests in Bengal

TMC govt intends to carve out 7 new districts from existing ones for 'better governance', but the proposal has riled many, especially in Nadia and Murshidabad.

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Kolkata: A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a new name for a bifurcated district can lead to an identity crisis — and anger — as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is finding out, particularly in the case of Nadia and Murshidabad districts.

This Monday, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief announced that within six months the state government will carve out seven new districts from existing ones, taking the total number up from 23 to 30, in order to enable better administration.

The plan is that two districts, Berhampore and Jangipur, will be carved out of Murshidabad, Ranaghat from Nadia, Bishnupur from Bankura, Ichamati and another yet-to-be-named district from Basirghat division in North 24 Parganas, and Sundarban in South 24 Parganas.

Many residents of Murshidabad and Nadia districts, though, just aren’t having it, arguing that the move will dilute their historical importance, including their respective reputations as the ‘London’ and ‘Oxford’ of West Bengal.

While Murshidabad was the pre-colonial capital of Bengal and the site of the 18th-century Battle of Plassey, a turning point in India’s colonisation, Nadia is famed as the birthplace of the 15th-century sage Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and as a centre of learning.

Protesters took to the streets in parts of Nadia this week demanding that the decision be rolled back because it threatened their heritage.

Sections of the political establishment in these districts are also unhappy. According to a report in the Trinamool mouthpiece Jago Bangla, the party’s MP from Murshidabad Abu Taher Khan told Mamata at a party meet in Delhi Thursday that the district’s people were against the name change arising from the division. Mamata reportedly cut him short and said nothing had been finalised yet.

However, while those against the decision are invoking legacy and history, with some opposition leaders also challenging its fiscal soundness, others argue that bifurcation will help bring about better governance in Bengal, the fourth most populous state in India, where an average of about four million people reside in each district (according to the 2011 Census).

For context, the most populous states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Maharashtra — have 75, 38, and 36 districts, respectively. Even some of Bengal’s neighbours with a lower population count have more districts, with Assam at 35 and Odisha at 30.

“Ideally, a district should have about 20 lakh population, but Bengal is the second most densely populated state after Bihar. With over 10 crore population, Bengal should have had at least 50 districts by now. But 30 is reasonable,” said retired IAS officer and former Bengal home secretary Basudeb Banerjee.

A state government has the power to create districts without the requirement of the Union government’s consent. It can either pass a law in the assembly or can issue an order and notify it in the gazette. According to officials, however, the government needs a go-ahead from the Calcutta High Court because the new districts will need to set up their own courts and judicial machinery.

Also read: How West Bengal cabinet reshuffle is Mamata’s attempt at image makeover for her govt

A perceived threat to ‘history and heritage’

One of Murshidabad’s greatest claims to fame is that it was the site of the 1757 Battle of Plassey, where the East India Company, led by Major-General Robert Clive, defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula and set the stage for British colonial expansion into India.

Even now, the prime attractions in Murshidabad are relics from the nawab era, including mosques, palaces, gardens, and tombs, but there is also a sense of pride in the importance it got from the British.

Speaking to ThePrint, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress MP from Berhampore constituency in Murshidabad, said he wasn’t against creating new districts but opposed the name change.

“Lord Clive compared Murshidabad to London. It’s a historical place and was once the capital of combined Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha. Mamata cannot erase the name as per her whims and fancies. I will not let her change the name,” Chowdhury added.

BJP MLA from Murshidabad Gouri Sankar Ghosh also tweeted his demand to the Prime Minister that the district should be converted into a Union territory so as to retain its “integrity” and “glory”.

In Nadia, meanwhile, protests broke out across Santipur and Krishnanagar after the CM’s announcement. The protesters raised slogans, held placards, and blocked roads, claiming that the decision to carve out Ranaghat from Nadia would deny them the rich cultural and historical heritage linked to the district.

Known as the ‘Oxford of Bengal’, Nadia district is the birthplace of 15th-century Vaishnava saint Chaitnaya Mahaprabhu, considered to be a combined avatar of Radha and Krishna. The 1859 peasant uprising known as the indigo revolt also began from Nadia. During the Partition, large parts of Nadia went to the erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh).

“Our roots are connected to Nadia, our emotions are connected to Nadia. Overnight, the government decided to divide Nadia and now we will no longer be residents of our beloved district. Our identity is being snatched. Why this sudden decision?” asked playwright Kaushik Chattopadhyay while addressing a street corner protest in Santipur.

Some people have also argued that the name Ranaghat for the new district is inappropriate since some associate it with the name of a dacoit from the 1800s.

Residents of Bankura, too, have expressed their unhappiness over the state government’s decision.

“Bishnupur is part of Bankura. So far, the two could be governed as one district — what is the need to divide Bankura and Bishnupur?” said Somnath Pramanik, a resident of Bankura.

Mixed reactions

Mamata Banerjee has maintained for a while that, given the size and population of Bengal, there is a need to increase the number of districts for administrative efficiency and implementation of programmes.

“Smaller districts always help in better governance even in terms of reaching out to the district headquarters,” said former home secretary Banerjee.

While state governments are empowered to create, change, or remove districts by issuing an executive order or passing a law in the legislative assembly, without the need of the Union government’s approval, they do have to go through the high court, Banerjee added.

“The decision to form new districts will require a clearance from the high court as per protocol. The HC thereafter appoints district judges. This helps in processing cases faster as we know the burden of trials. With a new district, a new superintendent of police will be appointed and so will a district magistrate, which will add to good governance,” he said.

However, the opposition isn’t on the same page as the West Bengal government.

Addressing mediapersons, BJP spokesperson Shamik Bhattacharya: “Such decisions require proper planning but that’s clearly missing in the way the announcement was suddenly made. Bengal is already debt-ridden and now, with seven more districts, it will add to the state’s financial burden.”

CPI(M) leader Dr Sujan Chakraborty also claimed it was an “irrational move”, made without any consultation.

“It’s a whimsical approach, it was neither discussed in the assembly, nor was an all-party meet called before the announcement and neither did the chief minister form a committee to decide this. We are not against the formation of more districts, but the process has clearly stirred anger among the people,” he told ThePrint.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Newer states are a boon for bureaucracy. But a critical factor can make or break them


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