Kolkata: Home Minister Amit Shah signalled the BJP’s intent to make West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s reluctance to bring back migrants a poll issue for next year’s assembly elections, saying she had insulted migrant labourers by calling shramik trains “corona express”.
Although only three lakh migrant workers returned to West Bengal by these trains, the issue could hurt Mamata Banerjee politically, especially in the context of growing public perception about her failure to manage the coronavirus crisis and her government’s alleged attempts to fudge figures.
It could also have a bearing on the Bengali pride card, which she has been playing to counter the BJP’s aggression in West Bengal, led mostly by Delhi leaders in the absence of strong local faces.
The CM found herself pushed further on the back foot when the Congress and the CPI(M) also attacked her on the shramik trains issue.
‘Shocked that a CM would say this for her people’
Shah was addressing BJP workers in a virtual rally Tuesday when he made the comments. He said migrant workers would never forgive Banerjee for her “insulting” comments, and added he was “shocked” to hear such a comment from a state CM for her own people. Disrespecting migrants will be a major reason for her exit from power, Shah said.
“Calling the shramik special trains, which were ferrying migrant labourers to their home states, ‘corona express’ is disrespectful towards them. You insulted these migrant labourers. Let the 2021 polls come, and this corona express remark will be a reason for your exit,” the Union home minister said.
Shah claimed that the central government had faced the most difficulty and resistance from Bengal for the shramik special trains, and also said Bengal had opted for the lowest number of such trains.
“Uttar Pradesh has requisitioned 1,700 and Bihar took 1,500, while Bengal has until now taken only 236 trains. We could ferry only three lakh migrants to Bengal,” Shah added.
However, a senior Trinamool leader, who did not wish to be named, defended Banerjee, saying her “corona express” comments were misconstrued by the BJP for its vested political interest.
The leader claimed the CM was critical of how the railways were running the shramik special trains, and that unplanned migrant movement would lead to a spurt in coronavirus cases.
“They are stuffing the shramik trains full of people. There is no social distancing, no food, no water, nothing,” Banerjee had said. “What are they trying to do? Are they running shramik trains or are they trying to run corona express?”
CM Banerjee had said at a press conference last week that her government had brought back over 10 lakh migrants through various means of transport.
“If we did not allow migrants to return, then how come only by train 2.4 lakh people have returned so far? Another 1.5 lakh will return by 10 June, and around 6.5 lakh have returned by road. If we are not allowing migrants to return, then how come 10.5 lakh people will have entered Bengal by 10 June?” she had said.
Mamata’s initial reluctance
In the first few weeks of the lockdown, Mamata Banerjee had been reluctant to allow migrant labourers back into the state, and appealed to the states where they were located to take care of them. Her government said it was “logistically impossible” to get around 3,000 of its students back to Bengal from Rajasthan’s coaching hub of Kota, though later she tweeted that her government arranged for buses.
On 9 May, Shah wrote to Banerjee, accusing her government of not cooperating in bringing migrants back to the state. A day before the letter reached, facing huge criticism, the Bengal government had booked eight trains to bring the labourers back.
After Shah’s letter, Banerjee’s government had given consent for hundreds of such trains, whose total number the home minister now claims is 236. The CM was particularly furious when the Ministry of Railways continued sending trains to Bengal after Cyclone Amphan struck on 20 May, saying that the ministry was “unilaterally” sending the trains and not consulting the state government, and that there was “no coordination” between them.
The CM added that her government did not have the infrastructure to screen and quarantine such a large number of migrant labourers coming back to the state, and said Bengal was struggling to come to terms with the damages caused by the cyclone.
Significantly, the number of Covid-positive cases in Bengal has more than doubled from around 4,000 to almost 9,000 since the migrants started returning to the state. The state is now adding over 400 cases every day, with districts like Birbhum, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling and Uttar Dinajpur, which were previously classified as ‘green zones’, emerging as hotspots, reporting over 200 cases each. Hooghly district now has over 600 confirmed cases.
There are also allegations of migrant labourers not being treated well by the ruling Trinamool Congress. Dozens of incidents have been reported from Burdwan, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Hooghly and Birbhum, where migrant labourers have agitated for not getting food, medical help, and proper space to stay. In many districts, villagers pelted stones at migrants and resisted the setting up of quarantine centres.
Trinamool Congress leaders counter-attacked Shah on several grounds, including Chinese aggression in Ladakh and electoral politics.
Abhishek Banerjee, Diamond Harbour MP and the CM’s nephew, tweeted that Shah’s speech was “as usual… rhetoric and no substance”. He also used Shah’s “exit” comment to question when the Chinese would “exit our territory”.
As usual the speech of @AmitShah Ji was all rhetoric and no substance.
Nonetheless since he has talked about his dream of seeing ‘EXIT’ of TMC, I would like to ask him one more time – “When are the Chinese EXITING our territory”#BengalRejectsAmitShah
— Abhishek Banerjee (@abhishekaitc) June 9, 2020
Trinamool Congress secretary general Partha Chatterjee also tweeted, saying Shah’s priorities were “crystal clear” and he was only “hungry for votes”.
.@AmitShah's priorities are crystal clear even when the state is battling with a pandemic and a natural disaster. Bengal, remember the face of this man who is just hungry for your votes and nothing else. https://t.co/yf0M1uXKVd#BengalRejectsAmitShah
— Partha Chatterjee (@itspcofficial) June 9, 2020
Minister Aroop Biswas added: “I have only one message for the BJP leaders — chaha apan pran bancha (save your lives first). Not a single promise they made was fulfilled. They did not have any right to question Didi’s intentions; she was working round the clock to serve people.”
Later, three more senior leaders addressed a virtual press conference on the issue of Shah’s speech — MPs Derek O’Brien and Dinesh Trivedi, and state finance minister Amit Mitra.
“Amit Shah was so busy talking about the exit of some party; he is perhaps oblivious of somebody else’s entry into the country,” said O’Brien, also Trinamool Congress’ national spokesperson.
Mitra raised questions on why money was not given to migrants directly during the lockdown, while former Union railway minister Trivedi said CM Banerjee had sought the return of migrants and written to chief ministers of 18 states as early as March.
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