Kolkata: The West Bengal cabinet headed by Mamata Banerjee has decided to regularise all land in the state where refugees have settled since the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. Banerjee said the refugees are “na ghar ka na ghat ka (don’t belong anywhere)”, pointing out that they have had no land documents since they settled in West Bengal.
The move is being seen as Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress’ way of countering the BJP’s proposal to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state and bring in the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would grant citizenship to Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
If implemented properly, the West Bengal government’s decision could have serious implications on the state’s politics, with civic polls coming up next year and assembly elections to follow in 2021.
Refugees in West Bengal
Since the Bangladesh liberation war, about two lakh refugee families have settled across West Bengal, especially in border districts like North and South 24 Parganas, North and South Dinajpur, Nadia, Murshidabad, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.
In other places like Bankura, Asansol, Durgapur, Jadavpur in south Kolkata and Dum Dum in north Kolkata, the settlements can be traced — the refugees settled not only on state government land, but also central government and railways land, and in some cases, on private land as well.
“We earlier started a process to regularise 94 such refugee colonies,” Chief Minister Banerjee said at the state secretariat, adding that her government has regularised the homes of almost 70,000 families. She said there are around 1.25 lakh more families in around 200 colonies that are yet to be regularised.
“As far as the central government plots are concerned, the refugees settled there often get eviction notices. This is a huge problem. It has been 48 years, and no serious action was taken to address this problem. So, we have decided to regularise land up to three acres at a time.”
The process will include the government giving land titles to refugee families, thereby legalising their stay. They will now get rights to the property and pay taxes to the government.
The Banerjee government’s move is clearly a political effort to counter the BJP’s NRC-Citizenship Amendment Bill narrative, which is designed to get the non-Muslim refugee vote.
Banerjee, who has already started issuing a new identity proof for Bengal residents through the digital ration card scheme, will now also prepare a complete database and documentation for land deeds of refugees and others.
A Trinamool Congress leader, who wished to remain anonymous, explained the reason behind the government’s move.
“Following the election results, we analysed our losses. We have lost a huge chunk of Scheduled Caste votes from communities like the Matuas, the Hindu refugee community from Bangladesh. They are settled in several districts and we have to get that votebank back,” the leader said.
“The government will also earn revenue through this process. So, it will benefit both the government and the party. That is why we are calling it a landmark decision,” the leader added.
BJP threatens legal action
BJP leaders, however, said the state government has no right to regularise the settlements on central government land.
Bengal BJP president and MP Dilip Ghosh told ThePrint: “These are all fake promises. Who has given her the right to give land deeds for central land? The state has no right on central, railways and private land. How can the government even say that? This is completely illegal.
He added: “If the government tries to violate the federal structure, we might seek legal intervention.”
Ghosh also accused Banerjee’s government of trying to provide land documents to infiltrators through this process. “This is not for refugees, but for the infiltrators. She will actually regularise the infiltrator colonies and strengthen her vote bank. But these tactics will not work. Legally, if a person is not a citizen, how can he or she even have right to land?” he asked.