Kolkata: Another chapter has been added to the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-BJP tussle in West Bengal over the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
On Monday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that her government would regularise all 331 refugee colonies in the state, adding her administration had already initiated the process for 94 colonies.
The move comes on the back of the TMC government declaring that it will issue new identity cards for Bengal’s residents.
The BJP views the latest decision as an attempt by the Mamata government to shield ‘Bangladeshi Muslims’ from the NRC process if it is implemented in the state.
The chief minister, however, insists that the regularisation will benefit refugees who came to India before and during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1970-71. 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 will have to pay taxes.
Since 1970, following the Liberation War, thousands of Bangladeshi refugees settled across West Bengal. They began living in settlements on state government land, central government land, railways property and on private land too.
The Left Front government earmarked some of such settlements as ‘refugee colonies’.
The concentration of such refugee colonies is mostly found along border districts such as North 24 Paraganas, South 24 Paraganas, Nadia, Murshidabad, Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Dinajpur.
They are also located in some of the central and western locations including Bankura, Asansol, Durgapur, Jadavpur (South Kolkata), Dum Dum (North Kolkata).
The residents of these colonies have voter identity cards and ration cards but they face difficulty in getting passports as they generally fail to provide official documents for residence proof.
According to the official website of the West Bengal ‘Land & land reforms, Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation’, the census figures of 1971 pegged their population at nearly 60 lakh people. This number was assessed at 80 lakh people in 1981.
At present, the refugees constitute 80 to 90 lakh of the state’s population.
Land rights to refugees, its implications
According to a senior official of the CM’s Office, giving land rights to refugees is a step forward in granting them citizenship.
It is a win-win situation for both sides.
Thousands of acres of land are now part of refugee colonies, with some of these considered as ‘adverse possession’. As far as the state government land is concerned, these can be easily regularised by giving them pattas or ‘land deeds’, the official said, adding the administration is looking at legal provisions for central government land and private land.
The issue is political too. Providing land rights to refugees had been kept pending by the previous Left Front government and the TMC dispensation.
The chief minister’s latest decision is being seen as way of her countering the BJP’s proposal to implement the 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.
Politics, confusion and contradiction
According to experts on Bangladeshi refugee and settlements, the announcement bears confusion and contradiction in equal measure.
“It is a long-pending issue. Some political dynamics are also involved,” said Professor Achin Chakraborty, director of the Institute of Development Studies. “In the last 48 years, the political class has made several such commitments, but nothing significant was done. In fact, the recent announcement also seems to be a bit repetitive.”
He added that the decision will have legal implications.
“Even though land is a state subject, it (TMC government) will not be able to grants rights for the central land,” he said. “Also, for refugee settlements, the central government makes a law, and the state generally has a corresponding law. So, it will have serious legal implications. It is not clear how it would be done.”
Many in the TMC though hope that the announcement will benefit the ‘government and the party’ before the civic body elections in 2020 and the assembly polls in 2021.
For one, it will benefit the politically-significant Matua community. The Matuas are a Schedule Caste religious Hindu refugee sect from Bangladesh whose population is spread across seven Parliamentary constituencies. They are the deciding factors in at least 30 assembly segments. The Matuas had switched allegiance from the TMC to the BJP ahead of the 2014 elections.
BJP wants ‘infiltrators’ out
The BJP, however, has hit out at the government for not adopting a criterion to distinguish between ‘refugees’ and ‘infiltrators’.
According to the party, Bangladeshi refugees are those non-Muslims who settled in India before 1971 as they had to face religious persecution in their country.
“Muslims who settled here after 1972 are illegal migrants or infiltrators. The infiltrators cannot have any right to land,” said Professor Mohit Roy, chief of the BJP’s Refugee cell. “So this announcement is more of a rhetoric and less of anything serious in nature.”
“She is trying to give an impression that she would resolve the issues related to the proposed NRC by providing land documents to the Bangladeshi migrants,” he added. “But this is legally not possible.”