Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee announced her decision of granting land ownership rights to 11,900 refugee families in the state while voting was underway for three assemblies bypolls in West Bengal on November 25.
It has been a "Na ghar ka, na ghat ka" (neither here, nor there) existence for the refugees for over 48 years, despite residing here, earning a livelihood, sending their children to school and casting votes, reports India Today.
We have decided to regularise all the refugee colonies, Mamata said. The announcement is strategically timed, as Bengal simmers over the BJP's (Bharatiya Janata Party) repeated assertions that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) survey held in Assam will be extended nationwide and Mamata makes noises about not allowing it in her state.
Regardless of how many refugees will ultimately benefit only 94 refugee colonies are on Bengal government land as against 150 on central land analysts say a signal has gone out that the Mamata government is concerned about the welfare of Muslims and Hindus alike.
Two of the bypoll constituencies, Karimpur in Nadia and Kaliaganj in North Dinajpur interestingly share boundaries with Bangladesh and have felt the pressures of illegal cross-border migration. While Muslims make up almost 20 percent of the votes in Kaliaganj, the Hindu population in these areas is also just as tense, following the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of Hindu families from the final NRC list in Assam.
Every other day, the BJP says new things about NRC. We are Hindus and crossed over [from Bangladesh]. We wonder what documents they will demand, says Aghor Das, a resident of Nadia. Bhuban Bairagi,a resident of Kaliaganj said, "There have been so many suicide deaths in the state. Many were Hindus. How do we know we are safe?"
Mamata Banerjee has played it wise by sending out the message that she is doing all she can for the Hindu refugees, says Prasanta Ray, professor emeritus, Presidency University, Kolkata. The chief minister has been projecting herself as the paharadar (a watchman) the Bengali equivalent of PM Narendra Modi's chowkidar of the people against the NRC.
"BJP has to get past me to touch anybody from Bengal... Assam is BJP-ruled, so it [NRC] could be executed," a combative Mamata said.
At the same time, Mamata has reportedly said party leaders to keep the NRC issue alive by organising seminars, meetings and processions and maintaining a high-decibel protest. The issue has been getting traction among the Gorkha, Rajbongshi and other ethnic groups in north Bengal.
Mamata said at a Cooch Behar rally around 1.1 million out of the 1.2 million Bengalis excluded in the Assam NRC were Rajbongshis, while in Darjeeling, she said 150,000 Gorkhas had been left out. Support from the Rajbongshis was instrumental in the BJP's Lok Sabha wins from Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri while the Gorkhas overwhelmingly backed the party in Darjeeling.
Mamata has also denounced the Citizenship Amendment Bill as a central lollipop' that cannot guarantee citizens their rights. On the backfoot following the widescale exclusion of Hindu names in the Assam NRC, the state BJP has been advocating the bill as a safety net for Hindus and other non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The TMC is milking NRC, making both Muslim and Hindu refugees believe no one is safe in BJP-ruled states. So far, the BJP has lacked the organisation, machinery and leadership to counter it, says Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.
Unlike in the past, Mamata is also being careful not to be seen as anti-Hindu, as manifest in her refusal to comment on the Supreme Court's Ayodhya verdict. Ray, however, cautions: She is trying to do a lot of things simultaneously often conflicting and contradictory. It's like trial and error. While her equivocation on the Ayodhya case will not go down well with hardline Hindus and Muslims, the NRC has become an over-used vessel that will wear out in the long run.