On 25 November, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that attempts would be made to regularise all 331 refugee colonies in her state, even on lands owned by private parties and the central government. She added that the state government had already regularised 94 such colonies earlier, which were on state land.
All of the displaced people will also be given land rights by Bengal. In the chief minister’s own words, the refugees in these colonies (who migrated during or before the Bangladesh War of 1970-71) were left ‘na ghar ka, na ghat ka’ (beloning to nowhere) for 48 years.
Given the Trinamool Congress’ massive opposition to the BJP’s push to implement the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and, thereafter, conduct a National Register For Citizens (NRC)-like exercise in Bengal, Mamata’s move may be symbolic, but not surprising.
It may be surprising, however, when it is juxtaposed with Didi’s attack on AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi on 19 November, just a few days before the announcement on regularisations.
Regularisation Of Refugee Lands: Killing Two Birds With One Stone?
The regularisation of a plot of land is when its land usage is changed. Typically (and in this case too), this applies to illegally occupied areas in which the government gives land titles or deeds to the occupiers, thereby legalising their occupation. The erstwhile illegal occupants will now have ownership over that piece of land.
The ‘refugee colonies’ being referred to here are settlements of refugees who crossed the border from Bangladesh during the Liberation War of 1970-71. They are mostly located along the border districts of West Bengal like North and South Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda.
According to the government, the population of these refugees is about 90 lakhs at present. While many of these colonies are now allowed to vote, and even have ration cards, they lack a proof of residence.
A government official told The Quint that most of the land in these colonies are now ‘adversely possessed’.
This means that, by law, an occupant who has occupied a land for more than 12 years gains ownership of the land due to the previous owner’s lack of action to oust them.
“This is a direct attempt by the Trinamool to attack the BJP’s Hindu refugee vote bank, while at the same time appeasing their Muslim voter-base as well. The TMC is especially focusing on the Matua community, a community of religious refugees from Bangladesh, belonging to Scheduled Caste, who populate these refugee colonies”, the official added.
He also confirmed that this is a step towards providing citizenship to the refugees.
While there is no official estimate of the number of Matuas in Bengal, community leaders estimate them to be around 3 crore in 2019. They hold sway over six parliamentary constituencies and about 30 Assembly segments in Bengal.
Once rallying behind Mamata against the Left, the Matuas’ desire for citizenship caused a swing in their votes towards the saffron party in the 2019 elections.
An estimated exclusion of over 12 lakh Hindus during the Assam NRC has made the BJP rethink its strategy in some of these border areas, with the party reiterating that Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains will not need to worry about the NRC, deliberately keeping Muslims out of the mix.
After Mamata’s announcement to regularise, the BJP has accused her of sheltering infiltrators once again.
“This for the infiltrators and not the refugees. She wants to regularise the infiltrator colonies and strengthen her vote bank. These steps won’t work because legally these people are not citizens. How can a non-citizen be given land rights?”, Bengal BJP President Dilip Ghosh told reporters after the announcement
A senior Trinamool leader, on the other hand, said that it’s a win-win for the TMC, which is now balancing both the Hindu Matua and the Bangladeshi Muslim vote bank.
It is important to see Mamata’s regularization move as a response to the BJP aggressively breaking into many of the Trinamool’s key vote banks.
On 19 November at a public meeting in Cooch Behar, Mamata took a jibe at AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi.
Without naming him or his party, Mamata said:
“A political party…. like in some Hindus, there is extremism, there are some people who have emerged even among minorities who are extremists. They take money from the BJP, keep in mind. They take money from the BJP, there is such a party, their home is in Hyderabad, not here.”
Owaisi replied to that comment saying that Mamata “should stop Muslim appeasement”, also pointing out the low social indicators of the Muslim community in Bengal.
After the AIMIM’s victory in Bihar’s Kishanganj, heralding its shift towards North India, it is assumed that Owaisi has his eyes on Bengal. A Muslim party’s entry into Bengal politics might mean a split in Mamata’s crucial votebank with the possibility of many religious Muslims shifting their vote to the AIMIM. A thought bolstered by the stray AIMIM posters found in some Muslim-dominated districts in Bengal.
However, let’s take a look at what Mamata said after that:
“They are coming here, conducting meetings, saying ‘I will give you protection’. Don’t go ahead and make this mistake, my brothers and sisters from the minority communities. My Hindu brothers and sisters, do not bow your heads before extremism.”
Before the influx of the BJP into Bengal, Mamata Banerjee would never use the word ‘extremist’ for religious minorities.
It was a salutation reserved for the ‘Maoists’.
Mamata’s statement against Owaisi, more than an effort to consolidate votes, therefore, is the foundation of a “Good Muslim”-“Bad Muslim” narrative that the TMC is now slowly having to adopt.
The aforementioned party leader said the party was trying to keep a strict balance between the Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim vote banks.
Every move was now being planned to kill two birds with one stone.
How long will the TMC walk the tightrope before slipping? Time will tell.
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