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Land rights for refugees in West Bengal: Mamata Banerjee’s new step to counter BJP is nothing but political gimmick

Mamata Banerjee,
  • Before the Centre passes the contentious CAB, Mamata may earn brownie points from even the Hindus for her announcement on land rights and reaffirm her grip on the captive illegal immigrant vote bank.

  • The West Bengal government has started issuing what it calls non-subsidised ration cards that will not give holders access to subsidised food but may serve as an additional proof for identity and address.

  • The announcement on regularisation of refugee colonies by West Bengal chief minister Manata Banerjee is aimed at cashing in on the discontent around NRC

Lost amid the din of Maharashtra muddle is the bubbling tension in West Bengal where a combative Trinamool Congress government under Mamata Banerjee is preparing to take head-on the challenge thrown by BJP.

Mamata’s decision to give land rights to refugees who came after 1971 and has since been squatting on state government, Central government or even private-owned land is not a new idea, but the timing of her announcement is significant. It indicates that the TMC supremo is getting ready to counter BJP’s narrative on National Registrar of Citizens and the Citizen Amendment Bill with a narrative of her own. And amid this battle of narratives, we may see the creation of a new set of complications on a complex topic that will have far-reaching legal and socio-political consequences.

On Monday, Mamata declared that her government will try to regularise all refugee settlements on (state, Central or even privately-owned) lands measuring up to three acres — a contentious topic in Bengal. She said refugees living in these colonies will now have rights over their land which until now was categorised as “adverse possession”. She also said that her government has already initiated the process of regularising 94 refugee colonies on state-owned land that has apparently benefitted over 13,000 families.

“We have decided to regularise all the refugee settlements, solely because it has been a long time now — nearly 50 years. Since (March) 1971, they have been left hanging without a home or land. I believe refugees have the right,” Banerjee was quoted, as saying after a cabinet meeting. According to reports, the move will enable another 237 families of refugees to have free-hold rights over the land which belongs to either the Centre or private owners.

Before we jump to a conclusion that this is some sort of a humanitarian move, we must note what Mamata is simultaneously trying to do in the state. The West Bengal government has started issuing what it calls “non-subsidised ration cards” that won’t give holders access to subsidised food but may serve as an additional proof for identity and address. This new identity document is being pushed aggressively by the state and residents are being almost coerced into getting their card by linking Aadhaar, Voter ID and PAN cards. It has caused confusion among the state’s residents who are being told that this document is a must-have.

For instance, a report in The Print quotes a resident in the state as saying: “Our councillor told us that this is the single most important document for identity… We all should have this card and will need this if NRC gets implemented.”

The Centre has not issued any notification for such a document. No other state has made such a move. The creation of an additional identity document that may serve as an address proof begins to make sense when we consider that many refugees settled in colonies in the state have voter ID cards and even Aadhaar that enables them to exercise their franchise but no legitimate address proof. This is where the new identity document comes in handy, aided by the state’s reported promise to regularise the land on which the refugees are squatting.

We now see why the state government is walking in this direction. Mamata — who has declared that she won’t allow NRC to take place in the state amid Union home minister Amit Shah’s announcement in Rajya Sabha that NRC will take place across the country including Assam (where it will be repeated) — obviously feels that issuance of a new identity document and regularisation of refugee colonies may act as a civil and political bulwark against NRC and a counter to the CAB that the Centre seeks to pass in the current session of Parliament.

Mamata’s announcement on regularisation of refugee colonies is aimed at cashing in on the discontent around NRC — that seems to have pleased no one — as well as providing a protective cover for her Muslim vote bank, a sizeable portion of which consists of migrants who have illegally crossed over into India from Bangladesh. The political fallout of the NRC in Assam has been grave. Though it was a Supreme Court-monitored exercise, BJP is aligned to the cause and the party has suffered a backlash from even its core vote bank due to the fact that a number of Hindu immigrants (about 11 lakh) have been affected by it.

This has prompted the Centre to push for the CAB before the implementation of NRC since it will provide automatic Indian citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis who were forced to migrate out of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan due to religious persecution. CAB doesn’t cover Muslims since the reason behind their migration to India from these Islamic nations is unlikely to be religious atrocities.

Since the CAB is aimed as a safety net for Hindus and minorities other than Muslims, it automatically precludes the need for refugee settlement regularisation or giving them land rights unless, of course, those that are affected are Muslims who fail to show proper citizenship data during NRC. It isn’t difficult to see what Mamata is trying to do here. The number of refugees in the state is variously estimated at around 90 lakh.

Before the Centre passes the contentious CAB, Mamata may earn brownie points from even the Hindus for her announcement on land rights and reaffirm her grip on the captive illegal immigrant vote bank.

There is a problem here though. The land that belongs to the Centre or private owners is not for Mamata to barter for regularisation or rights. The legal implications of such an act could be grave and may cause a fresh bout of Centre-state spat. Besides, regularisation of refugee colonies or issuing of a new identity document won’t matter during NRC verification which in Assam was dependent on furnishing of legacy data.

Mamata isn’t unaware of these modalities but with the civic body polls slated to be held next year followed by the Assemble polls in 2021, the West Bengal chief minister obviously feels that the announcement may give her party the right narrative to counter BJP’s push for NRC and bring electoral dividends.

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