Here Is The Case For Making North Bengal A Separate Union Territory

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 13, 2022 04:59 PM +05:30 IST
Here Is The Case For Making North Bengal A Separate Union TerritoryWest Bengal
Snapshot
  • Despite contributing a lot to the state exchequer, North Bengal continues to remain poor and backward.

    Apart from that, its strategic location makes it too critical to be left to state governments enamoured with vote-bank politics.

The demand for carving out North Bengal and making it a Union Territory has been a long-standing one from the development-deprived people of the region, especially the non-Bengalis who are indigenous to the region.

The BJP has, at various times, articulated this demand. But BJP national president JP Nadda advised his party colleagues to remain silent on this contentious issue till at least the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

However, that hasn’t stopped BJP MPs, MLAs and functionaries belonging to North Bengal from reiterating this demand from various forums. Three BJP MLAs--Anandamoy Barman, Shankar Ghosh and Shikha Chatterjee--as well as some party MPs from the region have been vocal on this issue.

Nadda’s caution arises from the party’s fear of alienating the Bengalis of southern Bengal where the BJP did not fare well in the state Assembly polls last year. Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee leveraged this and made the BJP’s apparent endorsement of a ‘division of Bengal’ into an emotive poll issue.

Even after the polls, Banerjee and her party have found this issue a convenient stick to beat the BJP with, forcing the saffron party to go on the defensive and try to disassociate itself from the demand for a bifurcation of Bengal. The party’s public representatives from southern Bengal have been at pains to reiterate that the BJP has never officially supported the demand for this bifurcation.

But the BJP’s fears--of alienating the Bengalis of southern Bengal and faring poorly in elections in future--are quite unfounded. And it also makes eminent sense--from the development, economic, strategic, demographic and social angles--to bifurcate Bengal and make North Bengal a Union Territory.

Why BJP’s fears are ungrounded:

The BJP fared handsomely in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Bengal because of support from a diverse section of people ranging from the Gorkhas and Koch-Rajbongshis--the indigenous groups of North Bengal--to Dalits, Matuas and tribals of South Bengal.

Though the Trinamool made significant inroads into this diverse support base of the BJP in the 2021 Assembly polls with its promises of development and many doles and sops, the ground reality is that the BJP still has considerable support among the Matuas, Dalits and other disadvantaged groups as well as the tribals of Jangalmahal area.

The bifurcation of Bengal is an emotive issue, but limited only to the mainly upper caste and ‘petty bourgeois’ Bengalis who, as such, are unlikely to ever support the BJP. At least in the near future.

The issue of ‘bifurcation of Bengal’ finds little resonance among working classes and disadvantaged sections among the Bengalis, and also a significant section of the bhadralok class who do not suffer from the kupamanduk (frog in the well) syndrome.

In order to do well in southern Bengal, the BJP has to shore up its support among the Matuas, Dalits, OBCs and tribals, and also woo the egalitarian sections of the middle-class bharaloks who are viscerally anti-communist and are also getting disillusioned with the Trinamool now.

The Bengal unit of the BJP has to put its own house in order, project a credible challenger from among its ranks, sink its internal rifts and frame a clear-cut strategy to take on the Trinamool. And it should articulate an alternate development and economic vision from southern Bengal which is different from Mamata Banerjee’s doles-driven ‘development’ model.

If the BJP manages to do all this, it will have nothing to fear from the Trinamool’s campaign against bifurcation of Bengal.

Development dividend of a Union Territory of North Bengal:

North Bengal has, inarguably, never received due attention from successive rulers of Bengal and has, as such, continued to remain backward in terms of human development indices, physical and social infrastructure, healthcare and education facilities and even adequate representation in the state cabinet.

During the 34-year-long Left Front rule, the entire region wallowed in neglect and poverty even though the state earned huge revenues from the three treasures of North Bengal: tea, tourism and timber.

Also, the huge potential of North Bengal has never been harnessed. Apart from the three traditional industries, other sectors that have huge potential--horticulture, floriculture, aquaculture, medicinal plants, pharmaceuticals and small hydel power generation plants, to name a few--have never been encouraged.

As a result, despite contributing a lot to the state exchequer, North Bengal continues to remain poor and backward. This has bred a deep sense of alienation and disaffection among the people of the region.

After coming to power in 2016, Banerjee did try to address these issues. But her lack of foresight led her to announce meagre doles and meaningless or paltry sops for the people of the region. And the poor state of Bengal’s finances--the state is deeply in debt--has prevented the government from undertaking any meaningful development initiatives in the region.

This will continue if North Bengal continues to suffer from the misrule and apathy of the rulers sitting in faraway Kolkata who suffer from a lack of vision.

As a Union Territory, North Bengal will get funds directly from the centre and will witness a much-needed development boost. Also, the indigenous Gorkhas and Koch-Rajbongshi will get their due representation in the power structures.

The social and demographic dividend:

The dangerous policy of Muslim appeasement that has been pursued by successive regimes in Bengal (first by the Left and now by the Trinamool)--it has become more pronounced and blatant now--has led to huge and illegal influx of Bangladeshi Muslims into the region.

These illegal migrants have been given Indian citizenship documents and have altered the demographic profile of vast swathes of North Bengal. If the Trinamool continues to determine the destiny of North Bengal, the demography of North Bengal will change more and it will become a Muslim-majority region, thus reducing the Gorkhas, Koch-Rajbongshis and Bengali Hindus to a minority.

For the Trinamool, that makes eminent political sense. The party, despite its best efforts, has not been able to make inroads into many pockets of the region.

This is precisely why, for the larger interests of the region and its indigenous people, North Bengal has to be prised out of the grip of the Trinamool and made into a Union Territory.

The unabated influx of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh into North Bengal will grind to a halt once the region comes out of the Banerjee’s control. Also, the union government can then initiate an elaborate exercise like updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh in order to disenfranchise them and then strip them of other rights enjoyed by Indian citizens.

The strategic dividend:

North Bengal is a highly sensitive region of immense strategic significance. The Siliguri Corridor that’s an important part of this region forms a narrow and tenuous land link between Northeast India and the rest of the country.

This corridor is flanked by Bangladesh to its south and Bhutan on the north. The India-Tibet-Bhutan trijunction extends like a dangerous dagger into the body of this corridor and, thus, makes it very vulnerable.

North Bengal is home to many strategic army and Indian Air Force (IAF) bases that are tasked with securing the Indo-Tibet border in the eastern sector. A large group of hostile populations with extra-territorial loyalties living in the peripheries of these bases would compromise their security and sanctity.

Also, in the event of hostilities, these illegal migrants will act as a ‘fifth column’ and pose a grave security risk. It will be worth mentioning here that Islamist and JNU activist Sharjeel Imam had called for cutting off this corridor to isolate Assam and the rest of the Northeast from India during the anti-CAA agitation.

Sharjeel’s threat was not an empty or casual one. And it only served to drive home the point that using the huge Muslim population in North Bengal to create unrest in the region, especially the Siliguri corridor, in order to truncate the Northeast from the rest of the country is a real and imminent threat.

If North Bengal becomes a Union Territory, this grave threat can be addressed effectively and neutralised.

Thus, in the final analysis, the people of the region, and the rest of the country as well, will benefit immensely if Bengal is bifurcated and North Bengal is made a Union Territory. It will be a win-win deal for everyone.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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