How A Royal Pastime Could Decide The Outcome Of Polls In Cooch Behar

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Apr 10, 2019 05:32 AM
How A Royal Pastime Could Decide The Outcome Of Polls In Cooch BeharDakshin Mashaldanga (Credit: Abir Bhattacharjee) 
Snapshot
  • The residents of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh led miserable lives as ‘stateless’ citizens until Bangladesh to agree to a land swap deal in 2015.

    Thousands of residents of these erstwhile enclaves, while thankful to Modi for making them Indian citizens, are angry with the Trinamool government in Bengal for not fulfilling the promises it made to them.

Amir Hussain Sheikh, 67, is an excited, happy and angry man. Excited because 11 April (Thursday) will mark the first time he will exercise his franchise; happy because he will be able to repay his debt to the man and the party that changed his status from a ‘stateless citizen’ to an Indian citizen; and angry because he has been shortchanged by the Trinamool government in Bengal.

The ‘Dark’ Decades

Amir is a resident of Dakshin Mashaldanga, a large village of some 350 households that was one of the 31 Bangladeshi enclaves in the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha constituency. Amir remembers his dark and miserable days as a ‘stateless’ citizen. The residents of the Bangladeshi enclaves in India (there were Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, too) were technically Bangladeshi citizens, but living in a small pocket of land surrounded on all sides by India. They would run the risk of being arrested and thrown into prison each time they stepped out of the enclave, as they would obviously have to.

Since Dakshin Mashaldanga, like the other such Bangladeshi enclaves, was not Indian territory, India was under no obligation to provide basic needs like roads, electricity, drinking water, healthcare and education to the residents of these enclaves. And it was not physically possible for Bangladesh to do so either. Thus, residents of the enclaves would have to falsify their identities to gain admission to schools or access to healthcare facilities in India. And there were no roads, water supply, electricity and other amenities at these enclaves! Many would get caught, and spend time in prison, for venturing out of their enclaves. Amir, too, was caught once when he went to a neighbouring village (in India) in 2006 and spent three years in prison.

The Land Swap

The obvious solution to bring the sorry plight of the residents of these enclaves in India and Bangladesh to an end was for the two countries to agree to a land swap. But though successive governments had discussed this since 1971 (when Bangladesh was formed) and even before, little had come out of the discussions. It then fell upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi to push the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to finalise a land swap deal.

Thus, on the midnight of 31 July 2015, all Bangladeshi enclaves in India became part of Indian territory and all Indian enclaves in Bangladesh was integrated into that country. Consequently 14,863 residents of 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India became Indian citizens, while 989 of 38,251 residents of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted to migrate to India.

Becoming Indian Citizens

Amir and others like him, are happy to possess a voter ID card, Aadhar card and other documents that the central government has provided them. They are also happy to get adequate power supply, roads, potable water and other facilities that was promised to them by the central government. The central government had provided funds to the state, as per an agreement, to develop these enclaves and build physical infrastructure in them. Thus, roads were built and power lines and water pipes laid with Central funds under the supervision of central agencies.

Amir Hussein Sheikh (in skull cap) (Credit: Abir Bhattacharjee) 
Amir Hussein Sheikh (in skull cap) (Credit: Abir Bhattacharjee) 

The Anger

But the residents of these enclaves are angry that everything that the state government had promised to them, or had been obligated to provide to them, had not materialised. “The roads, electricity and water supply that we have got so far have been funded by the central government, which had also provided the citizenship documents to us. But other documents like permanent land ownership documents and deeds that the state government was to provide to us has not materialised. Realising that we are angry, the state government hurriedly gave us temporary land ownership certificates two months ago, but in most cases those are flawed and incorrect. We know the state government did this because elections are near,” said Ajibor Sheikh, 23.

Syed Ali Sheikh, 28, laments that even nearly four years since Dakshin Mashaldanga became part of India, the state government has been unable to give him permanent documents for the one acre of farmland that he owns. “As a result, I have not been able to get agricultural loans to boost my farm income. I am also not eligible for crop insurance and other facilities. Two months ago, I got a temporary certificate, but that showed my land holding as half of what I actually own,” he said.

Syed’s dream of getting his father Mansur Sheikh back from Delhi, where Mansur works as an attendant at a fuel station, has remained unfulfilled. “Had I been able to boost my farm income, I would have brought my father back. But due to this inexcusable delay on the part of the state government to provide documents to us, this has not happened,” he lamented angrily. And this anger is bound to find expression when he votes for the first time in his life on Friday.

The state government has, over the past four years, been unable to provide ration cards to many of them. Majnu Sheikh, 23, is one of them. And no ration card means he is not entitled to the subsidised rice and rations that the state gives. Many like Majnu have also not got any work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Also, whatever little work the state has done in these enclaves has been, at best, perfunctory.

Take the case of Kamaleshwari Burman, a widow and resident of Dakshin Mashaldanga who is supposed to be a beneficiary of Mission Nirmal Bangla, the Trinamool government’s version of Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Kamaleshwari, a widow, had to shell out Rs 2000 for the construction of a toilet and was told that the state would put in another Rs 18,000. But all she got was a concrete platform with an Indian-style commode fitted on it. “I was cheated. I had to then employ labourers to dig the soak pit and put a shed over the commode platform. I paid for my own toilet for which the Trinamool government now wants to take credit,” she said.

Kamaleshwari Barman in front of her toilet (Credit: Abir Bhattacharjee) 
Kamaleshwari Barman in front of her toilet (Credit: Abir Bhattacharjee) 

Binoy Chandra Burman, who was similarly cheated, said that the state’s Mission Nirmal Bangla is a “joke” and a money-making racket for local Trinamool ‘netas’.

Sudhir Roy Sarkar, another resident of Dakshin Mashaldanga, is supposed to be a beneficiary of another ambitious project initiated by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee--the green house project--to boost farm incomes. Under this, the state agriculture department is supposed to build greenhouses for farmers and train them to grow vegetables, mushrooms and other crops, and also provide seeds and other inputs to them. “They (the agriculture department) only built the greenhouse and gave me a few cauliflower seeds. No training, technical knowhow or other inputs were provided to me. I have no use of it now except to store paddy husk,” says Sudhir.

Sudhir Roy Sarkar in front of the greenhouse where he now stores paddy husk (Credit: Abir Bhattacharjee)
Sudhir Roy Sarkar in front of the greenhouse where he now stores paddy husk (Credit: Abir Bhattacharjee)

The residents of Dakshin Mashaldanga and other erstwhile enclaves are also angry over what they term as the Bengal government’s “infantile opposition” to central government schemes that has denied them the opportunity to benefit from these schemes. Majnu Sheikh’s mother Hanufa Bibi, has an intestinal tumour that needs to be operated upon. “The operation and hospital stay would have been free under the Ayushman Bharat Scheme, but the state government has opposed it and rolled out an alternate scheme which is not even half as good as the central scheme,” he says.

Hanifa Bibi, 65, wishes that Mamata Banerjee would have been mature enough to allow the central scheme of supplying free LPG cylinders to poor people. “I have heard from my nephew who stays in Delhi that poor people in other parts of the country get free LPG cylinders. But Mamata Banerjee has opposed this scheme, like many other central schemes, and prevented its implementation in Bengal. But while she plays political games, it is we the poor who suffer,” said Hanifa.

Ajit Roy Sarkar, 50, says that the people of Dakshin Mashaldanga, and the rest of Bengal as well, have been deprived of many other central schemes initiated by Prime Minister Modi, like the free or subsidised housing for poor, crop insurance, soil health card, loans for micro enterprises and agricultural loans. “The (Bengal) Chief Minister opposes all the schemes that would have benefitted us, and she does little for us on her own,” he fumes.

Ajit also accuses the Trinamool Congress of destroying the social fabric at Dakshin Mashaldanga. “We may have been stateless citizens earlier, but now we are Indian citizens and a divided lot. The Trinamool has politicized our society and fractured it. We were a peaceful lot earlier, now we see political feuds and factional fights. That is harming our society,” he laments.

How the Enclaves were Formed

When Cooch Behar kings Rajendra Narayan and Jitendra Narayan (father of the famous Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur) played chess with their fellow royalty from Rangpur (now in Bangladesh), they would place villages or groups of villages from each others’ territories as stakes or bets. And whoever would win would gain control of such villages. As a result of decades of winning and losing villages over games of chess, many villages within the territory of the Cooch Behar kingdom became properties of the king of Rangpur and many villages within Rangpur became the properties of the Cooch Behar kings.

Later, when Cooch Behar became part of India (on 19 January 1950) and Rangpur was made part of East Pakistan, the ownership of these villages in each others’ territories remained unchanged. And the villages of Cooch Behar kingdom that were lost to Rangpur became East Pakistani (and later, Bangladeshi) enclaves in India, while the villages of Rangpur lost to Cooch Behar in chess became Indian enclaves in East Pakistan.

Echoes of The Anger

The residents of these erstwhile Bangladeshi enclaves may form just a small fraction of the total electorate of Cooch Behar but their anger against the Trinamool finds wide amplification in the rest of the constituency. And in many ways, the conditions in these erstwhile enclaves are duplicated in the rest of Cooch Behar too. This district suffers from lack of development, acute unemployment, farm distress, lack of industries, poor infrastructure, an unresponsive and politicised bureaucracy, poor communication and healthcare facilities, and a lot of political violence.

“People here are suffering from the brutality of the Trinamool machinery and the stifling of democracy. Restoration of democracy and the desire to live as free citizens is the primary issue here,” says Diptiman Sengupta, who headed the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee that fought for the land swap deal for many decades. Diptiman’s father Dipak Sengupta, who was a Forward Bloc (a constituent of the Left Front) legislator, founded the committee in the mid-1980s.

Diptiman, who is now with the BJP and is closely involved in charting the party’s poll campaign in Cooch Behar, says that Mamata Banerjee’s “puerile obstinacy” has denied the benefits of many central schemes to the people of Cooch Behar. “People here are suffering terribly and she (Mamata) has done nothing here. Whatever has been done here was due to the central government. People know that and will vote accordingly,” he says.

The Electoral Battle

The battle for the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat is a very interesting and keenly contested one this time. Cooch Behar has been a bastion of the Forward Bloc since 1977 and was won by the Trinamool only in 2014. Trinamool’s Renuka Sinha won in 2014 and bagged 39.51 per cent vote share.

She passed away in 2016 and in the ensuing bypolls, Partha Pratim Roy, of Trinamool itself, won by polling an impressive 59.03 per cent of the votes.

But behind these two Trinamool victories lies the interesting story of the BJP’s rise in Cooch Behar.

The two primary political entities here have been the Forward Bloc and the Congress. The Trinamool started making its presence felt since the late 1990s but remained a marginal player. It was only in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls that the Trinamool displaced the Congress and emerged in the second position after the Forward Bloc. The BJP was an insignificant force even then. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, while the Forward Bloc candidate garnered 44.66 per cent of the votes and the Trinamool 41.65 per cent, the BJP candidate got only 5.83 per cent of the votes.

But things started changing soon after and in the 2014 polls, even though the BJP candidate came third, he got 16.34 per cent of the votes. The BJP gained at the expense of the Forward Bloc and the Congress. In the 2016 bypolls, the BJP emerged as runners-up with 28.32 per cent of the votes. In contrast, the Forward Bloc could get just 6.49 per cent of the votes and the Congress a measly 2.49 per cent.

Over the past 2.5 years, the BJP has gained a lot of traction/popularity here and expanded its organisational base. It has enrolled tens of thousands of new members and is now posing a tough challenge to the Trinamool.

The Trinamool itself is a deeply divided house with an abrasive Rabindranath Ghosh, the North Bengal Development Minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet, being the strongman here. Ghosh, the MLA from Natabari (one of the seven Assembly segments in the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat), is a controversial figure who is at daggers drawn with many senior leaders of the district. One of his primary foes and challengers, who headed the Trinamool Yuva in the district--Nishith Pramanik--is now the BJP candidate. Pramanik joined the BJP recently and was awarded the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha ticket.

Nishith Pramanik has a Robin Hood image and a huge fan following, thanks to the help and assistance he extended to thousands of people here. Nishith brought in a huge number of his followers into the BJP, and the Trinamool has been considerably weakened here because of this.

Nishith also knows the nuts and bolts of the Trinamool’s election machinery that had been used in the past to rig elections, and is determined to ensure that the Trinamool does not and cannot play foul this time. He also has the backing of the powerful BJP organisational machinery and the total support of the RSS, which has made huge inroads in North Bengal over the last few decades.

The Trinamool has not renominated its incumbent MP, Pratha Pratim Roy and has instead fielded Paresh Chandra Adhikari who defected to the party from the Forward Bloc in August last year. Roy and his considerable supporters are upset and will work to sabotage Adhikari’s prospects. Roy also never got along well with Rabindranath Ghosh and holds Ghosh responsible for instigating and turning the party leadership against him and denying him a renomination. Thus, it is believed that Roy and his supporters will silently work against Adhikari.

Adhikari, who was a Minister in the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led Left Front government (which lost power to Trinamool in 2011), suffered a severe blow when his daughter’s name mysteriously appeared in a list of successful candidates for jobs of government senior school teachers soon after he joined the Trinamool. This controversy has severely dented his image.

The demographics here are also working in the BJP’s favour this time. The Rajbongshis constitute 52 per cent of the constituency’s voters and they have turned into vocal supporters of the BJP for the latter’s advocacy of the NRC updation exercise in Bengal. The Rajbongshis are deeply worried over the threat to their identity posed by unchecked migration from Bangladesh. The Scheduled Tribes and the Gorkha community have also rallied behind the BJP for the same reason.

The residents of the erstwhile enclaves may number a few thousand but they have relatives spread all over Cooch Behar. And the Trinamool government short-changing them has not gone down well with the rest of the people here. This, apart from corruption, lack of development, infighting within the Trinamool, the violence of its cadre, and misgovernance, could see Nishith Pramanik emerging as the Trinamool’s nemesis this time.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details.

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