With the BJP government at the Centre working on introducing a Citizenship Amendment Bill for the welfare of persecuted non-Muslim refugees from neighbouring Islamic countries, Mamata Banerjee is trying to cash in by promising ‘land rights’ to refugees in Bengal. But BJP leaders in the state say her promises are hollow, as she has no locus standi in the matter. Here’s more...
Lakhs of ‘refugees’ from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) poured into Bengal just prior to and during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence and settled in lands owned by the state and central governments as well as private entities.
The Left Front government designated these settlements as ‘refugee colonies’. There are 331 such colonies in Bengal where an estimated 200,000 families (over 80 lakh people) reside. These colonies are spread over the districts of Bengal bordering Bangladesh and even in Jadavpur and Dum Dum in Kolkata.
The Bengal government has decided to hand over land possession documents to 11,983 families who occupy less than three acres in the colonies that had come up in state government-owned land.
The state government had, earlier this year, initiated the process of granting freehold rights to 13,353 families residing in 94 refugee colonies. Mamata Banerjee has promised to bring in a legislation to grant similar land rights to refugees squatting on central government-owned and privately-owned lands.
And this is where the promise rings hollow. The state government does not have the power to regularise ‘adverse possession’ of lands owned by the central government or even private entities.
Moreover, a lot of the privately-owned lands on which the ‘refugees’ have been squatting are embroiled in litigation and the state government cannot legislate over them.
Also, despite repeated pleas by the inhabitants of these refugee colonies, successive Left Front governments that ruled Bengal from 1977 to 2011 failed to regularise the possession of those lands in favour of the refugees.
The refugees petitioned Mamata Banerjee after she came to power in 2011, but she did nothing for the last eight years.
The refugees have ration cards and voter identity cards, but they cannot get passports and other vital documents or bank loans since they cannot provide proof of residence.
That is why they have been demanding rights over the lands which they have been occupying.
So, why has the Bengal Chief Minister suddenly woken up to their plight? The answer lies in the BJP’s promise of bringing in the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in the current session of Parliament to confer Indian citizenship to non-Muslims who have fled religious persecution from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Since lakhs of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan and Bangladesh will be benefited from the CAB, Mamata Banerjee played the game of political one-upmanship by promising the refugees land rights.
The Trinamool has launched a campaign claiming that the certificates of ownership of land would preempt the names of such refugees being left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that the BJP has proposed to update throughout the country.
But, as state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh rightly points out, Union Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly pointed out that the CAB will be enacted before the NRC updation exercise and, hence, Bengali Hindus who have fled East Pakistan and Bangladesh have absolutely no reason to fear their names being left out of the NRC.
Also, ownership of land is no proof of citizenship, as per the rules framed for the NRC updation exercise in Assam. Thousands who provided such documents found their names left out of the final NRC in Assam.
The Bengal Chief Minister also does not make the crucial distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘infiltrators’. By not making this distinction, alleges the BJP, Mamata Banerjee is trying to protect Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators who are occupying vast tracts of land in the state.
BJP’s refugee cell chief Professor Mohit Roy says that Banerjee’s announcement is thus “more of rhetoric and less of anything serious in nature”. He adds that infiltrators cannot have rights over lands they illegally occupy.
Mamata Banerjee’s move, thus, smacks of rank opportunism and is misleading the people of Bengal. The CAB will grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh and the NRC updation exercise will weed out the Muslim infiltrators from the neighbouring country.
Land possession documents or ration cards granted by the Bengal government will be worthless for getting one’s name included in the NRC.
“Mamata Banerjee also knows this, but she is misleading the people of the state,” said the state BJP chief.