by Abhinandan Mishra & Dibyendu Mondal

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is not taking into account the fact that her adversarial stand on Assam’s draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) will hurt national security, complain intelligence officials and political leaders, including from her own party Trinamool Congress (TMC).

Banerjee, who hopes to emerge as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Opposition, if the latter is in a position to form government in 2019, stated, after the Assam NRC draft was released this week, that she may have to accommodate in West Bengal the 40 lakh plus individuals identified as “illegal” immigrants. The Supreme Court mandated and supervised the NRC exercise. This is being carried out to identify those individuals, regardless of religion, who have illegally sneaked into Assam from neighbouring Bangladesh. Some of them are members of fanatic organisations with extreme views on social and other matters.

A top TMC leader, speaking to The Sunday Guardian on the condition of anonymity, said that Mamata Banerjee’s reaction on the issue was nothing but an attempt to please her core vote-bank in Bengal, comprising the minority community. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are already settled even in the state’s capital Kolkata, where they have been issued voter ID cards. These numbers, according to officials, will increase tremendously if the prospective Opposition candidate for Prime Minister does not act decisively to stop the influx.

“Around 140 out of Bengal’s 294 Assembly seats are determined by minority voters. This is what is prompting her to speak out in favour of the 40 lakh individuals. Bengal has a huge number of illegal immigrants who came here from Bangladesh and have become the core voters of our party. So if we do not take a pro immigrant stand, we will not be able to keep that vote-bank intact, which could very much affect our winning prospects,” said the senior TMC leader.

However, according to him, many top TMC leaders were of the view that the strident stand being taken against the draft NRC by the Chief Minister could prove detrimental for their party in the long run.

“I think the strong stand being taken by Mamata Banerjee could backfire on us in Bengal, because it is hurting the sentiments of the state’s original Bengalis who number around 8 crore, out of the total 9 crore population of the state. The original inhabitants of Bengal may feel that the Chief Minister, in trying to protect her vote-bank, is compromising on the interests of Bengalis”, the TMC leader added.

Intelligence officials, who have been tracking the developments along India’s eastern borders, told this newspaper that the demography in Bengal’s border districts has changed significantly over the last 20 years as several illegal immigrants have been crossing over from the other side of the border in search of work and a better life and in turn settling down in these districts.

“It is alarming to see how the demography in border areas near Malda, Basirhat, Baduria, Bongaon, Sundarbans, among others, has changed over the last few years. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have slowly outnumbered the original residents of these areas, leading to micro-migration, out of fear of turning into a minority. For example, at a village in Malda district, bordering Bangladesh, the Hindu families migrated out of the area to the main town of Malda as they were slowly outnumbered by the aliens, and feared attacks from the immigrant community,” said an intelligence source.

According to officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), intelligence agencies have been regularly sharing inputs that ISI supported organisations, specifically the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and its smaller affiliates that are active in Bangladesh, are keenly watching the situation in Assam.

“These terror groups are in touch with some Rohingya Muslims who have managed to enter India or are planning to enter India. These people are very susceptible to indoctrination and can easily take up arms at the first sign on any kind of friction. We are keeping an eye on social media and we can see that an attempt is being made to give the NRC issue a religious overtone, to make it look as if the Indian government is identifying and targeting only Muslims. With a BJP government in Assam and at the Centre, the rhetoric of some of the Opposition leaders is strengthening this belief. If this is not controlled then it will lead to an ugly situation including large scale communal violence that will be abetted by the Lashkar operatives who have managed to enter the country as immigrants”, a senior MHA official told this newspaper. Lashkar, through its charity wing, Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, has established strong contacts with the Rohingya Muslims.

Social and political observers feel that Banerjee’s statement on accommodating the “stateless” citizens after the final NRC is released, can have disastrous social and political ramifications in Bengal.

“The people of Bengal will not like outsiders coming and taking over their land, their home, their share of food, healthcare and jobs. There could be severe resistance from Bengalis if illegal migrants start coming in droves. The state is anyway overpopulated and has its own share of problem with illegal immigrants. Moreover, how can the Chief Minister talk of sheltering the people who by law will be declared as illegal immigrants once the NRC final list is published?” a top legal mind from Kolkata said.

Senior BJP leader and vice president of Bengal BJP, Jayprakash Mazumdar, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian, said, “The draft has been prepared by an autonomous body, the NRC, under the observation of the Supreme Court. It was not the BJP that has done this. The way she is reacting shows that she is trying to please a particular community. There is nothing humanitarian about this. Mamata Banerjee currently is in a situation where if she stays silent, her vote-bank will be offended, and if she speaks then the original Bengalis will be offended. But she chose to speak and please her core voters. She has taken an anti-Bengali stand.”

“We have demanded an NRC for Bengal as well because it is a question of our right as a Bengali and as an Indian to see that no illegal immigrants settle in the country, as that will pose as a threat to national security,” Mazumdar added.

The BJP leadership in Bengal also pointed out how Mamata Banerjee had taken a stand in 2005 against illegal immigrants when she was a Member of Parliament.

A BJP leader said, “The CPM had let illegal immigration happen in Bengal when they were in power because these migrants acted as their vote-bank and worked as their cadre. When Mamata Banerjee came to power, these people were tapped by the TMC, which saw them as an easy way to remain in power. The seed was sown by the CPM, which is being cultivated by the TMC government in Bengal.”

Bengal shares a long and porous border of 2,217 km with Bangladesh, large parts of which are riverine and so unfenced. This creates a major obstacle for the security forces to check illegal immigrants from coming in Bangladesh.

Border areas like Hakimpur in Uttar Dinajpur district, Basirhat, Baduria, Bongaon, Ghojadanga and Angrail in North 24 Parganas district, Sunderbans in South 24 Parganas district are largely used by illegal immigrants to cross over into India primarily because of the riverine terrain there, according to BSF officials in Bengal.

A senior BSF officer said, “After most of the land border areas have been fenced, the immigrants and their touts use the river routes to enter India. Much of the riverine borders remain un-fenced, which helps them in sneaking into India.”

“What we have noticed is that many of those who come to India and get caught show valid Indian ID proofs like voter ID cards and Aadhaar cards. So we cannot do anything. They then settle down in parts of Bengal and some even go to places like Delhi, Kerala, Hyderabad and Uttar Pradesh. The system needs to ensure that such fake IDs are not issued and borders are fenced.” the BSF official added.