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Lok Sabha polls: In hub of illegal migration, battle is between Mamata and Modi

With BJP mounting a high decibel campaign against illegal Muslim migrants, with broad references to the NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill, the issue has come out in sharp relief.

May 13, 2019, 11.02 AM IST
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Mamata Banerjee (left) and PM Narendra Modi (File Pic)
(This story originally appeared in on May 13, 2019)
BASIRHAT: The mighty Ichchamati river that divides India and Bangladesh at Taki is intrinsic to the character of this area. Every year, after Durga Puja, the immersion ceremonies bring Hindu communities from both sides together mid-stream as they send their respective Ma Durgas back to her home.

That ceremony, often seen as a sign of India-Bangladesh kinship, is also an occasion for illegal migration. In recent years, Indian security forces have cracked down on this particular ceremony, but the routes are set, the crossing fairly easy.

Basirhat and neighbouring Bongaon are generally acknowledged as the most porous border districts, from where Bangladeshi Muslims — and Hindus — have moved in. This used to be something that was acknowledged and tolerated. Until now.

With BJP mounting a high decibel campaign against illegal Muslim migrants, with broad references to the NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill, the issue has come out in sharp relief. As Basirhat prepares to vote in the last round, the prospect of violence is real. For this cook (who refused to give his name) at a “guest house” in Basirhat, elections should be “anondo (joyful)”. Why is this changing?

In parts of this constituency, Muslims form over 50% of the population, a fact that is only now being talked about with some concern, particularly with some of the speeches by BJP candidate Sayantan Basu.

The divides are sharpening — little restaurants now add the words ‘Hindu’ to indicate they don’t sell beef. (Cow slaughter is allowed in West Bengal, so selling beef is perfectly legal). In the past year, Basirhat has witnessed communal incidents more than twice. BJP hopes to make hay on this growing polarisation.

Trinamool Congress has fielded its most viewerfriendly face, popular actress Nusrat Jahan, replacing incumbent Idris Ali. She is up against Quazi Abdur Rahim of Congress, a man who comes with the goodwill of his father Abdul Ghaffar, a respected man of the area.

BJP is fighting an uphill battle, but as in many other constituencies in West Bengal, the battle is between Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi, and in these elections, frankly the only battle that matters.

The competing issues — Banerjee’s clear edge in local area development versus BJP’s plank of nationalism, a promise to stop cow and human smuggling etc.

Banerjee has taken a clear stand against both NRC and Citizenship Bill, which should make TMC an easy favourite for the Muslim vote. In addition, the Banerjee government has been more than active in infrastructure development.

Take, for instance, Taki, a sleepy border town which used to boast of a government college and a government guest house until a few years ago. Today, it is a bustling riverside weekend retreat for families and young couples, with Oyo Rooms and air conditioned restaurants dotting the promenade on the Ichchamati, with boat-rides to liven up lazy afternoons and early evenings, all under the indulgent gaze of the BSF.

New prosperity is evident in this district — you would imagine that illegal migrants would be at the bottom of the economic ladder. At least five stores selling marble for flooring, rows of scooter and motorbike dealerships flanked the highway. Homes are being renovated and painted in bright pinks, purples and greens. Nestled in the verdant surroundings of the fertile Bengal countryside, poverty is less visible.

There is the legit economy, the delectable Himsagar mangoes that go out to other parts of eastern India where they are treasured, fish and prawn ‘bheris’, and the remittances from migrant labour. (West Bengal now has among the highest number of unskilled labour working in other parts of the country). But there is also the “other” economy — cow smuggling is big, human trafficking, informal “export” of consumer goods, you name it. Needless to add, this is more profitable and there are many stakeholders, including establishment, security forces etc.

Trinamool should have had a fairly easy ride here, but there is a definite contest. Just the fact that Nusrat’s Shia identity is being bandied about as a disadvantage is interesting. There is a growing ‘Hindu’ vote that is responding to the ‘rashtrabad, unnayan’ (nationalism and development) line being taken by BJP.

Nemai Mondol, whose livelihood is a van to ferry goods around, says TMC’s rampant corruption could be forgiven for the kind or development work done by them. “Better them than Modi who is trying to divide us.” But quietly, a little distance away, the tea seller told me, “We have been hoping and wondering when BJP would come to ask for our votes.”
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