Lots in a name: Row brews over new districts carved out in West Bengal
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced the creation of seven new districts on August 1, saying the move was as part of administrative measures aimed at better governance
KOLKATA: The West Bengal government’s decision to carve out seven new districts from the state’s existing 23 has sparked protests in Murshidabad and Nadia, where residents and political parties have objected to the proposed names of the districts.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee on August 1 announced the creation of seven new districts, describing the move as part of administrative measures aimed at better governance. She announced that within six months, the new districts will be carved out of Nadia, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Bankura, while Murshidabad will be split into two new districts.
“A new district, to be called Sunderbans, will be created out of South 24 Parganas. In North 24 Parganas, the Ichhamati district will be created in the Bongaon sub-division while another one, which is yet to be named will come up in Basirhat area,” Banerjee announced during a press conference. “Ranaghat (in Nadia) will be a new district. Bishnupur will be a new district in Bankura. From Murshidabad, we will create Berhampore and Jangipur.”
The announcement, however, stoked protests in Muslim-majority Murshidabad and Hindu-dominated Nadia, with local residents and political observers claiming the proposal will de-link the two regions from their history and pride.
In Murshidabad district — spread across 5,324 sq km and with 66.28% Muslim population, the highest in Bengal — a section of people from the community has raised concerns over the proposed Berhampore and Jangipur names of the new districts. They say the name Murshidabad is linked to a chapter in Indian history that cannot be erased.
Similarly, in the adjoining Nadia, which covers 3,927 sq km, the Hindu community that comprises 72.15% of the district’s population, has also demanded that the existing name be retained.
Though the chief minister on August 1 said the process of carving out the seven districts has not yet begun, a list of new organisational district units of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) was released on the same day. The list shows that the party has formed 35 district units. The names of the seven new TMC district units match with the ones Banerjee announced from the state secretariat.
Dissected by the line of demarcation dawn by the boundary commission headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe during Partition, Murshidabad and Nadia share borders with Bangladesh from where influx of refugees was recorded in 1947 and during the 1971 Liberation War in which the neighbouring country was born out of East Pakistan.
Murshidabad was named after Murshid Quli Khan — the first Nawab of the Bengal province appointed by the Mughal empire — who ruled between 1717 and 1727 and introduced a unique tax system. The province at the time covered parts of Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand, with Murshidabad as its capital.
In 1757, Murshidabad witnessed the Battle of Plassey that established the first British rule in India. The East India Company’s army, led by Robert Clive, defeated the forces of Bengal’s last independent Nawab, Siraj-ud-Daulah, largely because of the treachery of his main general Mir Zafar.
Counted among the most visited tourist destinations in Bengal, Murshidabad has numerous structures and monuments that are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. These include the Nawab’s palace, which has been turned into a museum, and the graves of Siraj-ud-Daulah, Mir Zafar and many of their relatives.
Over the past few days, Congress leaders, Muslim clerics and historians have raised their voice against the government’s plan.
Doing away with the name is tantamount to an assault on the political and cultural history of Murshidabad, said Shouvik Mukhopadhyay, professor of history at the Calcutta University.
“What is the reason for not having the name Murshidabad in any of the proposed districts? What administrative purpose does it fulfil? Local people, who represent the state’s largest Muslim population, will certainly have their own views. I see the same thought process that led to Mughalsarai’s (In Uttar Pradesh) name being changed,” he told Hindustan Times.
“Undivided Midnapore was India’s biggest district in terms of population. It was first divided into East and West Midnapore and later Jhargram was also created. The demand for administrative inconvenience may someday lead to creation of districts comprising only four villages. Bifurcation may work well in remote regions like the Sunderbans, where connectivity is an issue. Murshidabad is not such a district,” he added.
Murshidabad figures among the most neglected districts of Bengal in terms of people’s economic condition and their access to health care facilities and higher education, he said. “Uttar Pradesh has created new districts to get more grants from the Centre. Will the same measure benefit common people here? Or, will it only help the ruling party consolidate its position?”
TMC MP from Murshidabad constituency Abu Taher Khan, however, said Banerjee has assured him that public sentiments will be given priority while naming the new districts. “When I told her about the issues being raised by certain sections of the population, she assured me that people’s sentiments would be given priority. She asked me not to worry,” he told HT.
Bengal BJP’s chief spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said: “Banerjee took a hasty decision. Thorough planning, which is a must for projects like these, is clearly lacking.”
“Her misadventure will escalate the expenditures of an already debt-ridden state.”
Nadia and the Vaishnava movement
In Nadia, Hindus — especially followers of the 15th century saint Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu — are opposing the decision to split the district, considered the nerve centre of the Vaishnava movement.
Sri Chaitanya, considered an embodiment of both Krishna and Radha, was born in Nadia. The Mayapur temple of the ISCKON movement receives millions of pilgrims every year.
Several Hindu groups have taken out processions and held street-corner meetings since early-August. Shantipur and Krishnanagar towns have witnessed road blocks put up by poster-wielding residents.