Row brews over new districts carved out in West Bengal

Updated on Aug 17, 2022 03:32 PM IST

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee on August 1 announced the creation of seven new districts. 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

People celebrate the state government's decision regarding the creation of a new district out of the Nadia district. (PTI)
People celebrate the state government's decision regarding the creation of a new district out of the Nadia district. (PTI)

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’s history

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.

Until the TMC first came to power in 2011, the Congress had a strong base in the district. Berhampore Lok Sabha member and Bengal Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was among the first leaders to raise his voice over the issue. “People will never accept the chief minister’s plan to erase the district’s name. Our agitation will continue. Murshidabad marks one of the most important chapters in Indian history. It is said that Robert Clive described it as far more prosperous than London,” said Chowdhury.

“If Midnapore could be split into East and West and Dinajpur could be divided into north and south segments, what stops Banerjee from applying the same formula here?” he asked.

Md Yahiya, chairman of West Bengal Imams Association, alleged that Banerjee’s decision falls in line with an old demand raised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “In 1999, the BJP demanded that the name of Murshidabad be changed. Is our chief minister fulfilling that demand in 2022?” Yahiya asked.

“Murshidabad has lost its sheen but its residents take pride in their lost glory. Artisans and craftsmen from this district are known across India for their skills... Residents are not opposed to the bifurcation, but why is the government bent on taking away their pride?” said Yahiya.

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.

BJP leaders in Nadia are backing the protests. “This is an attempt to erase our rich history. The district was divided once in 1947 when a major chunk was added to Kushthia in East Pakistan,” said Partha Sarathi Chatterjee, a local legislator and president of the BJP’s Nadia (South) unit, referring to the Radcliffe Line.

“Nadia is not such a big district that is has to be divided right now. Moreover, the time Banerjee has chosen for the exercise is quite significant. This looks like a tactic to divert people’s attention from the crackdown central probe agencies are making on top TMC leaders,” Chatterjee said. “Given the party’s reputation, creation of more zilla parishads (district councils) will give unscrupulous TMC leaders an opportunity to make more money through unfair means.”

Arjun Biswas, president of the BJP’s north Nadia unit, said the bifurcation may help the TMC electorally. “The number of Muslims is considerably high in the Tehatta and Krishnanagar sub-divisions of Nadia, while Hindus are in the majority in Ranaghat and Kalyani. Creation of two districts with distinct demographic characters will help the TMC manage the polls better,” he alleged.

Professor Shouvik Mukhopadhyay said: “I recently heard from certain quarters that the word Nadia may be kept as prefix or suffix to the new names to pacify people. That would be ludicrous. It seems the whole decision has been taken in haste.”

Arguments over expenditure

Though most of the critics have invoked history, some, like the BJP’s Samik Bhattacharya, have raised the issue of added expenditure related to creation of new court buildings, secretariats and government offices.

Former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Jawhar Sircar, who is now a TMC Rajya Sabha member, however, said: “While creation of a new district requires some fresh investment on infrastructure, it is also a fact that human resource gets divided.” “Governments today do not worry about the long-term expenditure linked to fresh recruitments. There was a time when undivided Burdwan district, where I served, had a secretariat almost as big as the central secretariat in Kolkata. Such is not the case anymore with districts getting smaller,” Sircar told HT.

While bifurcations streamline bureaucracy and bring government offices closer to people, it also increases employment opportunities, he said. “New district headquarters require bus services, shops and service providers. There is a positive side.”

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    Tanmay Chatterjee has spent more than three decades covering regional and national politics, internal security, intelligence, defence and corruption. He also plans and edits special features on subjects ranging from elections to festivals.

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