[Raktima Bose,Kolkata, April 5, 2011]
Shashadhar Hazra still has his certificate from Mana camp in Chhattisgarh as proof of identity. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
Try bringing up the topic of the Assembly election with 80-year-old Ramesh Gayen, and he retorts angrily that people like him who don't have any sort of recognition even after living in a country for over 40 years are not “qualified enough” to discuss politics.
Mr. Gayen's anger is echoed by Sashadhar Hazra, Kalyani Biswas, Ujjwal Biswas and other residents of Chikunpara village who were forced to cross over from Bangladesh since the 1970s. They are yet to be identified as refugees or granted Indian citizenship.
Chikunpara, which mostly comprises refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan, falls under the Gaighata (SC) Assembly segment in the Bongaon sub-division of North 24 Parganas district.
Despite being counted during census operations and issued ration cards, a large section of the displaced people in this region are yet to receive Indian citizenship and elector's photo identity cards. They also continue to be branded as “Bangladeshi infiltrators.”
Showing a certificate issued by authorities at a refugee camp in Mana in present-day Chhattisgarh — after he arrived in India in 1975 — Mr. Hazra asks: “This is all I have to prove my claim, but the officials said it is not enough. Tell me what else they ask of people who were forced to leave their home and hearth so many years ago?”
While several parties have claimed that they will push for the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act if voted to power, immigrants feel that the absence of a prospective vote bank makes the parties disinterested in aggressively pursuing the issue.
Pointing out that no amount of promises and assurances could improve the condition of immigrants over the years, Ujjwal Biswas, in his mid-30s, says: “If we could vote, our sole demand would have been that of citizenship rights. But we cannot even afford to talk about politics or take sides as it will only ruffle feathers in the rival camp.”
Although they are followers of the influential Matua Mahasangh, the fact that Manjulkrishna Thakur — son of the sect's godmother Boroma — is contesting on a Trinamool Congress ticket from Gaighata (SC) appears to be a non-factor to the immigrants.
Mr. Gayen's youngest son Palash, who was born in India, received his photo identity card a few days ago.
“The sect leaders are more concerned about financially well-off followers than poor immigrants like us, but I will still cast my vote hoping for a better tomorrow for my family.”
Palash has returned from his workplace in Mumbai just to cast his vote.
Admitting that there are thousands of immigrants living without citizenship rights in districts that share a border with Bangladesh, Bongaon sub-divisional officer Sanjay Mukhopadhyay says that photo identity cards cannot be issued to them because of unavailability of valid documents.
Mr. Biswas' optimism shines through the uncertainty that clouds the future of these immigrants. “I may never get a chance to vote or even get deported, but my wife and daughter can look forward to a promising future as citizens of the country.”