Bangladeshi immigrants with their names on Odisha's electoral rolls face uncertain future with looming Lok Sabha polls
As rapid industrialisation and a lot of construction activities are going on in and around the state's capital city Bhubaneswar, lakhs of people from neighbouring states and Bangladeshi refugees have come to Odisha in search of work.
Bhubaneswar: For 40-year-old Kamalesh Mandal, a resident of Hariabank village under Khranasi Gram Panchayat of Mahakalpada Block in Odisha's coastal Kendrapara district, life is a twice-told story. Kamalesh with his six-member family though earning his livelihood through cultivation and wage labour is living with constant fear of being an illegal immigrant under The Foreigners Act, 1946. He is said to be an infiltrator entered India illegally.
Similar is the case of Ramesh Mandal, 55, of the same village. Although he was born in neighbouring Jajpur district, his ancestors had come to India from Bangladesh.
Significantly, though they have enough reasons to prove that they are living here since decades — Babu Mandal, now 45 and Asiit Mirdha, 54 — have already faced the wrath of the authorities.
All the above are under the constant vigil of both the district administration and local people as they have been slapped with 'Quit India' notice and are likely to face deportation. They have been debarred from owning a ration card and other such facilities under various government schemes. Kamalesh and Ramesh, are among the 1,551 refugees, settled in Odisha and are not covered by government schemes.
Their latest worry is the fear of deletion of their names from the electoral rolls which are being prepared now for the forthcoming General Elections in 2019. Even though they have voted during the February 2017 panchayat elections it had been said that their names will not figure in the ongoing summary revisions of voters' list as they have been issued the 'Quit India' notice by the Odisha government.
While speaking to this correspondent, state chief electoral officer cum ex-officio principal secretary, home department, Odisha, Surendra Kumar flatly rejected the reports published in various newspapers.
"Newspaper reports are false. It has not been done in the current summary revision of voters' list which is to be published on 4 January 2019. We have already inquired. There are no deletions whatsoever in the recent revisions. The collectors and district electoral officers have been asked to strictly adhere to the rules and find out irregularities if any. If they find anything wrong then they will correct it. It is in no way related to the particular community (Bangladeshi refugees) you are talking about," Kumar said.
Questions are also being raised about the validity of 'Quit India' notice.
"The notice that was served to us to leave India was handwritten and it was done hastily to show that we have been served notice when there was a hue and cry on this issue during 2004-05," said Bhupesh Mirdha of Khranasi village. "The latest fear of possible removal of our names from the voters' list has occurred as teachers and officials who had come to the village for voters' list verification or for the National Population Survey neither came to our homes for verification nor asked for any documents. That's the reason we have to live with fear, hatred, agony and uncertainty as neither locals nor authorities listen to us although we are the genuine citizens of India."
Close on the heels of the publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the uncertainty over the identity of four million left out people who have been allegedly living there, the future of nearly one lakh (conservative estimate says it is about seven lakh) illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Odisha hangs in balance.
Not only in Kendrapara but lakhs of refugees who are settled in Khurdha, Puri, Gajapati, Malkangiri and Nabarangpur districts are also struggling to arrange valid documents for legacy proof as it is difficult to find birth certificates, caste certificates and residential proof because their ancestors who had come from Bangladesh were just settled by the government and were not given any documents then.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has admitted in the floor of State Assembly while replying to a question by BJP legislator Dilip Ray in 2015 that there are 3,997(of them 1,551 were slapped with 'Quit India' notice years back in 2005) illegal infiltrators are living in Odisha mostly in coastal Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur districts.
"But barring slapping notices to them nothing concrete has happened to repatriate them despite their suspected activities," said political commentator Sriram Dash.
"Does the government has any tracking mechanism on the large-scale influx of illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators who are still coming in citing the presence of relatives here? Leave aside what their activities are. It is rather unfortunate that local politicians create their own vote bank compromising national security and put pressure on the authorities to provide them with all facilities," said Dash.
As rapid industrialisation and a lot of construction activities are going on in and around the state's capital city Bhubaneswar, lakhs of people from neighbouring states and Bangladeshi refugees have come to Odisha in search of work. The locals have also started suspecting them for their alleged involvement in petty criminal activities and as child lifters.
The issue has cropped up again as the election is approaching and the ruling Biju Janata Dal fears that the Bharatiya Janata Party might usurp the issue for electoral benefits. In an attempt to outsmart the national party, the regional outfit has raked up the issue of illegal immigrants beforehand to garner maximum political mileage.
During the ongoing summary revision of voters' list at the direction of chief electoral officer, Odisha, the Kendrapara district administration is said to have deleted the names of 137 illegal settlers on the complaints of local people and after thorough verification of their identity, newspaper reports said. But it has been refuted by the additional district magistrate, Kendrapara, Basant Kumar Rout.
According to him, only 37 names have been deleted not because they are illegal Bangladeshi settlers but due to insufficient proof and on the basis of duplicases, irregularities and other such reasons. "And we are going to delete 36,000 more names for similar discrepancies," said Rout.
Kendrapara, district collector Dasarathi Mishra said, "All has been done following the electoral rules and with the criteria to have free and fair elections."
When asked about the deletion of names of Bangladeshi settlers from the voters' list, Mishra said, "As the matter is sub-judice, unless there is a court order, we can't go for addition or deletion of names."
Many of these so-called infiltrators claim that their ancestors had come to India immediately after the partition in 1948 from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and were settled in different parts of India including in Odisha. This was followed by more exodus in 1971 during the Bangladesh War and the third wave started post-1990 after the process of liberalisation began in India creating a lot of jobs in the country's private sector because of rapidly rising foreign direct investment.
Interestingly, almost all these people have acquired local residential proof and have been voting in successive elections barring a few. Those (1,551) who were served 'Quit India' notice had challenged it in the Odisha High Court in 2016 for not being provided with ration card and other such benefits under different government schemes. The court had given a ruling directing the authorities to not to take coercive action against them.
Narayan Haldar, a former sarpanch of Khranasi Gram Panchayat and a prominent face of the refugee community, has a different story to tell.
"Look all those who have been branded as 'infiltrators' are Hindus. They are not Muslims. Fearing backlash during post-Independence and Bangladesh War they came and settled here with the approval of the then Union and state governments," said Haldar. "They were also provided with 25 to 33 decimal homestead land and one acre each of cultivable land for livelihoods and were settled under the rehabilitation scheme of the Government of India in different locations of different states."
He further stated that because many among them have married locally and as their children grew up their identities became a concern for all.
According to the former sarpanch, there are 70,000 Bengali speaking people living in Mahakalpada and Rajnagar blocks in Kendrapara district spread over 40 villages. Most of them eke out their living depending on fishing in the sea, rivulets and creeks and a major chunk of the population are dependent upon agriculture.
"Though I was the sarpanch because the government had slapped notice to them, I couldn't provide them with benefits under government welfare schemes even Re 1kg rice," Haldar said.
A government official on the condition of anonymity said, "I don't think all those who are staying here are Bangladeshi infiltrators. Though all of them speak Bengali many of them have come from neighbouring West Bengal and lateral entrants are from other refugee settlements elsewhere in the country eying more income here from fishing and wage labour etc."
For now, the future of the Bangladeshi refugees in Odisha borders on the realm of uncertainty, particularly the 1,551, who already received the 'Quit India' notice.
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