West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said her government would urge the federal Indian administration to give citizenship to all Bangladeshis living in the state for five years or more.
“We will ask the Centre to authorise district magistrates to issue citizenship certificates to those who are living in Bengal for five years or more. The district magistrates (DMs) used to issue citizenship certificates to those who came from Bangladesh before 1971 but that power was withdrawn in 1985,” the chief minister told the media in Kolkata after a cabinet meeting last night.
“If the Centre now empowers DMs to issue citizenship rights to the Bangladeshi migrants living here for over five years, then they will be able to participate in mainstream society,” our New Delhi correspondent quoted Mamata as saying.
The only time DMs were given that authority was last year when India and Bangladesh ratified the land boundary agreement under which they exchanged enclaves.
During the Liberation War of 1971, India sheltered hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bangladesh and has never forcibly deported Bangladeshi citizens.
Since 1971, DMs were authorised to issue refugee certificates, cards that helped those crossing over, to apply for rations like food and water, and seek education and health care. But the state DMs could not issue citizenship certificates, as the Indian Home Ministry has sole authority.
After the Assam peace accord in mid-1980s following prolonged agitations on this issue of alleged illegal migration from Bangladesh, India amended its citizenship law in 1985, giving citizenship to all legal Bangladeshi migrants who had entered Assam till then, if they had applied for it. They needed to apply through the district magistrates but again the final approval had to be from the federal Home Ministry.
Political observers say Mamata’s remarks on giving citizenship to migrants from Bangladesh could be aimed at the coming West Bengal assembly elections due to be held in April of this year, as a large number of migrants from Bangladesh live in various West Bengal districts.
Most of these migrant-voters in border districts have ration cards and electoral photo identity cards and exercise their franchise during elections and they are in a position to influence the election’s outcome.