This is not the first time that the TMC has attempted to create controversies and other problems – subtly and not-so-subtly – targeting the Awami League
West Bengal's ruling party Trinamool Congress (TMC) has alleged that “large crowds of armed Bangladeshis crossed over the border” to attack voters and political workers during Monday's Panchayat elections in several districts of the neighbouring Indian state.
Over 21 political activists and voters, including women, were killed during a massive outbreak of violence during the three-tier polls.
Senior TMC leaders further complained that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) helped the “Bangladeshi mobs” to enter Indian territory in a bid to sabotage the polls and discredit the Mamata Banerjee government.
At least three senior TMC leaders and state ministers – Food and Supplies Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick, Education Minister and TMC Secretary General Partha Chatterjee, and Rajya Sabha MP and TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien – raised these sensational allegations when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is set to visit Santiniketan in Birbhum, West Bengal later this month.
Kolkata-based analysts feel the timing of these allegations is significant. This is not the first time that the TMC has attempted to create controversies and other problems – subtly and not-so-subtly – targeting the Awami League. Such efforts have invariably created problems between the ruling party at the centre in India and Bangladesh's ruling party.
For example, the TMC’s opposition to sharing the Teesta waters with Bangladesh comes readily to mind. During Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as the prime minister of India, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee scuppered the bilateral accord between the two countries on the water sharing issue by pulling out at the last moment in 2013, leaving the prime ministers of both countries red-faced. Banerjee's reasoning behind the decision was that the northern districts in the state would be hit hard by a shortage of water if the agreement was signed.
To this day, Mamata's stand has not changed. However, though relations between Banerjee and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are none too cordial, Delhi would like her to be on board as the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India are scheduled to discuss the issue of Teesta water sharing, among other issues.
Modi will be joining Sheikh Hasina during her long-awaited visit to the Visva-Bharati University campus, where the latter will inaugurate a new Bangladesh Bhavan.
In terms of cultural and diplomatic significance and political symbolism, the importance of Hasina's visit cannot be over emphasized. The Bangladesh Bhavan will not only be a monument to the growing bilateral interaction between the two countries, it will also be only the second such institution to be set up after the celebrated China (Chin) Bhavan, set up long ago by Rabindranath Tagore himself. Today, much of India’s cultural exchanges with China and related activities are carried out through Chin Bhavan.
Observers feel the new Dhaka-financed Bangladesh Bhavan, as a significant contribution from Bangladesh towards cementing the close linguistic and cultural ties between the two Banglas (and the two countries), will also occupy place of pride in South Asia. Visitors from all over the world, especially from the Bangali diaspora, are keenly following the project and expected to attend the main function to be jointly addressed by the two prime ministers in large numbers.
Both leaders will also discuss a range of major issues including the pending Teesta water sharing agreement. Modi would like to keep Mamata Banerjee on board during such talks, as a sensitive concession to Bangali sentiments before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
India also attaches the highest importance to the fostering and growth of relations with Bangladesh. Senior BJP leader Dr Subramanian Swamy visited Kolkata to meet Banerjee to ensure that she does not rock the boat again and to prevent an encore of the 2013 fiasco.
As for the TMC not cooperating with the Awami League government, there have been other instances as well.
Both the Indian and Bangladesh governments have accorded top priority to weeding out the dangers of Islamic extremism from the region. However, only in West Bengal, top official anti-terrorist organization NIA has faced trouble in its work to track and arrest banned JMB extremists from Bangladesh taking shelter and operating from their West Bengal hideouts.
The NIA has complained of non-cooperation from the state police. Top extremists frequently “escape” from police custody. JMB activists have been known to take shelter with local TMC leaders in Burdwan, Malda, Murshidabad and other districts.
Banerjee has been publicly criticized by leaders of other political parties, especially the BJP, for her apparent “softness” towards hardliner Islamist activists and organizations. A proposed visit from Salman Rushdie to Kolkata was cancelled as Urdu-speaking Muslim hardliners protested. A proposed meeting to discuss the present situation in Baluchistan was similarly disallowed on “law and order” grounds.
On the other hand, a special concert was arranged for Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali as other Indian states objected. When a Pakistani ambassador wanted to meet Banerjee while passing through Kolkata, she immediately met him. In contrast, local Bangladeshi diplomats have often been kept waiting for weeks as they sought an appointment.
As for the present claims of alleged Bangladeshi anti-socials trying to disrupt the Panchayat polls, Mullick alleged that 300-400-strong mobs crossed over from Bangladesh with the BSF and BJP's help, carrying arms. He talked of incidents in North 24 Parganas on Monday morning.
When asked what the state government, its police, etc were doing, Jyotipriyo Mullick said: “Why are we talking about the state government? It is for the BSF and the BJP to take action. We were not prepared to handle such a large armed mob,” he said without taking further questions on TV interviews.
Partha Chatterjee and other TMC leaders, however, alleged that such incursions had occurred along the Dinajpur border as well. Derek O’Brien tweeted asking whether the BSF were now acting as BJP cadres.
Several questions arise here. This correspondent asked local BSF authorities whether any major incursions of armed mobs from Bangladesh had occurred on or before May 14. Expressing their surprise, they said they were not aware of any such incidents, whether in North 24 Parganas or Dinajpur.
Has the state government contacted the BSF authorities officially to make a complaint? Has any Kolkata official been in touch with the Union Home Ministry, or the Prime Minister’s Office in Delhi? There were no official answers from the West Bengal government.
In these circumstances, it is difficult to reject BJP State President Dilip Ghosh’s somewhat unceremonious reaction to the latest TMC allegations: “As usual, the TMC talks rubbish.”