If there’s one leader who has taken the lead in criticism of the exclusion of 40 lakh people in Assam from the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC), it’s TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. But 13 years ago, as the lone Lok Sabha member of her party from West Bengal which was then ruled by the Left Front, Banerjee raised the issue of “infiltration into Bengal” 14 times within 22 minutes in the House.
Lok Sabha records show that on August 4, 2005, Banerjee told the House that it was “a very serious matter” which had acquired the proportions of a “disaster” since there were “Bangladeshis as well as Indian names in the voter lists”.
She was being repeatedly interrupted by Basudeb Acharia, CPM MP from West Bengal whose party was backing the UPA-I government. When Deputy Speaker Charnjit Singh Atwal did not let her raise the matter saying her notice had already been disallowed by Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, Banerjee hurled the papers she was carrying towards the Chair and stormed out of the Well.
The reason why Banerjee wanted to raise the matter was because she was not present in the House on July 26 when Opposition and BJP leader L K Advani moved an adjournment motion for a discussion on ‘Massive illegal immigration from Bangladesh’.
This move for a discussion came exactly two weeks after the Supreme Court, ruling on the Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union Of India & Another, struck down the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 and directed that “sufficient number of Tribunals” be constituted “under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 to effectively deal with cases of foreigners, who have illegally come from Bangladesh or are illegally residing in Assam”. An AGP member then, Sonowal is now Chief Minister of Assam.
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According to Lok Sabha records, Advani, during the July 26 discussion, said “for all these years, even after this IMDT Act, we are not able to deport anyone. The desire nevertheless to retain this Act and not to agree to any repeal of this Act is essentially due to the vote banks that they create for us. This vote bank politics has been the biggest disaster for the country, and the earlier the ruling party realises this, the better it is. As I said earlier, in West Bengal, the present Chief Minister realises it, and the present Chief Minister has accordingly been cooperating in all these matters.”
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was then Chief Minister of West Bengal and Mamata Banerjee was an Opposition leader taking on the Left Front government.
Acharia opposed the motion, telling the House that Advani had “suddenly woken up and rejoicing saying that the judgment of the Supreme Court should be implemented in letter and spirit. Why should the judgment of the Supreme Court be implemented in letter and spirit in this particular case?”.
Later, on August 4, when she was told that her notice had been disallowed, Banerjee questioned the Chair: “Is it because it is happening in Bengal?” House records show Acharia immediately protested: “This is very objectionable. She is casting aspersions on the Speaker… Why are you allowing her to speak?”
When Acharia said her notice had been rejected, Banerjee told him: “Your party may reject me, but you cannot reject me in the House.” When he asked her why she was not present in the House on the day of the discussion, she said: “You cannot direct me. I am not afraid. This is my democratic right to raise the issue.”
On Thursday, when The Indian Express sought comments from the TMC, the party denied it had changed stance between 2005 and 2018 based on political expediency.
TMC national spokesperson Derek O’Brien said: “Our stand in 2005 was that Trinamool Congress will never allow genuine Indian citizens to be treated as refugees. Our stand in 2018 is that Trinamool Congress will never allow genuine Indian citizens to be treated as refugees.”