“Don’t label me Bangladeshi,” says Ruma Mandal, 36, as she wears a bindi before posing for a photograph. “I am Odia. I have forgotten to speak Bangla.”
According to a 14-year-old partial list shared by Kendrapara administration, Ruma is one of the “Bangladeshi infiltrators” settled in Banipal village. The list was prepared in 2005. At the time, BJD ruled Odisha in alliance with the BJP. In a written response to The Indian Express, the district administration has said no methodology was applied to ascertain “Bangladeshis” in 2005.
Move creating fissures
Following the SC’s direction to Chief Justices of high courts of 15 states to monitor ecological conservation of wetlands, the Orissa High Court had taken up restoration of ecology of Bhitarkanika National Park and Chilika Lake. The issue has now started creating fissures between the Odia and Bengali population in the area. The latter had come to the place as seasonal labourers who helped with local agriculture.
The names of Ruma’s husband Sajaya, her eldest daughter and now dead parents-in-law are on the list. Since then, she has had four more children.
Amid reports that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) may be implemented in Kendrapara, Ruma fears she will be deported. “It won’t be fair,” she says, adding, “I am from Bhadrak, married someone from Bangladesh. My children and I are Indian citizens.”
Earlier this month, a court-endorsed committee, which oversees wetland conservation and protection in the state, suggested to the Home Department to initiate processes to implement NRC in the district.
Documents accessed by The Indian Express indicate the suggestion was proposed by amicus curiae Mohit Agarwal, who is assisting Odisha High Court on monitoring and protection of Bhitarkanika and Chilika wetlands. Ruma’s village falls under Bhitarkanika.
Then Director, Environment, and Special Secretary, Forest, K Murugesan Murugesan had told The Indian Express that the committee forwarded a request from the amicus curiae. “The committee is concerned only with protection of wetlands. We are evicting encroachers. This has nothing to do with Bangladeshi immigrants,” Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Environment Department, S C Mahapatra, said.
Answering a query as to why wetland protection is turning into a hunt for illegal settlers, Agarwal says he has no political agenda. “But I am concerned about national security.”
Citing “unofficial sources”, he said the number of “Bangladeshis” in the state has gone up to seven lakh.
Collector Samarth Verma refused to put a figure to the number of “Bangladeshis” in the district.
Meanwhile, local residents have started speculating on who can be identified as a Bangladeshi. But replies differ based on who is answering. “All Bengali speakers here are Bangladeshi,” says Sambhu Das, 60, from Sir-Rajendrapur village, next to Banipal. “We only speak Odia.”
Many Bengali speakers deny such claims. “We are from (West Bengal’s) Medinipur district,” says one, refusing to give his name. “Just because we speak Bangla does not make us foreigners.”
Among those designated “Bangladeshis”, Ruma is the only one to come on record. She lays out the family’s voter and Aadhaar cards.
“How can I be given all these documents if I am an outsider?”