West Bengal’s ruling party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), has started sharpening its attack on the BJP, labelling them as a force trying to engineer a partition of Bengal, after two Lok Sabha MPs who had recently spoken in favour of separating northern Bengal from the rest of the state have been given minister of state portfolios in the latest Union cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The reshuffle saw the existing ministers of state from Bengal, Babul Supriyo and Debasree Chaudhuri losing their berths. Four MPs got MoS berths this time - Alipurduar’s John Barla, Cooch Behar’s Nisith Pramanik, Bankura’s Subhas Sarkar and Bongaon’s Santanu Thakur.
Barla has been made the MoS for minority affairs, while Pramanik became MoS for home affairs, Thakur got his berth in the shipping ministry and Sarkar in education. Geographically, Barla and Pramanik are from northern Bengal, Sarkar from southwestern Bengal and Thakur is from south Bengal.
Of them Barla had created a storm last month after he demanded that north Bengal, which makes for about one fifth of the state’s geographical territory, be separated from the rest of the state and made into a separate state or union territory.
Even after the TMC turned it into a major issue and the BJP’s Bengal unit president Dilip Ghosh clarified that the BJP was against any division of Bengal, Barla repeatedly defended his demands, saying that he was voicing the sentiments of the people of north Bengal who have suffered years of neglect by the state government.
Later, Adhikari, too, said that he supported public sentiments. “It wouldn’t be right for me to comment while occupying an important post (MP). We are always for staying together. But I must say that there is public sentiment for separation due to years of deprivation and I must stand by public sentiment,” Pramanik had said.
Two BJP MLAs from north Bengal, Anandamay Adhikari and Shikha Chatterjee, too, supported Barla’s demands.
On Wednesday, soon after the news of Barla and Pramanik’s ministerial berth broke, chief minister Mamata Banerjee referred to the BJP as a “separatist force.”
On Thursday, without naming Barla and Pramanik, the TMC’s Rajya Sabha chief whip and national spokesperson Sukhendu Sekhar Roy said, “The central government has not only accommodated secessionist and fissiparous but has also glorified persona against whom charges of murder, human trafficking and serious anti-social activities are still pending.”
The mention of criminal cases is an obvious reference to Pramanik, the new MoS home affairs, who has 13 criminal cases pending against him, according to the affidavit filed before the 2021 assembly election, in which he contested from Dinhata assembly seats, won by a thin margin of 57 votes, but resigned from the assembly to retain his Lok Sabha membership.
Among the two other new entrants on the ministry are Subhas Sarkar, a vice-president of Bengal BJP and a BJP veteran with a background in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Santanu Thakur, a leader of the dalit refugee community of the Matuas.
The BJP has also strongly reacted to the TMC’s charge of being separatist. “Mamata Banerjee is the biggest separatist leader we all know. She called paramilitary forces, IAS and IPS officer, union ministers and even the prime minister as outsider to Bengal. If such separatist leader of such stature can occupy the post of chief minister, John Barla has every right to be a union minister,” said the BJP’s state unit general secretary Sayantan Basu.
Neither of Barla and Pramanik could be contacted on Thursday for comments.