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Demanding Identity and Development: The Quest for a Separate Islampur District in West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur

tanzil asif Reported By Tanzil Asif |
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In a bid to seek recognition, autonomy, and equitable development, about a dozen youths have embarked on a 160-kilometer foot march from Sonapur, situated approximately 160 kilometers from West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur district headquarter Raiganj. Put simply, if a resident of Sonapur or the neighboring villages needs to visit the district headquarters, they must travel a staggering 320 kilometers. The residents have been fervently demanding the establishment of Islampur sub-division as a separate district.

Islampur sub-division has five blocks namely, Chopra, Islampur, Goalpokhar, Chakulia or Goalpokhar-II and Karandighi. These five blocks are also five separate assembly constituencies, and for the first time in 2021, the Trinamool Congress, the state’s ruling party won in each of these five blocks. Despite this, when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s government approved the creation of seven new districts in the state on August 1, 2022, Islampur was not named in it.

With the creation of seven new districts in the state, the total number of districts has increased from 23 to 30. These seven new districts include Sunderbans, Ichhamati, Ranaghat, Behrampur, Jangipur, Basirhat and Bishnupur.

Historical Background and Political Implications

The roots of Islampur’s demand for a separate district lie in the historical bifurcation of Bengal and Bihar, the failed attempts to unify the two states, and the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. The partition of Bengal by the British government in 1912 led to the creation of Bihar. After India’s independence in 1947, Bengal was further partitioned, with West Bengal remaining in India and the rest becoming East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). However, the northern part of West Bengal, known as North Bengal, faced geographical challenges as it was not connected to the rest of the state by land. Some portions of Bihar were in between, resulting in the area becoming part of the Kishanganj sub-division.

To rectify such border anomalies, the State Reorganization Commission (SRC) was formed to address these issues across the country. The West Bengal government requested certain parts of Bihar from the commission to ensure a continuous land connection for the state. However, protests erupted in the area, with the majority of the populace speaking Hindi, Urdu, or Surjapuri instead of Bengali, and they desired to remain in Bihar. In an attempt to unify Bengal and Bihar, the then Chief Ministers of both states tried to unite them, but this was met with fierce opposition.

Eventually, a part of the erstwhile Purnia district of Bihar was given to West Bengal, forming what is now known as the Islampur sub-division. Despite this unification, the people of Islampur still face discrimination, with their language and culture being sidelined in the district headquarters of Raiganj.

Plea for Justice and Equal Opportunities

Masroor Alam of the Raza Committee, leading the foot march for a separate Islampur district, alleges discrimination against the Urdu and Surjapuri-speaking people in the district headquarter of Raiganj. He emphasizes the disparities in development between Islampur and Raiganj sub-divisions, citing the unequal distribution of funds and job opportunities.

“Our development work is far less than Raiganj sub-division. The cultures of Raiganj and Islampur are completely different. While they are entirely Bengali-speaking people, here in Islampur sub-division, Urdu is widely spoken, and our culture is distinct,” said Masroor.

Another expert, Subol Bhowmik, a former headmaster of a school in Islampur, adds his voice to the demand for a separate district. He underscores the importance of linguistic and cultural homogeneity and the administrative efficiency that such a district would bring.

“A separate district would address the linguistic and cultural differences and improve administrative efficiency,” said Subol. “Then Chief Minister Bidhan Chandra Roy had promised to make Islampur into a district during the inauguration of the Islampur sub-division. However, no further discussion on this subject took place.”

A Comparative Analysis

Comparing Islampur sub-division with other recently created districts in West Bengal and neighboring states reinforces the justification for its demand for a separate district. Districts such as Alipurduar and Jhargram, with populations of around 15 lakh and 11 lakh, respectively, were created after Islampur’s establishment as a sub-division. Even Kalimpong, with a population of only 2.5 lakhs, was granted district status. Considering these factors, the viability of Islampur’s demand becomes evident.

Additionally, a comparative analysis with other states reveals a disparity in district distribution. While Jharkhand has 24 districts with a population of approximately 3 crores, Andhra Pradesh has 26 districts with a population of around 5 crores, and Bihar has 38 districts with a population of about 10 crores, West Bengal has only 23 districts (proposed 30 districts) with a population of 9 crores.

The Rise of Advocacy Groups

TASO (Transferred Area Surjapur Organization) has been at the forefront of advocating for the establishment of the Islampur district to protect the Surjapuri language and culture. TASO spokesman Pasarul Alam states that the area was transferred to Bengal from Bihar on November 1, 1959, based on SRC recommendations. However, the people of the area protested against this transfer, anticipating challenges related to language, culture, and land.

Pasarul Alam highlights that the SRC recommendations included provisions for reservations to protect the local population’s rights, but these provisions were not implemented.

“We demand that this area be given its own district and an MP to protect the Surjapuri language and culture”, said Pasarul.

Ruling Party’s Response

Kaushik Guna, youth district president of the ruling TMC, acknowledges the demands of the people of Islampur and explains the steps taken to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region.

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“Islampur has been made a police district. A health district will be made further. If an administrative requirement is felt, the idea of making a district can also be considered,” said Kaushik. “But, some organizations and parties want to disturb the atmosphere regarding this issue. The work of creating a district is not a one-day job. CM knows everything, yet many people are doing politics here.”

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Tanzil Asif is a multimedia journalist-cum-entrepreneur. He is the founder and the CEO of Main Media. He occasionally writes stories from Seemanchal for other publications as well. Hence, he has bylines in The Wire, The Quint, Outlook Magazine, Two Circles, the Milli Gazette etc. Tanzil is one of six Indian journalists selected by YouTube in 2021 for its Creator Program for Independent Journalists. He is also a Josh Talks speaker, an Engineer and a part-time poet.

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