River’s rage keeps question of identity always open

Sattar Sheikh, 77, is keen to go back to his village in the district and vote. But he cannot as Mohabbat Tola, or the “village of love,” has disappeared under the swirling waters of the Ganga. The river swept over it a few decades ago.

Mr. Sheikh does not remember the year when he was first displaced, but can show where all he set up mud-thatched houses down the decades deferring to the rage of the mighty river.

“That is where my second son was born,” he says looking north and pointing to the centre of the river, an expanse at least 100 feet wide. “Then I moved there,” he points to another floodplain and nonchalantly says, “Even then, we were in [West] Bengal.”

On its way to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganga enters Malda district and hits the Farakka Barrage in the north-central areas of the State. The river overflows, particularly during the monsoon, flooding the land. Blame excessive deposition of silt and the construction of the barrage.

Eventually, the river shifts course, “eating” village after village and creating floodplains, forcing people out. In a 250-sq.km area between eastern Malda and Rajmahal in Sahebganj district of Jharkhand, people shift from villages to floodplains or from one floodplain to another every 10 or 12 years.

“As the river moved towards Malda, floodplains were created on the other side [Jharkhand]. So my address changed. While I was a voter in West Bengal in the 1970s, now I vote in Jharkhand, though I never tried to change my address,” Mr. Sheikh says.

His elector photo identity card has a Jharkhand address, while his land documents show him to be a resident of the Mouza (land jurisdiction) Kakribadha Jhaubona, which is under the land jurisdiction (JL) ‘number 03’ of West Bengal, demarcated in the 1960s.

The changing course of the river has altered not just the address. The nationality of the people in the floodplains is under the scanner.

“Occasionally, NGOs [non-governmental organisations] come to talk to us. They ask if we are from Bangladesh. These boys and girls [of NGOs] are not aware that two-thirds of Bengalis are Muslims and that for centuries, Muslims have been living in Malda or Murshidabad in India, much before Bangladesh was created or even India was divided,” says an angry neighbour of Sattar Sheikh, on condition of anonymity.

The floodplains have a population of 1.5 lakh, estimates the 2011 Census. Almost the entire population is Muslim, says Kedar Mandal, who led the anti-erosion movement in the area and studied the Ganga’s shifting flow for half a century.

But then Mr. Mandal thinks that the river itself will solve the problems. “I can see that the Ganga is creating a massive channel on the east of Farakka. In the next decade or so, the river’s main course will bypass the barrage, inundate thousands of villages to meet Bangladesh … the issue of water sharing [with Bangladesh] will be solved permanently,” he says. Perhaps, Mr. Sheikh will then be able to vote in West Bengal.

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