Why is the population in the floodplains, or “temporary islands,” created in Jharkhand by the temperamental Ganga predominantly Muslim?

Kedar Mandal, leader of an anti-erosion movement, says, “When a new floodplain rises and an old one submerges, the people shift to the new. They have two choices, either to buy expensive land in Malda and shift to West Bengal or to shift to a new floodplain for free, but only for a few years. Muslims, being poor, shift to the temporary island for free, while Hindus buy land in Malda.”

Hindus thus manage to retain their culture and language, while Muslims are branded “illegal immigrants,” with the Bangladesh border only a few kilometres east. Mr. Mandal’s estimates suggest that more than 70,000 voters live in nearly 30 Mouzas, or land jurisdictions. Most of them want to go back to Malda, while a few also want to stay in Jharkhand.

On a public interest litigation petition, the High Court said the residents of the floodplain between the two States had the right to “education and health.” It accepted that the inhabitants of temporary islands should have Indian citizenship and deaths and births should be registered. More important, the border between the two States, a potential area of long-term disputes, should be demarcated.

The order is yet to be implemented, and a fresh signature campaign has been launched to pressure the administration to implement the order.

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, people like Sattar Sheikh, who shifted base several times deferring to the whims of the river, will then be able to vote in West Bengal.

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