The politics between the centre and West Bengal amid the pandemic is heating up. For the last one month, several letter missiles had been shot off from Delhi to Kolkata from a range of officers mostly from the Home Ministry. Now Home Minister Amit Shah has waded into the battle and written to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, accusing her of stopping "Shramik" special trains carrying migrants from entering the state and preventing them from coming home.
That the Home Minister had written to Ms Banerjee was leaked on Saturday morning, leading to a day-long back and forth between the centre and the state on who is to blame and for what.
The letter bomb letter led to protest from the Trinamool Congress, which shared multiple letters from Bengal to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Punjab to get eight trains with migrants back.
The letters were dated May 8 and Mr Shah was asked to desist from politics over the "Shramik" special trains. Trinamool lawmaker Abhishek Banerjee was the first to react with a tweet, saying, "A HM failing to discharge his duties during this crisis speaks after weeks of silence, only to mislead people with bundle of lies! Ironically he's talking about the very ppl who've been literally left to fate by his own Govt. Mr @AmitShah, prove your fake allegations or apologise."
A HM failing to discharge his duties during this crisis speaks after weeks of silence, only to mislead people with bundle of lies! Ironically he's talking about the very ppl who've been literally left to fate by his own Govt. Mr @AmitShah, prove your fake allegations or apologise https://t.co/HeWYWFafZ5— Abhishek Banerjee (@abhishekaitc) May 9, 2020
This was followed by a 90-minute press meet by three Trinamool leaders, attacking the Home Minister for playing politics amid the pandemic. Letters from the Bengal Chief Secretary to his counterparts in several states, including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Punjab, were shared, indicating Bengal was on the job.
Eight trains from the four states would bring back 32,000 migrants in the next few days.
"Bengal has been targeted. All this while it was being targeted by bureaucrats and agencies. But today the cat is out of the bag because today the gentleman, the honourable Home Minister of India, directly attacked Bengal without any facts," Trinamool MP Derek O'Brien said.
"Mamata Banerjee is not doing any of the politics. The Home Minister's letter reached the media in Delhi before it reached the CM's office. Mr Amit Shah has to apologise for spreading this complete bunch of lies about what is happening in Bengal," he said. "They are doing it with testing kits, they are doing it with IMCT (central) teams and now they are also doing it with this letter."
Union Minister of State and BJP lawmaker from Asansol Babul Supriyo, however, said Bengal had been pushed into taking some action only after Mr Shah's letter to Ms Banerjee. State BJP chief Dilip Ghosh added an appeasement twist.
"Bengal government seems indifferent to migrants. Only two trains have come to Bengal from two different places and one of them brought back pilgrims of a political community and not migrant labour," Mr Ghosh said. "All earlier letters did not work. So the Home Minister has written and the Bengal government is definitely in trouble," Mr Ghosh added.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Md Salim blamed both sides for a debilitating political fight. "The BJP and the Trinamool have turned the pandemic into a pandemonium," he said. "The centre must arrange trains for the migrants to return home. The state must arrange to screen and quarantine them once they are back. None of that is happening. We have offered to give trained volunteers to screen and manage the returnees. But who is listening?"
Clarity is missing on the exact number of trains that will be bringing migrants back in the next few days because of the state's intervention. According to sources, Maharashtra had to cancel two trains because the Bengal government did not respond to its letters seeking the "destination state's consent", which is mandatory.
So far, two trains have come to Bengal, one from Ajmer in Rajasthan and another from Ernakulum in Kerala with some 2,400 passengers in all.
Sources said the process to receive eight more trains is underway. A Railway Ministry tweet this evening said, "However, WB has not approved any train from Maharashtra, while there is a requirement of 16 trains to WB and presently 6 requests are pending for which approval is still awaited from WB."
However, WB has not approved any train from Maharashtra, while there is a requirement of 16 trains to WB and presently 6 requests are pending for which approval is still awaited from WB.— Ministry of Railways (@RailMinIndia) May 9, 2020
The ministry tweeted that on request of Mr Shah, Bengal approved two trains from Punjab, two from Tamil Nadu, three from Karnataka and one from Telangana.
The chronology is muddled. Did Bengal move first or did Mr Shah force Bengal to act? The political bickering is drowning out key questions on how to ensure the migrants come home, how they are quarantined and tested.
Meanwhile, Bengal's helplines for migrants remain busy and migrants have complained at every opportunity how difficult it is proving to make contact so they can take the first step to heading home.