Last week, I was having an intense argument with an old friend, who is a hardcore RSS-BJP supporter, on the issue of violence in Assam on Facebook. Like most of the right wing and perhaps, many in India, he blamed the reason for the riots on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. I agreed with him that illegal immigration is indeed a problem for India. You have people from neighbouring countries coming to India taking our jobs, benefiting from India’s social programmes, imposing their language and even religion. I argued, “I completely agree with you. To begin with, we should scrap the India-Nepal friendship treaty and stop the Nepalese from entering India at free will”. He, a Nepalese himself, immediately said, “No. Not the Nepalese but only the Bangladeshis”. I asked, “Why? Why not you and your entire breed who come to India from Nepal?” His reply was simple: “Because we are Hindus. Hindustan is for Hindus”. Ideally, I would have been shocked at this statement but that day I saluted him. I felt for the first time someone who is sympathetic to the RSS-BJP did not put up the garb of nationalism and truly spoke his communal mind out.
My argument with this friend perhaps, represents the dilemma that many Indians are undergoing on the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. At one hand, intrusion of illegal migrants in states like Assam and Tripura is creating huge demographic and cultural changes; on the other hand, protests against these migrants are often dubbed as communal because most of them are Muslims. When the violence between Bodo tribes and Bengali Muslims in Assam’s Kokrajhar district broke, media in mainland India could not understand what exactly to call the conflict. Is it a communal issue or an ethnic one?
We, Indians, have a tricky relationship with religion. Some of us will try everything possible to shift the focus from religion, while others will try to do everything to bring religion into everything. When news of Kokrajhar violence reached New Delhi, the BJP was quick to call it a communal issue. It called it the “communal experiment” of Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. Assamese and Assam watchers like me watched in horror. In the last election, the BJP had tried hard to use this angle to make some dent into the Congress vote bank but failed. As clearer news reports finally arrived, it was clear that the whole thing seemed to have been planned by extremist elements of Bodo tribes. They have been demanding a separate state for years now. Most of the 50 dead were Bengali Muslims or alleged ‘Bangladeshis’.
As former chief minister of Assam and leader of opposition Prafulla Kumar Mahanta explained to me, the Bodos have become a minority in their own region and that’s why they are retaliating. “I don’t think it is a communal issue but an ethnic and immigration issue,” he says. Even his bete noire in state government, Power Minister Pradyut Bordoloi, agrees it is not about religion but he feels that the people of Assam have to get used to the fact that there are people in the state who do not speak their language or follow their culture. “These are people who came from the other side (Bangladesh) before 1971 and have been settled here. We have to accept them as one of us,” he says. But that is a very simplistic argument. Since 1971, there has been a huge jump in the Muslim population of Assam — by some accounts, nearly a 77 per cent increase. Four districts neighbouring Bangladesh became Muslim majority in 1991, followed by three in 1998 and one as of late. Many blame this on intrusion of Bangladeshis. The Assam government claims that there are no illegal Bangladeshis in the state. Bordoloi gives a funny reason for such a huge jump in Bengali Muslim population in Assam: “Due to lower education and awareness level among them, they have more children,” he says. In 1997, then home minister Indrajit Gupta accepted in the Indian parliament that around 10 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh live in India. Most of them live in bordering districts of Assam, West Bengal and Tripura. A lot of them migrate to cities like Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata. Because India already has a Bengali Muslim population in West Bengal, it is difficult to detect them.
There is also a flip side to the whole debate. Genuine Indian Bengali Muslims (and I know many and am friends with a few) face the brunt. Recently, a Bengali Muslim wrote to me how ashamed he is to be a citizen of Assam. “My family has been living on this land for generations. If the government is unable to detect illegal immigrants, why are we being targeted for that,” he asked me. I really didn’t have an answer. As a Bengali myself, I have a special emotional connect to the issue. I don’t know what the solution to this problem is. Right wing friends tell me that it is a conspiracy to Islamise Assam. They claim that illegal Bangladeshis are used to smuggle fake currency and weapons inside India. Many such theories sound just too far-fetched.
In April last year, when I visited Dhubri on the India-Bangladesh border, the thing that struck me most was the poverty of the area. As someone in Guwahati told me then, the best solution to stop illegal immigration from Bangladesh is to ensure that India’s eastern neighbour grows as fast as India does. The day poverty is wiped out, perhaps, we shall see a reverse migration.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2012.