January 11, 2016

Assam’s minority report: As the state readies for polls, it would be dangerous to abuse the highly emotive ‘Bangladeshi’ card (Sanjoy Hazarika)

The Times of India - January 12, 2016

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Assam’s minority report: As the state readies for polls, it would be dangerous to abuse the highly emotive ‘Bangladeshi’ card
by Sanjoy Hazarika

For five hours, the body of the 15-year-old girl hung on the barbed wire fence, blood streaking her clothes in the January chill, her hair hanging down in a macabre flow. She was shot while climbing over from the Indian side in West Bengal to Bangladesh and was going for her own wedding. Her father had managed to get over unscathed but the child, whose name was Felanee did not make it. That was in 2011. That Felanee was Bangladeshi was uncontested but the killing of an unarmed child sparked a furious outcry against shootings of civilians by BSF on the international boundary.

As a result of this incident, Indian border patrols were instructed not to fire live ammunition on suspected intruders (mind you, BSF failed to tackle the real infiltrators, those of armed groups who had skipped across for years, creating mayhem, until the Bangladesh government cracked down and handed over Ulfa, NDFB and Manipuri insurgent leaders to India). Nearly 1,000 persons had been killed in a 10 year period or one death every four days.

Those who died included Bangladeshis and Indians, cattle rustlers, petty criminals as well as people who were shot while going about their daily business. Cattle smuggling is a major business along the border; so is human trafficking. Criminal gangs which flourish on either side of the border are unlikely to do so without official connivance.

Illegal/informal migration from Bangladesh into India is substantial but there are other interlocking issues. I will focus on two here. One is the scale of the migration – most of the figures I have seen are simply assertions and ‘analysis’ based on assumptions. The other is the impact that such perceptions are having not just in eastern India, especially in Assam and West Bengal, but also across the country, with antipathy growing against Muslims of Bangla origin.

The latter is important especially as Assam is going to the polls in a few months. There appear to be few issues, barring the anti-incumbency factor against the Tarun Gogoi government. That is why one must be extremely careful that the highly emotive ‘Bangladeshi’ card is not used as a weapon of rhetoric.

As far as numbers are concerned, the truth is that decades after the ‘Bangladeshi’ campaign began in the late 1970s, few have been detected and deported despite many promises. Not even the Centre has a clear idea of how many illegal migrants are in India, not just Assam. For years there has been a sense of fatigue on the issue in Assam.

Thus, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi correctly chose statesmanship over local politics by settling the IndoBangladesh land boundary issue, a problem that had been unresolved for decades, he piquantly created a challenge for the Assam unit of his own party which had opposed the deal, claiming it would increase illegal migration.

Such complexity is deepened by sweeping media reports which posit a future where ‘Bangladeshi Muslims’ will be a majority in the state and ignore the fact that it has three major groups of Muslims: Assamese speaking Muslims whose ancestors go back to the 13th century, Muslims of Bangla origin, many of whose ancestors came over 100 years ago, and the post-1971 Bangladeshi Muslims. Indeed, this last point is also conveniently forgotten: those who moved from East Pakistan before 1971are not Bangladeshis.

Also ignored is that there is a high fertility and birth rate among Muslims groups in western Assam where large families are the norm. This is a key factor in demographics – especially if one considers the fact that Assam has smaller border with Bangladesh than Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram or West Bengal!

There is hostility to in-migration in Assam and the northeast. Most migrants – as the recent movement from Syria shows – seek safe havens. In addition to that, there is greater economic security as Bangladesh’s economy has grown to a near middle economy, making risky out-migration less attractive.

The combination of selective facts, selective memory and rhetoric can be a deadly combination as seen in 2012 after incidents in western Assam where both Bodos and Muslims were victims. Hate mongering triggered an exodus of lakhs of workers from the region, from places such as Bengaluru. Few locally there would make the distinction between a Bodo, a Naga, a Sikkimese or a Mizo. The ‘northeast’ is lumped together.

What happened in February 1983 should suffice as adequate warning about the vulnerability of this complex area: Over 36 years ago, Aasu launched a powerful anti-immigrant movement that brought successive state governments to their knees, stalled the economy, shut down educational institutions and markets and even blocked oil transportation; in February 1983, the central government forced an election in the state, in the teeth of opposition from Aasu and other anti-immigrant groups. In the ensuing violence, thousands were killed – no one still knows the final toll, but it is said to be well above 3,000 – including Muslims of Bengali origin, members of tribal groups, Assamese and other ethnics.

The worst massacre was at Nellie, which i covered as a young reporter, in which nearly 2,000 Muslim men, women and children were killed. The sight of hundreds of corpses, of infants, women, old men, huddled on dry rice fields are images which i can never forget. Those who died were certainly not Bangladeshis and had lived there for generations. Their survivors struggle futilely to get justice for the murdered and maimed.