In Assam the issue of Bengali speaking Muslims has been brought up time and over again and this point has also been used at the time of elections to polarize the communities along religious lines.
In the recently concluded assembly elections in Assam (March-April 2011), one of the issues which was whipped up by BJP was about the Bengali speaking people especially the Muslims of Assam. Most of the Bengali speaking Muslims are projected to be from Bangla Desh, and the communal parties and groups are using this myth to enhance their political capital, which is mostly based on spreading hate against minorities and bringing to fore the issues related to identity. In different parts of India also, the issue of Bengali Muslims has been raised too often. The Bengali speaking Muslims, Bangladeshis and also those from West Bengal, are projected to be Bangladeshis, and are presented to be threat to security. This point was raised time and over again in the acts of terror committed in recent years by the gang of Sadhvi Prgaya Singh Thakur to Aseemanand types belonging to Abhinav Bharat, Sanatan Sansthan etc. Many a time Bangladeshi groups were named in these acts of terror done by Hindutva groups and their connection with local Bangladeshis was propagated to the hilt. In Assam the issue of Bengali speaking Muslims has been brought up time and over again and this point has also been used at the time of elections to polarize the communities along religious lines.
On the contrary, many a Muslims, especially Bengali speaking one’s, irrespective of their prolonged stay in Assam, have been labeled as D voters, i.e. Doubtful voters and are not allowed to vote. The mechanism to prove that you are a bona- fide citizen lies on these hapless poor, who have been waiting for years to get this D category removed from their names. BJP has been arguing that Congress is shifting the Bangladeshis to the areas where they need to increase their voting percentage. One recalls that a massive anti Muslim pogrom was unleashed in Nellie in 1983. That time a tribe was instigated to massacre the Muslims on the ground that Bangladeshis have voted in the election and nearly 5000 Muslims were done to death. This issue of ‘Bangladeshi Muslims’ has also been electorally encashed by All Assam Students Union, which has been infiltrated and supported by RSS.
As such the issue of Bengali speaking Muslims has been very vexed and has a long history. Once the British annexed Assam in 1826, they saw this area as a potential one where the neighboring overpopulated Bengali people can be planted. They started a ‘Human Plantation program’, as per which the Bengalis, who were having land pressure and crowding in undivided Bengal, were encouraged to come to Assam and a large number of those who came to Assam were Muslims from Bengal. They worked hard to develop the land and agriculture in Assam. They were hard working and contributed massively to the development of Assam.
The issue became complicated with partition of India by the British. With partition tragedy many Hindus migrated to neighboring states. Later during the repression of East Pakistan by Pakistani army many a people fled East Pakistan and some of them did come to Assam. Most of these were Hindus. The process had other side also with the rise of communal politics in Assam, nearly 6 lakh Assamese, Muslims, also migrated to Bangla Desh.
In other parts of India also many a people from Bangla Desh migrated mainly due to economic reasons. In Mumbai and Delhi communalists raised the bogey of Bangladeshis as a security threat. Citizen’s inquiry committees, comprising of noted Human rights activists investigated the issue of Bangladeshi ‘threat’ in Mumbai in particular. One such investigation done by Shama Dalvai and Irfan Engineer pointed out that the number of Bangladeshis, which is claimed to be 3 Lakhs in Mumbai holds no water. As such it is difficult to estimate their number but rough estimate can go to 20000 of them in Mumbai. Most of these Bangladeshis are involved in painstaking Zari embroidery work and their women folk work as house maids, at atrociously low wages. Their living conditions are cramped, near gutters and in outskirts of suburbs. Most of their time is spent in making the two ends meet with great amount of difficulty.
Similar is the situation in the other metros, especially Delhi, where also the communalists have tried to use this phenomenon to their political advantage. One does observe that migrations, legal and illegal, to supposedly ‘greener pastures’ is the trend amongst the poor and those trying to climb the social ladders to higher levels. In India itself we see innumerable people from Nepal and many a Tibetans have been given asylum. We also observe that many an Indians had migrated to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, US and UK in particular. The migration to later two countries is a dream for many. The idea behind such migrations is purely social and economic, to overcome the misery and deprivation or to latch on to upwardly mobile channel.
Tragically this issue has been used for the politics of communal divide. In Assam the British did pursue the policy of divide and rule, as in other places in Assam also they tried to put Hindus against Muslims. With the Human plantation program in 19th Century, the local Assamese were not very happy, and British encouraging Hindu camp versus Muslim camp added to the problem. Later British also tried to draw the physical ‘Line System’ trying to make people settle in separate localities according to their religion. This added to the worsening of the problem of inter religious community divide. Added on to this there is a geographical aspect adding to the problem. The mighty river Brahmaputra keeps changing its course too often. Those settled on the banks have to leave their home and hearth looking for new place for survival. Those displaced are generally amongst the poor and that adds to the issue, they are mostly labeled as Bangladeshi immigrants.
There is an urgent need to look into the communal issue in Assam. The D voter system is contributing to massive dissatisfaction amongst the people. It is also a very poor state, needing to be put on the rails of development. Such irritants created by historical circumstances and geographical compulsions are used for political gains by some. We need to bring in affirmative action to cultivate the spirit of fraternity amongst all the people of Assam; we need to counter the false propaganda about religious communalists to cultivate the sense of inclusive society all over to ensure that the path for progress and struggle for human rights is pursued relentlessly
Ram Puniyani was a Professorof Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai. He works keenly on social issues and is the author of three books including Communal Politics: An illustrated primer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.