The recent troubles in Assam that have escalated in recent days have caught everyone by surprise — more so because it seems to be spontaneous. What is worse, the reverberations can be heard across the nation with people taking sides based on their understanding of what is happening.
Javed Mohammed is bewildered these days. At 23, he is a student of a leading university in Hyderabad, a city that he was born in. In 1948, after the Nizam had been deposed and Hyderabad state was integrated in India, Javed’s family out of fear of what lay ahead of them wanted to migrate to Pakistan. But they gave up the plans because Hyderabad had been home for so many generations.
Javed was born many decades later and has always seen himself as a Hyderabadi and an Indian. But the latest move by the government has him confused. He is apprehensive. “I do not know where this will lead us. Will I have to prove that I have stayed in India always? If I can’t, will I be labelled a foreigner,” he asks.
A similar question is asked by 45-year-old Nazia Ahmed from Kolkata. “What will happen to my school-going daughter? Will she be asked to prove her credentials as an Indian,” Nazia asks in spite of her being a practising lawyer at the Calcutta High Court.
Living in fear
Although the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) relates only to migrations in Assam from Bangladesh, Indian Muslims who have stayed in this country are wary and apprehensive. They don’t know whether this act is targeted at all of them. Although the government is loud in announcing that CAA does not apply to them, the apprehension is because the ruling party – the BJP – is not really perceived as a Muslim-friendly party.
“We had averred that once in power the compulsions of the chair would have forced the government to take a moderate line towards Muslims. But their credibility among Muslims is such that many in the community is not willing to trust them fully,” says Rashid Ahmed, a resident of Mumbai.
Subroto Chatterjee, a retired corporate manager based in Delhi, is however very happy. A huge Congress fan in the past, he says volubly: “I support this move. Where else will Hindus in Bangladesh go? They are not equal citizens of Bangladesh. So it is natural for them to come to India. It is our duty to accept them,” he adds.
But Chatterjee is cognizant of the huge protests in Assam. “This is but natural. If a huge number of folks from Bangladesh are settled in Assam, the Assamese are justified in complaining. The government should have thought through this problem and should have planned and communicated to the Assamese that these Hindus from Bangladesh would not be settled in their state,” he adds.
But nobody has an alternate plan to settle these Hindus in other parts of the country. The Assamese are very sensitive because the influx of Bengalis is seen as a cultural invasion striking at the roots of their identity.
Bengalis starting with peasants have been migrating into Assam ever since the 1850s. They were seen as better workers and settled in plantations. The education system was better in Bengal than Assam during the British times, so Bengali babus also ruled the roost in government offices in Assam. Migration after independence swelled the population of Hindu Bengalis in the state and they came to dominate the Barak Valley whose main city is Sylhet.
Comprising the districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi in the picturesque southern Assam, this area has Bengali as the official language. Assamese are, however, not happy with the domination of Bengalis in the area which has become a stranglehold after 1947. Tripura, originally a tribal land, is now completely Bengali dominated with large-scale migrations after India became independent. The tribals may be upset but nobody has registered their angst.
Bangladesh also shares borders with Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya among others but ILP (inner-line permits) have saved them. ILP requires special permits from local governments for outsiders to be allowed to be settled there. The outsiders mean people from the rest of India and elsewhere.
As is known, the basis of the Assam agitation between 1979 and 85 was the influx of Bangladeshis. A popular non-political movement led by the All Assam Students Union (Aasu) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) demonstrated to expel Bangladeshi immigrants from India and protect the local people.
With two massacres (at Nellie where more than 2,500 Bengali Muslims were killed and at Khoirabari where around 300 Hindu Bengalis were killed) the movement had a violent edge. Other than these 860 men of the AASU were killed in the long agitations that culminated into an Assam accord after talks with the Union government.
The initial demand was that immigrants from 1961-71 be disenfranchised and dispersed to other parts of the country but finally the deal was to deport immigrants who came over after January 1966. Things were quiet after then with the Aasu coming to power and forming the AGP government in Assam.
Bangladesh no longer favours India
In the meantime, Bangladesh’s economic condition has been gradually improving. As a result, migration from Bangladesh into India has reduced to a trickle; this was a sizeable in the 1980s and 1990s and Bangladeshis masquerading as Indians infiltrated into the country and could be seen even as far as Delhi disguised as Hindu Bengalis — with the help of local politicians who treated them as vote banks.
The GDP of Bangladesh has been growing at more than 6.5 percent at an average since 2004 and this has increased in recent years. From 7.1 percent in 2016 it grew to 7.9 percent in 2018 and is expected to be 8.1 percent in 2019. Bangladesh is a major exporter of readymade garments and leather goods and receives huge remittances from Bangladeshis abroad. In fact, the last Bangladesh high commissioner told India in his farewell press conference said that ‘a Bangladeshi would prefer to swim to Italy than cross over to India.’
Though the position of Hindus in Bangladesh is now far better than what it was a few years ago, they are in reality not ‘equal citizens’ of that country. The Hindus in rural areas face discrimination and periodically many get converted to Islam. However, it is true that many are in high government positions (like secretaries to the government). A few years ago a Bishnupriya Manipuri (Hindu) was the chief justice of the Supreme Court. But the position of Hindus in Bangladesh is superior to that of Hindus in Pakistan.
Interestingly, West Bengal has a longer border of 2,217 km with Bangladesh against 262 km in Assam. The border is more porous in West Bengal than that of Assam.
Therefore, there is more infiltration of Bangladeshis into India through West Bengal. The border districts of Bengal have a population of more than 90 per cent in some places. But the infiltration has never been an issue with the left-front governments that ruled West Bengal from 1977-2009 and the Mamata government that has been in power since then.
Mamata Banerjee’s government has assiduously cultivated Muslims as a vote bank — now believed to be a little less than 40 per cent of the voters. The next assembly elections in the state in 2021 will see the BJP assiduously challenge Mamata. Many think that the CAA in Assam is a precursor to this battle in West Bengal. In other words, the trouble that has begun in Assam is just the beginning.
Kingshuk Nag is an author and a journalist.