Isn’t ‘Illegal Bangladeshi’ Racist Shorthand for Bengali Speaking Muslims in Assam? Bonojit Hussain
Guest post by Bonojit Hussain
The fragile and unstable peace in Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) of Assam has once again been ruptured. The recent massacre of Muslims of East Bengali descent in Kokrajhar and Baksa districts of BTAD on 1st and 2nd May has already taken toll on 46 lives; with many people still missing, the dead count might go up.
This is not the first time that targeted ethnic violence has occurred in what is today BTAD. Through out the 1990’s armed Bodo groups have indulged in pogroms against Nepalis, Adivasis and Muslims and Hindus of East Bengali descent. But since the creation of BTAD in 2003, increasingly only Muslims of East Bengali descent are being targeted. Worst among all was the so-called ‘riots’ of 2012 where 108 people died. According to sources in Assam government, 79 were Muslims of East Bengali descent, 22 were Bodos and 4 were from other communities.
A lot has been written about the underlying causes of these recurring targeted killings and we need not dwell upon that here. (for an overview see Sanjib Barua, “Assam: The Politics of ElectoralViolence”, Outlook Magazine, May 09, 2014). What should bother us all is how quickly discourse over the recurring massacres in BTAD is transformed into a debate on the question of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, wherein the victims are immediately labeled as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’. Even if the victims were ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, the barbaric act of killing 46 people in a span of 36 hours is a crime against humanity.
Like in 2012, immediately large section of Assamese society, a section of the national media and the BJP leadership raised the bogey of ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ to justify the killings and divert attention from the real causes of the massacre. Some even went to the extent of likening victims of the massacre with locust. Verbal attacks and abuses are also being launched on social media against anyone who dares question the hypocrisies of Assamese society. Recently an Assamese research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University was subjected to threats and abuses by Assamese xenophobes, she was also asked to re-locate to Bangladesh owing to her sympathies for these ‘locusts’.
If one poses the question as to how these xenophobes know that Assam is being swarmed by ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, the answer is always about increasing visibility and numbers of Miyas (slur used to denote Muslim Bangladeshis) in urban clusters, new settlements in peripheries of forest land and settlements near river embankments. I argue this is a racist way of telling.
It is a difficult question to answer how many undocumented Bangladeshis are there in BTAD area let alone in all of Assam. However, it impossible to refute that from 1901 to 1941, encouraged by the colonial administration, over 10 lakhs migrated and settled in Assam from East Bengal. The geographical area of present day BTAD would fall under what were Goalpara and Kamrup districts during the colonial era. So, it is worth mentioning that East Bengali Muslim peasants first settled in undivided Goalpara district, before they spanned out to other parts of western and central Assam. The decadal growth of population in Goalpara district had shot up by 30 % as early as 1901-1911 compared to 1.4 % and 2 % in the preceding decades respectively. In 1921-1931, the decadal growth of population of Goalpara dropped to 15.8 % because most of the suitable wasteland in the district had already been occupied by immigrants who poured into the district in 1901-1921, and that the immigrants had found a larger scope for settling in Kamrup and Nagaon districts. During 1921 to 1931 Barpeta subdivision of Kamrup district saw an enormous 69 % increase in population. Between 1901 and 1931, 4.98 lakhs East Bengali Muslim peasants are recorded in Goalpara district alone. Here, then, the question arises – Where are the descendents of the lakhs of Muslim peasants of East Bengali descent who settled in the region before partition? (for a detailed discussion see, Banajit Hussain, “The Bodoland Violence and Politics of Explanation”; Seminar Magazine, No: 640, December, 2012)
Considering the abysmal level of socio-economic development among Muslims of East Bengali descent in Assam, the reason for increasing numbers and visibility of the so-called Miyas in urban clusters, in the peripheries of forest land and near river embankments could very well be migration from rural areas to urban centres of Assam in search of livelihood. But more importantly it could be because of internal displacement from Char areas of Assam.
Chars are the extremely braided mid-channel bar of Brahmaputra and its tributaries. These Chars were populated by Muslims of East Bengali descent for cultivation in the later decades of the Colonial era. Due to subsequent neglect and apathy of the Government the socio-economic indicators among Char dwellers have remained extremely depressing. Assam Government’s socio-economic survey in 1992-93 and 2002-03 revealed that Char dwellers constituted 9.35 % of the total population of Assam; the population density in the Char area was 690 persons per sq. km (Assam’s overall density in 2001 was 340 person per sq. km); between 1992-93 to 2002-03 literacy rate in Char area increased marginally from 15.45 % to 19.31 % (Assam’s overall literacy rate in 2001 was 63.25 %); in 2002-03 67.90 % of Char dwellers lived below the poverty line, an increase of 19% from 1992-93 (34 % of Assam’s population was below poverty line in 2001).
By their very nature of being integral part of the fluvial process of the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries, Chars are pre-disposed to erosion and Char dwellers pre-disposed to become internally displaced persons. Though hard data on displacement from char areas is hard to come by, some micro-level studies provide adequate insight into flood, erosion and displacement. One such study conducted by Dr. Gorky Chakraborty in the chars of Barpeta district reveals that “during the period (1989-98) when there was no high intensity flood in Assam, 45% of the total households were affected and 51% of the total land was lost by the surveyed char households. Similar study over a period of 25 years (1980-2004) in the Beki River, a tributary of Brahmaputra in Barpeta district reveals that 77% of the surveyed households suffered due to land erosion and 94% of their land was lost.” (Gorky Chakraborty, “Assam’s Hinterland: Society and Economy in the Char Areas”; Akansha Publishers, Delhi, 2009) With such abysmal socio-economic conditions and such high degree of erosion and displacement, lakhs ofChar dwellers are left with no option but to migrate to the mainland.
With such complexities involved in differentiating between an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant and a Muslim citizen of East Bengali descent; how do Assamese xenophobes and leaders of BJP conclusively declare that the villagers of Balapara, Narasinghbari and Narayanguri (3 villages where the massacre occurred) were ‘illegal Bangladeshis’?
What are the ways of telling the difference? It is most certainly not difference but similarities between an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant and a Muslim citizen of East Bengali descent. It is physical and cultural markers; in this case it is beard, lungi, religion and language. Doesn’t this make ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ racist shorthand for any Muslim of East Bengali descent in Assam?
Here it is worth looking at the cliché that are too often deployed – “illegal Bangladeshis are behind Rhino poaching, they loot innocent tribal villagers, they breed faster than dogs, rape and murder women in villages of Assam”. These clichés are becoming a part of a new discursive formation under consolidation which represents Muslims of East Bengali descent as “lesser human” or in its extreme form as “locust”. It hardly needs to be asserted that the construction of the “lesser human” other that is sexually virulent and is naturally prone to criminality has been the hallmark of racist worldview for more than half a century now.
Note: A very short version of this article was published in Calcutta edition of The Telegraph
(Bonojit Hussain is a Delhi based researcher from Assam. He is associated with New Socialist Initiative)