Assam’s Bangladesh-phobia is a political product

Altaf Parvez | Feb 03, 2019


Srinivas Kumar Sinha, the retired general of the Indian army, was governor of Assam for six years from 1997. It was then that the state’s ethnic crisis was given a Bangladesh twist. He sent a 42-page letter to the Indian president KR Narayan in November 1998, asking for ‘illegal Muslim Bangladeshis’ residing in Assam to be driven out and also proposed a barbed wire fence to be erected along the border. He claimed that there were 4 million ‘Bangladeshis’ in Assam at the time. The Assam youth pushed the number up to around 8 million.

Another governor, General Ajai Singh, in 2005 claimed that every day around 6000 ‘Bangladeshis’ were entering Assam. He later amended his statement, but without letting up on his anti-Bangladeshi tirade. 

Bangladesh-bashing boost for BJP

In February 2014 Indian army chief at the time, Bikram Singh, termed ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ as a security threat. He made remarks to this effect when election campaigning was on in Assam. And in keeping with his contention, BJP used their anti-Bangladeshi card as the main issue of their campaign. And this result in them bagging 61 seats there, quite a jump up from the mere 5 they had previously. And Congress’ seats plummeted from 81 to 26.

At the same time, the central BJP government managed to finagle transit and other communication facilities from Bangladesh for Assam and other states of its northeast. The Bangladesh-phobia politics in Assam didn’t create any problems for the BJP government in Bangladesh, but was quite a success in Assam.

The claim that such a burgeoning number of Bangladeshis were living in Assam is unrealistic and teeming with communal hatred. Prior to the election it was repeated driven home that the large number of Bangladeshis in Assam were disrupting Assam’s demographic profile and that the state’s politics and power would go to the hands of ‘Bangladeshi Muslims’. If their claims were true that 6000 Bangladeshis were entering Assam every day, then in these 20 years the number would now stand at 43 million. But according to the latest population census of Assam, their population is 31.2 million.

Bangladeshis bring about Assam’s demographic change?

The first population census in Assam since British times, conducted in 1074, stated that 29 per cent of the population there was Muslim. And India’s last population census, taken in 2011, stated that Muslims constituted 34 per cent of the state’s population. And the percentage of Hindus in those two censuses was 54 and 61 respectively. So there has not been much significant change in the numbers of any particular community. But that has not stopped the fictitious claims on unabated influx from Bangladesh.
A draft register of citizens has been drawn up in Assam to detect ‘Bangladeshis’. This has identified 4 million persons as non-citizens. But unlike the former army chief’s contention, the majority of these non-citizens are Hindu. So there is no basis of the claim that Bangladeshi Muslims are responsible for bringing about a demographic change in Assam.

Nevertheless, the drive is on to garner political dividends from the situation. BJP is willing to amend the citizenship act in order to accommodate only the non-Muslim persons identified as non-citizens. This has instigated considerable protest in northeast India.
Despite all these happenings in Assam over the past few decades, Bangladesh has maintained a strange silence. So many high-profile personalities in India relentless conjure up all sorts of figures about illegal Bangladeshis in Assam, but Dhaka does not raise a single question on the issue.

Bangladesh ahead in development indicators

Migration from one place to another in generally spurred on by inequality in living standards. Bangladesh in most indicators of the Human Development Index (HDI), Bangladesh is far ahead of Assam. Maternal mortality in Assam is double that of Bangladesh, 328 in every 100,000. Infant mortality is also almost double. Life expectancy there is 62, in Bangladesh it is 79. Bangladesh’s per capita income is 1700 dollars. In Assam it is below 1000 dollars. This data does not in any way support the claims that hordes of Bangladeshis are surging into Assam.

Even so, the population censuses of 1971 and 1991 are used to support claims of Bangladeshis flooding into Assam. The two censuses show that the increase of Hindus in these 20 years is 42 per cent and the increase of Muslims is 77 per cent. Their media runs rife with these stories. They blame Bangladesh for the increase in Assam’s Muslims. The media has run all sorts of research on this ‘excessive’ increase in the Muslim populace. But the research has revealed that poverty, lack of education and economic backwardness is the main reason for the increase in population of the Muslims and the scheduled castes there. Birth rates are directly related to poverty. Muslims are more in number in Dhubri, Assam. Literacy rates there are 50 per cent, while this rate is 64 per cent in the entire Assam. While Muslims, incidentally, make up 14 to 15 per cent of India’s population, only 2 per cent land ownership is in their hands. It is the same in the case of employment. So while poverty and illiteracy push up birth rates, the blame is being placed on Bangladesh’s doorstep.
Behind anti-Bangladesh propaganda
The move to drive out ‘Bangladeshis’ from Assam started from way back, in 1979. In the latest citizen’s list of 2018, Muslims are around 1.2 million to 1.5 million among the total population of 4 million. This will decrease when the list is finalised. That means the ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ against whom there has been a social movement over the past 40 years, constitute less than 5 per cent of the population.

In actuality, the Bangladeshi Muslim spectre’ is being used to conceal the poor state of human rights in Assam and the rest of the northeast. It also serves to repress political representation of Assam’s Muslims. While they constitute a third of Assam’s population, there are only 2 Muslim MPs in Assam’s 14 seats. Even so, that is a good number compared to India overall where there are no Muslims MPs at all in at least 22 states. 
Congress was in power in Assam for 16 years from 2001. They had full support of the Muslims. But when Congress failed to protect from from the attacks of Boros and other ethnic groups, they formed the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 2005, under the leadership of Badruddin Umar Ajmal. They are now a significant political force at a local level. Muslims are the majority in at least nine of Assam’s 34 districts. They are deciding factors in six seats of the state’s Lok Sabha. They have clout in four other seats too. UDF is gaining in strength in Assam’s Barak Valley and Lower Assam. Now both Congress and BJP are eyeing the gradual rise of Muslims in Assam’s politics. The civil and military administration is none too pleased either. The present army chief Bipin Rawat on 21 February last year expressed his concern about the increase of Muslims in Assam and the election success of UDF. He claimed that China and Pakistan’s ‘proxy war’ was behind this.

BJP benefits from such repeated Bangladesh-phobia of important military persons in India. ‘Bangladesh’’ migrants will be raised yet again as an issue in Assam and West Bengal during the Lok Sabha elections due in a few months. Is Bangladesh not bothered at all?

* Altaf Parvez is a researcher on Southeast Asian history. Thus piece, appearing in Prothom Alo print version, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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