The North-East: A Rather Troubled And A Much Forgotten Part Of India [Part 3:The Problem Of Immigrants]

By Karmanye Thadani:

Immigrants are an issue in perhaps every society. In the north-east, Assam has been a region where this migration issue has manifested itself in serious ways. Despite not finding its rightful place in the national consciousness, the Assamese alienation from India was not all that great, because of Hinduism being the dominant faith and it became a serious concern only because of the perceived cultural and economic threat posed by immigration and though the alienation from India may not be much of an issue now, immigration still is. The recent bloodbath between Bodos and Muslims has only been a part of this long saga, and Tripura too has a similar story to tell. However, we shall start with Assam.

Bengali Muslims had made their presence in Assam much before the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh had arisen. Tensions between the locals and immigrants over economic matters, even land rights, have taken place since back then. In fact, immigrants have included not only Bengali Muslims but even Hindus from Bihar and elsewhere and there is history of the ULFA resorting to violence against immigrants. But leaving violence aside, after the flooding in of immigrants from what became Bangladesh at the time of the war in 1971, there was also a peaceful movement in the late 1970s and in the first half of the 1980s demanding that these immigrants be expelled, resulting in the Assam Accord of 1985, by virtue of which the government was obliged to keep a check on this immigration.

However, this has not happened. The Congress, with its mandate of appeasing Muslims, only allowed this immigration to grow and gifted these illegal immigrants with ration cards to strengthen its vote-bank, even though, sadly, the Chakmas, from what was then in the late 1940s East Pakistan, who are Buddhist by faith, and wanted their region to be incorporated in India rather than Pakistan and underwent ethnic cleansing, on seeking refuge in India, were denied their citizenship until an order came from the apex court of this country which upheld this right of theirs, many decades later.

It has indeed become quite difficult to distinguish these Bangladeshi immigrants from Bengali Muslims from the same region who had migrated to Assam much before Indian independence or even Muslims who are ethnically Assamese, for the Muslims of all these categories have all intermarried and live in the same settlements. Some of the Bangladeshi immigrants are strongly Islamist by outlook not following the liberal and heterodox Bengali Islam, similar to its Kashmiri, Malayali or Sindhi counterparts, and have been responsible for terrorist attacks (though Assam has also seen enough terrorism by Hindus, though not in the name of faith, such as by Bodo radicals against non-Bodo Assamese for the cause of a Bodoland or even ULFA attacking Bihari immigrants) not only in Assam itself but even other parts of India.

I recall a very interesting incident in this regard. Last year, I was watching the ODI Cricket World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka in my flat in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, with an Assamese Hindu friend who was my classmate. The match went on and my friend got a call from his brother back in Guwahati, who told him that he heard crackers being burst in the neighbouring locality of Bangladeshi immigrants on Sachin being bowled out by Malinga. While my friend narrated this to me quite calmly, my blood boiled as to why these people who have illegally settled in our country and are availing of its resources should dare to offend the nationalist sentiments of those around them even though the country India was playing wasn’t Bangladesh or even Pakistan. While I cannot assert that these anti-India immigrants were terrorists or even as extreme by outlook to favour terrorism, it is quite easy to understand that those who do resort to terrorism share this disgustingly fanatic mentality, with India for them only being emblematic of a kafir nation-state that partitioned the supposedly Islamic country of Pakistan, has been responsible for the Babri Masjid demolition, the 2002 Gujarat riots and the deprivation of the Kashmiris’ right of self-determination even by brutal means.

Of course, this does not mean that we label all the Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants as terrorists or even anti-India elements and many of them, I assume, must be tolerant by outlook and grateful to India for having liberated their region from the dominance of Pakistan (not to forget, the brutalities of the Pakistani Army) and for allowing them to stay here. I saw the cover of an issue of Combat Law, a prominent human rights journal, dealing with how the saffron brigade is demonizing all the Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants as terrorists, which is of course unfair, but with the huge population that we already have in India, why are we overburdening ourselves with people who are not even refugees and when at least some of these people pose a national security threat?

I must say, at the risk of being called names, that the saffron brigade should be lauded for at least giving this issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam and to a lesser extent, the rest of the north-east, the importance it deserves and bringing it in the mainstream discourse, though those in the corridors of power failed to act on it.

Official circles acknowledged the threat but did nothing about it, till the economic crisis pertaining to the fight over land resources between the aggressive Bodos, many of whom want an independent country of their own and the Muslims (as I’ve already stated, it has become hard to distinguish between Muslims of different varieties, especially considering that there has been more than one generation of Muslims with roots in Bangladesh even after its creation) manifested itself in the recent violent conflict in which the Bodos eventually had the upper hand. In this article, I won’t venture into how the conflict unfolded, but would just say that the Congress by pandering to the illegal immigrants for vote-bank politics, and the BJP by virtually dehumanizing them, have deepened the divide between the Bodos and the Muslims with terrible consequences, though it was heart warming to see how the BJP blamed the Congress in Assam for not acting after a few Bodos initiated this conflict by killing some Muslim individuals.

The Muslims in Assam who are not of Bangladeshi origin, owing to their virtual non-distinguish-ability, have also been caught in the cross-fire. Some of them have come out in the open to disassociate the Bangladeshis from themselves, perhaps for the first time. I also heard a sad story from a female friend whose boy-friend is an Assamese Hindu of how his Muslim friend in Silchar, Assam, who wasn’t of Bangladeshi origin, was brutally attacked and was hospitalized but succumbed to his injuries and that too, on Eid. A very tragic state of affairs indeed. Eid would never be truly festive for that family again.

The Bodo-Muslim conflict has had serious ramifications even for north-easterners living outside their native regions in other parts of India, with Muslim extremists failing to understand or overlooking the economic basis of these clashes, which is devoid of any theological basis like a mandir-masjid issue, indiscriminately attacking north-easterners. While Muslim communalism in India is a serious issue by itself and is not only a backlash to its Hindu counterpart, few venture to talk about it for fear of being associated with the saffron brigade and a good many Muslim communal pseudo-intellectuals who may not be very extreme in their communalism but are communal nonetheless don a rather unconvincing left-liberal cloak, but again, few Hindus venture to expose them.

There are, however, Hindus like Swapan Dasgupta and there have been Muslims like Hamid Dalwai who have been outspoken about this, and while these attacks on innocent north-easterners in places like Pune (also, some north-easterners were thrown off a moving train in West Bengal) or even the absurd violent protest in Mumbai against the killings of Muslims (but not Bodos) in Assam and even the mass murders of Myanmarese Muslims, strangely expecting the Indian government to do something for the latter, by loony Islamists are rooted in the larger issue of Muslim communalism, this happening with north-easterners shows that they are, in any case, a vulnerable minority, especially considering that many of their regular problems of crime and discrimination are not attended to by the police properly. Such a scare has been created among the north-easterners, particularly from the lower socioeconomic strata, in big cities like Bangalore, that many of them are fleeing, though it is indeed very heartening to see that Muslims turned up in sizable numbers at a railway station in Bangalore asking the north-easterners to not leave, showcasing placards saying they love them.

However, many of the SMS and e-mail threats that our brothers from the north-east are receiving have been traced to Pakistan, where propagandists have put up online morphed images of victims from across the globe, such as Tibet and Thailand, as images of the Muslim victims of Assam to provoke our Indian Muslim brothers into attacking north-easterners. So, our north-eastern brothers shouldn’t read too much into these perceived threats, since very often, these are exaggerated and the Christians who left Gujarat for Kerala following a few minor instances of violence against some of their co-religionists in the state predicting a rerun of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots for themselves based on the same or the Zoroastrians who left Iran with the fall of the Shah owing to the Islamic Revolution and came to India had left their homes for nothing, since Christians who stayed back in Gujarat continue to live happily and the Zoroastrian minority is treated very fairly by the Iranian state just like the Jewish minority, which in spite of the strong anti-Zionist fervour of the Iranian state, is never treated as an extension of Israel.

Now, coming to Tripura. Here, the saffron brigade has oversimplified the secessionist movement as a Christian-versus-Hindu one and attributed it purely to Christian fanaticism. Yes, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), a secessionist insurgent outfit, has given this conflict a religious colour by declaring as their mission making an independent Tripura free from the Hindu pagans and raising slogans of faith, receiving support from some of the fanatic clergy of the Baptist sect of Protestant Christianity, but at the heart of this conflict lies not religion but the cultural and economic threats posed by the immigration of Bengali Hindus into Tripura at the time of the partition of India and even the creation of Bangladesh when the Pakistani Army was excessively brutal with the Bengali residents of East Pakistan, Muslims and Hindus alike, but more so the latter. Such has been the overwhelming inflow of Bengali Hindus that the indigenous people of Tripura, who had embraced Christianity in British times and whose native religious beliefs prior to that were generally not associated with Hinduism, have been reduced to a minority, which is undoubtedly a rather uncomfortable feeling.

Most Bengali Hindus have often used their majority status to get an upper hand and derive illegitimate benefits and even the state legislature is dominated by them, with Bengali practically serving as the official language of Tripura. The rather understandable resentment on the part of the indigenous people of Tripura needs to be sensitively understood and tackled though all of them can obviously not be labeled as terrorists or even supporters of terrorism and citing this hostility as an example to try and suggest that Christians across India cannot be trusted to be loyal citizens, as some in the saffron brigade have, is nothing but crazy.

That being said, acts of terrorism carried out by the NLFT and other such groups in the name of Christianity (or the threats to Hindus to not celebrate their festivals or even forcing the few Hindu indigenous tribals of Tripura, not the Bengali immigrants, to convert to Christianity), such as the 2008 Agartala blasts, cannot be condoned and our intelligence agencies and security forces have done a good job of checking the same.

The issues are complex and viewing them from an oversimplified perspective will only complicate things further. It’s time we, as a nation, rise to the occasion and act.

[box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author: The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely’ Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views expressed are personal. To read his other posts, click here.[/box]

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