In 1947, our colonial masters in their wisdom (and as some suggest in their great geopolitical and economic interest) decided to divide British India into two independent dominions of Pakistan and India. The division of Bengal ensured that eastern Bengal went to Pakistan and western remained in India. As religion was the basis of this award of division, leaders agreed to exchange ethnic minorities of each other in these regions willing to cross over to the other side. The events induced by this lust-for-power brought out the worst in us; we lost millions to the madness and rage that ensued. The streets of Calcutta swarmed with vultures and crows as they fed on the human corpses that were just too many for anyone to remove.
East Bengal had a sizable Hindu population, and many of them left their land to safer places much earlier than the fateful events of 1947 and December 1971. 1947 ensured that the hordes of people kept running in search of safer places from their earlier homeland, in search and hope of a new homeland. This wave of immigration was strongest in the backdrop of 1947 and 1971. A huge number of people became refugees over a couple of years.
There might be a very few instances in world history where their tormentors so intricately decided the place of people’s refuge and exodus. We lost millions of lives in those devastating times across the subcontinent.
But most of all, as Syed Badrul Ahsan would put it, “The bitterness rippling out of the division of 1947 has remained. All of us are diminished.”
“Partition of India seventy two years ago… diminished all of us. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were laid low by the calamitous turn of circumstances brought on by the demand of the All-India Muslim League for the creation of a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Nearly two million died in the frenzy leading to a truncated freedom for the country from the British Raj. And those figures do not include the thousands who perished in the Calcutta riots of a year earlier. Neither do they take into account the hundreds and thousands who were massacred in Bihar and parts of eastern Bengal.”
– Syed Badrul Ahsan
We lost our humanity in the process. The tragedy is, it’s just not getting over. The people who were nothing more than unfortunate refugees became migrants first and illegal foreigners later. A crisis that was never of their own making; a problem that owed its origin to the political regimes rather than any of the belief they had in their nationhood. India conveniently let the narrative of migration and refuge become a story of illegal infiltration. Long ago, it further slipped to become a communal problem of the religious order. Riots between Muslims and ethnic communities in Assam exposed further that native-outsider issue has not really left Assam; instead, it is emerging, becoming more and more communal in its narratives.
Bengalis came seeking a better life and future for their loved ones and were directed to settle down on sparsely populated but strongly wrestled regions of the northeast or lower Assam. Local ethnic communities resisted the overnight demographic change, but Indian leaders in their glorious nearsightedness ignored it conveniently. The irony is that it went on to the extent of overpopulating regions in the northeastern state. So much so that Bengalis became the majority community in Tripura dispossessing the local ethnic inhabitants of their share in governance and resulted in a cultural appropriation.
Assam was a sensitive place for such changes. Many local and popular Congress leaders did raise the alarm in time, but nobody woke up before the organisations such as AASU and ULFA started expressing themselves through violent means on the issue of “foreign-influx” and inequitable situations thus created for the local people. Earlier, the waves of Bengalis, Nepalis (or Gurkhas), Biharis and central Indian tea-farm workers had been targets of organised public wrath by the locals. Delhi offered a truce and hence came the Assam Accord of 1985.
It is indeed sad that our political class had ignored the Assam migration problem since the very beginning. It overlooked the preposition to humanitarian solutions that involved the distribution of refugees from East Bengal across different states. Although the Assam Accord long ago legitimised violent protests against immigration on the issue of ethno-exclusivity, unlike other states, it has not grown beyond it. By the way, in our political discourse, mainstream had already justified and rationalised it as the Sons of the Soil movement.
My worst fear is that it can revive the demands of ethno-exclusivity, something like the existing Inner Line Permit (ILP) not just in the northeast but also to the other mainland states, where it has historically never existed.
Since then, even the mainstream increasingly viewed the non-ethnic people as outsiders, and as a part of their problem. Indian government repeatedly not only bowed down to the exclusionary demands of the Assam Movement but also accepted the idea that migrants were indeed a threat.
India, with its colonial legacy of partition, should recognize that the Bengalis, along with Punjabis, Sindhis and other communities have paid a heavy price for their political Independence.
It is one thing to have concern for the demography and national security, but it is entirely different when as a matter of state policy, we create illegal infiltrators out of people who have sought refuge in your country for survival. A huge number of post-1947 Bengali immigrants to Assam owe their origin to the Union of India and its policies as well. We need to accept that first. Hence, even when a provincial state failed to safeguard their interests, Union of India do not get absolved of its duty to protect people who are nothing more than the victims of cruel circumstances.
It’s funny how the ruling political party—both at federal and union level—reacted on finding out so many names of Bengali Hindus name in the first draft. Anyone who cares to read history will instantly understand that the Assam movement wasn’t against any religion, but outsiders. It is impossible that political parties somehow were unaware of the complicated history of NRC and Assam.
The first draft of NRC is out, and it declared that almost two million people are at the risk of losing their resident status in India (and not just in Assam). Many are actually demanding to enlarge the list as the numbers are not big enough for Assam’s “ground reality”.
The “inspired” political leadership is eagerly waiting to emulate the process across India. So, it seems we have finally cracked the code for the second transfer of population after 1947. The numbers are only going to swell beyond two million. The bigger achievement is that we are doing it independent of any outside support! Our political class is elated at the prospects of future electoral gains. By the way, a small problem is that no country has actually owned these people so far. (No you are wrong to believe that Bangladesh has already accepted India’s version on it, and it will be very naive to believe that it will do so anywhere in the near future).
So, we are looking at a prospective India which by active policies is creating a million stateless people, and also a situation where Bangladesh is drawn away from Indian sphere of influence— because it can no longer trust India to treat them fairly as exhibited in its treatment of a large number of people of the subcontinent, who are essentially a product of our shared colonial history and its aftermath. It’s high time that we treat Bangladeshi migrant issue as a humanitarian crisis, continuous but as a shared colonial heritage, which can be solved only on humanitarian grounds.
The above article was first published here.