July 04, 2020
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A Foreign Hand From The East

Communally-inclined parties find Bangladeshis a rallying factor

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A Foreign Hand From The East
A Foreign Hand From The East

Who is an illegal immigrant?
According to the Assam Accord of 1985, people from Bangladesh who had come over before January 1966 were to be regularised as Indian nationals. Those who came over between 1966 and March 24, 1971, were to become eligible for citizenship after 10 years of detection. Those who arrived after March 24, 1971, were to be detected and deported.

Are all Bengali-speaking Muslims Bangladeshis?
No. West Bengal (25%), Assam (30%), Tripura have large populations of Bengali-speaking Muslims. Inter-state migration takes place all the time.


Playing With Fire

Nitin Gadkari | BJP president: “The Assam violence is a conflict between people of Indian origin and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”

Tarun Gogoi | Assam chief minister: “The incidents in Assam are not the handiwork of illegal immigrants. I can prove that.”

L.K. Advani | BJP leader: “Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have embarked on a large-scale grab of the land of indigenous communities.”

Arun Jaitley | Leader of house, RS: “The Congress does not have to import illegal immigrants to increase its votebank.”

Raj Thackeray | MNS chief: “Illegal immigrants have safe havens in UP and Bihar. From there, they come to Mumbai to foment trouble.”

Praveen Togadia | VHP leader: “All over India there are three crore Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators. They need to be deported on a war footing.”

Narendra Modi | Gujarat CM: “The infiltration of Bangladeshis has become a very serious problem, the Assam violence is only a small indicator.”

Aditya Langthasa | AIUDF gen sec: “If there are so many illegal immigrants, what are the army, the BSF, the police and the intelligence agencies doing?”

Dattatreya Hosabale | RSS: “This is the result of tension between genuine Indians and Bangladeshi Muslims who are
illegal migrants.”

From the eastern border to the western coast, the enemy has apparently been found: the Bangladeshi Muslim. As the domino effect from Assam is felt across India, the demonology only needs to be updated and tweaked to the most recent explosion on the Muslim faultline. This time, the Muslim bogeyman returns in the shape of the “Bangladeshi”. The immigrant, illegal migrant, settler, foreigner—there are several terms for him in a debate that has already communalised the national discourse and suggests a return to identity politics. It’s the small players like Raj Thackeray in Mumbai and Badruddin Ajmal in Assam who are key actors in the process; both nurturing votebanks based on differing identities. But the national parties are also picking up the cues.

Bangladeshi migrants have always been an issue for the BJP which it keeps raising periodically at a national level and with greater intensity in sensitive localities where polarisation is perceived to have a favourable impact on electoral outcomes. So as Assam descended into chaos, the BJP’s national leaders came up with the expected analysis. L.K. Advani said the illegal migrants were at the heart of the problem. Narendra Modi said they present a security threat to India; his words, in fact, are worth deconstructing: “The infiltration of Bangladeshis is becoming an issue of concern. The Assam violence is just a small example of it but the issue is becoming a major problem for the nation. The people in the country are keen to find a solution to the problem and it is for the PM to spell out a policy. The country wants to know what you think about it. Will the Bangladeshi infiltrators be allowed a sway over the country?” The man expected to have a major role in the national campaign of the BJP in the 2014 general elections has nuanced his position carefully. Bangladeshis were not to be seen as people searching for jobs, land and livelihood in Assam; they were “infiltrators” threatening all of India.

In Mumbai last week, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray addressed a huge rally and in the course of a long speech held up a Bangladeshi passport with great flourish. “They all came from outside Maharashtra,” he said, referring to a controversial protest on August 11 by some Muslim groups about the community’s plight in Assam and Burma, which turned violent. “Whoever came here had no connection with Maharashtra. After everything that went down here that day, this passport was found, a Bangladeshi passport. This was found right here. A single-entry passport (visa) which is needed only to come into India. Clearly, the passport holder had no intentions of going back, so it was thrown away here.”

“Raj’s rally was a perfectly timed move. He is spreading his influence to all of Maharashtra.”
Girish Kuber, Executive editor, Loksatta

The BJP-MNS rhetoric assumes significance because it comes at a time when these forces are in the ascendant, and Congress fortunes are in decline. Forty-eight hours after Raj’s show of strength, the Congress-NCP regime in Maharashtra succumbed to the demand for the transfer of Mumbai police commissioner Arup Patnaik for failing to act strongly against those who went on a rampage in Azad Maidan. “Raj has an impeccable sense of timing,” says senior political analyst and Loksatta executive editor Girish Kuber. “He is spreading his influence to the whole of Maharashtra to dominate the slot of a strong opposition party in the state. In that context, the rally was a perfectly timed move.” The BJP and Shiv Sena too had tried to organise protests against the Aug 11 incidents, but could attract only a few thousand each as opposed to the 45,000 who turned up for Raj.

Ever since its birth on March 9, 2006, Raj Thackeray’s MNS has been propagating the “sons of the soil” agenda, much like the Shiv Sena, his learning ground. The parent party has at various points found different targets—south Indians, north Indians, Indian Muslims, the Pakistani cricket team. The MNS had in 2008 run a violent campaign against migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Now, all the ire has turned against the Bangladeshi.  After all, he does make the perfect enemy—Muslim and foreign—for parties in search of a polarising agenda.

Such politics may appear unattractive to some, but it has an appeal that needs to be understood. “Raj could get a response on this issue where other parties failed,” says Sakal Group political editor Prakash Akolkar, “because he took up the issues of police morale, migrants and security of the citizens in a way that people could relate to. For many citizens, Hindu or Muslim, these are issues which affect them directly.” Even before Raj broke away from the Sena, it is said that he had made a short film on migrants and showed it to uncle Bal Thackeray. “Long before this issue resurfaced, we had issued instructions to all our corporators and councillors to keep a watch on Bangladeshi immigrants,” says MNS general secretary Nitin Sardesai. Not to be outdone, Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi has offered Raj Rs 2 crore if he proves his voters in his Govandi-Shivaji Nagar constituency include Bangladeshis. Azmi had also given Rs 1.5 lakh to the family of one of the two Muslim youths who were killed in the police firing at Azad Maidan.

Distant fire The Muslim protest at Azad Maidan on Aug 11. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook 03 September 2012)

In Assam, Muslims of Bengali origin have become the votebank of a party that caters exclusively to the minority community. Back in 2006, Tarun Gogoi had reportedly asked, “Who is Badruddin Ajmal?”, when asked about a possible alliance with his party, the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). Today, the Assam chief minister knows of Ajmal all too well. The recent violence in Bodoland has helped reinforce Ajmal’s credentials with his voters. With 18 MLAs, AIUDF is already Assam’s leading opposition party. The ‘All-India’ is a recent addition, a reflection of its growing national ambitions. As Ajmal asked for Gogoi’s dismissal, the CM—who some believe has played a more sophisticated version of the BJP card—retorted: “I wish Ajmal good luck. He has been seeking Allah’s blessings to remove me from the CM’s post.”

“By (calling for BTC’s dissolution), Ajmal has added fuel to fire. He could have asked for its reform.”
Monirul Hussain, Former head of Pol Sc dept, Gauhati University

A graduate in Islamic theology from Deoband, Ajmal’s official profile lists “religious discourse and Islamic theological exchanges” among his favourite pastimes. A perfume moghul with expansive business and charitable interests, Ajmal is believed to be perfectly capable of raising a stink when it suits his political interests. For someone whose political fortunes have been built exploiting Muslim victimhood, the conflict in Assam allows him a chance to spread his net wider. He and his party have sharpened their rhetoric by insisting on a summary dissolution of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and claiming that “90 per cent of the victims (of this round of violence) are Muslims”. “For someone who came up on nothing but the minority plank, he had to seize the opportunity to become their sole spokesperson and woo the Muslims away from the Congress in Assam,” says Nilim Dutta, the operational head of Strategic Research and Analysis Organisation in Guwahati. “Defending the minorities is one thing, but making needlessly provocative comments which could exacerbate an already volatile situation is quite another. His comments are now going to be used by the Hindu right against Muslims.” Already, many, including the BJP and groupings of Assamese-speaking Muslims, have called for Ajmal’s arrest.

While arguing that Ajmal’s political strategy is a response to the unfolding crisis, former head of the political science department at Gauhati University Monirul Hussain says that he may have overstepped the line by repeatedly calling for a dissolution of the BTC. “By doing this, he has added fuel to the fire,” says Hussain. “He could have talked about reforming the BTC, making it more inclusive instead of its dissolution.” Meanwhile, Bodoland People’s Front MLA Pradeep Brahma was arrested on August 23 for his role in the violence. He has been accused of shooting at Muslims from a Bolero vehicle.

Walter Fernandes, a senior fellow at the Guwahati-based North Eastern Social Research Centre, says the AIUDF owes its existence to the propaganda of an invasion by migrants from Bangladesh. “This makes the Muslims live in fear, because of which they’ll go to anybody who offers them protection under a Muslim fundamentalist flag,” he says. “What we need to do is counter this phenomenon and create a secular space.”

That, political compulsion and experience suggest, may be a real challenge. Significant elections loom in communally sensitive states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka (all with a direct BJP-Congress contest) leading up to the 2014 general elections. It’s not as though the national parties are hell-bent on having a bloodbath, since both are currently confronted with big problems. The BJP can never forget that Atal Behari Vajpayee believed the polarisation triggered by the 2002 Gujarat riots was a major reason for their electoral defeat in 2004. But it certainly suits the party to nuance the anti-Muslim card carefully to galvanise cadres, cut across caste differences or revive waning popular support in particular regions. Modi, for instance, wants to live down the Gujarat carnage and be known more as the economic growth/development man. Yet, he must always keep the faith and turn the pitch of the identity issue up or down depending on the audience and the requirement. That’s politics. For the Congress, its regime being quite discredited already, a charged situation could perhaps help it keep the splintering Muslim vote behind it in pockets; it would also divert attention from other failures. To add to the declining public morality of national players, there is the emergence of fundamentalist Muslim groups both in the political arena and in cyberspace, who also thrive on spreading fear and perpetuating victimhood.

The subcontinent’s political map, after all, was forged in the bloodbath of identity politics that led to the creation of Pakistan and ultimately Bangladesh. There was a great eye-for-an-eye blindness to the entire exercise whose price we continue to pay. Consider the subcontinental theatre at the time when Assam has become the cradle of India’s gravest humanitarian crisis. Hindus are trying to flee Pakistan to come to India (they are supposedly welcome because they are not Muslims), and there has always been an influx of economic refugees from Bangladesh that has fuelled politics and mayhem in Assam. In the midst of all this was the strange exodus of terrified people from the Northeast who left relatively safe Indian cities to return to a homeland in chaos. Their flight, more than anything else, revealed their fragility and lack of integration with mainstream India. It’s a sad twist of fate that those determined to stay are afraid, and those who flee are also so afraid.

Secular India must confront the fact that a nation built so proudly on the principle of rejecting the two-nation theory is still engaged with fiercely debating the issue of insider/outsider. The rhetoric again stokes the subliminal fear of the invader, the immigrant, the fifth columnist, the traitor among us. These are often the poorest of the poor, engaged in the menial tasks locals are unwilling to do. But the Bangladeshis (often a euphemism for Muslim) have long been depicted as a people who threaten to swamp us, who keep coming in wave upon wave.

By Saba Naqvi with Debarshi Dasgupta and Toral Varia Deshpande

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