The agony of being labelled a ‘Bangladeshi’ in Assam

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Rising numbers Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been Assam’s Achilles’ heel
Rising numbers Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been Assam’s Achilles’ heel.
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

The 2012 riots in the Kokrajhar district of lower Assam between ethnic Bodos and Bengali-Muslim settlers had reignited the debate over the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the state. The slogan “Bangladeshi, go back” has echoed again, with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) renewing the call for deportation of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

“We want the immediate implementation of all the clauses of the Assam Accord,” says Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser, AASU. “We want speedy identification and deportation of illegal migrants. The demography of Assam is under threat, indigenous communities are turned into minority all because both the Centre and the state have used them as vote banks and tried to legalise the illegal migrants. The fallout has been violence.”

To add to the chorus, the BJP in Assam, led by former AASU turk Sarbananda Sonowal has made the issue of deportation its main poll plank.

The issue of illegal migrants is a sore point in Assam’s history. A statewide anti-foreigner agitation led by the AASU between 1979 and 1985 culminated in the Assam Accord signed with the Centre. Foreigners who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971 from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) would be tried in special foreigners’ tribunals and deported, the Accord said.

The grouse of many political outfits in Assam has been that this was never properly implemented. “The very discourse of the Assam Agitation had swayed between an anti-foreigner movement and a linguistic movement, so, at times, some groups got isolated,” says a senior Muslim advocate of the Gauhati High Court on condition of anonymity, who was closely associated with the agitation.

The tone for the agitation was set by the infamous “language riots” between the Bengali Hindus and ethnic Assamese in the 1960s, reaching a peak with the 1983 Nelie massacre that saw more than 2,000 Bengali-Muslims killed by the indigenous Lalung tribesmen. The 2012 flare-up in the Bodo areas is just the latest in the tribal ethnic groups’ clashes with Muslim settlers in the state.

The constant politicking and migrant-bashing rhetoric has made sure that on the streets of Assam, anyone who wears a lungi, sports a beard, speaks in Bangla and has a Muslim surname is a Bangladeshi. “The worst victims of this are the genuine Bengali-Muslims of Assam who have been here much before Partition, let alone the creation of Bangladesh in 1971,” says Hafiz Ahmed, a noted literary activist. “The illegal influx from Bangladesh is a reason of worry for everyone in Assam, including the genuine Bengali-Muslim, but then to brand every Muslim a Bangladeshi is also criminal.”

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