The illegal Bangladeshi – a view from West Bengal

[ Express Tribune (Karachi), 16 May 2014 ; Observer Bangladesh, 17 May 2014 ; Millenium Post, 15 May 2014; Kashmir Observer, 17 May 2014]

The massive victory of Narendrabhai Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recently concluded parliamentary elections of the Indian Union has brought much cheer to Islamo-nationalist political forces in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The cynical calculation behind the jubilation is that the new government will squeeze illegal Bangladeshi migrants who are in the Indian Union. The Awami League government will look like a lame duck in front of an aggressive New Delhi. This would strengthen the Bangladeshi opposition’s case of Awami League being an Indian (read Hindu) stooge. This will politically benefit the opposition. However, it is not to be forgotten that during the last Islamo-nationalist Bangaldesh Nationalist Party government at Dhaka, which partially coincided with the tenure of the BJP-led government at New Delhi, many ‘deals’ happened. There were ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ then too. What are the plans of the new New Delhi government will unfold soon.

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh shares with the Indian Union a border whose drawing, policing and barb-wiring takes into account the concerns of everyone except those who live at the border. This is probably true for nation-state borders in general. The Border Security Force (BSF) of the Indian Union has a distinctly bad reputation for being trigger-happy when it comes to shooting down what it claims as people illegally crossing the border. This makes the BSF a much-hated name in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, a sentiment that is used to the hilt by Islamo-nationalist political forces in their campaigns. The BSF also routinely harasses, rapes, maims and assaults people in the villages of the West Bengal side of the border. This complicates the easy narrative of BSF’s anti-Bangladesh bias. Like all stat-raised band of armed people, these are self-serving forces. The border is a plum posting for the amount of money paid to border security personnel on either side – an ‘illegal’ taxing of ‘illegal’ activities. BSF, with its assaults on both East Bengalis and West Bengalis, seems to be an equal opportunity brutalizer. This is the force entrusted by the Indian Union to keep ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ to enter the territories of the Indian Union.

During elections in the subcontinent, neighbouring nation-states and their inhabitants come alive as proxies for domestic issues and fissures. ‘India’ is one of the fundamental axes around which politics in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal expresses itself. The Indian Union has ‘closet Pakistanis’ and ‘illegal Bangladeshis’.

Narendra Modi, speaking at a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rally at Srirampur in West Bengal on 27th April, made public his resolve to deport Bangladeshis from India. It is an old BJP charge that most political forces in West Bengal have tried to get Muslim votes by nurturing illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, by getting them government documents to regularize their illegal status. The unsubstantiated underside of this charge is that the West Bengali Muslims look favourably at this development and do not mind this increase in the number of their co-religionists. At the alarmist end of this claim is that West Bengal is staring at an inevitable demographic reversal where Bengali Hindus will soon lose their majority, thus losing their only safe haven (though victims of the 1971 Marichjhapi massacre would say otherwise). That modern yearning for a united Hindu vote (just like monolithic Hinduism) remains unfulfilled. The BJP’s thought that in West Bengal’s multi-cornered fight, a renewed push at the consolidation of some Hindu votes might reap some dividends has turned out to be true as it increased its vote percentage all across West Bengal and has emerged as the second largest party in the Kolkata metropolis – an unprecedented development.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief beneficiary of Muslim Bengali votes, had reacted sharply to Modi’s statement. She characterized it as a ploy to divide Bengalis along religious lines. Banerjee is aware that between a third and a fourth of West Bengal’s electorate are Muslims and were crucial to her dream post-May 16th scenario of calling shots at Delhi. With the BJP’s absolute majority at the centre, such dreams came to a nought. Nonetheless, she had reminded the people that the ‘butcher of Gujarat’ does not have a clean record of ensuring peaceful co-existence between religious communities. Modi’s ‘Bangladeshi’ is a codeword that Banerjee can decode.

Though pre-partition Bengal was very often called Bangladesh, and a dwindling number of West Bengalis continue to say Bangladesh when they mean West Bengal, the term ‘Bangladeshi’ is a relatively recent term. The term owes its present currency to Bangladesh’s dictator Zia-ur-Rahman who used this term effectively in his soft-Islamization programme to counter the politico-cultural capital of Bengali identity, deemed to be a political tool of the Awami League and otherwise polluted by Hindu Bengali influences.

The ‘Bangladeshi’ that Modi wants deport back to East Bengal is a Muslim migrant from East Bengal. He did not cross over or bribe the Border Security Force in order to wage a demographic war against West Bengal’s Hindu majority. He did that because he is pitifully poor in a low-wage country and would have gone to Dubai or Malaysia if he could. East Bengali Hindus have additional reasons to cross over, given the rampant systemic discrimination they face in their homeland, in addition to the general atmosphere of insecurity for religious minorities in that country.

When some professional secularists claim that few, if any, illegal Bangladeshi migrants are present in the Indian Union, they are consciously lying and this does immense damage to their otherwise good causes. It is undeniable that a very large people from East Bengal (whose present political form broadly is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) have been migrating to the Indian Union, since 1947. While this traffic has seen ups and downs, there are specific high-points. The early migrations are etched in public memory due to their immediate ties to the partition. The widespread rioting in East Bengal in 1950 led to a large second wave. There have been many waves after that. The anti-Hindu riots of 1964 and the 1965 Indo-Pak war saw a huge number of people move out. The events of 1971 took this to another scale altogether, where a genocide, directed towards East Bengalis in general and East Bengali Hindus in particular, produced 10 million refugees of which nearly 1.5 million (mostly East Bengali Hindus and East Pakistani Bihari Muslims) never went back. 1971 marks the peculiar end of the ‘legitimate’ refugee. This partly stems from the false idea that religious minorities are ‘safe’ in ‘secular’ Bangladesh. By 1974, those who had fled during the Bangladesh Liberation war events of 1971, the percentage of Hindus in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh stood at 12.1 %. The 2011 figure was 8.5 %, a staggering 33% decrease in proportional terms. The downward trend continued through every decade since 1971. The Babri demolition of 1992, the 2001 and 2014 anti-Hindu violence were big-spurt in this continuous trickle. Even on 27th April, the day Narendrabhai Modi gave several Hindu temples and homes were ransacked in the Comilla district of Bangladesh.

It can be safely assumed that most of those who fled their homeland ended up in the Indian Union. The long partition continues. 1971 does not represent a change. That partition and refugee narratives tend to centre around 1947 and are mostly from the higher castes, the low-caste heavy later traffic does garner the same prominence in ‘public imagination’ of West Bengal, still dominated by the higher-castes. Namasudras and other lower caste communities of East Bengal have formed the bulk of the post-1971 migration, many settling in 24 Parganas district. The Muslim migration follows similar routes. The shifting demographic reality of 24 Parganas and the consequent insecurity that it evokes among people who recently fled East Bengal to find security in a different demographic reality across the border has resulted in a series of riots in that area. Fringe groups like Hindu Samhati have fished in these troubled waters with some success. Public muscle flexing of certain Muslim groups in that area has not helped matters. Copybook trigger issues like music in religious procession passing through specific routes, encroaching on religious site and trans-community eloping/kidnapping are all present. While political parties are doing their arithmetic carefully, conflagrations in the subcontinent have the power of burning calculation sheets to ashes, with the spoils going to the most cynical players.

In this high-stakes game among the powerful, the unresolved issues of the powerless fester on. Fleeing persecution, insecurity and death, the post-1971 lower caste refugees from East Bengal remain ‘illegal’. For all practical purposes, the Indian Union denies citizenship to those who crossed over from East Bengal after 25th March 1971, the day when major atrocities by the Pakistan army started in Dhaka. The 2003 Citizenship (Amendment) Act took away the possibility of birthright citizenship from the children of many of those who fled persecution in East Bengal. This has created millions of state-less young people who are children of refugees (infiltrators in government-speak) who have lived all their life in the Indian Union. Due to the amendment, many Dalit migrants were been identified as ‘infiltrators’ and deportation proceedings were started. The Matuas, one of the largest low caste groups of primarily East Bengali origin namasudras settled in West Bengal, have been protesting this act, passed incidentally by a BJP-led government. While all political parties want the ‘legal’ Matua vote, they are silent on the citizenship question. The root problem is that they want to duck the issue of distinguishing between the varying motives of those who crossed over. To the Hindutva brigade, this question is a ‘secular’ way of effectively distinguishing between Muslim and Hindu illegal migrants. No one wants to be seen as the one who wants blanket amnesty to Bangladeshi Muslim migrants. Neither does one want to appear insensitive to the plight of human rights refugees. Silent solidarity will be enough for votes. Modi has astutely recognized an opportunity and has set the cat among pigeons by calling for for evaluation of illegal migrants, case by case. He has also gone on to state that all Hindus have a right to seek refuge in the Indian Union. He is silent on why his party’s government passed legislation that took away the possibility of citizenship from the children of lakhs of low caste Hindus of East Bengal.

Ultimately, the persecuted Hindus of East Bengal (refugees and resident) are mere pawns. When Delhi-based Subramaniam Swamy (who has not been included in the cabinet till now by Narendra Modi) outrageously claimed a third of the territory of the Bangladesh to settle illegal Bangladeshis, he does not care about the ramifications of such statements on the situation of Hindu Bengalis presently living in Dhaka and Chittagong, where they are branded Indian fifth-columnists by dint of faith. The 1992 actions of Ramlala’s lovers took its toll on many Hindus in Dhaka and elsewhere. The Hindustani Hindutva brigade couldn’t care less about this type of ‘collateral damage’.

East Bengali Hindu migrants are unfortunate. The prime beneficiaries of partition crafted the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950. Many did not move due to the false sense of assurance (including the assurance of the door being permanently open) that came with this largely ceremonial gesture. By this, the Indian Union effectively washed off its hands from the ‘minority problem’ in Pakistan. It did not want the refugees whose refugee status resulted directly from the political agreement and power-hungry moves that created the Indian Union in the way it did. ‘Shutting the door’ has been the Indian Union policy post-1971 (similar to what Pakistan did to stranded Pakistanis in Dhaka), something it cannot implement – one of the natural consequences of claiming full monitoring abilities over an absurd frontier. For decades, the Indian Union has systematically discriminated Eastern frontier refugees (mostly Bengalis) on questions of compensation, entitlement, relief, citizenship, etc. The Indian Union owes reparation to these people, for the Indian Union’s creation and its geographical contours are intimately tied to their migration and impoverishment.

The ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ and associated codeword play is a problem created by a partition that failed as a solution. If division has failed, some measure of integration is necessary. This can take various forms including the possibility of dual or tiered citizenship for all Bangladeshi migrants. Of course, the government at Dhaka has to be a party to it, since migration to the Indian Union has been crucial in the alienation of a huge amount of Hindu-owned property in Bangladesh. Whatever certain private fantasies may be, that a Muslim-free Indian Union or a Hindu-free Bangladesh cannot be a solution is evident on a daily basis in almost minority-free Pakistan. A comprehensive asylum system needs to be instituted, which does not discriminate on the basis of religion. Hindus are not the only human rights victims in Bangladesh. The Ahmadiya Muslims, the Jumma people of the Chittagong Hill tracts and many more are. When any India-based entity like the BJP makes public pronouncements about its sympathy towards victims of human rights victims anywhere, it might do well to make amends for the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Ahmedabad, Deganga and a lot more. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

 

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Filed under Bengal, Caste, Delhi Durbar, Dhaka, Displacement, Identity, Nation, Partition, Religion

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