In the second week of August, addressing a campaign rally in Kolkata, the BJP national president Amit Shah yelled into a mic: “Are the Bangladeshi infiltrators a security threat to this country or not?” A crowd of BJP supporters roared that they were. “The bomb explosions that occur in Bengal are carried out by the Bangladeshi infiltrators or not? Should they be thrown out or not?” he went on with his noxious rhetoric.
Shah’s comments echo those made by several BJP leaders on the immigration issue in Assam. Using the terms “infiltrators” for Muslim Bangladeshis and “refugees” for Hindu ones, the BJP is appropriating a long-standing anti-foreigner sentiment in Assam to demand curbs on immigration into the state from Bangladesh. With the promise of acche din seeming like a crude joke, the party seems to be resorting to communal polarisation as its primary strategy for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The preparation of the National Register of Citizens—a list of Assam’s Indian citizens—has given the party a divisive agenda that has a wider appeal for its Hindutva constituency.
The villain of this piece is the Muslim Bangladeshi “infiltrator,” the opposition parties her patron and the BJP the uncompromising saviour of the nation and its borders. This script, which feeds the myth of the persecuted Hindu, came into play on 31 July, when the final draft of the NRC excluded four million residents of Assam. While the process is not yet complete, Shah and his ilk are calling the Muslims among them “ghuspethiye,” or infiltrators, deliberately ignoring nuances on a complex issue that goes back almost two hundred years.
Bengalis have been living in Assam since at least as early as 1826, when members of the community were brought in to fill the lower bureaucracy after Assam became part of the colonial state. This led to tensions between Assamese Hindus and Bengali Hindus. Even after Partition, the problems between Assamese speakers and Bengali speakers continued. In 1971, the Indira Gandhi government helped East Pakistan become Bangladesh, which led to a wave of migration from the newly formed war-torn country. In 1979, the All Assam Students’ Union launched an agitation, alleging that illegal immigrants were becoming voters and that the change in the state’s demography was threatening its culture and polity. In 1985, the government of India and the leaders of the movement signed a pact—the Assam Accord—agreeing to identify and deport illegal immigrants. The accord states: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall continue to be detected, deleted and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners.” There was no mention of discrimination on the basis of religion.
In the discussion that preceded the accord, the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government tried to make the same distinction between refugees and infiltrators as the BJP and the RSS, but the AASU opposed it. “It is well-known that the Government has created a class of people in the name of refugees,” the union wrote in one of its communiqués during the movement. “But the people of Assam will not allow their language, culture and existence to be threatened by such classification. The AASU has not discussed any solution distinguishing refugees from infiltrators.”
The senior AASU ideologue Basanta Deka mentioned in his book—The Design, The Betrayal, The Assam Movement—that the Congress government categorised the immigrants who came during 1961–71 into four groups along communal lines: the first two categories were infiltrators (all Muslims) and the third and fourth were refugees (all Hindus). “The first category entrants, the Muslims, would be dispersed to the other states, suggested the government, provided the third and the fourth categories, all the Hindus, stayed on in Assam. The proposal was rejected by the AASU.” When the accord was signed, it was agreed that the migrants who came during 1966–71 would be disenfranchised for a period of ten years. The disappointed minorities, including Bengali Hindus and Muslims, formed the United Minorities Front, mostly comprising former Congress leaders headed by Kalipada Sen, to counter both the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad. The UMF won 17 seats in the 1985 election but soon faded out.
In 2005, the three-time Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh requesting an update to the NRC—first prepared in 1951 after that year’s census—and brought back into prominence an issue that had been dormant since the accord. In 2010, the Gogoi government tried to implement a pilot project in two places, but was halted after four Muslim youth were killed in Barpeta during a protest by the All Assam Muslim Students Union, who found some of the columns in the form, such as the address in the country of origin, offensive. By 2013, a cabinet subcommittee was formed and modalities finalised after consultation with members of civil society. A Supreme Court division bench led by Justices Ranjan Gogoi and HL Gokhale—who was later replaced by Rohintan Nariman—took up the issue after a petition was filed and pushed for a speedy implementation.
The BJP is clearly trying to milk the results of the NRC for political benefit. Shah framed the immigration issue as a matter of national security. “I want to ask the Congress party, ‘How can you raise questions over the NRC for vote bank politics?’” he said in a press conference after the NRC update was released. “Congress tried to start the NRC in 2005 but didn’t have the courage to push out the Bangladeshi infiltrators. The vote bank was more important to them than national security.” Shah challenged Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee to make their stand clear and said the media and people should have no doubt about the BJP’s stand on the NRC. He repeated the same line of attack on the campaign trail in Rajasthan and West Bengal, indicating that this would be an important issue in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
At the moment, the BJP is trying to play both sides. Though the party is aggressively campaigning on the basis of the NRC number of four million, the state’s BJP leaders, such as Himanta Biswa Sarma, have said that more than a million of those are Bengali Hindus of Assam—a vote bank of the BJP. While this number helps them counter the criticism that the Bengali-origin Muslims are being targeted in the state, they are appeasing the Hindus by assuring them citizenship.
In line with the RSS thinking—“Na Hindur videshi bhavet,” or No Hindu is ever a foreigner in this land—Shah said the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, soon to be taken up in the Rajya Sabha, will give citizenship to everybody—Parsis, Sikhs and so on—except the Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The Assamese who demanded the NRC were allies to the BJP in its implementation but are vehemently opposed to giving citizenship to Bengali Hindus. The impasse might continue for a long time unless the BJP decides to sacrifice Assam for its larger Hindutva plank of India being the land of Hindus from all over the world, as Israel is for the Jews. In July, the foreign affairs minister Sushma Swaraj urged the Rajya Sabha to pass the bill and to put an end to the troubles of Hindu refugees.
After taking an adverse stand on the NRC for the first three days, the Congress changed its stance after state unit leaders convinced the central leadership to own up to the idea. “The BJP is trying to use the NRC process to destroy the social fabric and as a divisive and emotional tool for misleading the people,” the Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said in a press conference on 4 August, “to divert the attention of the nation from the colossal failure of the Modi government, scams like Rafale, bank frauds and rising unemployment.”
The Congress not only changed tack but also claimed that it had deported 82,728 illegal immigrants between 2005 and 2013 whereas the BJP government has deported only 1,822 people between 2014 and 2017. Though the party is criticised for encouraging illegal immigration and nurturing immigrants as a vote bank, it needs to be given credit for keeping the community on tenterhooks. The dominant-caste Assamese leadership of Congress banked on a combination of “Ali-coolie-Bangali-naak chepta Nepali”—a formulation coined by former party president Devakanta Barua. “Ali” refers to Muslims; “coolie” to tea garden workers, mostly from Bihar and Jharkhand; “Bangali” to Bengali Hindus; and “naak chepta Nepali” is a derogatory term that refers to “snub-nosed” Nepalis—for electoral success. This aspect was often played up, ignoring inconvenient facts such as the deportation of almost two hundred thousand immigrants during the 1960s.
In many ways, the BJP is building on the Congress’s legacy on the issue. The Congress created and formalised a hierarchy of belonging in the state, with the dominant Assamese castes and middle class at the top. The BJP is playing the same game with a set of its own rules aided by an old AASU and Congress hand Himanta Biswa Sarma, who shifted to the BJP just before the 2016 assembly elections. The BJP pitched those polls as the last battle of Saraighat, in which the Ahoms fought off the advancing Mughals successfully in 1671. It made jaati, maati, bheti—identity, land and hearth—its main plank and promised to make the state free of illegal immigrants and protect the interests of the khilonjia—the indigenous, a new addition to the political lexicon of the state.
Sarbananda Sonowal, a former AASU leader with strong anti-Bangladeshi credentials, became the chief minister. But after the win, the BJP reasserted its position on the immigration issue: the Muslims are unwanted but the Hindus are welcome. Sonowal is caught in a fix, though Sarma seems comfortable batting for the BJP line. Assamese leaders of various political hues alleged that the BJP did not want to implement the NRC but was forced to do so because of the Supreme Court. They suggest that it would have liked to pass the citizenship bill first, giving Hindus citizenship before coming out with the NRC.
The BJP leaders, from Sarma to Shah, have been hinting that once the process is complete, a discussion with Bangladesh will be initiated regarding the deportation of people. But the central government has not brought this up yet. The Indian Express has reported that India kept Bangladesh in the loop about the NRC and assured that there is no talk of deportation “to prevent a slide in bilateral ties.” India has a soft border with Bangladesh and employs a non-lethal policy while dealing with infiltrators such as smugglers—the Border Security Force is not allowed to use lethal weapons except for self-defence. Bangladesh is a strategic ally in containing the insurgencies in the Northeast, and India has already seen its ties worsen after playing the big brother in the cases of Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan.
On his maiden visit to Bangladesh in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a deal that ended a four-decade-old land boundary problem with Bangladesh. In exchange for 51 enclaves, India transferred 111 enclaves to Bangladesh. It affected the citizenship status of more than fifty thousand people on both sides.
It is hard to believe that the NRC would lead to deportation, as the immigrants rarely have documents to prove their place of origin, especially when many of them have been living in India for generations.
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.