Friday, June 17, 2005

Assam's victims of 'religious hatred'

In a quiet corner of India, a minority group claims it is the victim of the same kind of prejudice and upheaval endured by Hindus and Muslims during the horrors of partition more than 60 years ago.

The people who say they are the latest victims of religious hatred are large numbers of Muslims of Bengali origin who say that they have been driven away from some districts in India's north-eastern state of Assam during the last two months.

As Assamese regional groups renew their drive against those they believe are "illegal infiltrators" from neighbouring Bangladesh, these Muslims, whose ancestors settled in Assam several decades ago, are becoming easy targets.

"The illegal migrants from Bangladesh are a major threat to our identity. We will become foreigners in our own land unless we keep these people out of Assam," says Sarbananda Sonowal, top leader of the regional party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)

Mr Sonowal has a long record of opposing Muslim Bengali settlers. Until recently, he was president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) which led the violent agitation against the migrants in the 1980s .

The strength of feeling against people seen to be illegally in Assam is growing.

Groups like the Chiring Chapori Yuva Manch (Youth Forum of Chiring Chapori) have resumed the drive against the "illegal migrants" in northern Assam, the stronghold of the Tai Ahoms who ruled for several centuries before the British conquered the province in the nineteenth century.

In the rich tea-producing district of Dibrugarh - Mr Sonowal's constituency - Chiring supporters have issued a diktat to all local Assamese - employ no migrant, do no business with them, do not travel in vehicles driven by them.

Any violation of the diktat, they have warned, will be punished by heavy fines and even physical assault.

The victims of the Chiring's eviction drive are Muslims who migrated to Northern Assam from the state's western districts.

Most Muslims evicted from Northern Assam allege the police have actively backed the Chiring supporters in the pogrom.

The police deny the charges.

But the stories told by the Muslim community paint a very different picture.

"The policemen broke into our house. We produced our citizenship certificates and voter's identity cards, but they insisted we are Bangladeshis. They would listen to nothing," said Mohammed Jehangir, who worked as a mason in Dibrugarh.

Abu Miah, a scrap metal dealer, has a similar tale.

"The police snatched my papers and said they were not good enough to prove my Indian citizenship . When I pleaded, they asked for money. When I refused the bribe, I was beaten up. Finally, I had to pay the police 200 rupees ($4.5) to get my papers back."

In Howli and Bijni, small towns in western Assam's Barpeta district, I met more than 200 Muslims who have been evicted from Northern Assam districts like Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Golaghat.

I met scores more in the chars (river islands) of Goalpara district bordering Bangladesh.

"The river is merciless. So are the local Assamese youths and the police. They think we are all Bangladeshi nationals. Yet we were born here and we grew up in Assam," said brick kiln worker Maqbool Hossain.

The Assam administration says only about 600 to 700 Muslims may have been evicted from northern Assam districts.

The state minister for agriculture, Wajed Ali Choudhury, says he cannot hazard a guess.

"You are here, you have met many of those evicted, so make your guess," he told me.

But there is no effort to rehabilitate them in the places they worked.

Many Muslim leaders of the Congress are angry at the "indifference of the state government". They say the number of those evicted are in thousands rather than hundreds, forced out of northern Assam in trucks.

They are compelled to travel in pitch dark to avoid police attention - and the gaze of the Assamese youth activists.

As I prepared to leave Bijni, one arrived with nearly 50 Muslims, all evicted from Dibrugarh.
Assamese groups say all those they have evicted are illegal Bangladesh migrants.

All Assam Students Union (AASU) advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya insists that "Assam is victim of merciless infiltration".

"Neither the state government nor the Centre wants to tackle the problem because they depend on the migrant vote bank for the victory in elections," said Mr Bhattacharya.

Muslims constitute nearly 30% of Assam's population which makes it the state with the second highest Muslim population after Kashmir.

Only a small number of these Muslims are ethnic Assamese, the rest are of East Bengal origin.

"They keep coming. The border with Bangladesh is porous and once the migrants enter Assam, they are supported by earlier migrants. We cannot fight this problem unless we take to the streets," said Mr Bhattacharya.

But the last time that AASU activists took to the streets in a big way - in the 1980s - thousands died in riots that followed.

The All Assam Minorities Students Union (AAMSU) recently called a state-wide strike and has organised many rallies to protest against the latest developments.

Tension is returning to this forgotten corner of north-east India.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another one Mr Bangladeshi?

If these people are not Bangladeshi then why are you so concern about them? After all officially they are Indian Citizen and India should be concern about it more than you.

This simple fact proves that they are from your country who has illegally entered in India and as the politicians in Assam are hungry for their votes.

Just tell me onething, why do you guys live at your Sonar Bangla and leave us alone in Assam.

We are much happier without you.

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It took two decades and a Supreme Court judgment to abolish the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) or IMDT Act, 1983, in Assam. The three-judge bench of Justice R.C. Lahoti, G.P. Mathur and P.K. Balasubramanyam held the Act unconstitutional and ordered for the immediate winding up of the tribunals established under its provision. A large section of the media has indulged in the speculation about the political fallout of this abrogation on the respective vote banks of the Congress, the AGP and the BJP. The primary issues like demographic imbalance, threat to internal and external security, and possible jihadi "reaction" to this judicial verdict and Bangladesh's diplomatic reaction have been underplayed.

But, on hindsight, this judgment has called the bluff of the Indira Gandhi government that promulgated the IMDT Act after the Congress claimed victory in the unpopular elections of Assam in 1983, and Rajiv Gandhi who implemented it through the Assam Accord signed between the Indian government and the All Assam Students' Union on August 14, 1985. The Congress-led UPA government at the Centre that chose to retain the Act last year, and Tarun Gogoi's government in Assam that is a major supporter of this Act, might feel arraigned. The UPA government, instead of filing a review petition on expected lines, has decided to set up a GoM (Group of Ministers). But will it play another Shah Bano with the Supreme Court verdict?

Asom Gana Parishad MP Sarbananda Sonowal who had filed the writ petition against the IMDT Act deserves a roaring plaudit. I have argued against the IMDT Act in these columns: A borderline case (February 18, 2003), Keep up the fence (May 27, 2003), As Assam burns (November 25, 2003), Deluge from Bangladesh (April 26, 2005); apart from blasting the Ulfa: Ulfa: Jihad's B-team? (January 20, 2004) etc. Naturally, I feel vindicated and gratified.

Is the apex court judgment a stitch in time? Or has much damage already been done to Assam which would prove irreparable? As per the 2001 Census, 10 out of 23 districts in Assam have either turned Muslim majority or are nearing that status. That such would be the fate of Assam that once boasted of the longest Hindu dynastic rule of Ahom kings is ironic. The IMDT had an important role in promoting infiltration that is reflected in the changing demographic profile. Where as per Foreigners Act, 1946, prevalent in the rest of the country (including Assam till 1984), the onus of proving one's citizenship rested with the suspect, as per the IMDT Act the onus is on the accuser to disprove the citizenship of the suspect. Moreover, it is applicable only to those who had entered Assam from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) after March 25, 1971.

The changing profile of religious demography is not a communal slander. It is a case of compromising with the sovereign authority of a nation. But repealing the IMDT Act in favour of the Foreigners Act will not automatically solve the problem that predates the imposition of the IMDT (even Foreigners Act). It is dependent on the political will of the ruling party and the people of Assam. Neighbouring West Bengal is covered under the Foreigners Act like any other state of India. On record, 489,046 persons were actually deported from West Bengal between 1983 and 1998 under the Foreigners Act as compared to a meagre 1,517 from Assam through the IMDT till August, 2003.

The comparisons tell it all, but they hide something yet. Today, why is the West Bengal chief minister raising an alarm that infiltration from Bangladesh is changing demographic profile? Till the other day it was only the West Bengal BJP president Tathagata Ray crying hoarse about the issue. How come the Muslims have bettered their demographic share in West Bengal by a record 2 per cent during 1981-1991 and another 1.6 per cent during 1991-2001 like never before? This, despite the fact that persecuted Hindus who fled Bangladesh continually would have pushed the Hindu share up. But the trend has been reverse, always since Independence, but prominently during the last two decades of Marxist rule. This increase in the Muslim population of West Bengal is not altogether homegrown. There in the last two decades the Marxist government had provided infiltrators with bogus ration cards and necessary documents to create a vote bank. Even a Foreigners Act can't offset the effects of such political dishonesty.

Similarly, the ruling establishment in Assam (read Congress) throughout the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies had abetted infiltration with ulterior motives. Assam is a heterogeneous state comprising Assamese, Bengalis, Bodos, Hill tribes, Bangla Muslims etc. But it was more heterogeneous before its two reorganisations in 1963 and 1972 to carve out Nagaland and Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh respectively. The Assamese who had very little contact with the external world viewed cosmopolitan Bengalis as their rivals, and a host of other tribes as sort of their subordinates. To maintain an "Assamese" hegemony on a multi-ethnic Assam they invited Bangla Muslims provided they declared Assamese as their mother tongue in the census. They got land for resettlement and rice cultivation, whereas the Assamese got rice in fields and numerical strength in the census. But the need for such domination disappeared after two reorganisations. But Assam found itself burdened with a large population of Bangla Muslims. And in the 1971 census, Bangla Muslims refused to acknowledge Assamese as their mother tongue and went back to Bangla.

9:33 PM  

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