Assam, Muslims and the Insiders

By Kashif-ul-Huda,

Recent Bodo-Muslim violence that left at least a hundred dead and hundreds of thousands homeless has given an opportunity to many to indulge in the usual Muslim-bashing rhetoric. A few insiders of the Indian establishment has also taken the trouble to put on record their anti-Muslim views while they appear to position themselves as against illegal migration.

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Writing in the Indian Express, Election Commissioner of India Harishankar Brahma declares that Assam clashes were not unexpected and asks the question: “ why did it take a few decades to occur in the first place? Assam has been virtually sitting on a huge tinderbox.”

“The present ethnic clashes between the two communities can be directly attributed to the aforementioned facts of illegal migration into Assam.” He informs us that population in districts around Indo-Bangladeshi borders is going up “leaps and bounds.” However, when it comes to giving a number, only number he quotes is that 1.5 lakh voters are on Election Commission’s list of D-voters (voters whose citizenship is considered doubtful).

Over 400,000 have been displaced as a result of the recent violence. The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh meeting the violence-hit of Kokrajhar district, at a relief camp, in Assam on July 28, 2012.

Not to be outdone By Mr. Brahma, former intelligence official and now a professional conspiracy theorist B. Raman, writes in Outlook magazine, in a column appropriately titled “The Outsiders,” that the conflict in Assam is between “Indian sons of the soil” and “Bangladeshi intruders.” Masterfully drawing parallels of the Assam conflict with the plight of Rohingya Muslims, he urges the Indian state to follow the same tough stance as taken by Myanmar.

But what about the Assamese Muslims? Mr. Raman will be doing a great disservice to his fans if he somehow does not take this opportunity to threaten Indian Muslims. He writes, “the problem is rendered even more explosive by the insensitive attitude of the indigenous Muslims of Assam.” It is important to begin by patronizing them first, so he declares, “they are one of us. They are our co-citizens entitled to the same rights and protection as you and I.” But we will not give them this right, Raman seems to suggest because of “their misplaced feelings of religious solidarity with the Muslim intruders from Bangladesh and their tendency to downplay the extent of illegal migration and the threats posed by the migrants” as this is “creating suspicions in the minds of the non-Muslim sons of the soil.”

Raman will not be a true patriot without telling Indian Muslims what to do so here is what he orders them to do: “The indigenous Muslim sons of the soil should identify themselves with the feelings, suspicions and concerns of the non-Muslim citizens. They should be in the forefront of national solidarity.” Else, here comes the threat, “the wedge between the Muslim and non-Muslim sons of the soil could grow wider and create more tensions and violence.”

Now, the reality.

Muslims have been part of Assam since early thirteenth century. The migration of Bengali-speakers, both Hindus and Muslims, into Assam started in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century as a British policy to find people for filling government jobs and a majority of them came as labourers for tea plantation and jute cultivation.

Overlooking these historical migrations, these “insider experts” want to put all Bangla-speaking Muslim in the category of Illegal migrations or simply Bangladeshis. Even if we take the recent census data, the numbers do not show any signs of huge influx of Muslims into Assam. In 1951, Muslims were 26.60% of the state population while in 2001 their population share was 30.90%. The rate of growth is slower than Muslims growth in the rest of India, which will suggest that Muslims are leaving the state.

This is not to deny that there is no illegal migration into Assam but the bogey of “intrusion” cannot be used to put into doubt citizenship of millions who have been living here for hundreds of years. Advocate Muij Uddin Mahmud, who is researching this issue for a number of years, told last year that there are very few foreigners in Assam both among the religious minorities or linguistic minorities like Bengali Hindus. Bangladeshi Hindus who have crossed the border into India are protected under section 2 of the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 but the same law does not apply to Muslims from Bangladesh.

Survivors of Nellie massacre that took place in Nagaon district of Assam in 1983- Photo TCN

Label of “Illegal migrant” has been used as a tactic to harass Muslims of Assam and therefore organizations representing Muslim have always taken a tough stand against it blaming the government for letting it happen. Member of Parliament Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, representing Dhubri in Lok Sabha had opposed the idea of giving work-permit to “illegal migrants.” His party All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) supports early disposal of all cases where citizenship of a person is considered doubtful.

Indian Constitution recognizes only two categories of citizenship- either you are a citizen or a foreigner. But the Election Commission has invented a third category in Assam- the doubtful voters list or the D-voters. “The provision of putting a “D” mark (Doubtful) is not provided in Indian constitution or laws. This is ridiculous and unconstitutional,” argues Dr. Baharul Islam, General Secretary of AIDUF. “This is a tactic to put pressure on the minority community. The politics in Assam is that Hindu migrants are refugees and Muslims migrants are outsiders.”

But even many Bengali Hindus found their name in the D-Voters list effectively denying them their democratic rights and therefore citizenship. Retired CRPF Jawan Anath Bandhu Biswas and his wife Arati Biswas are in D-Voters list since 1996. Interestingly, their children are not categorized as D-voters.

Advocate Muij Uddin Mahmud estimates that 80% of those on D-Voters are Muslims. However, even by Election Commissioner of India Mr. Brahma’s own admission there are only 1.5 lakh voters on D-Voters list. So does that mean there are only 1.5 lakh “illegal” in a population of over 30 crores? Forty-times more Nepalis live and work in India but that doesn’t seem to be any drain in Indian economy or cause of concern for India’s security. So does that mean all that rhetoric against illegal migrations is an excuse to remind everyone that Muslims will remain outsiders in India?