Although the issue of “infiltrators” or “illegal Bangladeshis” has currently been the main topic of discussion in India's northeastern state of Assam, the issue has neither generated any discussion in Bangladesh's political arena nor been given due importance in the media. There has been an ongoing movement called “Deport Bangalees” (Bangalee Tarao) in Assam for many years now. By Bangalees, they mainly mean Bangladeshis. As part of this movement, the process to make a list of citizens of Assam has been going on. In the final draft NRC (National Register of Citizens) list, approximately four million people were left out. Of course, it is India's “internal” affair to identify their own citizens, but what worries us is the decision to send back those whose names have been omitted from the list by calling them “Bangladeshis”.
In the 1980s, the “Deport Banglaees” movement, led by All Assam Students' Union, had erupted in the state of Assam. At that time, Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister of India. The movement ended with the signing of Assam Accord on August 15, 1985.
According to the agreement, foreign citizens living in Assam were divided into three categories: (i) Those who migrated to Assam before January 1, 1966 would be considered Assam's legal citizens and so would be awarded India's citizenship, (ii) Those who migrated to Assam between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 would not be given India's citizenship in the first ten years, but could live in Assam, and (iii) Those who entered Assam after March 25, 1971 are not Assamese citizens and would not get India's citizenship. They should be sent back to their own countries.
Those who fall in the third category are the people who took refuge in Assam during our Liberation War but didn't return to the country after our independence. So basically, the movement was about sending these people back to Bangladesh.
However, although an agreement had been signed, no initiative was taken to implement it. Many years later, in 2014, before the national elections of India, the issue again gained momentum as the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) election campaign was focused on this issue. At that time, the central leadership of BJP, including Narendra Modi, had pledged to send back the 8,000,000 “illegal Bangladeshis” to Bangladesh. And after coming to power riding on this issue, the BJP government began making a list of Assamese citizens based on a Supreme Court verdict.
It needs to be mentioned here that protesting the “Deport Banglaees” movement, Bangalees of Assam also became very vocal. In 2005, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a Muslim leader of Assam, formed a political party called All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) which gained acceptability not only among the Bengali-speaking Muslims, but also among a section of Hindi-speaking Hindus. The party currently has three representatives including Badruddin Ajmal in the Indian Lok Sabha and 13 members in the Assam Vidhan Sabha.
Among the 40,07,707 people whose names are not in the list, 2,48,000 would not get any chance to prove their citizenship, as they have failed to prove their family roots. So basically 37,59,707 people will get a chance to prove their citizenship. Those who fail to prove their citizenship would be identified as “foreigners” or “Bangladeshis” among whom the Muslims would be sent back to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, a number of tribunals for “identification of foreigners” have begun their work. A few thousand Bangladeshis have been kept in camps and are being interrogated. They are being called Bangladeshi citizens despite the fact that they have the necessary land documents and voter IDs to prove themselves as Indian citizens.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of Pashchim Banga, has raised her concern against calling the Bangalees “infiltrators” or “Bangladeshis.” Apparently, there are two reasons for Mamata's opposition. One, some of these “Bangladeshi” people may migrate to Pashchim Banga, whose responsibility the Pashchim Banga government does not want to take. Secondly, since BJP is now demanding to make a similar NRC list in Pashchim Banga, it has become a reason for worry for Mamata Banerjee. Because those who migrated from Bangladesh to Pashchim Banga are now the vote bank of Mamata Banerjee.
On August 5, 2018, Amit Shah, the president of BJP, said, “The opposition party wants to keep the illegal Bangladeshis in India.” Again on August 12, he said, “Bangladeshi infiltrators are a danger, no? They are behind the terror all across the country,” (Daily Jugasankha, published from Assam).
Surprisingly, Indian Chief of Army General Bipin Rawat also commented on this issue saying, “I think the proxy game is very well played by our western neighbour supported by our northern border (China) to keep the area disturbed.”
Badruddin Ajmal reacted to the army chief's comment by tweeting, “General Rawat has made a political statement, shocking!”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah have clearly and repeatedly said that no Hindus would be deported. They even said that the Hindus would be given citizenship. We still do not know how many among the 2,48,000 who have failed to prove their citizenship are Muslims. According to AIUDF and several media reports, among the 4,000,000 people who were not included in the draft NRC, Muslims are the majority.
Recently, our State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said, “Bangladesh does not need to worry about Assam's NRC list,” (Bangladesh Pratidin, August 3, 2018). Indian ambassador to Bangladesh also said that this is an internal issue of India and Bangladesh need not be worried.
Whereas our foreign ministry has not said anything about the issue, Nazibur Bashar Maizvandary, MP and president of Tariqat Federation, a partner of a 14-party coalition, went to Delhi and held meetings with the Indian ministers and the media where he talked about this. Recently, representatives of Awami League and HT Imam, an adviser to the prime minister, visited India but we have not heard of any discussions taking place during the visit.
We understand that it is an "internal" affair of India as to who are its legal citizens and who are not. Clearly, Bangladesh does not have a say here. But when we know that the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam who are not able to prove their citizenship would be deported to Bangladesh, it becomes a problem of Bangladesh too. If our government remains silent on this issue now and does not hold any discussions with India, it might raise many questions in future.
It is not for Bangladesh to know which states these people, who are not the inhabitants of Assam, belong to. The Bangladesh government can clearly say that they are not the citizens of Bangladesh. Bangladeshis who had gone to India as refugees after March 24, 1971 returned to their home after December 16, 1971. Bangladesh can't take the responsibility of those few who had not returned after 47 years.
Also, there is no ground to the claim that “Bangladeshis are still migrating to Assam.” Because Bangladesh is in a far better position than Assam in all the economic and other indicators such as per capita income, job opportunities, standard of living, etc. There is no reason why Bangladeshis should migrate to India.
It is not that India will start sending back the Bengali-speaking Muslims all of a sudden. Maybe they will limit their activities to political statements. But at the same time, the issue is not so simple and there is no guarantee that these people will not be sent back to Bangladesh. Therefore, although this is an “internal” affair of India, there are logical reasons for Bangladesh to worry.
This is an abridged translated version of the article that was originally published in The Daily Star Bangla on August 16, 2018.
Golam Mortoza is a journalist.
Translation by Naznin Tithi.