12:00 AM, August 16, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:19 PM, August 16, 2018

Is another Rohingya-like crisis looming for Bangladesh?

Assam residents wait to check whether they made the first draft of the National Register of Citizens in the state's Kamrup district in January. Photo: JIJI/AFP

“As in so many other developing societies of South Asia, in Assam too, myths and dogma take root, develop their own reality, and begin to dictate political debate unchallenged by the mainstream media, academia or larger intelligentsia. Such is also the case with what can only be called the myth of continuing Bangladeshi migration into Assam.” – Anindita Dasgupta, The Myth of the Assamese Bangladeshi

The signals from India, albeit stemming unofficially but nonetheless from the mouths of Indian ministers and BJP high-ups, regarding the National Register of Citizens (NRC), sound ominous. From the threat of the ruling party president uttered in Kolkata on August 11, it seems the BJP is all but sure that the four million or so Muslims delisted from the controversial Assam citizen's list are indeed Bangladeshis alleged to have infiltrated into India over time. And the fallout for Bangladesh, as an outcome of the NRC delisting of four million Muslims, is grave. 

Quite an outlandish figure of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India—20 million—has been flaunted from time to time to convey the “magnitude” of the problem. And imagination was allowed to run wild when in 1981 it was estimated that the so-called Bangladeshi immigrants constituted 45 percent of Assam's 1.6 crore population. That was only an estimate since no census was possible due to the Assam agitation during that time. Regrettably, it has continued to be a matter of estimate without any empirical evidence to support the figure of 20 million.

Assam's politics has been largely pinned on the issues of census and migration. And many scholars term the migration issue as a myth. They assert, citing census reports, that the “increase in Assam's Muslim population is nowhere extraordinary.” But census and migration have been linked by politicians to both culture and security creating a fear of xenophobia and security. For those political elites in Assam who want to make political hay out of this issue put forward the argument that the only measure that can save Assamese culture from being subsumed within Bangla culture is to see that these Muslims are sent back to Bangladesh, or ghettoised (it's inevitable if they are sequestered in separate areas pending “repatriation”. Sequestration of the four million of them is an alternative that some stalwarts within the BJP are suggesting, pending deportation to their supposed place of origin, i.e. Bangladesh).

Surprisingly, there has been little reaction from our side regarding the NRC since our government believes—mistakenly, one feels—that the issue is India's internal matter. India as usual has tried to assuage any concern saying that Bangladesh has no reason to be alarmed by the matter. 

But the utterances of various BJP members including its president are worrisome. Noticeable in the statements is an attempt to categorise the so-called illegal immigrants into Muslims and Hindus. While Amit Shah says that “all Bangladeshi infiltrators would be driven out of the country,” some of his colleagues classify the so-called Bangladeshis as refugees and infiltrators/illegal migrants. Hindus are lumped into the former while the Muslims into the latter. India's policy that all Hindus, Christians and Buddhists refugees from countries including Bangladesh would be granted citizenship is questionable too. Hence, the vibes emerging from India make the statement of our foreign ministry incongruous since the object or the target, if you like, of the entire exercise—the so-called Bangladeshi infiltrators—has everything to do with us.

The situation as it stands today regarding the NRC and Muslims in Assam is a follow-through of what the BJP had initiated from the very time that it was for the first time represented in the Rajya Sabha, and it is from then on that the 20-million figure has been bandied about without ever producing any evidence to that effect.

The argument touted by Assamese polity to propagate the fear, and make it a political asset, the “Inundation of Assam by Muslims”—is the census statistics which shows the high growth rate of Muslims in Assam since the Partition, and particularly after 1971. But there is also a counter narrative by some Indian scholars who contend that the issue of migration from Bangladesh is a myth which has been allowed to be grossly overblown. (See, Assam: The Mythology of Immigrants  by Subodh Verma, Fact Check: Are Illegal Bangladeshi Migrants Responsible for Increase in Assam's Muslim Population? by Ajaz Ashraf, and The Myth of the Assamese Bangladeshi by Anindita Dasgupta).

Indeed, the Muslim population growth rate in Assam in the 20 years between 1991 and 2011 was 68 percent and that, compared to the growth of Hindu population of 27 percent, is stupendous. And this—it is argued by the protagonists of Bangali Khedao movement (which has eventually mutated into Foreigner Khedao)—is due to the unbridled regime of illegal migration/infiltration from Bangladesh. But then there are six Indian states which have had more than 68 percent growth rate of Muslims, including all the BIMARU states (Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, UP), including 143 percent in Delhi and 133 percent in Haryana. And here again, the logic that is thrown around is that the rise in these states is due to internal migration. But that too falls flat in the face of the fact that these states are more poverty-stricken and less prosperous than other Indian states and hence lack the pull factor.

The counter argument, more plausible, is that neither illegal migration nor infiltration but the high birth rate of the Muslim community is the cause of the rise in the Muslim population. The other common factor, apart from the Muslim population growth in these states, is poverty (there being a direct correlation between poverty and high population growth). 

Population pressure and economic privation are the other reason for the so-called huge outflow of people from Bangladesh into Assam that some Indian politicians and authors proffer for our consumption. True, we are plagued by both, but common sense suggests that people migrate towards greener pastures. Assam, or for that matter any other North East Indian states, is not quite the land of milk and honey that one would be drawn into.

But logic or rationality counts for very little against the tide of populist movement fomented on the basis of myth and doctored beliefs for political gains. That is what dominates and indeed dictates political discourse in Assam. And what is happening in Assam, despite assurances from India, should force us to emerge out of the state of self-delusion that we are immersed in and be more proactive. We should have learnt enough from the Rohingya crisis to sit out so smugly an ominous development from just across our border.

These are real concerns which should be conveyed to India. Given the fact that our relations with our neighbour is excellent and that we have the highest level of understanding between us, this is the right moment to address these concerns. It doesn't behove us, given the level of mutual trust and confidence, to sweep such an issue under the carpet.

Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.

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