The personable young civil servant in Guwahati spoke English, Bengali, Assamese and Urdu. His father was from Sylhet, his mother local and he had married in Bihar. I thought him the quintessential South Asian but his cosmopolitanism also reflected the trauma that recently killed 58 people in Assam and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and seek refuge in camps.
If Assam is burning, so is India. If a solution can’t be found for Assam’s problems of land, language, religion and identity, neither will India’s many communities ever live together in harmony. Even without Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, Assam is India in microcosm. A population explosion, which no government has dared tackle since Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, threatens both. Second, contrary to what news reports imply, a tit-for-tat killing didn’t spark the orgy of arson and murder. The killing itself was the result of a grim attempt to deprive Bodos of the autonomy they wrested from Assamese control after years of armed insurrection. Third, Assam’s enduring anti-Bengali passion may blur the distinction between local and foreigner, Hindu and Muslim, if they speak the same language. Fourth, such distractions may not be unwelcome to the Rajasthani traders who control the state’s commerce.
Ignoring all this, the saffron brigade will pounce on the Muslim civil servant in Guwahati as proof of “the long-cherished design of Greater Bangladesh” that S.K. Sinha, then governor of Assam, described in his 42-page report to K.R. Narayanan when he was president of India. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s foot soldiers were already crying themselves hoarse about Congress governments in Delhi and Dispur pampering illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The motive, they said, was to expand the Congress vote bank at the BJP’s expense. Congress (and Left Front in West Bengal) machinations were also attributed to the secular commitment that makes the saffron brigade see red. The BJP paints an alarming picture of speedboats laden with arms and ammunition rushing up the Brahmaputra to strengthen the forces of a “Brihat Bangladesh” to encompass the entire Northeast including West Bengal.
Muslim organizations, and even liberal Muslim intellectuals, retort with charges of “planned ethnic cleansing”. They complain of a systematic exercise to eliminate Indian Muslims by branding them outlaws from abroad. Ethnic cleansing is a dramatic term, made fashionable by Serbian atrocities against Bosnians and again in the news because of Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingyas. Despite the gross exaggeration, it’s idle to pretend Muslims suffer only in Gujarat. Long before Bangladesh was born, it was not uncommon in remote areas like Jalpaiguri for rural policemen to threaten to denounce Muslim peasants as Pakistanis if they didn’t pay a bribe. That wasn’t state policy. It was the low-level, small-time bullying that is integral to India’s bureaucratic culture and which more recently obliged a Sikkimese couple returning from holidaying in Nepal to grease palms at the land border to avoid being arrested as Tibetan infiltrators.
If India isn’t encouraging pogroms against Muslims, neither is Sheikh Hasina trying to enlarge her jurisdiction. But there are non-state players in both countries. Sinha’s memoirs, Guarding India’s Integrity: A Proactive Governor Speaks, quotes her father writing before liberation that “East Pakistan must include Assam to be financially and economically strong”. His successor, Ziaur Rahman, exploded in fury when I mentioned clandestine settlers. Bangladeshis enjoyed a higher standard of living than Indians, he shouted; they didn’t need to migrate. He was worried, in fact, about unrest in India’s Northeast affecting the stability of his own country.
That is nonsense, of course. I have met second-generation Bangladeshis in Manipur and Meghalaya. Tripura has become an extension of Comilla district. Naga youths have reportedly begun to check illegal immigration. Bhutanese officials distinguish Bengali construction workers from Bangladeshis because the latter dash to West Bengal to vote in every election, that being the price of asylum. Bangladeshi dialects can be heard in Delhi and Mumbai. And no wonder. Crammed into one of the world’s most crowded locations, Bangladeshis seek opportunities in India for the same reason they have made London’s Brick Lane their own and provide more personnel than any other country to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force.
Necessity can even claim some emotional justification. Investigating the illicit traffic to Singapore, Shashank, a former foreign secretary, noted that while junior Indian officials and middlemen colluded with unscrupulous Singaporean employers to exploit innocence, “a lot of simple Tamils still believed you just had to go to the bus stand or railway station, pick up a ticket and go to one of the ports and sit in a ship bound for Singapore!” Their unconscious thinking harked back to the seamless British empire. Sinha’s comprehensive account in Guarding India’s Integrity of the social, economic and historical background of movement from the districts of East Bengal to the undifferentiated districts of Assam evokes a similarly seamless British India. Compared to the hazards of voyaging to Singapore, it was — and still is — much simpler to cross a field, wade through a river, climb a hill or walk a jungle path to open fields and empty sites. The National Council of Churches of India claims Bangladeshis have appropriated 10,000 sq km of territory; Bodo officials accuse them of occupying 35 per cent of khas land. The concept of an Islamic ummah transcending national boundaries provides moral, if not legal, justification. My civil servant was no more conscious of being exceptional than Sania Mirza marrying a Pakistani cricketer.
An outraged e-mail cites the home ministry’s admission that 676.47 km of the India-Bangladesh border remains unfenced though the border management department was created as long ago as January 2004 to fence nearly 3,437 km with supporting roads, floodlights and integrated checkposts. Such gaps must be closed but like the Berlin Wall, the heavily-patrolled Mexican-American border and Fortress Europe demonstrate that “stone walls do not a prison make/ Nor iron bars a cage.” The fabled “jungle passport” — Hindus paid more to Pakistani guards and Muslims to their Indian counterparts — defied the far more harsh security that existed before 1971.
The Supreme Court and Delhi high court have both had strong words to say about the perils of a Bangladeshi influx. Sinha calls the impugned Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunal) Act to detect and deport illegals “a clever ploy to promote illegal migration”. But what is the answer? India is not a police state with meticulous records and a ruthless will to weed out and evict two million people who are virtually indistinguishable from other Muslims. The domestic uproar would be matched by a huge furore abroad with Sheikh Hasina’s relatively benign government as one of the first casualties. For that and many other reasons, it just can’t be done. But the long-promised National Register of Citizens can be speeded up while some scheme for legal work-related migration is discussed with Dhaka and a more serious attempt made to check further infiltration.
Two other points merit examination. First, the increase in the Muslim population that the 2011 Census disclosed cannot be attributed only to illegal immigration. That may apply to Assam, West Bengal and states bordering Bangladesh, but only a higher fertility rate explains the countrywide rise. The inescapable lesson is that not only must birth control be revived much more vigorously, but a country that has to support 17.5 per cent of the world’s population on 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area cannot afford to make exceptions on account of religious sensibilities. Second, it is time to consider whether exercises to buy peace in the short term like the Bodoland Territorial Council and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration do not aggravate problems in the long run. The recent violence was the result of Muslim attempts to abolish the BTC or increase the non-Bodo role in its administration. The alternative of an India that is free for all Indians to travel and live in may ultimately be the best guarantee of national integration.