The fragile peace in the Bodoland Territorial Areas District of Assam has been ruptured, once again. The massacre of Muslims of East Bengali descent in Kokrajhar and Baksa has taken the toll to 46. This is not the first time that targeted ethnic violence has occurred in the BTAD. Throughout the 1990s, armed Bodo groups indulged in pogroms against Nepalis, adivasis and Muslims and Hindus of East Bengali descent. But since the creation of the BTAD, increasingly only Muslims of East Bengali descent are being targeted. In the ‘riots’ of 2012, 108 people had died: 79 were Muslims of East Bengali descent, 22 were Bodos and 4 were from other communities.
What is disturbing is that the discourse around the massacre is getting transformed into a debate on the question of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. In 2012, a large section of Assamese society, a segment of the national media and the Bharatiya Janata Party had raised the bogey of ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ to justify the killings and divert attention from the real causes. Some even went to the extent of likening the victims to locusts. Recently an Assamese research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University was subjected to threats and abuses by Assamese xenophobes and was asked to relocate to Bangladesh owing to her sympathies for the ‘locusts’.
How do these xenophobes know that Assam is being swarmed by illegal Bangladeshis? The answer is always about increasing visibility and numbers of miyas — a slur used to denote Muslim Bangladeshis — in urban clusters, new settlements in peripheries of forest land, and settlements near river embankments. Between 1901 and 1941, encouraged by the colonial administration, over 10 lakh people migrated and settled in Assam from East Bengal. East Bengali Muslim peasants first settled in the undivided Goalpara district, before they spanned out to western and central Assam. Records show that between 1901 and 1931, 4.98 lakh East Bengali Muslim peasants resided in Goalpara alone. Where, then, are the descendants of the Muslim peasants who settled in the region before Partition?
Considering the abysmal level of socio-economic development among Muslims of East Bengali descent in Assam, the reason for the increasing numbers and the visibility of the miyas could very well be the result of migration from rural to urban centres in search of livelihood. It could also be because of internal displacement from Assam’s chars. The chars were populated for cultivation by immigrant Muslims in the colonial era. Socio-economic indicators among char dwellers have remained depressing. The surveys of 1992-93 and 2002-03 revealed that char dwellers constituted 9.35 per cent of the total population of Assam; between 1992-93 and 2002-03, the literacy rate increased marginally from 15.45 per cent to 19.31 per cent; in 2002-03, 67.90 per cent of char dwellers lived below the poverty line, an increase of 19 per cent from 1992-93. Chars are predisposed towards erosion and char dwellers often become internally displaced persons. Poor socio-economic conditions, erosion and displacement have forced lakhs of char dwellers to migrate to the mainland.
How do Assamese xenophobes and BJP leaders differentiate between Muslim citizens of East Bengali descent and ‘illegal Bangladeshis’? Shared physical and cultural markers — beard, lungi, religion and language — rather than ‘differences’ are probably used for the purpose of identification. These clichéd representations are becoming a part of a new discourse which seeks to project Muslims of East Bengali descent as “lesser humans”. Such portrayals are undoubtedly the hallmark of a racist worldview.