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TRAIN FROM BANGLADESH

Warnings about Muslim infiltration from Bangladesh being the cause of persistent demographic changes in eastern India have been voiced time and again, and not only by 'saffron propagandists'. One notable voice has been that of T.V. Rajeswar, Rajiv Gandhi's favourite Intelligence Bureau chief and former West Bengal governor, whom the United Progressive Alliance appointed as the Uttar Pradesh governor in exemplary hurry. Rajeswar had forecast, as early as 1996, the rise of a 'third Islamic state' in the subcontinent due to infiltration from the east.

The evidence churned out in Census 2001 will surely not make the governor regret having made that forecast. For it is undeniable that a Muslim tidal wave is sweeping through the border districts of West Bengal and Assam, also inundating a few districts of east Bihar. The Muslim rate of growth here is more than twice the national one, and more than four times that in some cases.

Let's begin at Murshidabad, which was in Pakistan for two days after Partition, till it was brought back to West Bengal through negotiation. Since then it has remained Bengal's lone Muslim majority district, with little interference from the state in the lifestyle of the district's majority community and its network of Gulf-funded madrassahs and the thriving border-smuggling business. After 9/11, the Centre and the state woke up to the soft border. The strength of the Border Security Force was increased. State intelligence was augmented. The feeling was that the Murshidabad Muslims had 'settled in', and there could only be a marginal shift in the district's relative Hindu and Muslim population shares.

Census 2001 shows that there are 825,380 additional Muslims in the districts over the 1991 figure ' a 28.5 per cent increase. The Hindu population increased by 15 per cent in the decade. The Muslim share in the district's population has risen to 63.67 per cent, from 61.4 per cent in 1991. The decadal rise is 2.27 per cent, against the all-India increase in the Muslim population share of 0.79 per cent. It couldn't be a natural growth.

The infiltration tide hit further up in Maldah, with the arrival of 383,879 new Muslims, a 30.7 per cent increase. The Hindu population rose by 17.68 per cent in that period. With a 49.27 per cent Muslim population share, Maldah has narrowly missed the distinction of being Bengal's second Muslim-majority district.

But the case of the two Dinajpur districts has been instructive. The post-independence West Dinajpur district, with a 35.79 per cent Muslim population in the 1981 census, was subsequently split into North and South Dinajpur districts. North Dinajpur began with a high Muslim share (45.55 per cent in 1991). It has now reached 47.89 per cent and looks destined to become the state's third district to become Muslim majority.

North Dinajpur is also a landmark in the immigration trail. Islampur, in that district, leads to Kishanganj in Bihar, much of which falls in the constituency that returned the'tainted' Taslimuddin to the Lok Sabha. In 1991-2001, the district's Muslim population recorded a 1.58 per cent rise, from 66 per cent in 1991. That makes Kishanganj the fourth largest Muslim-inhabited district in the country (Jammu and Kashmir excluded), after Lakshadweep (95.47 per cent), Dhubri (74.29 per cent) in Assam, and Malappuram (68.53 per cent) in Kerala. From Kishanganj, the locus of migration is spreading to at least three other Bihar districts that have witnessed more than 2 per cent growth in the Muslim share: Katihar (42.5 per cent), Araria (42.85 per cent) and Purnia (36.8 per cent).

Curiously, the rise in Muslim population in most of south Bengal in the Nineties has been somewhat expected. In the Calcutta census district, the humungous net growth of 53.67 per cent in the Eighties quietened down to 20 per cent in the next decade. There are signs of the wave waning in Nadia and North 24 Parganas too, maybe due to the rising pressure of the resident population growth, extensive unbanization and spread of awareness. But South 24 Parganas, the district that elected Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to the state assembly, is showing a contrary trend. In the last census decade, it witnessed a net accretion of 34 per cent Muslims, taking their share from 29.94 per cent to 33.24 per cent. If a lesson has to be derived from south Bengal, it is that of all border sentinels, the best are urbanization and an aware populace.

It is a different story in Assam, though. In 1991, Assam accounted for four of the nine districts with a Muslim majority. In all the four districts, the Muslim share has gone up ' Dhubri (70 per cent to 74.29 per cent), Barpeta (56 per cent to 59.3 per cent), Hailakandi (55 per cent to 57.6 per cent) and Goalpara (50 per cent to 53.71 per cent). Besides, two new districts have joined the list: Nagaon (50.99 per cent) and Karimganj (52.3 per cent). The immigration is two-pronged: a northward thrust across Dhubri to the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, and then further up, across Nalbari and Darrang to the thickly forested slopes of the Bhutan hills; and an eastern thrust through Karimganj and Hailakandi towards the Bengali-speaking Cachar district.

It's pointless to argue if this phenomenal surge in the Muslim population is caused by the community's religious practices, including neglect of family planning. It is clear that Bangladesh, with its population growing at 2.8 million per year, is experiencing a demographic explosion. After saturating the lower basin areas of the Brahmaputra and the Ganga at the Farakka point, the men in search of 'living space' are looking further north to the Nepal terai. The more adventurous among them are heading west in search of a living, to Delhi and Mumbai, and with some luck, to the Gulf. Mumbai has recorded an all-time high Muslim share of 21.96 per cent and Delhi a 82.3 per cent decadal growth of Muslims. Increase in the Muslim population in Surat, the brassware centre of Moradabad, or even the stone quarries of Gurgaon cannot be explained as generational growth. The train from Bangladesh seems to be chugging along.

The high point of Census 2001 is confirmation of the phenomenon of mass exodus from Bangladesh, not the computation mistake by the census commissioner. In the emotional frenzy of the Bangladesh war in 1971, the long-term effect of an unviable nation emerging across India's door was neither understood nor acknowledged. But Henry Kissinger wrote with remarkable prescience: 'It (Bangladesh) might set a precedent for the creation of other Moslem States, carved this time out of India.' Kissinger's forecast hasn't been proved yet, but the changing population trends are clearly on his side.

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