“There is a Bangladeshi type of language…some kind of Bengali sounding language in which they were shouting slogans,” said Medha Lal of the Delhi Police in a TV interview.
While trying to identify the perpetrators of the communal rioting on Saturday, Lal used a common dog whistle, conflating Bengali and specifically the Bengali Muslim residents of Jahangirpuri with Bangladeshi citizens. And he wasn’t the only one: powerful politicians, cutting across party lines used the same tack. This xenophobic dog whistling was at least partly used to justify collective punishment in Jahangirpuri, with demolitions carried out on Wednesday using bulldozers.
Now that more information is emerging on what actually happened, we know that the locality is inhabited by small Hindu traders and Bengali Muslims from West Bengal who work as waste collectors. None of the people arrested have been identified as being from Bangladesh.
Conflating Bengali-speaking Indian Muslim citizens with Bangladeshi immigrants or bracketing rural dialects from West Bengal as something foreign has a long history with major ramifications for the safety of Bengali Muslims across India. And this trend is only becoming stronger as Hindutva becomes more powerful across India.
After the communal violence on Saturday, a number of mainstream politicians used xenophobic dog whistles to tar the residents of Jahangirpuri. On Sunday, Delhi BJP President Adarsh Gupta alleged that so-called illegal Rohingya and Bangladeshi immigrants should be blamed for the violence and must be evicted from Delhi. The Aam Aadmi Party took much the same line, accusing “Bangladeshi and Rohingyas” of causing violence.
Right wing media followed suit. Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran even quoted anonymous sources alleging that one lakh Bangladeshis have settled in Jahangirpuri. Reacting to Sunday’s demolition drive, Gupta said on television that the BJP would continue with their mission to send Bangladeshis home.
Misrecognition of Bengali Muslims as Bangladeshis, and these days even as Rohingyas, is not a new phenomenon. Medha Lal is not the first and certainly would not be the last policeman to ignore the fact that there exists a state called West Bengal with nearly 30 million Muslims who have Bengali as their mother tongue. In fact, not only the police, such ignorance exists even among regular citizens.
The history of fusing the figure of the Bengali Muslim with someone who is an alien citizen goes back to Assam movement, which lasted from 1979 to 1985. The movement’s principal demand was to deport undocumented migrants from Bangladesh who had crossed the border as refugees during the 1971 Liberation war.
Academic Navine Murshid argues that when political activists during this period were mobilising around the so-called threat of Bangladeshi migrants turning the Assamese into a minority in Assam, the state’s large number of Bengali-speaking Muslims, who historically belonged to the region, were identified as the primary “Other”.
In this way, Assam movement concretised “what it means to be a foreigner not just for the Assamese-speaking population but also for the different tribes and ethnic groups in the region, by identifying the ‘common enemy’,” the Bengali-speaking Muslim. This process was accompanied by terrible violence. India’s single-largest communal massacre at Nelli, saw around 2,000 Bengali-speaking Muslims killed during the Assam Movement.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the language of the so-called illegal Bangladeshi entered the political landscape in other parts of India too. Hindutva organisations in 1992 attacked the Congress-led Delhi government for its alleged lenient attitude towards migrant Bangladeshis living in the capital. This drove the Union and state government to launch “Operation Pushback” to deport undocumented Bangladeshi migrants. However, in this operation the Jyoti Basu-led West Bengal government cooperated in the identification of migrants and Bengali Muslims from the state were not harmed.
A similar politics took root in the mid 1990s in Maharashtra. India Today in a report dated April 30, 1995 highlighted how a drive against undocumented Bangladeshis became “fair game for politicians’ poll propaganda” in Maharashtra politics. It was one of the first instances of political targeting of Bengali Muslims outside of Assam.
It all started with an alleged threat by a caller who identified himself as a Bangladeshi to “finish off” Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi. After this, Thackeray warned that he would exterminate the entire community, his threat being printed on the front page of the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamna. Soon the BJP-Shiv Sena government swung into action and Mumbai Police started drives in places like Bengalipura, Govandi, Trombay, where one civil society leader that India Today spoke to claimed that being Muslim and speaking Bengali was enough to get a person deported.
The India Today report said in 1995, “Bengali is suddenly a dirty word”. One community leader in Antop Hill, Gulam Mustafa asked a very pertinent question: “I have a Muslim name and speak Bengali. Does that mean I’m a foreign national? By the same yardstick, all Urdu-speaking Muslims will be Pakistanis.”
Mustafa’s statement identifies just how shaky the position of Bengali Muslims is. Though Muslims in other parts of the country are attacked and abused and often asked to “go to Pakistan”, their Indian citizenship is always assumed. On the other hand, with the march of Hindu nationalism, Bengali Muslims are not only attacked for their religious background but their linguistic background now makes their citizenship suspect.
CAA and NRC
The discourse around Bengali Muslims as undocumented Bangladeshis reached its zenith during the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and the politics around the proposed National Register of Citizens. In West Bengal, BJP leaders were clear that the law was aimed at Bengali Muslims living in the state. The usual charge levelled was that undocumented migrants from Bangladesh had obtained identification documents like Aadhar cards or voter cards with the help of sympathetic governments in Kolkata.
In 2019, the Indian Express reported that the police were raiding Bengali Muslims, even though they had identification papers, which police rejected as fake. Along with this came bans by housing associations in Bangalore and the National Capital Region against so-called Bangladeshi domestic workers and guards, again targeting Bengali Muslims.
While such narratives may have started with Bengali Muslims, they will not end with them. In 2021, Tathagata Neogi, a Kolkata-based heritage professional was asked if he was a Bangladeshi citizen when he submitted his identification documents to a car dealership. What started with the conflation of Bengali Muslims as Bangladeshis in Assam, has now moved to anyone who speaks Bengali post the CAA-NRC crisis.
With Jahangirpuri, the Assamisation of India is now complete.
Adil Hossain is an Assistant Professor at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.