In colonial Assam, Census officials encountered several enumerators marking anyone not from Assam as “bongāl”. Bongāl was used as a synonym for “outsider”. The officials had to ask them to be more specific and not use the word “bongāl” to categorise people in the Census who did not have so-called roots in Assam.
This small encounter in the Census lights up a discourse of how “bongāl” came to be equated with an outsider in the North Eastern states. A socio-historical and cultural definition of the word can give several clues to understanding the term “Bangladeshi”, which is embedded in the history of Assamese nationalism.
Historically, within Assam, there are a variety of ways “bongāl” was used. Eighteenth-century war chronicles written by ganaks, or astrologers, who accompanied the army of the Ahom kingdom, refer to Mir Jumla, the Mughal military commander and his army, as “bongāl”. Similarly, Raja Rama Singh, a Rajput leader who led the Mughal Army, and his troops were also referred to as “bongāl”. It is peculiar that these chronicles used “bongāl” over “Mughal” or “musalman”.
It was used as a common denominator, irrespective of religion, to identify anyone who came from the lands to the west of the Ahom rulers. In colonial Assam, two more uses of “bongāl” can be found. The first comes with the prefix “bogā”, or white, to refer to the British as “bogā bongāl”. Second, “bongāl ghā” appeared in the Assamese dictionary to refer to syphilis.
It was only in the 20th century that “bongāl” was increasingly used to refer to the foreigner. This was done by academics, politicians and the larger civil society in Assam. One of the most important events that began taking roots after Independence, with the aid of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, or literary society, was the “bongāl kheda andolan”, which gives the concrete meaning of “bongāl” as foreigners who have to be expelled from Assam.
With the language movement taking its narrow nationalistic turn in Assam and peaking in 1960, “bongāl” increasingly became associated with any Bangla speaker in the state, albeit being portrayed as “leterā”, or dirty, in popular discourse. The andolan gave a new life to the anti-foreigner movement in Assam and is core to the otherisation of Bengalis in Assamese political life. This otherisation gathered more intensity and violence with the Assam Movement between 1979 and 1985 against foreigners.
“Bongāl”, now, is no longer a popular term used to designate the outsider in Assam. It has been substituted by “Bangladeshi” and “Miya,” used generically and particularly to designate any Bangla speaker in the state. These terms are used as a slur and to designate outsiders, believed to have loyalty to Bangladesh and are overpopulating Assam.
A term that was premised on the question of language and mother tongue has now come to focus on their very being. A measure of this can be found in the justifications offered by Assamese nationalists against the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act when they say that they oppose both Hindu and Muslim “Bangladeshis”. Ironically enough, in their eyes, this dual inclusion makes them secular. They are framed and referred to as “Bangladeshis” for who they are – and not because of what they do.
“Bangladeshi” became a system of classification of different and unwanted groups in Assam. Since the last century, this term has organised and ordered Assamese society. It became a discursive category and even a language that continues to haunt the minorities in Assam. With the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, it haunts the Muslim Bengalis in Assam the most.
The journey of the word “Bangladeshi” is loaded with sentiments such as hate and disgust and anxieties, primarily imaginary, for the perpetrators, as much as it is filled with violence for its victims.
Even the state has come to use this term, as is evident in such landmark judgments as Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India 2005, SK Sinha’s 1998 report, and the Brahma Committee Report 2017. The anxieties expressed about Bangladeshis in numerous bureaucratic documents and state processes are also expressed as questions of national security.
In these documents, “Bangladeshis” are people who can provoke “internal disturbance” and “external aggression”. This legitimises the view that they are a danger to the nation. As a result, sentiments and anxieties that often find expression as violence against the Bangladeshis have become commonplace in India.
The spectre of doubt looms around the figure of the “Bangladeshi” that is tied to the question of everyday citizenship, housing, work, free movement, and dignity within their own country. Has the Bangladeshi also become an additional “floating signifier” of anti-minoritarian hate and difference?
Sociologist Stuart Hall once said, “Signifier refers to the systems and concepts of the classifications of a culture, its making meaning practices, and those things gain their meaning not because of what they contain in their essence but in their shifting relations of difference which they establish with other concepts and ideas.”
In India, the change in the relations of difference between the majority and the minority is now clearly visible. The country faces a social and political crisis of unseen proportions.
It is evident that the ruling party has successfully amplified all kinds of anti-minority sentiments across India. “Bangladeshi” is only one term of hate with strong roots in Assam. The ruling party has artfully used the many differences that exist in society to weaponise difference.
Hall further added that “signifiers gain meaning, because it is relational and not essential, and can never be finally fixed but is subject to the constant process of redefinition and appropriation”.
“Bangladeshi” has become a signifier, constantly re-defined, concretised and variously appropriated by Assamese nationalists and the Bharatiya Janata Party in post-colonial India to target a specific group of minorities who had a complicated history of partition, among others. As a signifier of hate, it now floats from Delhi’s Jahangirpuri neighbourhood to a beggar and migrants in the street, targeted by bulldozers and Hindutva fanatics.
The figure of the “Bangladeshi” is at the core of the National Register of Citizens process, aimed at creating a record of “true” Indians. It is at the heart of Home Minister Amit Shah’s rhetoric when he says “ghuspethiya”, or infiltrators, and compares them to termites.
It is the cause for misrecognition and dog-whistling as Muslim Bengalis are deemed as “Bangladeshis” in India’s Hindutva-dominated newsrooms. In the figure of the “Bangladeshi”, there is a new “floating signifier” of anti-minoritarian hate and difference in India.
Dr Suraj is a sociologist interested in social, political and ethical life in South Asia. He tweets @char_chapori.