Migration debate

In one West Bengal district, Bangladeshi Hindu refugees attempt to oust Indian Muslims

Narendra Modi's threat to deport Bangladeshi Muslims has emboldened Hindu refugees in Uttar Dinajpur.

Over the decades, West Bengal hasn’t paid much attention to controversies about illegal Bangladeshi migrants. But this election season, the Bharatiya Janata Party has sought to change that. In recent speeches, their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has declared that only those who worship Durga can live in Bengal. The rest will be deported when he comes to power, Modi warned.

In Uttar Dinajpur, a district in West Bengal bordering Bangladesh, those remarks are being fervently debated at roadside stalls. However, Modi’s suggestion that Durga-worshipping Hindu migrants from Bangladesh would be given refuge while Bangladeshi Muslims would be expelled doesn’t reflect the complexity on the ground.

In this district, the children of Hindu refugees who fled Bangladesh in the 1970s have cast themselves as rivals to Bengali-speaking Muslim Badiyas or Bhatiyas who moved to Uttar Dinajpur from other parts of West Bengal about two decades ago.

“They say they come from Malda and Murshidabad to this side but that is plain lie,” declared Tapas Sarkar, a youth from Ramkrishnapur village, whose parents came to India in 1969 from Rangpur in Bangladesh. “How could there be so many people there? They hide it that they come from Bangladesh.”

Sarkar and other young refugees claim that the increase in the number of Muslim Bhatiyas has changed the demography of the region and are worried that these regional migrants have begun to exert a greater influence on local affairs.

These second-generation Bangladeshi migrants have found support in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has even organised campaigns in the neighbouring Kishanganj district to evict Bhatiyas from the area, claiming that they are illegal Bangladeshis.

With Modi’s recent anti-migrant comments, many young second-generation refugees find their claims bolstered by the broader national discourse around illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Not surprisingly, many of these young people voted for the BJP this time.

For their part, the Bhatiyas point out that targeting them would only hurt the local agricultural economy, for which they provide the bulk of the labour. “Is it a crime even to move from one district to another in India?” asked Abdul Matin, a homeopathy doctor in Chakulia. “The BJP knows  that talking about Bangladeshi outsiders is just like raising anti-reservation pitch time to time"  –  it will reap political benefits just by raising the issue, he said.

Ironically, the local population of Surjapuri Hindus and Muslims, who are known as "deshi" or "native" people, is not quite as exercised about migration. “All people have come to our region because it’s one of the most fertile lands in Bengal,” said Manabendro Das, a school teacher in Chakulia. “Why treat them differently according to their religion?”

Though the outsiders don't alarm Kamruzzaman, a Surjapuri Muslim from the same village, Modi’s comments do. “He just wants to find an excuse to target Muslims,” he said. “Today the BJP wants to evict Bhatiyas and tomorrow they will target us.”

It isn’t just tensions between Hindu refugees and Bhatiya Muslims that are playing out in Uttar Dinajpur. There are also old resentments between “deshi” Surjapuri Muslims and Bangladeshi Hindu migrants. The deshi Muslims claim that when Bangladeshi refugees were settled in Chakulia and nearby Kanki in the 1970s, they were allocated land that had been usurped from local Muslims. There were even riots at the time to protest this.

Narayan Chandra Sarkar, retired headmaster of Chakulia High School, is among the Bangladeshi refugees who has benefited from the hospitality of the deshis. He said he was grateful to the deshis for helping him build a new life. “I came from Bangladesh in 1967 with a graduate degree from Rajshahi University,” he said. “I was unemployed and had family problems. So with the help of a local relative, I came over to this side and joined my school.”

Unlike his younger relatives, Sarkar voted for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and he too was wary of Modi's comments on Bangladeshi migrants. “Garib manusher abar desh ki?" he asked. Do the poor have any nation?

 
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