A key part of the 2014 Narendra Modi campaign was belligerence towards Pakistan. As an opposition leader, Modi even went so far as to advocate attacking the country. But things changed rapidly once he had won the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
As prime minister, Modi dropped his political rhetoric to make significant efforts at peace, even going so far as to visit Pakistan, ignoring an attack on the Pathankot airbase by Pakistani militants and agreeing to the Hurriyat talking directly to Pakistan.
This – on a smaller scale – is what seems to be happening with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam vis-à-vis Bangladesh. The party campaigned on a shrill anti-Bangladeshi immigrant platform during the 2014 Lok Sabha election – only to do nothing for two years. The issue was resurrected for the 2016 Assembly elections, with the BJP going on to be voted into power in the state last week.
After the polls, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal declared that the Bangladesh-Assam border would be sealed in two years. Yet, the BJP’s actions and ground realities suggest that, like on Pakistan, much of this is political posturing and the BJP government in Assam and at the Centre has very little practical leeway to undertake any massive changes.
All talk, no action
The Assam Assembly elections had the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants as its centrepiece. It was because of this that a relative outsider to Assam, the BJP, seen as a North Indian, Hindi-speaking party, was able to snatch a surprise win. The Congress was seen as too soft and only managed to win six out of 65 seats in Upper Assam.
It is also the reason that the Congress refused to ally with the All India United Democratic Front, a party of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam – and often seen to be the biggest gainer in terms of votes from Bangladeshi immigration. So polarised was the Assamese-Bengali divide that indications are that even Assamese-speaking Muslims voted for the BJP, given its stance on Bangladeshi immigration.
Even while the BJP ratcheted up the volume on Bangladeshi immigrants during the campaign, it made sure that it was more pragmatic about its concrete promises. The party, for example, was careful about not mentioning anything about the deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in its manifesto. Indeed, deportation is a non-starter because that needs Bangladesh to agree to accept the people India is expelling – a highly implausible scenario given the ground realities.
Hindi-Bangla bhai bhai
Even as the BJP uses “Bangladeshi” as a campaign point, its government at the Centre is actually building excellent relations with Bangladesh. In 2015, Delhi gave the Bengali nation a $2 million line of credit and Dhaka offered India transit rights so that vehicles headed from West Bengal to India's North Eastern states can take quicker routes that pass through Bangladeshi territory.
Bangladesh has bent over backwards to help India with respect to North Eastern militants and India has made large corporate investments in the country. The Modi government has even invited Bangladesh to establish a Deputy High Commission in Guwahati. All in all, the relationship is too close to now be jeopardised over the local issues of Assam – as the BJP-led Union government’s inaction on the matter clearly shows for the past two years.
The fencing that Sonowal spoke of is nothing new – it’s been on since the 1980s and much of the Indo-Bangla land border has already sealed off. Even the riverine portions have border patrols. Moreover, India’s Border Security Force has stepped up its use of lethal violence – for example, it shot and killed a 15-year-old girl in 2011 as she was going from India to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh more developed than Assam
The other factor retarding Bangladeshi migration to Assam is the fact that the former’s quick development since 1971 has meant that Bangladesh now offers its people a higher standard of life than Assam, making large-scale migration implausible. “Bangladesh HDI [Human Development Index] is higher than Assam’s and crucial indicators such as infant and maternal mortality are much worse in Assam than in Bangladesh,” pointed out Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. “Bangladesh is five times larger than Assam in terms of population, and while the Assamese might think about it all the time, Assam does not exist as an issue in Bangladesh.”
The maternal mortality rate in Assam per 100,000 is 328 – almost double that of Bangladesh’s, which stands at 176. On infant mortality ratio, Assam’s 54 is significantly worse than Bangladesh’s 31. Currently, Bangladesh’s per capita income is 70% more than that of Assam’s. “People never migrate to a place which is less developed or less safer than their point of origin,” Hazarika noted. “The reality of Bangladeshi migration into Assam is that it is far less than what it is projected to be, given the improved economy of Bangladesh.”
Even while Bangladeshi deportation remains a non-starter, this issue can still have deep repercussion on the social fabric of Assam. “Any Muslim of Bengali origin is often termed a Bangladeshi in Assam,” says Hazarika. “The shrinking population of Assamese speakers in Assam is what is driving this politics.”
Violence against Muslims in Assam has a long and bloody history with the Nellie massacre in 1983 being India’s worst pogrom since the Partition violence. As late as 2012, anti-Muslim violence in Kokrajhar, Assam left approximately 80 dead.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.