On December 6, Mohammad Afrazul, a 48-year-old Bengali-speaking labourer from West Bengal’s Malda district, was hacked to death and set on fire in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand town. Shambhulal Regar, 36, was arrested for the crime. Video clips of the murder, allegedly shot by Regar’s nephew, showed Regar ranting against Muslims and making claims about incidents of love jihad – the conspiracy theory floated by Hindutva groups that suggests Muslim men marry Hindu women solely to convert them to Islam. Regar’s actions won him the support of many Hindutva groups in the region.
Within a week of the murder, hundreds of Bengali-speaking migrant labourers, most of them from West Bengal, fled Rajsamand. This coincided with violent protests by Hindutva groups demanding Regar’s release, and also in retaliation for demonstrations by Muslim organisations seeking justice for Afrazul, in Rajsamand and Udaipur city.
Eight months on, many of the migrants who fled Rajsamand had been considering going back in search of work. But they say they have changed their minds as a “Bangladeshi bhagao” (drive Bangladeshis away) sentiment reportedly gripped the town in the wake of Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah’s speech there on Saturday. Shah spoke to the crowd in Rajsamand about the debate about the National Register of Citizens in Assam, which aims to list genuine Indian citizens in the northeastern state, separating them from those defined as “illegal immigrants”. A final draft of the register, published in the BJP-ruled state on July 31, left out 40 lakh of the 3.29 crore people who had applied to be included.
“Should we have a citizens’ register?” Shah asked the crowd in Rajasthan on Saturday. “Should illegal Bangladeshi immigrants be asked to leave?”
He went on to attack the Congress, the main Opposition party in the state, saying, “The Congress never learns... For years, Bangladeshi infiltrators entered the country. The BJP started the work of identifying, investigating them. [The] Congress is opposing the NRC [National Register of Citizens] because they want their vote bank to remain intact. These Bangladeshi ghuspethiye [infiltrators] are coming here.”
It took little time for Shah’s words to reach West Bengal, whose chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has condemned the exercise in Assam and warned that it could lead to a bloodbath and civil war. Bengali-speaking migrants have long worked as labourers in towns and cities in Rajasthan. Many of them have become small-time labour contractors – as Afrazul was. But irrespective of the long years they have spent in the state and the documents they possess, they say they are often branded as Bangladeshis. Most of them have internalised the term and seldom take offence when called one. But Afrazul’s murder changed their lives and the word Bangladeshi now sends shivers down their spines, they say.
Mohammad Aliul, who shared a room with Afrazul in Rajsamand and left the town after collecting his death certificate, has abandoned plans to go back. “We are better earning a penny or two in our village where we are at least safe,” he said. “We cannot think of going back to Rajsamand under such politically heated up circumstances. What if we are attacked again?”
Shah was in Rajsamand to flag off Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s Rajasthan Gaurav Yartra. Raje will travel 6,000 km across the state in 40 days in a luxury bus to reach out to her constituents in the run-up to state elections later this year. These Assembly polls are no less than an acid test for the BJP ahead of next year’s general elections, particularly in the wake of its loss to the Congress in bye-elections to two parliamentary seats and one Assembly seat in February.
‘It does not seem safe’
Another migrant worker who fled Rajsamand after Afrazul’s murder told Scroll.in over the phone that he had been receiving calls from contractors there in the last three months claiming the situation was under control. The worker, who did not want to be identified, said he had known the contractors for years and trusted them. But he also said he was scared and unsure at this point.
Mohammad Mosharraf Khan, Afrazul’s son-in-law, pointed out that the space left by Bengali-speaking migrant labourers in Rajsamand and its neighbouring towns had been filled by migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – but only partially.
“The law and order situation had indeed come under control and Bengali-speaking migrants were in a position to return,” he added. “But now it again does not seem safe.”