Migration to India from the current geographical and political entity called Bangladesh is a complex area of inquiry. Post 1971, migrants from Bangladesh into India can be divided into two main groups: (i) Hindu Bangladeshis who mainly came as refugees as a result of persecution and also as economic migrants; and (ii) Muslim Bangladeshis who came by economic need.
Among the Muslim Bangladeshi migrants, there are three categories: (i) those who have settled in the Muslim-majority districts in the border regions; (ii) daily labourers, rickshaw pullers, and farmers who cross the India–Bangladesh border on a day-to-day basis for farming and better wages; and (iii) those who have settled in Kolkata, Delhi, and other Indian cities.
The Assamese ethnic nationalists and the Hindu nationalists are the two main groups that define Bangladeshis as “foreigners” and “infiltrators”, the first group for their ethnicity and language, and the latter for their religion. In Assam, hostility towards Bangladeshi migrants is part of a larger opposition to Bengali migration, of which Bangladeshis form a subset. The ethnic Assamese nationalists are inclusive of the Assamese Muslims but view the Bengalis – both Hindus and Muslims – in the state as “foreigners”.
Contrastingly, the Hindu nationalists in India advocate citizenship for Hindu Bangladeshis and demand deportation of Muslim Bangladeshis. In the Hindu nationalists’ discourse on Bangladeshi migration, Hindu Bangladeshis in India are “refugees” and Muslim Bangladeshis are “infiltrators”.
These ethnic and Hindu nationalist discourses have been framed within the context of the democratic parliamentary arena: elections, debates, the seeking of legislative power, citizenship, and the rule of law. One contention of the research is that contemporary nationalist thought still goes along much the same route, and therefore, the Indian nationalist project is incomplete.
The issue of “infiltration” from East Pakistan was first discussed in 1962 in parliamentary debates in India which focussed on the Muslim migrants in Assam and Tripura. Bangladesh was East Pakistan at that time and many politicians in India defined the migrants as “Pakistani infiltrators”. It was the ethnic Assamese nationalists who first proposed fencing the border with Bangladesh. They also led the first movement against Bangladeshi migrants called the Assam Movement (1979-85) in the late 1970s.
During the Assam Movement, the Assamese and other indigenous communities were particularly anxious about losing their identity due to the large numbers of Bengali and Bangladeshi migrants who had settled in Assam. Assam’s regional nationalist party, the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), and the main separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), were the two major outcomes of the movement.
The major concern of the AGP was that Bangladeshi and Bengali “foreigners” might demographically overwhelm the ethnic Assamese people. The AGP also feared that the primacy of their language, Assamese, would give way to the Bengali language. The AGP remains the most strident political party opposing the presence of Bangladeshis and Bengalis.
In the 1990s, “infiltration” from Bangladesh was a major theme in the popular election campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political face of the Hindu nationalists in India. The Muslim Bangladeshi migrants were defined as an “economic threat” and the “Muslim demographic threat” at that time.
The major worries of the BJP concerning the Bangladeshis are that the Bangladeshi migrants are used by other political parties as vote banks; they are exhausting India’s scarce resources; they have a potential demand for separate Muslim states called “Greater Bangladesh” in Assam and West Bengal; and that they are the agents of the Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
All these worries fuse together into a primary anxiety that Bangladeshi migrants, being Muslims, will divide the country once again. Bangladeshi migrants were regarded as Islamist terrorists and a security threat from the late 1990s and this was exacerbated by post-September 11 anxieties about Muslims.
Vote banks or electoral politics is a central concern for the Hindu nationalists and the Assamese ethnic nationalists in relation to Bangladeshis. The BJP saw the Muslim Bangladeshi migrants as a loyal and captive “vote bank” of the INC in Assam and Delhi and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) the CPI (M) in West Bengal. West Bengal shares the longest border with Bangladesh and hosts the largest number of Bangladeshi migrants, but the state does not make migration a political issue. This made the CPI (M) vulnerable to criticism.
The BJP held the former CPI (M)-led state government of West Bengal responsible for encouraging and approving Muslim Bangladeshi migration and not taking adequate action in “dealing with the influx”. In addition to vote-bank politics, the current charges against the Bangladeshi migrants made by the Hindu and ethnic nationalists are that: Bangladeshi migrants are serious economic threats, they constitute a demographic invasion, and they are a worrying security threat.
Civil society members in India have protested against the actions undertaken by various ethnic and Hindu nationalists against the Bangladeshi migrants. A number of civil society organisations, including human rights organisations, criticised repatriation measures that took place in Delhi in 1992 to deport Bangladeshi migrants, and called it “inhuman” and “condemnable”.
Excerpted with permission from Bangladeshi Migrants In India: Foreigners, Refugees, Or Infiltrators?, Rizwana Shamshad, Oxford University Press.