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Despite ruling party’s silence, immigration from Bangladesh remains a theme in Assam politics

It will continue to animate and shape the state’s politics in profound and unpredictable ways in the foreseeable future.

Written by Sanjib Baruah |
Updated: April 9, 2021 8:49:01 am
Considering that immigration from across the Partition’s eastern border has been a recurring theme in the politics of Assam, it may be useful to take a long-term view of the phenomenon.

“All warfare is the way of deception”, said Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military strategist. Deception plays a role in modern electoral strategies as well. If immigration does not appear to be a live political issue in the current election in Assam, most of the credit should go to a successful campaign of strategic deception. The ruling party won the past two elections in the state by staking its claim as the champion of local interests against the danger from immigration. But this time, as a matter of strategic calculation, the party decided to play coy about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — a critical and controversial piece of legislation on the subject — and the Clause 6 committee’s report, a proposal to provide local people with constitutional safeguards to mitigate the adverse impact of the CAA, which has apparently been shelved for now.

However, both national and state-level BJP leaders rallied around one core message, depicting AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal as the central villain of the piece. A Congress-AIUDF alliance government, they darkly hint, will lead to a rise in “infiltration”.

Considering that immigration from across the Partition’s eastern border has been a recurring theme in the politics of Assam, it may be useful to take a long-term view of the phenomenon.

In world historical terms, the birth of India and Pakistan as separate countries, and the subsequent break-up of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, were the result of the emergence of the nation-state as the new global norm of political organisation. But as thinkers such as Hannah Arendt have warned us, the formation of new states is almost always a refugee-generating process. Indeed, the League of Nations — the predecessor of the United Nations — took it upon itself to manage the minority issues created in this process.

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That there are migration flows across the Partition’s border even after seven decades wouldn’t surprise many historians. The Partition was not a conclusive one-time event, it has been a protracted and long-drawn-out affair. It has followed two different trajectories in the east and in the west. The more or less complete “exchange of population” that occurred in Punjab during Partition — and the brutal violence that accompanied it — didn’t happen in the east. The Hindu population of pre-Partition eastern Bengal was about 28 per cent of the population. It dropped to only about 22 per cent in 1951.

The Nehru-Liaquat Pact of March 1950 was by no means an ad-hoc response to a major outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence. The two countries borrowed from internationally available models of managing minority issues in newly crafted nation-states. They sought to create a bilateral institutional framework to restore confidence among minorities in East Pakistan, Assam and West Bengal. The goal was to maintain the demographic status quo of the two post-Partition states. The effort was hardly an unmitigated failure, as it is sometimes implied. After all, in the following two decades, the Hindu population of East Pakistan decreased by only 3.6 per cent (from 22 per cent in 1951 to 18.4 per cent in 1970).

But things began to change dramatically with the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The Pakistani military regime of the time, as Bangladeshi scholar Meghna Guhathakurta puts it, viewed the Liberation War as an Indian conspiracy and treated Bengali freedom fighters as if they were Indian infiltrators. Consequently, the repressive backlash of the Pakistani state fell upon almost 90 per cent of Bangladesh’s Hindu households. And as the military campaign against Bengali resistance intensified, “the percentage of Hindu refugees fleeing into India increased manifold in relation to Muslim refugees.”

In August 1971, according to an estimate she cites, there were 6,71,000 Hindu refugees and 5,41,000 Muslim refugees in India. Scholars such as Zillur Rahman Khan agree with this general assessment. Of the 9.7 million refugees who migrated to India in 1971, he says, 70 per cent were Hindus. Many of the Hindu refugees of 1971, writes Bangladeshi commentator Sarwar Jahan Choudhury, are “suspected to have stayed back in West Bengal, Tripura, and Barak valley.”

Considering India’s support for the Bangladeshi independence, it is ironic that the region’s Hindu population continued to decline after Bangladesh became an independent country. The changed political landscape following the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the embrace of Islam as part of its official national identity by military regimes of Ziaur Rahman (1975–1981) and Hussain Muhammad Ershad (1981–1990), clearly didn’t help. The proportion of Hindus came down to 12 per cent in 1981 and 9 per cent in 2011. However, emigration to India need not be the only explanation for the decline of the country’s Hindu population.

Viewed from the perspective of Bangladesh’s Hindu minority, the CAA is a gamechanger. The goal of maintaining the demographic status quo of the post-Partition states has now been abandoned. The CAA is a welcome mat to Hindus: Immigration to India will now onwards be seen as homecoming. Years before the adoption of the CAA, Meghna Guhathakurta wrote that while insecurity and rejection led many Hindu Bangladeshis to choose the path of silent migration to India, it was “often looked upon by Bangladeshi elites and champions of Bangladeshi nationalism as a form of opportunism on the part of Hindu families”. It was used as an argument to justify discrimination against them in employment and education on the pretext that they couldn’t be trusted to serve the country if given those opportunities. This situation is only likely to get worse with the CAA.

Even though the CAA currently has December 31, 2014 as the cut-off date, it is hard to imagine that a future Indian government, especially of the current ideological persuasion, will have the political inclination to close the doors on Hindu unauthorised immigrants who have entered — or will enter — India after that date. Like the previous cut-off date of March 25, 1971, which was superseded by the CAA, this cut-off date will probably also have to be abandoned in future.

Migration will probably continue to animate and shape the politics of Assam in profound and unpredictable ways for the foreseeable future.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 9, 2021 under the title ‘Partition’s long shadow’. The writer is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York

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