In the second week of August, addressing a campaign rally in Kolkata, the BJP national president Amit Shah yelled into a mic: “Are the Bangladeshi infiltrators a security threat to this country or not?” A crowd of BJP supporters roared that they were. “The bomb explosions that occur in Bengal are carried out by the Bangladeshi infiltrators or not? Should they be thrown out or not?” he went on with his noxious rhetoric.
Shah’s comments echo those made by several BJP leaders on the immigration issue in Assam. Using the terms “infiltrators” for Muslim Bangladeshis and “refugees” for Hindu ones, the BJP is appropriating a long-standing anti-foreigner sentiment in Assam to demand curbs on immigration into the state from Bangladesh. With the promise of acche din seeming like a crude joke, the party seems to be resorting to communal polarisation as its primary strategy for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The preparation of the National Register of Citizens—a list of Assam’s Indian citizens—has given the party a divisive agenda that has a wider appeal for its Hindutva constituency.
The villain of this piece is the Muslim Bangladeshi “infiltrator,” the opposition parties her patron and the BJP the uncompromising saviour of the nation and its borders. This script, which feeds the myth of the persecuted Hindu, came into play on 31 July, when the final draft of the NRC excluded four million residents of Assam. While the process is not yet complete, Shah and his ilk are calling the Muslims among them “ghuspethiye,” or infiltrators, deliberately ignoring nuances on a complex issue that goes back almost two hundred years.
Bengalis have been living in Assam since at least as early as 1826, when members of the community were brought in to fill the lower bureaucracy after Assam became part of the colonial state. This led to tensions between Assamese Hindus and Bengali Hindus. Even after Partition, the problems between Assamese speakers and Bengali speakers continued. In 1971, the Indira Gandhi government helped East Pakistan become Bangladesh, which led to a wave of migration from the newly formed war-torn country. In 1979, the All Assam Students’ Union launched an agitation, alleging that illegal immigrants were becoming voters and that the change in the state’s demography was threatening its culture and polity. In 1985, the government of India and the leaders of the movement signed a pact—the Assam Accord—agreeing to identify and deport illegal immigrants. The accord states: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall continue to be detected, deleted and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners.” There was no mention of discrimination on the basis of religion.
In the discussion that preceded the accord, the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government tried to make the same distinction between refugees and infiltrators as the BJP and the RSS, but the AASU opposed it. “It is well-known that the Government has created a class of people in the name of refugees,” the union wrote in one of its communiqués during the movement. “But the people of Assam will not allow their language, culture and existence to be threatened by such classification. The AASU has not discussed any solution distinguishing refugees from infiltrators.”