“Muslims in Maharashtra are scared”: Social activist Irfan Engineer on the impact of NRC

Courtesy Irfan Engineer
14 October, 2019

On 31 August this year, the National Register of Citizens authority published the final list of citizens in Assam, excluding over 19 lakh people whose legal status remains disputed. The NRC data showed a higher proportion of exclusions in Assam’s Hindu majority areas than its border districts with Bangladesh, predominantly occupied by Muslims of Bengali descent, prompting the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government to denounce the project. Meanwhile, the home minister Amit Shah has stated that Hindus need not worry about being excluded from the NRC because they will be granted citizenship when the central BJP government passes the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The bill proposes to grant citizenship to six non-Muslim communities from India’s three neighbouring countries—in effect, the government is targeting Assam’s Bengal-origin Muslims, who have long been viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Bengal-origin Muslim community has historically been targeted by right-wing political parties looking to consolidate Hindu votes. In the mid 1990s in Mumbai, the then Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had called for the deportation of “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” residing in several slum pockets of the city. The Sena had made several allegations about the number of Bangladeshis living illegally in Mumbai—including estimates as high as four crore.

In October, Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, spoke to Irfan Engineer the director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, a civil-society organisation in Mumbai. Engineer was part of an activist-led fact-finding committee that surveyed Mumbai’s Bengali-dominated pockets during the height of the 1990s deportation drive. In June this year, Engineer also visited Assam on fact-finding surveys to meet the communities impacted by the NRC updation exercise.

In the interview, he discussed the historical background of the Bengali-Muslim community being labelled as Bangladeshi, the deportations from Maharashtra, and the implications of the NRC. Recalling his interactions with Bengal-origin Muslims in Mumbai, Engineer said, “We also spoke to people who were deported and came back. They said, ‘We are Indians. We know nobody there in Bangladesh. We have no native place there, no village. We didn’t know where to go.’”

Aathira Konikkara: Could you explain the historical context in which Bengal-origin Muslims began to be labelled as foreigners, or more specifically, as Bangladeshis?
Irfan Engineer: The story goes back to the nineteenth century, certainly the twentieth century. Britishers started encouraging migration from Bengal to Assam. On the one hand, they wanted to increase their revenue, and on the other hand, and there was drought in Bengal in the early twentieth century. Bengali farmers who were facing drought and willing to migrate were given cheap land. They were asked to cultivate that land. At that time, in a united India, early migrations caused conflict and there was a line system to control that conflict. The Britishers drew a line beyond which they would not allot land to people migrating from Bengal. Assam was one state where the Assamese were in the minority. There was a continuous conflict between the Muslim League—the migrants tended to support the Muslim League—and the Hindu politicians, the Congress leaders opposed the migration. They felt threatened by the migration because it reduced the possibility of them getting elected.

There was also another threat— if the Muslims became the majority in Assam, it would become part of East Pakistan. In the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan, [which was the British government’s proposal for the formation of a post-independent India,] there was a demand that Assam should form a part of the confederation of Muslim-majority provinces. This entire conflict was spurred by migration. After partition, riots led to increased migration of Muslims out of Assam. Some of them were forced to migrate to what was known as East Pakistan. We can’t lose this perspective of history.

In 1951, they started making the national registry of citizens for Assam. Two things happened: one, the process was not complete. They did not enumerate everybody. And secondly, lot of people had migrated out. Then prime minister [Jawaharlal] Nehru and [the former Pakistani] prime minister Liaquat [Ali Khan] signed what is known as the Nehru-Liaquat pact, which allowed people to return if they wanted to, if they had migrated out. After NRC had been completed, many people came back and they were not recorded. Then the Congress government began to deport them. The Bengali Muslims who migrated to Assam had adopted Assamese as their language. They sent their children to Assamese schools and colleges. Yet they were denigrated and stigmatised.

AK: How did that manifest into the politics of the rest of the country?
IE: What had happened in Assam had happened before Independence. It should not have happened but the colonial government did it. But we should have worked out norms in respecting each other’s rights. Instead of that, Assamese politicians created a fear of the other. First they were called illegal migrants. In the fifties, they were called Pakistanis. Even before Bangladesh was created, they were still stigmatised as foreigners or Pakistanis. In 1946 when they were all Indians, they were stigmatised as illegal migrants.

Politicians of Hindutva ideology saw an opportunity in this. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena was against all migrants. The first agitation was against south Indians in the late sixties. Then in the eighties, when they adopted Hindutva as an ideology which spread throughout India, their politics became sharpened as anti-Muslim. Bengal has a large Muslim population. The push factor from Bengal pushed them all over India to metropolitan cities for employment and livelihood. The Shiv Sena’s anti-migration programme, in this case, was both non-Marathis and Muslims. It was the perfect target for them.

AK: Was there a spike in cases of deportation during the nineties?
IE: TN Seshan, [the former chief election commissioner], was updating the electoral rolls when Maharashtra was facing elections. Rafiq Zakaria, who was a former minister, was categorised as illegal migrant. That sparked a row. This was around 1993–94. So the Mumbai riots had happened. Bal Thackeray started to pin the blame for the entire riots on Bangladeshis. He started claiming that there are [millions] of Bangladeshis in Mumbai.

We visited all the Bengali-speaking pockets in Mumbai. Forget Indian or Bangladeshi, there were not even 20,000 Bengalis at that point of time. They were working as zari workers or domestic workers or construction workers. People working in construction labour did admit to us that they came from Bangladesh in the seventies. But they said that “We are married here, we have children here.” How many of them were Bangladeshis was difficult to say.

AK: Was there an exaggeration of statistics to create fear?
IE: There was an exaggeration of their capabilities as rioters, their skills and an exaggeration of the numbers. Many people were deported before and after the Shiv Sena came to power [in 1995]. We saw no spike in numbers. I remember OP Bali, who later became [Mumbai’s] commissioner of police, was in-charge of deportations. We asked him to tell us the number of people deported from 1992 to 1996. We saw no spike. We tried to make this a big issue in our limited capacity.

AK: What was the estimated number of deportations at the time?
IE: After the Shiv Sena came to power, if I remember correctly, it was 182. You are claiming [millions] as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants then what are you doing? Why are the numbers so low? We also spoke to people who were deported and came back. They said, “We are Indians. We know nobody there in Bangladesh. We have no native place there, no village. We didn’t know where to go.”

AK: On what basis were they deported back then?
IE: They were arbitrarily picked up from certain pockets. They were forcibly taken first to Kolkata and from Kolkata, they were handed over to the border police. They were taken to the border and pushed to the Bangladeshi territory. They would point guns and say, “Peeche mudh ke dekha toh maar denge”—If you turn around to look, we will shoot you. And after they enter Bangladeshi territory, the Bangladeshi Rifles would say, “Aage badha toh maar denge,”—If you come forward, we will shoot you. Bangladesh had not accepted those who were pushed by India into their territory. All of them came back. They told us, “We don’t have a home there. Where will we go?” On the journey, they were all mistreated, particularly women. The terminology used for them was “ghospetiya”—infiltrators.

AK: You also spoke to police officials and the administration. Were communal biases apparent in the way they carried out the exercise?
IE: Bali would have seen it as him doing his duty, to supervise it to ensure that certain processes are carried out. He didn’t seem to have any bias. The police officers who were detaining people knew that they were not foreigners. They were enjoying their power or forced to do their duty. In spite of all this, only 182 [were deported]. So what was all this about? And after they [the BJP and the Shiv Sena alliance] came to power, they forgot. The Bangladeshi issue died down once they came to power.

AK: You visited Assam to monitor the NRC exercise in June. Did you see any similarities between what you saw there and the case studies from back in the nineties?
IE: The Supreme Court of India believed—without any data, it was told or it was made to believe—that there are 80 lakh Bangladeshis [in Assam]. For [the government], every Muslim is a Bangladeshi.

If Bal Thackeray’s speeches about illegal Bangladeshis in Mumbai are relayed once again, you have to ask Shiv Sena how many have been deported? From 1995 to 1999, you were in power. From 2014, you have been in power again. What have you done? The fact that it is rhetoric is obvious.

When we had gone earlier [to Assam], some three-four years ago, we found Bengali-speaking Muslims and Assamese Muslims welcoming NRC. We expected that it will be the other way round. They said that we were always labelled as Bangladeshis. This is our chance to prove otherwise. Somebody is coming and asking us to show our documents. Among Bengali-speaking Hindu labourers, there was fear but somewhere, they were also laidback. They said all this will not happen to us because we are Hindus. This is not about us. This is about Muslims. The Muslims were very careful in keeping their documents because they were accused. Some lost their documents because of riverine changes and floods.

AK: Did you find that this cooperative attitude had changed when you went recently? Did you see any anger against the administration?
IE: It was not anger against the administration. It was a feeling of helplessness. They felt the harassment. If somebody filed a complaint some 300 kilometres away, the entire family would have to hire a vehicle and go to the NRC hearing centre just because somebody accused them without any proof or without even knowing who they are accusing. But they were still working hard to cooperate, to get rid of this label. When we went to Assam, I told my team members, after this NRC is finally declared, nothing will change. They will start stigmatising the entire NRC process. The Assamese want all Bengali people out of Assam. So no process, which keeps even one Bengali in Assam, will be acceptable.

AK: Many who were included in the NRC faced objections. Objectors they did not even know had filed complaints against them. Do you think these objections are specifically targeted against Muslims?
IE: The AASU [All Assam Students’ Union] are not targeting Muslims. They are targeting Bengalis—Hindu Bengalis and Muslim Bengalis. People motivated by Hindutva are targeting Muslims. Hindu Bengalis are acceptable to them. They want polarisation along Hindu-Muslim lines. AASU wants polarisation along the lines of Assamese and non-Assamese.

AK: How does the process of filing objections work?
IE: Anybody could file objections. The person filing objections did not have to have any proof or any grounds on the basis of which he believed that any person was wrongly included. Objections were filed against some well-known Hindus as well.

AK: What are the ways in which NRC can be resisted?
IE: One of the demands I have suggested is that those who are included in the NRC should not be questioned. They have gone through a lot of harassment in the process. So now their citizenship should not be questioned at all. Those who have been excluded from the NRC should be given an opportunity to present their documents as and when they get them. If they have the documents to prove their citizenship, the process should be open to them. Those who don’t have documents to prove their citizenship, they should have all the habeas corpus rights, fundamental rights under the Constitution. Either deport them with the proof that they belong to some other country, but so long as they are here, don’t put them in detention camps. And the arbitrariness of the Foreigners’ Tribunals should end.

AK: Do you see fear among Muslims in general outside Assam now that the NRC exercise has taken place?
IE: You should see what is happening in Bengal. People are queuing up to get their birth certificates. This government is interested in putting all citizens in queues. During demonetisation, everyone was in bank queues and now there is NRC. Even Hindus are scared and are getting their birth certificates. Muslims in Maharashtra are scared. Some people phoned me and asked me, what kind of documents should we keep?

This interview has been edited and condensed.