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.