The River Between: The Bengali Muslim Community of Western Assam

10 April 2016

At the western edge of Assam, near a district called Dhubri, the Brahmaputra river exits India and enters Bangladesh. Here, for a stretch of about six kilometers, the border between the two nations is fluid—it lies squarely on the river, making it near impossible to fence. Several hundred sandy islands, known locally as chars, pepper the surface of the Brahmaputra. This archipelago, inhabited by a largely Bengali-speaking Muslim population—seen by many as illegal immigrants—has become a pivotal element in the politics of Assam.

The residents of the chars can trace their presence in the region to policies laid down by the British at the turn of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, in order to administer populations and grow food in undivided India, the British government encouraged labourers from the Bengal region—much of which, after Partition, would become East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh—to move into the Brahmaputra valley. However, as early as the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiment had begun to take root in the region. The local population felt threatened by the new settlers, who had begun living in the chars, the sandbanks and the wastelands along the river, and had activated an agrarian economy. After 1947, the political developments in the state only fueled the anti-immigrant sentiment. The bogeyman of the “Bangladeshi immigrant” was ritualistically revived for decades, resulting in outbreaks of violence in the state. During the Nellie massacre of 1983, thousands of Bengali Muslims were killed for opposing a boycott of the state elections. A bout of violence occurred as recently as 2012, in the Bodo Territorial Area District (BTAD). Clashes between the indigenous Bodo tribe and the Bengali Muslim community resulted in the deaths of over 70 people, and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes.

Between 2012 and 2014, I visited the districts in western Assam, including Dhubri, Kokhrajhar, Bongaigaon, and Chirang, on multiple occasions. At the time of Independence, led by an Islamic scholar and community mobiliser named Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, the chars in Dhubri were the breeding ground for some of the most radical peasant politics of the time. A pious maulana who came to be regarded as a peer, a spiritual guide, Bhashani fashioned a brand of Islamic socialism that captured the imagination of Bengali Muslims. But for some years now, a large part of the community has been under the sway of a new peer. The perfume baron-turned-politician Badruddin Ajmal, and his party, the All India United Democratic Front, have maintained a stronghold on the Bengali Muslim polity for nearly a decade. Dhubri is Ajmal’s constituency.

But the district is steeped in problems. The 2012 strife had thrust the unfenced riverine border into the spotlight. The islands here formed the final frontier of the Indian state. Following the clashes, leaders of Bodo groups alleged that the Border Security Force (BSF) in the region was lax, and unable to check illegal immigration. This accusation led to the tightening of security at the banks of the river and intense scrutiny for the residents of the chars. Every year, the precarious geography of the chars, with periodic changes in the river’s levels, pushes the residents to migrate inward into the more stable ground. Access to healthcare and education is limited, as are sources of revenue. The Dhubri Foreigners Tribunal Court sees hundreds of visitors from the surrounding districts, many of whom hope to get their names cleared from the “D-voter,” or doubtful voter lists. The community is ruled by paranoia, and fear of Bodo militants, sentiments many accuse Ajmal of having used to his advantage.

During my final visit to western Assam, in November 2014, the mood was tense. Other parties in Assam, such as the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad had begun to clamour against the AIUDF and religious bodies such as the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, or the Organisation of Indian Islamic Scholars (Ajmal heads the Assam wing of the Jamiat), accusing them of fanning communal fires and encouraging insurgency. The AIUDF came out strongly in its own defense. At the centre of its campaign were the questions of home and belonging, in the form of the National Register for Citizens, a government roster of official residents of the state that has been under process for decades, and has assumed a power of mythical proportions amongst the Bengali Muslim community.

Nikhil Roshan Nikhil Roshan is an independent photojournalist.

Keywords: Assam Dhubri Assembly Elections AIUDF