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.