There was a time that many people in Bangladesh would consider the situation in Arakan as Myanmar's 'internal affair'. They may say the same about Assam's situation now. But those who look a little ahead into the future, may have all reasons to be concerned.
'Bangladesh' back in Assam
The international community by now knows about the clashes between the local poor Muslims and the police during an eviction drive on 23 September in Darrang, Assam. A Muslim citizen died in the clashes. The incident didn't end there as an isolated and 'minor matter'. After the drive in Darrang, anti-Bangladesh propaganda has been revived all over again.
The landless poor Muslims there are being termed as 'foreigners', that is, Bangladeshis, and hate speech is once again being spewed out as before. If the aim is to validate the 23 September oppression and repression, even then the matter could have been considered to be an internal affair of India. But from the social media, and even the mainstream media, it is clear how this drive to evict 'illegal' occupants of land in Assam is turning out to be a move to drive out "illegal Bangladeshis".
The poor have neither intellectuals nor media
Persons who are familiar with the area are well aware how large numbers of poor people from near around, victims of Brahmaputra river's erosion, have settled from a long time back, in the shoals and shanties there. It just so happens that they are Muslim and many of them Bengali Muslims.
These people have long been innocent targets of Assam's identity politics. These poor people there have neither intellectuals nor the news media on their side. They are written about randomly. In political speeches they are sometimes termed as "agents of Pakistan", sometimes as "residents of the neighbouring country". There are various benefits of stamping them with such a seal, socially categorizing them as second and third class citizens. They can then be made to work for low wages. Most of these local Bangla speaking people have already given up their right to education in their own language in order to avoid such smear campaigns. They hardly have any livelihood other than land and agriculture. Even so, they have not been spared from the clutches of nationalism.
A section of Assamese have long been embroiled in politics demanding that these Muslims be driven away. And BJP supports this demand in order to curry favour with the Assamese. The state BJP government terms the current eviction drive as a 'land recovery drive'. In the last drive, "illegal occupants" will be evicted from around 25,000 acres of land. Pictures of ebullient people jumping on the body of Mainul Huq, who was killed in the drive, his gone viral on Facebook and Twitter, indicating the problem is not just about land. There is rampant hatred. Mainul Huq has risen as a symbol of a community in distress.
Prior to the project to recover land, the administrative measure to enforce birth control for Muslims in Assam was also conspicuous. No one is bothered about the poverty of the community, though.
The editorial, 'A Question of Land', claims that Assam has been witnessing a silent invasion by hordes of land-hungry Muslims from erstwhile East Bengal and present-day Bangladesh
New wave of spreading 'Bangladeshi' phobia
A look at the 29 September editorial of the local popular news portal, The Sentinel, will indicate how anti-Bangladesh propaganda in Assam gained speed anew. The editorial, 'A Question of Land', claims that Assam has been witnessing a silent invasion by hordes of land-hungry Muslims from erstwhile East Bengal and present-day Bangladesh. This is changing Assam's demography. Forests and natural resources are being grabbed. The Assamese are being reduced to a minority in many areas. Even their girls are not being spared by the "foreign" farming Bengalis.
Such statements naturally propagate support for the state government's drive to evict "illegal occupiers" of the land. It is obvious that though being children of the soil for ages, the Bengali community in Assam remain identified as the rival of the land. This rival is "illegal", so how can its land-centered struggle be legal! So the Assamese student organisations wasted no time in supporting the government's September drive.
There is no strong evidence that the 'civil society' of Assam was outraged by the firing of bullets in "self-defence" in Darrang. Yet even two years ago the Assamese youth had taken up a bloody struggle against the BJP government's Citizenship Amendment Act. But the issue of these poor blighted Muslims has united Assam's political elite on one platform again.
And the astute state government is not wasting a moment to use the situation to its advantage. Criminal cases have even been filed against those who were killed, injured and evicted on 23 September. Needless to say, all this can be taken as Assam's internal affair, just as the Nellie Massacre of 1983 was taken to be a domestic matter of Assam.
The question remains, however, as to why Bangladesh is pulled into Assam's nationalism. Bangladesh is way ahead of Assam in economic development. No one needs to go to Assam from Bangladesh in search of a livelihood. It is a matter of concern that quite the opposite narrative is being propagated in Assam.
There is need for extra caution along the Bangladesh-Assam border in Greater Rangpur and Greater Sylhet. And there is need for fact-based rebuttals to any false propaganda mentioning Bangladesh in Assam. Any delay or negligence in this regard can spell grave danger
Factual-based reply required to refute false propaganda
It is only natural for Bangladesh to be concerned about the incidents in Assam. In Arakan, the Myanmar government would continually dub the Rohingya Muslims as "illegal" and eventually started calling them "Bangladeshi". Over there, too, there was no media in favour of the poor and marginalised Rohingyas. There were no national intellectuals for them. Even now there is none. So after being termed for a few decades as 'Bangladeshis', this concept has been partially established at home and abroad. It has been possible to create confusion. Yet there were several Rohingya Muslims among the political associates of Myanmar's father of the nation, General Aung San.
In Assam too, after a few decades of propaganda dubbing local poor Bengali speaking Muslims as being 'Bangladeshi', the international media has been misled. No one is looking at the history down the centuries where Bengali speaking farmers lived in the Brahmaputra basin. And the anti-Muslim hatred being spread on the India social media has left these poor Bengalis shocked and helpless.
Being evicted for demographic reasons, these people have nowhere to go. That is a matter of serious concern. The NRC was launched there to prove they were "illegal". Only very few of these poor people on the shoals were proven to be illegal. Mainul Huq, who was recently killed there, had valid papers. Those who are still alive, display their valid identity papers at meetings and rallies, but the habit of calling them 'Bangladeshi' remains firmly entrenched.
While it is the responsibility of the poor people to ensure the social security and rehabilitation of the poor people whose nationality has been recognised by the NRC, it is bad luck that they are Bengali speaking. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, there was a move to point to them as 'virus carriers'. These are familiar social signs, with scary premonitions of what lies ahead.
There is need for extra caution along the Bangladesh-Assam border in Greater Rangpur and Greater Sylhet. And there is need for fact-based rebuttals to any false propaganda mentioning Bangladesh in Assam. Any delay or negligence in this regard can spell grave danger.
* Altaf Parvez is a researcher of South Asian history