On the Brink of Xenophobia by Dr M Manzoor Alam (July 27, 2005)


Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam expresses concern over anti-Muslim elements trying to drum up mass hysteria under cover of the recent judicial scrapping of the Illegal Migrants [Detection by Tribunals] Act.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s verdict scrapping the Illegal Migrants [Detection by Tribunals] Act (IMDT), neo-fascist groups in the North-East have already upped the volume of their anti-Muslim chorus. We have been getting feedback from the North-East that a section of the local press has started discussing the issue in a provocative, menacing way.
In the national media, too, the issue has surfaced periodically. Sadly, the discourse so far does not seem to take into account the extreme sensitivity of the subject. Even our national leaders have rarely shown the sensitivity which the issue demands. Such insensitivity has already wreaked terrible damage in the past.

Let us cut back to 1982, when the RSS jumped into the fray created by All Assam Students Union (AASU) on the issue of alleged illegal migrants. The RSS position has been that Bangladeshi Hindus coming into Assam are refugees (with well-defined rights under international law), while Muslim Bangladeshis are intruders (criminal trespassers deserving punishment).

The Assam agitation began in protest against the “exploitative practices of outsiders”, including Bengali bureaucrats, Marwari businessmen, sundry moneylenders, contractors and other carpetbaggers from different regions of India, but the RSS deftly turned it into an anti-Muslim (especially anti-Bengali Muslim) affair. The witch hunt that followed the communal hysteria did not hurt the alleged “Bangladeshi Muslims” (few, if any, were in any case identified) but the Assamese Muslims of Bengali origin.

The Nellie massacre of 23 years ago came at the most inopportune moment – it was the time when heads of Commonwealth states had gathered in India for a summit. Nearly 2,000 (officially 1,800) Muslims were killed in cold blood. The event had followed within days of an irresponsible speech by Atal Behari Vajpayee, who unfortunately went on to become India’s prime minister. In his by-then well-known theatrical style, Vajpayee had told a gathering of Sangh supporters that had “intruders” come into Punjab, they would have been cut to pieces. And within hours 2,000 people were killed, all Indians.

We have continuously been coming back to the Assam problem over the years. We published a thorough study of the affair way back in 1988 in the form of a well-received book by HN Rafiabadi. The book, Assam: From Agitation to Accord, took note of the patterns of immigration into Assam over the decades and centuries from different areas of India and neighbouring countries. Even the dominant Assamese ethnic group, the Ahom, are migrants from Burma.

We returned to the theme with the publication of another fine study, Immigration of East Bengal Farm Settlers and Agricultural Development of the Assam Valley. Published in book form in 2003 by IOS, the author Dr M. Sujaud Doullah, a respected Assamese academic, has studied the migration patterns and concomitant developments between 1901 and 1947. Both studies show that the complex ethnic composition of Assam has developed over centuries and is certainly not a post-1971 phenomenon as is being claimed by Sangh outfits.

These are the broad facts, but stray border crossings are not completely ruled out. Nobody holds a brief for foreigners illegally crossing into India or staying here as illegal migrants. What we want to suggest here is that instead of making political capital out of the scrapping of IMDT Act and trying to stage another Nellie, we should allow proper legal procedures to be followed. A witch hunt is not going to help anybody. The bottomline here is that for every suspected Bangladeshi Muslim there are thousands of Indian Bengalis who can potentially be the victim of mischief-makers.

That, in fact, was the whole point about the IMDT Act. It made a proper provision for the detection of illegal migrants through tribunals, which ensured that genuine Indian citizens of Bengali origin were not hounded out by vigilante groups. The moment requires sensitivity and some effort to develop alternative mode of protection of genuine citizens of Begali origin in Assam. This is important because there are a number of cases of Indian Bengali Muslims being harassed by zealots and corrupt police personnel in different cities of India in the name of Bangladeshis.

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