India: Bengali Muslims Wary of BJP Rule in West Bengal, Assam

Rohit Wadhwaney and Akash Vashishtha
New Delhi
assam-vote-620.jpg An Indian election official watches a voter fill out her ballot in a polling station in the northeastern state of Assam, April 11, 2016.

Updated at 7:14 a.m. ET on 2016-04-13

Saifuddin Ahmed, a Bengali Muslim who lives in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, is anxiously waiting for results of just-concluded state assembly elections to be announced on May 19.

Ahmed’s father migrated to India from the former East Pakistan – later Bangladesh – in the 1950s, but he says he fears persecution, or even deportation, if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) comes to power in Assam, which borders Bangladesh.

“I was born here [in India] and have lived here all my life. I am an Indian citizen. But still, I am referred to as a Bangladeshi,” Ahmed, 53, told BenarNews from his village in Kokrajhar district, some 220 km (136.7 miles) from the state capital Guwahati.

“If the BJP comes to power in Assam, I am afraid people like me will have no status in India. We might even be kicked out of the country. Who will stop them?” said Ahmed, one of about 2 million Muslim immigrants living in Assam since before the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and who voted in statewide polls that concluded on Monday.

Ahmed’s fear is not entirely unfounded and is shared by Muslim immigrants in West Bengal, another state that borders Bangladesh and where the BJP has also been campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform in state elections that will end there on May 5.

In Assam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has vowed to disenfranchise Muslim immigrants as it looks to form its first government in the state. At 34 percent, Assam boasts the second highest number of Muslims among India’s states.

According to a 1998 report by the governor of Assam, the state's Muslim population grew by 77 percent compared with the national average of 55 percent between 1971 and 1991, indicating large- scale cross-border migration.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, a campaign manager for the BJP, said recently that if his party were elected, it would bar Bangladeshi-origin Muslims, who entered India between 1951 and 1971, from voting, adding that they could stay but would have to re-apply for citizenship.

“There are about 2 million immigrants [who came before 1971] and their descendants. Let them grow economically and educationally. But their status should be [as] refugee[s] and, on the basis of individual applications, if someone becomes an Indian citizen, that’s a different issue,” Sarma told Reuters.

Sarma said his party would deport undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, a large but unknown number of whom has settled in Assam and West Bengal and who arrived in India post-1971.

Polarizing campaign

Besides Assam, where phased polling ended this week, voting will continue over several rounds in West Bengal on April 17, 21, 25, 30 and May 5. Voting is also set to continue in three other south Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry – before official results are declared on May 19.

The party that leads India’s ruling coalition is trying to win state assembly majorities in Assam, which is controlled by the Congress party, and West Bengal, which is led by the All India Trinamool Congress party.

The BJP’s polarizing election campaign, according to critics, has been an attempt to woo the states’ Hindu voters, who have long complained of being robbed of jobs due to the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants.

“[BJP’s anti-immigrant campaign is] not surprising. Though the issue of illegal immigrants is a problem, it can be addressed politically with due processes. Their campaign is nothing but a form a polarization,” New Delhi-based political commentator Rupesh Verma told BenarNews.

“The BJP’s idea of India as a Hindu nationalist state is clear. Minority-related issues do not go down well with them. They have been playing the communal card for a long time,” he said, adding that Modi’s plan risked re-igniting communal tensions between officially secular India’s nearly 1.3 billion-strong Hindu population and 172 million Muslims.

Hindus welcome, not Muslims

The fact that the BJP last year announced that it would welcome and offer citizenship to Hindu immigrants from mainly Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan, but “wants to alienate Muslim immigrants” does not sit well with Sadiq, an immigrant living in West Bengal since 1968.

Refusing to have his last name published for fear of repercussions, Sadiq, a Kolkata resident, said although he was a voting citizen of India, “several” of his relatives had crossed into India from Bangladesh illegally after 1971.

“My relatives, who came to India in search of better opportunities, have no rights. They live in constant fear of being arrested or thrown out at any time. But the Hindus coming in from across the border are being welcomed with open arms. How does the Indian constitution justify this religious discrimination?” Sadiq told BenarNews.

But the BJP’s campaign was mere “pre-electoral mobilization,” said analysts, who cast doubt on whether the party would follow this up with a full-scale drive to expel Muslim immigrants.

“You don’t have a state that has the capacity, the instruments and the institutions to do anything about this [drive out Muslim immigrants],” Reuters quoted Ajai Sahni, of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, as saying.

Political commentator Dushyant Nagar said the BJP’s campaign in Assam and West Bengal was an extension of its right-wing ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has long opposed the influx of Muslim immigrants.

“[The RSS] has always been against it. Since most Bangladeshi immigrants are Muslims, the BJP wants to polarize the votes. But this does not seem to give it the desired advantage, [as] not all Hindus are voting for the BJP,” Nagar told BenarNews.


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