Anti-migrant rhetoric alarms Assam Muslims

Tensions rise in northeast India as new leaders put the spotlight on illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

Muslims are a majority in many districts bordering Bangladesh [Shib Shankar Chatterji/Al Jazeera]

Dhubri, India – Tensions are on the rise in the Indian state of Assam as assertive Hindu nationalists, fresh from a landslide victory in the national election, are heightening their rhetoric over illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now have their sights set on ousting the Indian National Congress from the northeastern state’s assembly, which it has controlled since 2002, in the upcoming 2016 elections.

Any efforts to raise the stakes by acting against migrants from Bangladesh in India could have international ramifications by alienating the India-friendly government of the neighbouring country and provoking anti-Hindu sentiment there.

“All this is adding to the tensions across Assam,” said minority leader Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, who has called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to restrain BJP leaders from stirring up an “anti-minority tirade”.

“Muslims are feeling very insecure, the government seems to be a mute spectator,” he said.

Between 1979 and 1985, Assam witnessed violent protests against illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and nearly 3,000 Muslims were killed in rioting during the 1983 state elections.

‘Pack up and leave’

During his electoral campaign, Modi heightened the rhetoric against illegal migrants from Bangladesh living in India, calling on them to “pack up and leave”.

His stance helped the BJP win seven of the 14 parliamentary seats in Assam, where locals have long resented growing numbers of Muslims of Bengali origin, whom they believe are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Muslims flee violence affected villages during the violence in May 2014 [Shib Shankar Chatterji/Al Jazeera]

Assam has the second largest Muslim population among Indian states, with one-third practising Islam and the vast majority with roots in what is now Bangladesh.

Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in a bloody 1971 war, and many ethnic Bengalis migrated to Assam to flee the fighting. 

Encouraged by its performance in the state, the BJP is aiming to oust the Congress party in the 2016 assembly elections.

“Assam is surely one of the states where the BJP can come to power in state elections that would be held in near future,” said BJP general secretary Varun Gandhi.

A key reason for the BJP’s confidence is its growing popularity among the ethnic Assamese and indigenous tribes who resent the loss of land and livelihoods to Bengali Muslim migrants.

“The Congress [party] always encouraged illegal migration to build vote banks,” said Assamese BJP leader Prodyut Bora. “They legalised these illegal migrants and in turn they helped Congress with votes.”

Bora said the BJP wanted to “bury the politics of vote banks”, something Modi stressed repeatedly during his campaign in northeastern India.

‘Deliberate falsehoods’

Soon after winning half the state’s seats, newly elected BJP lawmakers went around their constituencies claiming they had “clear directives” from the national leadership to identify illegal migrants for deportation.

Sarbananda Sonowal, the party’s Assam state president and now a federal youth affairs minister, told activists near the Kaziranga game sanctuary to “watch out for illegal Bangladeshi migrants”, while other lawmakers such as KP Tasa and Rameswar Telli spread similar messages.

Modi escalated the issue at a rally in Assam, where he blamed the Congress party for encouraging the poaching of rhinos – for which Kaziranga is famous – to “make space for illegal migrants from Bangladesh”.

Assam’s forest minister, Rockybul Hossain, who has been criticised over rhino poaching, said the BJP was “deliberately spreading canards and outright falsehood to create tensions”.

Prasenjit Biswas, a university lecturer and author who follows Assam’s ethnic and religious tensions closely, said: “After Sonowal’s Kaziranga meeting, many local Muslims of Bengali origin just fled the area in panic to districts in lower Assam where they are more numerous.”

One Kaziranga resident who fled, Athar Ali, told Al Jazeera, “We are not feeling safe here any more.”

Choudhury’s local Citizens Rights Preservation Committee wrote to Modi last week, calling on him to rein in the rhetoric coming from BJP leaders in Assam.

“We have no objection if the government moves against truly illegal migrants and takes legal action against them,” he told Al Jazeera. “But all such action must conform to law, and there is no room for vigilantism.”

In recent months, scores of Muslims of Bengali origin have been killed – 35 of them just after the elections – in attacks by fighters of the Bodo tribe in western Assam.

“Those who came to India after 25 March 1971 [the start of the Bangladesh war of independence] are illegal migrants, but those who came before that date are bona fide citizens,” Choudhury said.

“But the current spate of vigilantism does not make any difference. The moment they see someone in a skull cap, they brand him a foreigner and ask him to leave.”

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Modi’s new government has asked officials in Assam to update the National Register for Citizens on the basis of the 1971 electoral rolls in an effort to identify illegal migrants.

“That is perfectly legal,” said Choudhury, but he insisted the government must curb lawmakers trying to take the “law into their own hands”.

Assam’s chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, has warned against vigilantism, but he has been under pressure to resign since the poor showing by Congress in the polls .

“That has left him little time to focus on emerging tensions,” Choudhury said.

Muslim vote split

Growing anti-migrant rhetoric by the BJP shifted many Muslim votes away from the Congress to a relatively new minority party, the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), which has increased its number of parliamentary seats in the state to three since having only one in 2009.

It was this split in the Muslim vote that damaged the Congress party, which won just three seats compared to seven in 2009.

BJP politicians have called Bengali Muslims illegal migrants during election campaigning [Shib Shankar Chatterji/Al Jazeera]

“So this anti-migrant posturing works for the BJP because it drives many Muslims to the AUDF fold and weakens the Congress,” said political analyst Samir Purkayastha.

“It also brings the Hindus cutting across ethnic lines solidly behind the BJP, and helps the BJP marginalise regional Assamese parties by stealing their thunder.”

Rising hostilities in Assam could also unnerve the government in Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with any attempt to push migrants over the border likely to prompt anti-Hindu sentiment.

Modi is sending his foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, to Dhaka to resolve bilateral issues, which the tension in Assam could complicate.

“It would be a huge setback for India-Bangladesh relations, which seem to be a priority for Modi,” warned foreign policy analyst Binoda Mishra.

Source: Al Jazeera