Isn’t ‘Illegal Bangladeshi’ Racist Shorthand for Bengali Speaking Muslims in Assam? Bonojit Hussain

Guest post by Bonojit Hussain

The fragile and unstable peace in Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) of Assam has once again been ruptured. The recent massacre of Muslims of East Bengali descent in Kokrajhar and Baksa districts of BTAD on 1st and 2nd May has already taken toll on 46 lives; with many people still missing, the dead count might go up.

This is not the first time that targeted ethnic violence has occurred in what is today BTAD. Through out the 1990’s armed Bodo groups have indulged in pogroms against Nepalis, Adivasis and Muslims and Hindus of East Bengali descent. But since the creation of BTAD in 2003, increasingly only Muslims of East Bengali descent are being targeted. Worst among all was the so-called ‘riots’ of 2012 where 108 people died. According to sources in Assam government, 79 were Muslims of East Bengali descent, 22 were Bodos and 4 were from other communities.

A lot has been written about the underlying causes of these recurring targeted killings and we need not dwell upon that here. (for an overview see Sanjib Barua, “Assam: The Politics of ElectoralViolence”, Outlook Magazine, May 09, 2014). What should bother us all is how quickly discourse over the recurring massacres in BTAD is transformed into a debate on the question of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, wherein the victims are immediately labeled as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’. Even if the victims were ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, the barbaric act of killing 46 people in a span of 36 hours is a crime against humanity.

Like in 2012, immediately large section of Assamese society, a section of the national media and the BJP leadership raised the bogey of ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ to justify the killings and divert attention from the real causes of the massacre. Some even went to the extent of likening victims of the massacre with locust. Verbal attacks and abuses are also being launched on social media against anyone who dares question the hypocrisies of Assamese society. Recently an Assamese research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University was subjected to threats and abuses by Assamese xenophobes, she was also asked to re-locate to Bangladesh owing to her sympathies for these ‘locusts’.

If one poses the question as to how these xenophobes know that Assam is being swarmed by ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, the answer is always about increasing visibility and numbers of Miyas (slur used to denote Muslim Bangladeshis) in urban clusters, new settlements in peripheries of forest land and settlements near river embankments. I argue this is a racist way of telling.

It is a difficult question to answer how many undocumented Bangladeshis are there in BTAD area let alone in all of Assam. However, it impossible to refute that from 1901 to 1941, encouraged by the colonial administration, over 10 lakhs migrated and settled in Assam from East Bengal. The geographical area of present day BTAD would fall under what were Goalpara and Kamrup districts during the colonial era. So, it is worth mentioning that East Bengali Muslim peasants first settled in undivided Goalpara district, before they spanned out to other parts of western and central Assam. The decadal growth of population in Goalpara district had shot up by 30 % as early as 1901-1911 compared to 1.4 % and 2 % in the preceding decades respectively. In 1921-1931, the decadal growth of population of Goalpara dropped to 15.8 % because most of the suitable wasteland in the district had already been occupied by immigrants who poured into the district in 1901-1921, and that the immigrants had found a larger scope for settling in Kamrup and Nagaon districts. During 1921 to 1931 Barpeta subdivision of Kamrup district saw an enormous 69 % increase in population. Between 1901 and 1931, 4.98 lakhs East Bengali Muslim peasants are recorded in Goalpara district alone. Here, then, the question arises – Where are the descendents of the lakhs of Muslim peasants of East Bengali descent who settled in the region before partition? (for a detailed discussion see, Banajit Hussain, “The Bodoland Violence and Politics of Explanation”; Seminar Magazine, No: 640, December, 2012)

Considering the abysmal level of socio-economic development among Muslims of East Bengali descent in Assam, the reason for increasing numbers and visibility of the so-called Miyas in urban clusters, in the peripheries of forest land and near river embankments could very well be migration from rural areas to urban centres of Assam in search of livelihood. But more importantly it could be because of internal displacement from Char areas of Assam.

Chars are the extremely braided mid-channel bar of Brahmaputra and its tributaries. These Chars were populated by Muslims of East Bengali descent for cultivation in the later decades of the Colonial era. Due to subsequent neglect and apathy of the Government the socio-economic indicators among Char dwellers have remained extremely depressing. Assam Government’s socio-economic survey in 1992-93 and 2002-03 revealed that Char dwellers constituted 9.35 % of the total population of Assam; the population density in the Char area was 690 persons per sq. km (Assam’s overall density in 2001 was 340 person per sq. km); between 1992-93 to 2002-03 literacy rate in Char area increased marginally from 15.45 % to 19.31 % (Assam’s overall literacy rate in 2001 was 63.25 %); in 2002-03 67.90 % of Char dwellers lived below the poverty line, an increase of 19% from 1992-93 (34 % of Assam’s population was below poverty line in 2001).

By their very nature of being integral part of the fluvial process of the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries, Chars are pre-disposed to erosion and Char dwellers pre-disposed to become internally displaced persons. Though hard data on displacement from char areas is hard to come by, some micro-level studies provide adequate insight into flood, erosion and displacement. One such study conducted by Dr. Gorky Chakraborty in the chars of Barpeta district reveals that “during the period (1989-98) when there was no high intensity flood in Assam, 45% of the total households were affected and 51% of the total land was lost by the surveyed char households. Similar study over a period of 25 years (1980-2004) in the Beki River, a tributary of Brahmaputra in Barpeta district reveals that 77% of the surveyed households suffered due to land erosion and 94% of their land was lost.” (Gorky Chakraborty, “Assam’s Hinterland: Society and Economy in the Char Areas”; Akansha Publishers, Delhi, 2009) With such abysmal socio-economic conditions and such high degree of erosion and displacement, lakhs ofChar dwellers are left with no option but to migrate to the mainland.

With such complexities involved in differentiating between an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant and a Muslim citizen of East Bengali descent; how do Assamese xenophobes and leaders of BJP conclusively declare that the villagers of Balapara, Narasinghbari and Narayanguri (3 villages where the massacre occurred) were ‘illegal Bangladeshis’?

What are the ways of telling the difference? It is most certainly not difference but similarities between an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant and a Muslim citizen of East Bengali descent. It is physical and cultural markers; in this case it is beard, lungi, religion and language. Doesn’t this make ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ racist shorthand for any Muslim of East Bengali descent in Assam?

Here it is worth looking at the cliché that are too often deployed – “illegal Bangladeshis are behind Rhino poaching, they loot innocent tribal villagers, they breed faster than dogs, rape and murder women in villages of Assam”. These clichés are becoming a part of a new discursive formation under consolidation which represents Muslims of East Bengali descent as “lesser human” or in its extreme form as “locust”. It hardly needs to be asserted that the construction of the “lesser human” other that is sexually virulent and is naturally prone to criminality has been the hallmark of racist worldview for more than half a century now.

Note: A very short version of this article was published in Calcutta edition of The Telegraph

(Bonojit Hussain is a Delhi based researcher from Assam. He is associated with New Socialist Initiative)



18 thoughts on “Isn’t ‘Illegal Bangladeshi’ Racist Shorthand for Bengali Speaking Muslims in Assam? Bonojit Hussain”

  1. so are you claiming that there is not illegal migration from Bangladesh? When I worked for polio immunization in the Mumbai slums as a social worker in an NGO in the 1990s, we knew of pockets where there were Bangladeshi illegal immigrants!


    1. @ Hina, please don’t take my comment personally, I am venting out accumulated angst here. Honestly I am tired of this oft repeated response “Are you claiming that there is not illegal migration from Bangladesh?”. Let me tell you why I am tired.

      Last time I wrote a longish article 2013 ( arguing that the recurring massacres and violent conflicts in Bodoland can not be explained by arguing that the root cause is migration from Bangladesh. Otherwise, how do one explains the previous massacres against Adivasis, Nepalis, hindu Bengalis etc. I argued that the root cause of the conflict is a flawed imagination of an ethnic homeland and the flawed accord (BTC Accord) that was inked in 2003. Because of these flaws hegemonic sections among the Bodo population has to constantly strive to prove numerical majority over the territory that is Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) where as in reality Bodo population in BTAD is not more than 26 %. If I discounts all abuses that were hurled at me, the most measured response that I got from people was an one liner – “Are you claiming that there is no illegal migration from Bangladesh?”.

      Before that I wrote another article for a national daily in 2012 ( where I dealt with census data tried to ask if all Bengali speakings Muslims in BTAD are Bangladeshis then where are the descendants of the 1 million East Bengali peasants who settled in Assam during 1901-1941. Again if I discount the abuses, the most measured response was – “Are you claiming that there is no illegal migration from Bangladesh?”. I even had to assert and clarify to many that before 1947 there was no India/Pakistan let alone Assam/Bangladesh.

      Now coming back to this particular article, I have tried to ask that if you have similar population on both sides of the border how does one differentiate between an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant and a Muslim citizen of East Bengali descent and how is it that the Assamese xenophobes and leaders of BJP can conclusively declare that the villagers of Balapara, Narasinghbari and Narayanguri (3 villages where the massacre occurred) were ‘illegal Bangladeshis’? Again many have asked me already – “Are you claiming that there is no illegal migration from Bangladesh?”

      All three articles I have mentioned had different focuses, but the response seems to be the same – “Are you claiming that there is no illegal migration from Bangladesh?”

      There is a sentence in this particular article which reads thus, “It is a difficult question to answer how many undocumented Bangladeshis are there in BTAD area let alone in all of Assam.” I presumed readers will understand the implied meaning of sentence.

      I don’t yet have a clear answer as to why this “Are you claiming …” question pops up every time one writes about Assam, Bengali speaking Muslims in Assam, BTAD etc. One would assume that there is no need to repeat a truism in every article that there are undocumented migrants from Bangladesh in Assam and many other parts of India. One also does not want to start every article with a “Disclaimer: Nowhere in this article have I claimed that there are no undocumented Bangladeshi in Assam or rest of India.”

      Now, @ Hina, this is directly in relation to your comment. In my 15 years in Delhi, I have also met many undocumented Bangladeshi migrant workers here, but at the same time I have also met many who are presumed to be from Bangladesh but are actually “Internal Displaced Persons” (IDPs) from western part of Assam. Just for the sake of my own clarity, I was wondering when you worked for polio immunization in the Mumbai slums as a social worker in an NGO in the 1990s, how did you figure out that people living in certain pockets were all “Bangladeshi illegal immigrants” and there were no IDPs from Assam in those pockets. Asking because, unlike Delhi, I am totally unfamiliar with the cityscape of Mumbai.


      1. Just to clarify, in Assam there has been no targeted violence against Nepali speaking people Much less than the way in which the Bengali speakers have been targeted. To the best of my knowledge it was only in Meghalaya where Nepali speakers were specifically targeted (and by just one of the three tribes of Meghalaya!). Since this has been the case it would lead one to wonder why a community that is populous enough to be a ‘votebank’ has not been targeted in the same manner as Bengali speakers. Not that I am exonerating the violence against Bengali speakers, but maybe there is another factor at play here.


        1. @ Vivian Eyben. Just to clarify, I mention targeted killings of Nepali speakers in the context of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) and not whole of Assam. In BTAD area or what was to be BTAD area before the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord was signed there have been many instances of sporadic killings of Nepali speakers. The victims of these sporadic killings were perhaps not killed just because they were Nepali speakers but for the fact that they didn’t belong to the “right” ethnicity.

          As for targeted killing of Nepali speakers in BTAD area is concerned, there is at least one instance. On 15 October, 1995, 2 two years after the creation of Bodoland Autonomous Council (a failed experiment), Nepali speaking villager in Mussalpur village of Nalbari district were gunned down by armed cadres of Bodo Security Force (BSFr) [which later changed its name to “National Democratic Front of Bodoland”]. The Mussalpur killings were a “retaliation by BSFr against non-bodos settled in Bodoland Autonomous Council area”. This was reported extensively in local Assamese media. Though no internet link is available, if you have access you can refer to the Assam Tribune, 16th and 27th October, 1995.

          Now coming to the last part of your comment; Nepali speakers don’t really constitute a “vote bank”. According to 2001 census, they constitute 2.30 % of Assam’s population numbering 564790. They are spread across various districts mostly on the north bank of Brahmaputra in Assam. Their percentage would be even less in BTAD compared to whole of Assam. Among Bengali speakers in BTAD, Muslim Bengali speakers alone numbers 500000 approximately (give and take few thousands).


  2. Dear Mr Hussain,
    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. I would raise issue with some of your conclusions though and attempt to answer some of your questions.

    You ask where are the descendants of East Bengali Muslims who came to India before partition. A deeper reading of the history of Assam will show you that many who came before partition have integrated into Assamese society, adopted Assamese language over time and have come to be recognized as indigenous Assamese Muslims. Also not all who came during and before partition were Muslims. Assam still has a size able Bengali Hindu population, like my mom,who came from East these groups are well-integrated into Assamese society. In the eyes of the Assamese people, they different from the groups of Bangladeshi Muslims who are immigrating into Assam today.

    When you ask Assamese people how they know there is illegal immigration, the answer is always “increasing visibility and numbers of miyans.” If many Assamese people are telling you the same thing, why are you discounting this evidence as some xenophobic rant or a “racist way of telling?” If a sample size of 1000 people across Assam tell you the same thing, there are two ways of interpreting it: that illegal immigration is reality OR that Assamese are xenophobes. You have obviously chosen the latter interpretation. In that case, If Assamese people have allowed the integration of people from East Bengal historically ,why are the Assamese now so touchy about the subject of illegal immigration? Both Muslims and Bengalis are accepted as integral to demography of Assam–then why sudden hatred against Bengali Muslims? i think you should delve into these questions more before making sweeping generalizations about Assamese xenophobia.

    You repeatedly ask the question how do you know it’s illegal immigrants? Well, how do you know they aren’t illegal immigrants? Have you done some field study to show that they aren’t ? If you haven’t, then it is just your word against that of the Assamese ‘xenophobes’. You have yourself said that “its hard to measure how many illegal Bangladeshis are there in BTAD let alone in Assam.” You have also said it is very hard to distinguish Indian Bengali Muslims from Bangladeshi Muslims. So if hard numbers is difficilt for you to come up with, why place the onus on the Assamese ‘xenophobes’ to provide hard numbers?

    There are reasons why people say to you ” you mean there is no illegal immigration?” First reason is people find it hard to believe that you could be so blind to the ground realities of Assam. Second, The way Indigenous Bengalis speak Bengali is different from the way Bangladeshis speak Bengali. The Assamese people recognize that. Third, If I say the char areas of Assam are getting filled with Bangladeshis, your argument is it “could very well be migration from rural areas to urban centers.” What does “could very well be” mean? That you are guessing? That even you don’t know for sure? The only evidence you present is a study by Gorky that shows internal displacement takes place from rural to mainland areas. BUT the Bangladeshi settlers are settling in these very char areas because they are available areas for settlement. If the people who are migrating from char areas to the mainland are Bengalis of East Bengal descent, then who are these new settlers in these char areas?

    Let me present one anecdotal piece of evidence: My mom’s part time maid in Guwahati who has grown to trust us admits she is from Jessore district in Bangladesh. Her husband is a rickshawpuller. She also says that pregnant women from her village “cross the river” and come to India when it is time to give birth so that they get Indian citizenship. They also know the networks by which they can get rickshaws,ration cards and voter ids. This is of course anecdotal evidence and you might dismiss it as the story of an Assamese xenophobe, but most Assamese will have some such story. the vegetable seller, the mason, the rickshaw puller and many day to day imteractions are with these new setllers.Thats why the Assamese ‘xenophobe’ feels incredulous when you question them about illegal immigration.Please don’t
    Dismiss these anecdotal evidences without yourself presenting verifiable facts from the ground. Till the time there is some feasible way to measure each group by some large scale census, we shouldn’t dismiss case studies or anecdotal evidence as “racist way of telling.”
    You have presented an entire community as xenophobes. That is not a minor allegation. I would request you to back your facts with more solid data.



    1. Dear Priya,

      Reading your response, I feel I should also share something I keep hearing from my village near Dhubri in Western Assam.

      This is from a period when people would travel all the way to Dhaka to get to Kolkata. The only form of xenophobia that persisted in that period was fear of the sahib. I guess there were fewer people too. Most of these landed gentry living in and around near Coochbehar, the erstwhile Goalpara, Abhayapuri, Bilasipara till Barpeta would send their children to Dhaka university. At some point of time, a great famine, not once but thrice, hit this region of the world. There were very cultivators. The provincial governments had no other choice but to look for cultivators who could grow different varieties of rice in three to four season to meet the requirement. The only ones practicing such a kind of cultivation were people living around Rangpur area. So you see the landed, the privileged sent their children to Dhaka and cultivator was encouraged to come up so that famine persisting that region could be stopped ensuring enough food grains. These linkages remain till date. People are married across borders, hindus and muslims both. They speak a distinct dialect, which a modern Axomiya would immediately dismiss as Bangla. Rain is not called ‘boroxun’ but ‘jhori’ because rains would happen with thunderstorms. Children are not called ‘lura-suwali’ but ‘chawa’. Some people call this dialect goalpariya, some ranpuriya, some even call it bhatiya. it goes on. songs, jokes, plays … all in these dialects. The assimilation/integration bit happens only when you move upwards towards barpeta depending how overwhelming is the presence of “Assamese-ness”. Some who kept moving upwards from tiny neck of the land, spoke Assamese more fluently, and those who remained in Dhubri and those in Rangpur, understood each other very wel. for someone visiting Dhubri from Guwahati, it is an alien world. So much for saying that there is something called assimilation in Assam. I am happy that i remember some of these words really well else I would have also said something like: “so these groups are well-integrated into Assamese society.” Assamese society is not a monolith and the identity is not homogenous. I pray that any identity in this world is not to be understood as a constant, else it will just create politics of exclusion, which is really fearsome.

      The second thing that I hear every year I visit my village is that some ‘char’ is not going to come out of water this year. So what these char residents would eventually do is to move to upstream along Brahmaputra. As someone who has been observing Brahmaputra for the past 15 odd years, I can very well say that the possibility of a char being more permanent and stable to support a few hundred livelihoods can happen only in the upstream of this river, as you move downstream the volume of the water increases manifold (4500 hectares of land is washed away every year from assam due to erosion). Many of these old time settlers, who grew food to feed the poor during pre-independence years are now living in abject poverty solely because of this reason — the owe everything to this river and when they lose, they lose everything to this river. So it is clearly not citizenship but chance to live and find a slightly stable life that leads these people to move upstream. This I am talking about people moving from remote chars near Dhubri towards Kamrup or Palashbari. For a pregnant woman, crossing the river would be to flee from water burials. As you say, your maid tells you a story about pregnant women crossing the river to come for Indian citizenship, one more query would do a lot of justice to these pregnant women. What are they fleeing from in Bangladesh? Is that a huge body of water that swallows 1.25 lakh homesteads every year is what drives them further upstream? Ask these people what their country is, they will either say rangpur or dhubri. it really does not matter if its bangladesh or india.

      People also told me that these very chars that drowns during the monsoons, provides them with the best jute before Bihu are now ruled by land mafias. These land mafias are one of the main reasons why many east bengali settlers are coming to guwahati and others to work, These people are perhaps the most resilient people in this planet, who work under any condition. I would urge you to find out more about the region, and its geography before commenting on who or what is seen in your city.

      Last, I have been reading Banajit’s articles very carefully. I do not think he has tagged Assamese people as xenophobe here but rather he has attacked a large section of people claiming to be Assamese but are actually racists of the highest order. These racists certainly need to be countered. So Assamese people are not xenophobes but there are Assamese xenophobes. I hope you get this very crucial difference.



      1. Dear Ms. Priya,

        Thanks for your comment. Many of the larger points I wanted raise in this comment has already been raised by Anup and Krantik, so I will try and restrict myself and respond to few of your answers to the questions I raised in the article.

        1. I never claimed in the article that whole of Assamese society is xenophobic (I regret that I said Assamese xenophobes, I should have said Axomiya xenophobes). But even than I would not have claimed that all of Axomiya people are xenophobes.

        2. For some reason you have nothing to say about the recent massacre.

        3. Assimilation and Integration (1st paragraph of your comment): To quote you:

        “You ask where are the descendants of East Bengali Muslims who came to India before partition. A deeper reading of the history of Assam will show you that many who came before partition have integrated into Assamese society, adopted Assamese language over time and have come to be recognized as indigenous Assamese Muslims. Also not all who came during and before partition were Muslims.”

        Well, I think Anup has presented a nice narrative of the “assimilation” story. Nonetheless, let me repeat some of it. You need to travel to western Assam and get a feel, and than read some historical narratives of western Assam.

        The hypothesis that you propose in your comment is a bogus hypothesis. “Assimilation and integration” are other words for establishing cultural hegemony. I personally think no one should assimilate into anything. But if anyone needs to assimilate into anything in western Assam, it should be the ‘long-nosed’ Axomiyas. Axomiyas of western Assam never assimilated into Bodo culture, Koch-Rajbongshi culture or Goalpariya/Rangpuria culture (as Anup mentioned). They couldn’t have, after all they are the hegemons.

        The perceptions of assimilation comes from seeing limited few from among the “Bengali speaking Muslims” from western Assam who have made it to the news desks and University departments. I am told that in last 20 years, most who have completed their masters degree in Axomiya language and linguistics with some distinctions from Gauhati University are “Muslims of East Bengali” origin. I don’t know about you, but being an Axomiya myself I can’t recall anyone among my peers who went on to do that.

        Having said that, “Bengali speaking Muslims” from western Assam still speak their own dialect in their homes and villages. And i respect them for that.

        Since you invoked anecdotal evidence, allow me to present one: Mr. X (I am withholding the name) is a awarding winning Assamese novelist and a well known journalist. He is from what is now Chirang district of BTAD and comes from the community which I have called “Muslims of East Bengali descent” in my article. He also happens to be the chairperson of BTAD Citizen Rights Forum. His house was brunt down in 2012 in the name of “Bangladeshi bhakao” riots. Tell me why should he be proud of “assimilating”.

        I am pasting below his facebook update from 17th May (mind you, he is a ward winning novelist in Assamese not in English):

        “Good Morning Friends,

        My work is Finished. I am relax now. On 24.7.2012 at 7.10 p.m. When my house was burnt along with another 20,000 people, I felt that it was a Political Conspiracy and we must have to deal it Politically. It is not anyway a Bodo – Non Bodo, but a question of Terrorism, Ultra-Most Chavinism which represented by Bodo Political Hagimony. Thanks to Mrinal Talukder as on 30.7.2012, I attended his popular program Prasongakrome at DY365 and I shared all these views in a open mind. Though I severely criticised the existing Muslim political and Non-Political forces, some People invited me to Lead a Muslim organization in the BTAD areas in Assam. It was not acceptable for me due 2 basic reasons. Firstly leading a organization in the name of a particular religious community is against the basic Ideology of my life. Secondly, when my house is ablazed and all my family members are in Shelters Camp I can’t discontinue my earnings. But the People, whom I criticised all over my life, were adamant to form any organization, keeping in their mind all my Pre-Conditions. At last a secular organization BTAD Citizen Rights Forum was formed taking me as its President. In the last 22 months we tried our best in taking closer all the Communities. Though not many some Bodo People also supporting us but still they can’t come out openly. In this mission I was compelled to leave my Job in Media house 4 times but the mission could not be stopped. In this Mission we decided to form an umbrella organization to defeat the Bodo Political Hagimony. Finally the greater unity of exploited people worked and Naba Kumar Sarania won the Kokrajhar HPC. When The Country and the state was divided, HINDU-MUSLIM unitedly fought unitedly here. Yesterday I, Khanin Deka with some other people took the winning certificate from Kokrajhar, which will be hand over to our new MP today. Thanks to all people and worker who supported us in this noble Mission. It is we the duty of N.K. SARANIA.”

        3. you say that “My mom’s part time maid in Guwahati who has grown to trust us admits she is from Jessore district in Bangladesh. Her husband is a rickshawpuller. She also says that pregnant women from her village “cross the river” and come to India when it is time to give birth so that they get Indian citizenship.”

        Some times what appears to to be trust is actually survival strategy (survival strategy includes appeasing the employers). Before giving this anecdote, you should have known that India is among many countries (unlike USA) where you don’t citizenship just because somebody is born here.

        4. You also say “When you ask Assamese people how they know there is illegal immigration, the answer is always “increasing visibility and numbers of miyans.” If many Assamese people are telling you the same thing, why are you discounting this evidence as some xenophobic rant or a “racist way of telling?”

        I guess I don’t need to respond to that.

        PS: Just to satisfy your curiosity let me tell you that I have done some bit of field work both in Assam and Bangladeshi. Hopefully, the field-notes will be be published soon.


      2. Some people call this dialect “goalpariya, some ranpuriya, some even call it bhatiya”

        Sir Anup, I want to make a small correction. ..

        The dialect that you are talking about is not called “bhatiya”. “Bhati” refers to the region on the lower course of the Brahma putra. .. The bhatiyas are the people who had migrated to lower assam more precisely the Dhubri district of lower Assam and speak the kind of Bengali spoken by rural Bangladeshis. These are the people who were the main targets in the BTAD violence and they are called miyans by Assamese and Bengali speaking Hindus of upper and central Assam. While the Goalpadiya muslims and Ben gali/Assamese/Goalpadiya Hindus residing in lower assam or dhubri region call them bhatiya.
        You were talking of the Muslims who settled earlier in this part of Assam from East Bengal beginning from the time of the Mughal invasion of Assam till the colonial era.
        These two communities are often mistaken to be identical by their dress…but the difference appears when your listen to the difference in their language.

        TheSe Goalpadiya muslims are called “uzani” ( referring to the region of the higher course of the Brahmaputra as opposed to “bhati”) or “deshi”..similarly their language is caled deshi/uzani/Goalpadiya. Even the indigenous Hindus share this language. This language appears closer to Bengali from Koch Behar to go alpaca districk and more akin to Assamese in the borpeta and eastern goalpada regions.


  3. @Priya, after reading your comment I was forced to think for a while that if all the immigrants of east bengal origin have been successfully assimilated into the Assamese society then you are in fact right, what we ‘see’ (if we allow, for the sake of argument, your point of view for identifying Bangladeshis) in urban clusters and all other places in rural Assam including the chars must be recent migrants who have not been able to assimilate either for lack of adequate time or because its only now that the Assamese society has begun rejecting them. In fact your whole rebuttal of the author’s piece stands on this lone premise.

    You have made very smart observations by pointing out that even the author has admitted the difficulty in identifying the approximate number of Bangladeshis (undocumented migrants) in Assam so that anyone ‘seen’ as one is probably guilty of being one given your anecdotal evidences. Therefore, I’ll not indulge in any further speculations and focus instead on your claim of assimilation. Let’s take one simple figure that should be an indicator of how the process of assimilation can be facilitated. As cited in the article itself, the literacy rate in char areas even as late as 2003 was no more than 20%. Imagine, Priya, if in over 100 hundred years, this has been the state of literacy levels in chars among bengali speaking muslims of east bengal descent, how on earth do you expect them to assimilate? Pick up any development indicator and you will notice that it has remained abysmal among these communities. Allowing for many exceptions where you shall find people from these communities even going on to do their masters in Assamese literature, by and large the claim that assimilation has happened across the whole section is a false claim. To add, if we also consider the fact that since 1990 to 2007, some 4 lakhs acres have been eroded by the river most of which has taken place in lower Assam then it does not require a lot of intelligence to understand that internal displacement is a tragic fact.

    You also know and speak yourself of the many bengali Hindus migrating from east bengal. There are studies which show that most of the migration taking place between 1951 and 1971 constituted bengali Hindus and I think you will claim that all of them have successfully assimilated into the Assamese society. Although its quite another matter that most of these Bengali Hindus cling to their bengali identity. Take a look at all the bengali medium schools across Assam and tell me how many muslims of east bengali descent are enrolled there? I’m only bringing this out to argue that assimilation does not necessarily have to mean adopting the Assamese language and the lifestyles of the caste hindu Assamese (or ethnic Assamese).

    I hope you understand that I don’t mean to say that there are no Bangladeshis or that immigration is not a serious problem. But let us first make sure we protect the constitutional and human rights of our own citizens first before we even begin talking about anything else.

    And please, I don’t believe that you missed out on the fact that the author was not labelling the whole of Assamese community as xenophobes. You seem to be too careful a reader to have missed that. Lets not resort to unnecessary provocations.


  4. Bonojit, I agree that many East Bengali Muslims moved to Assam well before partition, but have you looked into how many moved / were made to move to East Pakistan in 1947? Did Bengal only see a one sided migration of Bengali Hindus from East Bengal to West Bengal during partition, while the East Bengali Muslims continued to live in India? I ask these questions because irrespective of the official version that no one was obligated to migrate from India to Pakistan or from Pakistan to India based on their religion, Punjab saw a near complete population exchange of Hindus and Muslims amidst widespread rioting and looting. I’d like to know how it happened in Bengal and Assam.


  5. @Ria, I am not competent to comment about West Bengal, so I will restrict my comment to Assam only.

    Historical records (not just the official once) almost conclusively suggest that there was hardly any out-migration from Assam to East Pakistan. Ofcourse, some Muslim (Bengali) families, maybe few thousands, migrated to East Pakistan.

    As far as Brahmaputra valley (which the Assamese nationalists since the colonial times love to call Assam Valley) is concerned, according to various records and testimonies, after the Goalpara communal riots of January 1950 some 200,000 Muslims (estimated to be around 53000 families) sought refuge in East Pakistan. The NEHRU-LIAQUAT AGREEMENT signed on 8th April, 1950 set a deadline that they can return to Assam on or before 31st December, 1950. Understandably, I would say, most could not return on or before the stipulated date. Almost all of them returned in next 5-6 years. E. H Pakyntein (the 1961 Census Superintendent) makes incisive remarks about this forced out-migration and the subsequent re-migration in the Executive Summary to the 1961 Census report; in a speculative manner, so does his predecessor Sir R.B. Vaghaiwalla (the 1951 Census Superintendent).

    Now talking of Barak valley: long before the partition of 1947 the largely “tribal” Cachar district had become overwhelmingly “Hindu Bengali”. Sylhet, which remained as a district of Assam after the 1905 partition of Bengal, was always seen by the Assamese nationalist as a “deficit district” which needed riddance on linguistic and cultural grounds. Infact, Gopinath Bordoloi appealed before the Cabinet Mission in April 1946 that Sylhet was a deficit district and pleaded for its transfer to East Bengal. The referendum that was held in Sylhet in July 1947 resulted in the district joining East Pakistan, except for four Thanas of Karimganj sub-division of the then Sylhet district (as awarded to Assam by Radcliffe Borders Commissions). The Karimganj Muslims didn’t migrate to East Pakistan. All Karimganj and cachar did was except minority immigrants from East Pakistan.

    PS: To the best of my knowledge the first major communal riot after Independence that happened in Barak valley was the Karimganj Riots of 1968.


  6. Migration is a fact of life. Especially from less prosperous areas to more prosperous areas. With all its resources, the Americans fail to stop illegal immigration from Mexico. However, it would be foolhardy to dismiss a genuine lurking fear of the “Hindu Assamese” about being reduced to a minority in Assam. The social cohesion of any region is dependent on the majority abiding by the rules of the game, ie, constittuional guarantees. To simply cry indignantly about xenophobia doesnt solve the issue.

    If we see the worst “fears” coming true, ie Assam becomes a muslim majority state, the consequences for the critical border state as well Assamese society would be catastrophic. To deny that would be denying the obvious.

    The solution is to implement a package of measures:

    1. Get the LBA formalised.
    2. Enter into a legal work permit regime with Bangladesh, wherein a certain number of Bangladeshis would be given work permits in India. This would obviate the need for them to ask for citizenship rights. Their status would be that of Indians working in UAE, for instance. Further, it would encourage the Bangladesh govt to prevent illegal immigration.
    3. Fence the border, completely. Electrify the fence. Use drones. To the extent possible, stop illegal immigration with an iron hand.

    Neither xenophobia nor victimhood crying is going to solve the issue.


  7. the fact is that we as Assamese are a minority today. less than half of assam’s population is remaining who speak Assamese as their mother language. we are not reluctant to include others, we are only afraid that just like in Tripura we the actual inhabitants don’t become ourselves a minority.
    all I can say the solution to this problem is that all the immigrant Bengali speakers who have come to Assam must be integrated.
    at the least one must know one of the various indigenous languages, whether it be Assamese, Bodo or other language.

    some don’t understand the need to Integrate as they feel they don’t belong here. I request all those who feel themselves to be a son of this great land, must also help to preserve it.


    1. Dear Rihann Gogoi, do you speak any language other than Axomiya which are spoken in Assam. Don’t take my question otherwise, I ask it honestly. If I were you, I would have ask that question regarding the Marwaris of Fancy Bazaar in Guwahati, who (rhetorically speaking) have been controling 90% of trade in essential goods throughout NE for 4-5 generations. Now, you might think I am anti-Marwari, but I am not.
      It is a different matter altogether that my orphaned grandfather was a bonded labour from his childhood to his early adulthood labouring for Sahukars’ greed.


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