Is Bangladesh on the verge of another mass refugee influx?
Bangladesh has opened its border for the persecuted Rohingya refugees on humanitarian grounds after violence erupted in Rakhine state of neighbouring Myanmar on August 25 last year.
The country has been hosting a total number of more than one million refugees from Myanmar since 1990s. The central reason of the expulsion of this large population from Myanmar is their ethnic and religious identity. Myanmar authorities consider them as illegal Bengali-Muslims and want to expel them entirely to Bangladesh.
There is a potential threat of another mass refugee influx to Bangladesh, this time from bordering Indian state of Assam. A draft of National Register of Citizens (NRC) list was published on the eve of new year by the state government to identify “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.
The 2014 Indian national election created large-scale communal violence in Assam, killing more than 40 people. During that campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned “illegal immigrants” in Indian states bordering Bangladesh to have their “bags packed” ready to be sent home should he win.
Moreover, anti-Muslim rhetoric was crucial for Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to take power in Assam for the first time last year. BJP’s election manifesto firmly focused on expelling “illegal immigrants” and giving shelter to persecuted Hindus from Bangladesh.
According to a 2011 census report, Muslims represent over 34.22% of the state’s population, most of them are supposed to be Bengali-speaking. Currently, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the region as the birth rate in Muslim families is higher than others. As a result, there is a fear of Muslim demographic takeover of the state among local Assamese.
BJP’s election manifesto firmly focused on expelling ‘illegal immigrants’ and giving shelter to persecuted Hindus from Bangladesh
The tension between local Assamese and Bengali-speaking communities is not a new phenomenon. Since the partition of India in 1947, Assamese have been protesting the presence of so-called “illegal immigrants” from bordering Bangladesh. Communal violence and riots between the state’s indigenous population and Bengali-speaking Muslims took place in several times.
In February 1983, more than 2,000 Bengali-speaking Muslims were killed in central Assam because of allegedly being “illegal immigrants.” This incident is widely known as the “Nellie Massacre.”
Islamophobic attacks and marginalisation of Muslim communities in the state have rapidly increased in recent years. According to a recent Reuters report, thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims have already been subjugated in detention camps near the Bangladesh border.
The cultural and historic interaction between eastern Bengal, which is today’s Bangladesh and Indian state of Assam, dates back to the middle ages. These regions were under the same administrative rule of the British Empire.
Moreover, eastern Bengal and Assam were integrated into a single province after the Partition of Bengal in 1906. Migration and settlement from both sides took place during that time. In 1891, the British imperial government bought a huge number of labourers from eastern Bengal and other parts of Indian sub-continent in Assam for agricultural purposes.
As a result, gradually, a significant percentage of the Bengali-speaking Muslim community emerged in Assam way before the Partition in 1947.
The publication of the NRC could lead to widespread communal violence and unrest in the state, which has the second highest percentage of Muslims by any Indian state. More than 2 million Bengali-speaking Muslims could become stateless and rush towards Bangladesh because of this exclusionist policy by the government of Assam.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has already mentioned that people who are not registered will become stateless and added: “People who are declared foreigners will be barred from all constitutional rights, including fundamental and electoral.”
Dhaka needs to take strong diplomatic steps with Delhi before the Assamese authorities start to deport these Bengali-speaking people who have been living inside India for decades.
The Indian government must provide every constitutional and human right to the people, who have been historically living in Assam irrespective of their ethnic or religious identity. Otherwise, the current anti-Muslim policy could create a significant security challenge for both India and Bangladesh and thus destabilise the entire region.
Bangladesh is already a densely populated country. The country has just faced one of the biggest refugee crises in recent history despite having limited economic and natural resources. The Rohingya refugee crisis has created widespread social, economic, and environmental problems for the host communities in the country.
Another refugee exodus could create devastating consequences for our national and economic security.
Taufiq-E-Faruque is a freelance contributor.