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OP-ED: Northeast India: Where Bengalis are perceived as Bangladeshis

  • Published at 08:45 pm October 24th, 2020
The Khasi Students’ Union put up banners in Shillong on October 21, fomenting anti-Bengali sentiment COURTESY

A formerly cosmopolitan space has come to be imagined as an ethnic space -- driven by fear and hatred for ‘Bangladeshis’

On October 21, activists of the Khasi Students’ Union went around Shillong putting up banners at prime locations of the capital of the Indian hill state of Meghalaya, which borders Sylhet and Mymensingh to the north. 

“Bangladeshis stop your atrocities in Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam, and Mizoram,” said one. “All Meghalaya Bengalis are Bangladeshis,” declared a second. 

“Q. Who murder (sic) Lurshai Hynniewta? A. Bengalis of Bangladesh origin,” charged a third. The obvious provocation for the angry banners seemed to lie in the murder mentioned in that last banner. It related to the death, following a clash between two groups, of a Khasi man at a place called Icchamati close to Bangladesh’s border with India in February this year. 

A change to citizenship laws

The groups had clashed over the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a change to India’s citizenship laws pushed through parliament by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which promised relatively easier citizenship by naturalization for immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi, Jain, and Christian faiths who arrived fleeing persecution. 

The ill-conceived amendment, whose implementation has not started more than 10 months after it was passed because the government has failed to notify the rules, was necessitated by political exigencies. The BJP had previously cheered on a National Register of Citizens in the state of Assam, with Home Minister Amit Shah vouching it would be implemented all over India subsequently. 

The aim was to drive out illegal immigrants, and BJP ministers in their public statements left no one in any doubt about who they thought that meant -- they were anticipating it would evict “Bangladeshis” from India. Their mental image of a Bangladeshi probably is of a lungi-clad and bearded Muslim peasant; consequently, they see every such person as Bangladeshi. 

When Assam’s final NRC list was drawn up after great effort -- it took more than 50,000 state government staff over five years to complete -- it ended up creating a political problem for the BJP that the party had probably not anticipated. A large proportion of the 1.9 million residents of Assam excluded from the list of citizens were Bengali Hindus. The CAA had to be rushed through to assure the party’s Hindu base, not only in Assam but also in neighbouring West Bengal, that they had nothing to fear from the NRC.

Protests escalate

This had another unanticipated consequence. The first place that erupted in opposition to the CAA was Guwahati. There, protesters took down a hoarding of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe close to the state secretariat. The planned summit meeting between the two leaders had to be cancelled, as protests escalated and spread all over India in subsequent days. 

The trouble over the NRC and CAA had escalated into rioting between its supporters and opponents in Delhi when Covid gave a chance to the government to impose a total lockdown and wrap up the protests. Arrests of protesters have continued right through the past several months and are going on even now. 

However, the strong arm of the state may again face an unexpected problem in Northeast India. Both NRC and CAA originated there, and clearly the leadership in Delhi never saw the trouble coming when they scheduled a prime ministerial summit meeting in Guwahati days after passing the CAA. This is because they underestimated the reservoir of feeling against Bengalis in general that exists and has existed for decades all across the region. 

For the Hindu nationalists, religion is the big thing -- they see the world in terms of Hindus and others. Muslims happen to be their biggest bugbear because of the long and complicated relationship between the two communities in the Indian sub-continent. However, for the communities of Northeast India, ethnicity, which overlaps to a significant extent with linguistic identity, has been the crucial dividing line ever since modern ideas of identities reached those parts with British administration in the 19th century.  

Linguistic identity takes precedence

The protesters against the CAA in Assam were largely Hindus, but their Assamese linguistic identity has for long taken precedence over their religious identity, sometimes manifesting itself in riots against Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, that go back at least to the 1960s when the state saw a “Bangal Kheda” or “drive out the Bangals” agitation. 

Similarly, in Meghalaya, the Khasis who clashed with a group of Bengali and Bishnupriya Manipuri people in Icchamati were not fighting over religion; the divide for them is ethnic, between tribal Khasis and “dkhars,” which in the Khasi language means outsiders. Bengalis of all faiths are dkhars to them. 

The Bengali population of Meghalaya has had to contend with the hostility of the Khasi Students’ Union for decades now. In 1979, there were major riots that targeted Bengalis. Waves of rioting followed through the 1980s and early 1990s. The statement that the KSU put on its banner days ago, that “All Meghalaya Bengalis are Bangladeshis” is an attitude that has been a lived reality for Bengalis there since the birth of Bangladesh. 

The statement could easily have appeared in any of the other states of Northeast India too; the assumption that all Bengalis, especially if they have their origins in East Bengal, rightfully belong in Bangladesh is almost universal across the region. 

This assumption springs from an ethnicized understanding of states and nations. Assam is thus assumed to belong to the Assamese speakers, Meghalaya to three local tribes -- Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias -- and so on. Similarly, Bangladesh is viewed as the homeland of Bengali Muslims, and West Bengal of Bengali Hindus. 

Mere dominance or even political hegemony is not sufficient to placate sections of the local majorities; they demand nothing less than the total assimilation, or exclusion, of all minorities in their areas of influence. 

This creates tensions in Northeast India between little nationalisms and the larger Hindu nationalism of the BJP. Northeast India borders Bangladesh. A lot of the Bengalis who migrated into the region are Hindus. In Tripura, many trace their origins to neighbouring Comilla, where a large tract was the zamindari of the Tripura kings until 1947. In the case of Meghalaya and Assam, the migrants were mainly Sylheti Hindus who left after that district went to East Pakistan in a referendum a month before Partition. 

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, was at that time the capital of undivided Assam, of which Sylhet had since 1874 been a part. A British administrative reorganization in 1873-74 had taken it out of Bengal, along with Cachar and Goalpara, and plonked it there. The township of Shillong itself was established starting 1863, when the local chief, the Syiem of Mylliem, ceded the lands for a cantonment and sanatorium to the British. 

At the time, it was a part of British Bengal. The town had close links with Sylhet. It lies less than 90km from the Sylhet border. When the first partition of Bengal happened in 1905, it became summer capital of the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. It was a favoured destination of many of the Bengali elite. Subhas Chandra Bose, Swami Vivekananda, and Rabindranath Tagore all visited there on different occasions. Tagore wrote and set his “shesher kobita” there. 

Following Partition, Shillong became capital of Assam. When Meghalaya emerged from Assam as a state of India in 1972, it became capital of this reduced territory. The shrinking in geographical area of which it was capital, from all of East Bengal and Assam, to the Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia Hills, has been accompanied by a matching shrinking of its imagination. The formerly cosmopolitan space increasingly came to be imagined as an ethnic space, a Khasi town rather than a city that the locals could share with the Bengalis, Assamese, Gorkhas, Punjabis, Sindhis, Biharis, and others. 

Attempts to forcibly evict “outsiders,” and especially the Bengalis among them, has been the dominant running theme in the state’s, and the region’s, politics for decades. It shows no signs of abating. Grandiose plans of “Act East” and regional cooperation keep getting hatched in national capitals. Meanwhile, the local politics continues to be driven by fear and hatred of “Bangladeshis.” 

Samrat Choudhury is a journalist and author from Shillong. He is co-editor of Insider Outsider, a volume on the issue of belonging in Northeast India.

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