The recent clashes between the Bodos and the Muslims in the Bodo Territorial Council administered areas of Assam have again raised the issue of illegal migration into the state, in a major way. In many parts of the state, especially the Brahmaputra valley, agitated protests have taken place, forcing the Tarun Gogoi government to come out with a white paper on the issue.
Many intellectuals have voiced their opinions for or against the chorus that, Assam’s demography as well as socio cultural fabric is being destroyed by the constant inflow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. While the jury is still out on the actual extent of this problem, the biggest sufferer of this ruckus is the indigenous Bengali of Assam, who has resided in this state for ages and is as much a bhoomiputra or khilongiya citizen as an Assamese or a Bodo.
Yes, the very term ‘indigenous Bengali from Assam’ is bound to raise a few bewildered eyebrows. Actually, the Bengalis of the state have been depicted in such a manner that every Bengali staying in Assam is seen either as a settler or an illegal occupant from Bangladesh.
During the seventies and eighties when the ‘bideshi kheda’ or in more un-parliamentary terms ‘bongal kheda’ slogan was in full flow, many indigenous Bengalis especially from Barak Valley were harassed in the colleges, universities and offices of the Brahmaputra valley, purely on the basis of the language they spoke. Nobody quite bothered to verify their actual antecedents before hurling abuses or racial slurs.
Absolutely nobody disputes the fact that illegal migration in any form is dangerous for the conservation of the identity and culture of the indigenous communities. In Assam, illegal migration has emerged as a monster only because it was allowed to become so by the corrupt political class as well as the government babus, who in most cases, were themselves from the indigenous communities.
However, no such crisis gives anyone the right to malign or marginalize a community, branding all its members as foreigners. Here, I would like to take my own example. I am a Bengali born and brought up in Silchar, whose father was also born in the same town. My grandfather was born in a village in the Sylhet district, when it was a part of Assam (and not East Bengal, as is often portrayed) in the British period. Like many others, he completed his education in Sylhet, very much within the territory of Assam and came to Silchar with a government job about 20 years before independence.
So, how can I be any less indigenous in the state of Assam than a Kalita or a Hazarika on the streets of Jorhat or Dibrugarh? Then why on earth, my ignorant Assamese friend often brands me a Bangladeshi and cuts unpalatable jokes on me? In the last couple of decades, such sentiments have certainly ebbed to a large extent and the two communities have lived in harmony with other. However, the present movement directed at illegal migrants is again threatening to bring back communal sentiments that had unfortunately ruled the earlier agitations.
The history of Barak Valley or the entire sequence of events that led to the inclusion of Cachar and Sylhet into Assam is one of the most well kept secrets of modern Assam’s history. In 1874, when the British carved out the state of Assam, the Cachar and Sylhet districts, both inhabited mostly by Bengalis, were also included to make the new state revenue sufficient. During independence, when a majority of Sylhet went to east Pakistan, the Karimganj sub division of the district was retained in India. Now the then Karimganj sub division and the Cachar district have been reorganized into the three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, which is jointly called the Barak Valley.
However, most unfortunately, these details are not known to a majority of the Assamese people, who are often systematically fed with the notion that all Bengalis staying in Assam are foreigners.
The fact that the geographical entity of Assam has never been about the Assamese speaking people only, needs to be appreciated. Assam has already paid a heavy price for not understanding this basic fact. Two states have already broken away and three more territories inhabited by the Bodos, the Dimasas and the Karbis are also practically ruling themselves thanks to the autonomy given to them after the creation of the territorial councils.
Mass migration from the neighbouring country is indeed dangerous for the people of Assam. Because of linguistic similarities, it is probably a bigger challenge for the people of Barak Valley, than for the people of the Brahmaputra valley. Therefore, the need of the hour is to bring together all communities, irrespective of their linguistic or religious affiliations and fight the battle against illegal migration. Looking suspiciously at all Bengalis, who are the second largest linguistic community in the state, will certainly not help matters.