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Northeast India simmers over Bangladeshi Hindus’ citizenship in India

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Meghdoot

TISS Alumnus

Alarm bells are ringing all over northeast India over Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government’s decision to grant citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus fleeing religious persecution from the Bengali nation.

The Narendra Modi-led government’s proposal to amend the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1955 by legalising Bangladeshi Hindu refugees as Indian citizens is not going down well with the people of north-eastern India, who have been waging long struggles against the migration of poor Muslims and Hindus from Bangladesh into their lands, which they fear would turn them into a minority in their own lands.

The right-wing BJP government even managed to form their first government in the northeast in Assam, with the sole plank of sending all illegal ‘Bangladeshis’ back to where they came from.

However, after coming to power, some of the Assam BJP ministers have towed the Centre’s line by welcoming the Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants. While some termed the Hindus from Bangladesh as ‘victims who needed to be given shelter in Assam to bolster the total Hindu population in the state’ (only 65% of Assam’s population is Hindu), others compared the Bangladeshi Hindus with Tai Ahom immigrants from Thailand, who came a century back and formed the very basis of the Ahom kingdom, who forged the subsequent Assamese identity.

The Narendra Modi government’s contemplation to amend the Citizenship Act and allowing the Bangladeshi Hindus to become Indian citizens is direct violation of the Assam Accord signed between agitating student groups such as All Assam Students Union and the Government of India, in 1984 after five bloody years of Assam Agitation. The accord states that any immigrant from East Pakistan or Bangladesh – whether Hindu or Muslim – entering into Assam after March 24, 1971, two days before declaration of independence of Bangladesh, will be deemed ‘illegal’. If the amendment is brought in, an estimated 1.5 lakh Hindu Bangaldeshi refugees residing in Assam will be get Indian citizenship, severely depleting the ethnic Assamese percentage, which is presently 45% of total population of Assam.

Assam and Tripura shares most of India’s border with Bangladesh in the northeast periphery of the country. The former princely kingdom of Tripura already witnessed a bloody period of ethnic conflict in the 1980s and 90s as Hindu Bangladeshi refugees overwhelmed the indigenous tribal population of the state and pushed them into the fringes of the hills in the eastern and southern parts of the state. From being a majority in 1947 during the partition of India, tribals in Tripura became a miniscule 30% of the population of the state. This, they feel has put them at the mercy of the Bengali Hindu refugees. Assam fears they will have to face a similar outcome if migration continues unchecked.

Coupled with all this hullabaloo came a report in a book titled Political economy of reforming agriculture-land-water bodies in Bangladesh by eminent economist and researcher Dr Abul Barkat on November 20 which said that no Hindus will be left in Bangladesh thirty years from now.

Prof Barkat came to the conclusion of his 30-year-long research after studying the rate of exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh from 1964 to 2013. He found that around 11.3 million Hindus had left Bangladesh due to religious persecution and discrimination, which means on an average 632 Hindus left the country each day and 230,612 annually. His research found that the rate of exodus increased during the military governments after independence from Pakistan.

He found that before the Liberation War, the daily rate of migration was 705 while it was 512 during 1971-1981 and 438 during 1981-1991. The number increased to 767 persons each day during 1991-2001 while around 774 persons left the country during 2001-2012.

All hell broke loose after this explosive claim and protests became numerous in Assam and other parts of northeast against the Centre’s move to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis.

Going by the report, if the Bangladeshi Hindus left their country due to persecution, their most favoured destination would be the lesser populated northeast Indian states rather than Bangladesh’s western neighbour West Bengal, which has already more than a 1,000 people residing in every square kilometre.

A few analysts believe the decision to allow Hindu Bangladeshis into northeast would fuel growth in ethnic insurgencies which would vow to fight to protect their ethnicities from the migrant Bengali Hindu, who losing every asset in Bangladesh is generally seen as land-hungry in abundant northeast. Caught in the middle, Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh feel unwelcome everywhere.

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