Bangladeshi: The New Gaali that Has Made Bengali Muslims Trespassers in their Own Land

Social Commentary

Bangladeshi: The New Gaali that Has Made Bengali Muslims Trespassers in their Own Land

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

In Netflix’s first Indian web series Sacred Games, a woman living in a poor Bengali Muslim “para” turns up outside Constable Katekar’s office every day, hoping to file a police complaint about her missing son Shamsul. Katekar is as resolute in ignoring as she is in having her complaint lodged. The woman wins this brief match of wits when the FIR is lodged – but loses eventually. Her son has already been brutally murdered.

Sacred Games, might be a work of fiction, but this exchange is important for the truths it uncovers. The subtext to the interaction between Katekar and the woman is that even in a place in Mumbai, the city of migrants, she and her family, are interlopers. They might be Indian, Bengali Muslims, but as far as the constable is concerned, they might as well be Bangladeshis.

And Bangladeshis, as we now know, are very unwelcome in India. In fact, the term “Bangladeshi” no longer denotes a nationality. Used with proper force and an appropriate amount of contempt, Bangladeshi has well replaced “Bihari”, an erstwhile slur for all poor North Indian workers who seasonally migrated to different parts of the country.

In the imagination of the rest of the country, ever ready to play fast and loose with labels, the Bengali Muslim is no different from the Bangladeshi. Even if they just tend to be migrant workers from any of the poorer districts in West Bengal, they are given a national identity they have nothing to do with. Similar to how we use the blanket offensive term “chinki” for Indians from any of the North Eastern states. For those of us who can’t tolerate diversity, an entire nation’s identity has become a term of abuse, a codeword for trespasser.

The stigma which traumatised the migrant “Bihari” in Shiv Sena’s Maharashtra and in Raj Thackeray’s Mumbai in the late 2000s, now haunts poor Bengali Muslims. Despite the improvement in their status in recent times, a majority of Indian Bengali Muslims continue to be on the periphery of Bengali and Indian society. According to a census conducted by the state administration in West Bengal in 2016, Muslims make up only 5.73 per cent of government employees in the state.

It’s easy to see how religious, ethnic, and national identity are all conflated in one holy mess.

Gone are the days when attacks on migrant workers from Bihar could act as a viagra to your political fortunes. It is now the era of demonising the poor Bengali Muslim worker as a quick cure to one’s political impotence. The chilling effects of this mentality are currently playing out in Assam’s political landscape. The three things that have dominated the recent politics of Assam are the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which the BJP hopes to pass in the Parliament.

The Bharatiya Janata Party before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was as sidelined in Assam politics as anyone in the Rashtriya Janata Dal who doesn’t belong to Lalu Yadav’s family. But then came Narendra Modi, with the promise of weeding out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, which resulted in the BJP’s meteoric rise in the state, culminating in its victory in the 2016 assembly elections.

Assam

It is now the era of demonising the poor Bengali Muslim worker as a quick cure to one’s political impotence.

Image Credit: Getty Images

It’s easy to see how religious, ethnic, and national identity are all conflated in one holy mess.

Bangladeshi Hindus – cannily classified as “refugees”, not “illegal immigrants”, a term reserved for Bengali Muslims – would be given shelter though, Modi had promised. And that’s what the central government is trying to do by passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Parliament. If the bill does indeed become an Act in the future, India will no longer treat Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs, and Christians from Bangladesh entering India as illegal immigrants. The idea behind it is to make it possible for them to acquire citizenship. But Bangladeshi Muslims will not be extended that luxury.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) of Assam is an exercise to strip the Indian citizenship off those Bangladeshis who came to India after March 24, 1971. The final draft list was updated on July 30, leaving out some 40 lakh people. And already there have been accusations from various corners alleging that the NRC is being updated in a manner very unfriendly to the Bengali Muslims.

One of the few leaders to have spoken out against this is West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. After the final draft of the NRC was updated, she slammed the BJP and said, “They are turning Indian people into refugees in their own country.” But even Mamata is being labelled a “minority appeaser” – and being addressed as “Mamata Begum” by some sections, instead of the more universal “Didi” – and has spun the whole controversy into a Bengali identity issue.

As the debate over who constitutes an Indian citizen rages on, how does the Bengali Muslim figure in all of this? Very badly, I estimate. The othering of the Bengali Muslim has slowly spread to several parts of India.

Last year in July, Bengali low-income workers attacked a posh apartment complex in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, alleging that one maid had been physically abused by her employers. Soon after, the attackers were branded as Bangladeshis by many in the residential complex – several of the Bengali Muslim women who worked as maids lost their jobs even though they had no role to play in the violence. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma personally visited the residents and assured them of his support.

A few hundred kilometers away, the spine-chilling murder of a 48-year-old Bengali Muslim labourer from Malda, West Bengal took place in Rajsamand, Rajasthan in December. Mohammad Afrazul was attacked with an axe by Shambhu Lal Regar and murdered. His body was then burned. The entire brutality was filmed on camera and uploaded online for the world to see. Afterwards, the 36-year-old murderer warned Muslims not to indulge in “love jihad”. In another video, he is seen talking about the threat Bangladeshi infiltrators pose to India.

From the residents of a posh apartment complex in Noida to the fictional constable in Sacred Games, it is difficult for contemporary India to see poor Bengali Muslims as victims of harsh circumstances, as people who have to leave their homeground to struggle for three meals a day. In this toxic mix of pseudo-nationalism and Islamophobia there are no winners. Only losers who are considered trespassers on their own land.

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