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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

“You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed,” Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, said at a rally in Serampore in West Bengal last week, confident that the BJP will win the elections that are seen as the largest democratic exercise in the world (NDTV 2014). This is hardly surprising; the BJP has been claiming that the Congress has been manipulating illegal Bangladeshis for years, particularly in West Bengal and in the northeast of India, for the purpose of votes. The question is, are these anti-Bangladeshi statements simply electoral rhetoric, or would the election of the BJP really initiate annihilation of the countries Muslims, Bengali or otherwise?

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims there are 20 million “illegal” Bangladeshis in India; according to the Indian Census of 2001, however, there were three million migrants from Bangladesh who resided in India. This number includes those in India legally and those who migrated during Partition and during the 1971 War of Independence, which obfuscates the actual number of “illegal immigrants.” As of 2013, Indian officials claimed that there were at least two hundred thousand Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in its northeast who have been forced into camps for their “protection” following a bloody July 2012 confrontation between the Bodo tribe and the Bengali Muslims spurred by an act of criminality — an abduction and mugging. This event brought to the fore of national politics an age-old contention over illegal Bangladeshis, whom the BJP claims form a vote bank for the ruling Congress party. That explains, the BJP argues, the Congress’ failure to complete the fencing of borders with barbed wires which began in 1989. One might also ask why the BJP did not complete the project during its tenure in power, from 1998 to 2004.

The first question to consider is: how valid are these claims of constant infiltration? The table below shows the decadal population growth rates in India, in Assam, and the three districts in Assam.

Screenshot 2014-05-03 20.17.01The table shows that population growth in each decade before 1971 was much higher than the Indian average, accounting not just for a high birth rate but for immigration from what was then East Bengal/East Pakistan. Since 1971, however, the decadal growth rate in the bordering areas is significantly lower than the national average. If we look at the Dhubri districts in Assam that border Bangladesh, as represented in the table, two observations stick out. First, Dhubri has a high percentage of Muslims and a higher-than-national decadal population growth rate; second, the Muslim populations of the other two areas total less than three percent, yet these regions still have a high decadal population growth rate. The question that Dutta (2012) raises is: why should a high population growth rate necessarily be indicative of illegal immigration? Using the examples of Dhemaji and Karbi Anglong, he shows that high population growth need not have anything to do with illegal immigration of Bengali Muslims. Politicians in India find it convenient to point to Dhubri to talk about illegal immigration, but the evidence rests on the assumption that high population growth is a result of migration instead of it being the natural growth rate of the region.

What such labels of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh ignore is the history of partition and migration in the region that predates independence, which has created pockets of ethnically similar people among other ethnicities. Today, Bengali Muslims make up 8.2 million of Assam’s population of 26.6 million. The first wave of migration occurred when Assam was made a part of India’s East Bengal province in 1905, with Dhaka as the capital. The second influx occurred throughout the 1940s, when the British relocated Bengali Muslims to farm the lands and increase food production (much like how Tamils were transported to Sri Lanka during colonial times), followed at the end of the decade by a third influx in 1947, during Partition. A fourth influx occurred during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971. Those who entered India after March 25, 1971, when Bangladesh declared independence, have been declared “illegal immigrants” by the Indian government in 1985 (Chatterji 2007; Van Schendel 2002; Tajuddin 1997).

However, there is little evidence to suggest that the 200000 who currently face deportation and possible statelessness entered India after 1971. The kind of opposition Bengali Muslims face today is not very different from how Sri Lanka treated its Tamil population. Interestingly enough, while India “understands” the plight of Tamils, it refuses to acknowledge the Bengali Muslim population, especially in the northeast, as its own.

What interest does the BJP have in making the illegal Bangladeshis such a public matter? Does it not fear souring relations with Bangladesh when it portrays the Bangladeshi population in such negative language? It is precisely because this 200000 – strong population is not Bangladeshi that India is able to use such negative imagery without hampering bilateral relations. What supports this notion is Bangladesh’s indifference to this issue at both the national and local levels even as it seems to be making national news on a regular basis in India, especially following the Bodo-Bengali conflict. Few denouncements of anti-Bangladeshi atrocities appeared in any of the major newspapers in Bangladesh, though such denouncements are common when Bangladeshis, even illegal ones, are ill-treated, for example in countries in the Middle East.

But what purpose does such negative imagery serve? For India, it is mostly about domestic politics and how the public perceives local conflicts. Why does the construction of the fence remain incomplete? Keeping the borders somewhat porous allows people to scream “infiltrators” every time a diversion is required, to focus attention on the ills coming into India. While some scholars in India find the construction of border fences offensive and even xenophobic (Pant 2007; Jones 2009), Bangladeshis I spoke to expressed frustration over such “politics.” “Why doesn’t India close the borders right now?” asked many. “Then they will see how many are actually from Bangladesh.”

The open borders provide a pretext for cracking down upon minorities, Bengali Muslims in this case, and for creating an “other” that threatens local culture. Although local officials and authorities formally denounce communal violence, they actually promote it by assuming that the Bengalis are Bangladeshis by virtue of the fact that they are Muslims. The focus on the Hindu (Bodo)–Muslim (Bengali) divisions disallows unity among different groups in Assam to engage in what many of the insurgent groups there want — self-determination. Thus, the creation of the “other” not only serves as a “threat” on its own terms but also as a mechanism for divide-and-rule to prevent national disintegration.

The anti-Bangladeshi stance is not a specific issue, but part of a broader Indian agenda that seems to espouse nationalism based on “anti-someone” sentiments: in the north it’s China, in the west, Pakistan, in the east, Bangladesh, and in the south, Sri Lanka. People from these countries are showcased as threats to Indianness, which can only be fought “unitedly.”

At a time when Hindu nationalism is on the rise and the Congress, which is traditionally a centrist party, is arguably seen by many as right-leaning (Chenoy&Chenoy 2007), it is perhaps not surprising that anti-Muslim sentiments, whether anti-Pakistani or anti-Bangladeshi, find support among Indian politicians as well as the Indian masses. The need for a simplistic notion of nationalism — “unite against a common enemy” — along with the convenient denial of the history of migration serves the political agenda of politicians looking to gain political office in a multi-ethnic country where unity is difficult to come by.

That is not to say that illegal migration from Bangladesh is a myth. Porous borders make it difficult to study the exact number of illegal Bangladeshis in India, but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that there are many. Some locals I spoke to in Delhi, for example, complain that many of the Bangla speakers are Bangladeshi but give the names of obscure villages in West Bengal as their places of origin, thereby masking their “true” nationality. Given that they speak one of the major Indian languages, Bangla; that there are many “Partition refugees” from what is now Bangladesh that can explain the variation in accents; and that they look “Indian,” it is easy for illegal Bangladeshis to assimilate and “hide” among Indians. National identity cards are a new phenomenon, illegal immigration is “rampant,” and there exist a large number of “Partition refugees” from the same region, making the process of identifying and verifying illegal Bangladeshis very difficult.

Anecdotal evidence from interviews also shows (albeit inconclusively) that border guards are complicit in fostering this kind of migration. I heard the story of Aslam, who was deported from India, then detained at a detention centre at the border. The border patrol gave him one meal, kept him locked up for five hours, and then told him to go back from where he came from (in India). There are also many news reports of border casualties where Bangladeshi herders and animal traders who cross over to India for petty business are captured, tortured, and killed. How representative are these stories? It is difficult to say. But what is easier to see is how the story of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants came to be portrayed in mainstream Indian politics as a threat.

Would a BJP victory bode ill for the Bengali Muslim population? To the extent that BJP’s election to power empowers the until-now-suppressed Hindu fascist elements on the ground, the Bengali Muslim population is under threat (as are other Muslims in India). The conflation of Bengali Muslims and Bangladeshis would continue and Bengali Muslims would be demonised as Bangladeshis. The demonisation will be a continuous process and reliant on the very fact that Bengali Muslims are not necessarily Bangladeshis.

This article draws upon excerpts from the author’s 2013 book, Politics of Refugees in South Asia: Identity, Manipulation, Resistance.

Navine Murshid is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, Colgate University, New York.


Dutta, N.2012.“The Myth of the Bangladeshi and Violence in Assam.”Kafila, August 16. Available at http://kafila.org/2012/08/16/the-myth-of-the-bangladeshi-and-violence-in-assam-nilim-dutta/.

Chatterji, J. 2007. “Dispersal and the Failure of Rehabilitation: Refugee Camp-Dwellers and Squatters in West Bengal.” Modern Asian Studies 41(5): 995–1032.

Chenoy, K. M., and A. M.Chenoy.2007. “India’s Foreign Policy Shifts and the Calculus of Power.”Economic and Political Weekly 42(35): 3547–54.

NDTV. 2014. “Come May 16, Bangladeshi immigrants must pack up: NarendraModi.” April 28. Available at: http://www.ndtv.com/elections/article/election-2014/come-may-16-bangladeshi-immigrants-must-pack-up-narendra-modi-514883?pfrom=home-lateststories

Tajuddin, M. 1997. “The Stateless People in Bangladesh.” In StateDevelopment and Political Culture: Bangladesh and India, edited by B. De and R. Samaddar. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 203-222.

Tajuddin, M. 1997. “The Stateless People in Bangladesh.” In StateDevelopment and Political Culture: Bangladesh and India, edited by B. De and R. Samaddar. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 203-222.

Van Schendel, W. 2002. “Stateless in South Asia: The Making of the India-Bangladesh Enclaves.”  Journal of Asian Studies 61(01): 115–47.

9 Responses to “Bengali Muslims in India: Bangladeshis until proven otherwise?”

  1. Saurov

    I do not believe these numbers. they are a spin on facts.
    Modi is the last hope for India from its Islamization. Time will only tell what is in store for Mother India.

  2. Dipankar Talukdar

    I can relate with the concerns raised in the article and so with the various comments by the readers. But as an Indian, just want to ask you one thing, had you been in our place, would you accept illegal Indians into your territory just like you people are expecting us to accept that? Just give it a thought. Why don’t you try to build your nation so strong that no one needs to lose their self respect and and lead a prosperous and happy life in your own country? Doesn’t feel bad to be treated this way?

  3. Mahbub Razib

    I think Bangladesh plays too soft with India. What’s wrong with the incumbent government?

  4. Limu

    How can Modi be the choice of the Indian people? How can their taste be so terribly wrong? You would think the Indian people would know better!

  5. Labik Akmal

    Just because those are Bengali speaking doesn’t mean that they are from Bangladesh! and what is our foreign ministry doing?

  6. Toimur Rahman

    The Indian polls will affect us bad. If Modi is elected, we are in for trouble.

  7. Mita

    If Modi is elected, we will suffer. If Mamata is there our sufferings will continue. We are doomed anyway.

  8. Sabbir Ahmed

    This is a very important article. What’s the proof that those are actually Bangladeshis.

Comments are closed.