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How did Bengalis become Muslims?

This would be a strange question to ask in the context of the ethnic conflict in Assam that is showing signs of accelerating what with the chief minister Tarun Gogoi declaring that Assam is on the tinderbox. But in fact the genesis of the problem lies in the question.

Over hundred years ago when India was still India and not India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, there was large scale migration of Bengali Muslims from East Bengal (which is now Bangladesh) into Assam. This was the result of deliberate policies of the government of British India which wanted to colonize Assam and exploit its natural resources and expand agriculture in an area where tribal communities – like Bodos, Koch Rajbongshis and others - lived. These tribal were outside the pale of society as it was then and were not seen to be part of the market economy. The Bengali peasant, on the other hand, had been exposed to the world of colonialism/capitalism in eastern Bengal. Thus they were game to be part of this strategy. So began the process of migration of Bengali Muslims into Assam impelled undoubtedly also by the increased pressure on land in East Bengal.

The question to ask is why did only Bengali Muslims migrate to Assam and why not Hindus. The answer is: the Hindus did too but in smaller numbers. They were relatively more in white collar jobs and therefore by implication they were in higher value (and therefore limited number jobs). The large majority of the peasants in East Bengal were Muslims and these are the folks who moved because the opportunities were in farm related heavy labor work. It is easy to speculate that if the peasantry of East Bengal not entirely Muslims, then the bulk of migration would be of Hindu Bengalis and the ethnic conflict would have been a pure Hindu Assamese – Hindu Bengalis issue. But then the point is that if the peasantry of East Bengal were not predominantly Muslims, the country would not have been partitioned – at least on the eastern parts!

How the peasantry of Bengal became Muslims is an issue that has not been analyzed deeply. However it seems that with the Mughal conquest of Bengal beginning the last decades of the sixteenth century their local governors made frenetic efforts to settle land and expand agriculture. Large parts of East Bengal were nothing but thickly forested swamps in those days. People staying on the margins of society involved in boating, fishing etc who were loosely speaking Hindus but actually of no religion became part of this Mughal imperial design. They were settled on land and induced to farm and they were socially moored by small mosques led by spiritual preceptors who came into convert the locals to a new way of life. There was not much opposition because these were new areas but the local Hindu communities that existed reacted by closing their ranks and becoming more conservative. This had the result of expulsion of many Hindus from the fold on the grounds that they had been polluted by contacts with the Muslims. These Hindus of course became Muslims. The net result was that more people started becoming Muslims.

After the advent of the English and the Permanent Settlement of land revenues in 1785, agriculture became more settled and exploitative of the peasants as well. But that is another story but to come back to the main one, the creation of East Pakistan temporarily led to cessation of migration of Bengali Muslims into Assam. Though the borders between India and East Pakistan were porous and not demarcated clearly, the fact that it was no longer one country had this result. Furthermore Sylhet, a border district between Assam and East Pakistan where there a huge number of Bengali Muslims was made part of Pakistan.

However the creation of Bangladesh changed the dynamics. Relations between India and Bangladesh were good. Moreover the ravaged nation, newly created had no avenues for economic development: exploited as it had been by the west Pakistani colonialists who turned to be worse than the earlier British avatar. India felt a need to help in the development of this newly emerged nation. The only plentiful ‘resource’ that the new nation possessed was people who could workers and engage themselves in other low end trades. That began a new wave of migration which started in the late seventies. The migration – in search of better livelihood – continues and not only Assam but Bangladeshi migrate in larger numbers into West Bengal and from there to other states of India. Aided they are by porous borders and unscrupulous politicians who want to enlist them as voters for their political gain.

Bodos, Koch Rajbongshis and other ethnic groups feel vulnerable because they are unable to distinguish between Bengali Muslims who migrated a hundred year ago and Bangladeshi who came in the last two decades. With a new homeland and autonomous council, the Bodos who had been exploited by the state of affairs in Assam for centuries now see some hope at the end of the tunnel. Although merely 25-30 per cent of the population of the area, they want to exercise total control in their area and empower themselves. The major obstacle they face is from Bengali Muslims and Bangladeshis. This is the problem.

The coming weeks and months will see further intensification of the tensions what with the fundamental problem not being solved. It is easy to see that Bangladeshis will continue to migrate into India so long as there is no rapid economic growth in their country and expansion of economic opportunities. Strident voices will be heard in India to ban the influx of the Bangladeshis into the country. But that is easier said than done what with ever shifting riverine borders and char lands within that make the process of sneaking in, not too difficult.

Moreover the political dispensation has to take a clear stand on this issue because most of the time they are in a mode where they appear to be ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hound.’ They have to decide whether they want Bangladeshis into the country. It may not be out of place to state that most Indians will shout from rostrums that they don’t want the Bangladeshis: but none of them will ever refuse to benefit from the cheap labor provided by Bangladeshis at their homes, workplace and in trade. After all nobody including a Bangladeshi will sneak into somebody else’s country if it does not make economic sense for him to do so. So the hundred dollar question is whether we have a way to do so. Any answers? Lastly the answer has to be found by us, not the Bangladesh government. After all why should they care especially because increasing migration relieves pressure in their nation?

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