Rizwana Shamshad’s Bangladeshi Migrants In India: Foreigners, Refugees, or Infiltrators? is a highly relevant and context-sensitive study of the ‘Indian discourse’, a collection of many discourses on one of the most politicized migrant communities in the subcontinent.
The Bangladeshi migrant community in India, unlike other major migrant stocks, is a starkly heterogeneous and layered group of people with rare historical fluidity in identity formation. Shamshad’s meticulous study speaks of this peculiarity of the Bangladeshi migrant condition in India.
Since the resurgence of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian political mainstream in 2014, there has been a steady surge in sectarian nationalism and a concomitant sharpening of the anti-immigrant/refugee discourse across national and regional spaces. Duly legitimized by senior political leaders, this new narrative is based on sociopolitical othering of ‘outsiders’, stereotyping, communalization, and misinformation.
More critically, BJP’s dramatic rise has spurred fresh tensions within the Indian national project that was so far largely based on Nehruvian secular-civic-territorial nationalism, rather than cultural or ethno-religious. Add to this the rejuvenation of the ethno-linguistic ‘anti-foreigner’ discourse in Assam—a state with a long history of anti-Bangladeshi/Bengali mobilization—after the recent initiation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise aimed at identifying ‘illegal migrants’ from Bangladesh.
Shamshad’s work, thus, is a highly topical academic study that throws light on the foundational basis of these resurgent processes of othering. At the same time, it is a timeless glimpse into how regional assertions have often transcended pan-Indian nationalism by either including or othering a common set of ‘outsiders’ in direct contravention to the totalizing parameters of the singular ‘Indian identity.’
As a strictly academic discourse analysis, the book is a valuable asset for anyone trying to make sense of the maddening complexities of how India and its constituent sets of peoples view Bangladeshi migrants, across three territorial units that have closely engaged with the issue at multiple levels through the decades: Assam, West Bengal, and New Delhi. The extensive study does not cut through the noise, but rather, foregrounds it. Therein lies Shamshad’s biggest achievement of underlining the diversity of views within Indian democracy on a divisive issue.
The study, divided into five main chapters, primarily concerns itself with a single question: what do the views expressed by the political and civil society actors in Assam, West Bengal and Delhi about Bangladeshi migrants in India reveal about the current state of nationalism in these three States and in India?
The corresponding conclusion, contained in the final chapter, is a forewarning: the project of forming a singular homogenized nation is, perhaps, a suicidal policy for India and for the people.
Three elements are pivotal to Shamshad’s study: history, territory, and ethnicity. The various perceptions on the Bangladeshi migrant problem all emanate from a complex interplay of these three components. The endgame is the precipitation of a specific identity or mix of identities—Assamese, Bengali, Hindu, Muslim, or Indian—through which a particular set of peoples view ‘the other’, read: Bangladeshi migrants.
However, the author looks at identity formation not as an isolated event, but as a product of competing nationalist imaginations. By marrying the visible discourse on the Bangladeshi migrants with established theories of nationalism, the study allows the reader to make linear sense of the disparate empirical findings, contained in interviews with political and civil society actors like current and former politicians, party functionaries, academicians, journalists, and human rights activists.
The larger motive here is to contextualize the process of othering in the collective and often, organized, project of identity formation that is based on a host of factors like ethnie, territory, cultural purity, language, or shared memory of a traumatic past.
A notable feature of the study is that every state-specific chapter emerges as a stand alone discourse analysies with its own distinct historical trajectories and actors who operate with their own biases, agendas, and cultural affiliations. This prevents the study from falling into the trap of catchall analysis, and allows for context-sensitive breakdown of the multiple processes of othering, inclusion, and exclusion. Naturally, ‘the other’ is a running theme in Shamshad’s work, and is structurally linked to the ‘sameness-difference’ binary that underpins the collective project of exclusion.
Another key feature of Shamshad’s study is its minute deconstruction of the ethno-religious differences that characterize not just the Bangladeshi migrant demography, but also the ‘Indian response’ to it. For instance, the author finds that the Muslimness of a majority of the Bangladeshi migrants has encouraged the Hindu Right Wing forces —which currently control the political apparatus at the federal level—to colour the Delhi-centric discourse with sectarianism. The central pillar of this is the flagging of Muslim Bangladeshis as ‘infiltrators’ and their Hindu counterparts as ‘refugees’. On the other hand, the Congress party, although widely accused of communalism like the BJP, has retained a largely secular outlook towards the migrants.
Similarly, in Assam, the local Assamese-speaking elite had historically seen the Bengali Hindu migrants as more threatening than the Muslim migrants, until Hindutva forces communalized the atmosphere in the 1970s. With the NRC and the BJP’s proposed legislation to selectively regularize Hindu Bangladeshis, the Assamese-Bengali Hindu fissures have come back to the fore once again, rendering the book’s focus on the interface between religion, ethnicity, and religion more relevant than ever.
In West Bengal, however, religious differences were overwhelmed by deeper ethno-linguistic affiliations to a larger Bengali homeland. For the Bengalis—both from the East and the West—the project of locating a stable ethnie has always been about recognizing the many homelands within one larger homeland, which is undivided Bengal. This has prevented the process of othering from taking a more deviant turn.
The eventual discursive outcome of this is that in Assam, the Bangladeshi migrants (Hindus and Muslims) are seen as both ‘threatening’ and ‘the other’, while in West Bengal, they are only seen as ‘the other’—a critical difference that draws the line between active xenophobia and passive exclusion.
Further, the study highlights how certain exceptions complicate otherwise hard-set party positions on migrants. For example, while the Communist Party in Bengal had largely been accommodative of Bangladeshi migrants during its rule, they were cautious of the rise of Islamist extremism and ‘anti-India’ forces along the border region. The Left-Liberal, secular civil society actors offered a view in a similar vein, which may appear counterintuitive to their politics.
History plays a primary role in Shamshad’s discursive analysis, wherein she locates contemporary views in key historical events. Both Assam and West Bengal highlight the determinant role that history and memory play in shaping local views on migrants. In this regard, the 1905 Bengal partition, the 1946 India-Pakistan Partition, and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 influenced the Assamese and Bengali collective consciousness differentially, spawning corresponding processes of inclusion or exclusion in each state.
One fascinating takeaway from Shamshad’s conclusion is the prominent role that ethnicity has played in shaping the Indian national project. ‘Nehru’s secular project overlooked ethnicity,’ she assertively concludes. The case of Assam and West Bengal only affirms her point. Shamshad also drives home a profound argument that challenges a dominant notion of territorial unity: ‘India does not have to be a “melting pot” […] India would be better imagined as a civilisation where people have multiple layers and forms of identity.’
Despite all its achievements, the study draws sweeping conclusions at the end, especially in light of the current context. For example, the author concludes that the ‘dominant form of nationalism at the Indian national level remains secular and inclusive when it comes to Bangladeshi migrants.’ In light of the BJP’s growing clout in determining popular perceptions, including in otherwise secular polities like Assam and West Bengal, such a conclusion may belie the ground reality.
Yet, Bangladeshi Migrants in India is a seminal academic text that couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the South East Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. His research currently focuses on the armed conflict and peace process in Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis, India’s migration and deportation policies, and the multilateral dynamics of ASEAN.