Lynching highlights Nagas, immigrants acrimony

Lynching highlights Nagas, immigrants acrimony

Until about two decades ago, the Bangladeshi question was irrelevant in northeastern states such as Nagaland that do not share a border with Bangladesh. According to a former chief minister, in the mid-1970s, there were barely 5000 Bangladeshis in and around Dimapur. Unsurprisingly, Bangladeshis/East Bengalis do not figure in books on Naga insurgency and Naga literary works set in the earlier period.

For instance, in Easterine Kire’s A Terrible Matriarchy, we come across the harmless ghost of a Bangladeshi. But over the past two decades, the ground reality has changed and organisations have been launched to deal with the threat posed by illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

How did the harmless ghost transform into a survival threat that justified lynching of a suspected rapist, first thought to be   of Bangladeshi origin? Before we try to answer this question, a quick history of (Indian) Muslims in Nagaland is in order. Muslims reached the Naga Hills during the British period as traders, contractors, soldiers, administrators, and governors.

Dimapur’s Haji Park is named after Haji Muligul Khan, who served as the president of the Dimapur Town Panchayat until 1945, whereas Anwar Hussain Road is named after a two-time MLA from Dimapur Town (1977, 1982). Mokokchung’s Fazl Ali College is named after a former governor. In 2001, the population of Muslims was about 35,000. Presently, Indian Muslims are represented by Muslim Council Dimapur and Muslim Welfare Society, Kohima, which are opposed to illegal immigrants.

Popular estimates of illegal/undocumented Bangladeshi Muslims range from 50,000 to five lakh, compared to the state’s overall population of about 19 lakh (Interestingly, Myanmarese Naga immigrants are invisible in Nagaland, just as Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants are invisible in West Bengal). Nagas draw attention to Bodoland and argue that unchecked immigration could marginalise the locals. But it needs to be understood how Nagas have come to fear a small minority despite the inner line permit system that regulates the movement of outsiders.

Three things bear consideration. First, in 1991, Nagaland emerged as the fastest growing state and in 2001 it was among the world’s fastest growing regions. A convenient explanation was borrowed from Assam, where Bangladeshis are blamed for high growth rates. This pre-tested explanation did not require further empirical validation when applied to Nagaland, which has a very small documented Muslim population.

The focus on Bangladeshis turned attention away from the real reason behind high population growth rate, namely, competitive manipulation of census by Nagas to secure greater development funding and assembly seats. This `competitive manipulation’ reached such proportions in 2001 that census results were rejected by the government.

Second, Nagas depend on Assam for transit and essential supplies, which means Naga-Assam relations cannot be allowed to deteriorate beyond a point. But, there is a need to keep up the pressure along the disputed border. The twin objectives are achieved by blaming ‘outsiders’ (Bangladeshis and tea tribes) for creating misunderstanding between Ahom and Naga brothers.

Third, the `criminal-rapist Bangladeshi’ helps explain away all kinds of vices that thrive in towns of the Christian-dominated state. This is not to deny the fact that the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Dimapur are indeed involved a number of criminal cases including rapes.

Floating Muslim population

In all likelihood, there is a large undocumented floating Muslim population, most likely of Bangladeshi origin, of the order of 50,000, if not more, in Nagaland’s foothills. But how do these people sustain themselves in a hostile environment? First, the immigrants are a source of cheap labour and farming skills suited to wet rice cultivation in plains. Second, absentee Naga landlords, who established villages along the disputed Assam-Nagaland border, need people to populate the territory and workers to take care of vast fields.

This reminds one of the Assamese middle class, which swears by the colonial-era map without intending to settle in border areas. The Assam government maintains its territorial claim by quietly allowing immigrants and flood-displaced people to settle in disputed reserved forests.

Third, much to the chagrin of Naga men, marriages between Naga women and immigrant Muslim men are not unheard of. Fourth, like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Naga insurgents have an ambivalent relationship with immigrants. While ‘Nagaland for Christ’ demands politically correct noises, (past) dependence on Bangladesh as a source for weapons and location for investment of extortion money forces them to remain silent.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)