As Assam reels under floods, Bangladeshi immigrants seek dry grounds and friendship

With no traditional land holding in Assam, many of the 'newer arrivals' of illegal immigrants take shelter in the river islets of the Brahmaputra.

Published: 07th August 2017 05:32 PM  |   Last Updated: 07th August 2017 05:32 PM   |  A+A-

Artisans work on bamboo for building of houses for people who lost their dwellings to erosion in Bolodmari islet of Brahmaputra in Goalpara district of Assam on Monday | Aishik Chanda

By Express News Service

GOALPARA: Assam has been dealing with the issue of large scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh since independence. While political parties have allegedly played with the insecurities of the indigenous people, insurgents have often gone on a killing spree.

Identifying illegal immigrants from authentic Bengali-speaking Muslims living for generations in Assam has been a herculean task which neither former Asom Gana Parishad and Congress nor the present BJP governments have taken any initiative into.

With no traditional land holding in Assam, many of the 'newer arrivals' of illegal immigrants take shelter in the river islets of the Brahmaputra. However, with erosion gradually reducing land, many of the migrants have shifted into the mainland of the districts thus creating a rift with the local populace, who fear being reduced to a minority by the influx.

"Over the past two years, we have lost some 16 sq km (over 50% of total land) of our islet to the Brahmaputra due to which over 35% of the total population has left our islet to settle in the mainland, where it is much safer," said Samsul Haq of Bolodmari islet. Despite the population reduction, Bolodmari still has 19,500 people spread over seven revenue villages, two of which are dominated by Bengali Dalits and the remaining five by Bengali Muslims.

Nagor Ali ,45, goes to relief camp every year during floods. When he build a pucca house near the main road of the islet three years ago, he never imagined that the Brahmaputra bank some 2 km away would come to just 10 metres from his door and gobble up the main road. "I would soon have to leave with just the tin roof of my house," sighed Nagor Ali.

Some 30 km away, the Rabha and Rajbongshi indigenous people from the 3,000-strong Kokira village are scared of Nagor Ali's arrival. They live in dual fear of being washed by flash floods from Meghalaya and also by Muslim migration from the Brahmaputra bank.

"Surviving the 2004 deluge was itself a challenge. All our cattle died and we took shelter on the roofs. All the kuccha houses had collapsed. But we somehow didn't face any human casualty. But on the other side of the Bongaigaon-Guwahati National Highway 31 in Bolbolla village, over 200 people died. Many of the deceased were immigrants from the islets who did not know that our area was prone to flash floods from Meghalaya," said Kamal Roy, a teacher in Kokira village.

"We fear that the residents of the islets may soon cross over the national highway and encroach our lands near the foothills," said Ajay Rabha.

Residents stare into the Brahmaputra near an eroded bank of the river in Bolodmari islet in Goalpara district of Assam on Monday. | Aishik Chanda

On the other hand, the residents of Bolbolla village feel sheltering the migrants is a good deed. While long-residing residents have pucca and 'Assam-style' houses made of mud and bamboo, newer entrants have mostly constructed tin houses.

According to Islam, we ought to provide shelter to asylum-seekers. The economically stronger people of our village helped the migrants build houses. We lost a lot of people in the 2004 deluge. Hence, during the 2014 floods, we were well prepared and saw minimal loss of human life," said Mohammad Ashraful of Bolbolla.

Differences between the indigenous people and migrants had also paved way to cooperation and camaraderie during the deluge. "We owe a lot to the residents of Kokira who alerted us beforehand during the 2014 floods when water started pouring down the hills of Meghalaya. Accordingly, we prepared ourselves overnight which helped us prevent a repeat of 2004, added Mohammad Ashraful.

Tarun Roy, who annually goes to relief camps as his kuccha house is washed away says floods unites communities and push animosity to the sidelines.

In the relief camps, all of us are the same -- flood victims. We don't see Assamese or Rajbongshi or Muslim at the camps. We share the scant khichdi (rice stew and pulses) and the biscuits given to us by government agencies and NGOs. We don't hesitate to share spaces with other communities, which would under normal circumstances never happen," Tarun Roy said.

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