GOALPARA: Assam has been dealing with the issue of large scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh since Independence. Identifying illegal immigrants from authentic Bengali-speaking Muslims living for generations in Assam has been a herculean task which neither the Asom Gana Parishad and Congress nor the present BJP government has taken any initiative into.
With no traditional land holdings in Assam, many of the newer immigrants take shelter in the Brahmaputra’s river islets. However, with erosion gradually reducing land, many of them have shifted to the mainland of the districts, creating a rift with the local populace who fear being reduced to a minority.
“Over the past two years, we have lost some 16 sq km (over 50 per cent of total land) of our islet to the Brahmaputra due to which over 35 per cent of the total population has left our islet to settle in the mainland where it is much safer,” said Samsul Haq of Bolodmari islet north of Goalpara town.
Despite the reduction in numbers, Bolodmari still boasts of a population of 19,500 spread over seven revenue villages, of which two are dominated by Bengali Dalits and the remaining five by Bengali Muslims.
Nagor Ali (45) goes to relief camps every year during the floods. When he built a pucca house near the main road of the islet in 2014, he never imagined that the Brahmaputra bank some 2 km away would come 10 metres from his door and devour the main road. “I would soon have to leave with just the tin roof of my house,” laments Ali.
The Rabha and Rajbongshi indigenous communities of 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 of the influx of Muslim migration from the Brahmaputra bank.
“Surviving the 2004 deluge was a challenge. All our cattle died and we took shelter on roofs. All the kuccha houses had collapsed but we somehow faced no human casualty. But on the other side of the Bongaigaon-Guwahati National Highway 31 in Bolbolla village, more than 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 primary school 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 of Kokira village.
On the other hand, the residents of Bolbolla village say giving shelter to the migrants is a good deed. A closer look at the structure of houses differentiates old residents and those recently migrated from the islets. While the old residents have pucca and ‘Assam-style’ houses made of mud and bamboo, the newer entrants have mostly constructed their houses with tin.
“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.
Deluge differences between the indigenous communities and the migrants have paved way to cooperation and camaraderie. “We owe a lot to the residents of Kokira who alerted us beforehand during the 2014 floods. We prepared ourselves accordingly overnight which helped us prevent a repeat situation of 2004,” added Ashraful.
Kokira resident Tarun Roy, who goes to relief camps annually during floods after his kuccha house is washed away and he cannot afford a pucca structure, says floods unite the communities and pushes animosity to the side.
“In the relief camps, all of us are flood victims. We don’t see Assamese or Rajbongshi or Muslim at the camps. We share the scant khichdi (stew of rice and pulses) and the biscuits given to us by government agencies and NGOs.
“We don’t hesitate to share spaces with people of other communities which would have never happened during normal times,” Roy says.