One of the earliest announcements made by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray after his party won Maharashtra in 1995 was that he had received a telephonic death threat from a Bangladeshi. That anonymous caller was never traced but the announcement had the desired effect. This was three years after Mumbai’s 92-93 riots, in which the Sena figured prominently.
The Bangladeshi bogey is not new to Mumbai. Apart from the Shiv Sena, its offspring Raj Thackeray also uses it. The MNS chief blamed Bangladeshis for the violence at a Muslim rally held in 2012 in Mumbai to protest against atrocities on Rohingyas and Muslims in Myanmar and Assam. No Bangladeshi figured in the 50-odd arrests made after the rally, though.
The myth of Bangladeshis swarming Mumbai was busted nicely in front of the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the 92-93 Mumbai riots. Sena MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar, in his affidavit before the Commission, characterised the large Muslim colony of Behrampada in his constituency as a haven of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. The Sena had demonised the colony among its Marathi-speaking Hindu followers who lived around it. Behrampada was attacked more than once during the 92-93 riots.
But when cross-examined, Sarpotdar could not substantiate his allegation, nor could he give an approximate figure of the Bangladeshis who had allegedly made Behrampada a den of vice. Instead, he claimed, when a question was raised on the floor of the Assembly, it was considered to be authentic; it was not for the MLA to produce evidence, but for the government to produce the evidence! The Commission’s Report noted that no Bangladeshi was arrested for rioting from Behrampada.
But facts hardly mattered to a party driven by prejudice. Twice, the Sena government carried out deportation drives of alleged Bengalis, in 1995 and 1998. Fact-finding reports by human rights organisations highlighted the arbitrariness and inhumanity of these drives. Bengali-speaking families, most of them Muslims, living on pavements or in slums, would be put behind bars, and told to produce proofs of citizenship. But even before the deadline for producing these documents expired, even before the magistrate could evaluate their claims, they would be put on a train and escorted to the border. Or, their documents would simply be rejected as fake.
The 1998 drive resulted in an uproar. Not only did West Bengal’s Left Front government protest, but so did Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress was part of the NDA of which the Sena too was a constituent. A train carrying 34 alleged Bangladeshis was stormed by protesters led by a Forward Bloc MLA in West Bengal, and the Calcutta High Court ordered a stay on these deportations.
Belying the Sena-BJP propaganda, official figures told a different story of the Bangladeshi population in Mumbai in that period. Deportations even under the over-zealous Sena-BJP government never crossed the 800 mark in a year. Incidentally, notwithstanding Sarpotdar’s allegations against Behrampada, that Muslim colony was nurtured by a Shiv Sena MLA during the Sena-BJP government’s reign from 1995-99. He was Sarpotdar’s lieutenant.
The latest NRC list in Assam also exposes the reality masked by the ruling party’s hysteria over Bangladeshis. Only 6% of Assam’s population has been excluded. Given the number of flaws in the NRC process, that’s too high a figure. But even taken at face value, can 6% pose any threat to the remaining 94%?
Weeks after the Modi government came to power threatening to deport Muslim Bangladeshis, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju told Parliament that in 2011, 2012 and 2013, Maharashtra had deported 141, 602 and 638 Bangladeshis. Even ascribing these ludicrous figures to the Congress government’s apathy and doubling them, there’s still no basis for the Shiv Sena-MNS’ cry for an NRC in Maharashtra.
They could have been ignored had the news not broken of a detention centre being built on the outskirts of Mumbai. Nerul is a 90-minute train journey from the heart of the city. An industrial area for decades, pressure on land in Mumbai has now made it a residential suburb. Who will be housed in Nerul’s detention centre? Alleged Bangladeshis? Will the identification process be as arbitrary as it was under the Sena-BJP’s first reign?
The latest to ask for an NRC is Haryana’s CM. Bangladeshis in Haryana? A year ago, Muslims in M L Khattar’s state made news when they were forbidden from offering namaz on the roads. Turned out there weren’t enough masjids in Gurgaon to accommodate Muslims who had come from across the country to work in Haryana’s ‘Maximum City’. Does Khattar have these Indian nationals in mind for
Thanks to Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s repeated threats of a nationwide NRC, WhatsApp messages in Muslim groups now list documents needed to prove citizenship. There’s talk of masjids being used as centres where our largest minority can be guided on how to prove they are Indians. These are our fellow citizens strategising, not Bangladeshis.
The outcome of the country’s first NRC has backfired on the BJP. More Hindus than Muslims have been excluded. If the party still wants to go ahead with this communal exercise even in states where migration is not an issue, it should know that Indians of all communities will use every legal democratic means to help those being targeted.
Jyoti Punwani is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. You can mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.