The best of Assamese minds – writers, journalists, film actors and artists – can be extremely prejudiced when it comes to their opinions on the Bengali-speaking Muslim community in Assam.
One such journalist is claiming that he has travelled to the international border that Assam shares with Bangladesh and is aware of the ‘large’ number of Bangladeshis that have crossed over to this side of the border. To this gentleman, I would like to say, I live in the plains of Garo Hills in Meghalaya, adjacent to the Assam-Bangladesh border and at a 20 minutes distance from the headquarters of the newly created South Salmara-Mankachar district in Assam, Hatshingimari, and I haven’t come across a single “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant” (unless we are to assume that the residents of the district are all Bangladeshis).
This entire district that was earlier part of Dhubri, runs through the expanse of the international border in western Assam. Poverty, illiteracy, poor healthcare, broken roads, power shortages, maternal mortality – name it – and you have everything that characterizes this district.
Hatshingimari now houses a deputy commissioner and a superintendent of police office besides its little market. A ro-ro service was recently started for the convenience of people commuting between Hatshingimari and Dhubri town via the Brahmaputra river. The ro-ro terminal was brought in mainly to reduce travel time, as regular ferry boats (locally known as ‘launch’) would take about 5 hours to cover the distance between Hatshingimari and Dhubri that the new ship can now cover in 2 hours.
Recently, while travelling back from Dhubri to Hatshingimari on the ro-ro terminal, and that too for the first time, I managed to speak to one of the employees of the Inland Waterways Authority of India, a young boy, working on the ship. Hailing from Nalbari, a district in lower Assam, and being pleasantly surprised at my Assamese, he remarked that for the longest time he was made to believe that those who did not speak Axomiya or sported a lungi or beard or skull cap and had come to the towns and cities of Assam in search of a livelihood were “Bangladeshis”. It is now, he told me, that being in service on the river in one of the remotest corners of India, he has learnt that “these people” (Bengali Muslims residing by the border) are as Assamese as anyone else, and that they have been extremely kind and accepting of him despite his assumptions about them being otherwise.
Bengali Muslims in Assam are one of the most marginalized communities in India, and deserve better standards of life that the Assam government and the Assamese society at large has kept them off from. Illiteracy, economic deprivation and a lack of robust political representation has created a vicious loop where religious leaders tend to sway emotions. The result is a Badruddin Ajmal-like figure with no sense of what he has done for the community’s betterment other than offering ‘sacred’ water.