Nagaland case: It's about immigrants, and politics adds fuel to fire

  • Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times, Guwahati
  • Updated: Mar 08, 2015 12:38 IST

In 2008, a few hundred Bengali-speaking Muslims — labelled IBIs or illegal Bangladeshi immigrants — were driven out of Nagaland’s Mokokchung town. This triggered vigilantism in the state against ‘demography-changing’ migrants, otherwise sought after as farm hands and construction workers.

This anti-migrant sentiment, whipped up to some extent by social media, could have played a major part in the lynching of rape accused Syed Farid Khan.

“Rape is a heinous crime meriting the strongest of punishment. But there is more to this incident than meets the eye. The public outcry, apparently fanned, is the manifestation of deeper apprehension of or animosity towards people perceived as Bangladeshis,” conflict analyst Noni Gopal Mahanta told HT.

He said Nagaland has for nearly two decades been in a dilemma over granting tribal status to Sumiyas — a new community born out of the union of Sumi or Sema Naga women and Miyas or Muslim men. “The second generation of this community wants recognition, and indigenous Nagas perceive them as an addition to the competition for the local economy controlled by non-Nagas.”

Farid Khan, though an Indian from Assam, had married a Naga woman.

Giving the row between the two states more political colour, the Congress government in Assam on Saturday dragged the NDA government at the Centre into the mess — the BJP is an ally of TR Zeliang’s Naga People’s Front regime.

“Security at Dimapur central jail is under central security forces who failed to stop the lynching. The Centre is responsible for the security of inmates,” chief minister Tarun Gogoi said. He added he had written to his Nagaland counterpart to ensure the safety of Assamese people in his state and to Union home minister Rajnath Singh seeking action against those responsible.

Going back in time to the origin of the ethnic clash, the first Muslim settlers came to Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub, from Pakistan’s Peshawar in the 1890s. They gradually came to control poultry, meat, fish and vegetable businesses besides local transportation and construction work.

Intermarriage was unobtrusive until the 2001 census revealed the Muslim population had increased by 150% to reach 35,005 against Nagaland’s population of 1,990,036. The fear of being outnumbered by Bangladeshis, highlighted during the 1979-1985 Assam Agitation, crept in.

“Since Nagaland is not connected either by land or water with Bangladesh, immigrants have been coming via Assam after obtaining fraudulent documents, such as ration and voter identity cards and driving licence… Since the immigrants possessed these documents, the local police could do nothing despite suspecting their dubious nationality,” M Amarjeet Singh wrote in his 2009 thesis, Illegal immigration into NorthEast India: A case of Nagaland, for the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

He added that immigration, undocumented in Nagaland unlike in Assam and Tripura, was being perceived as a potential threat to the tribal identity. While underscoring the Sumiya phenomenon, he also said estimates of the total population of illegal immigrants in Nagaland varied from 1-3 lakh.

The immigrant issue made the influential Naga Students’ Federation put non-Nagas into two categories — IBIs and non-Naga Indians allowed entry with Inner Line Permit.

Individuals and organisations in Nagaland blame Assam for all their influx-related ills. But as an editorial in The Nagaland Post said, “The IBI issue in the Northeast cannot be solved overnight. Even in Assam, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act hasn’t worked…”

While pointing out immigrants have at times been involved in crimes such as rape, it said of Farid’s lynching, “There ought to be questions raised on whether the immigrant issue has been raised to the extent that it has unfortunately or unintentionally only led to hatred being fuelled against one community and played into the hands of communal forces? Certainly, two wrongs do not make a right and the incident should be a lesson.”

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