Raising the bogey of the Bangladeshi in India is essential part of Hindutva bigots' toolkit

Alleged so-called Bangladeshis, now Rohingyas, are time-tested fall guys for Hindutva bigots. Blaming them for their own failures in governance is a favourite ploy for these kind of politicians

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Sujata Anandan

Alleged so-called Bangladeshis, and now Rohingyas, are the time-tested fall guys for Hindutva bigots in this country. Blaming them for their own failures in governance is a favourite ploy for these kind of politicians, as I have reason to know from the Mumbai experience of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena was the actual original Hindutva bigot in this country. He started his anti-Muslim tirade after the kidnapping and killing of Ravindra Mhatre, an Indian diplomat in Birmingham in the United Kingdom by Kashmiri terrorists in 1984 – but here his anti-Muslim sentiment was intertwined with his concern for the Marathi manoos.

Though then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, of who Thackeray was a great fan, hanged Maqbool Butt, whom the terrorists wanted released, in retaliation for Mhatre's killing, Thackeray then discovered that most people were beginning to get sick of what they saw as the "unnecessary appeasement" of Muslim minorities in the country.

At the time, his sharp Hindutva rhetoric was too shrill even for the BJP which was still floundering in its Gandhian socialism. It was only after they lit on the Ram temple issue in the late 1980s and allied with the Shiv Sena to prevent a split in the saffron vote in the country that they looked to alternatives to the temple after the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 and homed in on Bangladeshis in the slums of Mumbai.

Thackeray's rhetoric was non-stop against these alleged Bangladeshis and when the Shiv Sena came to power in alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra in 1995, 'Bangladeshis' were the first people to be displaced from various settlements. Now, they did not bring in bulldozers but here is what happened.

The Mumbai policemen, with no training in languages of India, its various cultures and ethnicities, rounded up anyone and everyone they presumed to be a 'Bangladeshi' – on the basis of the lungis they wore, the particular style of draping a saree, the fish they ate and the rounded vowels of the languages they spoke.

They were all loaded on to the Bombay-Howrah Express and taken by road from Calcutta to the borders of Bangladesh and kicked into the neighbouring country. The Bangladesh Rifles soldiers posted on their side of the borders booted them right back to the Indian side of the divide and they all returned in droves to the Howrah railway station congregating there for days looking for means to buy tickets to return to Mumbai.

West Bengal was then governed by a more sanguine, less volatile individual than is the case now, and when the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu heard of this crisis, his reaction was understated but nonetheless very effective. He packed them all off by return Mail to Bombay. But then he gave them all a piece of advice that proved highly embarrassing and humiliating to Bal Thackeray and the Mumbai police.

For among the ‘Bangladeshis' they had sought to deport to their home country, there was not a single, er, 'Bangladeshi'. They were all either Bengali, Bihari, Assamese or Oriya Muslims, all of who ate fish, spoke similar sounding languages, wore lungis or draped their sarees in a particular fashion.

The Mumbai police had no idea and, when on Jyoti Basu’s advice, in the era before Aadhar cards, these people armed themselves with letters from their respective Sarpanches that they were born in a particular village in Bihar, Bengal, Assam or Orissa and had come to Mumbai only to seek work, no government knew what to say. Because it was the failures of all these governments that had led these people, among them Hindus who also ate and wore the same food and clothes and spoke similar tongues and some of whom found themselves included among these ‘Bangladeshis', to migrate to greener pastures like Mumbai.

There was radio silence after that from Bal Thackeray because when the Shiv Sena-BJP government - Gopinath Munde of BJP was home minister – asked the police to sift out the real Bangladeshis, here is what they discovered:

Every last Bangladeshi who might have migrated to Mumbai similarly in search of work had an Indian passport and Indian ration card – it is the Indian Muslims who believed they belonged anywhere and everywhere in India who had not felt the necessity to seek any documentation.

Now, these Indian passports and Indian ration cards were proof of Indian citizenship, so the police could do not a thing against any of the Bangladeshis thus armed.

So, they set about investigating how they had managed to secure those documents. Their report is what rendered both the Shiv Sena and the BJP speechless. For in those days, both parties were seeking to increase their vote percentages and it was local shakhas of the Shiv Sena and agents of BJP corporators who had acted as touts to secure Bangladeshis these passports in the hope they would vote for them and not the Congress at subsequent elections.


One noticed that both Thackeray and Munde abruptly stopped talking about 'Bangladeshis' as did LK Advani in New Delhi. Thackeray then shifted his ire from Bangladesh and Indian Muslims – who he had called to be disenfranchised -- towards Pakistani Muslims as a safe electoral bet. But even here, this cricket lover who had had a pitch at the Wankhede stadium torn up before an India-Pak cricket match in Mumbai in 1991, tripped himself up.

He invited Pak cricketer Javed Miandad home to tea and the media was full of pictures of his school-going grandson Aaditya Thackeray scrambling for autographs and even his nephew Raj Thackeray rushing to Matoshree to fawn on Miandad. Now, Miandad was close to notorious don Dawood Ibrahim and later became his samdhi, his son having married Dawood's daughter. That hypocrisy was quite the end of Bal Thackeray's and the Shiv Sena's anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan rhetoric.

Today, Uddhav Thackeray has put an end to all such hypocrisy and minority-bashing and Muslims (as well as Hindus) migrating from across India to Mumbai in search of work are quite comfortable with his government. There are no bogeys, Bangladeshi or otherwise in Mumbai anymore and even Raj Thackeray's attempts to communalise the Azaans by playing Hanuman Chalisas on loudspeakers have not been allowed to vitiate the atmosphere. Orders have gone out that no Hanuman Chalisa will be played within 100 metres of any mosque and not 15 minutes before or after the Azaans.

It is frustrating the BJP in Maharashtra but Raj Thackeray, after all, is only the C team of the BJP, as Aaditya Thackeray labelled his uncle. The B team clearly is the Aam Aadmi Party and hence Raghav Chadha needed to describe his party’s failure to stop the bulldozers in Jahangirpuri as 'action against Bangladeshis and Rohingyas', also original migrants to Burma from Bengal and thus ethnically similar.

But Bangladesh has had its revenge on India – its per capita income today is more than that of any Indian and no Bangladeshi needs to seek work in India anymore.

Vive l’Inde (India) and may long live our own homegrown Muslim brethren. They will survive and rise above this setback once more.

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