Border Saga

The Irony of the Anti-Immigration Violence in Assam

The anti-immigrant violence in India’s Assam region and the Wisconsin Sikh shooting are part of the same hate. Dilip D’Souza on the irony of immigration.

The Ku Klux Klan hates "illegal aliens." I knew that. But I realized it anew when I read a little about Wade Michael Page, the late gunman in Wisconsin who thought barging into a place of worship and shooting worshippers dead was a fine way to uphold the supremacy of whites. Page once applied for membership to the KKK, and that nugget led me to this KKK page which rants on and on about illegal aliens ("OUR FOREFATHERS FOUGHT THESE SAVAGES TOOTH AND NAIL" and "Look white people, Look whatthe [sic] drity [sic] wet backs can do to our Country").

Here in India, the term we usually use is "illegal immigrants," and right now they are on many Indian minds. That's because we've had an outbreak of bloodshed in the eastern state of Assam. Over seventy dead, hundreds of thousands driven from their homes into refugee camps, and plenty of folks believe the cause is, well, illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Meaning Muslims.

Meaning the idea that droves of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, these Bengali-speaking Muslims, are transforming the demographics of Assam. This is not just a huge security risk to India, goes this line of thought, but a threat to culture, language, and jobs in Assam. This causes the tension that eventually erupted into widespread violence last month.

All the fault of the illegal immigrants. Look what they can do to our country.

In truth, blame is not quite so easy to hand out: the ugliness in Assam has intricate, complex roots. The ethnicities, politics, and history of that state are all far too involved for me to explain, even reasonably unravel, in an essay like this. Suffice it to say two things.

One, the specter of the Bangladeshi Muslim invasion is a widely-held impression about Assam. For example, Lal Krishna Advani, the grand old man of India's main opposition party, the BJP, visited Assam in July and, on his return to Parliament, pronounced that the violence there was between Indians and non-Indians. Column after column has underlined this. One referred to "the physical encroachments of land-hungry Bangladeshi Muslims" on territory belonging to authentic Assamese people. Another was annoyed with "Indians born with a silver spoon" who deny the reality of illegal immigration, because "defending Vodafone and Bangladeshis are part of their conviction." (Yes, I scratched my head too). And plenty of people speak of this immigration and its supposed dangers as if these were unvarnished, unquestionable truths. Just days ago, a friend told me that such immigrants are "bent on turning India into Bangladesh"; another nodded in agreement, offering the time he heard construction workers in Bangalore speaking Bengali with a lilt that betrays Bangladeshi origins.

Two, the specter has been debunked. For example, one writer pointed out that the Muslim presence in Assam goes back decades, even centuries. Given that, and given the innumerable other ethnic strains that were brought in or migrated into the state, who can say who the "truly Indian Assamese" are? He also mentioned that in any case, our Election Commission's figures say "doubtful voters" make up "less than 1 percent of Assam's 18-million-strong electorate". Another writer explained that census figures for the areas of Assam hit by violence show no particular spike in population growth. So where then is this flood of Bangladeshi immigrants?

Figures? But believers scoff at figures. "Oh come on!" said my friend who eavesdropped on construction worker chit-chat in Bangalore when I asked for numbers. "Census numbers are all fudged! You know that!"

Actually, I don't. But as with so many other debates, this one ends up being about what you really want to believe. As one writer above says, it's "comforting to know that people who have been wounded, slaughtered and driven to refugee camps actually sneaked in illegally, to carry a head-load or pedal a rickshaw."

If you take away the Bangladeshi angle, this could be a debate about many other parts of the country too. In states like Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra, I've heard angry talk about immigrants from other parts of India, usually the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Political parties in Mumbai, Maharashtra's capital, base their entire existence on the same rhetoric about the threat by "outsiders" to local language and culture. They find vociferous support in attacking "outsiders" for taking jobs that belong, possibly by divine right, to sons of the soil.

"These Biharis just come here to make money!" said an angry Maharashtrian acquaintance at a Mumbai party a few years ago. "I don't approve of that at all!" Haven't seen him since, because he moved to Dubai. (This is true). I assume the salubrious desert climate wasn't the attraction.

This unwitting hypocrisy—of complaining about immigrants to your Indian home while yourself leaving home to live as an immigrant elsewhere—is more widespread than you'd think. After a spate of attacks on "outsiders" in Mumbai in 2008, for example, one Girish Thakar told the press that he "finds empathy towards the anger" and the "sense of resentment" over such immigrants.

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My sympathy for his empathy, but did the irony really escape Thakar? Thakar himself is an immigrant, the head of a Maharashtrian association—an association of immigrants!—in the USA.

And there's more to chew on: In 2008, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a report, Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2007. And of these "unauthorized immigrants"—call them "illegal immigrants," why not?—how many were from India, according to that DHS report?


With the reasonable assumption that the population breakup of Indians in the US more or less matches that in India, we can conclude that about ten percent of those 220,000 were from Maharashtra. That is, better than 20,000 Maharashtrians are in the US illegally. How many of them share Thakar's "sense of resentment" over immigrants into Mumbai?

Well, how much more irony can we handle, really?

So if in the US the KKK rants about illegal aliens, in India influential politicians, widely-read columnists, and plenty of your friends do much the same. (As do some Indian immigrants to the US, of course). It makes you wonder where the ranting eventually leads.

What, after all, is the thread that runs through thrashing people in Mumbai, the massacre in Oak Creek, and deadly violence in Assam?

Simple: The same hatred of the "outsider." Call them "illegal," why not? Makes it easier to hate