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Fear of 'illegal immigrants' spurs violence in West Bengal border towns; BJP cries conspiracy behind Bangladeshi settlers

During the third phase of the Lok Sabha polls on 29 April, a group of villagers attacked a two-storey modest house at Nanur in Birbhum district of West Bengal. A television channel team reached the spot and saved the residents. The attackers said the owner was allowing a young Muslim man to visit regularly. Since it’s a Hindu area, they were "not going to let the family live there". The stress, obviously, was on the visitor being a Muslim. So much for the much publicised secular character of West Bengal.

One may call the attackers Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters, but the reason for their fury is deep-rooted. Almost all the Opposition parties, from the CPM to the Bharatiya Janata Party, alleged that the Bengal countryside, especially the border districts, has practically been overrun by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Discussing the situation in rural Bengal, Left leader Mohammad Selim went as far as to say that they had come across "in hordes" during the past decade, bought property by "managing" citizenship documents and settled down on this side of the border.

 Fear of illegal immigrants spurs violence in West Bengal border towns; BJP cries conspiracy behind Bangladeshi settlers

Representational image. AFP

BJP leader Shamik Bhattacharya, who is contesting from Dum Dum constituency in Kolkata, even claimed that illegal immigrants were contesting local elections and controlling the fate of Indians. Sheikh Jamal, an Independent panchayat member — a rare species in today’s Bengal — in the Bongaon border area, claimed that since background checks aren't stringent in the local elections “Bangladeshi settlers are becoming rulers in rural areas.”

The problem of infiltration worsened because of two factors. The first was Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s Awami League coming to power in Bangladesh and the second was the Trinamool Congress forming government in West Bengal in 2011. It’s not as unplanned as it looks on the surface. Immediately after winning elections, Hasina launched a major campaign — both political and military — against religious extremists, whom she blames for the assassination of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the rest of her family.

Pushed to the corner, the easiest and safest haven for cadres of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami was West Bengal. The party, previously called the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, had been part of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led coalition government in Bangladesh. The Jammat, which by then graduated to the Islamic State school of thought from the Al-Qaeda camp, had the wherewithal to invest money, manpower and political clout in West Bengal.

Interestingly, Wahabism — founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab in the 18th Century Arabia — tagged as the most puritanical and supremacist among the various schools of Islamist thought, was considered impure and apologist by supporters of Al-Qaeda, which propounds a more aggressive and expansionist version of Islam. Gradually, even Al-Qaeda’s version, which encourages delivering deadly blows to the ‘Great Satan’ (read: The West), was overtaken by a group of supporters of the Salafi school of thought.

The Salafis, now calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), are even more puritanical and want to go back a thousand years to the era of the first four caliphates. The Bangladesh Jamaat e-Islami now has very close links with the Islamic State. The short-term goal is to establish a base in West Bengal to keep the movement going, while the long-term goal, according to their own literature, is to establish an eastern outpost for the caliphate. But although the Bangladesh authorities are well aware of the Islamic State plan, the West Bengal government under the TMC seems oblivious to it.

Not only that, in order to widen its vote base and establish its so-called secular identity, the state government has allegedly removed all the roadblocks for Bangladeshis to cross the border. Although it’s vehemently denied by TMC minister Jyotipriya Mallik, who virtually runs North 24 Parganas district, Bhattacharya, who was a legislator from the area for five years, said almost free entry — with arms and narcotics — and exit — with cows, medicines and bottles of cough syrup that substitute for alcohol in Bangladesh — resulted in large swathes of land in almost all the border districts being overrun and virtually ruled by Bangladeshis. Despite repeated attempts, the government spokespersons refused to comment.

State Intelligence Bureau sources said on condition of anonymity that hordes of people from different Islamist groups were still coming in. So much so that one of the border agents, Kumar Gayen, spoke openly of how, a couple of years ago, he offered deals of Rs 1,500 per head: organising everything from border crossing to providing safe shelters for the illegal immigrants' first night in India. There are even hotels and guest houses in border towns like Bongaon cater exclusively to these illegal immigrants, who disperse to different parts of the state before their presence is noticed by locals.

The most common strategy of the Jamaat is to send in lone rangers with a small amount of money. The man comes to a border town in India, sets up a small business and settles down. Then he starts looking for a girl from the poorest families in the area. The families never check his background. He eventually starts a family, indoctrinates his wife and in-laws and waits for orders from across the border. Shakil Ahmed, aka Ghazi, who lived and led a dormant module in the border district of Nadia’s Burbakpur and died in the Khagragarh blasts in Bardhaman district, was one such Jamaat operative.

Congress leader Sardar Amjad Ali said lawlessness helped unknown people settle in the area, which local Muslims are forced to ignore. State Intelligence Bureau and National Investigation Agency sources said during the riots in Baduria in North 24 Parganas district in 2017, television channels extensively used the bytes of an Urdu-speaking imam, whom nobody in the area had ever seen. He disappeared just after the riots ended and security agencies were unable to trace him.

Large-scale infiltration also occurred in the border districts of Malda and Murshidabad. The result: Riots in Malda’s Kaliachak, where the rioters — about 1,000 men came from Rajshahi across the border a day before the incident — burnt down the local police station and set fire to Border Security Force vehicles.

The aim: Dominate the area which is ideal for poppy cultivation. Although the local police are not ready to comment, an Intelligence Bureau official said on condition of anonymity that the state police has been unable to trace the owners of the large tracts of land in Kaliachak purchased illegally from locals after 2009.

The Jamaat raises its operating funds from cow smuggling, poppy cultivation and small arms trade. Obviously, since a part of the proceeds changes hands this side of the border, it seems whichever party comes to power in the state in 2021 will have it hands full. The BJP — friendly towards Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government — seems to have already chalked out its strategy. Implementing the National Register of Citizens can be the first step in a series of measures. But it may not be a bloodless coup: far from it.

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Updated Date: May 10, 2019 09:35:28 IST