When actor and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Paresh Rawal recently commented on fish-eating Bengalis as a not-so-subtle slight at Bengali Muslim migrants in Gujarat, he purposely planted a target on their back – one of either being Bangladeshi illegal migrants or Rohingya refugees.
This dog-whistle against Bengali Muslims has become a constant and recent addition in mainland Indian politics where the bogey of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingyas is an effective tool to demonise poor Muslims residing in ghettos.
While Gujarat has no paucity of such ghettos as the state's Disturbed Areas Act allows for such demarcation of communities, Rawal's comments brought to the fore an important aspect of Indian politics and Bengali identity – one where Bengali Muslims are invisibilised and where they are used as a bogey for illegal migrants.
Bengali Muslim Invisiblisation
Rawal did apologise for his generalisation of Bengalis to his aghast admirers, who happen to be Bengalis, but many did not call out the constant vilification of Bengali Muslims in Indian politics.
From the Assam movement to the CAA-NRC protest, there is a common attempt to claim that all Bengali Muslims are naturally Bangladeshis. The NRC threatened all Muslims in India which prompted months of protests in 2019-20.
Beyond the right-wing dog-whistling, there are examples of many Bengali Hindus refusing to acknowledge the presence of Bengali Muslims, even when the latter has a sizeable presence in West Bengal. A large number of Bengali ethno-nationalists often claim that Muslims cannot be Bengalis.
This is despite the fact that there are more Bengali Muslims than of any religious denomination. This was also visible in the coverage of the 2021 West Bengal state elections where most insights on Muslim politics were limited to Kolkata, a city with a sizeable non-Bengali Muslim population whose first language was Hindustani or dialects of Bihari.
This demarcation of Muslims and Bengalis allows for Rawal to apologise to only Bengali Hindus while maintaining the bigoted statement, claiming that it was meant for Rohingyas and Bangladeshi.
Just a day after the speech became viral on social media, standup comic Abhijit Ganguly posted a video on Twitter from one of his comedy sets where he compared Bengalis and Muslims to be similar.
In the video, he claimed that both Muslims and Bengalis have similarly high meat consumption and are often always living in their own neighbourhoods.
The comic was promptly called out by many on Twitter who informed him that being Muslim and Bengali is not mutually exclusive. The Muslims in Bangladesh are as much Bengalis as those residing in West Bengal.
What many forget is that hundreds of Bengali Muslims fought against the imposition of the Urdu language in erstwhile East Pakistan and were immortalised by the International Mother Language Day observed by the United Nation.
It was the language movement in East Pakistan that sowed the seed for animosity between East and West Pakistan and lead to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan was not keen on allowing the Bengali language to have the same space as Urdu as they presumed the language to be Hindu in nature and considered Urdu to be a Muslim language.
But then again, Pakistan has tried to play down the languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, and Pashto as well as it fears that the speakers of these languages can have ethnonationalist tendencies. Such was and still is the disdain for Bengalis in Pakistan, that the term ‘Bonga’ is used in a derogatory manner to describe a fool and is used commonly in cities like Karachi, though very few now know the genesis of the term.
Bengali Muslims – Where Are They?
This invisibilisation of Bengali Muslims is not new and has been going on for years. In Joya Chatterji’s The Spoils of Partition, there is an exhaustive description of the complex and heterogenous Muslim population of West Bengal. He writes how they were far more ethnically varied and socially mixed than their East Bengal counterparts.
Yet there is far less acceptance of them and many Muslim Bengalis from Malda, Murshidabad, or Uttar Dinajpur have been perceived to be Bangladeshis. This adds to the threat they now suffer in modern India where an accusation of being either Bangladeshi or Rohingya can lead to legal and social troubles.
It adds to the problem that the Bengali Muslims have a marked difference from their Hindu counterpart in attire where they prefer the lungi over the dhoti. This visual difference allows for bigotry to flourish and gives enough oxygen to the likes of those who want to use ‘Bangladeshi’ as a dogwhistle against Bengali Muslims.
Recently, the Delhi government attacked the central government for allegedly settling Rohingya refugees in Delhi, prompting a counter-attack from the BJP accusing Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of distributing freebies to the refugees.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been using the bogey of the Rohingyas to gain traction and gain soft Hindutva space for themselves. The Rohingya accent and attire add to their being looked at as foreigners which makes it easier for their demonisation. And no political party in India wants to empathise with the refugees as it would mean supporting what many think are illegals.
Thus the onus is all the more on Bengali intellegentsia to counter the narrative and accept that Bengalis of all religious hues are the same.
This demonisation is all the more odd because while Bangladeshis are called "termites" by none other than the Indian home minister, Amit Shah, his own government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are busy in trying to strengthen their relationship with Bangladesh and with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose father Mujibur Rahman, a Muslim, was given the title of Bangabandhu or the Friend of Bengal.
Thus, such demeaning language by BJP functionaries not only causes discomfort and are threatening to Bengali Muslims in India but could have wide diplomatic impacts and also affect India's economy with its neighbour.
(Ibrar is a freelance journalist and analyst currently based in the UK. He is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where he studied South Asian Area Studies focusing on democracy, authoritarianism and culture of South Asia. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)