Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Are Bangladeshi Muslims in particular and Islam in general, significant problems in Assam?

Assam is being gripped by a fear of existentialism.

It is being widely perceived and discussed that the Assamese identity is in question, and in a few decades Assam will not belong to the Assamese. The biggest perceived threat being the immigration of Bangladeshi Muslims and their reproduction rates. One learned Assamese gentleman told me yesterday that "he knows a Muslim family with 22 children". He further adds that "'their' grandfathers and grandchildren become fathers at the same time, in the same hospital. We are getting outnumbered and at this rate, we won't survive another 15 years".

This is becoming a significant public belief and explains why the BJP is gaining traction in the traditional Assamese bastion. With a record 7 out of 14 MP seats in the states, BJP is busy making it the most significant political problem. Leaders from the largest and the most respected student organisation, AASU - that had given birth to the regional political party AGP, are now joining the BJP. RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are gaining popularity in the grassroots creating Hindu awareness along with fundamentalism and 'Muslim hysteria'.

The fear of existentialism and of the diminishing Assamese identity is leading our societies into a socio-political paranoia, where societies are getting polarised and religion is playing the role of a colonial power dividing the mostly ignorant masses; where propaganda rules the minds and rationalism is booted out of the door. It goes without saying that it benefits the power centres and the 'rich' that powers the power centres.

The tragedy is that religion is so intrinsic to us that it overwhelms reason and analytical thinking.
  • It does not matter that it will take 200 years for Muslims to catch up with Hindu population with the current Hindu - Muslim growth rate in India, by when India's population will be 5 times the current global population!
  • It is not discussed that the Muslim growth rate has declined in the last decade and that the total fertility rate (no. of births per woman) of Muslims is lower than the illiterate and the poorest fifth of the Indian population (National Family Health Survey). Or that the annual growth rate of Muslim population is slower than the growth rate of Bihar as a state.
  • We do not get to read that Bangladesh with more than 90% Muslim population has a total fertility rate (TFR), which is not only lower than India, but also lower than India's Hindu population.
  • The year on year growth rate of Muslims in Assam is similar to India, and shows no sign of the supposedly humongous Bangladeshi infiltration that is becoming the most significant issue in Assam overwhelming all other concerns that the state is crippled with.
The tragedy is that Assam is becoming blind to its real problems. Assam today represents a unique juxtaposition of backwardness amidst plenty. The per capita income in Assam in 1950 was higher than that in India. It became 40% lower than that in India by the year 2000-2001. We the Assamese people are not bothered that the growth rate of the economy of Assam has always been lower than the national average. During the 6th Plan period, Assam experienced a negative growth rate of -3.78% against a national growth rate of 6%.

There is a complete lack of a manufacturing sector. There is no private sector, or an environment that promotes the private sector creating jobs for the youth. There is severe power shortage in the state and that puts businesses at a disadvantage. Out of the requirement of around 1400 MW, Assam produces around 260 MW only.

Youths are dropping out from their studies after completing class XII to either join ITIs or to just despair over uselessness of a graduation degree. Almost every other family has lost money giving bribe to secure jobs for their wards. There is a large scale urban migration where Assamese graduates are taking up unskilled jobs like security guards, waiters and factory labour outside of Assam. Needless to say that the best and the brightest minds are also moving out in search of suitable jobs, probably faster than the others. Parents are encouraging this mass exodus with a belief that their children will have a better life outside Assam.

This is creating a knowledge vacuum in the state, which is therefore unable to leverage economic opportunities presented by the globalised world economy in terms of easier trade and information exchanges. None of the new business booms - outsourcing, IT, pharma, FMCG, could even start in Assam. All this is leading to a complete collapse of work culture and a lack of faith that it is possible to achieve a good life in Assam among the Assamese.

Unfortunately, Assam is primarily worried about Bangladeshis, Muslims and their apparent threat to Assamese identity. For argument sake, let us assume that Lord Mountbatten had not agreed to Mohd. Ali Jinnah's two nation theory, and Bangladesh stayed as East Bengal and an integral part of India. Then the Bengali Muslim of East Bengal could have freely come to Assam for better livelihood, or for whatever other reasons. What would have happened to Assamese identity then? Going by the present day Hindu logic, Assam would have become a Muslim majority state by now. It seems that Assamese culture and identity is so fragile that we are surviving only because of what Lord Mountbatten, PM Clement Attlee and the then British Government did 68 years back in 1947! The reality is that Assamese culture and identity has developed and survived over centuries and would have survived the last 68 years as well, if Bangladesh remained as East Bengal. The creation of Bangladesh is largely immaterial to the fate of Assamese identity. In fact, it may only prove to be beneficial.

Bangladesh as a country is doing phenomenally well in terms of economic growth and human development. The real growth rate adjusted for inflation of Bangladesh is 6.1% against 3.2% of India. It is now known as a textile capital of the world. In terms of purchasing power parity as a % of GDP, Bangladesh (9th) ranks higher than India (16%). (A nation's GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates is the sum value of all goods and services produced in the country valued at prices prevailing in the United States. This is the measure most economists prefer when looking at per-capita welfare and when comparing living conditions or use of resources across countries.)

If we look at measures of human development such as life expectancy, child survival, proportion of girls to boys in secondary education, Bangladesh comes out ahead of India. As Christine Hunter, UN representative says, “Gender equality is good for economic growth and good for human development. That is really part of what explains the quite remarkable achievements in Bangladesh”. 88% of women are literate in Bangladesh, compared to 68% of women in India, even though the overall adult literacy is lower in Bangladesh (59%) as compared to India (63%). Around 36% of women were in paid jobs in Bangladesh in 2010, up from just 14% in 1990. By comparison, female employment in India has gone backwards from 37% in 2004-5 to 29% in 2009. (ILO data)

I wonder what the Hindu juggernaut in India has to say about such improvement in women development and gender equality in a Muslim country!

If VISA rules are relaxed in Bangladesh for Indians (VISA on arrival for instance), I won't be surprised if Assamese flock to the textile factories in Bangladesh for daily wages. Going by the current statistics of development, it may not be so unrealistic to assume that there will be reverse migration to Bangladesh from Assam.

Even if we assume that the Muslim population is a threat to the majority mainstream Assamese population, however absurd it sounds; then we have to discuss the solution to the threat by understanding the cause of the shift in population trends. We will find that the root cause is again a lack of a work culture (problem of plenty), Assamese leadership (brain drain) and the empty paddy fields lying un-used by the mainstream Assamese population. What we need is socio - economic leadership along with political leadership mandated by the election process. Socio-economic leadership in the field of economics, trade, manufacturing, culture, language et al will keep alive the mainstream Assamese identity and bring in automatic conversions among the masses from the other identities.

In my world view, therefore, Bangladeshi Muslims in particular and Islam in general are not the most significant problems facing the state of Assam. The most significant problem in Assam is the complete and continuing lack of economic progress. A stronger economy increases disposable income, and which in turn patronises culture, language and religion. Unless we create a agricultural cum manufacturing revolution in Assam creating jobs for the youth, improving per capita income and bringing in a positive outlook towards life, Assam will surely face tough times ahead.

A poor economy always faces increasing pressure in terms of supply and demand of essential products and services. Religion, caste and tribal differences brew in such a poorer economy. Fragmentation and feudal behaviour are imminent dangers in a poor economy. Businesses and trade gets controlled by richer societies from across the borders.

Unity is the casualty. Peace becomes the martyr. Culture is long dead by then.

All of us residing in Assam should immediately pledge to have a single focus - to revive the economy. Even a small retail shop contributes to the economy. We have to become entrepreneurs, leverage Assam's advantages and natural resources to start businesses and kickstart the private sector. We must forget the Bangladeshi problem for a while to take Assam into the xonali (golden) path of development, progress and peace.