On February 15, 2010, I sat in a cab while it made its way through a traffic-clogged Kolkata to the office of Bimal Pramanik director of the Kolkata-based Centre for Research in Indo-Bangladesh Relations. Pramanik expressed serious concerns about the decades-long pattern of demographic changes in West Bengal (and Assam), and we discussed the context in which we can better understand them. Amitabh Tripathi, founder of the South Asia forum and a tireless activist in the fight against radical Islam, arranged the meeting and was a key participant in it.
Pramanik in Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence and is familiar with traditional Bengali Hindus and Muslims relations and how much they have changed in recent decades. While “Muslim infiltration” and demographic change itself is an issue, Primanik is more concerned about the deliberate nature of that change. He called it “Bangladeshi infiltration with Pakistani ideas,” and that the key element to the conflict is that South Asian Muslims are abandoning their traditional culture for “Arabic” dominated culture. Tripathi also noted the growth of Wahabi influence in Bangladesh, something that our colleague Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury also has documented.
In 1905 then again in 1947, Bengal was divided into a Muslim-majority entities (Bangladesh, previously East Bengal and East Pakistan) and a Hindu-majority entity (West Bengal state within India). In the second half of the twentieth century, however, the Muslim proportion of West Bengal’s population rose by 25 percent and its Hindu population declined by almost nine. In the same period, the proportion of East Bengal’s Hindu population declined by almost three-fourths, its Muslim share rose by more than one-third. Those significant shifts do not happen as a result of natural demographic processes, and the trends have continued into the 21st century. Pramanik noted that while Muslim population growth in West Bengal was nearly 35 percent between 1981 and 1991, it was only 25 percent in the same period in Bangladesh. “How can there be such a wide difference in growth rates between the two countries?” He asks. “This can only be explained by the illegal immigration from across the border.”
The South Asia Research Society conducted an exhaustive demographic study of population trends in West Bengal since 1941 and found that before 1971, almost all East Bengali refugees in West Bengal were minorities. Since then, “there has been largescale voluntary infiltration” of Bangladeshi Muslims “as well as the forced migration” of minorities, mostly Hindu.
Pramanik’s own study of Bengal population changes examined changes that occurred between 1951 (after the major share of population transfers from 1947 had been completed) and 2001. The intervening 50 years saw the rise of radical Islam as a major international player and so also several decades of efforts by radical Muslims to implement their designs. Differential growth rates between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal are startling. In Bangladesh, the Hindu population grew from about nine to eleven million, or 23.16 percent; while the Muslim population grew from 32 to 111 million, or 244.68 percent. Apologists have attempted to dismiss this disparity as free decisions by Hindus for economic reasons, but decisions were not free and even if for economic reasons they were due to anti-Hindu actions: seizure of assets under the Vested Property Act, religious discrimination, persecution, and so forth. And if it was simple population transfer, population figures for the Indian state closest to Bangladesh with the same ethnic group would reflect that. So what do we see? West Bengal had about 19 million Hindus in 1951 and 58 million in 2001, an increase of 198.54 percent. Its 1951 Muslim population of approximately five million Muslims grew to more than 20 million in 2001 or by 310.13 percent. Muslim growth rate exceeded that of Hindus in all but one district. Primanik documented a situation of “unabated infiltration,” especially during the final two decades of his study and a pattern of increased crime in these districts as the Muslim infiltration became more prominent. His findings help quantify frequent testimony by Bangladeshi Hindu refugees of increased attacks on their ersatz colonies by combined forces of Bangladeshis and Muslim villages from the surrounding areas; and my own observation of formerly mixed Hindu-Muslim villages now almost all Muslim and the disappearance or abandonment of the once ubiquitous roadside Mandirs or Hindu temples.