ARARIA, INDIA // Jamil Akhter Nadvi was fast asleep when the flood waters came rushing through his bamboo-and-mud walled home earlier this month, sparking panic among his small family. "My wife picked up our two sleeping daughters, and I stuffed the Quran, some clothing, utensils and a few small household gadgets into a gunny bag, before rushing out of the house," Mr Nadvi said from a relief camp in Araria, 70km away from his village of Shankarpur, in India's eastern Bihar state. But it was only once the family had found some safety on higher ground, that Mr Nadvi, 30, realised he had left money and identity documents inside their house.
"When I rushed back to my house to collect those valuables, I found our room was already chest-deep in water and two walls had been swept away by the force of water. "I could not find the mattress [under which money was hidden], nor the documents which included our ration cards, voter ID cards and my wallet." The floods also swept away his last few bags of rice. Although some Muslim charities at the relief camp where Mr Nadvi is staying, along with 650 other flood victims, have started supplying rice and vegetables, the loss of ration and ID cards could prove to be a more serious blow.
"With the loss of those ration and ID cards we have been left with no proof whatsoever to prove that I am Jamil, my wife is Baad-e-Noor and my eldest daughter is Waziha Tabassum. I can make up losses of everything else, including my house. But it is very difficult to get new ration cards or voter ID cards and I am extremely worried that we have to suffer a lot in the absence of these proofs of our citizenship."
One of the major concerns is that Bengali speakers such as Mr Nadvi could be mistaken for illegal Bangladeshi migrants and expelled from India. Matiur Rahman, 25, said in his village of Phulkatoli in Araria district, at least a dozen families - including his own - lost their ration and voter ID cards in the flood, and all were extremely anxious about being hassled by police. "Because many have lost their vital cards and fear police action, they are lying low," said Mr Rahman in Bengali, his native tongue. "For the last seven or eight years, whenever I went out of the village, I carried that proof of identity with me. Even though I was born in Bihar now I am seriously afraid of being picked up by police as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh."
Daljit Jha, the police chief of Araria town in the district of the same name, said there were at least half a million Bengali-speaking Indians living in the flood districts of northern Bihar and had been there for many decades, after their relatives migrated from parts of India that are now Bangladesh. "Language and culture of these people are exactly the same as those of the people in Bangladesh. In British India, Bengal included Bihar, the Indian state of West Bengal and even the entire Bangladesh. It is quite natural to find some Bangla-speaking Bengalis in this part of present Bihar. They are 100 per cent Indians," Mr Jha said.
Some believe that in the chaos after the flood, many illegal Bangladeshi immigrants could exploit the situation to pretend to be Indians who had lost their identity documents. "In Supaul and Araria, among the 300,000-350,000 Bangla-speaking villagers, there are many illegal Bangladeshis who have entered India recently. It is a continuous trend I have seen as long as I can remember," said Ziaur Rahman, 42, who runs a public telephone booth in the Ghurna village of Araria.
"Many of my clients regularly call their relatives in Bangladesh from my phone and I know everything about their cross-border movements," he said. According to an Indian intelligence report, up to 20 million illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are hiding in India, mostly in large cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, and also in rural areas of eastern and northeastern India. "We regularly intercept Bangladeshis illegally entering India. In most cases, they come with their families and hope to settle in India," said Suresh Yadav, a senior commanding officer of the Indian Border Security Force, along the India-Bangladesh border.
Immigrants from mostly Muslim Bangladesh are fiercely opposed by India's powerful Hindu nationalist groups, who claim they could be part of Islamic militant groups and threaten the country's national security. But a recent fact finding report prepared by Shama Dalwai and Irfan Engineer, two Mumbai-based social activists, said those Bangladeshis who enter India in search of a better life were usually employed in menial jobs and so did not pose any threat to India's national security.
* The National