The perceived unabated influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into Assam and the consequent perceptible change in the state’s demographic pattern have been matters of grave concern. Such immigration threatens to reduce the Assamese people to a minority in their own state and was the core issue behind its students’ movement. It was also the prime contributory factor to the outbreak of insurgency in the state. There is a tendency to view the phenomenon as a regional matter, affecting only the people of Assam. Its more dangerous dimension of undermining our national security is often ignored.
If one goes back to the history of migration into Assam, it started with the British establishing tea gardens in the state. Since the Assamese people were not willing to work as labourers to enhance production, a large number of workers were brought in from the Orissa-Bihar region. The British encouraged Muslim peasants from what was to become East Pakistan after 1947 to settle in parts of Lower Assam. This settlement continues unabated even today.
In 1931, CS Mullen, a Raj-era census commissioner, had remarked that the districts of Goalpara (which, undivided, included Dhubri), Nowgong and Kamrup were witnessing a serious demographic change. In 1941, in a letter to Liaquat Khan, then the chief aide of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Assamese politician Syed Muhammad Saadullah had said that in the four lower Assam districts, the Muslim population had quadrupled in the previous 20 years. Saadullah argued that it was in response to the Allied need for food to serve the war effort. In response to Saadullah’s policy of inviting immigrants from Mymensingh district to grow more food, Lord Wavell had remarked that instead of ‘Grow More Food’, it was a ‘Grow More Muslims’ campaign.
When Partition was envisaged, Assam was initially supposed to be awarded to Pakistan. The Muslim League and the Congress had reportedly agreed on this, and it was only due to the timely intervention of Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi and the support of Mahatma Gandhi that this move was stopped. After 1947, the inward passage of people from East Pakistan continued for the next few decades. It saw its peak during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, when a large number of Hindus migrated to India from there.
In 1978, the death of an MP necessitated a bypoll for the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha seat. When the electoral rolls were prepared, it was seen that in a span of three years, 78,000 people had been added to the electorate, thus confirming the long-standing allegation of Assamese people that their state was seeing a significant demographic shift. This single event triggered one of the largest sustained movements that free India ever saw, the echoes of which can be heard even today.
The Assam Movement was a manifestation of an extreme reaction from people who for long had argued that they would become minorities in their own land. Immigration is not an unusual phenomenon. So why has it generated the kind of sentiments that it did in Assam and continues to do so? The answer lies in the twin Northeastern states of Tripura and Sikkim and to some extent the case of Arunachal Pradesh.
Tripura is a classic example of ethnic rage asserting itself against unrelenting demographic and cultural pressure. In a space of a few decades, its aboriginal tribes (Hindus, Buddhists and Christians) were pushed aside by an influx of people from East Pakistan. The numbers grew larger once anti-Hindu riots broke out in East Pakistan. The result was that Tripuris became a linguistic minority in their own state. Kokborok, the indigenous language, was replaced by Bengali, and soon Bengali culture came to symbolise Tripura. This lead to a cycle of violence when the tribes tried to reassert their identity, a cycle that continued till early 2000s.Sikkim is another state where tribes of mainly Buddhists were displaced by Hindu Nepalis. In Arunachal Pradesh, Hindi seems to have become all but the state language at the cost of its numerous languages and tribes. In the face of such examples, there is a growing anxiety about a change in the socio-political set-up of Assam.
The Assam Movement was one in which agitators chose peaceful means to achieve their goals. Their slogan was ‘Save Assam, Save India’, but this movement was not without its faults. One such blot, not only in the Assam movement but in the state’s overall narrative, is the Nellie Massacre of 1983. On February 18th that year, Assam woke up to find that 4,000 people had been killed around the villages of Morigaon district, with Nellie village suffering the largest losses. Local Tiwa tribals (Lalungs), with the help of Assamese Hindus and Bengali Hindus, had carried out a pogrom in which Muslim peasants were surrounded and put to death. In Nellie village alone, 1,793 people lost their lives. The people of this village still await justice; investigation reports on the massacre were never allowed out in the public domain.
Arun Shourie had called it a ‘Hobbesian war of all against all’. If one looks back, it becomes clear that the massacre had its background in the 1983 elections which had communities pitted against each other. Assam was already reeling under the movement spearheaded by the AASU (All Assam Students Union). The polls became a tool of assertion and turned into a war for political dominance. It still stands like a thorn in the political and social landscape of the Northeast, particularly Assam.
Whenever the question of migrants is taken up, statements must be corroborated with statistical data. Such data can be obtained from the Census details of India and Bangladesh. If we look at the variation of population between Assam and the rest of India in the years starting from 1901 to 1991, we would see that the variation between decadal growth between Assam and the rest of India is quite divergent. In 1901-11, this variation in decadal growth was 11.26 per cent. In 1911-21, it was 20.78 per cent. It fells after that but hovered above the 10 per cent mark consistently. From 1971 to 1991, the decadal variance has come down to 4.2 per cent. However, it must be understood that this is spread over a 20-year span (since the 1981 census could not be conducted in Assam).
The Indian Census generally collects ‘birthplace’ and ‘mother tongue’ as details, which, under normal circumstances, would have offered a good picture of immigration in Assam. Yet, as the Census Commissioner himself admitted in 1961, in places with abnormal increases of population, people cite names of places that are not verifiable and in such a scenario this data is not too reliable.
In the case of Assam, the mother tongue issue also acts as a convenient political tool to manipulate sentiment. Large numbers of people of Bengali descent, predominantly Muslims, have listed their language as Assamese, irrespective of whether they can speak it or not. This is apparent in the fact that while Assam’s population increased from 3.8 million to 14.8 million between the census years of 1901 and 1971, the number of people claiming to speak Assamese has risen disproportionately, from 21.69 per cent to 60.61 per cent of the state’s population.
If we look at Bangladeshi census figures, they tell a story that perhaps corroborates the decadal variance between India and Bangladesh. One way of looking at it is by examining the population of Hindus and Muslims. The proportion of Muslims in Bangladesh has grown from 78.9 per cent in 1951 to 90 per cent in 2011, while that of Hindus has decreased from 22 per cent to 9 per cent over the same period. However, that country’s census also shows that the actual count of Hindus has almost remained the same. In 40 years, the Hindu population seems to have grown by only 1.6 million. Assuming the Hindu rate of decadal growth rate at 24 per cent, as calculated by R Natrajan, a reputed demographer, if we take 1974 as a base year (9.1 million Hindus), then by the end of 2001 there should have been 14.1 million Hindus in Bangladesh. Instead, there are 10.5 million. What explains this gap? Bangladeshi demographers like Imitiaz Ahmed have repeatedly argued that immigration, mainly illegal, continues unabated. Ahmed estimates that between 1961 and 1971, 1.72 million people crossed the border, another half a million between 1971 and 1981, and 600,000 between 1981 and 1991.
One can look at district populations as well. So far, the growth of population during 1951-2001 at the district level is concentrated in all the districts witnessing far higher growth among Muslims than followers of other religions. The proportion of Muslims in the undivided districts of Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgoan and Cachar has increased by 6, 8, 10 and 7 per cent respectively. But in Lakhimpur, Sibsagar and UM&NC hills, this growth of Muslim population during 1951-2001 is only 2, 1, and 2 per cent respectively. The undivided districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang and Nowgoan are contiguous to the eastern border belt of high Muslim presence and growth. The undivided Cachar district also falls near the border of Bangladesh that shows high Muslim presence and growth. On the other hand, in almost all districts of Assam and in the state as a whole, the proportion of Hindus and followers of other religions declined during those fifty years.
In 2012, the then government of Assam had published a white paper on the ‘foreigners’ issue that claimed that due to various measures taken to curb cross-border migration, amongst other things, the state’s population growth rate in the census periods 1991- 2001 (18.9 per cent) and 2001- 2011 (16.9 per cent) had shown a decline. This rate has been lower than the national growth rate, which was 21.5 per cent in 1991-2001 and 17.6 per cent in 2001-2011.
That claim, however, is neither accurate nor justified, as shown by civil society activist JP Rajkhowa. The government could push back or deport only 2,442 declared foreigners during 1985- 2012, a period of 27 years. Also, if we consider the district-level figures, then we see that almost all major districts’ populations have grown at a rate above the national average.
In contrast, the growth rates during both those periods in districts dominated by indigenous people are far below the state and national rate. If an analysis is done of those districts which have indigenous populations—predominantly tribals—then it would be seen that Kokrajhar and Udalguri and districts of Upper Assam have much lower growth rate compared to those districts bordering Bangladesh.
If we look at the tehsil-level data of districts like Dhubri and Barpeta, we would notice a negative decadal variance of the Hindu population between 1991 and 2001 in some blocks/tehsils there .This means that a Hindu outflow could have occurred in these areas. Rural emigration on such a scale is often witnessed in the Northeast. However, in this case it must be seen in conjunction with the Muslim population’s decadal growth rate which is much higher than that of Muslims in the rest of India.
Such numbers give rise to an obvious question: why? Why has this continued unabated over the past so many years? Who are the actors responsible for it? The trend can perhaps be explained by ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factors.
Take the former. Historically, migration occurred both due to political and economic reasons. The creation of Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh saw large numbers of Hindus crossing the border. This wave took place between 1947 and 1974. Today, there are other reasons for it.
Economic considerations play a major role. Earlier, Muslim peasants from erstwhile East Pakistan would settle on unused land, start cultivation and boost the Assamese economy. India’s loose policy of citizenship was also an attraction for them: once in possession of land, citizenship is easy to acquire. Lax laws in India thus acted as an incentive for people to cross over.
Most immigrants continue to provide cheap labour in Indian metros, while in Assam a number who have entered perhaps illegally in the past 40 years are now landowners and businessmen. One must also remember that Assam shares a 262-km long border with Bangladesh. The terrain makes it difficult for 24/7 monitoring and erection of fences along the border, 44 km of which is marshy area crisscrossed by rivulets, making for a highly porous border.
Now consider the push factors. The rapid rise of Bangladesh’s population pushes people towards India. The neighbouring nation is already one of the most densely populated countries of the world. According to the latest World Population Data Sheet prepared by the Population Research Bureau (2011), Bangladesh is set to double its population in 40 years, nine-tenths of the growth expected to be rural. Aggressive measures by the state to control its population have had little effect. This is expected to severely strain the state’s resources.
Agriculture is the backbone of its economy, accounting for 20.6 per cent of its GDP and employing 40.8 per cent of its population. Its cropping intensity of 180 per cent is among the highest in the world. Apart from the pressure of population coupled with a rising need to use land for development projects, increased flooding is a trend that cannot be ignored. According to National Geographic, in its issue of May 2011, every year 40 per cent of Bangladeshi land is hit by floods. Land erosion and silting have risen alarmingly due to vastly increased amounts of it carried by river water from upper-riparian countries and catchment areas within Bangladesh, which has only been exacerbated by the Farakka Dam built on the Ganges upstream near the Indo-Bangladesh border. Although the overall Bangladesh economy has grown at a healthy annual 7 per cent in the last few years, the global economic slowdown is starting to hurt. A large part of its finances come through remittances mainly from the Middle East, which is undergoing a slowdown. Falling incentives to work in the Gulf could result in a push towards India instead.
Religious and cultural affinity with their older generations on the Indian side of the border add to the appeal of crossing over; they realise they would be among their ‘own people’ who had migrated in large numbers earlier. This also makes it all the more difficult to track illegal immigrants, since they are difficult to identify and any mass detection and deportation programme might mean the harassment of genuine Indian citizens (with sharp communal overtones).
Over a longer span of time, another push factor could come to bear in the form of climate change and a rise in sea levels that might imperil the low-lying delta of Bangladesh. More than half the country’s population resides in areas no higher than 5 metres below sea level. If melting polar caps were to raise sea levels, as some experts predict, a large number of people would be rendered homeless—and pushed towards India. Some of the discourse on this eventuality makes a distinction between ‘environmental refugees’ and ‘migrants’ (whether legal or illegal), but given the fractured history of states like Assam, the difference is likely to be blurred. So while the threat to Bangladesh of climate change is real, it does not follow that Assam or India should serve as a destination for all immigrants, whatever their reasons for migration may be.
There is also the question of chars, the small riverine islands that dot the Brahmaputra as it courses through Assam. They appear and disappear with alarming regularity. Every year, after winter sets in, new char land emerges and the strongmen of local diwanis (networks of power brokers in these parts) lay claim to these islands.
South Salmara, a constituency in Dhubri district, has an interesting feature: it has had a constant population for several decades. Now consider two facts. One, the Brahmaputra regularly washes away large parts of the area to create chars; of the district’s 201 villages, 105 villages suffer severe erosion. Two, only 36 per cent of South Salmara’s households have landed property in their name; the rest are migrant labourers. A cursory glance at the map will show us how difficult it is to patrol these chars. The small river force that the BSF has, which consists mostly of country boats, cannot keep watch of these river islands and channels .Another major problem is the literal shifting sands of the river. This imposes an impossible task for cartographers and the police: where is the border line to be drawn? What happens when India or Bangladesh gets a new patch of land emerging in the waters? Heavy rains alter the landscape as well. These are questions that have to be tackled while working on a framework of resolving the question of border porosity and illegal immigration.
There is no doubt that illegal immigration occurs across the border and continues to do so, even if not at the same rate as earlier. The consequences of such an influx are still relevant. Of these, demographic change in Assam is one of the most frequently cited. In the western sector of India, infiltration is usually associated with terrorist activities. In east India, people cross over mainly for economic reasons. Still, the security threat from this cannot be denied.
The Government’s failure to take stronger measures against immigration might agitate the local indigenous population and Assam might return to its violent past. The violence between Muslims and Bodo tribals in the BTAD area is an indication that the AASU movement’s goals are being taken over by ethnic groups. Distinctions of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ have been rising.
What can be done? What needs to be understood is that inward migration cannot be stopped completely; at best, it can be controlled and reduced. Measures must therefore be taken to ensure that illegal immigration is controlled and calibrated in a manner which suits the needs of India.
Informed debate and discussion will help people understand the complexities of the demographic question and the faults of vote bank politics. A vigilant media can play a role keeping a tab on electoral analysis in the background of available census data and flag anything that arouses suspicion. Yet at the same time it must not convert this into a communal discourse, because then the administrative issues pertaining to the same will be lost in the din.
A Char Development Commission must be created by the Government of India so that basic amenities reach the people of these regions. This will ensure that the sense of alienation that exists in these regions is mitigated and radicalism is curbed. Those with doubtful status can be issued work permits which would guarantee them working rights under Indian labour laws and equality and fair treatment in terms of employment. Such cards can be issued in border towns. Those holding work permits can perhaps be taxed accordingly, which would add to the tax coffers of the nation.
Border fencing must be completed wherever possible. Along with human surveillance, greater emphasis should be placed on motion detectors, heat sensors, etc. The American model of its border with Mexico must be studied in this regard. Floodlights and road projects must be completed for smooth patrolling of the border. Also, the distance between successive border posts should be decreased. The equipment of the water patrol wing of the BSF must be upgraded so that the char and riverine areas can be properly patrolled. A strict no-firing policy must be implemented so that India’s image is enhanced in the eyes of Bangladeshis and Dhaka comes closer to addressing Delhi’s concerns over illegal immigration.
Push back measures and deportation generally do not work, since Bangladesh and India have no treaty in this regard. The first step here would be the formalisation of a mechanism by which illegal residents can be sent back in a legal manner without flouting general humanist principles.
In addition, since poverty in Bangladesh is a push factor, India has an incentive to help develop the border areas of its neighbour so that people there have better lives. The Government of India could set up schools and hospitals and provide employment opportunities in the borderlands. India must also share its expertise with Bangladesh in fighting climate change.
Finally, while immigration has continued to haunt Assam and the rest of India, there is no doubt that the rate has decreased. Hence, instead of indulging in a hysterical numbers game, civil society and the Government must work together on solutions that are forward moving and not backward looking. It is impossible and almost jingoistic to claim that illegal residents who are detected can be deported. This has failed as a measure of prevention. So instead of directing national resources to deportation, we must rather ensure that further immigration reduces to negligible levels. The solution to the problem of illegal immigration can be found only if all sides are willing to work together in an effective manner.