The Myth of the Bangladeshi and Violence in Assam
August 16, 2012
The recent spate of violence that began in the Kokrajhar district of Assam in the month of July 2012 and then spread to the adjoining districts of the Bodoland Territorial Council, primarily between the Bodos and the Muslim community of immigrant origin settled in these districts, has once again unleashed a vicious debate on the perils posed by alleged unrestricted illegal immigration from Bangladesh, this time even on the floor of the Lok Sabha.
The situation has been further complicated by a 'protest' in Mumbai against 'violence on Muslims in Assam' turning into a riot or by sundry attacks as 'retaliation' against people from North East elsewhere in India. Thanks to either shockingly uninformed or brazenly motivated opinions being aired around incessantly, much of it in the national electronic and print media, the dominant discourse that has evolved around the issue has created three distinct perceptions:
First, that illegal immigration of Bengali Muslim peasants from neighbouring Bangladesh into Assam has been continuing unabated, leading to skewed demographic profiles of Assam's districts bordering Bangladesh and thereafter, turning several adjoining districts of Assam to Muslim majority.
Second, that these illegal Bengali Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh have rapaciously encroached upon and occupied land belonging to the native communities, thereby creating a volatile situation for potential violence and lethal clashes between illegal immigrants and natives.
Third, that the ethnic clash that began between the native Bodos ('Hindu' Bodos, as emphatically pointed out by the Election Commissioner Shri H. S. Brahma who hails from the community) and illegal Muslim immigrants settled in Kokrajhar was a result of aggression and attack by the latter on the Bodos, emboldened by their growing numerical strength, or in the least, was a spontaneous reaction of Bodos to the growing aggression of the immigrants and progressive usurpation of native land and resources by them.
The above perceptions are, however, far from accurate. In order to understand why, it would be important to carefully re-examine how they have emerged, the inherent flaws in the assumptions and what the reality actually is.
'Migration' rather than 'illegal immigration' is largely responsible for demographic transformation.
The migration of Bengali Muslim peasants from East Bengal into Assam has certainly transformed the demography of the latter, more noticeably in some districts, but to claim all of it happened due to illegal immigration from Bangladesh is not only historically incorrect, but wilful distortion of facts.
The claim of massive and continuing migration transforming the demographic profile of Assam is most commonly sought to be proven by citing the high decadal population growth rate of Assam since 1951, as per the Census of India which I have cited below inTable 1.
Percentage Decadal Variation in Population since 1951 in India and Assam
If we compare the decadal growth rate of population in Assam with that of India, particularly taking note of the historical background of large scale migration of Bengali Muslim peasants from East Bengal in the decades preceding Partition since the late 1800s during British colonial rule, the figures would look almost conclusive that such influx must have continued alarmingly, now as illegal immigration.
If the decadal growth rate of population in the Dhubri district of Assam (Table 1), which borders Bangladesh and also has the highest percentage of Muslim population (74.29%) among the 27 districts of Assam, is added to the comparison, it would appear to be among the most conclusive evidence of illegal immigration with growth rates much higher than that of Assam as a whole.
But are the above figures of decadal growth rates of population and their comparisons really irrefutable evidence of influx of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into Assam?
It would be pertinent to point out right that this high population growth rate in Assam has declined since 1971 and has remained lower than that of India (Table 1), categorically refuting assumptions of continuing illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Through the Assam Accord of 1985, only those who have entered Assam later than 25 March 1971 are considered illegal immigrants. Isn't this indication enough then, that the much of the influx occurred before 1971 and as such cannot be considered illegal immigration?
If we just look at the decadal growth rates of population in two other districts of Assam, Dhemaji and Karbi Anglong, we will see that their growth rates in comparison have been more than twice that of Assam and substantially higher than even the 'Muslim' majority 'border' district of Dhubri (Table 1). Yet, the Muslim population in Dhemaji and Karbi Anglong is minuscule. The Hindu population in these two districts is 95.94% and 82.39% Hindu respectively; Scheduled Tribes constitute 47.29% and 55.69% of their population respectively. Muslims constitute merely 1.84% and 2.22% respectively of their total populations, in spite of having consistent high decadal growth rates – Dhemaji touching 103.42% between 1961-71 and Karbi Anglong having a similar high of 79.21% between 1951-61. This should be testimony enough that there could be reasons apart from illegal immigration or having a Muslim population behind a high decadal growth rate of population.
The above categorically reveals that selective citing of census data claiming 'abnormally high' decadal growth rate of population cannot be conclusive evidence of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Furthermore, against Assam having just three districts bordering Bangladesh, Meghalaya has five, which have shown higher decadal growth rates of population than the districts of Assam yet have an insignificant Muslim population negating any suspicion that they could have been swamped by illegal Bangladeshis. This also negates the presumption that merely bordering Bangladesh would make a district vulnerable to illegal immigration.
What is the reality then?
The migration of Bengali Muslim peasants from erstwhile East Bengal began in the 1800s after the British annexed Assam in 1826, with the Treaty of Yandaboo after defeating the Burmese in the First Anglo Burmese War. 'Malevolent' colonial policies of the British in Bengal, such as the Permanent Settlement, had already wreaked Bengal's economy and pauperized its artisans and peasantry. Severe exploitation under its zamindari system added to the woes of the peasantry. In the geographically contiguous province of Assam, population density was low, land was abundant and there was no zamindari system. It was just a matter of time before an impoverished and harassed Bengali Muslim peasantry began migrating in a trickle which became a deluge, encouraged by the British. It served their purpose to settle large numbers of Bengalis on vacant land to increase land revenue, as well as have readily available cheap labour in a labour-deficient province. Initially, the immigrants were welcomed by even the Assamese landed gentry for the cheap labour.
By the second decade of the 20th century, however, this incessant influx became a cause for alarm and a 'Line System' was introduced in the affected districts of Nagaon and Kamrup in 1920, restricting immigrants from settling beyond certain limits on land over which natives claimed rights. That is how vast tracts of land in the then undivided Nagaon, Kamrup and Goalpara districts came to be settled by immigrant Bengali Muslim peasants in the decades before Partition, and independence.
With each successive group of immigrants, and with restrictions imposed barring their indiscriminate spread, the quality of land they found to settle themselves on, became progressively degraded. Many were left to settle on marshy wastelands and the shifting sandbars of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries called chars or chaporis in the vast floodplains of the valley. This is where a substantial percentage of their descendents still live after nearly a century. At the mercy of annual floods, shifting of the chars regularly and incessant erosion of their lands by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, a large percentage of the Muslim population of immigrant origin in these districts is rendered homeless regularly. To eke out a living, they often migrate to the towns and cities as construction labourers, vegetable vendors or rickshaw pullers, living in ghettoized shanty towns, raising the spectre of illegal Bangladeshis in minds of a hostile urban elite with little sympathy or insight into realities of life about the areas they have migrated from.
Population in Percentage as per Religion and Language in Districts of Assam with Substantial Muslim Population as per Census of India 2001
Decadal Growth Rate
Population Density per SqKm
Thus, by the time of India's Partition and independence, there was a substantial Bengali Muslim population of immigrant origin noticeably concentrated in areas of Nagaon, Kamrup and Goalpara districts. Owing to their socio-economic condition and cultural practices, it is entirely believable that their population growth rate have remained substantially higher and what is reflected in the decadal growth rate of Muslim population in these districts, or the ones curved out of them later, their numbers need not necessarily be owed to continuous illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
There is another compelling reason to view with scepticism the claim of illegal immigrants 'hiding' among their co-religionists in the Muslim majority districts in Assam as even at the time of independence, population density in these districts were considerably higher making competition for land and the meagre opportunities of livelihood inevitably more intense. Today, conflict and litigation among immigrants over land is rampant. Why would they encourage, let alone facilitate, continuous illegal immigration that would put their own economic survival at peril?
The concentration of Muslims in the areas where the Bengali Muslim immigrants have traditionally settled, underscores the reality that they are mostly likely to be the descendants of those immigrants, and hence legitimate Indian citizens, and not illegal immigrants who have allegedly continued to arrive till now. This will be further evident if we look at the percentage of Assamese language speakers in these areas as revealed by the census data as cited in Table 2.
At the time of Partition, a substantial Bengali Muslim immigrant population chose to stay back in Assam as Indian citizens. Having decided their future, there was a conscious effort on their part to progressively assimilate into the culture and soil of their adopted home, beginning with adopting the Assamese language, the primary marker. Over successive generations, having been educated in Assamese-medium schools, most have genuinely adopted Assamese as their language and this is reflected in the census data. For instance, Dhubri with a Muslim population of 74.29% has 70.07% Assamese speakers. This is in stark contrast to the Barak valley districts like Karimganj and Hailakandi where Bengali has remained the predominant linguistic identity among both Hindus and Muslims. During the same period, many native tribal communities which once used to enumerate as 'Assamese' in successive censuses took to distinguish their ethnic and linguistic identity apart from the Assamese and started enumerating themselves as per their mother tongue.
It is thus simplistic to assume that rampant illegal Bangladeshi immigration continues even today by taking note of census figures selectively without having the intimate insights into the complex historical processes at work leading to the demographic transformation that is underway.
Immigrants and natives in Assam have lived in close proximity for over a century and even though there would be occasional friction, even over land, these would usually be local and rarely spread out to become ethnic or communal bloodbath unless fuelled by design, using certain diabolic political narratives pitting natives against immigrants and perpetrated as premeditated acts of violence.
Much before 'illegal Bangladeshi immigrants' were conjured up as the diabolic 'other' conspiring to 'overwhelm the natives', it was the Bengali Hindu immigrants in Assam who faced the hostility of the native Assamese. The conflict wasn't over land but the perception, real or imagined, that the Bengali Hindu middle class conspired to retain their hegemony over the native Assamese by keeping the nascent Assamese middle class deprived of the opportunities in government jobs and economic benefits that would have otherwise been the entitlements of natives. The worst spate of Bengali-Assamese violence erupted in 1960 and regardless of whatever rhetoric it may have been couched in, it was a result of mobilisation around a narrative constructed by the Assamese middle class.
It was also the Assamese middle-class elite which dominated Assam's politics for nearly three decades after independence, reaping the benefits and privileges that naturally came with it. But that began to change towards the 1970s, as apparent from the political instability that gripped successive governments in Dispur. An alternative was perhaps beginning to emerge which was left-of-centre and to which a large section of the state's tribal natives and immigrants of East Bengal origin, the latest entrants to the 'Axomiya' fold, now began to align themselves. (I use the native word 'Axomiya' to refer to the those whose mother tongue is the Assamese language.) It was the left which won the first Guwahati Municipal Corporation elections in 1974, setting off alarm bells. It wasn't long after when the signs of what became the Assam Movement began to emerge. Very few would remember that the movement began as a mobilisation against not 'illegal immigrants' from Bangladesh but against 'outsiders'. Even more surprisingly, in its initial days, the All Assam Students Union (henceforth AASU) and the state administration seemed to be in fine coordination supporting each other in evicting illegal encroachers. Two of the movement's earliest victims were not illegal immigrants but a pair of Bodo brothers who were gunned down by the police while trying to flee a mob led by the local AASU unit which came to 'evict' them from Phulung Chapori in North Guwahati, not far from where IIT Guwahati has come up, ironically, as fulfilment of one of the demands of the Assam Accord that brought the Assam Agitation to a closure in 1985.
It was, however, soon apparent to the ideologues and political masterminds behind the movement that targeting any native tribals was likely to boomerang, while targeting of immigrant communities who have a large population outside Assam and wielded substantial political clout in Delhi, was likely to yield unpredictable challenges. It was then that the Assam Movement clearly transformed into a movement against the 'illegal Bangladeshi immigrants' who were poised to reduce the natives to a minority within 20 years, as the rhetoric claimed.
In perhaps the most incisive analysis of the Assam Movement, Prof. Monirul Hussain in his seminal work, The Assam Movement: Class, Ideology, Identity (1994) has convincingly explained that while the expulsion of illegal Bangldeshi immigrants was the ostensible 'visible' motive of the movement, its real covert motive was to polarize the constituents of the new political alignment that was emerging as an alternative to the ones which represented the Assamese middle-class elite.
This was progressively accomplished effectively by first creating a powerful narrative which demonised 'Bangladeshi immigrants' by conjuring them up as being part of a diabolic design to reduce the native Assamese to a minority, and then dispossessing them of their rights and property. It was cleverly alluded to that the community of immigrant Muslims of East Bengal origin who had by now been living in Assam legitimately for decades, and were certainly not illegal immigrants, was colluding with their co-religionists from across the border in furthering this nefarious design. A section of the vernacular media, representing and owned by the same Assamese middle class elite, played an immensely partisan role in strengthening and spreading this flawed perception, playing to the gallery.
Not everyone was convinced, but those who raised inconvenient questions were sought to be stifled by violence. The myth of how 'democratic' the movement was would be swiftly dispelled by the sheer number of violent incidents that mark the period of the Assam Agitation from 1979 to 1985. One of the most visible and horrific incidents precipitated by this narrative of demonising immigrants was the Nellie massacre of 18 February 1983 in the undivided Nagaon district. More than 2,000 Muslims of immigrant origin were massacred to death, most of them women and children. Even though the massacre was sought to be passed off as a spontaneous act of violence by the exasperated native Tiwa community, that they were cunningly instigated and it was a premeditated act is beyond reasonable doubt. None came to be indicted for the horrific act.
Thus, a seemingly irreparable breach in communal relations between natives and immigrants opened up, making it nearly impossible to reach an agreement on anything related to 'illegal immigration'. The immigrant Muslim community came to perceive any move to do so with suspicion and as attempts to strip them of citizenship and rights. The alternative political alignment that was emerging was forever obliterated. The covert goal of the Assam Agitation was achieved. The new political formation that swept into power as a result of the Assam Accord with a groundswell of support represented the same old Assamese middle-class elite and the cabinet that was formed was even less representative of the various constituent communities of the composite Assamese identity. It would disappoint Assam's electorate within just a decade and a half, paving the way for the old Congress to return to power for three successive terms, the latest of which is still unfolding.
The recent violence in Kokrajhar needs to be seen in the light of such history. Perceived as 'Bangladeshis', Muslims of immigrant origin find little solidarity, let alone anyone to defend them.
To understand the recent violence that saw Bodos pitted against Bengali speakers, it would be pertinent to point out that the Adivasis have faced similar ethnic violence in Kokrajhar since the 1990s. They weren't illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh but descendents of those exiled by the British for the uprising in 1855 that history refers to as the Santhal Rebellion. Neither did they rapaciously usurp land on which the Bodos had claims nor were their numbers growing so fast so as to pose a threat to the numerical significance of the Bodos. Why, then, were they victims of repeated spates of ethnic violence, because of which some 32,613 families are living in relief camps for 20 years now? Wouldn't it then be reasonable to look for the roots of conflict elsewhere and not within the simplistic explanation of 'illegal immigrants versus natives' sought to be perpetuated by the political dispensations whose designs are served by such a narrative?
It has already been explained earlier how there is a constant stream of landless migrants, Muslims from char areas, to towns and cities to eke out a living. It wouldn't be surprising to find a sizable percentage of such internally displaced persons encroaching on community land, reserved forests etc. But they are not alone in this. For instance, many Assamese Hindus displaced by constant erosion in the Palashbari area just west of Guwahati relocated to Rani nearby, a 'tribal belt' and settled on forest land. The point that needs to be underscored is that no widespread and meticulous cadastral surveys have been carried out expressly to assess, first, the scale of 'native' land being usurped by illegal immigrants and, second, what is the scale of 'native' land passing on to the hands of 'immigrants' by legitimate transfers to claim, with any certainty, as to how and in what scale natives are being dispossessed of their land.
It would thus be reasonable to carefully examine the claim that the violence was a result of the 'illegal Bangladeshi immigrants' rapaciously encroaching upon land belonging to the native communities, inevitably inviting spontaneous retaliation by exasperated natives.
In Kokrajhar the decadal growth rate of population between 1991-01 and 2001-11 have just been 14.49% and 5.19% respectively. Its population density stood at 266 and 280 for the same periods, among the lowest in Assam. It would be hard to accept from these figures that any cataclysmic demographic pressure on land has evolved at all.
It would also be important to remember that the fairly long proximity to each other have enabled immigrants and natives in Assam to evolve strategies for interaction and coexistence, even amidst occasional friction; any breach in their communal relations is rarely spontaneous.
Some are seeing the Kokrakhar violence as part of an attempt to revive the Bodo movement. Embedded in a narrative of victimhood, the idea perhaps is to ward-off growing challenges to the political base of a narrow section of the Bodo political elite. The consequent rallying of political forces along ethnic lines is what exactly was intended to be achieved. Speculation is also rife that this was abetted by elements inimical to Assam's Chief Minister Shri Tarun Gogoi from within his own party in order to subvert him by creating an impression that he is losing his grip on the law and order situation of the state.
As per the Census of India 2001, Hindus constituted 65.60%, Muslims 20.36% and Christians 13.72% of Kokrajhar's population. A large number of the Bodos would be Hindus, but some would be Christians too. The Adivasis would be overwhelmingly Christian and the Muslims would be of immigrant origin. The data on language from the Census further reveals that Bodos constituted 32.37%, Bengalis 21.06%, Assamese 20.28% and Santhalis 16.70% of Kokrajhar's population, if we look at the ethnic break up linguistically. In 2001, there certainly aren't any alarming indicators of natives about to be marginalised by illegal immigrants, and certainly not by illegal 'Bengali Muslim' immigrants from Bangladesh. The decadal growth rate of Kokrajhar between 2001 and 2011 has been among the lowest, at just 5.19%. This low population growth is also substantiated by the increase in population density by just 5.26%, from 266 to 280 persons per square kilometre. Thus, between 2001 and 2011 there couldn't have been any alarming change in demography of the district. To cut a long story short, it appears extremely unlikely that rapacious 'invasion' of illegal immigrants could be a reason for widespread violent native-immigrant conflict here. We have to look for the real reasons elsewhere.
In the period since the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and its first elections on 13 May 2005, its political landscape has been overwhelmingly dominated by the Bodo political formation led by Hagrama Mohilary and his Bodoland People's Front(henceforth BPF) [formerly the Bodoland People's Progressive Front (Hagrama)]. In the 2006 elections to the 12th Assam Legislative Assembly, Mohilary's BPF won in 11 of the 12 constituencies within the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District area and lent critical support to the Congress to enable it to form government for the second consecutive term, bagging two cabinet positions in the bargain. In the 2010 BTC elections, Mohilary succeeded to retain the predominance of his political formation. But that doesn't mean that there weren't constant challenges, particularly from all the other factions of Bodo polity he sought to marginalise, the rivalry on occasions leading to violence and bloodshed as well.
Those who follow developments in Bodo politics would be intimately aware of how brutal and bloody factional rivalries have been with many noted Bodo moderate leaders being wiped out over the years in fratricidal wars, be it between the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) [which Mohilary headed before signing a peace accord which brought him into democratic politics] and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) or later, between BPF and the BPPF and their respective allied formations. Prolongued insurgency, availability of illegal sophisticated weapons and impunity have progressively lowered the threshold for armed violence in these areas. Violence has become deeply embedded in the politics of the region and it need not at all be between immigrants and natives or between Bodos and non-Bodos.
With a significant non-Bodo electorate in BTC areas, the jockeying for greater influence by Bodo political factions saw a revival, initially as rhetoric, the demand for a separate Bodoland in the run up to the 2011 elections to the Assam Legislative Assembly. With anti-incumbency and other factors expected to erode some of Congress' strength in numbers of seats won, Mohilary expected to have a more influential role in Dispur.
As it turned out, surprising all predictions, the Congress won the elections with a landslide majority to form government in Assam for the third successive term. Any need for support from Mohilary was rendered irrelevant. Gogoi wisely continued with the alliance, though the BPF's share in the cabinet portfolio was reduced to just one. With internal BTC elections as well as Assembly elections not around the corner for years to come, not only Mohilary but also others who hoped their political fortunes to improve were inevitably feeling restive. A progressive incitement of the violence may just have been part of a strategy to attempt to precipitate a political situation that, it was hoped, would help change the status quo. It will need careful probing of the situation of the months preceding the violence to have a clearer understanding of the way it was sought to be unfolded.
The most immediate instigation was the spate of attacks carried out against the Muslim community from around June 2012. Resentment against ex-militants was already brewing for some time because of rampant extortion and even kidnappings for ransom in the district and there have been allegations against the state administration for turning a blind eye. The select assassinations of immigrant Muslim slowly ratcheted up the tension. On 6 July 2012 unidentified assailants opened fire in a Muslim village, killing two and injuring three. Again on, two former office bearers of the All Assam Minorities Students Union (AAMSU) were fired upon and critically injured. On , the first day of the month of Ramzan, four former BLT militants riding on two bikes through a Muslim village called Joypore, on the outskirts of Kokrajhar, stumbled on to a crowd of Muslims congregating for namaz in the evening. Fearing that the crowd was about to attack, the four Bodo youths allegedly fired in the air with their automatic weapons to make good their escape. Already jittery by the spate of recent attacks, the Muslim villagers assumed this to be an attack and swarmed the youths and lynched them. By the time police arrived, they were all dead.
The next day, the bodies of the four Bodo youths, who were reported to be former BLT militants, were taken in a procession through Kokrajhar for cremation. All the local satellite news channels incessantly broadcasted the visuals. Was anything more needed to rouse the Bodos against Muslims in Kokrahar?
This has a chilling parallel to the bodies of the victims of the Godhra carnage being allowed to be brought back to Ahmedabad and paraded, that set the ground for the horrific 2002 Gujarat riots against Muslims. Retaliatory attacks against Muslims began that very night and at least four were gunned down. It didn't take long from there for the situation to escalate. Precious time was lost in bringing the army to control the situation, as Ministry of Defence dithered over 'procedural' issues.
As rumours and violence spread, lakhs of Bodos and Muslims alike fled their villages and relocated in make-shift relief camps in schools and public buildings. Time was ripe for leaders of all hues to parachute in and start fishing in troubled waters by offering their own 'explosive' version of events that suited their political interests. What was undoubtedly a series of localised events, inextricably intertwined with local political undercurrents, thus became a 'national security' issue, thanks to the like of Lal Krishna Advani of the BJP, who turned it into an existential crisis for natives in the face of a relentless onslaught of Bangladeshis. And thanks largely to these flawed narratives of competitive victimhood, not only Assamese but anyone perceived to be from the North East are now facing violence directed against them in other parts of India.
In the cacophonous allegations and counter allegations that followed, it is being completely overlooked that the proliferation and availability of alarming stockpiles of small arms and light weapons across Assam have made precipitating crises like Kokrajhar immensely easy and has imperilled not only the lives of its people, but also the very political stability of the state.
That the Tarun Gogoi government and administration failed to anticipate the conflict brewing in Kokrajhar, and that once it began, failed to act decisively to quickly stamp it out, is representative of a complacency that could have been induced by a feeling of invulnerability bred by being in power for more than a decade. As it would be utopian to believe that political entities will abrogate violence as a means to accomplish what they can't by democratic means, it is be important to at least make it as difficult for them to precipitate such situations. A decisive deterrent would be to actually make sure that such acts of violence do not go unpunished, dispelling any impression of impunity.
As for the people themselves, it would be worthwhile for them to discard communal and ethnic prejudices which are essential for harmonious co-existence. Assam never was a religiously or ethnically homogeneous entity and never will be.
(Nilim Dutta is executive director of the Strategic Research and Analysis Organisation, Guwahati.)