The myth of the Assamese Bangladeshi
31 July 2018
What's behind the unrelenting myth that Assam is overrun by Bangladeshi migrants?
“There is no doubt, of course, that those displaced persons who have come to settle in India are bound to have their citizenship. If the law is inadequate in this respect, the law should be changed.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru in ‘Refugees and Other Problems’, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speeches, Vol 2
Ever since the time of Independence, the constant political refrain in this pivotal state of the Indian Northeast has been the ‘inundation’ it is said to be facing from East Bengali, later Bangladeshi, “illegal” migrants. It was this issue which fuelled the sons-of-soil Assam agitation of the late 1970s and early 1980s; and even today, no week passes without a politician making a speech, or a newspaper printing a report or editorial, about Bangladeshi in-migration. The fear of the Asamiya-speaking indigenous population is of being demographically, politically and culturally swamped by Muslims from Bangladesh.
It is a potent invitation to anxiety, and one which has been used to its fullest by the political elites of Assam. Not only has this matter of migrating Muslims from across the slack southern border been one of the defining themes of Assam politics, it is taken largely as a given by the academics and journalists in other parts of India and elsewhere.
But there is another point of view. An opinion that has long been whispered among a section of academics in Assam is that the migration is not as massive as it is portrayed. Certainly, there has been significant inflow of people in the first decades of the 20th century, but the claim of a threatening, and continuing influx since Independence, and more particularly since the all-important cut-off year of 1971, does not seem-plausible. As in so many other developing societies of South Asia, in Assam too, myths and dogma take root, develop their own reality, and begin to dictate political debate unchallenged by the mainstream media, academia or larger intelligentsia. Such is also the case with what can only be called the myth of continuing Bangladeshi migration into Assam.
A small but remarkably vocal section within the Asamiya society uses this myth of Bangladeshi inundation to gain political mileage before every State Assembly election or national census. Today, preparations are underway for the Census of India 2001, and suddenly the air is once again charging up with tension. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) has at this very moment decided to pull a contentious rabbit out of its hat, and is setting out on a hunt to separate the ‘indigenous’ from the ‘nonindigenous’ inhabitants based on the electoral rolls of 1952 and the National Register of Citizens of 1951.
25 March 1971
The first problem with the AASU demand is that it would have the Assam state and its political forces renege on an agreement arrived at in good faith, one that was meant to have exorcised the ghosts of communal disharmony and set the stage for Assam’s symbiotic march to the future. Perhaps, even more importantly, the demand is based on the same old charge of continuing influx of Bangladeshis, a charge that scientific study proves to be a wild exaggeration. AASU, as the premier organisation which led the Assam agitation two decades ago, should perhaps have known better than to start a process which will once again de-stabilise Assam and bring unsettling times to the minority communities of the state.
The issue of the Bangla migrant has become one that no political party seeking its electoral fortunes in the state can choose to ignore. More so, because of the spin given to it during the ‘anti-outsider’ (later ‘anti-foreigner’) movement of two decades ago which, in spite of its overtly ‘Gandhian’ politics, acquired anti-minority shades. This went on to create a communal divide in Assam – a state which till then had experienced a remarkable history of communal accommodation, with a slight aberration in the run-up to Partition and immediately thereafter.
Goaded thus towards xenophobia, the Asamiya dreads Islamic inundation and worry that the border districts of Assam (and Meghalaya) will, in the not-too-distant future, become part of a greater Bangladesh. There is also a sense of hurt evident in Guwahati, Dibrugarh and other cities of the Brahmaputra Valley, that the central government in New Delhi remains unconcerned about this issue. There is the suspicion that New Delhi’s silence is deliberate rather than diplomatic, because the ‘illegal migrants’ can serve as a dependable vote bank for the ‘secular’ among national parties.
Giving vent to their suspicions, the Asamiyas are overwhelmingly in favour of repealing the ‘failed’ Illegal Migrants’ Determination by Tribunal (1MDT) Act of 1983, and the extension of the 1946 Foreigners Act to Assam, which is applicable to the rest of the country. This would place the power to detect and push back aliens in the hands of the state police rather than the judiciary, as is the case under the IMDT.
But even if one were to accept the fact that there are Bangladeshi migrants in massive numbers in Assam, the hands of the Indian government is tied because international law would not provide for unilateral deportation without acquiescence of the receiving country. If indeed all those whom the Asamiya activists consider to be Bangladeshis were to be identified and deported, the Government of India would have to round up over three million people in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys and make arrangements for their transport south.
Fortunately, this exercise of identification and extradition need not be carried out. A look at the migratory trends in the region as well as the strictures of the Assam Accord, openly agreed to by all parties hack in 1985, means that there is not a significant population in the state that would legitimately have to face deportation. Certainly, there is a large number of Muslims of East Bengal origin here, whose forefathers came in during the colonial years. But by any reading, today, they are the citizens of India.
For too long, the perceived problem of Bangla migrants has forced the minority Muslims of Assam to live under a cloud of suspicion. The intensifying propaganda for identifying many migrants as ‘non-indigenous’ will resurrect old tensions and distrust. A large number of Assam’s Muslims will once again fear being labelled ‘non- indigenous’ because they were not enumerated in the census of 1951 and therefore left out of both the National Register of Citizens, 1951 and the Electoral Rolls, 1952.
Ironically, this very agitation by the Asamiya leaders may also lead to a sudden loss of their own political base. The same politicians who today call for the mass removal of Bengali Muslims have, in the past, depended on them to firm up their political base in multicultural Assam. Identifying themselves as Asamiya-speakers (as directed by the Muslim League after Partition), the Muslims have helped the ‘indigenous’ Asamiyas extend their hegemony over the population, both tribal and settled.
Now, however, the Muslims of East Bengal descent, tired of the long years of insecurity, may decide to report themselves in the upcoming census as Bengali-speakers rather than Asamiya-speakers – for the first time since the 1951 census. If even two-thirds of the state’s Muslims were to do so, the numerical dominance of Asamiyas in Assam would take a severe beating. In their search for illegal aliens in every street corner and sandbank, the politicians appear ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.
When the Assam Accord was signed on 14 August 1985 amidst much fanfare, the Asamiya activists had believed that they had finally found the magic formula to get rid of the ‘hordes’ of alleged Bangladeshi infiltrators. The Accord pronounced all post-1971 migrants as “illegal” and hence subject to detection and deportation. The matter was to be settled with the IMDT Act, which the Government of India introduced to ensure that genuine Indian citizens belonging to the minority communities would not be harassed in the process of searching for aliens, and to secure a fair judicial process for those detected.
Over the years, however, the Accord lost much of its sheen for the activists, primarily because the IMDT Act proved unable to detect and deport ‘illegal migrants’ at a pace and in numbers that would have satisfied them. It is in response to this alleged failure that the AASU has proposed making the 1951 register and the 1952 electoral rolls, as the basis to determine who is ‘indigenous’ and who is not.
This proposal flies in the face of the Assam Accord, which marked 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for identifying who is legal and who is not. Intriguingly, both the Government of Assam and the Government of India seem to have reached an understanding with the AASU on this matter, quietly complying with a demand that is both exclusionary and explosive. Thus, the lately dormant issue of immigration is now poised to return to the public agenda with a vengeance, and retard the ongoing process of cultural assimilation among the Muslims, Bengalis and Asamiyas of the state of Assam.
Balance of diversity
Through the ages, rather than a region of exclusive identity, Assam has been a melting pot of migrant cultures. This forested expanse at the base of the Eastern Himalaya, well-watered and fertile when the trees were felled, provided an ideal ground for rulers and peasantry alike to come and sink their roots. This is what provided Assam with its unique pluralism, not evident to the same extent in the rest of India. Historically, the migrant waves helped shape a shared ethos that evolved into what may be called the Asamiya nationality. The Asamiya evolved as a curious and lively concoction with the ‘ingredients’ consisting of Tai-Ahoms from southeast Asia, Indo-Aryans from the west, and aboriginal communities such as the Bodo-Kachari, Rabha, Mising, Deuri, Tiwa and others.
In the end, whatever their character or itinerary, the arriving communities restored the balance of diversity in Assam, enabling it to survive and remain dynamic. On occasion, particularly in times of sudden influx, there has been stress, but the society absorbed the shocks and the migrants merged into the Asamiya fold. (In its looser meaning, “Asamiya” simply means those who profess Asamiya to be their natural or acquired mother-tongue.) Migrants, whether Hindu or Muslim, became a part of the broader Assam society, enlivening its fringes, accepting both the Asamiya language and culture. Even as the in-migration continued over the early decades of the 20th century, the numerous indigenous tribes of the Brahmaputra Valley were also comfortable to be included under the general “Asamiya” appellation.
This vibrant and interactive process of Asamiya-isation suffered its first significant blow when, earlier, the imposition of Asamiya as the official language of the postcolonial state bred alienation and ethnic assertion among the tribes which till then had had no objection to being called “Asamiya”. The process suffered another grievous set-back, late in the day, when an unprecedented anti-outsider movement popularly known as the Assam Movement took off. Starting in 1979, the movement demanded the detection and deportation of all migrants, mostly East Bengalis/East Pakistanis and Nepalis entering Assam after 1951. This strident son-of-the-soil agitation sharply reversed the unobtrusive process through which the diverse peoples of Assam, tribals as well as migrants, were becoming Asamiya. The migrant Muslims with East Bengal roots, Bengali Hindus and Nepalis of Brahmaputra Valley grew apprehensive as the movement gathered steam. Labelled ‘foreigners’, many became soft targets of communal violence.
The 1985 Assam Accord between the Asamiya activists represented by AASU, the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), and the government of Indira Gandhi, agreed to accept all pre-1971 migrants as Indian citizens (meanwhile, disenfranchising those for 10 years who had entered India in the period 1966-71) and deport only those who had come in after that. It was after some 50 rounds of talks at various levels with the then central government of Indira Gandhi that the Asamiya activists accepted 25 March 1971 as the cut-off year for determining Indian citizenship.
One might have thought that the genie had been firmly put back in its bottle, and though Assam saw relative calm over the 1990s, it clearly has not prevailed. The renewed stridency was ultimately fuelled by the results of the 1991 census, which indicated a sharp rise in the number of Muslims in the fertile Brahmaputra Valley. This was taken to mean that the influx from across the border in Bangladesh had continued, and so the old fears of being overwhelmed numerically by ‘outsiders’ – and since the emergence of Bangladesh, ‘foreigners’ – resurfaced. This is what is reflected in AASU’s willingness to revive an issue that was already resolved 15 years ago.
The 1826 colonial conquest of Assam opened up the province as a land frontier, attracting large-scale immigration of both labour and enterprise from the neighbouring provinces of the Raj, especially Bengal. The initial population inflow fed the demand for tea plantation labour, which arrived mainly from the Chotanagpur plateau to the large tracts of land that were gifted away to British planters. Since the 1890s, the British also encouraged a slow but steady migration to the uninhabited Assamese tracts of impoverished Muslim peasants from the adjacent overpopulated areas of East Bengal. Back then, the Asamiya middle class welcomed this large-scale entry of productive labour and skills into the Brahmaputra Valley, and it even presented petitions to the British government to facilitate settlement. It was commonly understood that such migration was beneficial for the sparsely populated Valley and that no economic progress was possible otherwise. A leading Asamiya thinker of the 19th century, Gunaviram Barua, estimated that no less than a million people could be settled with ease from outside on the wide space of Assam.
One factor separated the Muslim settlers from the others who came to populate Assam: unlike the Hindu and the tribals from afar, the Muslim migrants were abjectly poor. Whole villages were led northward into the Brahmaputra Valley by tout-like rural Bengali Muslim strongmen called diwanis, who bought the land in their own names and settled the migrants as adhiars, agricultural labour and ryots. There is no question that this migration changed the demographic make-up of the Valley forever, even while providing the Assam economy with the labour realise its productive potential.
The new farmers filled the Valley’s western frontier as well as the char lands – low-lying, flood-prone islands in the midstream of the flow of the Brahmaputra. Energetic as migrants everywhere are, the Muslim arrivals led the way in rice-farming and multiple cropping; for the first time, jute became an important item of export. By the 1930s, the East Bengal peasants had turned their new homeland into the ricebowl of the Indian Northeast.
In their land-abundant province, the Asamiyas were initially willing to make the most of this new and incredibly cheap supply of labour. But as row after row of little thatched huts began to appear along the riverbank, the local politicians began to demand regulation and containment of the influx in order to, as one government report of 1938 put it, “save the forests and to reserve sufficient uncultivated land for the future generations of Asamiyas”. The response of the British was to enact the Line System, whereby native settlements were separated from the crowded migrant busfee. Small enclaves or ghettos of East Bengal Muslims emerged along the riverine districts of Assam, where no native wished to set up home. These lands, connected to the mainland only by the country-boat, hosted the speakers of various dialects of the East Bengal countryside.
It was after the Partition of India and the defeat of the Muslim League cause in Assam (the party wanted the province to join East Pakistan) that the League ordered the migrant Muslims henceforth to declare Asamiya as their mother tongue during census counts rather than Bengali. This appeal was heeded by a community that was essentially an oppressed and landless group with little dignity in society, looking for bare survival. The Muslims realised the futility of clamouring for Pakistan and recognised the need to live in Assam as Asamiyas, if they were to retain their landholdings in the Brahmaputra Valley. And so they declared themselves Asamiyas in the census of 1951, and over time seem to have genuinely become committed to their new identity. Meanwhile, the Asom Sahitya Sabha, champion of Asamiya culture and language, itself began to encourage the process of assimilation of these people into the broader fold as Na Asamiyas, or New Asamiyas.
This ‘merger’ served the Asamiya interest in three important ways: one, for the first time, the Asamiya speakers became an absolute majority within Assam. This majority status was further consolidated in subsequent decades, including through the enactment of the Official Languages Act, 1960, making Asamiya the sole official language of the state. This, in itself, was possible only because of the Muslims settlers’ support to the agitation for such an enactment. Two, the electoral support of the Muslim settlers provided Asamiya leaders with a safe route to political power, which was essential for the retention and expansion of Asamiya hegemony over Assam’s diverse peoples. Three, this marriage of convenience with the migrant Muslims served as a counter-weight against the powerful Hindu Bengalis of Assam, who, after Partition, became a minority in the re-constituted state.
In 1978, the American sociologist Myron Weiner (who passed away recently), wrote about an “unspoken coalition between the Assamese and the Bengali Muslims against the Bengali Hindus”. However, he noted that this was “not a wholly stable coalition” since “a new major influx of Bengali Muslims into Assam” or “coalescence of Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims” could destroy this accommodation. The instability predicted by Weiner was demonstrated when a perceived dramatic rise of Muslims between the 1951-1971 period led to the Assam Movement. The AsamiyaMuslim honeymoon, it seemed, was over.
The main plank of the anti-foreigner movement of the 1970s and 1980s was the issue of “illegal” migration from south of the border, and the argument was mostly based on the “abnormal” 39 percent growth of Muslims in Assam between 1951 and 1961. The contention was that these were Muslim infiltrators from East Pakistan.
Analysis of the census data, however, could have thrown up a vastly different conclusion. Comparison of the size of the Muslim population between the census of 1941 and that of 1951 shows that there were 18 percent fewer Muslims in Assam at the end of the decade in 1951. This was due to a large-scale exodus of migrant Muslims to East Pakistan following the post-Partition communal riots that shook Assam in 1950. Parliamentarian Hem Barua, in his widely-read Red River and Blue Hills (1962, Lawyers’ Book Stall, Guwahati), wrote that during Partition, around “53,000 Muslim families were displaced”.
Though a considerable number of these Muslims returned to Assam a few years later, following the signing of the Nehru-Liaqat Khan Pact of 1950, they were left un-enumerated in the Census of 1951, carried out as it was in their absence. (In the pact, the Indian and Pakistani governments guaranteed freedom of movement and protection in transit for those displaced by communal disturbances of the time. Similarly, the migrants were to be given protection for their safe passage home, and rehabilitated if they returned before 31 December 1951.) This departure of a significant proportion of the population of lower Assam found categorical mention in the Census Report of 1951, which noted that there was a “clear underestimation of some 68,815 persons”. A subsequent census report also stated that “there may have been some Muslims of Goalpara and Kamrup who might not have been able to come back to their homes in Assam during the 1951 census, (and) some Muslims living in the chars or sand- banks of the river Brahmaputra also might have been left out of the 1951 census”. Meanwhile, at least 200,000 Hindu Bengali and Garo refugees fled from East Pakistan to Assam in the period 1951-71, and they too were left out from the census and electoral rolls.
The reason there was seen to be an abnormal hike in the number of Muslims in Assam between 1951-1961 was because the Muslims who had fled were resettled in Assam, having reclaimed their land and homesteads. They got enumerated in the 1961 census. Prominent Asamiyas, like politicians Hem Barua and Mahendra Mohan Choudhury, agreed with this explanation for the sudden increase in the Muslim population. While there exists no official data on the actual number of the Muslims who left Assam in 1950, B.P. Misra, a leading researcher, offered the following number of Muslim emigrants from Assam districts to East Pakistan in the wake of communal riots of 1950:
The reason why the political elite would want 1951 as the cut-off year is thus clear – in a single stroke, a large portion of the Muslim population of lower Assam would be rendered ‘non-indigenous’.
The principal argument forwarded by the activists to prove a continuous and continuing illegal migration of Bangladeshis is the ‘abnormal’ growth of Muslims in Assam in the period 1971-1991. For proof, most tend to point to the Muslims who have flooded the daily-wage labour sector in Assam. It is automatically assumed that these poor Muslims entering the cities as riksa-pullers and road gang members are coming from Bangladesh. Few city-dwellers pause to ponder whether these poor may not come from the destitute riverine belt of lower Assam. The claim is also made that the number of Asamiya speakers has decreased alarmingly during the same period, and that the number of legislators of “doubtful citizenship” in the Assam legislature is on the rise.
These arguments put forward by the antiforeigner leaders are at best the result of misinformation, but they are consumed unquestioningly by locals as well as those who read the newspapers outside Assam. To begin with, this mistaken perspective completely disregards the humanist-liberal heritage of the Asamiya national culture which historically did not suffer from the ‘xenophobia’ of the later periods. More importantly, it seeks to deny political representation – the right to stand in elections – for some of the poorest communities of India, the Na Asamiya Muslims. The anti-foreigner activists persevere in their attempts to wipe out the memory that Assam has always served as a melting-pot of a remarkably diverse population; they want to use the nativist agenda to further their own cause of hegemonism. If they succeed, the activists will have managed to render cultural differences sharper and more clearcut than it has ever been in Assam’s multicultural and syncretic history.
For centuries, large areas of grey has connected the identities of natives and migrants. The agitationists of today are denying Assam’s amazing process of cultural accommodation and creating dangerous uncertainties. Without doubt, there are illegal foreign nationals residing in Assam, and a majority would be Muslim, but to write off a large Muslim community forming some 28 percent of the total population of the state as ‘non-indigenous’, is not only simplistic, but inflammatory. In the end, activism of this kind will only hurt Assam, as no polity can progress when the very basis of its self-perception is based on a fiction – that the Muslims of Assam are by and large ‘non-indigenous’.
Without doubt, there was an ‘unnatural’ increase in the population of East Bengal Muslims, as they streamed into Assam as a result of colonial policy in the period 1911-41. Back then, of course, this was seen as “internal migration” from one province of the Raj to another. But to attribute all subsequent postcolonial increases summarily to illegal migration from Bangladesh is taking an impressionistic view of a complicated problem. To begin with, Islam has had a history of more than seven centuries in Assam, and today’s population is made up of a large number of local converts as well as descendants of Mughal and Pathan migrants of long ago.
Contrary to the ‘floating’ wisdom doing the rounds in Guwahati, the percentage of Muslims in Assam remained steady at 25 percent for the entire period between 1941-1971 and only increased to 28 percent in the 20 years between 1971-1991. (There was no census in Assam in 1981.) It is commonly held out that the decadal growth rate of Muslims in Assam at 77 percent in 1991 is far above the allIndia Muslim growth rate of 71 percent and that such growth rate is, again, ‘abnormal’ and points to migration. However, a look at the growth rate of Muslims in the other Indian states (see table above) disproves this notion outright, with eight Indian states showing a higher growth rate of Muslims and three others showing a similar growth. It is reasonable thus to suggest that Muslims, as a whole, have registered a similarly high growth rate all over India and this is not a phenomenon peculiar to Assam.
Demographers believe that poverty, illiteracy and social backwardness are directly linked to significant population increase, and hence it is natural for the population of the East Bengal settlers to have increased at a rate faster than some adjacent communities.
It is in three Assam districts – Goalpara, Dhuburi and Barpeta – that Muslims constitute a majority. All three districts are contiguous to the then East Bengal, attracting the largest numbers of Muslim migrants in the colonial years. Undivided Goalpara was, in fact, the very first Assam district to be settled upon by the East Bengal peasants as early as in 1901-1911. These ‘coastal’ areas were historically considered uninhabitable by the natives, and the Line System worked to further ghettoise the settlers on the Brahmaputra banks and chars. It should therefore come as no surprise if a hundred years later, these three districts should have a marginal majority of Muslim population – not through continuing migration but natural increase.
Meanwhile, the decrease in the growth rate of Asamiya speakers in Assam between 1971 and 1991 is heralded by the Asamiya activists as proof of cultural inundation. This decrease is actually easily explained. It is the result of the systematic Asamiya-isation policy followed by Shillong/Dispur since 1947 (Shillong was the erstwhile capital of undivided Assam). , Following the linguisg tic re-organisation of states, the Asamiya language was looked upon as a sacred vehicle of collective selfassertion in Assam, and the first chief minister of independent Assam, Gopinath Bardoloi, was categorical when he stated, “Assam is for the Asamiya”. He was using the term in its narrow interpretation.
When Asamiya was imposed as the official language beyond the Brahmaputra Valley, it was resented in the tribal hills and flatlands, as well as in the culturally ‘different’ Barak Valley with its predominantly Bengali population. Even the tribals of the Valley who had become bilingual and adjusted easily to Asamiya, resented this overt imposition. As a result, they struggled to revive their own languages from slumber, and tribal assertion was triggered, which is one reason for the latterday rise of the Bodo agitation.
Language thus became an important tool for asserting a distinct identity and in opposing the postcolonial Asamiya hegemony within Assam. This was why the census of 1991 registered a high growth rate of the speakers of tribal languages in Assam, as much as 247 percent, 122 and 115 percent for the Rabhas, Bodos and Misings respectively. Consequently, the number reporting as speakers of Asamiya declined from 61 percent in 1971 to 58 percent in 1991.
Char to Mainland
For many years, the chars along the Brahmaputra have been facing excessive erosion, which has pushed a large number of Muslims from lower Assam to head for ‘mainland Assam’ for survival. This migration, and the arrival of the impoverished labouring class in the shanties of urban Assam, is seen by many as simple proof of fresh illegal migration from Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, those who stay back in the chars and the Brahmaputra banks close by the Bangladeshi border in the districts of Dhuburi and Goalpara live a hand-to-mouth existence. It is hard to imagine these poor Muslims welcoming illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Even an illiterate daily wage labourer would understand that such migration can only lead to a fall in the number of working days and salary, and further fragmentation of land. The lungi-clad, bilingual Muslim labourers are a new and unusual sight in Assam’s towns and this novelty leads many to raise the bogey of the “Bangladeshi”.
Neither does the data support the suggestion that there is a steady rise in the number of legislators in Assam of “doubtful” citizenship, supposedly due to the electoral support of “illegal” migrants voting as Indians. The falsity of this claim can be seen by simply studying the makeup of the Assam Legislative Assembly (facing page table). It appears that in the postcolonial period the percentage of Muslim legislators has remained at an average 17 percent of the total membership in the State Assembly. Given their somewhat larger proportion in the population, the Muslims are actually underrepresented in the state legislature.
The question of ‘imbalance’
There is no question that the fear of being outnumbered would have had some basis for Asamiya worry in the colonial years. The Asamiya population, less than eight lakh around 1826 and 15 lakh in 1901, was growing very slowly both in relative and absolute terms. Likewise, there was more reason to feel culturally beleaguered under the British. The Asamiya language lay suppressed for 36 long years, from 1837-73, when Bengali was foisted as the official language of the state.
However, the situation of the Asamiyas changed rapidly after 1947. From two million in 1931 to five million in 1951, and nearly nine million in 1971, the number of Asamiya speakers in Assam has grown by leaps and bounds. Again, the share of Asamiya speakers in the total population moved from 23 percent in 1931 to 56 percent in 1951 and 61 percent in 1971, partly of course due to the reporting by the Muslims as stated above. The number of Bengali speakers in Assam, meanwhile, declined steadily, from its 30 percent share in 1931 to 21 percent in 1991.
It is easy to see that in the period 1951-1991, neither the religious nor the linguistic balance of Assam has been disturbed to the extent that any community needs to feel agitated. The problem of illegal migration obviously exists, but dispassionate study of the various census data, including the Census of 1991, shows that this amounts in the thousands rather than millions. It would surely be a sorry departure if fears unsupported by history or social scientific analysis were to be used by politicians to trigger off a fresh societal crisis in the state. If one were to go by the overconfident prophesies of the anti-foreigner leaders in the early 1980s, the Asamiyas would have been wiped out of Assam by now.
There is no confusion, however, that all post-1971 foreigners living “illegally” in Assam/ India must be deported. This is what the Assam Accord demands and this should be followed to the letter. However, there is no need to generate hysteria about a culturein-crisis in order to expel a few thousand “illegal” migrants. To clear Assam of her aliens, there must be unity among all sections of Assamese people – the Asamiyas, the Muslim and Hindu Bengalis and the various tribes. Clubbing all or most Muslims as “illegals” will not invite their cooperation, and knee-jerk responses from organisations like the AASU will only create obstacles in the path to peace, as they try to link the issue of illegal migrants with that of the linguistic and religious minorities living in Assam.
The migrant Muslims of East Bengal descent are themselves eager to accept and adopt the Asamiya language, while most of the Bengali Hindus living in the Brahmaputra Valley are for all practical purposes bilingual. Many other communities have already passed through this bilingual phase, for example, the Tai-Ahoms, some sections of the tribals, and to some extent, the Nepalis in Assam.
There is now, more than ever, a need within Assam for inclusionary political and social projects in which the Asamiyas, the tribals and the descendants of settlers in the state can be partners in evolving a new cultural accomodation which reflect the historical legacy. What is not required is another round of debate on who is an indigene in Assam or whose father or mother was or was not counted in 1951. There cannot be two different classes of citizens in the state, those who can contest elections and those who cannot. It is quite another matter, of course, that the National Register of Citi- zens, 1951 – the touchstone of the AASU’s argument – is inadmissible in a court of law for any civil or criminal proceeding. This is what the High Court of Assam has decided, and it will be a travesty if the state- and national-level politicians were to again unearth that document to fan an epic divide in a state that had always shown the way in cultural assimilation.
~ Anindita Dasgupta teaches at the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Taylor’s University, Malaysia.
~ First published in our August 2000 issue.
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