The recent riots in Assam have brought various questions which were lying in cold storage to the fore. This riot has also generated tremendous curiosity and war of words on the social media as to whether the riots were downright “communal”, or in fact they were “ethnic” riots. It may however be pointed out that calling this riot communal is as much a generalization as calling it ethnic, in fact there are various forces at play making this situation much more complex than the riots of 1984 in Delhi, or 2002 in Gujarat. The only parallel that can be drawn to the ethnic riots in Western Assam is the riot in 1983 in Nellie in Assam, in which many thousands were butchered within a span of six hours.
To understand the complexity of the riot, one has to understand the various problems arising out of defining people as indigenous and immigrants, and how after the independence of India in 1947, immigration rules were flouted to allow unabated illegal migration into the state of Assam. To know the demographical contours of what has been called the melting pot of Assam, one has to go at least to the colonial times, and the impact of the politics of those time on the present political and demographic scenario in Assam.
Migration has always been a reality in Assam. Throughout history people from various places have migrated to Assam, and the melting pot of Assam has assimilated them since time immemorial. However, these migrations were during the time when the concept of nation-states and citizenship were not well-defined, and hence there was no definition of the legality and illegality of such migration. However, after 1947, when the British left India, we had our own policy of immigration, citizenship and voting rights. Hence, the legal definition of the word “foreigner” comes into effect from 1947.
If we go back to the colonial era, many communities from Nepal, undivided Bengal, and other parts of India also migrated to Assam. The migrants from Nepal were mainly grazers or Gorkha soldiers working for the Army. The people from Chhotanagpur plateau area, mainly Jharkhand and Orissa were hired as laborers by the British to work for the tea gardens. The people from Bengal can be broadly classified into Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims. In the colonial era, the Bengali Hindus were mainly from the elite class, who used to work as officials. Later on there was another class of Bengali Hindu refugees from East Bengal, who were rendered homeless after the inhuman atrocities meted out to them during partition by their linguistic counterparts who happened to be Muslims. The Bengali Muslim immigrants were mainly cultivators, who migrated in accordance with the British policy of “Grow more food”, which ultimately many people felt was also complimentary with the Muslim League’s design to “Grow more Muslims”, obviously in the later part of the colonial era when they wanted greater territory for their separate land called Pakistan.
The earliest conflicts of Assamese people were with the Bengali Hindus. This was mainly the outcome of imposition of Bengali in Assam as the medium of instruction in schools, and the Bengali-speaking officials obviously aroused a sense of contempt amongst Assamese. This can mainly be regarded as a conflict between the caste Assamese and Bengali Hindu elite, which ultimately had far-reaching consequences in the post-colonial era. This conflict also drove a wedge between the districts in Barak Valley, with predominantly Bengali population and the caste Assamese of the Brahmaputra Valley, when after independence Assamese was slated to be declared the official language of Assam. It is therefore more of a cultural issue and a fight for linguistic hegemony from both sides.
The second and the relevant topic at this point of time is the conflict with the Bengali Muslims. The British in 1911 noted that the population pressure on East Bengal, especially the districts of Mymensingh, Pabna, Bogra and Rangpur was very high, and there was a lot of fertile land available in areas like Goalpara and Barpeta for Bengali Muslims who were mostly cultivators. In 1921, the British census noted considerable immigration had taken place in these districts by immigrant communities, and some were even found near the Bhutanese border. There was a 55.6% migration between 1911 and 1921, when the Brahmaputra valley alone is taken into account. This trend continued till independence.
Unlike Bengali Hindus, the earliest of the Bengali Hindus immigrants, either out of fear or compulsion, returned Assamese as their mother tongue. This was evident when the number of Assamese speakers rose from 31.4% in 1931 to 56.7% in 1951, which is in many ways incredible. Simultaneously, the percentage of Bengali speakers in Assam declined from 26.8% in 1931 to 16.5% in 1951. The elite Assamese caste people as well as many intellectuals of that time were more than accommodative to Bengali Muslims, who they thought were more likely to return Assamese as their mother tongue in days to come. The Congress party also saw a huge vote-bank, and created almost favorable conditions for infiltration from East Pakistan from 1951 to 1971, even after independence. Thus, the percentage rise in Muslim population in Assam was unchecked. Myron Weiner writes in Sons of the Soil, published in 1978:
‘After 1947 the Bengali Muslims became de facto allies of the Assamese in their conflict with the Bengali Hindus. Bengali Muslims have been willing to accept Assamese as the medium of instruction in their schools, and have thrown their votes behind Assamese candidates for the state Assembly and the national Parliament. They have declared Assamese as their mother tongue. In return, the state government has not attempted to eject Bengali Muslims from lands on which they have settled in the Brahmaputra valley, though earlier leaders had claimed that much of the settlement had taken place illegally… There is thus an unspoken coalition between the Assamese and the Bengali Muslims against the Bengali Hindus’
It must however be noted that after India became independent in 1947, all the Bengali Muslims who had migrated till that point were and are legal citizens of India. But illegal immigration went unabated, and out of a sheer influence of vote-bank politics, and a clear mistake by Assamese intellectuals to consider the compulsion of the immigrants to return Assamese as their mother tongue as a choice took a dangerous turn in the 1970s. A.F. Ghulam Osmani from Barpeta emerged as a leader who stressed on his linguistic identity as Bengali as well as his religious identity. He saw a new contour to the unspoken alliances, where the Bengali Muslims need not pander to interests of the caste Assamese Hindus. The tacit support of the government made it impossible to make out which Bengali Muslims had migrated prior to 1951 (and hence Indian citizens) from the illegal immigrants who migrated later.
Now, as these developments were unfolding, illegal immigrants started exerting pressure on tribal territory. Places like Nagaon, Morigaon etc started feeling the pressure due to the encroachment of tribal lands by the immigrant population. This was felt by tribes specially the Tiwas, and now the Bodos as they were the first victims of such encroachment. The Assamese intellectuals were content at the linguistic assimilation of the immigrants; however they turned a blind eye to the pressure on land that they cast, as most on the receiving side were the tribesmen. This conflict ultimately served the basis of the Nellie riots of 1983, where 3000 Muslims of Bengali origin were killed. (Though the immediate causes of the riot were different, but the main cause was the socio-economic pressure of immigration.) Thus, one major distinction can be observed. The torchbearers of the struggle with Bengali Hindus, which was a linguistic struggle were Assamese intellectuals and caste Hindus. The tribal areas were the conflict areas of Bengali Muslim-indigenous divide, it was they who suffered the most, and it was they who were the most active retaliators.
Now, after the neglect of the tribesmen, there was another problem which faced the society. Muslims of Bengali origin after 1978 state assembly elections became more assertive of their linguistic identity. Thus after the Assam Agitation of 1979-1985 Muslim parties from UMF to AIUDF have been desirous of making a linguistic coalition to further their religious agenda. The rise of Islamic assertion after from 1980s to 2000s throughout the world did not leave these people untouched. The Pakistan based ISI found out new ways of entering India’s territory by indoctrinating people from Assam through the rise of communal elements. The rising communal sentiments also made the Bengali Hindu apprehensive of joining the Osmani bandwagon, and after 1991, especially in the Barak Valley they started opting for the BJP in a clear sign of polarization.
1978 was in many ways a turning point in Assamese nationalism. Though the immigrants from 1901-1951 had by and large become Assamese, with their children and grand children being the product of being provided education in Assamese, as well as the policy of assimilation that their grandparents had adopted for survival. Many poets and writers also emerged from their midst. But, there was another angle to it. People among them who stressed more on their religious identity allowed illegal immigration to continue unabated even after independence, and with increasing numbers the compulsion to assimilate themselves into the melting pot that was Assam gradually diminished. Assam was slowly losing its identity, because the sheer magnitude of this migration is perhaps unprecedented.
The rise of leaders like Osmani stands testimony to the fact. In 1978 again, the MP of Mangaldoi (in Lower-Middle Assam) Mr. Hiralal Patowari died, and after his death it was noted that the number of people in the electoral rolls had gone considerably high. This led to massive protests by the AASU, and the Assamese voter had finally risen up to the task of opposing illegal immigration. There were such voices raised earlier by the tribespeople in Assam , but from 1979-1985 the whole of Assamese population, including tribals united against illegal immigration and the anti-foreigner movement ultimately led to the signing of the Assam accord, where the people agreed to have 1971 as a metric for judging who is a foreigner.
The opponents of the movement, especially the Congress party found that such movement would actually be detrimental to their interests. Therefore they sought to divide the Assamese society by encouraging militancy, and followed a policy where separate tribes were encouraged to highlight their differences rather than similarities. The aspirations of the tribes for self-development were used as a tool to fuel discord in the Assamese society. Concordant with that was the failure of governance machinery, mainly due to the deteriorating Centre-State relationship. The tribes which faced the direct fallout of immigration in form of land also felt left out. Then came the IMD(T) act for Assam which required proving someone is not a citizen on the complainant, rather than the citizen himself as is practiced in the rest of India. Even when it was struck down after it had already done a lot of damage, many organization opposed it, saying that the laws which applied for the whole of India, were specially harassment for bona-fide citizens of India, only because they lived in Assam. A dangerous trend has emerged where citizens have been mobilized to oppose registration of citizenship by instilling in them the fear of harassment. This is the reason of fundamentalist elements on one side and purist parochial elements on the other who have created this policy paralysis.
The number of illegal immigrants (using the 1971 metric) has been a contentious issue. The number varies from 0 (claimed by AIUDF and some Congress politicians) to 50 lakhs (stated by Lal Krishna Advani). Walter Fernandes estimates from the growth in Muslim population and taking into account the high fertility rate, that the figure scientifically adds up to 15 lakh.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in various pockets of Assam was parallel to its rise in the world. Organisations like Al Qaeda also saw Assam as a new laboratory for their designs of Islamization of the entire world. ISI grew active, and by polarizing the immigrant Muslim population, they ensured that illegal immigration which was an economic seepage became an external aggression. Intellectuals still deny its magnitude, but it is a harsh reality in many areas of Assam. Networks like HuJi have been active in Lower Assam and Barak Valley.
This has added a communal dimension to the ethnic or economic conflict. People are now living in denial; intellectuals are not acting impartial because they consider turning a blind eye to this menace is going to paint them in more secular colour. Assamese speaking Muslims have by and large resisted these designs and also consider the Bangladeshis as the ones who are encroaching upon the benefits that minorities get from the state, and have stressed on their Assamese identity rather than Islamic one. However, the plans of these elements include radicalization of this group of population, so as to receive logistic support for illegal immigration, and ensure that this conflict reaches a point of full-fledged external aggression.
The recent riots in Assam are a manifestation of these complex realities. The Bodo militancy, and the lack of law and order in these areas means that the struggle might get a bloodier in the days to come. I am not a pessimist, but any pragmatist will see this coming, unless there is a serious political consensus, and a nationalist, united approach against illegal immigration. The Bodos and the Tiwas were the first victims of illegal immigration. They turned perpetrators of unseen violence under provocation, in Nellie in 1983 and Kokrajhar in 2012. In many unheard of cases in areas where they are in a minority, the Bodos are also victims. This is not a justification, but a mere reason. The density of population in minority dominated districts of Assam which border/include tribal areas is high. : Dhubri has a density of 1171, Barpeta 632, Nagaon 711, compared to Sonitpur which has 365, and Dibrugarh 393. All these districts have almost similar (physical) geographical characteristics. Dhubri borders Kokrajhar whose density of population is just 280. This gradient is a reason enough for ethnic diffusion. Ethnic diffusion is the reason for ethnic tension. Does it take a soothsayer to predict that? At least it takes an insensitive and incompetent government to ignore that.
Assam should realize that this situation cannot continue for long. Some strong long-term planning has to go into a robust policy framework. The Parliament of India should also act responsibly to its border state of Assam, as a systemic demographic imbalance of Assam will spell disaster for the rest of India. If Assam becomes a victim, can India continue to be an ignorant onlooker?
India against itself- Assam and the politics of nationality. Sanjib Baruah.
IMDT Act and Immigratio in North-Eastern India. Walter Fernandes