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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 35 August 18, 2018

The Bangladeshi Problem in Assam: A Historical Background

Thursday 16 August 2018, by Barun Das Gupta


The publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam on July 30 has once again raised the question: who is an Assamese in Assam? Four million permanent residents of Assam have been excluded from the NRC. Those excluded have been given time until August 28 to apply again with necessary documents which include, among other things, the proof that the applicant’s father and grandfather and mother and grandmother had been permanent residents of Assam—a condition very few can fulfil. Production of birth certificates is also mandatory. But the plain fact is that birth registration become mandatory in Assam only after 1969, when the Registration of Births and Deaths Act came into force. Those born before 1969 have no birth certificates.

Presumably, hundreds of thousands will find their names missing from the final NRC even after August. These people will become Stateless. They will lose citizenship rights which include the voting right, the right to have the Aadhar card which in turn will entitle them to have a mobile phone or a domestic gas connection or open a bank account and sundry other things. They will not be eligible for any job, nor will they be able to send their children to school. What will happen to these ‘non-citizens’, where they live and what they eat, how they earn their livelihood and how they survive is apparently nobody’s headache.

Neither the Central nor the State Government seems overly worried about the future of these hapless people. According to them, they are all ‘Bangladeshis’ who have no business to be in Assam. They should all go to Bangladesh. But that is just not possible. Bangladesh has categorically stated that no citizen of their country is illegally living in India and they will not take back anyone branded as ‘Bangladeshi’ and sought to be deported to Bangladesh. Their deportation is not possible. This the Assamese-speaking people of the Brahmaputra Valley also know. So the next best course is to allow them to stay but deprive them of their citizenship. They must be disenfranchised so that they cannot either stand for elections or take part in voting and thereby influence the outcome of the elections and formation of the government. Muslims constitute about 34 per cent of the total population and in several constituencies they are the deciding factor. The NRC is meant to undo just that.

A look into past history is necessary to understand the genesis of the so-called ‘Bangladeshi’ problem and its evolution. The British set foot in Assam after signing the Yandabo Treaty with the King of Ava (Burma) in 1826. After several years, British planters introduced tea in Assam and started cultivating tea. In his well-researched book, Hammer Blow: A History of the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre, Assam, Arup Kumar Dutta writes that Assam tea was first sent to London, via Calcutta, in May, 1838.

But tea cultivation on a big scale started only in the 1860s. The British planters bought thousands of acres of land for tea plantation, mostly in Upper Assam. Some tea gardens were also opened in Darrang, Kamrup and then the undivided Goalpara districts. To work in the tea gardens, the British needed labourers, tens of thousands of them. They brought the labourers mainly from the Chhota Nagpur plateau (now in Jharkhand), Andhra and Odisha. So the number of food consumers in Assam increased by leaps and bounds. Around the same time something else also took place. Kaala azar broke out in Assam as an epidemic and took a heavy toll of lives. Historian Amalendu Guha in his book, Planter Raj to Swaraj, has recorded that from 1881 onward, kaala azar spread rapidly. Between 1881 and 1891 the disease killed 18 per cent people in Goalpara district. In the next decade it killed 7.1 per cent people in Kamrup district, nine per cent in Darrang and 24.8 per cent in Nagaon.

They were all rural people engaged in cultivation. (Even today, cultivation is the mainstay of Assam.) The net effect of the two developments was that while the number of food consumers rose rapidly, the number of food growers (farmers) declined sharply. Much more food needed to be produced. It is then that the British started encouraging hard-working Bengali Muslim farmers from East Bengal to migrate to Assam and settle down as cultivators. Assam then was sparsely populated. Unculti-vated land was available aplenty. The East Bengal farmers were hard working and soon reclaimed vast stretches of fertile land and started growing rice and vegetables. Food production in Assam started growing.

During those days, the Assamese-speaking caste Hindu population of the Brahmaputra Valley not only did not resent the coming of the East Bengal farmers but welcomed them. In the mid-1920s Congress leader (and later a Minister) Rohini Chowdhury stated in the Assam Legislative Council that these East Bengal farmers had contributed to the prosperity of the State by making fallow lands cultivable and raising food production.

The situation started changing after another ten years—from the 1930s. The indigenous population of Assam was also increasing and they too needed land. Conflict of interest started between the local Assamese and the immigrant Muslims cultivators. Still later, as doctors, lawyers and engineers started coming out of the immigrant Muslim families, there was a competition for jobs as well. The old attitude of welcoming the Muslim farmers changed into one of hostility.

Meanwhile, the heavy influx of Bengali Muslim farmers and their penetration deep into the rural areas created panic among the Assamese. They demanded a ‘line system’ to be introduced, an imaginary line beyond which the Bengali Muslim cultivators will not be allowed to settle. But the line system remained on paper only. The influx from East Bengal continued. Another fear began forming in the minds of the Assamese— the fear that some day they might become a minority in their own land (the Brahmaputra Valley), outnumbered by the Bengali Muslims.

One incident brings into sharp focus how intense this fear of the local Assamese was. Amalendu Guha in his book, referred to above, writes (pp. 256-257):

“Meanwhile the Congress high command was kept informed of the gravity of the Assam situation. ‘If Karachi resolutions are literally interpreted, the immigrants have every right to acquire land, property etc., and there cannot be a Line system. On the other hand,’ Bardoloi wrote to Rajendra Prasad in November 1937, ‘our people, whether Congressmen or otherwise, all feel that adequate reservation must be there.’ He apprehended that, short of a rigid Line system, the linguistic problem would become in the coming years ‘a source of constant friction resulting in violence, incendiarism and crimes of all kinds . . .’

“Segregationists tried to thrash out the issue with Nehru when he came to Assam in November, 1937. Nilmoni Phukan and Ambikagiri Raychaudhury represented to him on behalf of the Assamese Samrakshini Sabha that a ‘purely local and racial question’ had recently been given a communal colour by the Muslim League. According to them, Bengali Muslim immigrants were willing to identify themselves with the Assamese people in matters of language and culture, but were now being persuaded and ‘forced’ to read Bengali. The effect of each national movement and the constitutional advance that followed in the province had been, according to them, disastrous to Assamese interests. They pointed out:

“. . . as a means of saving the Assamese race from extinction, a considerable section of the Assamese intelligentsia has even expressed their minds in favour of the secession of Assam from India. This is how the present situation appears to the average Assamese, and they look to you, the National Congress, to help the Assamese to get out of these dangers.” (emphasis ours)

“Secession of Assam from India”. The idea was there in 1937, full ten years before India attained independence and full 42 years before the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) stated a movement in 1979 with the professed goal of an independent Assam.

In 1947, when preparations were going on for the partition of Bengal (and Punjab), Gopinath Bardoloi, a prominent Congress leader and later Chief Minister of Assam, wanted the Bengali-majority Sylhet district of Assam to go to East Pakistan. The intention was to reduce the number of Bengalis in post-independence Assam. A plebiscite was held in which the Bengali Muslims voted overwhelmingly for the inclusion of Sylhet in East Pakistan. Only three subdivisions of Silchar, Karimganj and Hailakandi were left in India. These subdivisions were later upgraded to full-fledged distiricts and now constitute the Barak Valley of Assam.

Shortly after independence, anti-Bengali riots were organised, targeting the Bengali Hindus who were educationally and economically advanced. These riots took place in 1948, 1955 (just after the States Reorganisation Commission chaired by Fazal Ali submitted its report), then in 1960 and finally during the five-year long “anti-foreigner movement” of 1979-85 which culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord.

By then the Bengali Hindus of Assam had been displaced from the position of eminence that they had once enjoyed. So the threat perception of the Assamese also changed. They saw the main danger to them coming from the Bengali Muslims rather than from the Bengali Hindus. The earlier antipathy to Bengali Hindus had changed. This was the historical perspective against which the signing of the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985, took place.

The signatories were the two bodies spear-heading the movement, namely, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP, later renamed Asom Gana Parishad or AGP), on the one hand, and the Government of India on the other. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was a signatory to the Accord. We will now refer to the most important clauses of the Accord.

Clause 5.2 of the Accord said: “All persons who came to Assam prior to 1.1.1966, including those amongst them whose names appeared on the electoral rolls used in 1967 elections, shall be regularised.”

Clause 5.3 said: “Foreigners who came to Assam after 1.1.1966 (inclusive) and upto 24th March, 1971, shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964.”

Clause 5.4 read: “Names of foreigners so detected will be delisted from the electoral rolls in force. Such persons will be required to register themselves before the Registration Officers of the respective districts in accordance with the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939.”

Clause 5.5 said: “For this purpose, Government of India will undertake suitable streng-thening of the governmental machinery,”

And Clause 5.6 said: On the expiry of a period of ten years following the date of detection, the names of all such persons which have been deleted from the electoral rolls shall be restored.” (Emphasis mine — B.D.G.)

So, these people were to be disenfranchised for ten years, after which their voting right would be restored to them.

It is Clause 5.7 of the Accord which says: “All persons who were expelled earlier, but have since re-entered illegally into Assam, shall be expelled.”

Now, to cut a long and tedious story short, for the detection and deportation of illegal immigrants, the Parliament passed a law named “Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act”. Under the Act tribunals were to be set up in the districts and all complaints about someone being a foreigner illegally staying in Assam were to be investigated by the police and, if found true, they would be deported. These tribunals achieved very little. Only a handful of persons were detected. Some were pushed across the Bangladesh border but almost all of them returned, crossing back into Assam at some other point of the Indo-Bangladesh border, only to find that their land and houses had been taken possession of by others. The IMDT Act failed to deport the so-called Bangladeshis.

Soon, there was a strident demand by the Assamese to repeal the IMDT Act. It was claimed that instead of identifying and deporting the Bangladeshis, the Act was actually protecting them and helping them to stay illegally in India. The dispute ultimately reached the Supreme Court which struck down the Act in July 2005 as being ultra vires of the Constitution. The Assamese people welcomed the Apex Court’s verdict as a great victory. But the ground situation remained unchanged. The so-called Bangladeshis stayed on in Assam as before.

Today, in private conversation the Assamese frankly admit that physical deportation of the Bangladeshis is practically impossible. They can only be disenfranchised. This is what the NRC aims to do, without openly saying so. The fact that apart from the Bengali Muslims, there are many Bengali Hindus, Nepalis and Indian citizens from other States of India like Bihar, UP, etc., whose names do not appear in the draft NRC doesn’t worry the authorities. They think that most of them would be able to provide necessary documents by August 28. If some are still left out, that can only be taken as an unintended ‘collateral damage’.

The BJP wants to evict and throw out as many millions of Bengali-speaking Muslims (to the BJP every Bengali-speaking Muslim in Assam is ipso facto a Bangladeshi) from Assam as possible. This is part of the party’s vote-bank politics. That it is nothing but crude vote-bank politics is proved by another move it has simultaneously taken. This is to amend the Citizenship Act so that any non-Muslim coming to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan will be given Indian citizenship. Only Muslims coming from these countries will not be eligible.

The fear of physical eviction and being thrown out of their hearths and homes now haunts those whose names do not appear in the NRC. But it will not be easy for the BJP—the party and its governments at the Centre and the State—to achieve its objective. Already, many Opposition parties have taken up their cause. Any attempt at en masse eviction of so many million people will throw Assam and the entire region into turmoil and violence with unforeseen political consequences for the country. It will also unwittingly help India’s enemies and give them a handle to make it an international issue of human rights violation. One can only hope that good sense will prevail on the ruling party and it will retrace its steps before it is too late.

The BJP leaders are also saying ominously that if they come to power in West Bengal, they will draw up an NRC for Bengal also and anyone found to be a ‘Bangladeshi’ “will be held by the scruff of his neck and thrown out” without clarifying where. The situation in West Bengal is very different from that in Assam and any attempt at applying force to evict people whom the BJP considers ‘Bangladeshis’ will prove extremely politically costly. But the BJP’s intention is clear. Come what may, play the politics of communal polarisation of the people all over the country relentlessly and remorse-lessly. How many people they will be able to sway by their vicious communal propaganda will be known only after next year’s general elections. It will be a litmus test to find out how deep have the ideals and ethos of democracy and secularism struck roots in India and become part of the people’s political ethos.

Driving out the Muslims from India or, failing that, to deprive them of their citizenship rights (which includes the voting right) will be the first step to attaining the ultimate goal of transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra. The BJP has chosen Assam to be the laboratory to carry out its first experiment toward that end. If it succeeds, the experiment may, by turn, be repeated in other States as well. The threat to prepare NRCs in all States is an ominous indication of the BJP’s intent.

What the myopic leadership of the BJP cannot visualise is that aggressive communal politics of one brand is likely to engender communal politics of the opposite brand. The BJP may have in its plate more than it had bargained for.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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