Many Muslims from erstwhile East Bengal settled in Assam in early 20th century. But vested interests are out to prove that their descendants today are illegal migrants, writes Banajit Hussain.
During the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Chirang districts of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) and the adjoining Dhubri district, we have witnessed the tragedy of nearly 400000 people belonging to the Bodo and Muslim communities being forced to move to 273 temporary refugee camps. These people will stand internally displaced, scarred and traumatised for months to come, if not years. So far, it is estimated that 65 persons have lost their lives and around 500 villages have been torched to the ground.
The magnitude of this human tragedy is overwhelming considering the short span of two weeks in which it occurred. It poses a serious threat to the already fragile state of secularism in the region whose demography has always been so diverse. It urgently calls for a restoration of trust and confidence amongst all the people affected by the riots.
What is surprising is that rather than focussing on the immediate need for a humanitarian call to stop the killings and the violence on the part of community leaders and the administration, an atmosphere of extreme polarisation has been brought about, with leaders of both the Bodo and the Muslim communities hurling allegations and counter allegations at each other.
To make matters worse, leaders of the Bodo community, large sections of mainstream Assamese society, and a section of the media and the political class took it upon themselves to allege and prove that the responsibility for this human tragedy lies squarely on “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” and that the undifferentiated Muslim masses inhabiting western Assam are “Bangladeshis”. The social media was also chock-a-block with rumours — like the one about boats laden with guns and bombs being sent from Bangladesh to arm the illegal migrants in their alleged bit to take over Kokrajhar district.
It cannot be simply assumed that the BTAD leadership and the mainstream Assamese society are innocently mistaken in believing that all Muslims inhabiting this area are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Rather it is a conscious “mistake” laced with communal undertones. The rhetoric of “illegal” migrants flooding the region that appears to be fuelling the attacks is backed largely by what seems to be paranoia about the perceived growing numbers of Muslims in the area, all of whom are assumed to be “illegal” migrants.
It is a well documented historical fact that a large number of peasants from erstwhile East Bengal migrated and settled in Assam in the early decades of the 20th century. However, in the prevailing atmosphere of jingoism and xenophobia, it is not enough to just state that migration of East Bengali Muslim peasants in the early decades of the 20th century is a well documented historical fact. This historical fact needs to be reiterated today, especially when a constitutional authority like the Election Commissioner of India, Harishankar Brahma, in his overzealous attempt to prove that illegal Bangladeshis are behind the violence, claims that this stream of migration into Assam started during the late 1960s and early 1970s (“How to share Assam,” Indian Express, 28 July 2012). However, if one looks at the census data, his claims appear unsubstantiated and historically flawed. One wishes that a constitutional authority like him would be careful about and be aware of the country’s official demographic records.
Hypothetically, if we take the entire population of 33 lakhs in Assam in 1901 to be “indigenous”, and we apply the all-India rate of population increase of 74.82 per cent between 1901 and 1941, then the population of Assam in 1941 should have been 57.69 lakhs instead of 67 lakhs. That means approximately 9.31 lakh people had migrated into Assam in this period. Applying the same all-India rate of population increase during this period, the Muslim population in 1941 should have been 8.8 lakhs, instead of the 16.9 lakhs it actually was.
From this, it can be inferred that the increase was due to the settling of migrants in the State and that the majority of these Muslim peasant migrants who settled in Assam during this period were East Bengali Muslim peasants. It is worth mentioning that Muslim East Bengali peasants first settled in undivided Goalpara district (which included Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Chirang and Dhubri till the 1980s), before they spanned out to other parts of lower and central Assam. From 1901 to 1931, 4.98 lakh East Bengali Muslim peasants are recorded in Goalpara district alone.
If one is to believe the assertions of the Election Commissioner, then the question that immediately arises is — where are the descendants of the lakhs of East Bengali Muslim peasants who settled in this area before Partition? In all probability, many of them today are languishing in the relief camps with the imminent threat of being identified as Bangladeshis.
It has also been claimed by various people, including the Bodo leadership, that the Bangladeshi population in Kokrajhar district — where the violence erupted first and which is also the political seat of power in BTAD — has increased by leaps and bounds in the last decades. Contrary to what popular perception might hold, even a cursory glance at the census data gives a different picture. There has been no alarming increase in Kokrajhar district of the Muslim population in decades. In 1971, the Muslim population in Kokrajhar (then it was a sub-division of undivided Goalpara district) stood at 17 per cent, with no census being conducted in 1981. It stood at 19.3 per cent in 1991 and, in 2001, it stood at 20.4 per cent.
Even though the religion-wise census figures for 2011 are not yet available, provisional results from the 2011 census show that the decadal growth rate of population between 2001-2011 for Kokrajhar district is 5.19 per cent, interestingly, marking a decline of 9 per cent as compared to the decadal growth rate of 14.49 per cent between 1991 to 2001. (The decadal growth rate for Assam between 1991 to 2001 was 18.92 per cent and 16.93 per cent between 2001-2011.)
There can only be two plausible reasons for this 9 per cent decline in population growth between 2001-2011. One possibility, though highly unlikely, is that the population growth rate has remained more or less the same as it was between 1991 and 2001, but the death rate has shot up by 9 per cent.
The other possibility, which seems more plausible, is that there has been a considerable out-migration from Kokrajhar, especially after the formation of the BTAD in 2003. Since the Bodos (who constitute 20 per cent of the population in the BTAD area) hold a monopoly over political power in the area, it is unlikely that there has been any significant out-migration of the Bodo population from Kokrajhar district. The Koch Rajbangsis, who constitute roughly 17 per cent of the total population of the BTAD, have been campaigning for and demanding a separate homeland — Kamtapur — which territorially overlaps the BTAD, thus making it unlikely that they would out-migrate, abdicating their political claim over the territory. In all probability, the out-migration involves other non-Bodo communities, including Muslims.
By now it should be clear that simplistic propositions like ‘Bangladeshi illegal migrants are the root cause of the violence’ not only prevent us from understanding the complex reality of the situation but also reek of communal propaganda. The demographic reality of western Assam is a mosaic of different ethnicities with their own claims of identity and territorial aspirations.
In the light of this, some glaring questions stare us in the face. What informs this fear of the growing number of Muslims? How are these fears of the swamping of the ethnic and cultural identity of the Bodos being fuelled, and by whom? How and when did all Muslims in the area get classified in the public mind as “illegal migrants from Bangladesh?” Looking for answers to questions like these, rather than raising the bogey of numbers and formulaic xenophobic explanations might make the difference, literally, between life and death in this region today.
(Note: All data are either calculated or taken from census data from 1901 to 1991 provided in the Gazetteer of India Assam State Vol-1, 1999 and Provisional Totals, Census of India, 2011)
Banajit Hussain is a former Research Fellow at the Democracy and Social Movement Institute, Sungkonghoe University, Seoul.