By R. Upadhyay
Various historical developments since the annexation of Assam by the British in 1826 suggests that the protracted demographic invasion from erstwhile eastern Bengal to Assam has been one of the major sources of ethnic bitterness and tension in the region. The ongoing Bodo-Muslim clash is an offshoot of this bitterness.
Unfortunately, even after Independence the political leadership of the country that was in a position to take a tough stand against this uncontrolled flow of immigrants maintained a go slow approach which encouraged the formation of a strong political clout of Muslim leaders and led to the violent clash between the two groups. Even the repeated alarm bells and warnings by different agencies and individuals failed to awake the government which allowed the situation to deteriorate day by day.
So much so, the National Commission on Minority (NCM) sounded a counter-warning in its report that “there is a possibility that Muslims in the Bodo districts of Assam will turn “militant,” influenced by jihadi outfits from across India, in case their security is not ensured by the State government”. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/other-states/article3776902.ece). The Asian Centre of Human Rights (ACHR) on the other hand condemned the report and charged the NCM of being biased against the Bodos. They also supported the demand of the locals for the visit of the area by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.
Before coming to any conclusion it may be necessary to look into the historical background of ethnic tension in Assam as the Bodo-Muslim clash is also rooted to the same demographic avalanche from erstwhile East Bengal.
Initially, the British brought the Muslim peasantry from the over populated eastern Bengal to Brahmputra and Surma valleys in Assam for tea plantation as well as for the purpose of growing more food grains but the sequence of subsequent developments suggest that the descendents of the former Muslim rulers of Indian sub-continent with an objective to regain their political supremacy adopted a strategy to turn Assam also into a Muslim majority region like East Bengal.
Some of the events mentioned below may be an eye opener to understand the politics in the region.
Political conspiracy of the All India Muslim League (AIML):
The AIML in its founding conference at Dacca on December 25-26, 1906 hatched a conspiracy to increase the Muslim population in Assam for improving its strength in the region. Nawab Salim Ullah Khan, one of the founder members of the party in his public meeting after the concluding session of the conference exhorted the Muslim population of Eastern Bengal to migrate to Assam and settle there.
Thus started a move and a problem supported by the co-religionists that has continued in some form or other to this day.
Census report of 1931:
Census Superintendent C. S. Mullan in his Census report of 1931 validated this political conspiracy of AIML and observed: ‘Probably the most important event in the province during the last 25 years-an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrants mostly Muslims, from the districts of East Bengal. … Wheresoever the carcass, there the vultures will be gathered together’
Large scale influx of Muslim peasantry to Assam:
By the late thirties, the influx of Muslim peasantry settling in Assam started creating a new socio-economic and political environment for this otherwise closed society and also affected adversely its socio-cultural scenario.
Resistance from the Congress leaders of Assam:
The Congress leaders of Assam prominently Gopinath Bardolai, Vishnuram Medhi and Bimla Prasad Chaliha understood the political conspiracy of the AIML and made serious resistance against the Immigration of Muslims in their province but in the absence of support from the central leadership of the party, they became helpless.
After the 1937 election, Bordoloi headed a Congress led coalition government in Assam and tried to stop the unhindered flow of immigrant Muslims. However, his government had to resign in November 1939 in response to the Congress High Command’s call for the resignation of all its Provincial Governments in protest against the War policy of the British. The implementation of this decision of the Congress party in Assam was its first blunder with respect to its policy on Muslim immigration. Even Subash Chandra Bose and the Congress leaders of Assam had argued for exemption of Assam from the decision of the party pleading that it would help the AIML in settling the Muslim immigrants in the state. The Congress High Command was however, not convinced as a result an alternative coalition government in Assam headed by Sir Saadullah of AIML was formed.
Contrary to the efforts of Bordolai, the AIML led government opened a flood gate for settlement of Muslims in Assam. ‘During the period between 1939-1941, Saadullah Government allotted one Lakh bighas of land in Assam valley for the settlement of East Bengal immigrants.’ He sidestepped protest of Assam Congress leaders like Bishnuram Medhi and others saying that the Muslim exodus from Bengal to Assam was necessary for the success of ‘Grow more food’ scheme in the state.
Lord Wavel, the Viceroy of India in the Viceroy’s Journal, London Publication, December 22, 1943 said: ‘The chief political problem is the desire of Muslim Ministers of Assam to increase the immigrations into uncultivated Government lands in Assam under the slogan of “Grow more food” but what really is to “Grow more Muslims”.
With the large-scale settlement of immigrants following the installation of the Saadullah government, the AIML established tremendous influence on the Muslim population of Assam, who latter aggressively supported the demand for Pakistan.
After the 1946 general election Bordoloi again headed the Congress government and took a firm and tough stand for eviction of immigrants. Alarmed with the eviction plans of Bordoloi, the AIML Legislators’ Convention held at Delhi in April 1946 demanded the inclusion of Assam in proposed Pakistan and strongly opposed plans for eviction of immigrant Muslims. Abdul Hamid Khan, popularly known as Maulana Bhasani, a volatile League leader who had dominated Muslim politics in Assam till partition, was deputed to execute the ‘AIML plan to turn the non-Muslim majority state of Assam into Muslim majority state’. Meanwhile Jinnah came up with the demand of the League for inclusion of Assam in proposed Pakistan which however could not materialise due to the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi.
Post-Partition infiltration of Muslim League leaders into INC:
It was a political irony that most of the former Muslim League leaders who had aggressively supported the movement for partition not only stayed back in Assam but were honourably allowed to join the Congress party. Mainul Haq Chaudhary, Private Secretary of Jinnah and also a prominent leader of the youth wing of AIML joined the Congress party along with his supporters in Pakistan movement en-mass. He was even inducted into the Congress Government cabinet led by Gopi Nath Bordoloi.
It is often alleged that Chaudhary stayed back in Assam on the advice of Jinnah and other Pakistani leaders to help the immigrants from East Pakistan to settle in Assam. On the eve of partition, he was still considering whether to opt for Pakistan or stay back in India but was assured by Jinnah, ‘wait for ten years, I shall present Assam on a silver plate to you’.
Even after partition, illegal migration from East Pakistan to Assam, West Bengal and bordering areas of Bihar continued to increase. In the absence of any population planning or any social movement for creating awareness to control population, the government of Pakistan carried forward the political legacy of AIML that East Pakistan needed more lebensraum or living space and continued its plan of political expansionism in Assam through infiltration of Muslims as the country was unable to shoulder the burden of its multiplying population.
The government of India never had any plan or definite policy against this infiltration which threatened to marginalise the Assamese in their own land. The Nehru-Liaquat Pact (April 1950) with ‘special provisions for restoration of rights of immigrants over their properties if they would choose to return not later than the 31 December 1950,  rather facilitated the accelerated infiltration. The Pact, which validated the entry of immigrants up to 31 December 1950, was against the spirit of Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act 1950 enacted by the Parliament on 13 February 1950.
In the early sixties, the government of Assam under the leadership of Congress Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha launched an aggressive campaign to flush out illegal Muslim immigrants. ‘Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the Assam Chief Minister, Bimala Prasad Chaliha to go easy on deportations and even stop them. Chaliha refused, saying that the problem was so critical that Assam’s demography and culture would be permanently changed.’
The Chaliha government armed itself with the Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP) Act 1964 pursued his campaign. But when twenty Muslim MLAs in the government threatened to topple his ministry if he does not stop deportations, Chaliha had to succumb to this pressure and the PIP Act was put In cold storage. Those who were deported earlier gradually returned and again settled in Assam.
Gradually, the Muslim population in Assam, which was about nineteen lakhs in 1947, increased to about thirty-six lakhs within twenty-five years of Independence by 1972. B. K. Nehru, the Governor of Assam between 1968 and 1973, condemned the infiltration as vote bank politics by the Congress’ (Pioneer, 15 September, 2005). ‘Over the years, the Congress with its activist pro-minority plank was seen as a party which supported the interest of the settlers. It was thus labelled pro-“Bangladeshi” by its opponents.
Z.A Bhutto, the late Prime Minister of Pakistan while spelling out his mind in his book ‘The Myth of Independence’, wrote about the geo-political aims of Pakistan elaborating that ‘it would be wrong to think that Kashmir is the only dispute that divides India and Pakistan, though it is undoubtedly the most significant one, at least is nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute is that of Assam and some districts adjacent to East Pakistan.
In 1971 Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan and emerged as an independent nation with the help of India. But even being grateful to India Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh maintained, ‘without the inclusion of Assam the East Bengal economy could not be balanced’.
Assam agitation against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh:
After liberation, a huge number of Bangladeshi Muslims stayed back in Assam and joined their co-religionists in influencing the electoral politics of this state. It may be useful to recall that the revelation of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims in the revision of electoral rolls in the Mangaldoi Parliamentary constituency in 1979 sparked the Assam agitation led by All Assam Students Union (AASU) against the Bangladeshi infiltrators.
When the Assam agitation reached to its climax and turned violent, two separate delegations one of legislators (16) led by Janata Party leader Golap Barbora and another of writers (4) led by Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya emphatically narrated the alarming problem of illegal Muslim immigration in Assam in their respective memorandum to the Rajya Sabha Committee of Petitions.
Seventy-third Report of the Committee of Petitions, Rajya Sabha dated 22 March 1982 while quoting the memorandum said: ‘The official statistics showed that a total of 2,20,690 Pakistani infiltrators were detected in the state during the period 1950-1961 and another 1,92, 339 were spotted in the following decade. During the Bangladesh War of Liberation (1971) a total of 1, 00,000 immigrants stayed behind even after Independence of their country. … The prime factor responsible for this abnormal growth (of Muslims) was the geo-political ambition of Pakistan over Assam.
The Report quoting the memorandum of Legislators led by Golap Barbora maintained: ‘No sovereign nation can permit the influx of foreign nationals into its territory. But the North Eastern region of the country in general and Assam in particular have been experiencing the area being utilised as the dumping ground for a large numbers of foreigners being vomited out by a neighbouring country since a long time. Besides, a large number of such foreigners were appeased with political rights by entering their names in the voters’ list of the state for petty political games at the instance of the vested political forces that were at the helm of affairs since Independence.
Similarly the writers of Assam in their report said: ‘That the problem of infiltration of foreigners in large scale has reached such a stage that unless immediate drastic steps were taken to solve it, the state of Assam, and for that matter, the entire North Eastern Region, faces the danger of being overrun by foreigners in the next few years.’ The memorandum also quoted the written address of the Chief Election Commissioner to the Chief Election Officers Conference at Ootacamund on 24 September 1978. He said: ‘I would like to refer to the alarming situation in some states, especially in the North Eastern Region, wherefrom disturbing reports are coming regarding large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls. Referring to Assam the Chief Election Commissioner further said: ‘The influx has become a very regular feature. I think that it may not be wrong assessment to make that on the basis of increase of 34.98 percent between the two Census (1961-1971), the increase that is likely to be recorded in the 1991 Census would be more than 100 percent over the 1961 Census…...
Replying to the debate in Rajya Sabha, the Home Ministry maintained that ‘the Government is fully seized of the matter. Efforts towards finding a solution satisfactory to all concerned are continuing’.
During negotiations with the agitating AASU leaders, the government wanted 1971 as a cut-off year for treating the immigrants as foreigners, which meant that all the alien infiltrators, who settled in Assam between 1951 and 1971 were to be accorded Indian citizenship. However, the negotiation broke down as AASU insisted on January 1951 as cut off year.
Justice M.C.Chagla, former Education Minister once said: ‘We have our constitution, we have citizenship laws. There are decisions by the highest courts to indicate who is a national and who is a foreigner. What does it matter when a person came to Assam if he is not a national but a foreigner? The year of his entry does not change his legal status. Unnecessary complications have been introduced by talking of the cut off year.’
In 1983 when the movement picked up momentum, the Congress government at the centre enacted Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act. However, contrary to the provisions of the Foreigners Act which said that the suspect was to prove his or her Indian citizenship, under the IMDT Act, the onus to prove that the suspect is a foreigner rested with the prosecution. This lacuna in the new Act therefore, hardly brought the desired results. Ironically, AASU leaders who were tired of their long agitation did not raise this point assertively and signed the Assam Accord in the early hour of 15 August 1985 which accepted 1971 as cut-off year for detection, deletion from voters’ list and deportation.
Thus, under the provision of this accord the infiltrators from 1951 to 1971 became genuine citizens of the country. Even the process of detection, deletion and deportation of Muslim Infiltration from Bangladesh became so slow that the Accord lost its significance. While the leaders of Assam agitation were contended with political power, the central government put the issue under the carpet due to the expediency of Muslim vote bank politics. It is funny that ‘between 1983 to 2000, the sixteen tribunals in various districts…. have located about 10,000 illegals (immigrants) of which a bare 1,400 have been deported’.
Disgusted with the attitude of both the state and central governments, the Bodos who had supported the Assam agitation felt betrayed and therefore adopted the path of militancy by launching armed struggle demanding the creation of separate state of Bodoland.
While the Bodo agitation reached to its peak, the Governor of Assam, Lt. Gen.(Retd.) S. K. Sinha submitted an alarming report to the President of India in 1998 on the continuous demographic invasion by Bangladesh and called the infiltration a ‘national threat’. The report ‘warned that if the present trends are not arrested, the indigenous people of Assam would be reduced to a minority and there may, in course of time, be a demand for the merger of Muslim dominated bordering districts with Bangladesh.’
Similarly, the report ‘worked out by Group of Ministers, headed by Union Home Minister in 2001 noted that more than 15 million illegal immigrants have entered India over the last five decades from Bangladesh, an intrusion that has completely changed the demography of large parts of Assam, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Tripura and Bihar’.
‘According to a study conducted by a few scholars of Toronto University and the American Academy of Arts and Science, 15 Million Bangladesh nationals have infiltrated in India. According to another study done by another American organisation, namely, The Advancement of Science, 20 million Bangladesh nationals are presently staying in India.’
Against the backdrop of various reports on the problem of Muslim immigrants and its link with Bodo agitation, the Government at centre after a series of talks created Bodoland Territorial Council in February 2003 with Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) under its jurisdiction.
The creation of BTAD under the provision of the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution by carving out of eight existing districts was however strongly resisted by the Muslim settlers in the area who had migrated to this region from erstwhile eastern Bengal as it prohibited the non-tribal to buy land there.
Meanwhile after twenty-two years of the enactment of the IMDT Act, the Supreme Court repealed it in July 2005. This was another blow to the Muslim immigrants. The shocked Muslim leaders then started putting pressure on the ruling party at centre to bring another legislation or ordinance for a substitute for the IMDT Act. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal the state president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an association of the Ulema of Deobandi school of Sunni Muslims expressed his anguish against the Congress for its failure to defend the IMDT Act.
The Muslim leaders hold commanding influence in about 40 of the total 126 Assembly constituencies and have 28 MLAs including 18 belonging to All India United Democratic Front founded by Maulana Ajmal.
The Bodo-Muslim problem which is mainly due to clash over the land occupied by the Muslim immigrants will therefore remain a perpetual problem unless the government with strong political will takes tough stand on the issue of infiltration.
(The author can be reached at e-mail [email protected])
1. Dr Manju Singh, Politics of Migration, Jaipur: Anita Publications, 1990, p.59.
2. A.C. Bhuyan and Shibopada De, ed., Political History of Assam, vol. III, Publication Board of Assam, 1999, p.262.
3. Dr Manju Singh, Politics of Migration, p.70.
4. Bhawani Singh, Politics of Alienation in Assam, 1984, p.72.
5. Vijay Kumar Dewan, Assam Issue: Th e Beginning—Th e End—The Beginning, Guwahati: United Publishers, 1985, pp.34-35.
6. Sanjoy Hazarika, Rites of Passage, Penguin Books, 2000, p.60.
8. Ibid., p.69.
9. Insurgency in North-East India: Th e Role of Bangladesh, ed. Dipankar Sengupta and Sudhir Kumar Singh, Authors Press, 2004, pp.73-74.
10. Seventy-third Report of the Committee of Petitions, Rajya Sabha, 22 March 1982, p.2.
12. Ibid., pp.18-19.
13. Ibid., p.25.
14. Amiya Kumar Das, Assam’s Agony, Delhi: Lancer’s Publication, 1982, p.132.
15. Sanjoy Hazarika, Rites of Passage, p.70.
16. Dipankar Sengupta and Sudhir Kumar Singh, ed., Insurgency in North-East India: The Role of Bangladesh, Delhi: Authors Press, 2004, p.73.
18. Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharyya, Th e Silent Invasion, Guwahati: Spectrum Publications, 2001, p.83.