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Bogey of Illegal Bangladeshis FuelsAssamese Militancy

Bogey of Illegal Bangladeshis Fuels Assamese Militancy



The bogey of large scale migration of Bangladeshi Muslims into Assam in post 1971 period is a completely mischievous proposition. It is a separatist political tool to divide Assam once more in the guise of lingualisticl, cultural or so-called ‘indigenous’ identity issue.

By M. Burhanuddin Qasmi

The six year long Assam Movement between 1979 and 1985 by All Assam Students Union(AASU) was initially against all ‘outsiders’. Slogans like, “Assam is for the Assamese, “Driveout Indian dogs from Assam” were dominantly inscribed in public places in parts of upper andcentral Assam. The direction of the agitation was, later, diverted against linguistic and religiousminorities – Bengali speaking – Hindus and Muslims and then gradually poor Bengali Muslims.These Bengali Muslims have later became an only easy target in parts of Assam as part of thedivisive politics in the state.

Beginning of the Assam Agitation

In 1978 the member of the Lok Sabha, Hiralal Patwari, died necessitating a by-election in theMangaldoi Lok Sabha Constituency. In early 1979 during the process of the electoral rolls it wasnoticed that the electorate in Mongaldoi Parliamentary Constituency had grown phenomenally.The chauvinistic forces came out with the idea that there were millions of Bangladeshi nationalsillegally living in Assam.AASU an unknown outfit, then, tried to make political capital out of the illegal foreigners’ issue.It called for a poll boycott till the alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were not ousted.With the strong backing of the local media, the AASU succeeded in creating a fear psychosis inthe minds of common Assamese people that there was a huge number of Bangladeshi Muslims inAssam and every day thousands more were infiltrating.Mrs Indira Gandhi’s government in the Centre was determined to conduct election by all means.Then the Congress governments in the state and the Centre requested all Assamese citizens – Muslim and non-Muslim, Bengalese and non-Bengalese to participate in the election to preserveIndia’s democratic system.The Centre itself had promised adequate security for the common men and women who wishedto vote against AASU’s terror tactics. Thus the Assam Movement was born out of a tussle between Congress-led state and Central Governments versus All Assam Students’ Union

(AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) over conduction of by-elections inMogaldoi PC in 1979.The former were determined to go for election while the later turned violent to disrupt election by any means.Both Muslim and non-Muslim Bengalis had responded to the Government’s call – ‘savedemocracy’ positively and they came out to vote in large numbers which antagonized theagitating AASU and AAGSP.Later in 1983 Bengali-speaking Muslims alone had to pay the cost of ‘saving democracy’ duringinfamous Nellie massacre.Both the state and Central governments succeeded in conducting elections in Mogaldoi mainlydue to the enormous courage shown by the Bengali voters. But despite their support for thegovernment, Muslims bore the brunt of the attacks by the agitators and the government butmiserably failed to protect around 2000 innocent Muslims on February 18th, 1983 fromextremist butchers at Nellie in Nagoan district of Assam. Even after 27 years a proper enquiryhas not been constituted to enquire into the pogrom, let alone compensation to the victims or to bring the culprits to justice.

So-called Identity Crises of Indigenous People

The entire propaganda machinery for the Assam Agitation was based on two hypotheses – onemajority Muslims are coming from across the open borders of Bangladesh and silently settling inAssam and two because of the unabated infiltration of huge number of Bengalese – both Hindurefugees and Muslims settlers from Bangladesh, the ‘indigenous’ Assamese were being reducedto a minority and losing their socio-cultural identity in their own land.Let us analyse how these two propositions are totally baseless and falsely propagated to fuelviolent separatist and militant movements such as the – United Liberation Front of Assam(ULFA) and a political party – Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) launched by the AASU leadership30 years ago.The question of Assamese speaking – the so-called indigenous people becoming a minority inAssam does not arise in the first place because the Assamese speaking people, as a race werenever a majority in Assam at any point of time in the history of Assam. As a matter of factAssam, being a natural place of abode of different linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious groupsof people, has always been a composite state since its inception. Assam is very much like aminiature India, where different races of people lived together and maintained their ownidentities.

Geneses of Assamese Language

Going by the pre-colonial history, part of present Assam was under Mughal rule through nawabsof Bengal and by their instructions the peasantry from Bengal migrated from East to West

Bengal to settle on both sides of the river Brahmaputra for fishing, cultivation and as a way of fighting regular floods that ravaged the area they were then inhabiting.. The areas whereimmigrant Bengali Muslims live for centuries is now known as lower Assam.The British annexed the remaining parts of Assam (then Ahom) – present upper and parts of central Assam in 1826 and brought it under the provincial administration of Bengal. They also brought English knowing educated Bengalese, skilled farmers and labourers particularly Muslimfor assisting in administration, cultivation and construction of public infrastructure which againresulted in large scale migration from the densely populated East Bengal to Brahmaputra valley.Bengali was the language of the courts and Government schools of Assam in 1837. As per pre-independent census in 1931 the Assamese speaking people constituted only 34 percent of thestate population.In 1951 their number shot up to 64 percent of state population and that is only because of recording of Assamese as the mother tongue in the census by the Bengali speaking Muslims of the Brahmaputra valley.It is notable that during the period of 20 years from 1951 to 1971, the percentage of growth of Assamese speaking people rose to 80 percent of the state population. An obvious question arises,then where the Assamese had migrated from? The only logical answer is that the Bengalese,especially Muslims, who migrated from lower to upper valleys of the Brahmaputra River till1971 have largely contributed to the Assamese language and culture and they recorded Assameseas their mother tongue in the census.But factually the Assamese speaking people do not constitute a majority race in Assam eventoday. Thus, despite the fact that Assamese language is not a majority language in the state, thereis preponderance of the Assamese language and culture with voluntary concurrence andcooperation of Bengali Muslims alone.Assamese language is a newly evolved offshoot of rich Bangla itself with the minor changes inthe script and pronunciation and keeping intact the original Bangla vocabulary.Bengalese residing in the lower and central regions of Assam in districts like – Dhubri,Kokrajhar , Bongaigaon,Goalpara, Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup, Darrang, Udalguri,Sonitpur , Lakhimpur ,Dhemaji,Morigaonand Nagaonhave converted their official mother tongue to Assamese, thus making the language spoken by the majority in one of the states after independence.Assamese language became an official language of the state through the Assam OfficialLanguage Act, in 1960 only. (Published in the Assam Gazette, Extraordinary, dated the 19thDecember, 1960)

Bangla Language Movement of Assam

The Bengalese of Barak Valley – both Hindus and Muslims set off a language movement(Second Bangla Bhasha Andolan) demanding due recognition of Assam’s former official Banglalanguage and their mother tongue following the Assam Legislative Assembly’s introduction of a bill to make Assamese the only official language of the state in early 1960.The movement reached its climax in 1961 when the Assam Government, under the then chief minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha, issued a circular to make Assamese mandatory, in all parts of Assam to which Bengalese of Barak Valley strongly objected.On 19th May, 1961, Assam Police opened fire on unarmed protesters at Silchar Railway Stationin Cachar district where 11 youth were killed and many more wounded. Coming under intense pressure following the bloodbath in Silchar and ensuing popular revolt, the Government of Assam withdrew the circular. And later through a separate legislation Bengali was given anofficial status in the three districts – Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi of Barak Valley.The issue of Bangla language came to the forefront once again when Gauhati University soughtto introduce Assamese as the only medium of instruction at University level. This led to another mass movement at Barak Valley which saw similar repression and killing. Two youths inKarimganj were killed by police on 21 July 1986, many suffered jail confinement while manymore were injured and rendered incapacitated.

An Eye-opener for the Cultural Chauvinist

Going by the present demographic condition in Assam, out of total 27 districts of the state onlysix districts of upper Assam – Golaghat,Lakhimpur , Jorhat,Sibsagar ,DibrugarhandTinsukia can be counted as culturally Assamese populous region with a special note, however, that thetea-tribe people who have their own Hindi or Bhojpuri language and culture live in these areas.In at least nine districts – Cachar, Karimganj, Hailakandi, Dhubri,Bongaigaon,Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaonand NagaonBengaleseform the majority. Four more – Karbi Anglong, N.C. Hills, Kokrajhar and Baksa have different tribal cultures and languages of their own. The remaining eight districts – Nalbari,Kamrupcity, Kamrup rural,Darrang, Sonitpur ,Dhemaji, Udalguri and Chirag have mixed population of Assamese, Bengalese, tribals and tea labourers.With the aforementioned details, the obvious conclusion of this linguistic and cultural debate inAssam should be that the Bengalis in Assam are losing their age-old and rich linguistic andcultural grip in the state to newly evolved Assamese language and culture with the voluntaryconversion of some Bengalese living in lower and central parts of the state, and not the visa versaat all. Nonetheless, because of the undue stress on the ‘identity crisis’ of Assamese by some politicallyastray and chauvinistic youth, the voluntary and natural process of different tribals andBengalese assimilation into Assamese language and culture in post-independence India has got a big jolt. It rather became counter productive.

Different linguistic, ethnic and cultural groups living in the state are fighting to save their ownidentities. This not only has disturbed the natural progress and growth of the state along with itslanguage and culture but also endangered the state’s own unity, sovereignty and multiculturalfabric.The north-eastern states of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram have foughtand got separate statehood primarily on the issue of cultural identity. On 20 February 1987Mizoram got the formal recognition as the last independent state that was broken away fromAssam by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.Thanks to the Assamese chauvinism; in the name of saving the ‘indigenous identity’ it is helpingthe mushrooming of new independent state seekers. At least three more regions – BodoAutonomous Council, North Cachar Autonomous Council and Karbi Anglong are now followingmilitant ways for their independent statehood to break away from Assam.I am afraid, if things continue like this, Bengalese of the Barak Valley may seek their separatestate to save their culture and language. And then why should not the Bengalese living in thelower Assam seek their own democratic right of living by using their own language and culturerather than becoming unwanted members of an Assamese language or culture?

Millions of Bangladeshis Living in Assam!

The second assumption

to justify AASU’s militant and terror tactics for the last 30 years has been the bogey of millions of Bangladeshi nations living in Assam. Factually it is utterly baselessand an imaginary fear psychosis successfully imprinted on the minds and hearts of common people through aggressive politicking and media campaign.The Bengalese or for that matter Muslim social and political groups in Assam – Jamiat Ulama-eHind, United Minority Front (UMF) and now All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) haverepeatedly made it clear that they have no objection in finding foreign nationals and deportingthem out of Assam. But the crux of the problem has been whether an alleged foreigner is to bedetermined by a judicial process or by extra-judicial process.Mr. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the then president of AASU, had reportedly given an estimate of seventy lakh foreigners in Assam in early days of Assam Agitation. The Gauhati UniversityTeachers Coordination Committee estimated the number at forty lakhs. Some print mediareported that the foreigners in Assam constituted 40 percent of the state population!These are real interesting statistics! As per 2001 census, Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims(known as Miah) of Brahmaputra Valley constitute around 40 percent of the state population. So,according to reports in the print media the whole stock of population belonging to linguistic andreligious minority communities of Assam are foreigners. Is it tenable?Mr. Mahanta has been a chief minister of Assam for two terms following the Assam Agitation sowhy did he not deport those 70 lakh foreigners which was the sole purpose of his agitation as anAASU leader and then as president of Assam Gana Parishad?

We should examine what numbers of illegal foreigners Mr. Mahanta has actually deported fromAssam in his ten years tenure as chief minister of Assam.Mr S K Sinha, former Governor of Assam, sent a suo-moto report on 8 November, 1998 to thePresident of India wherein he desperately tried to establish his theory of “Silent DemographicInvasion of Assam by Illegal Bangladeshi Migrants”. According to him the illegal migrantscoming into Assam from Bangladesh after 1971 are all Muslims. “Their number runs tomillions”, he pointed out. He did not furnish any answer to the question as how he arrived at thisastounding number. Surprisingly, in the report he lamented that there has been no authenticfigures of Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam but in the next breath he said that the number of Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam runs to millions!

Demographic background of Assam

As a matter of fact the present day Assam was not in existence in the Pre-British period. Assamwas then divided into many tiny independent kingdoms of Ahom, Koch, Cachari, Barbhuyans,Khasi, Jayantia, Tia, Naga, Mizo etc. In 1826, as afore-noted, following the “Eyandabu Treaty”with the Manns (the Barmise who invaded Assam), the entire territory of Assam came into thehands of the British, who divided Assam into two administrative units - Brahmaputra Valley andSurma Valley.In 1905 Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, and Nagaon districts of Assam and Dhaka, Rajshahi,Chittagram, (now in Bangladesh) districts of East Bengal were tagged with Brahmaputra Valleyand put under one administrative unit of East Bengal. Later on, the Brahmaputra Valley wasagain bifurcated from East Bengal in 1912 and Assam as a modern separate administrative province for the first time came into existence.In the pre-British period the then Goalpara district (presently five districts – Goalpara, Dhubri,Bongaigaon, Baksa, and Kokrajhar,) was never a part of Assam. It was a part of East Bengalunder the “Mughal Suba”, ruled by subedars (nawabs) of Bengal.Following the defeat of nawab Sirajuddaula in the Boxer war of 1764, Bengal fell into the handsof the East India Company and thus Goalpara district also went to the hands of the British in1764.It was only in 1912 Goalpara, Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Baksa and Kokrajhar districts of lower Assam were merged with Assam. So the Bengali Muslims of the large Goalpara district alongwith Bodo tribals, like the Muslims of present Barak Valley, are indigenous people of Assam.The Ahom kingdom – present upper Assam including Kamrup was a thick jungle and very thinly populated. Because of large scale killings of peasants during “Maomarian Rebellion” and “MannAggressions” the population of Ahom was drastically reduced. There was dearth of cultivators totill the land.

The zamindars and land lords brought many Muslim peasants from East Bengal for augmentingagricultural production by bringing lands, covered with jungles under cultivation.This practice is still followed in neighbouring Nagaland state where ‘mahajan’ (land owner Nagas) and Gaburas (village heads) under a state policy invited Bengali Muslims from lower andcentral Assam to Nagaland and offered them land for cultivation on crop sharing basis.There are a few million Assam’s citizens living for 3-4 generation in Nagaland as uneducatedand very poorly treated peasants for more than last three decades. The same was the case withBengalese presently living in upper Assam and parts of central Assam since the beginning of modern Assam.Moreover, the British brought millions of tea-garden labourers for tea plantationa from presentBihar, Jharkand and Orissa states. Along with them, they also brought more landless Muslimcultivators from both East and West Bengal to Assam. Nonetheless, it is a fact that there has been large scale Muslim migration from East Bengal toAssam during pre-independence period till 1941. The fragile economy of Assam with its thin population of slightly over 55 lakhs 61 thousand in 1931, majority of them unskilled anduneducated tribals, had forced the British administrators to invite skilled outsiders to help buildstate’s economy.Under the “scheme of grow more food” during the period of Sir Sadullah Khan, then PrimeMinister and later the first Chief Minister of Assam, a large number of Bengali Muslim peasantswere again brought to Assam from East Bengal and they were settled in the erstwhile Kamrup, Nogaon and Darrang districts under the “Line System”.These people were largely uneducated, poor and landless cultivators only. They were forced tomigrate purely on economic considerations from one part of their own country to another part insearch of livelihood.It is noteworthy that they migrated to Assam even long before Pakistan was created. With the passing of time and increasing population, their descendants subsequently moved toward upper parts of Assam up to north, choosing the char-chapori (river island) of the Brahmaputra and itsadjoining jungle areas with government sanction.Thus, to brand these people, today, with ‘illegal migrants’ tag is a big joke and a politicalsubterfuge to twist the factual demographic history of modern Assam.It is especially noteworthy that following the partition of India in 1947 and subsequent Indo-Pak wars in 1965 and 1971 the population of Assam dramatically increased to 1 crore 60 lakhs and25 thousands in 1971. This phenomenon increase of more than double population comparing itwith that of 1941 state population was mainly because of Bengali Hindu refugees fleeing fromEast Pakistan and taking shelter in Assam and Bengal due to riots and hostile living conditionsthere because of wars.

Why Bangladeshi Muslim should settle in Assam?

After the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, which was East Bengal in the pre-independence Indiaand later East Pakistan in post partition period, the Bengali Muslims had little choice to comeover to Assam. They got their own country, in the name of language and culture, wherein theycould live in peace with full security to their lives and property and self-respect.In contrast to this, in Assam an open antagonism was on play in the post independence period between Assamese and Miah Muslims over language and culture issue. There Miah Muslimshave been living under total insecurity with their lives and properties at stake; and fear of communal riots, arsons, mass killings, and harassment mounting day by day. Miah Muslims of Assam had so far gone through two big genocides – 1983 Nellie and 1993-94 Kokrajhar – besides so many other small-scale communal riots.In addition to that, as mentioned earlier, the Miah Muslims have even discarded their age-oldlanguage – Bangla and cultural identity to the Assamese one, in the run to keep pace with theAssamese mainstream. Hence, it is common knowledge that Bangladeshi Muslims in the postBangladesh period would not migrate from their own country to an unfriendly rather hostile place to face additional problems.On the other hand, millions of Bengali Muslims, who were politically inclined to MuslimLeague, have migrated from West Bengal and Assam’s Barak Valley region to East Bengal. Tilldate, thousands of Bengali Hindus (refugees) from East Pakistan are living in the houses or using properties left behind by the Muslim immigrants who were in a rush to enter East Pakistanduring partition in 1947 and later during creation of Bangladesh in 1971 in districts such asKarimganj, Cachar and Hailakandi.After Bangladesh was created, it got foreign help and restructured itself well in the eighties. Noweconomic condition and living standards of common Bangladeshis are far better than that of theMiah Muslims living in Assam. In Assam every year thousands of Muslim families are renderedhomeless or landless due to erosions and heavy floods during the rains that floods the banks of the Brahmaputra. Having no place to go these poor uprooted people are compelled to live a sub-human beast-like lives on roads and streets of towns and cities of Assam pulling rickshaws, thelaand doing other manual work.Here too these homeless people are constantly harassed and persecuted as fresh entrants fromBangladesh by the chauvinistic forces. They become merely a political football for all – ‘secular’Congress, ‘nationalist’ AGP and rightist BJP during election time. And they become just‘objects’ to fuel agitations of various separatist and terrorist organizations active in Assam.Will the Muslims of Bangladesh still love to settle in Assam? Will the Miah Muslims of Assamwho do not have sufficient land for themselves, invite or allow fresh illegal migrants fromBangladesh and provide land to them? Will they provide food to Bangladeshi nationals whenthey do not have enough to feed their own children?

One who possesses a little knowledge about the social and economic conditions of MiahMuslims of Assam, knows well that these people, by occupation, are cultivators and more than80 percent of them live under the poverty line. It is often seen that for a small piece of cultivableland they even go to the extent of killing their own.Under given circumstance Muslims of lower Assam (Miah) cannot allow the new comers fromBangladesh to occupy land and other means of livelihood which is badly insufficient for them inAssam.The bogey of large scale migration of Bangladeshi Muslims into Assam in post 1971 period iscompletely mischievous proposition. It is a separatist political notion to divide Assam once morein guise of lingual, cultural or so-called ‘indigenous’ identity issue.

(The article is partly benefited from Mr. Monawwar Hussain’s memorandum, who is President of ASNASCommittee of Assam, to Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram, Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh and UPAChairperson Ms. Sonia Gandhi dated 22 February, 2010)