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This article was first published 5 years ago  » News » 'Assam has adjusted to the demographic transformation extremely well'

'Assam has adjusted to the demographic transformation extremely well'

By Utkarsh Mishra
Last updated on: August 13, 2018 09:45 IST
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'The loose use of words like foreigner or Bangladeshis obscures the fact that the post-Partition migration to Assam has been of both Hindus and Muslims.'

IMAGE: The Supreme Court has asked the government not to take any coercive action against those left out of the final NRC draft.
It has also asked the Centre to 'formulate modalities and the standard operating procedures including timelines for deciding claims and objections arising out of the publication of the draft NRC'. Photograph: PTI Photo

In the political brouhaha after the release of the final draft of the National Register for Citizens in Assam, few are asking the most important question: What will happen to the people who will be left out of the final NRC?

The four million people excluded from the latest draft are trapped in a mire of uncertainty.

Though the government has made it clear that exclusion from the draft NRC does not mean categorisation as 'non-Indians', these people are already being generalised as 'illegal immigrants' or 'Bangladeshi infiltrators' by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, including its national president Amit Anilchandra Shah.

Sanjib Baruah, professor of political studies at Bard College in New York, has consistently written about the issue, highlighting the possibility, and consequences, of millions becoming 'non-citizens'.

"In the shrill political rhetoric about 'illegal Bangladeshi migrants', the long history of demographic change gets lost," Professor Baruah tells's Utkarsh Mishra. The first of a two-part interview.


A concern has been raised that if the Supreme Court strikes down Section 6A of the Citizenship Act -- which sets the cut-off date for citizenship in case of Assam as March 25, 1971 -- the whole exercise of THE NRC will be rendered useless. How genuine is this concern?

March 25, 1971 was the beginning of the Pakistani military crackdown of the liberation struggle of Bangladesh. Both the Assam Accord and Section 6A of the Citizenship Act take it as the date when the mass exodus of refugees to India began.

Both Hindus and Muslims were part of that exodus.

As per the terms of the Indira-Mujib Pact of 1972 (between then prime minister Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh's first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), Bangladesh took responsibility for people who migrated to India after the country was born.

Only then it makes sense to claim them as citizens of Bangladesh. The president of Bangladesh could not have signed a treaty that would apply to a time before his country was born.

So that is the cut-off date of citizenship in the NRC exercise.

I don't know if the concern (of the Supreme Court striking down Section 6A) is genuine or not. But at a time when we are talking about the NRC casting a cloud over the citizenship status of as many as four million people, I prefer not to speculate on what the challenges would be if the figure jumps to many times that.

IMAGE: All Bengal Minority Youth Federation activists protest against Assam's National Register of Citizen draft in Kolkata. Photograph: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI Photo

Many Assamese people who fully support the NRC exercise have problems with its 'communalisation'. But it is only people of one community who have been targeted in this 'foreigner versus native' battle, be it in Nellie or Kokrajhar or anywhere else. Why should the debate not take a communal character then?

I don't find the formula of 'communal violence' particularly helpful. It is important to be attentive to the contexts in which particular episodes of violence occur whether in Assam or anywhere else.

Investigating them and prosecuting those responsible is no less important.

The context of the Nellie massacre was the election of 1983, which is remembered not only for its extraordinary violence, but also for its record low turn-outs.

Let's recall the circumstances.

The Assam movement began in 1979. By then, multiple rounds of negotiations between the central government and the leaders of the Assam movement on the 'foreigner' question had failed to produce any agreement.

But the movement showed no sign of retreating. It was in this volatile situation, when Assam was under President's Rule, that the Indira Gandhi government decided to force a resolution of the issue.

A political decision was made to hold the elections using the highly controversial electoral rolls that were at the very heart of the political turmoil.

The claim that the electoral rolls had the names of hundreds and thousands of non-citizens -- was the driving force of the Assam movement.

Since the central government had been negotiating with leaders of the movement to find a middle ground, it had clearly acknowledged that the claim had some legitimacy.

It was precisely what was reiterated later in the Assam Accord and in Section 6A of the Citizenship Act.

The NRC would be seen as confirmation of the claim made by supporters of the Assam movement, albeit more than three decades late.

To no one's surprise the leaders of the Assam movement called for a boycott of the elections and the polling days were very tense.

During the polling, there were numerous confrontations between those who favoured the holding of the elections -- and participated in them -- and those who opposed the elections.

Contemporary accounts refer to the outbreak of violence as a 'Hobbesian war of all against all' as 'the total breakdown of governance'.

We know from a contemporary account by journalist Shekhar Gupta that what particularly upset people like K Sudershen of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) was that in places like Khoirabari in Kamrup district, and around Silapathar in North Lakhimpur district, Hindu Bengalis were the victims.

Without the irresponsible decision to force the issue by holding the 1983 election in such a confrontational atmosphere, Nellie and the other episodes of violence would not have happened.

Even Ulfa (the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom) grew phenomenally only during and after the 1983 election.

One can argue that without that fateful decision to force the issue, Assam's subsequent history would have been very different -- and not one of insurgency and counter-insurgency.

Only if we stay away from lazy analysis -- using blanket categories like 'communalism' -- can we learn from past mistakes.

IMAGE: A woman shows an NRC acknowledgment receipt to check her name in the final draft at an NRC Seva Kendra in Morigaon, Assam. Photograph: PTI Photo

The demand for an NRC has always been raised with a point of view that illegal immigration on a massive scale will change the demographics of Assam. But now the question of 'national security' seems to have become paramount.
Are these people really a 'threat'? Or simply a 'burden'?

The history of the massive demographic change of Assam began in the 19th century with the beginning of the industrial production of tea and subsequently of oil and coal.

Immigration from eastern Bengal to Assam began in the early part of the last century when the rising demand for raw jute from Bengal's jute industry pushed the reclamation of the low-lying areas of the floodplains of the Brahmaputra.

Migrants from densely populated deltaic eastern Bengal were then encouraged to settle them.

It is important to remember that both eastern Bengal and Assam were then part of British India and the district of Sylhet was a part of Assam.

For a brief period, Eastern Bengal and Assam even constituted a single province (1905 to 1911).

No matter how we react to the question of the persistence of migration across what is now an international border, it is important to keep this history in mind.

In trying to answer your question about whether this migration is a threat or a burden, I remember an interesting fact about the first post-Partition census of Assam.

The percentage of Assamese speakers in the state's population rose from 31.4 per cent to 56.7 per cent between 1931 and 1951.

This happened because Miya Musalmans (Muslims of East Bengali descent) in post-Partition Assam began to identify themselves as Assamese speakers.

I prefer to use the term Miya Musalman because many of them are now native speakers of Assamese.

So clearly at least, in the years immediately after the Partition, migration did not seem to be either a threat or a burden.

It was seen as a boon. Had the Miya Musalman community not made the language switch, the claim of the Assamese language to being the official language of the state would have been significantly weaker.

The national security talk is quite recent; and it has not been part of the local discourse. I think it goes back to a report that (retired lieutenant general) S K Sinha wrote as governor of Assam in November 1998.

In that report on Illegal Immigration Into Assam submitted to the President of India in November 1998, he couched the issue in national security terms.

Illegal immigration from Bangladesh to Assam, he said in that report, undermines Indian national security.

Supporters of the NRC always point at the exponential -- sometimes they call it abnormal -- growth in the share of Muslim population in the state, attributing it to illegal immigration.
However, as it is being estimated now, if the final NRC list does not contain a substantial number of people, this argument will lose its strength.
What bearing would it have on the 'foreigner' question?

As I said before, the process of Assam's modern demographic change began a century-and-a-half ago.

Since the migration of Muslim peasants from eastern Bengal began a bit later, let's say the process of change of Assam's religious demography began at least a hundred years ago.

One can argue, based on what I have said about the language switch by the Miya Musalman community, that Assam has adjusted to the demographic transformation extremely well.

The Partition of 1947 accelerated the process of Assam's demographic change. Most people know that it generated a massive new flow of Hindus.

But contrary to the expectation of the Partition's architects, the flow of poor Muslim peasants also continued.

For instance, between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of Muslims in the population grew at a higher rate in Assam than in the rest of India.

But in the shrill political rhetoric about 'illegal Bangladeshi migrants', the long history of demographic change gets lost.

The loose use of words like foreigner or Bangladeshis obscures the fact that the post-Partition migration to Assam has been of both Hindus and Muslims.

And because both the migration from eastern Bengal and opposition to it began well before Partition, it is not surprising that the Citizenship Amendment Bill had become so controversial in Assam.

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