Dispur, Assam, January 14: In an exclusive piece in South Asian Monitor on Sunday, Utpal Bardoloi, an Assamese journalist, succinctly explained the basic features of the “foreigners’ issue” that has been troubling Assam since the partition of India in 1947. Here is a summary of the 3800 piece:
Work on creating a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to weed out “illegal immigrants” from Muslim-majority Bangladesh in Assam, is in progress under the guidance of the Supreme Court of India.
With it, a major and persistent political problem in that East Indian State is being addressed in right earnest.
However, there are fears that the exercise could lead to a humanitarian crisis of humongous proportions which might spill over into Bangladesh and cause tension in India’s relations with that country..
Add to this the prospect of enacting a new citizenship law which would allow citizenship for Hindu refugees from neighboring countries but not for Muslims, the danger of deportation gets heightened.
The first draft of the NRC published on January 1, 2018 lists 19 million people as citizens of Assam. Left out were 13.9 million people. Many, though not all, were Muslim, who now fear expulsion. But the Indian government has asked those left out not to panic, pointing out that 7.6 million names are still being verified against documents, and two more draft lists would be published before the final NRC.
Expanding Population, Shrinking Territory
One of the reasons for the immigrants’ problem in Assam is that while the population of Assam and the population of immigrant Muslims have been increasing by leaps and bounds, Assam’s land area has been dwindling over the years.
In 1901, the Census of India recorded 3.29 million people living in “undivided Assam”. It grew to 6.70 million in 1941; 8.03 million in 1951; 10.84 million in 1961; 14.63 million in 1971; 18.04 million in 1981 (projected; no census could be held that year due to disturbed political conditions); 22.41 million in 1991; 26.65 million in 2001 and 31.21 million in 2011.
But Assam had shrunk drastically after 1947. Before the partition of India, the geographical area of Assam was 140,118 Sq. Km (54,100 Sq Miles), including Sylhet. The Naga Hills district was split from Assam and made the State of Nagaland in 1963; the districts of United Khasi and Jaintia Hills and the Garo Hills became the state of Meghalaya in 1972, while the Lushai Hills district became Mizoram, a Union Territory administered by the Central government in Delhi. After this, Assam was left with 78,438 Sq. Km (30,285 Sq Mile), its present area.
In other words, Assam had shrunk by 44 per cent.
Growth of Muslim population
A significant aspect of the population growth was the increase in the Muslim population. There were 503,670 Muslims in Assam in 1901 and 634,101 in 1911 — an increase of 25.9 per cent. In 1921, Muslims numbered 880,426 (38.25% increase); 1931 — 1,279,388 (+45.31%); 1941 — 1,696,978 (+32.64%); 1951 — 1,995,936 (+17.62%. In 1961 it was 2,765,509 (+38.56 %); 1971 — 3,594,006 (+29.96%); 1991 — 6,373,204 (+77.33%. No census was held in 1981 because of political disturbances; In 2001 — 8,240,611 (+29.30 %) and in 2011 — 10,679,345 (+25.59 %).
India had been partitioned on the basis of religion. Yet, within 64 years, nine of 27 districts of Assam became Muslim majority.
In 2011, districts with the greatest Muslim populations were Dhubri — 79.67% (Hindus 19.92 %); Barpeta — 70.74% (Hindus 29.11%); Darrang — 64.34% (Hindus 35.25%); Hailakandi — 60.31% (Hindus 38.10%); Goalpara — 57.52% (Hindus 34.51%); Karimganj — 56.36% (Hindus 42.48%); Nagaon — 55.36% (Hindus 43.39%); Morigaon — 52.56% (Hindus 47.20%); and Bongaigaon — 50.22% (Hindus 48.6%).
Muslim voters dominate in 49 out of 126 Legislative Assembly constituencies. Muslim legislators won 29 of these in the last assembly elections, held in 2016.
When space decreases, economic and political pressures within increase. Assam has been sitting on a communal powder keg, which explodes now and then. Another explosion is feared after the finalization of the NRC in 2018.
The fuse was lit in 1978 by India’s then Chief Election Commissioner S.L. Shakdher, who raised the issue of illegal immigration at an official meeting. “I would like to refer to the alarming situation in some states, especially in the North Eastern region, from where reports are coming regarding large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls … A stage would be reached when that state (Assam) may have to reckon with the foreign nationals who may in all probability constitute a sizeable percentage if not the majority of population in the state.”
Demands for a complete state-wide revision of the electoral rolls followed. In 1979, the Assamese, led by students, took to the streets in an agitation unprecedented in India. This was “The Assam Movement”. It would last till 1985 and leave many thousands dead: about 2,000 of them were descendants of migrants from Mymensingh district (Bangladesh), massacred in 1983 by Tiwa (Lalung) tribesmen in 14 villages around the small town of Nellie.
The central demand of the agitation was to “Detect” (foreigners), “Delete” (their names from the voters’ lists), and “Deport”. This was conceded in a fashion on August 15, 1985, when its leaders, the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Gana Sangram Parishad (Peoples’ Struggle Committee) signed A Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of India.
This document, called the Assam Accord, stated: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971 shall be detected and deleted, and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners”.
An NRC had been drawn up after partition in 1951, but the deportation of the detected foreigners did not take place consistently or in significant numbers. Meanwhile the students kept pressing. In 2005, the government agreed to start the process of drawing up a fresh NRC. But it was only after the Supreme Court intervened that work was begun in two State Assembly constituencies in 2010. In 2013 the Supreme Court issued a deadline — the first draft of the updated NRC had to be published by December 31, 2017.
After a year of preparation, notices were issued in May 2015 asking people to apply for inclusion in the NRC, and enumerators went house-to-house. The updating was based on ‘Legacy Documents’ — the NRC of 1951 and all the voters’ lists from that year till March 24, 1971. Applicants were required to prove that either they, or their ascendants, were listed in any of these documents. Or they could furnish any of 12 other documents — birth and educational certificates, land deeds, passports, certificates, etc, — proving that they, or their ascendants, were resident in India before 24 March 1971.
Problem of Deportation
The real security challenge will emerge after the complete NRC is published. The Indian government is trying to draw up plans to deal with those whose names do not find a place in the NRC, who would automatically be deemed foreign nationals.
Parliamentary elections are due in 2019, and presumably the names of the “illegal immigrants” would be cut out of the voters’ list. But it would be impossible to deport them to Bangladesh, which has always maintained that there is no exodus from that country to India.
In all probability, those left out of the NRC would scatter to other parts of India. But Assam’s neighboring states have alerted their police forces to guard against this.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in New Delhi in 2014. In Assam, a three-party coalition led by the BJP took power in 2016. Its manifesto for the 2014 Parliamentary elections had promised to grant citizenship to all Hindu refugees.
To fulfill its promise, in 2016, the BJP introduced a bill in parliament to drastically change India’s citizenship laws. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 intends to exempt Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from being termed “illegal immigrants.”
But the Bill has been strongly opposed by the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), because it discriminates on the basis of religion. The Assam Agitation had demanded expulsion of “all” illegal immigrants irrespective of religion and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was a creature of the agitation.
But the AGP split, with most of its members joining the BJP, which won 61 seats in the 126-member state legislature in 2016. The rest of the AGP won 16 seats and joined the BJP-led coalition government. The Bodo Peoples’ Front (BPF), a tribal, anti-immigrant party, won 12 seats and became the third partner of the coalition.
A strengthened BJP has declared that it will get the bill passed before the next parliamentary elections in 2019. Together with the new National Register of Citizens, which is expected to segregate millions of Muslims in Assam as “foreigners”, it would be one more step towards the right-wing national party’s goal of making India a “Hindu Rashtra” or, Hindu Nation.
(The featured image at the top shows officials interviewing people for drawing up a National Register of Citizens in Assam)