The indigenous people of Assam need to hold their past rulers responsible for the fast-changing demography of their state and the perils that this poses for them.
Blaming New Delhi and looking to the Union government for solutions is not going to help.
The imminent lapse of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 triggered boisterous celebrations across Assam and the rest of northeast India, which has been opposing the bill. The people of the region had harboured deep fears, howsoever misplaced, that the passage of the bill would eventually lead to the indigenous people of the region being reduced to a hopeless minority in their own land.
This fear runs especially deep among the indigenous people of Assam, who have already been reduced to a minority in large swathes of the state. Thanks to large-scale illegal migration from Bangladesh, Assam’s demography has changed irretrievably and, today, Muslims — mostly of Bangladeshi origin — form nearly 38 per cent of the population in the state.
Muslims are the fastest growing community in Assam and it is widely estimated that by the middle of the current century, Assam will become a Muslim-majority state. And most of these Muslims will not only be of Bangladeshi origin, but also poor and a highly-radicalised (by Salafi preachers) lot (read this).
Some other states of the North East, most notably Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur, are also having to bear the burden of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The religious demography of some parts of Christian-majority Nagaland has changed, thanks to the influx of Bangladeshi Muslims (read this and this). Alarmingly, Bangladeshi Muslim migrants have been marrying into the tribal communities in Nagaland and Meghalaya. In Nagaland, thousands of such Bangladeshi Muslims have married into the Sumi tribe and a new community referred to as Sumia (a combination of Sumi and ‘Miya’, as Muslims are colloquially referred to) has evolved. The Sumias are powerful and aggressive in Nagaland.
But it is Assam that presents the most alarming picture. The province’s Muslims (mostly indigenous) made for barely 14 per cent of its population in 1901. But the British had, by then, started encouraging large-scale migration from (erstwhile) East Bengal to Assam to grow more food and as cheap labourers for tea gardens and other menial work. Even indigenous Muslim politicians of Assam (most notably Sir Syed Muhammad Saadulla) also encouraged such migration to change the demographic profile of Assam. The Muslim population of Assam thus shot up and has been continuing to rise ever since.
After the formation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the influx of people — mostly Muslims, but also Hindus — continued unabated and, slowly, large parts of lower Assam and Barak Valley became Muslim-majority areas. Today, nine of Assam’s 33 districts have turned into Muslim-majority ones. The Hindu population in these districts as well as Muslim-majority pockets in other districts of the state has started registering a negative growth and that is cause for great worry and alarm. It is estimated that by 2025, half of Assam’s districts will become Muslim-majority ones, and most of these Muslims will be of Bangladeshi-origin or the progeny of the illegal Muslim migrants.
The indigenous people of Assam (as well as other North East states) have for long been agitating against this illegal influx. And the target of the indigenous Assamese in such agitations has been the Union government. New Delhi (the Union government) is held responsible for this unabated influx that has changed the demography of the state and put a severe strain on its resources.
The six-year-long Assam movement (1979-1985) was also directed against the Centre, which was blamed for failing to stop the illegal influx and drive away the infiltrators. Since then, the indigenous Assamese has been squarely blaming the Union government for the problem posed by the presence of millions of Bangladeshi migrants on Assam’s soil.
But it is high time some hard and uncomfortable questions are asked. And the Assamese need to ask these questions of themselves. Who is primarily responsible for this large-scale influx from East Pakistan and then Bangladesh? The hard and bitter truth is that successive governments in Assam (mostly Congress governments) encouraged this influx in order to create vote banks for their petty political gains. It is no secret that the Congress created, nurtured and gained from these vote banks (of poor Muslim immigrants). The Congress leaders were all Assamese. The indigenous people of Assam need to hold their past rulers responsible for the fast-changing demography of their state and the perils that this poses for them.
The illegal entry of Bangladeshi Muslims (the Bangladeshi Hindus were hardly ever granted any political patronage) was facilitated by Assamese politicians, who got the local administration (staffed by indigenous Assamese) to issue them ration cards and citizenship documents. Assamese officers, clerks and peons all colluded in this for their own petty gains.
The Bangladeshis provided cheap labour and were employed by the Assamese. Even today, most masons and construction workers, rickshaw pullers and landless farmers in Assam are of Bangladeshi origin. And the Assamese continue to patronise them while, at the same time, blaming the Union government for not doing anything to stop the illegal influx and drive out the infiltrators.
Indigenous Assamese landlords let out their farmlands to the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants or employed them as cheap labour at subsistence wages, and Assamese businessmen and factory owners did the same. The Assamese prefers to employ a Bangladeshi at low wages rather than a labourer from another part of the country. That is why Hindi-speaking labourers have been replaced by Bangladeshis in Assam. All of them — the Assamese landlord, businessman, factory owner and the ordinary Assamese patronising a Bangladeshi labourer, mason, vegetable seller, rickshaw puller and the like are primarily responsible for Assam being overrun by Bangladeshi immigrants.
The indigenous people of Assam have to ponder over these questions and come up with honest answers. The Assamese have to take primary responsibility for what has happened to Assam. And then take corrective action. Blaming New Delhi and looking to the Union government for solutions is not going to help.