Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma set off a controversy earlier this week with his statement that without the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, Assam “will go to the Jinnahs”. What Sarma meant was that Assam will become a Muslim-majority state if a distinction (as the Bill proposes) is not made between Hindu and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.
Sarma elaborated on his earlier statement on Tuesday (8 January) and pointed out that eight lakh Bengali Hindus have entered Assam illegally between 1971 (the cut-off year for branding migrants from Bangladesh as ‘foreigners’, as per the Assam Accord) and 2013 (the cut-off year for granting citizenship to Bengali Hindu migrants under the new Bill). Of these eight lakh Bengali Hindus, five lakh are already voters in 17 assembly constituencies in Assam. They are not in a majority in any of these constituencies and they vote for Assamese candidates. Sarma’s surmise that these Bengali Hindus do not, and will not, vote for Muslim candidates is correct.
If the names of these five lakh Bengali Hindus are deleted from the electoral rolls of these 17 constituencies, Muslims will gain majority in these constituencies and Muslim candidates fielded by Muslim parties like the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) will win easily from them. Thus, nearly 50 of the 126 assembly constituencies of Assam would get to be represented by Muslim members of legislative assembly (MLAs).
At present, there are 28 Muslim MLAs representing as many Muslim-dominated constituencies in the state, and Muslims form a sizeable chunk (more than 30 per cent) in at least 20 other constituencies. Given the sharp growth in the Muslim population in Assam (30 per cent according to the 2011 census, as against barely 11 per cent decadal growth among Hindus), Sarma’s projection that Hindus will become a minority in Assam within five years is not misplaced.
Implicit in Sarma’s statement is the assumption that the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) update exercise in the state will lead to detection of at least a majority of the estimated eight million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (IBIs). This figure is based on the estimate by Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju in November 2016 that 20 million Bangladeshis are present in India. A very small percentage of them are Hindus.
Once the IBIs in Assam – a majority of them anyway – are detected through the NRC update exercise, the Hindus among them who entered Assam till 2013 will be granted citizenship while the Muslims will be disenfranchised through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. And this, Sarma rightly contends, is the only way to prevent Assam from becoming a Muslim-majority state.
Sarma articulated a fear that former governor of Assam, Lieutenant General (Retired) S K Sinha, so eloquently expressed in a detailed letter to the then president of India more than 20 years ago. Sinha wrote about the “silent demographic invasion” of Assam by Bangladeshis and referred to statements by former Pakistan prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Bangladesh’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both had said that Assam is the “unfinished business” of partition and inclusion of Assam in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) is necessary.
Sinha, in his letter, said that through this mass illegal influx of Bangladeshis into Assam, a well-planned attempt is on to make the state a Muslim-majority one and, thus, complete the “unfinished business”.
A Muslim-majority Assam, or a large chunk of lower Assam, will become an adjunct of Bangladesh and pose a grave security threat to India. Besides, once lower Assam turns into a Muslim-majority area, the rest of the North East would get cut off from the Indian mainland and exist at the mercy of Bangladesh.
Former Assam police chief K P S Gill also wrote this paper on the demographic invasion of Assam (read this, too) and came out strongly against ‘vote bank politics’ (practised by the Congress) that had led to unchecked illegal influx from Bangladesh. While not stating so openly, what was implicit in the warnings of both Sinha and Gill was that Muslim immigrants posed a real threat to Assam. While speaking of a “demographic invasion” of Assam, what was implied was religious demography.
It is another matter, however, that the Assamese view this entire issue along linguistic, and not religious, lines. For the Assamese, there is no distinction between post-1971 Hindu and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and both groups have to be detected and deported. The Assamese seem to be sold on the so-called ‘secular’ narrative (set by the Congress) that distinguishing between immigrants on the basis of religion is communal. But this amounts to ignoring and shying away from some ground realities.
The foremost among these realities is that even though the post-1971 illegal immigrants in Assam may be detected, it is impossible to deport them to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has consistently refused to accept that its citizens have been migrating illegally to India and, thus, Dhaka will refuse to take back these immigrants.
Another reality is that while it may be possible to push out post-1971 Bengali Hindus from Assam to other states of the country, it would be impossible to do the same with the much larger number of Muslim immigrants.
In the past, because of disturbed conditions in Assam and attacks on them, thousands of Bengali Hindus of Bangladeshi origin had fled Assam and sought refuge in other parts of the country, especially Bengal. But the Muslim immigrants are no pushover and even if lakhs of them are identified as ‘foreigners’ and their names kept out of the NRC, it will be impossible to drive them out of Assam.
As it is, Muslims (most of Bangladeshi origin) are in a majority in 28 constituencies (or 22 per cent of the state assembly’s strength) and form a sizeable section in another 20 constituencies. Pushing them out of Assam will be impossible and will invite a backlash that Dispur and Delhi will not be able to handle. Thus, it makes eminent sense, as Sarma said, to grant citizenship to Bengali Hindus and allow them to stay on in Assam in order to secure the long-term interests and security of the Assamese.
What Sarma left unsaid was that while Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants have changed the demography of Assam, the Hindu immigrants pose no such threat – to Assam’s culture, tradition, and heritage.
Save for Barak valley, where they are concentrated, Bengali Hindus have merged with Assamese society and adopted many Assamese customs and traditions. This is not the case with the Muslim immigrants, most of whom are radicalised and adhere to Wahhabism, the regressive and radical form of Islam that Saudi Arabia has exported to many parts of the world. It is Wahhabi Islam, as practised by the Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, that poses a real and existential threat to the Assamese.
That the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has failed to educate the Assamese about this matter represents a failure on the part of the party. Nonetheless, the Assamese need to acknowledge this threat and take steps to counter it – the sooner the better. A distinction between Hindu and Muslim immigrants has to be made for the long-term interest of Assam.
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