Assam is a state in the North Eastern part of India. In undivided India, Eastern Bengal and Assam was for a time a single province (1905 to 1911). East Bengal became East Pakistan at Indian independence, and in 1971 seceded from West Pakistan to become Bangladesh.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is the list of people in Assam who are able to prove they lived in India prior to March 25, 1971. In a socio-economic environment where people do not keep records, this is often impossible to do.
Of a population of about 32 million, the current version of the NRC, published in August, 2019 is missing approximately 2 million residents of Assam. These 4 million people of Assam are stateless.
“Stateless persons are often denied basic rights such as access to education, health and livelihood opportunities. They cannot marry legally, and in some countries, they cannot legally bury their dead." says Wanja Munaita, an expert in statelessness at UNHCR.
The situation is illustrated by the tragedy of the Rohingya people of Myanmar. A minority Muslim community who had lived in Myanmar for generations, the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982. Their travail is well known and include being interred in camps in Myanmar with no access to schooling or medical facilities. They have been subject to waves of genocidal violence, and in 2017 alone over 700 thousand were made to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
Statelessness therefore is a condition India should alleviate, not contribute to.
Alternatives considered by the Indian Government are giant detention camps for indefinite periods, issuance of work permits for employment at selected locations but without any citizenship rights. A repeat of prior massacres and forced expulsions cannot be ruled out.
According to Citizens for Justice and Peace, over 900 people are currently detained in detention camps and close to 30,000 people have been deported since 1985.
Detainees are forced to live in hellish conditions. There are reports of the sick being handcuffed to hospital beds, people forced to share space with hardened criminals and, as reported for one camp, two toilets, two bathrooms and four taps are shared by over a hundred women.
Statements by ruling party members of the BJP are not re-assuring:
If “these people” don’t return home “like gentlemen,” T. Raj Singh, India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) & member of the Telangana Legislative Assembly said, “they should be shot
“These crores of illegal immigrants are like termites,” BJP National Chief Amit Shah told a party rally at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi.
In 1982, in the infamous Nellie Massacre, an estimated three thousand Muslims were killed within few hours of day time.
Recent massacres include:
By the Pew Research Center Report, as of 2017, 3.14 million people from Bangladesh are in India.
According to the
UN Migration Report 2017, 3.9 million people of Bangladeshi origin
live in India (Migration Report2017, Figure 8). India has the largest
number of migrants abroad, 17 million.
Pooja Chaudhuri exposes much of the migrant hearsay spread on social media in “No, India Doesn’t Have 11 Cr Rohingya Or 8 Cr Bangladeshi Refugees”
In addition to the earliest Muslim settlement in Assam from over eight centuries ago, the British settled people from Bengal into Assam from the early 1900s. Significantly, this included educated Hindu Bengalis for administrative duties of the Raj.
There was another wave of migration of Bengali Hindus at the time of Indian independence and partition into India and Pakistan. The Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 caused both Hindus and Muslims to seek shelter in Assam.
Much of the Assamese press and social media is focused on “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” post March 1971. However, less than 5% of refuges during the 1971 war went to Assam, the overwhelming majority went to West Bengal and other states. Most returned.
Peace time immigrants in India are typically poor and attempt to get jobs in the cities. They do not have fixed addresses or land. Across a porous border that often cuts through very similar communities there is no record keeping. Most migrants obtain menial work in the cities, and it is highly unlikely that they would be able to save enough to buy land. Given that 86% of Assamese are rural, those who have come from across the border are likely to move to other parts of India where employment opportunities are better than the North-East. It should also be noted that the GDP per capita in Assam is USD 750, while the corresponding figure for Bangladesh is USD 1751.
Thus it appears that the ire against the “Bangladeshi infiltrators” is in reality against those who have settled in Assam over many generations in undivided India.
As pointed out, there is no record keeping across the Bangladesh – Assam border. The nationalist groups in Assam consider migration from Bangladesh to be the primary source of increase in the Muslim population in Assam but there is no way to validate the claim. The alleged increase in the Muslim population can be due to other factors including lack of family planning services in poorer communities.
In Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement by Abdul Mannan, the former professor of statistics at Gauhati University writes that Assam’s Muslim population has increased because of the community’s high birth rate and not because of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. This is not unexpected as disadvantaged communities typically do have higher birth rates. Assam’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes grew at a higher rate in 1971 - 1991 than even Muslims – Scheduled Castes at 81.84% and Scheduled Tribes at 78.91%.
Noted Assamese Historian Amalendu Guha observed that after Independence, the migration of Muslim peasants nearly stopped. Prof. Monirul Hussain of Gauhati University argues, “The 1951 census recorded for the first time the decreased rate of growth of Muslims in Assam, that is, 17.6% against a total of 20.2%.”
The most common sentiment appear to be as stated by a former Governor of Assam (Retd Lt General S. K. Sinha): “Large scale illegal migration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh … poses a grave threat to the identity of the Assamese people and to our national security.”
Another author expanding on this sentiment cites that immigrants usurp land, destroy the environment, depress wage, increase price of commodities. “Assam, being a Hindu majority state, fears that it will become Muslim-dominated due to influx of illegal migrants.”
The Assam economy is mostly agricultural. The few industries that are there are based on non-renewable natural resources of tea, oil refining and plywood. The per capita income is among the lowest in the country.
As professor Hiren Gohain, Assam's leading public intellectual stated “Unless Assam is allowed to develop its resources there will be unrest”.
In a World Bank report of 2011, Assam’s poverty rate is 35%, compared to an overall 22% for all India; maternal mortality rate of 300 per 100,000 live birth contrasts with all India’s 167.
The neglect of Assam by the Central government of India may stem from a variety of historical causes, including the low level of trade and business at the time of Independence, and the fact that the nascent middle-class in Assam was not in the Independence leadership. This backwardness has alienated various factions in Assam from the mainstream of India, giving rise to a hyper-nationalism that considers immigration from Bangladesh the region’s primary problem.
The Indian Central Government’s psychological and geographical distance has kept people of the state of Assam in the backwaters. The anti-Bangladesh and anti-Muslim hysteria in Assam thus finds a fertile spawning ground. Demonizing migrants in troubled times is an age old phenomena. As we see in Europe, this is done under the mantle of an exclusionary and xenophobic nationalism. This nationalism deftly sidesteps the real issues confronting people - economic development, environmental challenges, literacy, etc. – to move on to convenient scapegoats.
The close cousin of nationalism – identity politics - need to be examined by all thinking people.
Each and every human being has multiple identities. Each of us belong to multiple communities by idiom, profession, creed, ethnicity, etc. Much like the intersection of many Venn diagrams, these colors overlap to produce the forever unique individual human being that each and every person is. All of our associations must be accepted by society because it is this multiplicity that defines each one of us.
If a single one from among all our different identities is held out as paramount, be that linguistic, ethnic, religious, color, etc., we need to ask why and who benefits by that call. No one of our identities have a pre-ordained supremacy. The hierarchy of our identity changes with time and place. It cannot be religion that is the primary identity: the shared religion of Turkish and Kurdish people carry little weight in their deep antagonism. It cannot be ethnicity: examples abound of a single ethnic group ferociously split by religion. In the end is it not the composition of all our different identities that merge in the singular identity of a human being?
To the credit of some intellectuals and artists in Assam, voices of sanity have always been raised against the hyper-nationalism that has raged in Assam. As in the timeless song in the Peace Caravan during the language movement in 1960 when the Assamese and Bangla speakers fought each other, “Manush manusher jonne, jibon jibone jonne, aktu shohonoboti ke pete pare na? (“A soul is for another / life is for life / Can one not get a little sympathy from one another?”).
It goes without saying that the Indian state has the responsibility of working with people of Assam to bring jobs and development. In the immediate future, it needs to bring the full weight of the law against those who advocate massacres of minorities. We can hope that with greater inclusion by Delhi, Assamese society will be able to develop within itself inclusionary politics where the Asamiyas, the tribals and the descendants of settlers in the state recognize the history that brought them together. The debate cannot be about who is an indigene in Assam or whose father or mother was or was not counted in 1951, but about the common thread that bind all people in the region to face the greater challenges that appear on the horizon today.