The latest round of violence in the BTAD (Bodo Territorial Autonomous District) areas brings us back to the age old question, and it is that of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the state. While everybody has been busy expressing shock and heartfelt condolences for the victims, let me remind everyone this sort of violence had been predicted almost two decades ago when the issue of illegal immigration was taken everybody’s minds by storm in Assam.
While many people might think that I might be rejoicing the latest round of massacre engineered by the alleged Bodo militants, let me make it clear that I don’t enjoy the slaughter of innocent women and children. And yet, today I’m forced to think that two decades of non-action by the people in authority have finally brought us to a position where we are witnessing open bloodshed based on the simple notion of ethnicity. What happened in Baksa recently and what happened in the entire Bodoland in 2012 is something that did not surprise many people. Of course they arose out of petty issues and cannot be called as a choreographed initiative to conduct genocide of a particular group. These incidents of violence continually remind us that more such incidents would come, and worse, they can spread to other parts of the state as well.
The resentment that is shared among the Bodos towards the Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh is a feeling that is shared by all the indigenous groups in Assam towards these people. Scores of Muslims who have suddenly appeared on the horizon while speaking Bengali and wearing a lungi, all this while in the span of the last thirty years, has aroused the resentment of all the ethnic groups. What has aggravated their resentment here is that these people have become a veritable powerhouse of vote bank politics are continuously nurtured by political parties like the Congress and AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front). The latest round of media coverage of the incident shows how the secular imaged and politically correct fourth estate likes to portray these people. While I, like most people, cringed with horror, as I saw the pictures of the murdered women and children, I could not help but notice people making a sad story of communalism out of the whole issue. Also, I have extreme discomfort with the fact that politically correct minded idiots refer to these people as ‘Bengali speaking Muslims.’ What the hell are these Bengali speaking Muslims doing in Assam? How can you call them the natural residents of the state? We have our own breed of Muslims and they definitely do not speak Bengali, even among themselves. If I say that there is a huge chunk of Tamil speaking population in Bihar, will you for the sake of political correctness, say that they are the natural residents of Bihar?
Let us recall back in 2001 that the Central Government itself admitted in Parliament that were around 50 lakh illegal Bangladeshis in Assam. Now compared to that, only 2,442 have been supported by the official white papers of the Assam government between 1985 and 2001. Again, on the basis of an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, the Central Government had admitted in 2005 that “there are interested religious and political elements encouraging immigration.” I agree that immigration is an age old process and cannot be determined by political boundaries or such limitations. Since I hope that this article will be read by many non-Assamese as well, let me take you all through a brief history of immigration in Assam from the times of contemporary history.
Immigration of Muslims from Bengal to Assam had been encouraged by the Muslim League well before independence and it is solely due to their efforts that the percentage of Muslims grew up in the decade of 1940s in the state. It was also the reason why the League succeeded in forming a state government back then under the charismatic Syed Saadullah, who was an Assamese Muslim by the way. But still, not a single district of Assam was Muslim majority during the time of independence. Then came the partition of India and the subsequent division of Bengal. Two decades later, the Bangladesh liberation war took place. During both these historic upheavals, Assam as well as the states of West Bengal and Tripura witnessed massive influx of displaced population from Bangladesh. The first two incidents saw a large influx of Bangladeshi Hindus who fled to save their lives from Muslim fundamentalists and the Pakistani Army. After the period of 1971, steady influx of immigrants continued to India from Bangladesh. These were not persecuted people, but belonged to the majority Muslim community there who however could not sustain themselves in the far flung rural areas of the country which was economically too weak to run on its own for years. Plus, years of political turmoil and exploitation by the various forces after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman forced many poor peasants to leave their homes and cross over the border to India in the hope of filling up their empty stomachs. Perhaps the last round of open and large scale migration from Bangladesh to India took place in 1992 when scores of Hindus were again forced to flee after Muslims there turned violent in response to the demolition of Babri Masjid in India.
Now comes the shocking part that took most people by surprise. An Assam Agitation took place in the 1980s that was solely aimed at driving out the illegal immigrants from the state, but still, political patronage by the Congress party which had ruled Assam since independence till the 80s had turned these Bangladeshis into valuable electoral commodities during polls. Imagine the surprise among the people when it was revealed that six out of 23 districts in Assam had become Muslim majority by 2001. From 1971 to 2001, the percentage of Hindus in Assam declined from 72.5% to 64.9% and correspondingly the percentage of Muslims increased from 24.6% to 30.4%. The share of Muslims in the 2011 census has been estimated to have gone up to 32.40%. The share of Muslims have particularly gone up in the districts along the borders of the state; over 10% in Dhubri, 12.2% in Goalpara, 10.8% in Barpeta, 11.6% in Darrang, over 7% in Morigaon and over 8% in Karimganj from 1971 to 2001.
The rate of growth of the population of Assam between 2001 and 2011 is 16.93%, which is lower than the national average of 17.64% for the same time period. The growth rate of the border districts of Assam have got strikingly much higher compared to these figures. In Dhubri, it was 24.40%, Goalpara 22.74%, Barpeta 21.40%, Hailakandi 21.44% and Karimganj 20.74% where illegal Bangladeshis have settled in large numbers alongside the indigenous Assamese Muslims. Correspondingly, the other districts, though they are not Muslim majority, have similarly registered significant growth in the Muslim population. The continued violence in the BTAD areas is a direct result of this unabated growth of Muslims which has evoked such strong reactions from the local Bodo people.
Now let’s come to the portion where most Assamese people would panic. The implication of the growth rate in terms of demographic composition in the future has been analysed in a paper by Nath &Nath which predicts that by 2040, Hindus will be reduced to a minority in the state. Another study by Indrajit Barua estimates Hindus becoming a minority by 2047. In 1992, the then Chief Minister Hiteshwar Saikia admitted that there were 33 lakh illegal immigrants in the state and then again in July 14, 2004, the Union Home Minister, in a statement to the Parliament, estimated that the total number of illegal immigrants in Assam stood at about 50 lakhs in 2001. Prior to 1971, the government did take some steps to contain immigration from Bangladesh, but soon the interests of the common Indians fell prey to the benefits of vote bank politics. While the current Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi keeps on swearing that there is no illegal immigration in the state, the presence of a large chunk of Bengali speaking Muslims all over Assam paint a different picture however. What is disheartening is that certain individuals who claim to be intellectuals and researchers in the field side with the Congress version and dub these illegal immigrants as the people of the land for their own personal benefits. Trust me, even if the Assamese Muslim resorted to producing ten babies per year, then too the Muslim population in the state would not have experienced such a huge jump. And the theory of mass conversion cannot be implied here either because historically Assam has never been ruled by a Muslim ruler.
Today these illegal immigrants hold a strong position in the socio-political structure of Assam. Even if the government tomorrow decides to deport them, it will be a Herculean task to do so given the fact that they can resort to large scale violence throughout the state and also the fact that the support they receive from parties like the Congress, AIUDF and the leftist parties. It is true that the incidents in the BTAD are a result of a concoction of dirty politics and certain elements which want a polarization of both the sides. But just think of the fact that sooner or later these groups will again be at each other’s throats at the slightest provocation. Political outfits and vested groups will obviously take advantage of these situations.
If you ask me what is my reaction to the latest round of killings in the BTAD, then of course I condemn it. I will never support any massacre of women and children in such a ruthless way, be they Indian or Bangladeshi (sorry to disappoint most of my critics). In fact, no sane minded individual should. But the question here is that will mere condemnation stop these incidents from happening in the future? The government continues to reap benefits out of the situation and the Bodo political outfits like the BPF anyway want a polarization of the votes which will bring them advantage. The Bodo militant groups are also used as puppets in this regard. The point is that these incidents are only happening in the BTAD areas so far. What will you do when the violence spreads to other parts of the state? What will you do when other indigenous groups and the mainstream Assamese react with violence towards these settlers? Going by the present rate of growth of Muslims in the state, the prediction of Assam becoming a Muslim majority state till 2040 might actually come true. And if this happens, then we are all today sitting on a ticking time bomb which will ultimately explode resulting in the biggest ethnic violence in the history of India. It wont be long before a Muslim militant outfit comes out in the state and starts revenge attacks on the indigenous people. I cannot imagine a better political complication for Assam than this.
The warnings had been clear for decades. These violent incidents had been predicted years back when it was found out that the government was busy securing a vote bank at the cost of the welfare of the indigenous people of the state. Everyone here in Assam is quite aware of what happened to the Hindu Pandits of Kashmir back in the early 1990s. The thought of a Muslim majority Assam naturally makes them nervous for the fate of their descendants in the state. Assam would witness a more volatile situation than Kashmir because here bloodshed would be committed from both sides in large numbers.
Yes, the future looks gloomy. Yes, I see more troubles and pain in the offering. But are we still out of a choice for correction? Well no. We still have time to fix things before they spiral out of hands. What is most resented by the indigenous people of the state is the fact that these immigrants have the ownership over the land they forcefully occupy and the right of voting that empowers their stay in the state. If a system of compromise or a middle path can be achieved whereby they do not reserve the right to vote but at the same time hold a permit to stay and earn a livelihood in India, then maybe some amount of peace can be achieved. But then again, I’m just proposing some half-baked ideas and such things need deep introspection before putting forward to people. Even if we talk of deportation, where will we deport all these people? Bangladesh will never accept them back. The main immediate drive that the government should adopt towards these immigrants is to impart proper education on them and make them aware of the benefits of family planning and birth control. A burst of population among these immigrants is leaving them with fewer choices of livelihood and many of them have resorted to criminal activities to sustain themselves.
But will the government heed the real needs of the time and save us all from a dark and disastrous future? This part remains to be seen.
Joydeep Hazarika is a Guwahati based journalist. He takes active interest in the politics of northeastern India and its surrounding regions. He is also a photographer, a cartoonist and an aspiring writer. He can be followed on Twitter @joydeep1985 or on his blog www.writingwarrior.wordpress.com.