March 29, 2020
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Demographic Jitters

The rates of growth of Muslim populations are the highest precisely in those districts of Assam that share a border with, or lie close to the border with, Bangladesh, giving credence to the widely held belief that illegal migration from Bangladesh i

Demographic Jitters
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According to the National Census of 2001, the Muslim population in the Northeast Indian State of Assam is 30.9 per cent out of a total of 26.6 million. Although the last Census was conducted three years ago, it was only on September 6, 2004, that the office of the Registrar General of India, which carries out census operations, released the statistical break-up on religious lines. The latest figures demonstrate that the proportionate growth of the Muslim population in Assam, in comparison with other religious communities, is second only to Jammu and Kashmir (67 per cent Muslims).

The 2001 Census put Assam's population at 26,655,528. Of this, 17,296,455 were recorded as Hindus and 8,240,611 Muslims. Among the critical elements made public by the Census authorities is the fact that six of Assam's 27 districts have a majority Muslim population. The district of Barpeta tops the list with 977,943 Muslims and 662,066 Hindus. The other five districts where Muslims constitute a majority: Dhubri, Goalpara, Nagaon, Karimganj and Hailakandi.

The issue of Muslim population growth in Assam has a disturbing resonance. The State has long been in the grip of a murky politics of citizenship over the issue of unabated illegal migration from adjoining Bangladesh, with which it shares a 262 kilometre long border. 

The particular significance of the recently released Census data is the fact that the rates of growth of Muslim populations are the highest precisely in the districts that share a border with, or lie close to the border with, Bangladesh - particularly Dhubri, Barpeta, Karimganj and Hailakandi - giving credence to the widely held belief that illegal migration from Bangladesh was the source of these demographic trends. Such migration clearly continues unhindered, despite the barbed-wire fence being erected in stretches and the presence of the Border Security Force (BSF) along the border.

A look at the census figures of 1971 and 1991 (there was no census in Assam in 1981 due to unrest in the State) shows that there has been a steady to rapid rise in the Muslim population in districts proximate to the border, confirming apprehensions of a continuing illegal influx. This, perhaps, goes a long way to explain the rather high Muslim growth rate in Assam, estimated at 77.42 per cent between 1971 and 1991.

In 1971, Muslims, for instance, comprised 64.46 per cent of the population in Dhubri district. This rose to 70.45 per cent in 1991 - a total growth of 77.42 per cent between 1971 and 1991. By 2001 the proportion of Muslims had risen further to 74.29 per cent of the population in Dhubri. By 2001, the Muslim population in Barpeta rose from 56.07 per cent in 1991 to 59.3 per cent; in Goalpara, from 50.18 per cent to 53.71 per cent, and Hailakandi from 54.79 per cent 57.6 per cent.

Significantly, two new districts joined the list of Muslim majority districts in Assam by 2001: Karimganj, where the Muslim population rose from 49.17 per cent in 1991 to 52.3 per cent; and Nagaon, where the community's population grew from 47.19 per cent in 1991 to 50.99 per cent.

There is need to make a clear distinction, here, between indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims and Bangladeshi migrants before analyzing the demographic and security implications of such population growth. Aside from Guwahati, Assam's capital (that is part of the Kamrup Metro district), the heartland of the indigenous Assamese Muslims - whose origins can be traced to the forays of the pre-Mughals in the 13th century - is located around the tea growing eastern districts of Jorhat, Golaghat, Sivasagar and Dibrugarh. 

In Jorhat district the Muslims comprised just 3.89 per cent of the total population in 1971, rising to 4.32 per cent in 1991. The growth rate was 48.04 per cent between 1971 and 1991. In Sivasagar, Muslims accounted for 6.65 per cent of the population in 1971, climbing to 7.63 per cent in 1991; in Dibrugarh from 3.66 per cent of the total population in 1971 to 4.49 per cent in 1991; and in Golaghat, Muslims comprised 5.17 per cent of the population in 1971, rising to 7.11 per cent in 1991. It is useful to note, in this context, that the growth rate of the Hindu population in Jorhat, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Golaghat was between 32 and 49 per cent over the 1971-1991 period, closely comparable to the rates of growth for the indigenous Muslim populations.

Evidently, the Muslim growth rate in areas dominated by indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims, located far from the Bangladesh border, have been registering marginal increases, as compared to areas located close to the border.

With these startling facts being brought to light, influential groups, such as the All Assam Students' Union (AASU ) - which had led the six-year-long anti-foreigner (that is, anti-Bangladeshi) uprising in the State between 1979 and 1985 - have once again upped the ante, reiterating fears that the illegal aliens will eventually overwhelm the indigenous population. They have also stepped up demands for effective action against this unremitting population offensive, including the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), with 1971 as the cut-off year.

The population explosion in Bangladesh, with 2.8 million added every year in one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world, creates the push factors for this silent demographic invasion. These are, however, compounded by an expansionist political ideology, implicitly or explicitly supported in the corridors of power in Bangladesh: the idea of Lebensraum ('living space'), which has been variously projected by the country's leadership for a long time, though the use of the expression itself is relatively recent. In the early nineties, Sadeq Khan, a former diplomat, stated:

All projections, however, clearly indicate that by the next decade, that is to say by the first decade of the 21st century, Bangladesh will face a serious crisis of lebensraum… A natural overflow of population pressure is very much on the cards and will not be restrainable by barbed wire or border patrol measures. The natural trend of population overflow from Bangladesh is towards the sparsely populated lands in the South East, in the Arakan side and of the North East in the Seven Sisters side of the Indian sub-continent…

The idea had found repeated articulation even before the creation of Bangladesh, and enumerated, among its supporters, Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first Prime Minister.

The AASU and other organizations behind the anti-foreigner movement in the State had, at the height of their agitation in the mid-Nineteen Eighties, estimated the number of illegal migrants in Assam to be as high as 4.5 to 5 million, or 31 to 34 per cent of the total population of the State in 1971.

As recently as on July 14, 2004, India's Minister of State for Home, Sriprakash Jaiswal, had told the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) that there were 5 million illegal Bangladeshis in Assam. Groups such as the AASU reacted, saying that their fears and estimates had been officially confirmed. Later, on July 23 another Minister of State for Home, Manik Rao Gavit clarified in Parliament that his colleague's statement was not based on any comprehensive study, but "on hearsay."

But such glaring contradictions simply demonstrated the oft-leveled charge that political parties, in fact, lack the will to tackle the issue for fear of losing a massive 'vote bank'. With the census figures indirectly confirming the alarming picture of mass illegal migrations from Bangladesh, sparks are expected to fly in Assam.

Ironically, however, after the AASU leaders transformed themselves into politicians, forming the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in the winter of 1985 to contest the State Legislative Assembly polls and to capture power in Assam with the key promise of ridding the State of the illegal Bangladeshi migrants, the party, did little to identify and deport the aliens when it was in Government. In a span of nearly ten years, spread over two terms, the AGP Government in Assam deported fewer than 1,500 illegal migrants, blaming the poor progress in the exercise of detection and expulsion on loopholes in the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 (IMDT).

The IMDT Act operates only in Assam, while the Foreigners Act, 1946, applies to the rest of the country. Under the IMDT Act, the onus of proving the citizenship of an accused 'illegal alien' lies on the accuser, whereas in the Foreigners Act, the onus lies with the accused. Given the infirmities of the Act and the absence of political will, progress has been extremely slow. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs admits that the functioning of the IMDT Act has been "unsatisfactory", and in a presentation in mid-1999, in connection with a court case, disclosed that action under the Act had been taken as follows:

  • Total enquiries (against suspected illegal migrants) initiated: 3,02,554;

  • Enquiries referred to the Screening Committee: 2,96,564;

  • Enquiry reports referred to the IMDT Tribunals: 31,264;

  • Persons declared as illegal migrants by the IMDT Tribunals: 9,625;

  • Number of illegal migrants expelled: 1,461.

In November 1998, the then Governor of Assam, Lt. Gen. (Retd) S.K.Sinha presented a 42-page official report to the President of India on 'Illegal Migration into Assam,'  noting:  

As a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state… This silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of Lower Assam [on the border with Bangladesh]. The influx of these illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim majority region. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made…

If current trends of inflow of population continue unchecked, the security implications, not only for Assam, but for the entire Northeast region, could be disastrous.


Wasbir Hussain is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi; Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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