The Hindu-Muslim relationship and the much talked about issues concerning religious minorities in Bharat are the flavour of the season.
To top it all has been the release of Population by Religious Communities of Census 2011. In the context of north-eastern state of Assam, the census figures are likely to lead to a renewed controversy in a state that has witnessed political upheavals and violence in the name of demographic growth and imbalances.
The issue of Bangladeshi influx has always been a major electoral issue in the state since 1970s. The latest figures say Assam’s Muslim population has increased to 34.22 per cent, a quantum leap of over four per cent, while the Hindu population has been around 61.46 per cent. Statistics often conceal more than what they reveal. But for people of Assam, these census figures will be like hot potato politically as elections are due early next year.
At least three new prominent districts in the state now show a sharp rise in the Muslim population. In 2001, six districts in Assam were Muslim dominated, but in 2011 it increased to nine. The Muslim majority districts include Barpeta, Dhubri, Karimganj, Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Hailakandi, Nagaon and Morigaon.
In Assam, this demographic transition in some pockets—closer to the international border with Bangladesh and some even away from the border would certainly yet again spark-off the debate over the Bangladeshi influx. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that in the 1970s during the peak of the students’ agitation, the initial “anti-foreigner” agitation against the influx of Bangladeshis got embroiled in the “Bongali kheda”’ (chase out Bengali) campaign. Even Hindu Bengalis were at times at the receiving end of the local anguish. Even in 2012, Assam witnessed a bloodbath owing to conflicts of interest between Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslims. .
Those who are debating the “Muslim population increase” in Assam now in the run-up to the 2016 assembly elections should also remember that the genesis of the insane rage in Bodo tribal pockets in 2012 also owed its origin to population arithmetic. There has been an interesting and perhaps funny angle to some of the statistical figures those were reported then. It was said only in 2011, in Kokrajhar and neighbouring districts, that the Muslim population was counted at about 235,000, but by June-July 2012 Badruddin Ajmal, chief of the pro-Muslim All India United Democratic Front championing the cause of minorities, said about 5,00,000 Muslims were in relief camps.
Even the then, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram admitted that illegal immigration had been one major issue that got lost in the din. That’s the paradox of North-east Bharat. Forwarding the clock to 2015, let us revisit the official data now released by the Census authorities. The Muslim population has increased by 28.8 percentage points in Darrang district, 14.88 points in Kamrup, 13.86 points in Nalbari and 11.37 points in Barpeta. Interestingly, in districts bordering Bangladesh, Dhubri saw a rise of 5.67 points and Karimganj 4.08 points.
This could be a fallacy as studies reveal Bengali Muslims, and that should include substantial Bangladeshis, have increased in states like Kerala, too. This school of thought maintains that Muslims who do continue to come from Bangladesh “move” on to other states, even outside the North-east region for employment.
However, what should be a matter of concern is that the recent findings can lead a section of society in Assam and possibly in neighbouring north-eastern states into radicalisation. Unfortunately, radicalisation is always a double-edged sword and the North-east often has fallen vulnerable to the same.
Finally, along with the need to take up welfare programmes in governance-starved states like Assam, the authorities would do well to note that the Jihadist movements, like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, did enter Bharatiya homes.
Nirendra Dev (The writer is a special representative with
The Statesman, and author of the book
‘The talking guns: Northeast India’)