Bangladeshi immigration into Bharat is not a mere diplomatic tussle. It is people oriented and thus socio-economic and a crucial national problem. However, the Vote Bank politics has dominated the politics of Assam and influenced the policy on infiltration problem. Both AGP and Congress have been championing the cause of minority appeasement.
“Indiraji’s (Indira Gandhi’s) will shall prevail. I shall do whatever she wants me to do. If she wishes it, tomorrow before sunrise, I shall fill Punjab’s jails with 10,000 Assamese to crush the movement”. – Gyani Zail Singh, Home Minister in Indira cabinet in an interview to The Indian Express editor Arun Shourie in January, 1980.
This remark sums up the paradox involved in resolving the illegal migration cobweb of Assam. On one hand while the natives felt threatened by the continuous influx from across the border in Bangladesh especially, on its part the central government under Indira Gandhi always presumed that things were under control or to be precise the ‘Assam agitation’ against foreigners’ illegal immigration can be crushed. But the reality was hardly appreciated by the Government of Bharat especially in 1960s and 1970s when the problem perhaps was in its miniscule form and could have been handled easily.
Old timers recall that in 1981, Indira’s handpicked Chief Minister, Mrs Anwara Taimur asserted that things were under her grip and her government saw no reason to deport foreigners – as was demanded by agitators especially students. Instead the government resorted to strong measures and police and security personnel – certainly at the directives of the centre – were let loose on the locals. “The Assam agitation was started by people and students but the violence came from the government side. Curfew and CrPC provisions were used liberally in towns and local Assamese gathered fear to speak in public. The merciless killing of Kharegeswar Talukdar in 1979 by security personnel was the beginning of it all,” says 80-year-old Hiranmay Borah, a retired government servant.
Locals saw a sinister plan from across the border in Bangladesh and also assisted by the Pakistan’s ISI for “allowing easy flow” of Bengali Muslims into Assam – which had abundant barren land and work opportunities. Some agencies and communist leaders later had even claimed of CIA hand—which allegedly launched ‘Operation Brahmaputra’ to destabilise north-east Bharat.
But there are a few twists in the tale also
Assam has been a victim of continuous ‘domination’ by demographic movement. Domination of the state has been sought by diverse number of social groups for diverse reasons. Even pre-Independence days, three main groups entered Assam with rather spontaneity – the Hindu Bengalis, tea garden workers and Muslims from the then East Bengal (that later became Bangladesh). While Bengali Hindus mainly came for jobs as part of British administration and most went back, tea-gardeners in much less numbers and Bengali Muslims in huge numbers actually came in and stayed. In fact, an estimate suggests ‘by 1947 over a million East Bengal Muslims were settled in rural Assam’. Historical accounts say Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla, an Assamese Muslim League leader, played a key role in that ‘settlement policy’. This was the beginning but just a tip of the ice berg.
Visit to former students’ activist-turned-politician Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s constituency Nagaon in 2000-2001 had revealed that while Bengali Muslim population had increased substantially, there was a sharp decline in Assamese population – both Hindus and Muslims. Moreover, just as demographic situation upset social harmony in some of these hubs, by 1980s – the Left movement had sprung up. While Bengali Muslims inspired and assisted by ISI and Jamat-I-Islami in Bangladesh sought religious expansions, the Marxist comrades wanted to use the occasion for propagating their Leftist doctrine. Assam actually had turned into a small laboratory of demographic influx.
And by 2015 – when the Population by Religious Communities of Census 2011—was released, everyone was aghast as Assam’s Muslim population had increased to 34.22 per cent, a quantum leap of over four per cent. Obviously the influx issue will be a dominant and top of the election-politics agenda in Assam for next few months. The electoral puzzle in the state is thus getting complex and to an extent offers a worrisome scenario. Assam’s Nagaon to Daboka belt bordering Dimapur in Nagaland and hubs like Dhubri, Karimganj and Barpeta have already been flooded with Bengali Muslims and the Hindus, sons of the soil (Assamese) and Bengali Hindus and other Bharateeyas have been outnumbered.
Statistical Nightmare of Influx
Old timers in Assam and northeastern states will concur easily that some national leaders and prominent freedom fighters appreciated the gravity of population immigration. In fact by 1920s itself Dr Rajendra Prasad had literally mooted a proposal to ‘populate’ vast vacant landscape of Assam with Biharis to check the Mymensinghi Muslim influx. Muslim population was increasing in Brahmaputra valley from 9 per cent in 1881 to 19 per cent in 1931. By 1941, Barpeta was already with 49 per cent Muslims.
The then Assam Governor Lt Gen SK Sinha seemed to have diagnosed the malady and made a strong recommendation in 1999 to the Vajpayee Government and the President K R Narayanan. His reports endorsed the fear about ‘greater Bangladesh’ sustained by organisations like ‘Amra Bangali’. The apprehensions about greater Muslim hegemony in the region gained further currency when in Silchar belt along the Barak valley, a new slogan emerged among the Bengali Muslims—allegedly at the instance of one ‘Miyaland Demand Committee’ under the guidance of ISI—“Sylhet nilam gana votey, Cachar nebo lathir jorey (We have annexed Sylhet (now a prominent district in Bangladesh by ballot, now we will take away Cachar valley with force).
The then Congress Chief Minister SC Jamir in 1994 had said, “Bangladeshis were increasing like rabbits”. Again on May 6, 1997, the then Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta said, “There were one crore illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” On July 15, 2004 the Minister of State for Home J P Jaiswal said in the Parliament that there were 1.2 crore illegal migrants in the country. The following day this figure was denied. When Lt Gen Sinha raised foreign nationals’ issue, he was immediately accused of playing communal game. Sinha had said, “In 1960s the then Assam Governor late BK Nehru and the then Congress CM BP Chaliha wanted to take measures against the influx of illegal migrants. But the vote bank considerations worked. In fact, BK Nehru and Chalia were pulled up.”
During 2002 Economic Summit of North-east Chief Ministers and Governors in Mumbai, Lt Gen Sinha told this writer point blank: “Bangladeshi influx issue is connected to insurgency in Assam and other states. ULFA issues statements and takes on every issue under the sky. But they maintained silence on the illegal migration issue”.
Vote Bank Politics
However, the Vote Bank politics has dominated the politics of Assam and influenced the policy on infiltration problem. Both AGP and Congress have been championing the cause of minority appeasement. In July 2008, Justice B K Sharma of the Gauhati High Court in 95-page judgement said, “The day is not far off, when the indigenous people of Assam, both Hindus and Muslims and other religious groups will be reduced to minorities in their own land and the Bangladeshis will become kingmakers”. However, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi quickly contested this in no unambiguous words stating, “Since my schooldays I have been hearing that Bangladeshis will become kingmakers in Assam” Worse, he had asked, “How many Bangladeshis are there in Assam?”
Nirendra Dev (The writer is a senior journalist
with The Statesman in New Delhi)