On the boil

Published : Sep 12, 2008 00:00 IST

A court observation sparks off another anti-foreigner agitation in Assam.

in Guwahati

BARELY a week after the Gauhati High Court, in a judgment and order passed on July 25, observed that Bangladeshis in Assam have become the kingmakers and a strong political will to free Assam from illegal Bangladeshis is the need of the hour coupled with public activism in that direction, Assam was on the boil once again over the vexed foreigners issue.

Activists of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and the Bharatiya Janata Yuba Morcha (BJYM) started rounding up hundreds of suspected Bangladeshis and handing them over to the police. These organisations also called for an economic boycott of Bangladeshis. The student and youth organisations of ethnic communities also joined hands with AASU to drive away Bangladeshis from the State.

The rounding up of migrant workers drew protests from several Muslim organisations, which alleged that though there were both Hindus and Muslims among illegal Bangladeshis, only Muslims wearing lungis and sporting beards were targeted at random. A bandh was called by the Muslim Students Association, Assam, on August 14 to protest against the harassment of genuine Indian citizens belonging to religious minorities falsely branded as Bangladeshis. It turned violent and was followed by a chain of violent clashes in the three northern districts of Udalguri, Darrang and Sonitpur where mobs attacked buses and dragged passengers down and set fire to minority community homes while armed miscreants went around firing indiscriminately. Five people were killed in the violence in Udalguri, and dozens were injured across the three districts. On August 18, the government issued orders for the police to shoot at sight if there was any further trouble. Thousands of people belonging to both the communities fled their homes to seek shelter in schools and marketplaces.

Justice B.K. Sharma, who passed the judgment and order, had observed: It is no longer a secret or in the domain of doubt that illegal Bangladeshis have intruded every nook and corner of Assam, including forest land. ..Very often, they are protected by extending the protective lands of secularism branding them to be Indian minorities in Assam. The court warned that if this was allowed to continue, 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, who are freely and merrily moving around the fertile land of Assam, will intrude upon the corridors of power.

The court order revealed that a Pakistani citizen, Md Kamrauddin, had illegally entered Assam through Bangladesh and contested elections to the Jamunamukh Assembly constituency in 1996. This prompted the police to arrest him and push him back to Bangladesh through the Karimganj sector of the Assam-Bangladesh border.

The court order was grist to the mills of AASU and like-minded organisations that play upon fears that a Bangladeshi will become Assams Chief Minister after ten years. It drew people out on the streets in support of a renewed anti-foreigners movement and provoked demands such as a time-bound implementation of the Assam Accord, detection and deportation of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), constitutional safeguards for Assamese people, and protection of indigenous people from being overwhelmed by illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

A delayed reaction came from Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who said that the courts description of illegal Bangladeshis as kingmakers was a sweeping remark and not substantiated. He hastily announced that his government would bring out a White Paper on the foreigners issue and accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of trying to communalise the issue. He said that neither the BJP nor the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had done anything to solve the problem.

He warned people against taking the law into their own hands and promised to make functional police-station-level committees comprising representatives of political parties and other organisations to identify foreigners and prevent the harassment of genuine citizens. The mechanism involves people assisting the police to identify foreigners. The Chief Minister had announced the setting up of these committees last year after a similar bout of rounding up of suspected Bangladeshis, who were pushed into Assam by neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.

Gogois admission that foreigners disappear after their cases are referred to the Foreigners Tribunal points to the lacunae in the existing mechanism for detection and deportation. State Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma revealed that the government had charge-sheeted 3.92 lakh foreigners and referred their cases to the Foreigners Tribunals. He, too, admitted that most of these foreigners go missing.

The fear of the Assamese and other ethnic communities of losing their identity and culture and of being reduced to minorities in their own land led to the anti-foreigner agitation spearheaded by AASU during 1979-1985. The fear stems from demographic changes indicated by data collected in successive Censuses.

The Census 2001 language data, recently made public, have thrown up an intriguing picture of demographic changes that took place in Assam over the last decade. The percentage of Assamese speakers in the State was shown to have declined to 48.80 in 2001, down from 57.81 in 1991. On the other hand, the population share of Bengali speakers increased from 21.67 per cent in 1991 to 27.55 in 2001. The Census 2001 data revealed that the Assamese-speaking population grew by only 0.40 per cent, from 1,29,58,088 recorded in 1991 to 1,30,10,478, while the Bengali-speaking population grew by 51.21 per cent, from 48,56,532 in 1991 to 73,43,338, in 2001 against an average population growth of 18.92 per cent in the State.

In seven districts Barpeta, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Morigaon, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Sonitpur there was a decline in the Assamese-speaking population in absolute numbers, while the Bengali population was seen to have increased. In Morigaon, the Bengali population grew by 226.92 per cent against a 2.64 per cent decline in the Assamese population. In Darrang, the Bengali-speaking population grew by 182.53 per cent, whereas the Assamese population recorded a decline of 2.17 per cent. In Sonitpur district, there was a decline of 27.83 per cent in the Assamese population while the Bengali population grew by 68.50 per cent. In Lakhimpur, the Bengali population grew by 82.33 per cent while the Assamese population recorded a decline of 3 per cent. In Bongaigaon, the Bengali population grew by 56.55 per cent against a 2.17 per cent decline in the Assamese population.

Could these changes be caused by tribal communities returning their own languages as their mother tongues instead of Assamese in the 2001 Census? Even if they did do that, it would not account for the dramatic changes recorded by the 2001 Census. For instance, in Barpeta district, the Bodo population increased marginally from 1,04,493 in 1991 to 1,15,655 in 2001. In the same district, the number of Assamese speakers decreased from 8,68,199 in 1991 to 7,74,229 in 2001 while that of Bengali speakers increased by 86.62 per cent, from 3,95,063 in 1991 to 7,35,845 in 2001. The other linguistic groups in the district do not have significant numbers. One reason for these dramatic changes recorded by the Census could be that a section of immigrant settlers, who may have recorded their language as Assamese in the previous Censuses, gave their language as Bengali to the Census surveyors in 2001.

The language data have deepened fears and increased the hostility towards suspected illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. However, many of the people who face such hostility may well have migrated to Assam from erstwhile East Pakistan before the cut-off date of March 25, 1971, and settled in the Char (mid-channel sand bars of the Brahmaputra river) areas of lower Assam.

Dr. Gorky Chakraborty, who teaches Economics in Doom Dooma College of Tinsukia district, has conducted a study on the Char areas. He said: The Char area is home to 9.37 per cent of the population of Assam but has only 4 per cent of the States agricultural land. Whereas the density of population in the State is 340 persons per sq km, it is 690 persons per sq km in the Char areas. As a result, there is tremendous pressure upon land in these areas. On the other hand, agriculture, over the years, has become less remunerative. Habitation in the Char area, which is in a state of continuous flux owing to floods and erosion, necessitates the movement of Char dwellers to safer places, including mainland areas. Moreover, Char dwellers being the residents of such areas, which are naturally separated from the mainland, their attire, activities and traits, along with the information gap concerning these areas, often give rise to suspicions about them among the inhabitants of the mainland. Thus, the Char dwellers become strangers to their compatriots in their own State, in which their forefathers settled over a century ago.

While AASU, the AJYCP, the AGP and the AGP (Pragitsheel) have mounted pressure on the government to drive Bangladeshis out and implement the Assam Accord, influential Muslim organisations such as the Assam State Jamiat Ulema have also voiced support for the accord, sealing of the border and updating of the NRC of 1951 to solve the problem once for all. A State-level Jamiat convention in Guwahati on August 19, however, voiced concern over people taking the law into their hands and the way in which Muslims were being targeted at random. Jamiat leaders, while acknowledging that there are foreigners in Assam, appealed to Muslim citizens to come forward to identify illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The presence of Bangladeshis is causing more harm to Muslims by taking their share of jobs, benefits and other things. So, we, the Muslims, should be more eager to detect and identify the Bangladeshis and drive them out from Assam, Hafiz Bashir Ahmed Qasimi, additional general secretary of the Assam State Jamiat Ulema, said at the convention.

Parties on the Left, however, have warned that both Hindu communal forces and Muslim fundamentalists have become active in the State and are trying to take advantage of the failure of both the Central and Assam governments to solve the problem even 23 years after the signing of the Assam Accord. Accusing the government of keeping the problem alive, the Left has demanded immediate detection and deportation of all post-1971 immigrants, sealing of the India-Bangladesh border, updating of the NRC, and more tribunals to expedite the process of detection and deportation.

With the Lok Sabha elections approaching fast and identity-based politics getting a fresh impetus, strategists of the coalition government of the Congress and the Bodoland Peoples Front in the State are likely to have a tough time in formulating new strategies to defend its fortress.

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