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Assam: Critical mass
Are there any grounds for the indigenous Assamese's fear that the state's demographic is being altered? The figures certainly say yes.
Is the influx from Bangladesh into Assam a flood or a trickle? The answer to that would depend on who you are asking. The average Assamese is very likely to pick the first option. But politicians belonging to the Congress establishment are likely to laugh off fears that the state's demographics are being threatened by the flow of Bangladeshis into the state. Migrants, they point out, are a reality that Assam has to learn to live with given its porous borders.
"Had sealing a border stopped influx, there would have been no Mexicans in USA, " points out a Congress leader smartly. But explaining this to an indigenous Assamese is next to impossible because he lives in fear of being reduced to a minority in his own state.
Nothing else excites, angers, divides and traumatises Assam and its people in equal measure than the issue of illegal influx from neighbouring Bangladesh. Right from 1952, when the first clash between the Bodos and Muslim migrants from Bangladesh took place, to the latest bloodbath in the state, the highly emotive 'foreigners' issue has wracked Assam and caused immense grief and suffering to lakhs of people.
Migration from Bangladesh, or the erstwhile East Bengal and then East Pakistan, has been happening from the late 19th century. The British encouraged Muslims peasants from East Bengal to settle in Assam and cultivate lands to increase food production. This continued even after 1947 with tens of thousands fleeing excruciating poverty or large scale displacement caused by floods and famines - regular calamities that visit Bangladesh - to enter Assam in search of a better life and livelihood.
And it is this mass migration that has, for decades now, evoked strong fears among the Assamese-speaking and other indigenous communities like the Bodos of being swamped by the Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants from Bangladesh.
A close look at census figures would reveal that the illegal influx of Bangladeshis into Assam is indeed a reality. Muslims formed 24. 68 per cent of Assam's population in 1951, 28. 42 per cent in 1991;they are now estimated to form 33. 5 per cent of the state's population, as per the provisional 2011 census. But this is not to be confused with Assamese-speaking Muslims. Islam was introduced to Assam by the revered Azan Fakir, a 17th century Sufi saint and the state's indigenous Muslims are concentrated mostly in the eastern districts of the state. There has been no exponential rise in the population of this pocket.
It is the districts that are proximate to the Indo-Bangla border that have registered sharp increase in the minority population over the decades. Take the case of Dhubri, a district along the international border. The percentage of Bengali-speaking Muslims rose from 64. 46 per cent of the district's population to 70. 45 per cent in 1991, 74. 29 per cent in 2001 and an estimated 76 per cent now. In Barpeta, their percentage went up from 56. 07 per cent in 1991 to 59. 3 per cent in 2001, while in neighbouring Goalpara district, the percentage went up from 50. 18 per cent in 1991 to 53. 71 per cent in 1991. In stark contrast, the increase in the population of (Assamese-speaking ) Muslims in Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Golaghat and Jorhat districts has kept pace with the increase in population of other communities.
According to the 2011 census, the decadal population growth (between 2001 and 2011) in Assam in 11 of the state's 27 districts is more than the national average of 17. 64 and Assam's state average of 16. 93 per cent.
The All Assam Students' Union (AASU), which led a protracted seven-year agitation from 1979 over the 'illegal influx' issue, says that Bangladeshis enter Assam through Dhubri in west Assam and Cachar and Karimganj in south Assam - these three districts are on the international border - and, thanks to political patronage that ensures their acquisition of documents like ration and voter ID cards, spread out and settle in neighbouring districts.
"The abnormal population growth in many districts of Assam that are close to the Bangladesh border is proof enough of infiltration. This border needs to be sealed, " says Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, former chief minister and leader of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).
Former army chief S K Sinha, who was governor of Assam from 1997 to 2003, in his 42-page report to the President titled 'Illegal Migration Into Assam', has warned about this "silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam" that would lead to "loss of geo-strategically vital districts of lower Assam". "The influx of these illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim majority region. It'll only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh will be made, " he has cautioned.
But Congress leaders say that migration from Bangladesh has been reduced to a trickle. Former home minister, P Chidambaram, during his recent visit to Assam, said: "There's no denying that influx migration from Bangladesh takes place, but it has come down".
Muslim organisations like the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) say that in the name of identifying Bangladeshi migrants, Bengali-speaking Muslims are being harassed and hounded. "This is unacceptable and we'll oppose it, " says AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal. The AIUDF's victory over 18 seats in the 126-member Assam Assembly in last year's polls is cited by the AGP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (which won just 10 and 5 seats respectively) as evidence of the sharp increase in the number of Muslims in Assam caused by large scale influx from Bangladesh.
There's of course the other narrative to this issue that cannot be denied: that the migrants from Bangladesh are, after all, 'economic refugees' and deserve to be treated humanely.
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