January 18, 2018

India: Anti-outsider Assam Agitation of the early 1980s - Are illegal Bangladeshi migrants responsible for increase in Assam's Muslim population? Two part report by Ajaz Ashraf


Revisiting Assam Agitation

Fact check: Are illegal Bangladeshi migrants responsible for increase in Assam's Muslim population?

As National Register of Citizens is updated to identify illegal immigrants, a former statistics professor’s book busts a few myths about the state’s demography.

Census reports have long been a pivot of Assam’s politics, spawning anxiety among its people that “unabated infiltration” from Bangladesh would endanger their cultural identity. It is claimed that the influx from the neighbouring nation is why Muslims have grown from being 24.68% of the state’s population in 1951 to 28.43% in 1991 and 34.22% in 2011.
It is a myth that Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement busts conclusively. The book, published last year, is written by Abdul Mannan, former professor of statistics at Gauhati University. He concludes that Assam’s Muslim population has increased because of the community’s high birth rate and not because of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Illegal immigrants in Assam are estimated to number between 16 lakh and 84 lakh, in a total population of 3.12 crore according to the 2011 Census.
Discussing Mannan’s findings in a recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly, the political scientist Akhil Ranjan Dutta wrote:
“Successive censuses have proved, as Abdul Mannan has established using extensive data in his recent book on immigration in Assam, that birth rates among Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Christians in Assam had been even higher than among Muslims during 1971-91. This was due to the backwardness of these communities in all dimensions of development.”  
But that is getting ahead of the story.
In the 1950s and 1960s, successive Congress governments expelled lakhs of Bengali Muslims from Assam on the ground that they were illegal infiltrators from what was then East Pakistan. It was not until Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971, however, that popular anger against the so-called foreigners acquired intensity. Bangladeshi Muslims were perceived to be flooding into Assam through the porous border to escape poverty.
By 1979-80, the All Assam Students Union was spearheading the anti-foreigner movement, cashing in on wild estimates of the number of Bangladeshi immigrants to gain wide support. One estimate numbered the Bangladeshis at 45% of Assam’s estimated population of 1.6 crore in 1981. Such claims were hard to refute, not least because the 1981 Census could not be conducted owing to the Assam agitation, then at its peak.
In 1991, the Census reported that Muslims were 28.43% of Assam’s population, up from 24.56% in 1971. Several publications interpreted these figures to reach an alarming conclusion: Bangladeshis were demographically colonising Assam.

For instance, Asam Bani, a popular weekly, claimed in its August 18, 1994 edition that 16 lakh Bangladeshis had entered Assam between 1971 and 1991. Who were they? Muslims, Asam Bani declared, after analysing the Census data. Since Hindus had a growth rate of 41.89% in 1971-1991 and Muslims 77.42%, the weekly argued that the excess growth rate of Muslims was primarily because of the Bangladeshis.
It further argued that had the influx from Bangladesh been negligible, the growth rate of Muslims would not have exceeded 45%. Why? It did not offer a reason. Still, such claims became common sense in Assam.
It is this common sense that Mannan challenges: the rise in Assam’s Muslim population was not unusual and it was not a consequence of immigration from Bangladesh. After all, the all-India growth rate of Muslims between 1971 and 1991 was 71.47%, just a little lower than the 77.42% that the Muslims of Assam clocked in the same period.

More significantly, the growth rate of Assam’s Muslims in 1971-1991 compared favourably with the community’s growth rate in states such as Uttar Pradesh (76.30%), West Bengal (77.32%), Madhya Pradesh (80.76%), Rajasthan (98.29%), Tripura (89%), Punjab (110.32%) and Himachal Pradesh (77.64%). Barring Punjab, all these states have always had sizeable Muslim populations.
In this context, Mannan asks a crucial question: “If it is assumed that the high growth rate among Muslims in Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana is due to the migration of Muslim workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam or West Bengal, then how would we explain the high growth rate in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and West Bengal?”
Certainly not on account of Bangladeshi infiltrators, with West Bengal perhaps being the exception.
The growth rate of Hindus (41.89%) in Assam in 1971-1991 was indeed much lower than that of Muslims (77.42%). But parsing this low growth rate throws up a story: Assam’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes grew at a higher rate than even Muslims – Scheduled Castes at 81.84% and Scheduled Tribes at 78.91%.
The high growth rate of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes too is not unique to Assam. As Table 2 shows, the growth rate of Scheduled Castes was far higher than that of Hindus generally in most states. In fact, Scheduled Castes in Andhra Pradesh (83.43%), Maharashtra (189.44%) and Karnataka (91.41%) grew at a higher rate than in Assam. The growth rate of Scheduled Tribes followed similar trends as Table 2 shows. (Remember that Scheduled Tribes, unlike Scheduled Castes, are more concentrated in some states.)
Referring to these trends, Mannan asks: Is the higher growth rate among Muslims, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes linked to poverty, illiteracy and social backwardness?
He proceeds to answer this question through another statistical comparison. Table 3 shows the growth rates of various communities in each of Assam’s 23 districts between 1971 and 1991. (There are now 33 districts). The growth rate of the Scheduled Castes is higher than that of Muslims in 10 districts. In eight districts, the Scheduled Tribes outstrip the growth rate of Muslims.

Significantly, Mannan compares the growth rates of Muslims in Upper Assam and Lower Assam in this period. This is because Muslims in Upper Assam are largely of indigenous origin while Lower Assam is home to Muslims of Bengali origin. The latter are not infiltrators. They are descendants of Bengali Muslim peasants settled by the British in marshy and riverine areas of Assam to boost agriculture. Some also migrated voluntarily in search of livelihood, but, in undivided India, they were just moving from one part of the country to another.
Assam’s districts have been repeatedly divided to create new ones, leading to a peculiar trend in Dhemaji. When this district was carved out of Lakhimpur in 1989, a large number of Muslims moved to the latter for reasons of livelihood. Dhemaji thus registered a negative growth rate for Muslims, as Table 3, prepared soon after the new district was created, shows.
In 2011, Hindus comprised 95.47% of Dhemaji’s population and Muslims just 1.96%. “Dhemaji’s Muslim population was low even in 1987,” Mannan told Scroll.in. “The migration of Muslims brought down the population sharply and led to the community’s growth rate being negative. But the growth rate of Muslims in Dhemaji in 2001-2011 crawled up to 20%.”
Leave out Dhemaji as an anomaly then. In all other districts of Upper Assam except Jorhat and Sibsagar (now Sivasagar), the growth rate of Muslims was over 68%. In Jorhat, it was 60.80% and in Sibsagar 59.01%.
What Jorhat and Sibsagar have in common is a high literacy rate. In 1991, it was 65.89% for Jorhat and 64.84% for Sibsagar, much higher than the state average of 52.89%. The high literacy rates are a consequence of their relative prosperity – a large number of Assam’s tea gardens and oil fields are concentrated in these two districts, and they hum with business.
Literacy and prosperity translated, not surprisingly, in the low growth rate of Hindus in Jorhat (33.54%) and Sibsagar (35.91%). But why was the growth rate of Muslims still substantially higher than that of Hindus in the two districts? “The reason may be the social backwardness and relative poverty among Muslims,” Mannan suggests.
He also points out another statistical peculiarity: “If those who say Bangladeshi immigrants have ballooned the population of Muslims in Lower Assam, then how would they explain their high growth rate in the districts of Tinsukia (89.56%), Golaghat (97.24%) and Dibrugarh (68.43%), which are in Upper Assam, where the presence of migrant Muslims is negligible?”
Mannan then turns the spotlight on Table 4, based on the Census figures of 2001 and 2011. It shows that districts with a growth rate of 21% and above also have a high percentage of Muslims. What explains this phenomenon? Mannan chooses two districts – Jorhat and Dhubri – for comparison. In 2001-2011, Dhubri registered the highest growth rate (24.4%) among all districts of Assam. By contrast, Jorhat clocked the lowest growth rate of 9.3%.

This gulf between the population growth rates was mirrored in other social indicators. Dhubri had an infant mortality rate of 72 in 2011 as against Jorhat’s 57. In Dhubri, there was a doctor for every 10,844 people as compared to one for every 7,189 people in Jorhat. Dhubri’s literacy rate of 48.21% was far behind Jorhat’s 76.21%. There was one lower primary school for every 1,129 people in Dhubri as against one for every 638 people in Jorhat. Dhubri had a bank branch for every 29,239 people while Jorhat had one for every 11,355 people. The per capita loan disbursal in Jorhat was three times more than Dhubri’s.
It is truism in demographic studies that population explosion is a consequence of poverty, illiteracy, insufficient health and sanitation services, and a sluggish economy. “This is precisely true of Assam too,” Mannan writes.
Indeed, many foot soldiers of the Assam agitation have veered around to thinking that the presence of Bangladeshi Muslims is not as high as was previously believed. One of them is popular TV anchor and author of Assam After Independence Mrinal Talukdar. In his college days, he was deeply engaged with the All Assam Students Union’s movement. “During those days I believed Bangladeshi Muslims had a substantial presence in Assam,” Talukdar told Scroll.in. “I have a neutral position on the issue now. I am willing to go by whatever number the National Register of Citizens throws up.”
Mannan says he is certain that if the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens is carried out honestly, Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam will be counted in thousands, not in lakhs.
Regardless of how many Bangladeshi Muslims the National Register of Citizens identifies, there is no denying that the truth about Assam’s demography was sacrificed on the altar of politics. It seems spurious theories about Bangladeshi Muslims were spun not out of ignorance, but with intent. In this, two Assam police officers and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh played a crucial role. The RSS deftly turned the All Assam Students Union’s movement against outsiders, that is, Indians from other states, into one against foreigners, that is, Bangladeshi Muslims.
The second part of this series will look at how the two police officers and the RSS changed the course of the Assam movement.
This is the first part of a two-part series.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.

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scroll.in - 18 January 2018

Revisiting Assam Agitation

How two police officers and RSS changed the script of the Assam agitation against outsiders in 1980s

When it started in 1979, All Assam Students Union’s stir was against Indians from other states, but it soon morphed into a movement against Muslim immigrants.

In 1979, the All Assam Students Union launched a mass agitation to evict outsiders. By outsiders, the union’s leaders meant Indians from elsewhere who were perceived to control Assam’s economy. In a few months, though, they changed tack and started railing against foreigners, specifically illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
This alteration in the course of the agitation has long been ascribed to the union’s leaders realising that the Assamese people were bothered more about Bangladeshi migrants than Indians from other states. Abdul Mannan turns this thesis on its head. He shows the change came about in no small measure because of the efforts of two senior police officers and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
In his book Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement, published last year, the former professor of statistics at Gauhati University cites the forgotten memoir of one of the officers to show how they courted the union’s leaders and persuaded them to redirect popular anger towards Bangladeshi immigrants.
The officers were Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharyya and Premkanta Mahanta. The memoir Mannan draws on is Rajbhaganar Para Kal Thokalaike – the title roughly translates as “from dethronement to the plantain grove” – which Mahanta wrote and self-published in 1994. His intention behind writing it, Mahanta stated, was “to help historians with some truths” that might be forgotten.
Mahanta’s story begins in 1978, the year Golap Borbora’s Janata Party swept the Congress from power in Assam. The Janata Party was a medley of organisations, including the Jana Sangh, which would be rechristened the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980.
On October 1, 1978, the new government appointed Deputy Inspector General of Police Bhattacharyya to head the Border Police Division. It was a historic “historic event for Assam”, Mahanta writes in his memoir, as was his own appointment in the same division the following February.
Mahanta’s was not a routine transfer. He claims that Bhattacharyya “zealously…got me transferred from the post of Head of the Police Training Camp to that of the SP of the Border Police Division”.
By then, Bhattacharyya had already started identifying and expelling Bangladeshi migrants, Muslim and Hindu, from Nalapara, Mangaldoi and Tamulpur in Rangia, kicking off a political storm, Mahanta writes. “I affirm that...the six-year-long Assam movement [1979 to 1985] would not have taken place if we hadn’t come together at this point,” he says.
In March 1979, about a month after Mahanta joined the Border Police Division, the All Assam Students Union held a conference in Sibsagar, now Sivasagar, where Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was elected its president and Bhrigu Kumar Phukan the general secretary. The conference, Mannan notes, adopted 21 resolutions, one of which spoke of the “menace posed to the existence of the Assamese by the outsiders who controlled Assam’s economy”. The idea of Bangladeshi immigrants threatening the state’s cultural identity had not yet been formulated.

Fuelling the fire

That same month, Hiralal Patowari, MP from Mangaldoi, died, necessitating a bye-election. On April 27, 1979, the customary notice to revise the electoral rolls went out in Mangaldoi. The two police officers feared that Bangladeshi immigrants would try to get their names on the rolls – and use it to claim citizenship. To thwart them, Mahanta thought of sending a Border Police Division officer with every Registrar of Voters. The problem was, Bhattacharyya pointed out, there was not sufficient time to train them for such a task.
Bhattacharyya had another idea. He persuaded Chief Secretary RS Paramasivam to ask Chief Election Commissioner SL Shakdhar for more time to revise the roll. Shakdhar gave them an extra week. But instead of trying to prevent Bangladeshi migrants from enrolling as voters, Mahanta writes, Bhattacharyya “came up with the idea that since more time was granted, the names of foreign nationals on the rolls of 1978 might also be struck off.”
This was a cumbersome process. The rules demanded that for a name to be removed from a particular electoral register, a voter from that polling booth must submit a complaint in a form costing 10 paise and another voter from the same booth must second the complaint. Bhattacharyya and Mahanta figured that mobilising public opinion was the only way to achieve their goal, and they launched a publicity blitz. The media began tracking the identification process.
Next, Mahanta suggested that they should rope in leaders who could sway public opinion on the matter. So, Bhattacharyya hosted Purbanchaliya Loka Parishad’s Nibaran Bora and Asam Jatiyatabadi Dal’s Nagen Hazirka for dinner. Both were known to Mahanta from school. The memoir does not disclose what they discussed over dinner other than that they decided to focus on the students union leaders.
“Almost about the same time in March, the news of Sri Prafulla Kumar Mahanta being elected as president and Shri Bhrigu Phukan being elected as general secretary of the All Assam Students Union…was published,” Mahanta writes. “The 21-Point Charter of the AASU carried in it a significant point of the alarming proportion of the unbridled influx of outsiders into Assam. At our suggestion, the two student leaders were brought from their University hostels in order to drive home to them the problem caused by foreign nationals…We provided them with adequate data and information. Thenceforth, they agreed to give priority to the issue of foreign nationals and deletion of their names from voters’ list.”
Mahanta does not identify who organised his and Bhattacharyya’s meeting with the student leaders.
The two officers were successful in achieving their objective: at its executive meeting on May 23, 1979, the students union adopted a resolution calling for a 12-hour state-wide bandh the next month to press for the expulsion of “Bangladeshi infiltrators”.
In the meantime, as names started being struck off voter lists in Mangaldoi, Congress leaders complained to the Election Commission that “police had been hatching a conspiracy by indicting genuine Indian citizens as foreigners”, Mahanta recalls. The commission ordered a halt to the deportation of allegedly illegal migrants and deletion of their names from the electoral rolls. By then, however, complaints had been received about 47,658 voters and 36,780 of them had been identified as foreigners, Mahanta notes.
Mahanta, despite his candour, does not mention what became of these thousands of people identified as foreigners, Manan points out. “Were they driven out of Assam?” he asks. “Or is it that they are still in Assam? What is the status of their citizenship?”
All Assam Students Union leaders meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Photo via archive.is/txIiq
All Assam Students Union leaders meet Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Photo via archive.is/txIiq

A cause transformed

The controversy over Mangaldoi’s electoral rolls became a lightning rod for the Assam agitation. Successive governments fell, and the students union’s war cry was now “three Ds” – detection of Bangladeshi immigrants, deletion of their names from voter lists, and their deportation. Assam went into shutdown for nearly a year.
In April 1980, Union Home Minister Giani Singh visited Assam to try and break the impasse. This was followed by a midnight call from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Governor LP Singh, asking whether December 31, 1965 as the cutoff date for identifying foreigners – anyone who could not prove they had lived in Assam before that date would be deemed a foreigner and expelled – would be acceptable to the people. It was not to the political leadership the governor turned to.
“The governor called Bhattacharyya and wanted to know if the student leaders would accept the proposal,” Mahanta writes in his memoir. “Bhattacharyya with certainty assured the governor that it would be accepted.” Clearly, the governor was well aware of Bhattacharyya’s relationship with the student leaders.
Bhattacharyya immediately went to Mahanta’s residence. “We were overjoyed, sensing the possibility of such a great success,” Mahanta recalls. “With rapture and passion we awaited the sun to rise. That night we imagined a bunch of thoughts and ambitious plans. Rented buildings of the Maruwari, where the office of the Border Police Division was housed whence the foreigners expulsion movement originated, we will purchase that and construct a memorial there.”
Of their own role in the movement, Mahanta declares, “If we two had not come together, the movement called ‘Assam movement’ would not have happened. I repeat it would not have happened.”
In 1981, Bhattacharyya was dismissed from service and imprisoned for a year under the National Security Act for his involvement in the Assam agitation. Subsequently, the Supreme Court set aside his dismissal and granted him post-retirement benefits.
But did the two police officers act out of their own conviction? Or were they merely puppets whose strings someone else pulled?

In the shadows

In those days, Bhattacharyya came across as an enigmatic personality. When the journalist Chaitanya Kalbag, then at India Today magazine, met Bhattacharyya in 1983, he lived in a luxurious house bizarrely called Wilderness. To Kalbag, Bhattacharyya cavilled against people who believed the Assam agitation against foreigners was communal. After Mangaldoi, Bhattacharyya claimed, 55% of the 5.8 lakh foreigners he had helped detect were Hindu.
Bhattacharyya was also vehemently opposed to communists. “Every Hindu [Bangladeshi] means a vote for the communists,” he told Kalbag. “The entire Brahmaputra valley, once an oasis of nationalism in this desert of insurgency, is surrounded by Marxist expansionists and Bengali cultural expansionists.”
Mannan believes Bhattacharyya and Mahanta were deeply influenced by the ideology of the RSS, which, alarmed at the Left’s growing clout in Assam, was willing to raise the spectre of “global multinational neo-imperialist forces”. Not only had the Left won 24 seats in the 1978 Assembly election, it was “ruling the roost” in the universities. The RSS wanted to smother its ideological rival in Assam, says Mannan.
In his book, Mannan quotes leaders of the RSS, the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad, the name the All Assam Students Union adopted to fight elections, to establish that the Hindutva forces were deeply involved in the Assam movement. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked there during those stormy years. “A well-known [former] BJP state president also revealed in one of his private conversations [to him] that during the Assam agitation, Narendra Modi used to move about as a pillion rider behind him on his scooter in many places in Guwahati,” Mannan writes.
But was it really the RSS that shifted the focus of the Assam agitation from Indian outsiders to illegal Bangladeshis? Yes, declares The Last Battle of Saraighat: The story of the BJP’s rise in the North-east by Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha. The book’s foreword is by RSS leader and BJP general secretary Ram Madhav. The book identifies Shubhrastha to be working with Madhav’s office and Sethi as the political adviser of Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who left the Congress for the BJP in 2016. Considering such credentials of its authors, the Last Battle of Saraighat should be treated as an authoritative voice from the Sangh Parivar.
“RSS first transformed the agitation from being anti-bahirgat to being an anti-videshi movement,” Sethi and Shubhrastha write, using the Assamese expressions for outsider and foreigner. “In gradual course of time, the sentiments were further directed against the immigrant Bangladeshis and later against the Bangladeshi Muslims.”
It was precisely the trajectory the Assam movement took.
The transformation of the Assam movement into a communal enterprise happened in 1980, as Mahanta’s memoir and Mannan’s book show. The timeline provided in The Last Battle of Saraighat confirms this. “After a series of meetings, in 1980, the RSS stated its opinion that Hindus were sharanarthis (asylum seekers) and Muslims were anupraveshkaaris (infiltrators),” Sethi and Shubhrastha write. In this view, the Hindus had fled Bangladesh to escape religious persecution while the Muslims had slipped into Assam in search of better economic opportunities.
“Therefore, RSS cleverly delineated its position on the Bangladeshi migration issue,” Sethi and Shubhrastha write. “It took a severe position against the Muslim migrants, articulating its idea of selective protection to Hindu migrants in Assam.” In doing so, the RSS preyed upon the fear of Bangladeshi Muslims demographically colonising Assam. The fear was insidiously exaggerated, as the first part of this series shows.
The popular TV anchor and author of Assam After Independence Mrinal Talukdar was a foot soldier of the Assam agitation. “It has always been an article of faith in Left circles that the Assam movement was a CIA project called Brahmaputra,” he said. “The theory is that the Left had gained West Bengal and Tripura and Assam was in its crosshairs. The Left had to be checked. Obviously, it is just a theory, but there is no doubt that subnationalism killed the Left in Assam. In hindsight, there is a case for saying that the Assam movement was hijacked.”
The Left was indeed killed in Assam, but so were many people for a cause that was framed differently from how it had been conceived.
This is the second part of a two-part series.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi.