We who have lost more than an academic year and were actively involved in the Assam Agitation of 1979-85 were astonished to hear the President of a regional political party which was born out of the ashes Assam Agitation and blood of 855 Martyrs terming it as “emotional”.
Let us look back to the genesis of the Assam agitation. The unabated influx of illegal immigrants from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh threatened the delicate demographic and economic balance of the state. This problem started in the early part of the 20th century, with the landed gentry of Goalpara encouraging cheap labours from Mymensingh and other districts of East Bengal to work in their fields. The flow of immigrants from the East Bengal districts of Mymensingh, Pabna, Bogra and Rangpur continued unabated.
The Census report of 1911 described the situation “alarming”. It had expressed concern over the extraordinary settlements of the Goalpara chars. The increase in the district population which was ridiculously low till 1901, ranging from 1.4 to 2 per cent, became 30 per cent by 1910-11. In the following decades, the flow of immigrants extended far up the Brahmaputra valley and the immigrants consolidated their position in districts of Nagaon, Barpeta, Darrang and North Lakhimpur.
CS Mullan, in his Census report, placed the number of immigrants in 1931 to be over half a million. Mullan warned that the hordes of immigrants were likely to “alter permanently” the future of Assam and that “in another thirty years Sibsagar district will be the only part of Assam in which an Assamese will find himself at home. In 1937 elections, Sir Syed Mohammad Saadulla formed a minority Muslim League government in Assam. The then Assam Premier Sir Saadulla’s programme of “Grow more food”, the immigrants from East Bengal were encouraged to settle on government Khas lands in Assam, arousing fear among the indigenous people of the state being swamped away by the immigrants. During the Bengal famine of 1942, the number of immigrants increased further alarmingly.
SP Desai, the government’s Special Officer in charge of Examining Government Reserves expressed apprehension about the influx. He wrote in his report: ”The Assam Land and Revenue Regulation is so far as the immigrant encroachers are concerned, virtually non-existent. The immigrants openly claim to have short-circuited the local staff and officers. Every day new bamboo sheds and temporary huts are sprouting up in the reserves. I found that the immigrants absolutely ignored the local officers (from the Sub-Divisional Officer downwards) so much so that they did not even answer questions put to them. The Nepali graziers and Assamese pamuas finding no protection from anywhere give “dohai” in the name of the King Emperor. To this some of the thoughtless among the immigrants are said to have replied that the immigrants themselves are king—verily the cup of humiliation for the Assamese is full. They feel the law is meant for them only and not for the immigrants, that the Government which is the custodian and trustee of their interest has failed them. All section of the local population are greatly perturbed and their talk exhibits deep-rooted bitterness.”
After the partition, Desai as the Chief Secretary of the state government urged the Central Government not to send more refugees as the state was already overcrowded. But, Desai’s farsightedness was punished with a quick transfer order.
With the Nehru-Liaquat Pact in April 1950, the Muslim settlers who left India earlier in wake of communal disturbance returned back to Assam. There was no machinery to check the Pakistani Muslim immigrants coming in posing as Indian citizens aided by their friends and relations who arrived in the advance parties. With discrimination against religious minorities, hordes of Hindu Bengalis from East Pakistan too entered Assam. Attempts to regulate the influx of immigrants from East Pakistan led to the introduction of Passport-cum-visa system in October 1952.
But, the provisions of The Foreigners Act, 1946 and the rules made were not applicable to the citizens of Pakistan and hence they were not required to get themselves registered. A large number of East Pakistanis entered with necessary travel documents then continued to stay in Assam illegally posing as Indian citizens. After Partition the flow of Hindu refugees increased and after the 1965 Indo-Pak War their number increased alarmingly.
According to official statistics, a total of 2,20,690 Pakistani infiltrators were located in the State during 1951-61. Another 1,92,339 infiltrators were detected during 1962-71. During the War of the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, an estimated 11 lakh refugees took shelter in Assam. While it is said the bulk of them returned back to their home, more than 1 lakh stayed behind. Between 1972 and 1978, a total of 99,583 Bangladeshi immigrants were detected by the Assam Police. The figure of undetected immigrants was feared to be many times higher.
This high level of influx into Assam from Bangladesh and Nepal was reinforced by the statement of Chief Election Commissioner of India, SL Shakdher in a conference of Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) held at Ottacamund on September 24, 1978. Shakhder said: “I would like to refer to the alarming situation in some States, especially in the Northeastern region, wherefrom disturbing reports are coming regarding large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls. In one case, the population in the 1971 census recorded an increase as high as 34.98 per cent over the 1961 figures and this increase was attributed to the influx of a very large number of persons from the neighbouring countries.”
“The influx has become a regular feature. I think that it may not be a wrong assessment to make on the basis of increase of 34.98 per cent between the two censuses, the increase that is likely to be recorded in the 1991 census would be more than 100 per cent over the 1961 census. In other words, a stage would be reached when that State may have to reckon with foreign nationals who may, in all probability, constitute a sizable percentage, if not the majority of the population in the State. Another disturbing factor in this regard is the demand made by the political parties for inclusion in the electoral rolls of the names of such migrants who are not Indian citizens, without even questioning and properly determining their citizenship status.”
The spark that lighted the fire of the Assam Agitation was the sudden demise of Lok Sabha MP Hiralal Patwari in 1978, which necessitated the holding of a by-election in the Mangaldai constituency. During the preparation of the Electoral rolls, it was noticed that there was a huge increase in the numbers of voters. The Assam agitation leaders asserted that close scrutiny of the census reports of 1951 to 1971 and the voters’ list up to 1977 showed that the number of foreign nationals has gone up to 40 lakhs.
Of these, it was suspected some 13 lakhs had got their names included in the voters’ list of 1977. The Assamese boycotted the election on the ground that names of lakhs of “foreign nationals” were in the voters’ list. Holding the elections prior to deleting the names of the foreign nationals from the voters’ list, the agitation leaders insisted was like putting the cart before the horse.
Now, this regional political party President says that the Assam Agitation was “emotional”. He was a member of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) whose leaders questioned the central government: “Is Assam the dustbin of the rest of India?”. After the Bangladesh War, the Government of Assam agreed to rehabilitate Five Lakh Bengali refugees. Which other state in India had done so?. The influx was not only changing the socio-cultural fabric but putting immense pressure on the economy of Assam. The decadal variation of the population of Assam and India as a whole makes the picture clear, in 1951-61 and 1961-71 the growth in Assam’s population was 35.0% and 34.7% respectively against the all India figures those two decades were 21.6% and 24.6% respectively.
In these two decades, the food production was only 14 per cent with the cropped area remaining constant. The rate of production of rice and all other agricultural goods were lower than the national average. In 1980, the production of rice in Assam was 963 kg per hectare lower than Meghalaya at 1,066 kg per hectare. The number of educated unemployed was increasing. In 1975 there were roughly 15 lakhs unemployed, which increased to 20 lakhs in 1978. The Registrar General of India on the basis of sample registration over the period 1974-76 estimated the rate of natural increase of population in Assam at 1.6 per cent per annum against 2 per cent for the country as a whole. The figures clearly establish that the 3.5% annual growth rate of population in Assam since 1961 is largely due to the influx of foreign nationals.
On August 26, 1979, a number of political and cultural organization including Asam Sahitya Sabha and AASU came together to form All Asom Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) to spearhead the agitation. The agitation leaders pointed out that the Government of India had already stopped registration of Bangladesh nationals as Indian citizens after March 25, 1971, and the names of those who came after that date should, therefore, be automatically deleted from the voters’ list.
The Asam Sahitya Sabha’s present President who is now adopting a soft stand regarding Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, should recall that Asam Sahitya Sabha in a memorandum submitted to the President of India stated: “To hold the election in a peaceful manner, the foreigners’ names must, therefore, be removed first. An independent country cannot allow any foreigner to participate in the election of the members of the legislature whether Central or State. To allow this is to lose sovereignty.”
A widely-circulated document titled ‘Save Assam today, to save India tomorrow: An appeal from the people of Assam’ dated May 15, 1980, of AAGSP and AASU stated: “We declare unequivocally that we are not secessionists. Our struggle is only against the illegal foreigners whose presence in Assam threatens the economic, cultural and political existence of the indigenous people of Assam. IT IS ONLY AGAINST NON-INDIANS STAYING ILLEGALLY IN INDIA AND NOT AGAINST PEOPLE FROM THE REST OF INDIA WHO ARE RESIDING IN ASSAM. Time and again we have said that only those people should be deported, who fail to qualify as citizens of India according to the Constitution.”
“To the detractors of this movement our firm answer has been: A foreigner is a foreigner: a foreigner shall not be judged by the language he speaks or by the religion he follows. Communal considerations (either religious or linguistic) cannot be taken into account while determining the citizenship of a person: the secular character of the Indian Constitution does not allow that.”
Were all these documents, data and utterings emotional? Some of the past leaders of Assam Agitation now in government with Ministerial post are suffering from amnesia. Maybe we all were emotional fools to elect these leaders as our legislators?
The writer works independently as a Quality Management consultant and has implemented ISO Quality Management System, Environmental Management System and Occupational Health and Safety Management System in scores of service and manufacturing organisations.
He teaches Human Resource Management at post-graduate level in Gauhati University; a visiting faculty at Assam Administrative Staff College and trainer with many other organisations. The views expressed by the author are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.