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Borderline case

How much truth is there in the "illegal settlers" argument being given to explain the Kokrajhar riots? Supratim Dey sifts through census data to understand how the demographic mix of Assam's border districts has turned upside down over the decades

Supratim Dey 

Violence and unrest refuge to die down in the Bodo heartland of Assam, which had erupted following the killing of two persons on July 19. Close to 80 people have since been killed in the conflict, and almost half a million are in relief camps. The air is rife with rumours. Communal frenzy is at its peak. Is the conflict a result of the xenophobia of the indigenous Bodo people (they have in the past clashed with Santhals, Adivasis and even Assamese settlers), the illegal migration of Muslims from Bangladesh, or the power struggle between two factions of the ruling Congress? It could be a mix of all three. The truth will probably never come out. What the killing fields of Assam have done is turn the spotlight once again on the issue of illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into Assam. How much of it is fact; how much fiction? What’s the truth?

The answer ought to lie in the Census numbers: Had there been large-scale migration, it would show up in the population of the state.

Assam’s population growth in the last two decades has been well below the national average. Between 1991 and 2001, the state’s population grew at the rate of 18.92 per cent, as against the national average of 21.54 per cent. And between 2001 and 2011, the state’s growth was 16.93 per cent, which was again below the national average of 17.64 per cent. In the four districts that make up the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) — Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri — the population growth has been below the state average between 2001 and 2011: 11.26 per cent in Chirang, 11.17 per cent in Baksa, 9.76 per cent in Udalguri and 5.19 per cent in Kokrajhar.

However, the population of districts close to Bangladesh has grown very fast. Take Dhubri district, which is often referred to as the gateway for illegal Bangladeshis to Assam. Population in the district grew 22.97 per cent between 1991 and 2001, and 24.40 per cent between 2001 and 2011, consistently above that of both Assam and the nation. Analysts have also reported a sharp rise in the Muslim population of Dhubri. In 1971, Muslims comprised 64.46 per cent of the population of the district — this rose to 70.45 per cent in 1991 and to 74.29 per cent in 2001. Similar has been the demographic change in the districts of Goalpara, Barpeta, Nalbari, Nagaon, Morigaon, Karimganj, Hailakandi and Cachar, which are suspected to have significant Bangladeshi settlers. According to the 2001 census, five districts of Assam, apart from Dhubri — Goalpara, Nagaon, Karimganj, Hailakandi and Barpeta — have become Muslim-majority districts. (The statistical break-up on religious lines of the 2011 Census is still not out). In all these districts, the population growth between 2001 and 2011 (20.74 per cent in Karimganj, 21.40 per cent in Barpeta, 21.44 per cent in Hailakandi, 22.09 per cent in Nagaon and 22.74 per cent in Goalpara) has been above the state and national averages.

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The rise in the Muslim population cannot be attributed to high fertility among indigenous Assamese Muslims because the growth in their numbers in the other districts of Assam is far lower. For example, in the Upper Assam district of Dibrugarh, the Muslim population went up from 3.66 per cent of the total in 1971 to 4.49 per cent in 1991 and 4.5 per cent in 2001. Similarly, in Jorhat, another Upper Assam district, the Muslim population went up from 3.89 per cent in 1971 to 4.32 per cent in 1991 and 5 per cent in 2001. Does this mean there has been an influx of Bangladeshi settlers in districts like Dhubri in recent years? Maybe. This is an issue that the government needs to come clean on.

That there are illegal immigrants in Assam is a sentiment shared by all. Calling it a “silent invasion”, former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma told a gathering in Ranchi on August 12 that no serious attempts have been made to deport the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Though Rs 400 crore has been spent, he said “only a thousand Bangladeshis were identified and only one was deported”. Tribes, Sangma added, were “self-content about what they earn”, while Bangladeshis were ready to work for “even Rs 25 in daily wages”. There are other numbers too doing the rounds. “Back in 1984, Hiteswar Saikia, the then chief minister of Assam, had raised this issue in the Assembly and said that over 3 million Bangladeshi immigrants have entered the state,” says BJP MP Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. “Over the years their number has only increased, but so far the government has identified only 3,483 illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and hardly any of them has been deported.” The liberal grants from New Delhi to Guwahati, he alleges, have been diverted to the immigrants as a part of vote-bank politics.

The Union home ministry reckons that 83,000 Bangladeshi nationals came to India (not just Assam) with legal documents between 2009 and 2011; of these, 58,000 are untraceable. In 2001, Lt Gen S K Sinha, the then governor, had sent a report to K R Narayanan, the President, that 57 of the 126 Assembly constituencies in the state had shown an increase of over 20 per cent in the number of voters between 1994 and 1997, while the all-India average was only 7.4 per cent. He had also said that the Muslim population of Assam had risen 77.42 in the three decades since 1971. Ajai Singh, the former governor of Assam, had estimated in 2005 that 6,000 people from Bangladesh cross over into India every day. Ajit Doval, former director, Intelligence Bureau, says there are 20 million illegal Bangladeshis scattered over 13 states in the country, “who have not only become pockets of political support but also safe hideouts for terrorists and radical groups.” V Kishore Chandra Deo, Union minister for tribal affairs, too admits there is increasing pressure on land and livelihood: “The immigrants are coming in and buying land — flats mainly — and there is little to stop them.”

Some feel that the fears are exaggerated, that illegal immigration from Bangladesh has slowed down, and the people targeted by the Bodos are actually old settlers. The ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were the peak of immigration, after which there has been a gradual decline, says Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia. “By 1991, the total number of immigrants in Assam was 1.2 to 2 million,” he says. Identifying illegal immigrants is not easy, Hazarika adds. “Most of them are armed with a lot of documents — land deeds, voting rights etc.” The Assam government, he says, needs to update the National Register of Citizens — a project which was started in Barpeta district and Chaygaon in Kamrup district but was stalled after the All Assam Minority Students Union opposed it. The register is meant to be a record of residents and help deal with infiltration of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. “You need to develop a process of I-cards for everybody who is a citizen of India. And, you need to start giving out work permits so that there is only legal migration into the country. Else, people will continue to come here and become virtual citizens.”

There’s another twist in the tale. A section says that the riots have been sparked off to bring in more illegal Bangladeshis into Assam, put them up at various relief camps under the guise of riot victims and later get them “re-settled” by the government as “genuine Indian citizens” in the name of rehabilitation. This, they fear, might be a part of the larger agenda of radical groups. Dhubri district, which saw relatively less violence compared to BTAD and is overwhelmingly a Muslim-majority district, has 144,214 Muslim inmates in 131 relief camps and not a single Bodo.

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The Bodoland Territorial Council deputy chief, Kampa Borgoyari, had recently expressed surprise that Badruddin Ajmal, chief of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), an Assam-based political party which espouses the cause of Muslims, had claimed that 4 lakh Muslims got displaced in the Kokrajhar riots when, according to the 2001 census, the total Muslim population in Kokrajhar was around 2 lakh. If Ajmal is true, it would mean there had been large-scale influx of Bangladeshis in BTAD, which may have given rise to tension. The identity of these people needs to be investigated, as BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary has demanded. Ajmal, also a cleric who runs a Rs 200-crore perfume business, has been accused of using his religious network to create trouble in other parts of the country. A top official from the Union home ministry was quoted by a local television channel as saying, in the wake of that Mumbai incident, that “Ajmal rang up and asked people to create disturbances in other parts of the country”. However, the official later retracted his statement.

AIUDF, which was formed in 2006, is now the second largest political party in Assam in terms of total seats in the Assembly. Theoretically, AIUDF stands to benefit from the influx: More Bangladeshi settlers better its chances of establishing a base in Bodoland. That might have been another reason why the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), the ruling party of BTC which wants to ensure its unchallenged control over BTAD, drove out the non-Bodo settlers (Santhals, Adivasis, Muslims, Nepalese) when the opportunity showed up. Also, there might be forces within Bodoland behind the clashes as driving out non-Bodos is not new here. Though BTC was formed in February 2003 following the signing of the Bodo Accord as a political solution to the Bodo insurgency, the demand for a separate Bodo state never ended, nor did the armed struggle.

There are also accusations that the present crisis in Bodoland is a man-made crisis to discredit Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who is also in charge of the home department. A powerful minister in Gogoi’s cabinet, who was once his trusted lieutenant, is said to be fomenting trouble in BTAD to make the going tough for the chief minister. It’s also true that not all the Muslims who died in the violence were illegal settlers; many were Bengali-speaking Muslims who migrated and settled in Assam long ago. “We have been staying in Assam since 1947. I am the third generation of my family to be born in Assam. Why are we called illegal immigrants and hacked to death,” Jahanara Begum asks reporters who visit her relief camp in Kokrajhar. If illegal Bangladeshi settlers are being targeted in the ongoing clashes, the indigenous Muslims or those who settled in Assam long ago are equally at the receiving end.

(Veenu Sandhu and Gyan Verma contributed to this article)

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First Published: Sat, August 25 2012. 00:12 IST