Was Colonization of Assam an Hidden Agenda?
“ "Indiraji’s (Indira Gandhi) will shall prevail. I shall do whatever she wants me to do. If she wishes it, tomorrow before sunrise, I shall fill Punjab’s jails with 10,000 Assamese to crush the movement”.
– Giani Zail Singh, Home Minister in Indira cabinet in an interview to ‘The Indian Express’ editor Arun Shourie in January 1980
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This remark sums up the paradox involved in resolving the illegal migration cobweb of Assam. On one hand while the natives felt threatened by the continuous influx from across the border in Bangladesh especially, on its part the central government under Indira Gandhi always presumed that things were under control or to be precise the ‘Assam agitation’ against foreigners’ illegal immigration can be crushed. But the reality was hardly appreciated by the Government of India especially in 1960 and 1970s when the problem perhaps was in its miniscule form and could have been handled easily.
Old timers recall that in 1981, Indira’s handpicked Chief Minister, Mrs Anwara Taimur asserted that things were under her grip and her government saw no reason to deport foreigners – as was demanded by agitators especially students. Instead the government resorted to strong measures and police and security personnel – certainly at the directives of the centre – were let loose on the locals. “The Assam agitation was started by people and students but the violence came from the government side. Curfew and CrPC provisions were used liberally in towns and local Assamese people gathered fear to speak in public.
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The merciless killing of Kharegeswar Talukdar in 1979 by security personnel was the beginning of it all,” says 80-year-old Hiranmay Borah, a retired government servant.
Locals saw a sinister plan from across the border in Bangladesh and also assisted by the Pakistan’s ISI for “allowing easy flow” of Bengali Muslims into Assam – which had abundant barren land and work opportunities. Some agencies and communist leaders later had even claimed of CIA hand – which allegedly launched ‘Operation Brahmaputra’ to destabilize India’s northeast.
But there are a few twists in the tale also.
Assam has been a victim of continuous ‘domination’ by demographic movement. Domination of the state has been sought by diverse number of social groups for diverse reasons. Even pre-Independence days, three main groups entered Assam with rather spontaneity – the Hindu Bengalis, tea garden workers and Muslims from the then East Bengal (that later became Bangladesh).
While Bengali Hindus mainly came for jobs as part of British administration and most went back, tea-gardeners in much less numbers and Bengali Muslims in huge numbers actually came in and stayed. In fact, an estimate suggests by 1947 over a million East Bengal Muslims were settled in rural Assam. Historical accounts say Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla, an Assamese Muslim League leader, played a key role in that ‘settlement policy’. This was the beginning but just a tip of the ice berg.
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Visit to former students’ activist-turned-politician Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s constituency Nagaon in 2000-2001 had revealed that while Benagli Muslim population has increased substantially, there was a sharp decline in Assamese population – both Hindus and Muslims. Moreover, just as demographic situation upset social harmony in some of these hubs, by 1980s – the Left movement had sprang up. While Bengali Muslims inspired and assisted by ISI and Jamat-I-Islami in Bangladesh sought religious expansions, the Marxist comrades wanted to use the occasion for propagating their Leftist doctrine.
Assam actually had turned into a small laboratory of demographic influx and domination. And by 2015 – when the Population by Religious Communities of Census 2011- was released, everyone was aghast as Assam’s Muslim population increased to 34.22 per cent, a quantum leap of over four per cent.
But the Hindu population stood around 61.46 per cent. To top it all, 9 districts - Barpeta, Dhubri, Karimganj, Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Hailakandi, Nagaon and Morigaon have turned Muslim majority – a major change from six Muslim dominated districts in 2001.
Obviously the influx issue will be a dominant and top of the election-politics agenda in Assam for next few months. While the BJP and the regional outfit AGP will fight for the space, there’s also the crucial factor of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) – led Badruddin Ajmal which commands immense support base in Muslim strongholds.
The electoral puzzle in the state is thus getting truly complex and to an extent offers a worrisome scenario. Assam’s Nagaon to Daboka belt bordering Dimapur in Nagaland and hubs like Dhubri, Karimganj and Barpeta are already flooded with Bengali Muslims and the Hindus, sons of the soil (Assamese) and Bengali Hindus and other Indian citizens have been outnumbered. Natives believe that there is an organized methodology behind this demographic explosion.
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However, the Vote Bank politics has dominated the politics of Assam and influenced the policy on infiltration.
Both AGP and Congress have been championing the cause of minority appeasement. In July 2008, Justice B K Sharma of the Gauhati High Court in 95-page judgement said, “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 will become kingmakers”.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi quickly contested this in no unambiguous words stating, “Since my schooldays I have been hearing that Bangladeshis will become kingmakers in Assam”
In effect, many in Assam privately and otherwise regret about India’s help to Bangladesh freedom.
London-based ‘Evening Standard’ had summed up this paradox well in 1971 itself. “Victory belongs to India (freedom of Bangladesh and Indo-Pak war of 1971) but a big part of the human burden that drove India to war could be with her for a long time”. The agony continues.