Dialogue  January-March, 2005, Volume 6 No. 3


Demographic Threats in Assam

D. N. Bezboruah

The biggest problem facing Assam and the north-eastern States of India today is large-scale illegal migration from Bangladesh. The problem is very serious today because at the present rate of influx, there is the very real danger of Assam being annexed to Bangladesh in just a couple of decades from now. And the irony of the situation is that the problem has stemmed from greed on both sides – greed for cultivable land on one side and greed for votes on the other. And now there is the remarkable poetic justice of the greed for power having infected the providers of easy illegal votes as well.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that this invasion from present Bangladesh and erstwhile East Pakistan is a recent phenomenon. This silent invasion had started much before Partition. In the 1931 census report of Assam, C.S. Mullan, the Superintendent of Census Operations had recorded the following observations:

“Probably the most important event in the province during the last twenty-five years – an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and to destroy… the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization – has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims, from the districts of Eastern Bengal and in particular from Mymensingh.

“Without fuss, without tumult… a population which must amount to over half a million has transplanted itself from Bengal to the Assam Valley during the last twenty-five years… the only thing I can compare it to is the mass movement of a large body of ants.”

Mullan had said this when the population of Assam was only around 5,561,000. He had gone on to make the prediction that the time was not far off when the Assamese people would be confined to the district of Sibsagar. What adds poignancy to that prediction today is that this is not only beginning to happen, but that the prediction is likely to hold good for the new district of Sivasagar which is about a third of the Sibsagar district of Mullan’s time in size.

The Muslim cultivators from East Bengal were encouraged by the Muslim League government of Mohammad Sadullah in Assam ostensibly for the Grow More Food Campaign. However, Viceroy Lord Wavell said in his Memoirs that Sadullah was much more interested in growing more Muslims.

After the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, a large number of Hindus crossed over from East Pakistan to the States of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. Later on, when the Pakistani Army started persecuting Bengalis, a large number of Muslims too crossed the border into India. After the break-up of Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 with the help of India, it was expected that the new regime would ensure communal harmony and tackle the social and economic problems of that country in a manner that would eliminate or at least reduce the factors contributing to migration. However, this did not happen, and both Hindus and Muslims continued to pour into India from Bangladesh in large numbers. This is best appreciated by taking a look at the increase in the population of Assam over the decades. The figures are in millions.                        

1901                1911             1921                    1931               1941    1951

3.29                 3.849            4.637                   5.561              6.694   8.029

1961                1971            1981*                   1991               2001

10.837            14.625          19.896                 22.295            26.656

* Assam did not have a census operation in 1981. The figure for the year is a projection made by the Census of India on the basis of earlier figures.

It will be noticed that Assam’s population doubled in the 40 years between 1901 and 1941, and more than doubled in the 30 years between 1941 and 1971. And going by the projected population of 1981, it almost doubled in the 20 years between 1961 and 1981. In the 70 years between 1901 and 1971, Assam’s population increased from 3.29 million to 14.6 million – a 343.77 per cent increase over a period when the population of India had gone by only about 150 per cent. Obviously, this did not happen because the people of Assam had become twice as fertile as their compatriots elsewhere. In fact, the general fertility rate for rural Assam for 1978 was 126.5 (all-India rural rate: 137.3) and the rate for urban Assam was 94.3 as opposed to the national urban figure of 102. This happened largely due to migration from former East Bengal and East Pakistan and present Bangladesh. Increases in Assam’s population during recent decades are even more interesting in establishing the kind of accelerated growth that has taken place. Between 1951 and 1961, Assam’s population increased by 34.98 per cent. During the next decade from 1961 to 1971 too Assam’s population increased by 34.95 per cent. As such the projected population for 1981 – 19.896 million – was fairly accurate, since it translated into a decadal growth of 36.04 per cent. This was very close to the population growth over the two earlier decades of 34.98 and 34.95. Interestingly enough, the projection of Assam’s population for 1981 done by the Statesman’s Year Book published by Macmillan from London put the figure at 19.902 million – a difference of only about 6,000 from the Census of India projection in a population of nearly 20 million. However, after the census of 1991, the projected population figure of Assam for 1981 was revised to 18.04 million (down by about 1.85 million). This gave a comfortable decadal increase in population of just 23.35 per cent for Assam against the national decadal growth of 23.5 per cent for the same period.

If the population growth rate of Assam has been most alarming, there are two other aspects of this that are even more alarming. One is the growth rate of voters in the State and the other the rate of growth of the Muslim population almost entirely due to illegal immigration. Between 1957 and 1962 (just five years), the number of voters increased from 4.493 million to 4.943 million (10 per cent). In the next four years, the number of voters increased by 13 per cent to 5.585 million. By 1970, the number of voters stood at 5.702 million. However, within a year after that the number of voters rose by 10.42 per cent to stand at 6.296 million. The objective of the ruling political party of that period was to ensure that the Congress had an easy victory in the elections, even if it meant getting foreign voters to vote in Indian elections, in total violation of our constitutional provisions. The party succeeded eminently, though it did not stop to think of the consequences either for Assam, the North-east or the country as a whole.

The 2001 census put Assam’s population at 26,655,528. Of this, 17,296,455 were recorded as Hindus and 8,240,611 as Muslims. What was indeed remarkable was that the Census of India gave the statistical break-up of the population on religious lines only on September 6, 2004 – three years after the census. Something similar had happened in respect of the 1991 census as well, with the office of the Registrar General of India parting with the religious break-up only two years after the event. When the census data are published, one expects them to be complete in all respects – including the religious break-up. Why should there be an attempt to suppress the religious break-up for two or three years? After all, The World Almanac and Book of Facts, which is an annual publication, has the religion-wise break-up of the population of each country in the very first paragraph of the data on each country. It is only a government unduly sensitive to the abnormal demographic changes that it has brought upon the country, that would attempt to conceal such facts from the nation. In any case, the Registrar General of India did divulge one important change in the demography of Assam soon after the 2001 census: that out of the 27 districts of Assam, six districts – Barpeta, Dhubri, Goalpara, Nagaon, Karimganj and Hailakandi -- had a Muslim majority. There would be nothing very remarkable about this in a secular republic, had this demographic change been due to a higher fertility rate among the Muslims of the State. But here we have a case of an orchestrated and engineered demographic change (with the help of foreign nationals) just to ensure electoral advantage to a political party, regardless of the consequences for the State or for the security and integrity of the country. And this is an objective that jells very well with the motivations of the Bangladeshi nationals who have infiltrated into different parts of India in such large numbers as to account for about 10,810,000 of them in our country with about four million in Assam and four million more in West Bengal, and with Bihar accounting for two million.

It is indeed regrettable that Government of India should have reacted the way it did to the Census of India’s report on the religious demography of India published on September 4, 2004. The report revealed that the decadal growth of the Muslim population of India had increased to 36 per cent from the figure for the earlier decade 34.5 per cent. It also revealed that the decadal growth rate of the Hindu population had come down from 25.1 per cent to 20.5 per cent. This revelation set the alarm bells ringing down the corridors of North Block, and soon the Census of India had ‘adjusted’ and ‘unadjusted’ figures of the decadal growth of population by deleting the population figures for both Assam and Jammu & Kashmir. It was as if deleting the populations of the two States would have the effect of eliminating them altogether on the ground as well!

However, the strongest motivation for the large-scale Bangladeshi infiltration into Assam and the north-eastern States is what German intellectuals have called lebensraum or “living space”. The population of Bangladesh is close to 147 million. With an area of 55,599 sq. miles, it has a population density of 2,838 per sq. mile. Thus a large-scale exodus anywhere is a sort of godsend for Bangladesh. Bangladesh is only too well aware of the illegal vote-bank created by the Congress in Assam, and has taken full advantage of the vulnerability of the Congress in the matter of detection, disfranchisement and deportation of Bangladeshis. Perhaps the earliest proponent of the idea of lebensraum for Bangladesh was Mr Sadeq Khan who wrote the article “The Question of Lebensraum” in the weekly newspaper Holiday in its issue of October 18, 1991. This is how he began: “The question of lebensraum or living space for the people of Bangladesh has not yet been raised as a moot issue. All projections, however, clearly indicate that by the next decade, that is to say by the first decade of the 21st century, Bangladesh will face a serious crisis of lebensraum. No possible performance of population planning, actual or hypothetical, significantly alters that prediction.” Having had his say on the crisis of living space that Bangladesh will face by the first decade of the 21st century, he goes on to argue in the next paragraph how the “colonial devastation of Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries, left the region of Bangladesh bereft of the traditional strength of technology and productivity.” And then come the two crucial paragraphs that leave no one in any doubt about what Bangladesh’s intentions are. This is what they say:

“It is said that a borderless world has become the prime requisite for economic growth under the new world order. In fairness, if consumer benefit is considered to be better served by borderless competitive trade of commodities, why not borderless competitive trade of labour? There is no reason why Bangladesh should not insist on a globalized manpower market as consumer markets of nation-states are being progressively globalized under the dictates of monetarists. There is no reason why regional and international cooperation could not be worked out to plan and   execute population movements and settlements to avoid critical demographic pressures in pockets of high concentration. There is no reason why under-populated regions in the developed world cannot make room for planned colonies to relieve build-up of demographic disasters in countries like Bangladesh.

“We shall hope for the best in international cooperation. We shall hope for the best in accommodation from the developed world. In reality, nevertheless, Bangladesh may expect little external relief in the short run on the issue of lebensraum. It is also doubtful that Bangladesh may develop sufficient sustainable urbanization or can engineer sufficient reclamation of habitable land from its offshore potential to settle its projected population growth in the next decade. A natural overflow of population pressure is therefore very much on the cards and will not be restrainable by barbed wire or border patrol measures. The natural trend of population overflow from Bangladesh is towards the sparsely populated lands of the South East in the Arakan side and of the North East in the Seven Sisters side of the Indian subcontinent.”

Put in simple language, what Sadeq Khan is saying is: We do not have enough land. So we will take land from Myanmar and India’s North-east. And we dare you to stop us either with barbed-wire fencing or the BSF.            

It would, however, be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that Bangladesh’s motives for the large-scale illegal infiltration of West Bengal, Assam and the North-east in general has nothing more to it than population pressure within that country and a search for living space. This thrust is not just economic. The encouragement of insurgent activity in India’s North-east through the simple expedient of providing asylum and training facilities to Indian insurgent outfits and the facilitation of ISI and al Qaeda collaboration with such insurgent outfits, speak of more sinister expansionist ambitions in this region. There is a clear move to establish an Islamic country in India’s North-east, and the project is moving forward relentlessly because of India’s weak response to such situations that pose a threat to the country’s security and integrity. What is much worse is that Bangladesh has its eager collaborators within the country even among former ministers, but the Government of India has been able to do precious little to tackle even the collaborators of Bangladesh in India. What the demographic change of the north-eastern region wrought by the ceaseless illegal infiltration from Bangladesh represents for India is a major security hazard. The ISI of Pakistan is so well entrenched in Bangladesh that it is now in a position to call the shots in the governance of a State like Assam – all through the all-powerful pro-Bangladeshi lobby in Assam. What the Government of India seems to have completely overlooked is that when the north-eastern States of India are annexed by Bangladesh or become part of a “Sonar Bangla” that could include West Bengal too it will also have the extensive uranium deposits of Meghalaya and Mizoram. Is this a security hazard that the Government of India can afford to take lightly, considering the ISI activities in the North-east carried on from Bangladesh?

The greatest encouragement to illegal immigration from Bangladesh comes from the separate and discriminatory immigration law enacted solely for Assam in 1983 called the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act or the IM (DT) Act for short. Its salient features are: (a) it represents the only known case of any civilized democratic republic having two immigration laws -– one for the entire country and the other for just one State; (b) it is only immigration law that is kind to the illegal migrant, making it virtually impossible for the state authorities to deport him even if he is detected; (c) it is the only known immigration law that takes away the onus of proving nationality from the illegal migrant and transfers it to individual citizens who must make a complaint before a tribunal and also pay a fine for doing this patriotic and hazardous duty; and (d) this immigration law takes away the responsibility of detecting and deporting foreign nationals from the Executive and vests it with quasi-judicial tribunals manned by retired and tired judges. And we can thank our lawmakers for this mindless sabotage of the immigration law of the country and the conscious effort to create another Kashmir or Cyprus in Assam. so that the State can be annexed by a country that India once created. Ironically, the worst enemies of Assam and the nation as a whole have been our own elected representatives. It is important to bear in mind that in 1983, the Assam Valley had boycotted the general elections, and did not have any representatives in Parliament. Thus the IM (DT) Act was legislated behind the back of Assam in 1983 when the Congress had a steamroller majority in Parliament.

It is not just that Bangladesh is aware of the IM (DT) Act. In fact, it is the pro-Bangladesh lobby in India that got our MPs to commit hara-kiri on our behalf. But that is not all there is to it. The security threat for India arising from the Bangladeshi resolve to annex the North-east of India is spine-chilling. The presence of Pakistan’s ISI agents in Bangladesh is a well-known fact. They not only arranged the training of the ULFA top brass in Pakistan, but have also been training insurgents from the North-east in the training camps located in Bangladesh. The ISI hand in the recent twin blasts in Dimapur (which took several lives) is beyond any doubts now. But what is much worse is that the al Qaeda is also in Bangladesh now imparting training to insurgents from the North-east. The Time magazine article of the issue of October 21, 2002 is a terrifying pointer to this.

Where do we go from here? The answer can be quite laconic: to Bangladesh. After all, have not our elected representatives worked quite assiduously for just this kind of an end result? But what can be done even now to save Assam and India’s North-east from being ceded to Bangladesh?

Whatever measures we think of, it is clear that any hopes of pushing back the four million Bangladeshis from Assam and an equal number from West Bengal across the border would be a utopian dream. Economic pragmatism would suggest the acceptance of a chunk of the illegal immigrants already here. Having done this, it is imperative to bring in the following measures quite ruthlessly:

    § Greater border control with barbed wire fencing wherever possible, and a larger and better-equipped border control force with shoot-at-sight instructions just as we have on the Indo-Pakistan border.

     §   Immediate repeal of the IM (DT) Act and reintroduction of the Foreigners Act for Assam as well.

     §  Total economic boycott of all illegal migrants. This is an idea that is held to be utopian, but in the context of Assam, this is desperately needed since much of the illegal immigration was made possible just because we created an economic vacuum.

     §  The proposal to issue work permits to Bangladeshis should be held in abeyance for the next 20 years.

    §  Multi-purpose identity cards should be issued to all Indian citizens (especially along the border areas). However, it is quite possible that the illegal migrants will among the first to get identity cards.

    §  A uniform civil code should be introduced for everyone living in India (not just Indian citizens). Polygamy as a means of increasing the immigrant population very fast is standard practice among Bangladeshi immigrants.

    §   It is important to help the youth of Assam to acquire manual skills so that they can do all skilled work.

   § Coercive diplomacy with Bangladesh. We have nothing to lose but our reputation for weakness in dealing with a country we created.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati