Elections, Migration and Identity in Assam
By Walter Ferndes
Assam has a new government elected on the basis of its people’s identity, not Hindutva as some would like to claim. The chief minister seems to have understood it and is giving priority to the issue of migrants which was part of the election propaganda. However, a Hindutva issue was introduced into it by stating that Hindus and other minorities were leaving Bangladesh because of religious persecution so they should be granted citizenship immediately. One cannot deny that migration has become a problem but facts go against the effort to give it a religious dimension. The census data show that Assam had 19,44,444 migrants 1951–2001. One refers here to direct migrants i.e. the difference between what would have been the population if the tiol average was followed and the excess in each decade. The census also shows that during this period they have multiplied to around 40 lakhs, some 17 lakhs of them Bengali speaking Muslims presumably from Bangladesh and 23 lakh Hindi, Nepali or Bengali speaking Hindus. Thus, there has been an influx both of Muslims and Hindus, the latter from Bihar–UP, Nepal and a smaller number from Bangladesh. Most Hindus from the present day Bangladesh have gone to Tripura. Because of their influx tribal proportion in that State has declined from 58.1 percent in 1951 to 31.8 percent in 2011.
The census data also show that migration has either stopped or declined substantially during the last decade. In Assam the decline began in the 1990s but there was a rise in the population of galand and Aruchal in that decade, possibly because a section of the migrants shifted to the neighbouring States due to opposition to them in Assam. As important as their numbers is the reason for their coming to the Northeast and how they entered the region. When interviewed a decade ago, most Hindu immigrants in Tripura as well as Assam discounted religious persecution as a cause of their crossing the border. Both Hindus and Muslims, of Bangladeshi as well as Bihari origin, said that they had come in search of land. They were landless agricultural labourers in the feudal land owning system in their place of origin. They saw no possibility of getting out of their acute poverty in that system so they came in search of land in the Brahmaputra valley where the weak law allowed them to encroach on land and then get a patta by bribing officials. Since they know the agricultural skills they grow three crops on that land and prosper while the local culture is of a single crop either because of the predomince of shifting cultivation or eksonia patta i.e. share cropper system. The prosperity of the immigrants becomes a threat to the local people.
Another factor pushing the Bangladeshis into the Northeast is the population density. It is around 1,400 per square kilometre in Bangladesh against 434 in Assam and much less in the neighbouring States. Regular floods further reduce the area they can live on. Moreover, around 20 percent of Bangladesh’s landmass is expected to be submerged during the next two decades because of climate change. Migration seems to have become a mode of balancing the population. This statement only explains migration and does not justify it. A second well known reason they gave is availability of unskilled work which the local people do not want to do. A cycle has developed in which Bihari and Bangladeshi workers come to Assam and work at a lower wage than the locals do, Assamese workers go to South India especially to Kerala where they get around Rs 600 per day. Unskilled workers from Kerala go to the Gulf where they get higher wages than in their home State. All of them live in miserable conditions but do unskilled work away from home without the stigma attached to it in their home State. The next question asked of Bangladesh migrants in particular was “how did they cross the border?” Almost unimously they said that they paid Rs 400 to the BSF every time they came in or went out of India.
These answers did not come as a surprise to us. It is clear that landlessness and poverty are the factors pushing them away from their home. Availability of land and unskilled work which the local people do not want to do are the pull factors attracting them to the Northeast. The supplementary factors of corruption at the border and among local officials eble them to enter the region. Religious persecution is not an issue. However, promise of citizenship to Hindu migrants when they come to India is bound to boomerang on the people of Assam since it will motivate many of them to cross the border and claim to be members of a persecuted minority. Land and jobs will then have to be found for them and it can lay the foundation of further conflicts in Assam. Instead of oversimplifying the issue by attributing it to one cause and introducing religion into a socio–economic issue, one has to understand the variety of causes and deal with all of them.
One has also to realise that migration is a complex issue. The proposed solution of sending them back to Bangladesh is not easy. For example during 22 years of their existence which included five years 1996–2001 when the AGP was in power in Assam and the BJP–led NDA in Delhi, the tribuls set up in 1983 dealt with 65,000 cases, declared 12,424 persons illegal but deported only 1,538 of them. Also fencing the border may not help because 103 kilometres out of Assam’s 263 kilometre border with Bangladesh is on the river which cannot be fenced. According to estimates more than 60 percent of “illegal trade” passes through the river and through 30 land points that the traders cross by bribing the border guards. Moreover, as the census data show there is today very little immigration into Assam. Those who have come into the region cannot be sent back without massive bloodshed. Their human right to a life with dignity has to be respected and ways have to be found of creating jobs and reviving a multi–crop based economy. Assam needs to move away from its history of a single crop economy. Letting more migrants into the State is a threat to the land and identity of the local people. Ways have to be found such as a better economy and if required work permit, of living in harmony with those who have come into the State already.
(Dr Walter Ferndes, founder–director of North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, is at present a Senior Fellow in the same institution.)