Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times GUWAHATI, —The figures look alarming — depending on the way they are read. Recalling the history is also scary — again depending on the way it is read. And the politics played out over history and the numbers during more than five decades in Assam is muddy and violent.
The phobia: The demographic invader from Bangladesh — dressed in a skull cap, a lungi in Madras checks and a terry-cotton kurta with a long flowing beard and a pair of strong, wiry hands — will ultimately win the numbers game and ruin the indigenous people.
The reason: The 2001 census said the Muslims comprised 30.9% of Assam’s total population of 26.66 million. The religion data of the 2011 census have not been released, but going by the past growth rates, the number of Muslims in the state is estimated at 33% of the 31.17 million people.
The alarm bells actually began ringing after the decadal population growth rate in 2001 in six Muslim-majority districts — Dhubri (74.3%), Barpeta (59.3%), Hailakandi (57.6%), Goalpara (53.7%), Karimganj (52.3%) and Nagaon (51%) — were out.
A report on illegal migration that former governor Gen SK Sinha submitted to the Centre in 1998 said Muslims weren’t a majority in Nagaon and Karimganj districts till 1998. The picture changed dramatically in three years.
But do the numbers always state the truth? Is it a myth played up with selective census figures to keep the Bengali Muslim on his toes with the foreigner tag? Why is the bogey always raised as an election issue?
Assam shares a 262-km-long border with Bangladesh, much of which is fenced today. BSF officials say infiltration is under check during the past 10 years. But Samujjal Bhattacharyya, advisor of the All Assam Students’ Union, which had spearheaded the Assam Agitation, asks: “Then how does one explain the presence of Bangladeshis in areas where they were not to be seen a decade ago?”
A report by the Guwahati-based Strategic Research and Analysis Organisation rubbishes the argument, saying the Muslim growth rate in Assam was similar to the rest of the country. But the Hindus were insecure as their share in the total population fell from 67% to 65% although their number grew from 15 million to more than 17 million in 1991-2001.
It all began with the migration of Bengali Muslims from the erstwhile East Bengal after the British annexed Assam in 1826. Their number was so high that Muslim League leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah claimed before the partition that Assam was in his pocket.
The 1971 Indo-Pak war, which led to the birth of Bangladesh, forced another wave of migration to Assam. The magnitude of the problem was felt during the agitation of 1979-1985 to free Assam of aliens. Finally, an accord was signed in 1985, fixing March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date for detecting and deporting illegal settlers.
The word Bangladeshi is nothing but a political ruse, says Aminul Islam, leader of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which is the largest opposition party in Assam with 18 legislators. The rapid growth of the party since its inception in 2005 is seen as a reflection of the political might of migrant Muslims.
Islam says, “The movement of Bengali Muslims is more because of shifting from inundated sandbars and erosion-hit river banks on which they had resided for ages. They are as Indian as other residents of Assam.”
But the BJP is working on Hindu insecurity to justify the influx theory and establish a toehold in Assam. “We are clear about Bangladeshi Muslims who entered Assam after March 25, 1971. They have to go,” says the party’s state unit president Sarbananda Sonowal.