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Assam violence: Land, identity and immigration

The conflicts in and around the Northeast have little to do with religion and everything to do with land and identity, writes Walter Fernandes, detailing the history of immigration to the Northeast

Northeas Immigrants

The Kokrajhar district of western Assam exploded after two Bengali-speaking Muslims were killed in early-July 2012, and two more on July 19. Four former cadres of the militant group Bodo Liberation Tigers, that has today become the ruling party of the Bodo Territorial Council, were found dead on July 20. No one knows who killed them but rumours attributed the murders to Muslims. The killing spree that followed spread from Kokrajhar to Chirang and Dhemaji districts. Over 60 of the 90-odd persons killed were Muslims; the rest were Bodo. Many villages, both Muslim and Bodo majority, were burnt down and some 400,000 people were displaced to refugee camps in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts. Fundamentalist forces used the situation to spread communal propaganda against immigrants, with some going so far as to say that all Muslims were illegal Bangladeshi immigrants sent by Pakistan to destabilise India.

In the second week of August, the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, allegedly linked to the Sangh Parivar, tried to create panic among the more than 200,000 north-easterners working or studying in Bangalore by sending SMS messages stating that Muslim leaders had issued a fatwa ordering attacks on the people of Assam after Eid. The threat was false, but around 35,000 people left Bangalore in a panic. Five Muslims were killed in Kokrajhar, allegedly by some Bodo young men who had returned from Bangalore.

This conflict is indicative of simmering tensions in the region and the anger with which many people from cities all over ‘mainland India’ returned to the Northeast.

Conflicts and immigrants

This is not the first conflict in Assam or in the Bodo area; nor is it the first instance of  immigration being used as a rallying point for political mobilisation. The Assam Movement of 1979-85 was primarily against ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’. The Bodo region has witnessed violence on several occasions in the 1990s. While signing an accord with a Bodo militant outfit to create the Bodo Autonomous Council, the government of Assam excluded more than 1,000 villages from it on the plea that they did not have a Bodo majority. The effort to ‘create’ a majority resulted in attacks on Bengali-speaking Muslims in 1993, on Bengali-speaking Hindus in 1995, and on ethnic Santhals in 1996. These conflicts left a few hundred people dead and 350,000 internally displaced (1). Similar conflicts have erupted elsewhere in Assam and the rest of the Northeast. In all of them one sees a close link between ethnicity and immigration. Communal statements are made in the name of nationalism with the focus on ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’. In reality, land and identity are basic to these conflicts. The propaganda against Muslims is based on the assumption that immigration from Bangladesh began after Partition. Some view it as a Pakistani tool to destabilise India; others add that it was encouraged by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who was chief minister of Assam, thereby identifying his Muslim identity with sympathy for Pakistan.

Ignored in the propaganda is the fact that immigration began much before Partition. There must have been movement of people between the neighbouring regions of Bengal and the Northeast for many centuries before the East India Company annexed the region through the Yandabu Treaty with the Burmese emperor, in February 1826, and other conquests that followed.

Immigration in its modern form, however, began with the British policy of 1891 to encourage peasants from East Bengal to cultivate ‘wasteland’ in western Assam to grow more food and earn more land revenue for the state. But what they called ‘wasteland’ according to the colonial individual ownership-based laws was in reality the community-owned sustenance of the Bodo and Rabha tribes (2). Decades before that, these and other communities in Assam had lost a lot of land to the British-owned tea plantations. The Bengal peasants added to the tension, laying the foundation of the Bodo-immigrant conflict around land to which their identity was linked (3). Moreover, since most zamindars in East Bengal were Hindu while the peasants were by and large Muslim, 90% of the immigrants were Muslim (4). That added a communal dimension to the tension around land. When, by the 1920s, the immigrants had spread to central Assam, some leaders of the Indian freedom struggle feared that Assam was becoming a Muslim-majority province. So they encouraged peasants from Bihar to migrate to Assam. Nepali Hindus followed. Thus, a Hindu-Muslim division arose among the immigrants. Communal forces are today exploiting this divide for their own political objectives.

How many are they?

That is where numbers attain importance. The 2001 census shows that 1,944,444 (say 20 lakh) immigrants have come to Assam between 1951 and 2001. With natural growth, this figure rises to 40 lakh. Around 40% of them are Bengali-speaking Muslims, presumably of Bangladeshi origin, and the rest are Hindi- or Nepali-speaking Hindus. The local people fear demographic changes resulting from such high immigration. One cannot deny that this has implications for demographic balance but ‘illegal Muslim immigrants’ are not its only cause. In 2001, Muslims were a little over 30% of Assam’s population, against 24.7% in 1951. The proportion is higher in districts bordering Bangladesh, such as the Bodo-inhabited territory. But Bangladeshis are only about 40% of the immigrants, the rest being Hindus of Bihari and Nepali origin. It’s the large number of people, rather than their origin and religion that is perceived as a threat to the local people’s land and identity. That is why there have been killings of Bihari settlers in upper Assam where they live in big numbers, and of Muslims in western and central Assam. People perceive a threat both from Bangladeshi and Bihari-Nepali immigrants. But the focus of political propaganda is on Muslims, who are often referred to as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants sent by Pakistan to disturb the peace in India.

Moreover, census figures show that there has been negative inflow of immigrants by nearly 2 lakh in 1991-2000 (5). The threat therefore emanates only from past immigrants. The excess population in the Bodo area today is because of past, not recent, immigrants. Still, immigration continues to be treated as a political issue because of the threat to people’s land and identity and because political parties exploit it for their own objectives. The opposition rightly accuses the ruling party of using immigrants as a votebank. But the parties that make this accusation have taken no measures to control immigration. For example, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) that emerged from the Assam Movement was in power for two terms in the 1990s. The Bharatiya Janata Party which is at the forefront of using the immigration issue for political purposes led the National Democratic Alliance that was in power at the centre at the time the AGP ruled Assam. Neither government took serious measures against the immigrants other than expelling a little over 1,000 alleged Bangladeshis. One is left with the impression that they wanted to keep the issue alive and use it as political fodder.

One could also ask whether it is possible for such a large number of immigrants to enter India without corruption along the borders. In an interview in 2004, immigrants stated that for every entry into India or return to Bangladesh they paid Rs 400 to the Indian and Bangladeshi security forces (6).

We must also understand the push and pull factors of this migration. The feudal system in Bangladesh, Bihar and Nepal is the push factor. Most immigrants were landless agricultural labourers who were paid very low wages for long hours of work, and lived in extreme poverty. Migration to the fertile plains of the Brahmaputra valley was an escape from such dire poverty and exploitation. The need for unskilled workers is another pull factor. But of greater importance are the defective individual ownership-based colonial land laws that continue to be in force and further facilitate migration. One does not have accurate information on different types of land systems in Assam, but according to estimates only a third of its land has individual pattas, another third comes under aksonia or annual patta and the rest is tribal or community land. Thus, two-thirds of the land is what is considered state property under the colonial law. The immigrants can encroach on it and then get a patta by bribing officials. That is where the fact of most immigrants being agricultural labourers attains importance. They use their own agricultural techniques on the land they occupy, and prosper by growing three crops a year. The local tradition is of a single crop because of the history of zamindari or shifting cultivation (7). That turns immigration into an encounter of two different histories.

Corruption among the border security forces adds to the problem. Almost 40% of the Indo-Bangladesh border is riparian and cannot be patrolled or fenced easily. Moreover, Bangladesh’s population density is over 1,000/sq km against 414 in Assam and lower for the rest of the region. Twenty per cent of Bangladeshi territory is expected to be submerged by 2050 because of climate change. Migration is a way of balancing the population.

The Bangalore panic

The efforts of the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena to create panic among north-easterners living in Bangalore has to be seen in this light. On one side, the events confirmed many people’s view of the region as one of conflict alone. On the other, the exodus of so many people got some civil society and religious leaders to sit back and reflect on its causes. Many felt the need to establish contact with the people of the region and try to restore in them faith in the city they had chosen for education or jobs. Till the 1990s, most people from the Northeast went to Delhi, Mumbai or Pune. Bangalore has become their major destination for over a decade because women in particular felt safer here than many other cities. But even in Bangalore they remained isolated and did not mix much with the local people. Thus, even whilst feeling secure in Bangalore, they lacked a sense of belonging to the city.

That changed with the rumours of Muslims planning to attack the people of Assam after Eid. They panicked here more than they would have in other cities precisely because they had felt safer here. Because of the absence of links with local people, the threat functioned as the last straw. They left in droves.

That is when many civil society and religious leaders began to reflect on the causes of the panic and sense of insecurity. Educational and religious institutions opened their doors to shelter them. Muslim and other religious leaders organised ifthar and Eid functions to assure them they were safe in the city. As rumours spread about over 100 attacks on people from the Northeast, enquiries by civil society groups showed that there were only around 30, and that not more than half-a-dozen of them were on north-easterners. Apart from helping victims of the attacks file FIRs, many civil society groups decided that this could not be treated as a one-time emergency. The time had come for long-term measures towards the integration of the Northeast.

Civil society groups felt that the first steps had to be taken by mainland India which has, for decades, ignored the region. The fact that many of the attacks were not on the Assamese but on persons with Mongoloid features led many to conclude that the reason behind the hostility was that these people are different from the Aryan-Dravidian India that the mainland knows so well. In this India, even the national anthem stops at Bengal. It mentions the Dravidians but not the Mongoloid stock of the Seven Sisters. The only rivers treated as sacred all over India are the Ganga-Jamuna not the Brahmaputra which is longer than the Ganga, is the fifth biggest in the world and confers an identity on the region. One can cite a number of reasons that explain why many people of the Northeast feel that India wants their territory, not its people. They believe this because the centre treats their struggle as primarily a law-and-order issue; it has for five decades kept the region under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that confers extraordinary powers on the armed forces, such as authorising a junior commissioned officer to arrest a person on mere suspicion of planning a terrorist act. This has resulted in many atrocities. If someone dies in custody the security forces can claim immunity from prosecution by stating that the person was killed in an encounter or whilst fleeing. One acknowledges that the militants have committed atrocities, but it does not condone a draconian act by which mostly innocent civilians suffer.

Another factor is the feeling among many in India that because of ethnic, language and religious differences, the Northeast does not belong to the ‘mainstream’ and that it has to merge with the ‘mainland’ (8). An extreme form of this thinking was found in a leaflet circulated by a fundamentalist group in Delhi three years ago after attacks on women from the region. It stated that people from the Northeast did not know Indian culture and that their women would be safe only if they learned to dress and behave like Indians. The Aryan-Dravidian culture is ‘Indian’; what the Northeast has is ‘foreign’.

Groups that are trying to find a solution to the problem realise that what the Northeast wants is not merger but integration. Merger implies joining the majority by giving up one’s culture and identity; integration is based on respect for diversity and recognition of the fact that the Northeast is different from the rest of India.

Lack of this understanding has been the major cause of nationalist struggles in the region. Its tribes had enjoyed an autonomous existence for centuries even under the colonial regime. But post-1947, India did not allow them to retain that autonomy. For example, the Angami tribe to which Z A Phizo belonged had resisted the British for a century. Phizo himself was jailed for his opposition to them. He led the resistance against the Japanese invaders and expected the leaders of independent India to respect that autonomy and identity. But a single centralised administration was imposed on the tribes. That is where the Naga struggle began and other conflicts followed.

It should be clear from the preceding section that even the immigration issue that is a source of tension cannot be viewed only from the ‘nationalist’ perspective, as post-independence Pakistani intervention. Its regional dimension has to be respected while searching for a solution.

People in Bangalore and elsewhere realise that communal forces used the issue to create panic among the north-easterners. Their feeling that people from mainland India should take the first step towards integration is based on this perception. They also agree that genuine integration requires a change of heart and a move away from the demand that people join the ‘mainstream’ by abandoning their identity. This change of heart could create an atmosphere of respect for diversity. Since north-easterners who live in Bangalore or elsewhere tend to remain isolated, with very few contacts with the local people, civil society leaders are searching for ways to help the two sides learn more about each other. An effort on the part of the easterners to mix with the communities around them will enrich the cultural life of the city. Local people will then develop greater respect for their culture and identity. Some groups have taken steps to ensure greater understanding. For example, people who realised the attacks were not on the Assamese but on those who were different, that is had Mongoloid features, visited the Tibetan hostel in their area and tried to understand their situation. Others did the same with the Nepalese and people from Sikkim and of the Seven Sisters.

These are small steps. More are needed in the form of cultural shows and talks on the region. No effort towards a better understanding will be meaningful without an attitude of respect for ethnic, cultural and religious diversity and a move away from fundamentalism.

(Dr Walter Fernandes is former director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, Assam)


1 Subir Bhowmick. 2005. ‘India’s North East: Nobody’s People in No Man’s Land’, in Paula Banerjee, Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Samir Das (eds), Internal Displacement in South Asia. New Delhi: Sage Publications, pp 163-165
2 Ajay Roy. 1995. The Boro Imbroglio. Guwahati: Spectrum Publishers, p 64
3 Amalendu Guha. 1977. Planter Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam, 1826-1947. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House
4 Ajay Roy. Op cit
5 Bhupen Kumar Nath, Dilip C Nath and Biswanath Bhattacharya. 2012. ‘Undocumented Migration in the State of Assam in Northeast India Estimates Since 1971 to 2001’, Asian Journal of Applied Sciences. 5: 164-173
6 Fernandes, Walter. 2005. ‘IMDT Act and Immigration in North Eastern India’, Economic and Political Weekly. 40 (n 30), p 3238
7 Nel Vanderkerkoove. 2010. No Land, No Peace: Dynamics of Violent Conflict and Land Use in Assam, India. Ghent: Ghent University (Doctoral Thesis)
8 M N Karna. 2008. ‘Conflicts Amid the Historical Experiences of Identity, Nation and the State in North Eastern India’, in Walter Fernandes (ed), Search for Peace with Justice: Issues around Conflicts and Peace in Northeast India. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre, pp 28-35

Infochange News & Features, October 2012