By Chandan Kumar Sharma
The recent ethnic bloodbath in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) areas of western Assam only shows that the state is not getting any respite from such human tragedies. Such ethnic scourges have been a recurring phenomenon in the state in recent decades, indicating that the problem has deeper roots.
The BTAD conflagration brought back the immigration question to centrestage. However, while a section of opinion tends to paint all immigrants with one brush as ‘illegal immigrants’, the other section tends to describe the whole issue of as a ‘myth’. Clearly, both the viewpoints are flawed and prejudiced.
Changing demographic landscape
There is no doubt that much of the socio-political trepidation in Assam over the last several decades has been caused by the massive change in Assam’s demographic landscape on account of immigration from erstwhile East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). This has made immigrant Muslims from there a dominant political force in the state resulting in the progressive marginalisation of the smaller indigenous communities.
However, this is not to say that they are all illegal immigrants. Their migration to Assam began in the early 20th century under the direct patronage of the colonial administration aiming at garnering more land revenue by settling these poor, hard-working Muslim peasants in the fallow and wasteland areas of western and central Assam, a large tract of which belonged to the indigenous tribal population engaged in shifting cultivation. This colonial policy altered the demography of these areas within a short span of time, leading the census reports of 1921 and 1931 on Assam making special mention of the threat posed by immigration to the indigenous population of Assam.
Since the late 1920s, Assamese political leaders have also consistently aired such apprehensions. The immigration, however, continued unabated. It received a new momentum under the Muslim League ministry in the early 1940s. This demographic transformation created such a situation that Assam was about to be ceded to East Pakistan at the time of partition. This is something the Assamese public discourse rakes up whenever the threat of immigration is discussed.
In the immediate years after partition, Hindu migration from East Pakistan overtook the Muslim one, but migration by the latter began again after the mid-1950s and gradually assumed a considerable scale again. It may be noted that from 1950 to the mid-1960s, the massive infiltration in Assam also generated much concern among Indian leaders and Parliament saw many discussion on the issues.
Post-1965, however, such consensus and concern, however, waned, evidently for political reasons. The immigrants settled in the available chars (flood sediment islets) of the Brahmaputra, forests and grazing lands and in tribal reserved areas, often under the patronage of politicians playing ‘vote-bank’ politics. Inevitably, the names of several million immigrants also crept into the state’s voter list.
The six-year-long Assam movement, despite all its drawbacks, strongly raised this issue and it culminated in an accord in August 1985. It recognised 1 January 1966 as the base year for detection of foreigners, and accordingly said that foreigners who entered Assam after 1 January 1966 and up to 24 March 1971 will be detected and their names deleted from the electoral list for 10 years. Foreigners who entered Assam on or after 25 March 1971 will be expelled. The Accord also pledged to provide for constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the Assamese people.
Continuous presence of illegal migrants
However, 27 years after the Accord, the 1966 base year for detection of foreigners is all but forgotten as the public attention has come to be focused on 1971 as the cutoff year for expelling foreigners. But in all these years hardly a few thousand foreigners have been detected and nobody even keeps track of the detected foreigners. Admittedly, there were serious obstacles to the process of detection of foreigners. The provisions of the infamous Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, which was legislated by the then Congress government, made it virtually impossible to detect any foreigners. The Act, which was enacted only for Assam, was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional only in 2005.