"We cannot say that illegal immigration is the only reason for the clashes in Assam."
That was said to me not by any Muslim leader or a bleeding-heart liberal but by Pramod Boro, the head of the All Bodo Students Union.
Boro does not discount the "illegal immigration" problem. Not at all. "The entire indigenous people feel suffocated because of these migrants," he said. "We feel politically and linguistically threatened."
But according to him, the violence in Assam has many causes – miscreant activity, the political conspiracy of trying to join all non-Bodos into a united front, jockeying for political power. Illegal immigration is part of the problem but he admitted "I agree it’s not the one and onlyreason for this."
Enter LK Advani who says that in fact, it is. "Introspection must lead to the identification of the root cause which is the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh," he told reporters after his visit to Assam.
It's easy to see why this is attractive. Anyone who calls this a Bodo-Muslim conflict is immediately labeled a pseudo-secularist who is trying to communalise the issue by making it about religion when it’s really about immigration.
The VHP wants to have it both ways. They want it to be about immigration and ratchet up the Hindus-under-threat hysteria. Praveen Togadia made a dig about Tarun Gogoi being the chief minister of Bangladesh and said, "Hindus should united and cooperate with Bodos to fight against invasion."
(Quick question for Togadia: If all the Muslims in Assam were from Bihar and UP , or if they were all Marwari businessman and Hindu babus from West Bengal would the Bodos and other Assamese groups have no problem sharing their land? )
But the Bangladeshi bogeyman is here to stay. And its supporters point to decadal growth statistics over and over again to show that this is about hard numbers and not just paranoid rhetoric.
However do the numbers add up? Let's look at two districts that are at the heart of the violence – Kokrajhar and Dhubri. Kokrajhar is the seat of Bodo power. Dhubri has the highest percentage of Muslims in all of Assam's districts.
The illegal immigrant theory-wallahs claim that Kokrajhar has seen its Muslim population go up by leaps and bounds. But in an op-ed in The Hindu, Banajit Hussain says in fact, in 1971 the Muslim population of Kokrajhar was 17 percent. It hit 20.4 percent in 2001. The religion-wise census breakdown for 2011 is not out yet but let's take a look at what the overall decadal growth rates have to say. Hussain says Kokrajhar’s decadal rate of growth has actually declined from 14.49 percent between 1991-2001 to 5.19 percent. So what happened? It’s obviously not a sudden spike in death rates says Hussain.
The other possibility, which seems more plausible, is that there has been a considerable out-migration from Kokrajhar, especially after the formation of the BTAD in 2003.
Who would leave? Bodos are surely not leaving their newly-minted autonomous region in droves. Koch Rajbongshis, many of whom want their own Kamtapur in part of that area, would probably not relinquish their claim to the land either. That leads to the other possibility.
In all probability, the out-migration involves other non-Bodo communities, including Muslims.
Now let's take Dhubri which borders Bangladesh. In a column in Kafila, Nilim Dutta quotes the Census of India numbers show that its growth rate was not quite as exponential as some people are claiming. That eye-popping often-cited 45.65 % growth in Dhubri that has many people up in arms is really over TWO decades since Assam had no census in 1981. Over those two decades India’s growth rate was 54.41%. (See the chart here.)
Immigrants - old and new
So does that mean migration is a big fat myth? No. Are there no illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in Assam? There are plenty. And migration has altered the demography of Assam. But the story of migration is both older and more nuanced than Advani would like to pretend. Read Dutta’s entire piece to get a sense of the whole history going back to the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. What those jumping up and down about immigrants will not mention is that the Assam Accord of 1985 says only those who came after 25th March 1971 should be counted as illegal migrants.
What is happening now with the chorus to make this a Bodo versus migrant issue is to turn all Muslims in Assam into illegal Bangladeshi migrants even if they or their parents came there long before 1971. "The fact is during the AASU agitation in Assam many purana (old timer) Muslims participated," said Trailokya Roy of the All Koch Rajbongshi Students Union. That agitation was against all kinds of people perceived to be outsiders, not just Bangladeshis.
The notion of who is genuinely an outsider gets a little clearer once you look at the language breakdown writes Dutta.
For instance, Dhubri with a Muslim population of 74.29% has 70.07% Assamese speakers (as against 24.15% Bengali speakers). This is in stark contrast to the Barak valley districts like Karimganj and Hailakandi where Bengali has remained the predominant linguistic identity among both Hindus and Muslims. (Those two districts are over 40% Hindu.)
Fruits of power
So what's really going on? These are old issues about power and money. Once Bengali Hindu immigrants in Assam had faced hostility because they were perceived as keeping native Assamese down and out of government jobs. Now the Bodo People’s Front is under fire for not being willing enough to share the fruits of power. Kampa Bargayri, the deputy head of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) angrily refuted those charges when I spoke to him in Kokrajhar.
Tell me, if we build engineering colleges do only Bodo people go there? If we build roads do only Bodo people travel on them?
Bargayri is alleging a widespread conspiracy to destabilize his government.
For the past five or six months some people from the Muslim community, supported by a few individuals opposed to the creation of the BTC formed the Oboro Suraksha Samity to try and take other communities who are not Bodos with them. They want to make people’s mind against Bodos to create law and order problem in the area.
Bodos don't want to talk about all the groups that want a piece of the Assam pie. And Muslims would rather play the victim card than talk about the political ambitions they think their demographic numbers entitle them to and which they feel they are deprived of because of seats reserved for tribals. But who wants to talk about all those complex and touchy issues? It's much easier to blame the Bangladeshi bogeyman.
Read Nilim Dutta in Kafila here.
Read Banajit Hussain in The Hindu here.