Citizenship Amendment Act: BJP chasing ghosts in Assam; Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated

The BJP's goal of cultivating the support of a large chunk of Bengali Hindus in Assam using the the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 could very well be based on misconceptions if the available Census data is taken into account

Nandita Saikia December 18, 2019 09:11:43 IST
Citizenship Amendment Act: BJP chasing ghosts in Assam; Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated

Editor's note: Exactly how many illegal Bengali Hindus will benefit from the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)? From thousands to lakhs to crores, the number of illegal Bengali Hindu migrants has swung like a pendulum over the years. What is worse is that there is still no legitimate source from which to get an authentic number. In a press conference on Monday, Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma kept the figure at 5.42 lakh Hindu Bengalis who will directly benefit from the CAA, ironically calculating the figures from the NRC that the state government vehemently rejected. Rajya Sabha MP Javed Ali Khan in a decent to a joint parliamentary committee in January this year said that "Out of 40 lakhs people whose citizenship are under threat, 28 lakh are Bengali Hindus, 10 lakh Bengali Muslims and two lakh Hindus from states other than Bengal and Assam." While KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi maintains a figure of one crore Hindu Bengalis in Assam, AASU chief adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya says there 70-72 lakh Hindu Bengalis in Assam.

This article was originally published on 30 November, 2018 and is being republished in view of the confusion regarding the actual number of Hindu Bengali beneficiaries after the passage of the CAA.

The BJP's goal of cultivating the support of a large chunk of Bengali Hindus in Assam using the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 could very well be based on misconceptions if the available Census data is taken into account. Research reveals that the actual numbers of this community could be drastically less than imagined earlier.

Census data shows that Assam had been the destination for people of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) since 1891. The movement of people from Bihar, Chotanagpur and Odisha for employment in the tea sector is discernible until 1901 but the migration was almost entirely from East Bengal and particularly from Mymensingh since 1911 Census of India. The abnormal trend was noticed by CS Mullan, census commissioner in 1931. He observed that the Assamese could be reduced to a minority in their own land.

Lending credence to Mullan was the 1951 Census of India which referred to a land revenue report on Muslim immigration and said, “…thus during (the) last 20 years 15,088 thousand acres were settled with immigrants, a figure almost unbelievable in its immensity for any other important state of India".

Census reports between 1891-1951 reveal the following statistics of the presence of people of East Bengal/East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) origin, in Assam:

Table 1: Migrants from East Bengal/East Pakistan Origin in Assam, 1891-1951

Year Persons
1901 5,03,876
1911 1,91,612
1921 3,75,583
1931 5,75,000
1951 8,33,000

From the pre-Independence Census reports, it can be concluded that about 85 percent of total immigrants from East Bengal to Assam were Muslims. For instance, in Nagaon (earlier Nowgong) district, their share increased from 5 percent to 40 percent in a span of 50 years (during 1901 to 1951). During the same period, districts like Darang, Kamrup, Lakhimpur witnessed a nearly three-fold increase, whereas in Goalpara, the Muslim population increased by over 15 percentage points. Definitely, this phenomenon cannot be attributed as natural by any stretch of imagination.

Table 2: Share of the Muslim population to total population in districts of Assam, Assam and India, 1901-2011 (in percentage)

District 1901 1951 1971 2011
Cachar 30.55 38.49 39.89 48.14
Darang 5.15 17.03 16.19 28.59
Goalpara 27.79 42.94 42.25 56.57
Kamrup 9.11 29.29 38.21 38.21
Lakhimpur 3.21 8.63 4.59 7.30
Nagaon 4.82 40.54 39.39 54.65
Sibsagar 4.16 5.82 5.27 7.27
UM &NC Hills NA 1.33 1.65 2.27
Assam 12.40 25.37 24.57 34.23
India 12.20 10.43 11.20 14.22

(All data has been adjusted to the original 1901 district boundaries of current Assam)

This trend of immigration from then East Pakistan (East Bengal was renamed East Pakistan after Partition and later to Bangladesh after its Independence in 1971) to Assam continued even in post-Independence period.

The 1951 Census of India documented that immigration had been due to economic reasons which was more than two times higher than that of political refugees. Similarly, the 1961 Census documented that although Muslim immigration continued during 1951-1961, there was a massive misreporting of their place of birth since by then it (India) was a different country for Muslim peasants and they could not have infiltrated Assam as political refugees.

Also, in the post-Independence period, Assam experienced a high mortality rate and moderate fertility rate indicating a low natural growth, yet Assam’s growth rate had been far higher than India’s. This phenomenon has been examined by demographers who inferred that Assam has at least 50 lakh immigrants and their descendants from then East Pakistan who migrated in the post-Independence period.

Population of Bengali Hindu immigrants in Assam

Due to the absence of a robust vital registration system, diverse opinions have been forwarded about the population of Bengali Hindus in Assam with estimates ranging between 40 to 70 lakh. As a demographer and having studied immigration in Assam for two years, it's difficult to accept these statistics on the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. A study on population composition of Assam reveals that the Hindu population in Assam has declined from 70.78 percent in 1951 to 61.47 percent in 2011 (see Figure 1).

Citizenship Amendment Act BJP chasing ghosts in Assam Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated

Figure 1: Trends in population share by religion between 1951-2011 in Assam

In terms of growth rate, it is found that the Hindu population in Assam had grown at a slower pace where as the Muslim population had increased at a much faster rate after 1971.

Citizenship Amendment Act BJP chasing ghosts in Assam Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated

Figure 2: Absolute size of population of the two major religions in Assam during 1951-2011

When the trends in population growth rate are analysed in terms of religion, an interesting pattern is discernible in Assam during 1951-1961. An equal number of Hindus and Muslims immigrated to Assam, but while the Hindus immigrated primarily as refugees and stated their place of birth as "East Pakistan", Muslims immigrated due to economic reasons and misreported their true place of birth as it was no longer the same country. This was mentioned by the census superintendent of Assam BH Pakyntein. In the subsequent decade (1961-1971), the growth rate of Hindus in the state was found to be marginally higher than Muslims (see table 3).

Since there is only 1.17 percent increase in the Hindu Population of Assam during 1961-1971, this excess amount which is about two lakh, can be attributed to Hindu immigration due to war and the genocide in East Pakistan. However, Census data, according to the place of birth, reveals that there were 2,95,785 and 3,12,495 (total of  six lakh) East Bengalis settled in Assam during 1951-1961 and 1961-1971, respectively. But data in terms of religion showed a massive under-reporting of the actual birth place by the immigrant Muslims.

The census commissioner estimated that about 5.2 lakh East Bengalis entered Assam during 1951-1961 as against the reported figure of 2,95,785  according to the place of birth. Given this kind of under-reporting in 1961 as well as  the 1971 Census, and the consequent population increase in Assam, it can be concluded that about 12-14 lakh East Bengalis immigrated to Assam during 1951-1971. Out of this total number, Hindu immigrants would be around 4-5 lakh. It's also interesting to note that the Muslim growth rate slows down during 1961-1971 due to the low rate of immigration as a result of the strict implementation of the Prevention of Infiltration of Pakistani Scheme from 1962.

Table 3: Intercensal population growth rate of Hindus and Muslims in Assam during 1951-2011 (expressed in percentage) 

 Period Intercensal Hindu Growth rate Intercensal Muslim Growth Rate
1951-1961 31.49 30.52
1961-1971 31.60 26.96
1971-1991 17.49 28.66
1991-2001 13.93 25.69
2001-2011 10.34 25.92

Between 1971-91, the Hindu population experienced a reduction of nearly 50 percent in the growth rate (31.60 percent to 17.49 percent as mentioned in the above table). This is the period when Assam movement (1979-1985) took place, for which 1981 Census was not conducted.

In the post 1971 period, there were two factors that pulled down the Hindu growth rate as compared to the Muslims.

First, the fertility reduction phenomenon was discernible earlier among the Hindus than that of Muslims (Muslims of India have been experiencing a faster decline in fertility in the last two decades) and secondly, a considerable proportion of Hindus migrated to other states from Assam in the post-Assam Movement period. Compared to the other states of India, out-migration from Assam has been a recent phenomenon, observed mainly after the Assam movement.

These trends in the population pattern and my visit to various districts in Assam as a researcher compels me to arrive at the conclusion that Bengali Hindus comprised the largest chunk among all the communities that migrated out of the state between 1979-1992. Unlike the first phase of the out-migration which is known, the second phase during the early 1990s which happened due to communal strife in some districts had remained under wraps and hardly publicised.

Citizenship Amendment Act BJP chasing ghosts in Assam Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated

People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of NRC at Gumi village of Kamrup district in Assam. AFP

In his book Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement, Abdul Mannan had compared the Muslim growth rate of Assam with other states as well as the growth rate of socially deprived castes of India. He concluded that the Muslim growth rate in Assam is similar to other states of India during 1971-1991 and hence it can be surmised that immigration is not the reason for the growth rate of Muslim population in Assam during 1971-1991.

But inferring that Assam has not experienced immigration of Muslims during the post-1971 period is a biased conclusion due to several reasons.

The Muslim growth rate remained high and nearly constant during 1971-2011. In recent decades, Muslims everywhere in India were experiencing a rapid fertility decline and Assam was not an exception. At the same time, the mortality rate in the Muslim majority districts in Assam were found to be high from various household surveys. Further, out-migration of Muslims from Assam to other states also happened after the 1991 census. In the absence of immigration, it is simply impossible to retain a constant growth rate of Muslims in Assam in the post-1971 period.

Secondly, between 1901-41, the share of the Muslim population in Assam shows an increase as well, which had been possible only as a result of immigration from East Bengal (which is discussed above) and not due to natural factors. Likewise, the natural increase of the Muslim population cannot explain the rise in Muslim population during 1971-2011 in some districts of Assam. For instance, between 1971-1991, undivided Nowgong (later renamed to Nagaon) district observed about 15.26 percent increase in the population share of Muslims (from 39.30 percent to 54.65 percent). A similar phenomenon is observed in other districts in Assam like Cachar, Darrang, Goalpara and Kamrup. In contrast, the same trends were not discernible with regard to the Bengali Hindu migrants in the state (see figure 3).

Despite Muslims having a higher growth rate than Hindus in many other states of the country, this kind of spectacular change in the population composition is discernible only in the districts of Assam, or wherever in-migration has happened.

Citizenship Amendment Act BJP chasing ghosts in Assam Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated

Officials check documents for citizenship claims during NRC updation process.  Reuters

Moreover, migration literature shows that an established migration route (From East Bengal to Assam) will not be altered unless there is a check or stringent policy against migrants. Except for the period 1961-1971 (when Prevention of  Infiltration from Pakistan Scheme was implemented), push and pull factors remained the same in the places of origin and destination. Further, the implementation of the pro-immigrant Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal ) Act in the post-Assam movement period (until 2005) encouraged continuous infiltration to Assam which is why it was repealed  by the Supreme Court.

In middle and lower Assam, there has been a sudden increase of Bengali Muslim population as evidenced from the observations of local people, but we do not come across a similar phenomenon for Bengali Hindu immigrants in the state.

During my field study, I also came across newly settled Bengali Muslim villages which are alleged as “illegal immigrants” by neighbouring Bengali Muslim villagers, who were settled in the pre-Independence period. Government records also show that after independence, the highest encroachment of government and community land by immigrant Muslims were done in the post-Assam movement period.

The actual scenario about Hindu illegal immigrants in Assam also becomes clear when the religious composition of the population is analysed at the district level. Except in United Mikir and North Cachar Hills (currently Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao), there is not a single district that shows a jump in the Hindu population. In United Mikir and North Cachar Hills, there was an increase in the Hindu population in 1971 due to the shift in reporting from “other religion” (probably recorded as animists in previous censuses) to Hindu religion. If there had been a massive Bengali Hindu immigration as stated by some intellectuals in Assam, this would have been evident at the district level population of undivided Cachar district). On the other hand, out of the eight original districts in the state (currently divided into 16 districts), the Hindu population has been overtaken by the Muslim population in five districts at a rather fast pace, thus bearing ample testimony that immigrant Muslims have occupied a large chunk of the excess 50 lakh population in Assam (as estimated by this researcher).

Citizenship Amendment Act BJP chasing ghosts in Assam Census data shows number of Hindu immigrants may have been exaggerated

Figure 3: Population share by religion for the undivided districts of Assam, 1951-2011

In Barak Valley as well, the Hindu growth rate has been continuously declining, whereas the Muslim growth rate has increased. The Hindu population in the Valley also includes non-Bengali Hindus, all Hindus recorded in the 1951 and 1971 census and the natural increase of the Hindu population. Therefore, the population of Bengali Hindu immigrants in Assam can be safely estimated at about five lakh prior to 1971 and it can be concluded that nearly no Hindu immigration happened in the post 1971 period. Hindu Bengalis who landed in Assam from Bangladesh in the post 1971 census to Assam moved out of the state before the 1991 census.

Table 4. Hindu and Muslim Population Trends in Barak valley, Assam, 1951-2011

Undivided Cachar/Barak Valley Yearly growth rate in each decade
Year Hindu Population Muslim Hindu Growth Rate Muslim Growth Rate
1951 676660 429496 - -
1961 821600 539457 19.41 22.80
1971 1005995 683387 20.25 23.65
1991 1381803 1071872 15.87 22.51
2001 1580660 1362114 13.45 23.96
2011 1812141 1744958 13.67 24.77

Sources: Authors’ own calculations from various rounds of Census data, 1951-2011

So, if Bengali Hindu illegal immigrants are small in numbers, should they be entitled to citizenship especially in Assam?

The cut-off date for citizenship in Assam is 24 March 1971 which means that the state has already accommodated lakhs of immigrants and refugees from East Pakistan and their descendants. The Assam Accord was supposed to have granted constitutional safeguards to the indigenous people of Assam but the clause has remained unimplemented till date. Lack of safeguards has endangered the existence of several indigenous communities in lower (western) Assam as evidenced from my fieldwork in five middle and lower Assam districts.

There were numerous instances when members of some community (say, Koch Rajbongshis in Dhurbri or Goalpara) were compelled to migrate to safer areas due to aggression by immigrants for security and livelihood.

Bengali as a language was imposed in Assam in 1837 as the official language with the justification that Assamese was a branch of the language which was revoked only after more than three decades. The similarities between the two languages cannot be denied but Assamese has existed as a separate language with its own glorious history. So, the Assamese and other native speakers could be reduced to a minority if more Bengali Hindu immigrants are given shelter in Assam. The popular discourse in Assam is that while Bengali Muslims have accepted Assamese as their language, the Hindus have not, which has been a primary reason for the apprehension against the current bill proposed by the BJP.

At the same time, the claims by some sections that Muslim Bengalis have adopted or are willing to accept Assamese as their language must be taken with a pinch of salt. During a field visit at a Bengali Muslim village, called Kandhulimari in Nagaon district with some students from JNU in 2017, residents of that village disclosed that they were more interested to study in Bengali rather than in the Assamese language.

In retrospect, the attempt to paint a communal angle to the phenomenon of illegal immigration in Assam is a fallacy. It is not an entirely Assamese versus Bengali issue. This is a conflict between the rights of the indigenous people cutting across all religions and languages and illegal immigrants of all religions many of whom have acquired citizenship through fraudulent means. My fieldwork experience in lower and middle Assam points to the inescapable conclusion that the indigenous communities are being marginalised rather at a faster rate which has also been highlighted by the recent Brahma Committee Report.

Dr Nandita Saikia is an Assistant Professor in Population Studies at the Centre for Study of Regional Development in Jawaharlal Nehru University, and currently a post-doctoral research fellow at International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria. The views presented here do not represent to the institutes she affiliates.

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