Storm in ‘Assamese tea cup’

Assam brings with itself exotic images of a land to the north – east of India connected to “mainland India” only by the Siliguri corridor or the “chicken neck”. Assam Tea, a favourite amongst tea drinking Indians, has made the state famous. It also supplies India with decent quantities of crude. Assam does not have the normal Indian hot, dry season. Monsoon sets in early by March there.

Let’s look at some history. In the Mahabharata, Assam has been referred to as ‘Kamarupa’ ruled by Narakasura from his capital Pragjyotishpur. The Ahoms ventured into Assam somewhere around 1228 AD. The name Assam has probably been derived from the Ahom dynasty.

Last couple of days it has been in the news due to clashes between two sets of communities. 32 people are reported to have been killed. This follows the awful violence in 2012 which lead to loss of 60 lives and displacment of ~ 0.4 million people. Like all things to north eastern part of our country, we know so little about the current turmoil there. 

One hears different versions of what is going on there.

First version is that of ‘Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ infiltrating Assam, solidy backed by certain political masters in India, systematically altering the demographic profile of the state with a total population of approx 3.1 Cr people according to 2011 census (up from approx. 2.66 Cr reported in 2001), approx 17% growth over 10 years with Muslims constituting 33% of total Assam population. Some argue that this is obstensibly to benefit certain political parties who are nurturing this resultant captive vote bank.

Second version is that of ‘Migration of Bengali migrants’ into India . The proponents of ‘Migration of Bengali Muslim peasants’ theory peddle two variants of the argument. One is that the migration started way back from the early 19th century from what was then East Bengal (although now Bangladesh but it was undivided India then) into Assam purely for economic reasons after the British annexed Assam defeating the Burmese. Essentially the argument is that the orginal immigrants have been living here since quite a long time and came for purely economic reasons. The current crop are descendants of the original Bengali Muslim immigrant community and not illegal Bangladeshi aliens. Another variant of the argument is that these aliens have come in search of better livelihood, escaping abject poverty in the homeland, so what if they are illegal Bangladeshi’s.

Note the subtle difference in version 2. From illegitimacy it assumes perfect legitimacy. From an illegal alien Bangladeshi (whether Hindu or Muslim) to a Bengali Muslim peasants.

Gutter politics at its best when Omar Abdullah said “It can’t be a coincidence that you run a campaign in that part of the country where you paint all Muslims as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants and suddenly 30 Muslims are killed in unprovoked violence. If people are divided on communal lines, the Assam-like incidents would be the result,”  It can be found here 

This clearly seems to be a complex issue with much bigger forces at play.

What to believe?

Here’s some help at hand.

1) It starts alarmingly with Bikram Singh, Indian Army Chief, arguably the most reliable source on national security, saying this  stating the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants posed a threat to national security, thus contradicting the UPA government claims.  

2) Brahma, current Election commissioner wrote this in 2012, 

Brahma argues that rampant illegal immigration happened during India’s war against Pakistan in the 1960’s and early 70’s. Squatting over government land increased leading to skewed 

3) Former Governor of Assam Lt. Gen SK Sinha wrote to K.R Narayanan the then president of India


Chillingly the report has this,

Mr. Sadeq Khan, a former diplomat wrote in Holiday of October 18, 1991, “All projections, however, clearly indicate that by the next decade, that is to say by the first decade of the 21st century, Bangladesh will face a serious crisis of labansraum… if consumer benefit is considered to be better served by borderless competitive trade of labour, there is no reason why regional and international co-operation could not be worked out to plan and execute population movements and settlements to avoid critical demographic pressure in pockets of high concentration…. A natural overflow of population pressure is there very much on the cards and will not be restrainable by barbed wire or border patrol measures. The natural trend of population over-flow from Bangladesh is towards the sparsely populated lands in the South East in the Arakan side and of the North East in the Seven Sisters side of the Indian sub-continent”. 

Here the Bangaladeshi diplomat openly talks about the lebansraum and the “overflow” of population pressure into Assam & N-E states of India unrestricted by physical borders.

The report concludes A silent and invidious invasion of Assam has been taking place for several decades and successive Governments have failed to stem this demographic onslaught. It started as a purely economic movement contributing to the development of Assam’s agricultural economy. As Independence approached, it acquired communal and political contours.

4) According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) report on international migration,2013, “In 2013, persons from Bangladesh residing in India constituted the single largest ‘bilateral stock’ of international migrants in the South at 3.2 million.It, however, has not brought out the legality of the migration, the actual number of Bangladeshis in India and the impact on India’s internal security. Apparently, there is a serious crisis of ‘lebensraum’ (living space) in Bangladesh due to alarming population growth rate without proportionate availability of land. This is going to worsen further in the future with the impact of climate change and natural disasters.

5) According to Dr Manoharan of the National Marinetime Foundation

  • Lebansraum 
  • Population “overflow” into India especially Assam & North – East
  • 3.2 million Bangladeshis in India (whether all of them illegal yet to be proved)
  • Illegal Bangladeshi can influnce poll outcome of 1/3rd of total N-E constituencies

Clearly, the second version seems hollow in light of above. Phew.  


One thought on “Storm in ‘Assamese tea cup’

  1. Pingback: ‘Storm in Assamese tea cup’ – Follow up | Midnightbreakfast

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