Questioning the ‘Infiltrator’ Narrative and Migration in Assam

Do migrants in Assam really threaten Assamese culture?


Migrants in Assam—especially those from Bangladesh—are accused of being “infiltrators” who take advantage of the porous 267 kilometre long border between Assam and Bangladesh to enter the state and occupy land belonging to the native population, and also deprive them of employment opportunities. More than that, however, migrants in Assam are seen as a threat to Assamese culture given the language they speak and their religious practices.

The opposition to migrants in Assam took a violent turn in the 1970s. The Assam Movement, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union, was a violent protest against illegal immigrants and the perceived threat to Assamese identity and culture by outsider (read: Bengali) dominance. While the movement was supposed to concern itself with issues of education and employment, it had a clear anti-Muslim bias. The movement eventually led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, which promised to expel illegal immigrants from the state, as well as to take steps to “protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

While the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 is seen as violative of the accord and has thus triggered widespread protests in Assam, it is important to investigate claims being made against Bangladeshi immigrants in the state. “Millions” of Bangladeshi migrants are accused of entering the state, but census data as well as independent studies seem to refute this claim. Undocumented Bangladeshi migrants are largely uneducated, and occupy the lowest rungs of the labour force. Despite this, they have been otherised for political gains; Home Minister Amit Shah likened them to “termites'' to be eradicated from the country. 

From the creation of Assam as a state, to colonial policies and the influx of capital that has excluded Assam’s indigenous population, this reading list studies the Assamese identity, and examines the roots of Assam’s current social and political disposition towards migrants, and looks at what the issue at hand really is. 

1) Where Does Assamese Identity Originate From?

Udayon Misra writes that the assimilation of a unified Assamese identity began in the 16th century when various tribes were brought under a singular “Ahom” banner to fight against a Bengali invasion. The Ahom kings adopted Hinduism, and the then idea of Assamese identity was made up of caste Hindus and a number of different tribes.

The demographic break-up of the Assamese society on the eve of British entry into the province may be said to have included the different ethnic groups brought within the Hindu fold, the caste Hindus, the plains tribal communities and the relatively small number of Assamese Muslims …  in his social division of the Assamese, the 19th century writer, Padmanath Gohain Baruah, mentions the following groups: brahmins, goswamis (gosains), Ahoms, baishyas, mahanta or mahajan, kayasthas, daibagyas, kalita, keot, koch, chutia and the Muslims known as marias (Gohain Baruah 1976:3). 

Misra further states that the idea of an Assamese identity was reinforced in the early 20th century with the rise of migrants from East Bengal. The quest to define this identity was largely pursued by the Assamese middle class, who wanted a unilingual society at the expense of Bengali Hindus who had occupied powerful positions in the state administration, courtesy of favouritism by the British.

Unlike the Bengali Muslim, whose was primarily a struggle for survival and who was prepared to adopt a low-key approach regarding his language and culture, the Bengali Hindu who had occupied an important position in the administrative set-up under the British, was not prepared to shed his distinctive cultural identity. With increasing numbers of immigrant Bengali speaking Muslims declaring Assamese to be their mother tongue, whether for political or other considerations, it was but natural that, in the struggle of the Assamese to secure a rightful place for their language and culture, they came to look upon the innocuous immigrant Muslim peasant as a friend as against the Bengali Hindu who was considered a threat to Assamese identity. 

2) How Significant is Immigration in Assam?

Vani Kant Borooah writes that besides officially signalling that the state had an “immigration problem,” the Assam Accord raised more questions than it answered: What was the scale of the problem? Were there any figures on the number of migrants in the state? How were these migrants ethnically divided? How many of them were “illegal”? Barooah states that the prevailing data on the influx of migrants can be highly misleading.

Weiner (1983) calculated that over the period 1901-81, Assam received 10.4 million immigrants; its population increased from 3.3 million in 1901 to 19.9 million in 1981 against a 1981 predicted level of 9.5 million if its population had grown at all-India rates between 1901 and 1981. Using this method, Nath and Nath (2009) estimated that 4.6 million persons migrated into Assam in the 100 years between 1901 and 2001 … A perennial concern of non-Muslim Assamese is that immigration from Bangladesh is causing an alarming rise in the proportion of Muslims in the state’s population … the “excess supply” of Muslims in Assam in 2011 was 3,14,000, or 1% of the total population of Assam and 3% of the total number of Muslims in Assam. Similarly, the excess supply of non-Muslims in Assam in 2011 was 18,55,000, or 5.9% of Assam’s total population and 8.8% of Assam’s non-Muslim population.

3) Have Migrants Deprived the Locals of Employment Opportunities?

Vani Kant Barooah argues that migration into Assam was done for purely economic reasons. Migrants worked jobs that the indigenous population either did not want to, or could not do. Labour was brought in from Bihar in the 1800s because tea plantation owners did not want to cultivate the land, while Bengali Hindus ran administrative services because the locals did not have the requisite expertise. Migrants coming from East Bengal were predominantly farmers who came to cultivate available land.

Migrants from East Bengal introduced better techniques of cultivation in Assam, greater crop variety (including a number of vegetables hitherto unknown in Assam), and multiple cropping, the last of which was not practised in Assam till the arrival of the immigrants (Weiner 1978; Madhab 2006). Moreover, immigrants settled on all available land, even on land previously thought uncultivable like the chars (sandbars) of the Brahmaputra (Goswami 2007). During the colonial period, the Bodo and other tribal communities – practising jhoom (slash and burn) cultivation – had an aversion to acquiring permanent tenure over land. The Muslim immigrants introduced settled cultivation with permanent tenure over land (Misra 2012). In consequence of all these innovative practices, Assam had a surplus of rice production by 1947.

4) Are Migrants to Blame for Displacement?

According to Chandan Kumar Sharma, the tribal people’s resistance towards the migrants stems from the state government’s failed attempts at development for the tribal community. Kumar examines the government’s attitude to the tribal populace by taking a historical view on policy towards tribal land and the numerous ethnic uprisings of Assamese tribals. Kumar argues that successive state governments in independent India have acquired land from tribals in the name of development.

The government acquires tribal lands for construction of railway and road transport, setting up of industrial and irrigation complexes, construction of dams, and so on. Studies by the Tribal Research Institute (TRI) of Assam, a government agency, contends that one of the very significant factors leading to tribal displacement in Assam is the installation of the industrial and irrigational complexes in the reserved tribal areas … government has no comprehensive scheme for the rehabilitation of the displaced tribal families. Studies conducted by TRI corroborate the above fact.

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