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The "Ubiquitous" Bangladeshis

Gorky Chakravorty (gorky8bob@gmail.com) teaches economics at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK), Kolkata

The identity-based politics of Assam remains entrapped within the contours of “cultural exclusivism”. The article analyses the oft forgotten char dwellers of Assam, who are the worst victims of a ubiquitous “indigenous-foreigner-minority” syndrome. When the hapless char dwellers migrate from the chars, they become the victims of discrimination. They are labelled as Bangladeshis or illegal immigrants from across the international border.

 “If you want your country’s well being

Don’t look upon any compatriot as a stranger

These lines in Jawhar-e-Hali by the Urdu poet Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914) conveyed the exasperation of the Muslim identity during his traumatic timesi. Ironically, it also articulates the dilemma of a large section of the Muslims in the Northeast in general and Assam today in particular. Fact findings about upheavals, riots or any disturbance ranging from demography to development or insurgency to infringement ultimately generates a situation where fellow compatriots suddenly view each other through the exclusivist prism of ‘indigenous’ and ‘foreigner’ identities. The clichés such as “influx of foreigners”, “loss of culture”, “identity-crisis”, “demographic invasion”, “loss of economic livelihood”, “politics of appeasement” etc. boils down to the notions related with cultural exclusivism hiding the dialectic of co-operation and assimilation, adoption and acculturation evident in the march of human civilisation. The recent outrage and violence between the Bodos and the Muslims in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) areas of Assam are pointers in the same direction.

We do not wish to re-present the analogy of the recent events in these areas but raise certain issues concerned with a population group in Assam who often bear the brunt of being labelled, tortured, displaced and killed in the name of illegal aliens (read Bangladeshi’s) across the international border.

Brief Theoretical Insights:

The terms indigenous, foreigner and minority can be interpreted in various ways. If we analyse these terms in a non-coercive phenomenological sense, one may arrive at a broad based, if not an ideal conclusion. “Indigenous” in this sense as has often been highlighted by B.K. Roy Barman means close to earth, being non-alienated from the surroundings, its constituents being bound together primarily by ontologically and historically crystallised moral bindings instead of the coercive power of the state, minimum presence of a crystallised elite sector usurping the role of the community as a whole in the matter of perception, interpretation, elaboration, reformulation, legitimisation of essential elements of culture etc. (Roy Barman: 1994). So the term “indigenous” in this sense, becomes irrelevant to the context of being autochthonous or not in the chronological sequence of settlement.

Similarly, the question of “foreigner” can be considered keeping in view several parameters, e.g. a time frame of migration, time frame of recognition of citizen with reference to state institution, historical context of migration, demographic structure of the host area and the migrants, role of migrants in the political-economic and socio-cultural processes of the host area, nature of development activities, nature of link that the migrants have with the area of origin, geo-cultural area with deeper structural mutuality cutting across state political boundaries, wider geo-political context and short, medium and long term processes (Roy Barman: 1994). Here it must be mentioned that in terms of all these parameters the situation is not identical amongst the northeastern states and in the absence of an integrated study covering all these aspects, all attempts to resolve the issue of “foreigners” has been partial in this region.

The United Nations describes the term “minority” as only those non-dominant groups in a population, which possess and wish to preserve stable ethnic, religious or linguistic traditions or characteristics which are different from those of the rest of the population (Choudhury:1990). If this interpretation is accepted then Assam along with various other states of northeast India, as far as population pattern is concerned, seems more likely to be a state/region made up of several non-dominant minority groups instead of a few dominant majority population groups.

In the light of the above understanding we analyse the oft forgotten char dwellers of Assam, who are the worst victims of a ubiquitous indigenous-foreigner-minority syndrome.

The Advent, Settlement and Agricultural Practices

The mid-channel bars (locally referred as char) are an integral part of the fluvial process of the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Assam. The extremely braided channels of the river along with its suspended particles and bed load combine together during floods to give rise to “almond” shaped alluvial formations known as chars. Since these formations are built under flood environment, the height of the char is never greater than the height of the highest flood (Bhagabati: 2001). They are extremely unstable and can be wiped out by erosion during recurrent floods. Above all, these chars follow a peculiar pattern of migration. They are subjected to erosion on their upstream and deposition on the downstream, due to which they migrate downstream. This affects the geometry and location of the chars during floods almost every year.

These natural habitats of the river-plane were gradually converted into areas of human habitation during the colonial period, when the British administrators induced large number of peasants from the densely populated districts of erstwhile East Bengal to migrate and settle in Assam in the name of revenue generation. The process got impetus through the colonial construct of “wasteland”, whereby the usufruct community space of the people was granted to individual European planters for tea plantation. What started with tea later on was used for cultivation of jute and food grains with the same alibi of revenue generation. While the plantation was for the Europeans the latter was meant for the population groups from East Bengal.

The process of facilitating the transfer of population could not gather momentum till the first Partition of Bengal (1905), when Assam and East Bengal became a single entity under one administration. What started during the first decade of the 20th century had a deep impact on the demographic profile of the state. These farm settlers not only brought huge tracts of land under cultivation but also diversified the crop profile in Assam. It is estimated in the Census of India, 1951, that the total number of migrants from East Bengal were around one to one and a half million, which was between one-tenth to one-sixth of the total population of the state (Goswami:1994). On the other hand, according to Amalendu Guha, out of the 1.1 million acres of wasteland settled with all the migrants in Assam, East Bengal farm-settlers accounted for nearly half a million acres (Guha:1977). Although there are no separate records pertaining to the habitation and settlement of the char areas in Assam, it is well understood that such a phenomenon happened during the same phase of the colonial rule in the state.

The crop and productivity details referred in the Statistical Abstract of Assam 1951, shows that the selected crops cultivated by the farm settlers in the immigrant prone districts (Goalpara, Kamrup, Nowgong and Darrang) and their productivity were substantially higher vis-à-vis the crops where their involvement was minimal. For example, acreage of crops such tobacco, sugarcane, rape and mustard etc. showed a substantial rise whereas cotton, a crop where their involvement was nominal, showed a stationary trend (Table-I). It is estimated that during 1924-25 to 1947-48, the production per acre of autumn paddy increased by 11.27% in these four immigrant prone districts compared to 5.3% only for the province as a whole. For winter paddy, it was 12.05% and 5.20%. In case of rape and mustard, it was 6.30% and 4.4%, for sugarcane 19.95% and 7.7% and 18.85% and 8.80% for jute respectively (Doullah: 2004).

Table I: Acreage under Different Crops in Assam, 1911-12 to 1947-48 (In thousand acres)



Crops

1911-12

1947-48

Rice

2573

4004

Cereals & Pulses

109

255

Rape & Mustard

238

310

Oilseeds (Rape & Mustard)

7

39

Sugarcane

30

60

Tobacco

8

20

Jute

58

210

Cotton

35

34

Figure I: Percentage Change in Production per acre for Selected Crops in the

Four Immigrant Prone Districts vis-à-vis Assam, 1924-25 to 1947-48

Contemporary Socio-economic Reality of the Char Areas

Despite their presence in the char areas for over 100 years there is severe dearth of information regarding various aspects related to these areas. In order to develop the char areas, Government of Assam undertook a special “Char Areas Development Programme” during the Seventh Five Year Plan (1983) through a new department namely The Assam State Char Areas Development Authority. Thereafter, the Authority was re-designated as a full-fledged Government Directorate during 1996. In due course, Government of Assam created another new department namely Welfare of Minorities Development, which included the Directorate of Char Areas during 1998. In order to develop the char areas, this organisation undertook few schemes related to education, safe drinking water, agriculture and dairy development and training to unemployed youths for self-employment. This Authority and later Directorate conducted two benchmark surveys during 1992-93 and 2003-04, which are the only sources of information regarding char areas of Assam.

According to these Socio-economic Survey Reportsii during 1992-93 to 2002-03, the number of char villages in the Brahmaputra had risen by 7.75%. Decadal population growth rate, on the other, was 55.63% compared to 18.85% for Assam (1991-2001). The char dwellers represented 9.37% of the state’s population. During the first survey (1992-93), Barpeta district had the highest number of char villages and population followed by Dhubri and Jorhat. However, following the patterns of alluvium and diluvium in the river Brahmaputra, the next survey (2002-03) showed that Dhubri district had the highest number of char villages and char population followed by Jorhat and Barpeta.

Although the char areas cover 4.6% of the total land area of the state only 4% of the state’s cultivable land is located in these areas. Cultivable land as percentage of total land declined from 70% to 67.13% during 1992-93 to 2002-03 and there was also a simultaneous decline in the per capita availability of cultivable land. The chars are densely populated with a very high density of population (690 persons per sq.km) more than double the state average (340 persons per sq.km). The char villages account for one of the largest concentrations of illiterate population in Assam. Between 1992-93 and 2002-03 their literacy level rose marginally from 15.45 to 19.31%. It is surprising to note that during this period there was a fall in literacy rate among the char villages of four districts namely, Bongaigaon, Kamrup, Dhubri and Tinsukia.

The result of all these depressing conditions aptly gets reflected in the poverty estimates concerning these areas. It is observed that during the period of the two surveys, the population residing below the official poverty line increased substantially from 48.89% to 67.89%, which for the state declined to 36.09%.

Floods and Displacement

The Assam Water Resources Department reveals that the average annual damage since 1954 has been over Rs 124 crore, estimated average annual erosion rate has been 8,000 hectares, which have affected more than 90,700 families spread over 2,534 villagesiii. In this enormous scale of destruction in the Brahmaputra valley one can clearly understand the severity of devastation in the char areas, which by location itself is always in an awkward position. Various micro-studiesiv provide some insight about the chars in Brahmaputra and its tributaries. One such study concerning the chars of Barpeta district reveals that during the period (1989-98) when there was no high intensity flood in Assam, 45% of the total households were affected and 51% of the total land was lost by the surveyed char households. Similar study over a period of 25 years (1980-2004) in the Beki River, a tributary of Brahmaputra in Barpeta district reveals that 77% of the surveyed households suffered due to land erosion and 94% of their land was lost. Now, with such high propensity of erosion and abysmal living conditions, the char dwellers have no other way but to migrate to mainland areas for livelihood options.

Away From the Chars

When the hapless char dwellers migrate from the chars, they become the victims of discrimination. Suspicion arises as their attire, nature, behaviour, language and religion on one hand and the lack of knowledge on the part of the people of the mainland about the chars on the other, ultimately leads to a scenario, where these char dwellers are labelled as Bangladeshis or illegal immigrants from across the international border. Discrimination occurs at various levels especially in labour market, where either they are paid less than the existing wage rate or driven out from the construction sites by the pro-active “nationalist” groups in their tirade of freeing the motherland from the aliens.

It is unfortunate that while the mainstream media as well as organisations from the mainland Assam dump them as illegal immigrants, the same institutions never care to trace the root cause of their migration from the char areas. The net result is the generation of mistrust, suspicion and discord among the two population groups, where the mainland Hindu population falls prey to the age-old bogey of “invading immigrants” reducing them to minority, while the char dwellers suffer from the “constructed” propaganda of “suspicious” identity. Under such a situation, the identity-based politics of the region remains entrapped within the contours of “cultural exclusivism”, where the notions of “indigenous-foreigner-minority” become the only rallying point while all other issues of deprivation, dominance and discord affecting the life and livelihood of the masses are swept under the carpet. In such a milieu, the compatriots become strangers and the wellbeing of the region is hampered.

Ironically, the propaganda and the diatribe in the aftermath of the recent bloodbath and displacement at Kokrajhar follow the same trajectory.

References:

  1. Bhagabati, A (2001): “Biodiversity and Associated Problems in the Islands of the Brahmaputra, Assam” in Geographical Review of India, Vol.63, No. 4

  2. Chakraborty, G (2006): “Roots of Urban Poverty: A Note on Transformation of Entitlement Relationship” in Das, G (ed) Informality and Poverty: Urban Landscape of India’s North East (New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House)

  3. Chakraborty, G (2009): Assam’s Hinterland: Society and Economy in the Char Areas of Assam (New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House)

  4. Choudhury, Rabijit (1990): “ Minority Movements: Emergence of United Minority Front” in Datta, P.S Ethnic Movements in Poly-Cultural Assam (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House)

  5. Doullah, Sujaud (2003): Immigration of East Bengal Farm Settlers and Agriculture Department of the Assam Valley: 1901-1947 (New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies)

  6. Goswami, P.C (1994): The Economic Development of Assam (Ludhiana: Kalyani Publishers)

  7. Guha, Amalendu(1977): Planter-Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam, 1826-1947 (New Delhi: ICHR)

  8. Jalal, Ayesha (1999): “Exploding Communalism: The Politics of Muslims in South Asia” in Bose, S and A. Jalal (ed) Nationalism, Democracy and Development: Sate and Politics in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press)

  9. Roy Barman, B.K (1994): “Interview with Prof. B.K. Roy Barman” in Datta, P.S North East As I See It (New Delhi: Omsons)

  1. iAyesha Jalal expresses the predicament associated with Muslim identity in 19th century India in the words of the Urdu poet Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914)

  1. iiDespite of their presence in the char areas for over 100 years and their contribution towards the economy of the state, there is dearth of information regarding various aspects related to these areas. In order to develop the char areas, Government of Assam undertook a special ‘Char Areas Development Programme’ during the Seventh Five Year Plan (1983) through a newly formed organization namely ‘The Assam State Char Areas Development Authority’. Thereafter, the Authority was re-designated as a full-fledged Government Directorate during 1996. In due course, Government of Assam created a new department namely ‘Welfare of Minorities Development’, which included the Directorate of Char Areas during 1998. In order to develop the char areas, this organization undertook various schemes related to education, safe drinking water, agriculture and dairy development and training to unemployed youths for self-employment. This Authority and later Directorate conducted two benchmark surveys during 1992-93 and 2003-04, which are the only sources of information regarding char areas of Assam”. For a detailed discussion on the socio-economic status of the char dwellers

  1. iiiThese figures are based on the presentation titled “A Review of Flood Management and Future Vision in Assam” made by Secretary, Water Recourse Department, Government of Assam on the occasion of 3rd North Eastern Council Meet, Guwahati, 9th- 11th March 2007

  1. ivThere is severe dearth of data regarding the effects of flood and erosion on the char dwellers of Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Assam. One study concerning 304 households in the chars of Brahmaputra in Barpeta district reveals that more than 50% of the land was lost due to flood and erosion during the period 1988-2003 (Chakraborty: 2009). Another study concerning the char dwellers of Beki, a tributary of Brahmaputra in Barpeta district revealed that 93% of the land was eroded during 1983-2004 (Chakraborty: 2006)

 

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