Reading The Statesman of late as well as other journals, it appears that some of the writers have overlooked the origins of the problems which the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is intended to solve. The people of Assam and the rest of the north-east are worried about their cultures being overwhelmed by more immigrants coming in from Bangladesh as refugees. The fear is greater from the eastern areas like Mymensingh and Sylhet. People from the more western areas would go to West Bengal. The fear is legitimate but there is a remedy to relieve it.
Before offering the remedy, two points need to be made. One, the Assamese whether Adivasi or more especially the modernized ones are dead scared of being outnumbered by the Bengali- speaking people whether Hindu or Muslim. Merely assuring the people that protecting their culture is as much the Centre’s concern, as securing the culture of the entire country, would not satisfy.
Unless one has lived or frequently travelled in Assam, it is difficult to appreciate what nightmares the Assamese see when they think of infiltration. They are a gentle people with a soft peace-loving nature. They have their own festivals. They were gifted by nature with plenty of land or even more rivers and water. They do not have to work too hard for survival. The climate is mostly warm and humid, and is not congenial enough for hard work. They are not competitive by nature and understandably shudder at the fear of this ethos being disturbed by outsiders.
Believe it not, until two decades ago it was a popular impression that the Congress strategy for winning elections in Assam was “Ali, Coolie and Bengali”. Coolie implied the tea garden workers and their families. Ali and Bengali are self explanatory; they are mostly people who had over the years immigrated into Assam. Even the tea garden workers were Adivasis brought from Jharkhand and neighbouring areas to plant and pluck the bushes. To this day, it is difficult to find an original Assamese who is a plucker in a tea garden. In sum and substance, the Congress depended on settlers from outside to win a majority vote.
When World War II broke out in Europe, the British also declared that India was a participant. The Congress expressed its grave disapproval for the government doing so without consulting the Indian leaders. In protest all Congress provincial ministries resigned; so did the one in Assam. The replacement was a Muslim League ministry led by Muhammed Saddullah. He concocted a new theory that the Adivasis in Assam were animists and not Hindus. The resulting arithmetic made the Muslims a near majority.
In 1947, MA Jinnah nearly convinced the British rulers that Assam was a Muslim majority province and should go to Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in his book Eastern Pakistan, stated that the tribals were not only not Hindus but also unfit for civilized life. The generally vague conclusion of the sympathizers for Pakistan was that Eastern Bengal and Assam should be combined into one province. As was the case under the first partition of Bengal by Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1905. Fortunately, it was undone by 1911. Lord Pethwic Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, also swallowed this theory about an amalgamation of the two.
The deception was almost done when Gopinath Bordolai, the Assam Congress leader rushed out to persuade those in power and influence that the Jinnah contention was untrue. As a result, Assam was saved for India except for Sylhet district, which had a Muslim majority. Any wonder that the Assamese are afraid of allowing illegal migrants to settle? Incidentally, until 1874, Assam was a part of the Bengal Presidency. It was then separated and placed under the rule of a Chief Commissioner. To make Assam a viable separate province, three Bengali speaking districts of the Presidency, namely, Goalpara, Sylhet and Cachar were merged into the new province. That is how Assam began to host Bengalis as well as Muslims. The going of Sylhet to East Pakistan in 1947 relieved this pressure to an extent.
Nevertheless, Partition added Bengalis to the population as Sylhet had been a sister district of Cachar and its people were at least 46 per cent Hindu. Moreover, Mymensingh district was also nearby to enable refugees to cross over. Due to the poverty of the landless peasants, Muslim infiltration also continued. West Pakistan monopolized the country’s power and the eastern wing was treated as a colony. Emigration was perhaps the only way many an easterner to survive. The poorest came to Assam as well as West Bengal. The more resourceful went overseas. Called Bangladeshis since 1971, they have the reputation of being the world’s Number one migrants in recent decades.
Assam however can ill afford to host these infiltrators; the Assamese population is small. The recent Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is a major irritant for them especially since what was discovered in 1979. Some young men discovered in the electoral rolls of the Mangaldai assembly constituency that many a voter was an obvious infiltrator. In order to spread the protest and try and stop such distortion of the electoral rolls of the State, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) was formed. Some members also went on to establish the Assam Ganatantra Parishad (AGP), a major political party. A few members took to terrorism under the name of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has understandably upset the people of Assam in the light of the events just narrated. The fear is that many a Hindu from Bangladesh may take advantage of this legislation and come over to Assam. Such a legal migration would reduce the percentage of the ethnic Assamese and dilute their indigenous culture. From the viewpoint of illegal infiltration, the Bill is welcome because many of them who came after 1971 can be sent out. But in their place many a legal migrant may come. The dilution of the local culture and the threat to the political voice of the Assamese would be about the same. At the same time, remember in 1947 the country was divided on the basis of religion and no other criterion. Pakistan, especially in its western wing, indulged in ethnic cleansing. Today only three per cent minorities including Christians remain there. The eastern wing had 33 per cent Hindus; now only eight per cent remain. India did not accept M.A. Jinnah’s two-nation theory and did not perpetrate ethnic cleansing. Nevertheless, it cannot forget its duty towards the minorities in Bangladesh or Pakistan. That is the justification of the Citizenship Bill.
The solution to a potentially very serious national problem would lie in making Cachar district a separate Union Territory with no special political connection with Assam. Cachar has a population of some 40 lakh people of whom a little over half are Hindus. Under two per cent are Christians and the rest Muslims. More or less, all speak and write Bengali. Its economy is viable especially with the help of over a hundred tea gardens which produce five crore kilograms of the beverage worth Rs 800 crore annually. That would separate some 16 per cent of the total Assam population and virtually all of them Bengali or Muslim; a great relief to the Assamese. Remotely perhaps, the Bodos also may use the opportunity as an example and demand a Union Territory of much less than two million people living between Kokrajhar town and Sankosh river to the west. This is the one sure way to bring happiness to the Assamese people after at least a century. In any case, the Cacharis would be pleased at being demi-independent with Silchar becoming a mini rajdhani.
(The writer is an author, thinker and a former Member of Parliament)