Will Assam be India’s Rakhine?

Will Assam be India’s Rakhine?

Utpal Bordoloi,


On August 15, 2017, India’s 70th Independence Day, some photographs went viral on Facebook. They showed groups of people hoisting the Indian flag standing in flood water or riding on boats.

They were uploaded from Dhubri, a border district in western Assam state, where the Brahmaputra river flows from India into Bangladesh. The people hoisting the flag, at the risk of drowning or snakebite, were making a point — they are Citizens of India.

Dhubri’s people are 80 per cent Muslim, descendants of peasant farmers who migrated here from East Bengal — the area now known as Bangladesh — during British colonial times. Now they, and millions of other Muslims across Assam, face an uncertain future. Their nationality is under question, and they face the fear of being expelled.

A senior Indian Muslim leader, Maulana Arshad Madani, President of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, has warned that Assam could become India’s Rakhine, the Myanmar state from where hundreds of thousands of Muslims were expelled in 2017, a development called ‘ethnic cleansing’ by United Nations officials and international human rights groups.

At midnight of December 31 January 1, state officials under the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, a division of the Home Ministry, released the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Prepared exclusively for Assam, this document is meant to segregate foreign nationals — illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — and it came after decades of political turmoil on the issue.

India’s Supreme Court, which ordered the operation and is monitoring it, has described the influx of people from Bangladesh as a “Demographic Invasion”.

Assam had a population of 31.21 million in 2011, when the last decennial Census of India was held. More than a third — 10.7 million or 34.3 per cent — were Muslim. This is the second largest in India after the Kashmir valley, which is 96 per cent Muslim, but the entire population of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is only 12.6 million.

The first draft of the NRC published on New Year’s Day listed 19 million people as citizens of Assam. Left out were 13.9 million people. Many, though not all, were Muslim, who now fear they would be declared foreign nationals and thrown out.

The government has asked those left out not to panic, pointing out that 7.6 million names are still being verified against documents, and two more draft lists would be published before the final NRC. Among the missing names were those of Assam’s tallest Muslim leader, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, and his brother, Maulana Sirajuddin Ajmal. Both are members of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. Four of 29 Muslim members of the Assam legislative assembly were also left out. All the lawmakers are Indian citizens by birth, and their omission is attributed to clerical mistake.


The situation in Assam has its genesis in British colonial rule, as in Rakhine.

Muslim settlement in Assam can be traced to the 13th century, when the Turkish General Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, after conquering Bengal, made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Tibet, passing through Kamarupa (Assam). A rock inscription in Guwahati identifies these settlers as ‘Turashkh’, Turks. In 1205 a chieftain of the Mech tribe converted to Islam, took the name Ali Mech, and guided Khilji’s troops through Kamarupa. He is considered the first native Muslim in Assam. Following him, people from indigenous communities such as Koch, Rabha, Garo, Nath, Yogi and Kalita embraced Islam. By the 16th century, Muslims were well established in the Ahom Kingdom, where they were appointed to royal service and given titles, land grants, and other benefits. These Assamese Muslims call themselves “Deshi” indigenous. The Deshi Janagosthiya Mancha, an umbrella body of indigenous Muslims, has 4 million members, about 40 per cent of the Muslim population of Assam. They distinguish themselves from the immigrant Muslims from Bengal, being linguistically and culturally different.

The 17th century saw conflict between the Mughal Empire and the Ahom Kingdom — indigenous Muslims were part of the Ahom army — and ended with the Ahoms in control of Kamarupa up to the Manas river, which they held till the advent of the British in 1826. West of the Manas, the Mughals ruled Goalpara as part of their Bengal Subbah which was taken over by the East India Company after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Muslim population in Assam grew as the Ahoms settled Mughal prisoners of war who married local women and assimilated while maintaining their Islamic faith and practices.

After the annexation of Assam in 1826, the British colonial power imported Hindu Bengalis to help administration, and ‘Adivasi’ tribes from the Chota Nagpur plateau and its adjoining areas covering present-day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and parts of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh to work in their tea plantations. Assam was part of Bengal Presidency till 1874, when it was severed from Bengal and together with Sylhet became the ‘North East Frontier’, or a Non-Regulation Province, under a Chief Commissioner with headquarters in Shillong.

Large-scale migration of Bengali Muslims began after the first Partition of Bengal, in 1905, when Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, divided the province into two parts on religious lines, ostensibly “for administrative convenience,” but actually to break up the nationalist movement growing in Calcutta (Kolkata), then capital of British India. The western part, with a Hindu majority, was clubbed with Hindi-speaking Bihar and Odiya speaking Odissa and remained Bengal, with its capital at Calcutta. The Muslim majority eastern part was clubbed with the North East Frontier and became the province of ‘East Bengal and Assam,’ under a Lieutenant Governor and a capital in Dacca (Dhaka).

To increase revenue collection, the British encouraged landless Muslim peasants to migrate to Assam and take up lands for cultivation. In 1871, they set a target of 4 million migrants, and appointed special officers to bring in people. The migrants changed the demographic composition of Assam.

The partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911, and next year the two halves of Bengal were reunited. Assam (including Sylhet), Bihar and Odissa became separate provinces. The capital of India also was transferred from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911.

The impact of migration became evident after the Government of India Act, 1935, introduced direct elections to provincial legislative assemblies, with separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims. This divided the people into population groups vying for political power and their importance was henceforth to be tabulated in terms of voting power during elections. In Assam, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League emerged as the main political formations, as in the rest of India.

In 1937, the Congress won 33 seats in a house of 108, not enough to form a government. The Assam Valley Muslim Party won 24 and the Muslim League 10. The Governor invited Muslim Party leader Maulvi Saiyid Sir Muhammad Saadullah, KCSI, to form a coalition government, which the Congress joined. The Muslim Party, a regional entity, merged with the Pan-Indian Muslim League. Sir Saadullah was Premier (Prime Minister) of Assam for three terms — 1937-38, 1939-41, and 1942-46. In 1941, he launched a “Grow more Food” campaign, ostensibly to help the British war effort. Lord Wavel, the Viceroy, described it as a “Grow more Muslims” campaign.

In 1946, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League demanded that Assam be included in East Pakistan. This was frustrated by the Congress party in Assam, led by Gopinath Bordoloi (Premier 1939-41 and 1946-47, and Chief Minister 1947-50). They were supported by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the ‘Iron Man’ of India, and by Mahatma Gandhi, though Jawaharlal Nehru was indifferent to the issue and inclined to let Assam go to Pakistan by default.


At partition, Muslim-majority Sylhet went to Pakistan. There was no large transfer of population on the scale of Punjab between the eastern parts of India and Pakistan in 1947. Some Urdu-speaking Muslims from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, however, left for East Pakistan. In December 1949, economic relations between India and East Pakistan were severed, leading to rioting and massacres. An estimated 1 million refugees crossed the border both ways — Hindus from East Pakistan to West Bengal, Tripura and Assam, and Muslims the other way. In April 1950, the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaqat Ali Khan, signed a Pact promising the right of return to refugees, restoration of their properties, and protection of the rights of minorities in both countries.

Despite this pact, an estimated 1 million more Hindus fled East Pakistan in the months that followed, to West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam. Muslims who had fled Assam for East Pakistan also returned, followed by more land-hungry peasants.

Efforts were made to stem the flow. Particularly by Gopinath Bordoloi, first Chief Minister of Assam (1947-50) and the third, Bimala Prasad Chaliha (1957-70), during whose term about 200,000 immigrant Muslims were expelled. After the national Census of 1951, and based on it, a National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared exclusively for Assam. This was supposed to have been regularly updated, but this was never done. The document was pigeon-holed and soon forgotten. India’s Parliament also passed the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 which drew a distinction between Hindu refugees and illicit Muslim migrants driven by land hunger, but this was repealed in 1957. The Constitution of India, adopted in 1950, the India Citizenship Act, 1955, and other laws had enough amplitude to keep the doors open for continued coming and going. Other measures, like the Prevention of Infiltration from Pakistan (PIP) scheme and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, both of 1964, were not seriously implemented and allowed to waste away. There was a lenient and lax attitude in India, even in Assam, towards the continuing influx.


In 1971, the Pakistan Army launched a campaign of genocide in the eastern half of that country. About 10 Million people, mainly Hindus, fled to India. This led to India’s intervention in December and the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation. The majority of refugees, however, stayed in India after this. A treaty of friendship signed by India and Bangladesh in 1972 — the Indira Gandhi-Mujibur Rahman Pact — did not mention these refugees.


The population kept growing. The Census of India recorded 3.29 million people living in “undivided Assam” in 1901. They grew to 6.70 million in 1941, 8.03 million in 1951, 10.84 million in 1961, 14.63 million in 1971, 18.04 million in 1981 (projected; no census could be held that year due to disturbed political conditions), 22.41 million in 1991, 26.65 million in 2001 and 31.21 million in 2011.

But Assam had shrunk drastically after 1947. Before Partition, the geographical area of Assam was 140,118 Sq. Km (54,100 Sq Mile), including Sylhet. The Naga Hills district was split from Assam and made the State of Nagaland in 1963; the districts of United Khasi and Jaintia Hills and the Garo Hills became the state of Meghalaya in 1972, while the Lushai Hills district became Mizoram, a Union Territory administered by the Central government in Delhi. After this, Assam was left with 78,438 Sq. Km (30,285 Sq Mile), its present area. In other words, Assam had shrunk by 44 per cent.


A significant aspect of the population growth was the increase in the Muslim population. From the beginning of the last century, Islam has been the fastest growing religion in Assam. There were 503,670 Muslims in Assam in 1901 and 634,101 in 1911 — an increase of 25.9 per cent. In 1921, Muslims numbered 880,426 (38.25% increase); 1931 — 1,279,388 (+45.31%); 1941 — 1,696,978 (+32.64%); 1951 — 1,995,936 (+17.62%. The Rate of Growth dipped because of the exodus of Muslims following the riots of 1950; but it was still positive); 1961 — 2,765,509 (+38.56 %); 1971 — 3,594,006 (+29.96%); 1991 — 6,373,204 (+77.33%. For two decades; no census was held in 1981 because of political disturbances); 2001 — 8,240,611 (+29.30 %) and in 2011 — 10,679,345 (+25.59 %).

India had been partitioned on the basis of religion. Yet, within 64 years, nine of 27 districts of Assam became Muslim majority. (The number of districts has increased to 33, with six new ones created after 2011).  In 2011, the districts with the greatest Muslim populations were Dhubri — 79.67% (Hindus 19.92 %); Barpeta — 70.74% (Hindus 29.11%); Darrang — 64.34% (Hindus 35.25%); Hailakandi — 60.31% (Hindus 38.10%); Goalpara — 57.52% (Hindus 34.51%); Karimganj — 56.36% (Hindus 42.48%); Nagaon — 55.36% (Hindus 43.39%); Morigaon — 52.56% (Hindus 47.20%); and Bongaigaon — 50.22% (Hindus 48.6%).

Muslim voters dominate in 49 out of 126 Legislative Assembly constituencies. Muslim legislators won 29 of these in the last assembly elections, held in 2016. The Indian National Congress, which had a monopoly on the Muslim vote since 1952, had 15. The All India United Democratic Front (ADUF), founded in 2005 by Badruddin Ajmal and representing immigrant Muslims, won 13 seats and the BJP, one. The party had won 3 of 14 seats from Assam in India’s lower house in the 2014 Parliamentary elections: two were by Badruddin (Dhubri) and his brother Siraj Uddin (Barpeta). The third seat was won by Radheshyam Biswas, a Bengali Hindu from Karimganj in the Barak valley.


When a volume of space decreases, pressure within increases. The shrinking territory of Assam and the increase in its population created a growing political pressure which had to explode.

The fuse was lit in 1978 by India’s Chief Election Commissioner S.L. Shakdher, who raised the issue of illegal immigration at an official meeting. “I would like to refer to the alarming situation in some states, especially in the North eastern region, from where reports are coming regarding large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls … A stage would be reached when that state (Assam) may have to reckon with the foreign nationals who may in all probability constitute a sizeable percentage if not the majority of population in the state.”

It had long been alleged by various quarters that political parties, mainly the Congress but also Communists, had enrolled illegal immigrants as voters to swell their vote banks. The Congress had long boasted that it would never lose power in Assam because of the votes of “Ali, Coolie, Bangali “. Ali meant immigrant Muslims, Coolie the Adivasi tea garden workers imported by the British in the 19th century, and Bangali the post-partition Bengali Hindu refugees.

The explosion came soon after when preparations began for a by-election in the Mangaldai parliamentary constituency in Darrang district. The Assamese demanded that names of ‘foreigners’ be struck off the voters’ list. The exercise was started but stayed by the Assam High Court order following claims and counter-claims.  Demands for a complete state-wide revision of the electoral rolls followed. In 1979, the Assamese, led by students, took to the streets in an agitation unprecedented in India. This was “The Assam Movement”.  It would last till 1985 and leave many thousands dead: about 2,000 of them were descendants of migrants from Mymensingh district (Bangladesh), massacred in 1983 by Tiwa (Lalung) tribesmen in 14 villages around the small town of Nellie.

The central demand of the agitation was to “Detect” (foreigners), “Delete” (their names from the voters’ lists), and “Deport”. This was conceded in a fashion on August 15, 1985, when its leaders, the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Gana Sangram Parishad (Peoples’ Struggle Committee) signed A Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of India. This document, called the Assam Accord, stated: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after 25 March 1971 shall be detected and deleted, and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners”.


Updating the NRC of 1951 was not specifically mentioned in the Accord, but it was a necessary step to detect foreigners. The students kept pressing for this for another 20 years till 2005, when the government agreed to start the process. But even than it continued to procrastinate till an NGO, Assam Public Works, approached the Supreme Court of India in 2009. The court directed the work to begin under its monitoring, and a pilot project was started in two state assembly constituencies in 2010. The work was completed peacefully in one, but in the other, Muslims protested violently. Four of them died as police fired on rioting mobs. The work was suspended for another four years. In 2013 the Supreme Court issued a deadline — the first draft of the updated NRC had to be published by December 31, 2017.

After a year of preparation, notices were issued in May 2015 asking people to apply for inclusion in the NRC, and enumerators went house-to-house. The updating was based on ‘Legacy Documents’ — the NRC of 1951 and all the voters’ lists from that year till March 24, 1971. Applicants were required to prove that either they, or their ascendants, were listed in any of these documents. Or they could furnish any of 12 other documents — birth and educational certificates, land deeds, passports, certificates, etc, — proving that they, or their ascendants, were resident in India before 24 March 1971. Between May and August 2015, 6.8 million families with 32.9 million members submitted 66 million documents in support of their claims to be citizens of India. The population of Assam in 2011 was 31.21 million.

The Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India has said that the 13.9 million names, left out of the first draft of the NRC, are still under examination, scrutiny and verification. About 550,000 documents had been sent to other states of India for verification by the issuing authorities. But, only about 150,000 had returned from those states in time for the first draft. About 7.6 million names were “kept in abeyance” because of questions about their documents, which are still being verified. This leaves 6.3 million names whose status is not clear. Two more draft lists are to be published, but the picture will be clear only after the final register is published. The Supreme Court may fix a date for final publication during the next hearing of the case on February 20.

The Governments of Assam and India had expected trouble in 22 districts with the publication of the first list. New Delhi sent in 5,000 additional armed para-military police to reinforce 40,000 already in the state. But there was no trouble, perhaps because people decided to wait and see till the complete register is published.

Attempts to create trouble or derive political advantage from the issue have, till the first week of January, come from outside Assam. Apart from Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind President Arshad Madani, who has warned of another Rakhine in the making, Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, has described the NRC as “a conspiracy to drive Bengalis out of Assam.” Her party, the Trinamool Congress, has disrupted Parliament on the issue. But this is seen more as a move directed against the BJP, which is trying to dislodge her and capture West Bengal.

The real security challenge will emerge after the complete NRC is published. The Indian government is still trying to draw up plans to deal with those whose names do not find a place in the NRC, who would automatically be deemed foreign nationals. Parliamentary elections are due in 2019, and presumably their names would be cut out of the voters’ list. But it would be impossible to deport them to Bangladesh, which has always maintained that there is no exodus from that country to India. In all probability, those left out of the NRC would scatter to other parts of India. Assam’s neighbouring states have alerted their police forces to guard against this.

There are some disturbing indicators. Newspapers in Assam have reported intelligence agencies as having intercepted messages from the state to other parts of India, and to Islamic countries, warning of “ethnic cleansing” in Assam. Such a possibility is dismissed by analysts, who point out that “India is not Myanmar”.


The task of detecting foreigners in Assam had been pushed under the carpet so long as the Congress party was in power, and only really got going only after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in New Delhi in 2014. In Assam, a three-party coalition led by the BJP took power in 2016. The BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 Parliamentary elections had promised to grant citizenship to all Hindu refugees in India. In a campaign speech, Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister, declared: “Those who were forced to flee Bangladesh and are sons of Mother India, will be protected and given the same status as other sons of Mother India. But illegal Bangladeshi migrants will have to go back to Bangladesh.”

To fulfill its promise, the BJP in 2016 introduced a bill in parliament to drastically change India’s citizenship laws. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 intends to exempt Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from being termed illegal immigrants. The Citizenship Act of 1955 had defined illegal immigrant as a person entering India without a valid passport, or overstaying after expiry of visa, without differentiating on grounds of religion.

The Bill has been strongly opposed because it discriminates on the basis of religion. The Assam Agitation had demanded expulsion of all illegal immigrants irrespective of religion. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a regional political party born out of the Assam Movement, had won power in the state for two terms, 1985-89 and 1996-2001, promising to expel the illegal immigrants. But it failed, mainly because the Congress, which ruled in New Delhi, did not cooperate in order not to offend Muslims, an important support base across India. The AGP then split, with most of its members joining the BJP, which won 61 seats in the 126-member state legislature in 2016. The rest of the AGP won 16 seats and joined the BJP-led coalition government. The Bodo Peoples’ Front (BPF), a tribal, anti-immigrant party, won 12 seats and became the third partner of the coalition. The AGP has threatened to leave the coalition if the bill is passed. Civil rights groups, the Congress and other opposition parties across India have also opposed the bill because it goes against the secular principles of India’ constitution.

The BJP has declared that it will get the bill passed before the next parliamentary elections in 2019. Together with the new National Register of Citizens, which is expected to segregate millions of Muslims in Assam as “foreigners”, it would be one more step towards the right-wing national party’s goal of making India a “Hindu Rashtra” or, Hindu Nation.