Even as millions of people in India’s north-eastern Assam state wait nervously to know whether they are citizens or foreigners, the country’s Army Chief has lobbed a political grenade by stating that immigration from Bangladesh was planned and a proxy war by Pakistan with support from China.
His explosive remarks came two days after India’s Supreme Court ordered on Tuesday that the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), compiled under its supervision for the last four years, be published on June 30.
Officials under the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, a division of the Home Ministry, released the first draft of the NRC on January 1. Prepared only 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”.
The first draft of the NRC listed 19 million people in Assam as citizens of India. Left out were 13.9 million people, mostly Muslim immigrants from East Bengal/EastPakistan/Bangladesh, or their descendants. At this stage, 7.6 million names were under verification. No mention was made of 6.3 million other people who had applied to be included in the NRC.
Millions now fear they would be made stateless and driven out of India. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under Narendra Modi has already introduced legislation in Parliament to this end. The BJP’s goal is to make India a Hindu Rashtra — a Hindu Nation.
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.
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 Muslim population 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.
India’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Bipin Rawat’s remarks about illegal immigration into Assam fromBangladesh, and the region’s changing demography, have triggered a political controversy in India, and is sure to lead to a diplomatic row between India and Bangladesh, Pakistan and China.
The COAS on Wednesday warned against the continuing influx of people from Bangladesh, calling it a ‘proxy war’ by Pakistan with help from China.
General Rawat was addressing a Seminar in New Delhi titled ‘North East Region of India — Bridging Gap and Securing Borders’ — attended by very senior persons in the security establishment.
Referring to the increase in the Muslim population in Assam, he said “I do not think you can now change the population dynamics of the area. If it was five districts to eight to nine, inversion (sic) has taken place, whichever be the government.”
[According to the Census of India, in 1901 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% (Hindu — 35.25%); Hailakandi — 60.31% (Hindu — 38.10%); Goalpara — 57.52% (Hindu — 34.51%); Karimganj — 56.36% (Hindu — 42.48%); Nagaon — 55.36% (Hindu — 43.39%); Morigaon — 52.56% (Hindu — 47.20%); and Bongaigaon — 50.22% (Hindu — 48.6%).
Karimganj and Hailakandi districts are in the Barak valley of south Assam and adjoin Sylhet in Bangladesh. The other districts are in the Brahmaputra valley, and Dhubri, Goalpara and Bongaigaon borderMymensing district of Bangladesh. Nagaon and Morigaon districts are in central Assam, Barpeta and Darrang in west-central Assam.
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 NationalCongress, which had a monopoly on the Muslim vote since 1952, had 15. The All India United Democratic Front (ADUF), founded in 2005 by MaulanaBadruddin 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.
There is a military — strategic significance to the distribution of Muslim population in Assam.
The Indian Army is acutely aware of the fact that the Muslim majority districts, except Karimganj and Hailakandi, straddle its main Line of Communication (LoC) in North East India, the Brahmaputra valley. Dhubri, Goalpara and Bongaigaon are next to the Siliguri Corridor or ‘Chicken’s Neck’ that links the North East to mainland India — and which at one point is only 27 Km wide. China is only 130 Km north — at the Doklam tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China where the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had a 73-day standoff in August 2017. For China, it is downhill all the way.
The Indian Army has long had contingency plans to deal with the immigrant Muslims in Assam. These began after the 1962 Chinese invasion of India, when the PLA overran the Tawang-Kameng-Bomdila sector in the western part of what is now India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, claimed by China as its ‘Southern Tibet’, and were almost in the Brahmaputra valleybefore they unilaterally withdrew. During the Chinese invasion, immigrant Muslims hoisted Pakistani flags in their villages. They did this again during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. All this was noted by India’s intelligence agencies.]
The Army Chief said the influx of people from Bangladesh into north-east India was planned and a part of proxy warfare by Pakistan with support from China.
“A planned immigration is taking place because of our western neighbour. They will always try and ensure that this area is taken over, playing the proxy dimension of warfare. I think the proxy game is very well played by our western neighbour, supported by our northern neighbour, to keep the area disturbed. We will continue to see some migration happening. The solution lies in identifying the problem and holistically looking at it.”
He did not leave it at that, but commented also on the rise of the AIDUF (All India Democratic United Front) political party which represents the immigrant Muslims.
“There is a party called AIDUF. If you look at it, they have grown in a faster time-frame than the BJP grew over the years. The BJP won only two seats in the 1984 national elections. The AIDUF is moving at a faster pace in Assam.”
It is unheard of for a serving Indian Army General –in this case the COAS himself – to comment on political affairs in public.
Political commentators in India have noted that General Bipin Rawat superseded two other Generals when he was appointed COAS by the Narendra Modi government. This has happened only once before in the Indian Army. General Rawat is called ‘the BJP’s General’. Traditionally, the Indian Army has been apolitical, unlike in Pakistan or Bangladesh.
The AIDUF has reacted furiously.
“According to theConstitution of India, the role of the Chief of Army Staff is to provide leadership to the Indian Army. It is not his job to monitor the activities of political parties. By making the kind of statement about AIDUF’s popularity, the Army chief has crossed the constitutional boundary and given a political statement. This is not acceptable,” said the party’s founder-President and Member of Parliament Maulana Badruddin Ajmal.
The Maulana is known as “India’s perfume Billionaire.” He made his fortune by exporting oil of the ‘Agar’ tree, – widely found in Assam and used as a base for perfumes. He has his own perfume brand and shops selling it, across India and in the West Asian countries.
Maulana Badruddin has appealed to India’s President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Ram Nath Kovind, to dismiss General Bipin Rawat.
General Rawat’s comments came just two days after India’s Supreme Court directed the country’s national government to finish the process of making a register of citizens living in Assam by June 30. The Government had sought more time.The Supreme Court had ordered the register to be compiled, and has been monitoring the process, since 2014.
According to the documents submitted by Census officials to the Supreme Court at its last hearing on the citizenship case, on Tuesday (February 20), 4.8 million names of the 7.6 million applicants for inclusion in the NRC, whose names were under verification when the first list of Indian citizens in Assam was published, are in doubt.
Their ‘family trees’ do not reconcile.
They are suspected to be illegal immigrants who have submitted false documents to support their claims to be Indian citizens.
Now that the Indian Army has stepped into the picture, expect another ‘Rakhine’ to be replicated in India.
The writer is a journalist who lives in Assam. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org