By Mohika Sharma:
The most disturbing development in the twentieth century Assam, has been that of the spike in the population arising out of the influx of migrants. This influx was prevalent, right from the Colonial Era, when labourers from Odisha or Jharkhand were brought in to be recruited in the tea plantations. Likewise arrived the Marwaris or merchants of Rajasthan who have a monopoly over trade, both wholesale and retail. These migrants came in and occupied tracks of land for settlement. However these migrants, despite being considered ‘outsiders’ did not pose a threat to the Assamese sense of identity and economic independence. The numbers were small and they lived generally within the confines of their own community.
In the early 1940s, a large number of migrant labourers of Muslim origin were brought in from the erstwhile East Pakistan towards implementation of the ‘Grow More Food Campaign’ of the government. Shortly thereafter, when India attained Independence, there was a large influx of Hindu Bengali refugees from East Pakistan into Assam and its adjoining states. Prime Minister Nehru was well aware that immigrations from overcrowded East Pakistan to Assam will continue and the problem was how they should ‘control and organize this immigration’ so that the Assamese would not be outnumbered in their own state. However, Nehru’s government failed to realize that the rehabilitation of the refugees was not a responsibility of Assam alone or her neighbours — Tripura and West Bengal. The issue of rehabilitation remained unresolved. It was in the wake of the liberation of Bangladesh that several lakhs of refugees came to North-East India. These ‘outsiders’, had come in search of a living, from their impoverished land. But, they were seen as encroachers on scarce resources like land and potential competitors to employment opportunities and political power. This perception has now become a reality and, more often than not in an insidious way through the machinations of the politicians who are hell bent on securing electoral votes. The problem of immigration persisted and grew larger with time. This issue has even taken political and sometimes violent forms in many states of the North-East.
The Assam Movement from 1979 to 1985 led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) is probably the best example of a movement against the ‘outsiders’. It was against illegal migrations, other outsiders and against faulty voters’ registers that included names of lakhs of immigrants. Eventually the matter was supposed to be settled on signing of an accord in 1985, which stated that foreigners who migrated into Assam during and after the Bangladesh war and since, were to be identified and deported. But, despite the efforts being made, the problem of immigration did not come to an end; this influx of immigrants is so vast that in certain parts of the North East, its original inhabitants have been reduced to being a minority in their own land.
Assam is in ferment and turmoil. While the ULFA on one hand have been demanding a “Swadhin” Assam, on the other hand autonomous demands of different ethnic groups have caused serious concern to the authorities at the respective centres. A sense of neglect and deprivation has created a crisis of identity or identity consciousness amongst different ethnic groups of the valley of Brahmaputra.
The influx of immigrants into Assam is nothing but inevitable. As we know the density of population of neighbouring Bangladesh is the highest in the world, the pressure on the land and resources and the stagnant economy have forced the Bangladeshis to cross the porous border and settle here. On this side of the border, economic opportunities were larger and as the immigrants wanted land and employment as labourers, crossing the border was the easiest thing to do. If the influx continues unchecked it is only a matter of time when indigenous Assamese will be alien in their own homeland. The fact that these immigrants provide cheap labour encourages the employers to employ them instead of indigenous labourers. The lax political system also encourages these immigrants to come settle in this region. On crossing the border, they are provided with Pan Cards and are enlisted on the voters’ identity list. For instance, if one travels to the passport office, located in Guwahati, the majority of the applicants there, waiting in queue are these “illegal” immigrants, with absolutely no proof against them stating that they are not Indian citizens? Thanks to the vote bank politics of our country! The immigrant community has gathered enough strength to influence many major decisions of the state government overlooking the security of the state and country. There is a commonly held apprehension that majority of the immigrants and the leaders behind them are determined to create instability in the region to serve the interests of foreign powers.
The problem of detection, dispersal and even deportation of infiltrators would not be formidable one if the Centre and State governments tackled it with zeal and imagination in time. The issue of illegal immigrants in the state of Assam is a seemingly intractable problem which, unresolved, would imperil the local communities identity and culture. In spite of her vast potentialities in resources – human, natural and mineral, it cannot be denied; economically Assam is quite a backward state in India. This has been attributed, and rightly so, to the utter neglect and step-motherly treatment of those at the helm of affairs in Delhi. The fact that such a grave issue of illegal immigration has not been looked into since such a long time, clearly proves it right that not only Assam, the issues pertaining to states of north east are definitely not the centre’s priority. A resolution of the problem would warrant an early and concerted action on the part of political leadership across the spectrum which is devoid of a narrow selfish interest.
This article is also published at sevensistersproject.org