While the procedure to release the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is ongoing in Assam, the Border Security Force (BSF) in the region has said that illegal immigration has drastically reduced over the last few years. This stands contrary to the situation a few decades ago when infiltration by people from Bangladesh became the reason why Assam needed to update its NRC, making it the only state in India to do so.
The BSF in the Dhubri sector of Northeast has said that illegal immigration or infiltration in the sector has reduced drastically, given the current regime in Assam as well as aware citizens of the Northeast states.
According to highly placed sources in BSF, there has been a drop of over 90% in illegal migration. “The inward migration in Assam has drastically fallen in the last few years due to the uncertainty of their future on this side of the land, as well as strong patrolling by the BSF along the border. The local villagers also act as our intelligence to report on any suspicious persons as even these villagers are wary of illegal immigrants into the state,” a source said.
Assam and Bangladesh have one of the largest international borders in the world, with close to 500 km international boundary. The border is mostly porous as large chunks of it constitute a riverine border. The fencing in these areas is also quite poor as almost 50% of the total border area still remains unfenced, leaving easy passage for both cattle smugglers and infiltrators.
However, the local BSF contested the rumour that crossing the Brahmaputra give an easy passage into India for infiltrators. A senior BSF officer said, “Crossing the Brahmaputra is not easy, as the terrain is unfriendly. One has to walk over 20 km through difficult terrain to reach habitation. Along with this, we have also increased patrolling with boats and speed boats to check any suspicious movements of people.”
MASSIVE ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION
The problem of migration in Assam dates back to the colonial era when the “line system” in Assam was created. The British and All India Muslim League governments used to encourage mass migration of cultivators from Mymensing district of East Bengal into the plains of Assam, during the early part of the 19th century. This migration started affecting the indigenous culture and identity of the indigenous inhabitants.
British officials then adopted a system of classifying areas whereby migrants were restricted to particular areas, prohibited from crossing a “line”. The manner of implementation has been described in an article titled “British Colonial Policy of Line System Immigration Issue in Assam (1911-1931)” in the following words: “Under Line System, the villages in Nowgong were divided into four categories: exclusively occupied by immigrants; exclusively reserved for Assamese; mixed villages in which there were both immigrants and Assamese and line villages in which a line has been drawn on the Assamese side of which no immigrant was allowed to settle.”
The first restriction on migration was applied only to Mymensinghia-s. But immigrants from other districts of Bengal continued to come in. In 1924, the word Mymensinghia was dropped and the term immigrant was substituted to include all “immigrants.”
Fast forwarding to the Bangladesh (East Pakistan) Liberation War of 1971, several adjoining areas, including Assam, witnessed a heavy influx of migrants from Bangladesh into its land and ever since then, migration from Bangladesh in search of better opportunities and land, continued into different parts of the state.
The Muslim League’s purpose to encourage migration in the region was to boost its “grow more food” campaign by benefitting from the Brahmaputra valley’s fertile areas bordering the river.
Until 1971, the Central government’s implicit policy was to give shelter to all Hindu refugees and to deport all Muslim infiltrators from East Pakistan. After 25 March 1971, however, Governments of India and Bangladesh agreed that all further migration into India would be treated as infiltration and all such infiltrators, whether Hindu or Muslim, would be deported.
To understand how large scale has been the problem of migration in Assam, a look at the factual analysis of the state’s changing demographic is important. According to the commission report in SC, the indigenous population of Assam was predicted to become a minority by 2047. The factual analysis of the unnatural increase in population in Boko Legislative Assembly constituency, 80 km west of Guwahati, having a riverine border with the Brahmaputra, and one village abutting the Kaziranga National Park based on the electoral rolls from 1971-1997 analysis of 14 polling stations showed that the percentage of voters had increased from 80% to 2,135% and in most cases the number of electors had doubled. Between 1979 to 2015, for one polling station abutting Kaziranga, Najan Polling Station, Village Kuthori, the number of Hindu voters showed an increase of 132.407% and Muslim voters by 409.76%.
After eight years of continuous immigration, the state erupted into violence against the drastically changing demographics. On 27 November 1979, AASU (All Assam Students Union) and AAGSP (All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad) called for the closure of all educational institutes and picketing in state and Central government offices, along with organising huge protests and demonstrations across the state. This was popularly known as the anti-migration movement organised by the indigenous youths of Assam to reclaim their identity.
The movement came to an end with the signing of the “Assam Accord” in 1985, after a long battle of six years. The “Accord” was signed between the Centre, the Assam government and the organisations leading the movement. Under the terms of this Accord, Assam decided to recognise the people who entered the state from the erstwhile East Pakistan/Bangladesh up to 25 March 1971.
CHALLENGES WITH NRC
To put an end to the conflicts that arose due to the huge immigrant population, the Supreme Court had directed the state government in 2015 to finish the process of updating the NRC. This exercise is intended to put an end to the uncertainty over citizenship status of a large number of migrants; however, observers have noted that it will leave a number of issues unresolved.
Upamanyu Hazarika, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court and chair of the commission appointed by the Supreme Court to identify the problems of illegal migration to Assam, told The Sunday Guardian, “The primary problem with the NRC arises because the identification of foreigners is being carried out on the basis of a cut-off date of 25 March 1971 and in the intervening period of 46 years, an additional 50 to 80 lakh infiltrators entered Assam, according to the government’s replies to questions in Parliament.”
“The validity of the cut-off date is under challenge and pending hearing of a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court. The moot point is: will the NRC update process help protect the state’s indigenous population from becoming a minority since three independent studies project that between 2040 and 2051, the indigenous people will be reduced to minority due to the influx from Bangladesh,” Hazarika added.
According to the Assam Public Works, one of the representatives of the indigenous population, the problem is with the demand of those documents which people might not have to prove their citizenship for NRC.
“Under Rule 4A, a special procedure has been prescribed for Assam where applications have to be submitted by an inhabitant along with the identity proofs prior to 24 March 1971. It is the lack of such documents with a large part of the population who have a low socio-economic status like tea tribes, landless labourers and also cases of women who did not go to school and got married without any official proof of parentage and the like, that creates problems,” explained the representatives in the SC report by the commission headed by Hazarika.
According to the Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association, 80% of the tea tribes do not have their names included in the legacy data record of 1951 to 1971 owing to poor socio-economic status, illiteracy and historical reasons. Owing to such reasons, a large number of this community does not have the prescribed documents.The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad-Jorhat District Committee had reasoned that in large parts of the Kaziranga National Park, new settlers had come, enrolled themselves in the voters’ list and were not there in 1971 or prior thereto; furthermore even in Jorhat, there had been a large settlement that had sprung up in an open space in Raja Maibam which has now been named as Latif Colony and the nationality of the people there has been doubtful. Pointing out the challenges of updating the NRC in a fair manner, Sushmita Dev, Congress leader, said, “I am not an Assamese, but I belong to the Bengali speaking community of Assam. The first list of NRC published this month had people from the majority community and had a less number of people from the linguistic minorities of the state. NRC should not be used to prioritise citizenship only for the Assamese population of the state and used against others. To maintain a transparent process without leaving out even a single legitimate citizen is a humongous task, which becomes beyond simple complication when the whole point of providing legitimate documents enters.”