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Census 2011: Demographic changes & Murky Citizenship Politics in Assam

A CDPS Analysis

POSTED ON 19 OCTOBER 2015

wasbir hussain & Arunav Goswami

According to the National Census of 2011, the Muslim population in Assam, the most populated state in northeastern India, is 34.22 per cent out of a total of 31.2 million. The Muslim population in Assam rose by 3.3 per cent since the last population Census of 2001. Interestingly, the population growth of Muslims in Assam is higher than in Jammu and Kashmir, where it increased by 1.3 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Jammu and Kashmir has a Muslim population of 68.3 per cent, the highest in India. The national average growth of Muslim population is 0.8 per cent.

The 2011 Census put Assam's population at 31,205,573. Of this, 19,180,759 were recorded as Hindus (61.46 per cent) and 10,679,345 Muslims. Among the critical elements made public by the Census authorities is the fact that nine districts in Assam now have a majority Muslim population. These nine districts are Barpeta, Dhubri, Karimganj, Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Hailakandi, Nagaon and Morigaon. According to the 2001 Census, six districts in Assam were Muslim-dominated. The three districts which became Muslim majority during the period 2001-2011 are Darrang, Bongaigaon and Morigaon.

Dhubri district has the highest Muslim population in Assam. According to the 2011 Census, it has a Muslim population of 79.67 per cent, up from 74.29 per cent in 2001. In Barpeta district, the Muslim population rose from 59.3 per cent in 2001 to 70.73 per cent in 2011, indicating a population growth of more than 11 per cent. In Karimganj district, the Muslim population has grown to 56.26 per cent in 2011 as compared to 52.3 per cent in 2001. In Goalpara district, the Muslim population in 2011 touched 57.52 per cent, up from 53.71 per cent in 2001. The Muslim population in Hailakandi rose from 57.6 per cent in 2001 to 60.31 per cent in 2011, and in Nagaon, it rose from 50.99 per cent in 2001 to 55.35 per cent in 2011.

The three districts where Muslims were not in a majority earlier were Bongaigaon, Morigaon and Darrang. According to the 2001 Census, Bongaigaon had 38.5 per cent Muslim population, Morigaon 47.6 per cent and Darrang 35.5 per cent. Now, the 2011 Census states that Bongaigaon has 50.22 per cent Muslim population (a growth of about 12 per cent); Morigaon has 52.56 per cent (a growth of about 5 per cent) and Darrang has 64.33 per cent Muslim population (a growth of about 29 per cent).

The issue of Muslim population growth in Assam has a disturbing resonance. The State has long been in the grip of a murky politics of citizenship over the issue of unabated illegal migration from adjoining Bangladesh, with which it shares a 262 kilometre long border. This illegal migration is also believed to be the reason behind increasing penetration of Islamic fundamentalism into the state of Assam. The earlier censuses had shown that the rates of growth of Muslim populations are the highest precisely in the districts that share a border with, or lie close to the border with, Bangladesh - particularly Dhubri, Karimganj and Hailakandi. However, the 2011 Census data exhibited an interesting finding: Muslim population growth is higher in districts away from border. The population has increased by 28.8 per cent in Darrang district, 14.88 per cent in Kamrup, 13.86 per cent in Nalbari, and 11.37 per cent in Barpeta. These districts do not share a direct border with Bangladesh. This shows that while illegal migration from Bangladesh is still a real issue, the trend has been coming down over the years. The figures also indicate that the flow of illegal migrants is spreading across the various districts of Assam.

While this increase in Muslim population in Assam has been a cause of concern, the Government of India’s decision to give asylum to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh has made the situation murkier. On 7 September 2015, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, through an official notification, said that the Central Government has decided, on humanitarian considerations, to exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities, who have entered India on or before December 31, 2014 from the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, in respect of their entry and stay in India, without such documents or after the expiry of those documents, as the case may be. Accordingly, the Central Government issued two notifications in the Official Gazette on 8 September 2015 under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946.

This decision immediately invoked protests all over the state of Assam. The influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) immediately protested against the decision. AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharyya alleged that the Centre’s notification amounted to a dilution of the Assam Accord and that they would challenge the notification in the Supreme Court. He also said that the Assam Accord is the rulebook which says anyone from Bangladesh residing in Assam from March 25, 1971 onwards, whether he/she is a Hindu or a Muslim, is an illegal migrant and therefore must be expelled from the State. The AASU was in the forefront of the movement against illegal migration during 1979-1985 and was one of the stakeholders of the Assam Accord that had set March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date to determine an illegal migrant.

Since the publication of the notification, AASU has led several protests and street processions in almost every district of the State against this decision of the central government. Twenty six organisations representing the ethnic Assamese communities have joined AASU in the protests.

The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a regional political party in Assam, alleged that Assam would have to carry the burden of at least 20 lakh migrants from Bangladesh as a result of the Union Government’s notification. The party termed the decision “slow poison” for the indigenous and linguistic identity of Assam and its socio-cultural fabric. The Assam chapter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) tooorganised a procession protesting against the notification. The party said they would never accept the Centre forcing Assam to take the burden of Hindu Bengali migrants.

The Asom Sahitya Sabha, the apex literary body in the State, formed a committee to assess the probable consequences of the Centre’s notification. The committee, comprising 20 people, including a former president of the Sabha, and a few advocates, would be looking into the possible impacts of the notification on Assam. Another influential organization the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and its political wing, Gana Mukti Sangram Asom, said the Centre's notification and subsequent move to offer citizenship to Hindu migrants, mostly from Bangladesh, was a threat to the identity of the Assamese, its language and culture.

However, there is support for the notification too. According to some organizations, which represent the community of displaced Bengali Hindus, there are anywhere between 59 and 75 lakh displaced Bengali Hindus in Assam, out of a total of 3.5 crore said to be scattered across India. They say that religious persecution in Bangladesh makes it impossible for them to go back, and have for years demanded that they be granted not just refugee status but Indian citizenship. This notification in a way would help them, though they would not be granted citizenship.

The issue of unabated illegal migration was already a matter of serious concern in the state. This is considered a serious threat to the indigenous identity of the Assamese people. The increasing growth of Muslim population has also raised fears of continuing illegal migration. On top of that, the decision to let Hindus from Bangladesh stay in India has made the situation more complicated. It is unlikely that the issue would die down in view of the State elections next year. While the politics of citizenship would peak in the days ahead, the issue is bound to widen the faultlines that make Assam’s politics a roller-coaster one, and makes it a politics that thrives on religious, community and linguistic lines.