In Assam, Rising Share of Bengali Speakers Doesn't Necessarily Point to 'Infiltration'

By raising the infiltration bogey, which is based on weak evidence, one could be playing into the hands of communal politics. 

In the Assam Accord – signed in 1985 – it was agreed that foreigners who entered the state after March 24, 1971 would be identified, and their names would be deleted from the voter list. Since then, the task of identifying foreigners was being done through the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) or the IM(DT) Act till 2005, when it was scrapped by the Supreme Court, and through the Foreigners Act after that. The magnitude of infiltration has been so huge, alleged the detractors, that the authorities have hardly addressed the question.

In 2005, the Central government, the state government and the All Assam Students’ Union reached another agreement. This time to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The link between NRC updating and Assam Accord is tenuous at best. As I have argued in here, the NRC was not even mentioned in the Assam Accord, contrary to what has been claimed by Amit Shah in the Rajya Sabha. The Assam Accord mentions deletion of foreigners’ name from the voter list, not from the NRC. The legal instrument to detect foreigners was the IM(DT) Act 1983, not through updating of the NRC. The first agreement regarding updating the NRC materialised in 2005, a full 20 years after the Accord was signed.

Also read: Interview | NRC Is My Own Baby, BJP Has Made It Weak and Sick: Tarun Gogoi

After the NRC draft was released on July 30, it became known that four million people stand to lose their citizenship. Four million is a lot of people – more than the population of several European countries. The very idea of rendering them stateless is preposterous. Voices critical of the exercise have been raised. In response, opinion pieces have been doing the rounds that infiltrators/outsiders are threatening the culture of the indigenous people of Assam which is why the update was needed. More than one such articles refer to an important piece of evidence. Between 1991 and 2011, the share of Assamese speakers in the state fell from 58% to 48%. This is matched by a quick rise in the share of Bengali speakers from 22% to 29% during the same period. In a short period of 20 years, from the position of the majority group, the Assamese speakers have become one of the many minority linguistic groups of the state. This is a serious development indeed and demands closer scrutiny.

BJP president Amit Shah. Credit: Twitter/Amit Shah

BJP president Amit Shah. Credit: Twitter/Amit Shah

The first question that comes to mind, what does this data have to do with the NRC? NRC updating will filter out foreigners. The rising share of Bengalis is not necessarily due to influx from Bangladesh. Migration of Bengali speakers from other parts of the country may also raise the Bengali share. It is nobody’s case that such migrants need to be thrown out. Like all other Indian citizens, they have a right to live in Assam. To be sure, there have been demands from some quarters to provide constitutional safeguard exclusively to the indigenous people of the state, in line with the reservations given to tribal people in many northeastern states. But that is a different issue and should not be conflated with the NRC.

Second, why compare data of 2011 with that of 1991? Why not 2001, the last census year before 2011? Table 1 provides the data of the population of major linguistic groups of Assam for the years 2001 and 2011.

Population, 2001 (thousands) Population, 2011 (thousands) Share in total population, 2001 (%) Share in total population, 2011 (%) Decadal growth of population (%)
Assamese 13010 15096 48.81 48.38 16.03
Bengali 7343 9024 27.55 28.92 22.89
Hindi 1570 2101 5.89 6.73 33.82
Bodo 1296 1416 4.86 4.54 9.26
Nepali 565 596 2.12 1.91 5.49

Table 1: Population of major linguistic groups of Assam.
Source: Census data on language and mother tongue, 2001 and 2011

As can be seen from Table 1, the share of Assamese speakers did fall in the decade 2001-2011, but it was only a marginal fall (48.8% to 48.4%). The rise of Bengali share was also marginal (27.6% to 28.9%). If anything, the sharp fall of the Assamese share which was witnessed before 2001 has been checked since. The second observation from the table is, the Bengali speaking population was not the fastest growing linguistic group, its decadal growth was 23%. In contrast, the Hindi speaking population rose at a quicker rate of 34% (refer to the last column).

Third, before Partition, there were more Bengali speakers in Assam than Assamese speakers. Sylhet and Cachar, two Bengali speaking populous districts were a part of the state. The knife of Partition cut off most of Sylhet from Assam, a small portion remained. The whole of Cachar stayed. This part of the state, the Barak valley, is a Bengali-speaking region in its own right. The share of Bengali population in Assam is large. But there are historical reasons why it is so.

Fourth, Bengali speaking population rose at a faster rate than Assamese speakers: 23% compared to 16%. Furthermore, the Bengali share rose quickly prior to 2001. Don’t all this point towards infiltration? Here, two points need mention, both of which contribute to the rising share of Bengalis.

Also read: Assam NRC – A History of Violence and Persecution

First, the fertility rate of Muslims is higher compared to Hindus. This is true not only for Assam but for the rest of India as well. Over time, the fertility rates have been declining in both religious communities, the fall has been faster among the Muslims. The Human Development Report of Assam 2014 estimated that the total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime – of Muslims and Hindus differ by as much as 1.2. It is 2.9 among Muslims compared to 1.7 among Hindus. It is likely that the share of Muslims among Assamese speakers is less compared to the share of Muslims among Bengali speakers. This would imply that the growth rate of the Bengali population would be faster than the Assamese. Consequently, the Bengali share would rise.

Second, a “language reversion” has been going on among Muslims who once migrated from erstwhile East Bengal. After Partition, the Brahmaputra valley Muslim migrants of East Bengali roots chose to report their language as Assamese. As a result, between 1931 and 1951, the population of Assamese speakers in Assam (excluding Sylhet) rose by a phenomenal 150%. The Partition violence may have played a part in this decision. The apprehension of being persecuted in the newly-independent country made the migrants give up language and keep religion.

As a mirror image of the quick rise in the Assamese speaking population, during 1931-1951 the population of Bengali speakers fell by as much as 25%. It is conjectured that of late, the Na-Axamiyas (the new Assamese) have been switching back to Bengali. This curious phenomenon was behind the Assam Movement (1979-1985) according to political scientist Myron Weiner. The relative calm of the last few decades since the conclusion of the movement may have given the migrants the confidence to report Bengali. The rise in the share of Bengalis could be due to Na-Axamiyas reverting back to Bengali.

Also read: The NRC Will Not Resolve Assam’s Humanitarian Crisis

In short, the data that the Bengali population share is rising and the Assamese population share is declining does not necessarily imply infiltration. To quantify infiltration a more detailed study is required. This data does, however, indicate that as a linguistic group, the Bengalis are growing faster than the Assamese. There could be concerns over this development as well, which has to be dealt with separately.

It is becoming increasingly clear from the speeches of top leaders of the BJP that the party is planning to make the most of the NRC. This was apprehended long ago. Amit Shah’s terming of the four million NRC-rejects as “ghuspetiye was a dog whistle to project the party as the defender of Hindu nation against Muslim encroachers. Caution is advisable at this critical juncture. Protecting a threatened culture is an unexceptionable proposition. There is a veritable danger, however, of turning into pawns of a larger design that is tearing apart the syncretic fabric of the country. By raising the infiltration bogey, based on weak evidence, one could be playing into the hands of communal politics. A debate around the NRC is urgently needed. It better be an informed one.

Debarshi Das is at the Humanities and Social Science Department, IIT, Guwahati.