Assam: Migration


The Indian State of Assam: Origins and Causes of Conflict


  • The Indian state of Assam is located in the country’s Northeast and shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh.
  • According to provisional Indian census figures for 2011, Assam has a population of over 31 million with an area of 78,438 square kilometers (48,739 miles).
  • Assam is home to several indigenous tribes, including the Bodos, who are numerically the largest tribe in the state, comprising just over 5% of the total population. The Bodos are primarily Hindus (90.31%), but also include a significant number of Christians (9.4%).
  • Migration of outsiders into Assam has a long history. The British administration had encouraged migration of thousands of Biharis to work on the tea-plantations and of hundreds of thousands of Bengali peasants to settle on the vast uncultivated tracts of Assam. Till recently, Assamese landlords had welcomed the hardworking Bengali tenants in the sparsely populated Assam. Between 1939 and 1947 Muslim communalists encouraged Bengali Muslim migration to create a better bargaining position in case of partition of India. Partition led to a large-scale refugee influx from Pakistani Bengal into Assam besides West Bengal and Tripura.
  • The mass population movement of Bengali Muslims into Assam continued after the departure of the British and proliferated with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Since 1971, large numbers of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh have illegally crossed the porous Indo-Bangladesh border into India’s northeastern states, including Assam, for economic reasons.
  • There are no official statistics on the number of illegal Bangladeshis in India in general, although some unofficial estimates put the number at 20 million. Similarly, there is no concrete data on the number of Bangladeshi migrants in Assam specifically, although in 2005, former Assam Governor, Lt. Gen. Ajai Singh reported that close to 6,000 Bangladeshis enter Assam every day.
  • But land in Assam had by now become scarce, and Assamese peasants and tribals feared loss of their holdings. However, this demographic transformation generated the feeling of linguistic, cultural and political insecurity, which overwhelmed the Assamese and imparted a strong emotional content to their movement against illegal migrants in the eighties.

    The demographic transformation of Assam created apprehension among many Assamese that the swamping of Assam by foreigners and non-Assamese Indians would lead to the Assamese being reduced to a minority in their own land and consequently to the subordination of their language and culture, loss of control over their economy and politics, and, in the end, the loss of their very identity and individuality as a people. Though illegal migration had surfaced as a political matter several times since 1950, it burst as a major issue in 1979 when it became clear that a large number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had become voters in the state. Afraid of their acquiring a dominant role in Assam’s politics through the coming election at the end of 1979, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Assam GanaSangramParishad (Assam People’s Struggle Council), a coalition of regional political, literary and cultural associations, started a massive, anti-illegal migration movement.

    The leaders of the movement claimed that the number of illegal aliens was as high as 31 to 34 per cent of the state’s total population. They, therefore, asked the central government to seal Assam’s borders to prevent farther inflow of migrants, to identify all illegal aliens and delete their names from the voters list and to postpone elections till this was done, and to deport or disperse to other parts of India all those who had entered the state after 1961. So strong was the popular support to the movement that elections could not be held in fourteen out of sixteen constituencies.

It is not as if migration is a new phenomenon in Assam and the rest of the Northeast. But in the olden feudal days, when the power structure was radically different, migrants sooner than later assimilated themselves to the identity of the host communities that their new feudal masters belonged. Hence, Bengali peasant migrants from East Bengal would in no time adopt the Assamese identity so that along with the continuous immigration, would be a growth of the Assamese population. As long as the indigenization process of immigrants remained a natural phenomenon, demographic frictions were either altogether absent or else within easily manageable limits. Enter modern times and democracy, and the scenario altered radically. Identity consciousness and knowledge also expanded immensely. To take the Assam example again, in the modern era immigrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) are not willing to compromise their origin identity. Viewed against the compulsion of massive immigration on the eve of, and immediate wake of, the Partition of India, this became a huge issue, for then the indigenous Assamese began to see a threat to their own identity by a demographic takeover by Bengalis. Assam even refused to have the Hindu majority Sylhet become part of Assam when the Hindu Bengalis of the district desperately wanted it so in order to be included in India at the time of Partition, and as a result this populous district was forced to join East Pakistan.Perhaps not an exact parallel, but the Assam story is generally also the undercurrent behind much of the xenophobia the northeast has now come to be afflicted by.

In the democratised world, immigrants no longer are willing to indigenise, setting them apart from the populations of the host regions. Struggles for power and economic spaces between them are the inevitable consequences. Democracy being ultimately a system of deciding who gets to hold the reins of power by a headcount, xenophobic tensions are also only natural. Thisis one of the most fundamental challenges in tackling and overcoming the xenophobia issue in the northeast.

Impact of Cross-Border Migration from Bangladesh

  • The large scale migration from Bangladesh has significantly altered demographics in India’s northeastern states, leading to social, economic, and political tensions between tribals and Bangladeshi Muslim settlers. For instance, in Assam, Muslims make up approximately 33% of Assam’s population, and 11 out of 27 districts in the state now contain Muslim majorities. Bodo leaders in Assam assert that Bangladeshi Muslims are using their growing power to impose their culture and religion in the area.
  • Illegal Bangladeshi migrants have systematically appropriated farming, grazing, and forest lands traditionally used by the Bodos and other indigenous tribes in Assam for their livelihood, leading to fear and resentment amongst the tribal population.
  • Along with illegal migrants, drug smugglers and other criminal elements frequently cross the Indo- Bangladesh border into Assam. Additionally, according to Indian officials, many Bangladeshi Muslim settlers in Assam are now engaged in the illegal cultivation and distribution of narcotics in the state.
  • Some Indian political parties in Assam, such as the Communist Party of India and the Congress, have allegedly encouraged illegal migration from Bangladesh, using Bangladeshi Muslim settlers to strengthen their political base and capture favorable votes in elections. Moreover, illegal migrants are able to easily obtain forged citizenship documents, enabling them to vote and access government services.
  • In the 1978 LokSabha (lower house of Parliament) by-elections in the state, the names of 45,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants were discovered for the first time on the voter’s list, leading to violent political unrest culminating in the “Assam Agitation” (1979-1985) spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU).
  • India’s Supreme Court recently noted the magnitude of the problem when it stated that Assam was facing “external aggression and internal disturbance,” due to the large-scale migration from Bangladesh.

Political and Security Conditions in Assam

  • The mass influx of Bangladeshi Muslims has been a destabilizing force in Assam and has resulted in a number of political and security challenges in the state.
  • After years of government neglect and apathy and a failure to address the issue of illegal immigration, the Bodos launched an armed insurgency in the 1980s to carve out a separate Bodoland state from Assam (within India).
  • Bodo insurgent groups initially laid down their arms in 1993 in return for greater autonomy and the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). The insurgency, however, resumed until 2003 when the Bodos signed a peace accord with the state and central governments, resulting in the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
  • The BTC administers the Bodo heartland of Assam in the districts of Kokhrajar, Chirang, Baska, and Udalguri, collectively known as the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD). The BTAD is governed by separate laws recognized under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and tribal regulations.
  • The creation of the BTC and BTAD has failed to protect the rights of the Bodos or curb the unabated migration from Bangladesh, leaving them increasingly vulnerable. In addition, the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution has been amended to safeguard the land rights of “all communities” in the BTAD, effectively allowing Bangladeshi settlers to continue occupying tribal land.
  • Beyond the Bodo insurgency, other militant groups have been active in Assam, including the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which began with an anti-foreigner agenda and sought to secede from India. Similarly, Muslim militant organizations have reportedly proliferated in Assam in recent years, with some demanding the creation of a separate Muslim state. Some militant groups have operated from across the border in Bangladesh.

Bodo-Muslim Violence in Assam

  • There is a history of violent conflict over land in Assam between the indigenous Bodotribals and ethnic Bengali Muslim settlers dating back to 1952, with subsequent violent clashes occurring in 1979-1985, 1991-1994, and 2008.
  • The most recent riots and violence between Bodos and Bangladeshi Muslims erupted in July 2012 in the BTAD districts of Kokhrajar, Chirang, and Dhubri. According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, 77 people were killed and over 400,000 displaced from the violence, including both Bodos and Bangladeshi Muslims.
  • Although authorities were slow to respond to the violence, there is no indication that the government played any role in the violence. Many of the displaced victims have been temporarily housed in relief camps, and the Central government has promised up to 300 crore rupees (approximately $5.5 million) in rehabilitation and development aid.
  • Although the immediate cause of the riots was the targeted killings of four Bodo men by Bangladeshi Muslims, Indian political and security analysts attribute the violence to larger economic, social, and political issues. For instance, Dr BhagatOinam, Director of the North-East India Studies Program at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, contends that the riots were the result of Bodo resentment against Bangladeshi immigration and the consequent loss of land and cultural identity.
  • In the aftermath of the riots, there have been widespread protests across the northeast demanding “early detection and deportation” of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The Bodos have now joined other indigenous tribal communities in Assam to collectively address the issue.
  • Following the violence, northeastern students living in other parts of India received threats from a radical Muslim organization known as the Popular Front of India (PFI), according to India’s National Cyber Investigation Agency. Moreover, Muslims groups organized violent protests in Mumbai in response to the Assam riots (and violence in Mynamar), resulting in two deaths and 53 injuries. And the All Bodoland Muslim Student’s Union (ABMSU) has threatened to declare jihad and take up arms against the state.

It must however be noted that after India became independent in 1947, all the Bengali Muslims who had migrated till that point were and are legal citizens of India. But illegal immigration went unabated, and out of a sheer influence of vote-bank politics, and a clear mistake by Assamese intellectuals to consider the compulsion of the immigrants to return Assamese as their mother tongue as a choice took a dangerous turn in the 1970s. A.F. GhulamOsmani from Barpeta emerged as a leader who stressed on his linguistic identity as Bengali as well as his religious identity. He saw a new contour to the unspoken alliances, where the Bengali Muslims need not pander to interests of the caste Assamese Hindus. The tacit support of the government made it impossible to make out which Bengali Muslims had migrated prior to 1951 (and hence Indian citizens) from the illegal immigrants who migrated later.

  • Now, as these developments were unfolding, illegal immigrants started exerting pressure on tribal territory. Places like Nagaon, Morigaonetc started feeling the pressure due to the encroachment of tribal lands by the immigrant population. This was felt by tribes specially the Tiwas, and now the Bodos as they were the first victims of such encroachment. The Assamese intellectuals were content at the linguistic assimilation of the immigrants; however they turned a blind eye to the pressure on land that they cast, as most on the receiving side were the tribesmen. This conflict ultimately served the basis of the Nellie riots of 1983, where 3000 Muslims of Bengali origin were killed. (Though the immediate causes of the riot were different, but the main cause was the socio-economic pressure of immigration.) Thus, one major distinction can be observed. The torchbearers of the struggle with Bengali Hindus, which was a linguistic struggle were Assamese intellectuals and caste Hindus. The tribal areas were the conflict areas of Bengali Muslim-indigenous divide, it was they who suffered the most, and it was they who were the most active retaliators.
  • Now, after the neglect of the tribesmen, there was another problem which faced the society. Muslims of Bengali origin after 1978 state assembly elections became more assertive of their linguistic identity. Thus after the Assam Agitation of 1979-1985 Muslim parties from UMF to AIUDF have been desirous of making a linguistic coalition to further their religious agenda. The rise of Islamic assertion after from 1980s to 2000s throughout the world did not leave these people untouched. The Pakistan based ISI found out new ways of entering India’s territory by indoctrinating people from Assam through the rise of communal elements. The rising communal sentiments also made the Bengali Hindu apprehensive of joining the Osmani bandwagon, and after 1991, especially in the Barak Valley they started opting for the BJP in a clear sign of polarization.
  • 1978 was in many ways a turning point in Assamese nationalism. Though the immigrants from 1901-1951 had by and large become Assamese, with their children and grand children being the product of being provided education in Assamese, as well as the policy of assimilation that their grandparents had adopted for survival. Many poets and writers also emerged from their midst. But, there was another angle to it. People among them who stressed more on their religious identity allowed illegal immigration to continue unabated even after independence, and with increasing numbers the compulsion to assimilate themselves into the melting pot that was Assam gradually diminished. Assam was slowly losing its identity, because the sheer magnitude of this migration is perhaps unprecedented.


  • The rise of leaders like Osmani stands testimony to the fact. In 1978 again, the MP of Mangaldoi (in Lower-Middle Assam) Mr.HiralalPatowari died, and after his death it was noted that the number of people in the electoral rolls had gone considerably high. This led to massive protests by the AASU, and the Assamese voter had finally risen up to the task of opposing illegal immigration. There were such voices raised earlier by the tribespeople in Assam , but from 1979-1985 the whole of Assamese population, including tribals united against illegal immigration and the anti-foreigner movement ultimately led to the signing of the Assam accord, where the people agreed to have 1971 as a metric for judging who is a foreigner.
  • The opponents of the movement, especially the Congress party found that such movement would actually be detrimental to their interests. Therefore they sought to divide the Assamese society by encouraging militancy, and followed a policy where separate tribes were encouraged to highlight their differences rather than similarities. The aspirations of the tribes for self-development were used as a tool to fuel discord in the Assamese society. Concordant with that was the failure of governance machinery, mainly due to the deteriorating Centre-State relationship. The tribes which faced the direct fallout of immigration in form of land also felt left out. Then came the IMD(T) act for Assam which required proving someone is not a citizen on the complainant, rather than the citizen himself as is practiced in the rest of India. Even when it was struck down after it had already done a lot of damage, many organization opposed it, saying that the laws which applied for the whole of India, were specially harassment for bona-fide citizens of India, only because they lived in Assam. A dangerous trend has emerged where citizens have been mobilized to oppose registration of citizenship by instilling in them the fear of harassment. This is the reason of fundamentalist elements on one side and purist parochial elements on the other who have created this policy paralysis.
  • The number of illegal immigrants (using the 1971 metric) has been a contentious issue. The number varies from 0 (claimed by AIUDF and some Congress politicians) to 50 lakhs (stated by Lal Krishna Advani). Walter Fernandes estimates from the growth in Muslim population and taking into account the high fertility rate, that the figure scientifically adds up to 15 lakh.
  • The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in various pockets of Assam was parallel to its rise in the world. Organisations like Al Qaeda also saw Assam as a new laboratory for their designs of Islamization of the entire world. ISI grew active, and by polarizing the immigrant Muslim population, they ensured that illegal immigration which was an economic seepage became an external aggression. Intellectuals still deny its magnitude, but it is a harsh reality in many areas of Assam. Networks like HuJi have been active in Lower Assam and Barak Valley.
  • This has added a communal dimension to the ethnic or economic conflict. People are now living in denial; intellectuals are not acting impartial because they consider turning a blind eye to this menace is going to paint them in more secular colour. Assamese speaking Muslims have by and large resisted these designs and also consider the Bangladeshis as the ones who are encroaching upon the benefits that minorities get from the state, and have stressed on their Assamese identity rather than Islamic one. However, the plans of these elements include radicalization of this group of population, so as to receive logistic support for illegal immigration, and ensure that this conflict reaches a point of full-fledged external aggression.


The recent riots in Assam are a manifestation of these complex realities. The Bodo militancy, and the lack of law and order in these areas means that the struggle might get a bloodier in the days to come. I am not a pessimist, but any pragmatist will see this coming, unless there is a serious political consensus, and a nationalist, united approach against illegal immigration. The Bodos and the Tiwas were the first victims of illegal immigration. They turned perpetrators of unseen violence under provocation, in Nellie in 1983 and Kokrajhar in 2012. In many unheard of cases in areas where they are in a minority, the Bodos are also victims. This is not a justification, but a mere reason. The density of population in minority dominated districts of Assam which border/include tribal areas is high. : Dhubri has a density of 1171, Barpeta 632, Nagaon 711, compared to Sonitpur which has 365, and Dibrugarh 393. All these districts have almost similar (physical) geographical characteristics. Dhubri borders Kokrajhar whose density of population is just 280. This gradient is a reason enough for ethnic diffusion. Ethnic diffusion is the reason for ethnic tension. Does it take a soothsayer to predict that? At least it takes an insensitive and incompetent government to ignore that.


Policy Recommendations

  • The Central Indian Government and State Government in Assam must take all necessary steps to fully rehabilitate the victims of the recent riots and ensure the safety of all communities in the state going forward.
  • India must protect the social, economic, and political rights of the vulnerable tribal population in Assam and comprehensively address the underlying issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
  • The U.S. should encourage the Government of Bangladesh to implement strong measures to curtail the flow of illegal immigrants, militants, and drugs from its side of the Indo-Bangladesh border in order to prevent further destabilization of the region.


Assam should realize that this situation cannot continue for long. Some strong long-term planning has to go into a robust policy framework. The Parliament of India should also act responsibly to its border state of Assam, as a systemic demographic imbalance of Assam will spell disaster for the rest of India. If Assam becomes a victim, can India continue to be an ignorant onlooker?

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