Home Implications of Demographic Change in the Security Environment of Assam

Implications of Demographic Change in the Security Environment of Assam

In a political system that seeks to hold together a society containing multiple ethnic groups, one of which has a bare or near majority is often a precarious arrangement. Differential natural population growth rate among ethnic groups could lead to large scale civil conflict and violence. While overall population growth or increase in overall population density do not generally lead to conflict, research has shown that in many cases, certain population changes are strongly associated with political instability. There is a complex relationship involved wherein demographic changes occurring in a particular political and economic context causes instability.

In the case of North-East India in general and Assam in particular, the demographic changes have generated tensions between the indigenous communities and the communities which migrated into the region during the colonial rule and after India’s independence. The ethnic tension in Assam between the Bengali and the Assamese people following the immigration and settlement of lakhs of Bengalis/Bangladeshis after 1947 is a well recorded fact.[1] Also, ethnic tensions between tribal and non-tribal populations is attributed to the immigration of lakhs of Bengalis from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh which made the indigenous communities feel that they have become a minority in their own land. By and by, it is unclear whether the worry about the possible influx of outsiders into Assam is real or imaginary, but at times, this fear drives them to violent attacks against the communities considered outsiders.

Throughout the twentieth century, Assam has been the fastest growing area in the subcontinent. Its population has grown nearly six-fold since 1901. When India had a decadal growth rate of 5.7 percent between 1901-11, Assam had a decadal growth rate of 16.8 percent and when India had decadal growth rate of 13.3 percent between 1941-51, Assam’s decadal growth rate stood at 20.1 percent. Subsequently, in the decadal growth rate between 1971-81, India grew at 24.7 percent, while Assam’s population grew at 36.3 percent.[2] Since there is no evidence that Assam’s rate of increase was significantly different than that in the rest of India, the difference can only be accounted for by net immigration.[3]

The first wave of migration into Assam began shortly before the middle of the nineteenth century when the British created tea plantations in the hill areas. This migration was accompanied by an influx of educated Bengali Hindus into positions in the administrative services and in the professions. The 1981 census estimated that one-fourth of the population of the Brahmaputra valley was of migrant origin. The largest influx took place after 1900 when Bengali Muslims moved into the Brahmaputra Valley from East Bengal. Bengali Muslims reclaimed thousands of acres of land, cleared vast tracts of dense jungle along the south bank of the Brahmaputra and occupied flooded lowlands all along the river.

By 1911 as many as 118,000 migrants had moved into the district of Goalpara alone, representing 20 percent of the population.[4] In the next two decades, the Muslim migrants moved further up the Brahmaputra Valley. Though some Muslims had settled in Assam as early as the thirteenth century, this new influx rapidly changed the religious as well as linguistic composition of the state. As Assam’s links to the rest of India grew, other migrants moved there as traders, merchants, bankers, moneylenders and small industrialists. These various migrations not only transformed the ethnic composition of Assam; they also fostered a political climate in which questions of ethnicity and migration became central.

In 1930’s and 1940’s, when electoral politics were introduced, the more numerous Bengali Muslims won control over the state government and then attempted to use their position to facilitate further migration of Bengali Muslims from East Bengal to strengthen their political position, and then to press for the incorporation of Assam into the proposed Muslim majority state of Pakistan.[5] The British rejected the demand of the Muslim League, but agreed to partition Assam by transferring Sylhet district to Pakistan.

Illegal migration from Bangladesh into Assam has been a major political, economic, social and security issue for the society in Assam so much so that it evoked the non-violent, highly visible Assam Agitation (1979-1985) spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). That agitation resulted in the Assam Accord of 1985 which stated that anybody settled in Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 is not a citizen, but an illegal migrant. This provision of the Accord has not been implemented and has therefore failed to change the nature of Bangladeshi immigration into Assam, now termed as a “silent invasion.”[6]

Certain influential Assamese intellectuals warn that Assam could become a part of “Greater Bangladesh” with districts like Dhubri and Goalpara witnessing a change in their demographic profile by becoming migrant-dominated while other districts like Barpeta, Nalbari, Nagaon and Darrang are also heading in that direction.[7] Local politicians in Assam are mostly blamed for not doing enough about illegal migration because of “vote bank” politics.

Consequently, the illegal Bangladeshi migrants issue tends to dominate the political, economic, social, and security discourses in Assam with “sons of soil” of the state expressing concern of being taken over demographically by these migrants. The lack of data on migration adds to a sense of being ‘under siege’ by outsiders as no one is sure as to the number of migrants visibly infiltrating all walks of life in Assam.

The October 2008 violence in Udalguri and Goalpara and July 2012 violence in Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts of Assam have once again brought the issue of large-scale immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh into sharp focus. The violence has not only renewed the debate on autonomy arrangements in Assam, but also revived the settler-immigrant theme for the administration.

Far too many deaths have been attributed to ethnic conflict in Assam over the past decade. Every case of rioting and violence between communities in the State has drawn neighbours into histories that cannot be disentangled from one another, to the extent that even acts of rebuilding and resumption of life are a sign of the violence that has preceded it. To complicate matters further, there is little or no discussion on how ethnic categories come into play in violent events and why conflicts continue to persist with such alarming regularity in Assam. That only gives more vigour to those who claim that demographic changes have had an adverse impact on social relations.[8]

Aside from the terrible toll of lives, India loses precious territory owing to unchecked illegal migration. It has been argued that the communal violence in Assam between the Bodos and “illegal immigrants” has an element of planned illegal migration over a period of time which seemingly aims to create a national security threat within India’s borders.[9] Further, it has also been alleged that illegal migrants from Bangladesh are causing a serious security threat armed with voting rights granted by political opportunists. Generally, the presence of illegal Bangladeshi nationals in India remains the contentious issue that undercuts India-Bangladesh relations and is detrimental to security of India.

Sections of border population are argued to have being subverted with the circulation of anti-India and fundamentalist propaganda originating from Bangladesh. During Oct-Nov 2001, calendars iconising Osama-bin-Laden were found in circulation in Karimganj. Police also seized CDs and audio cassettes in Tezpur in Nov 2001 propagating fundamentalism. Again in Nov 2002, Karimganj police discovered a large number of audio cassettes containing inflammatory anti-India speeches.[10]

There are also security threats due to the rise of Islamic militancy that has started consolidating itself particularly because Bangladeshi infiltration remains unchecked and illegal immigration continues to be a sensitive issue that is misused for political purpose. There are over a dozen Muslim extremist organizations working in Assam and in NE region like Muslim Liberation Tiger of Assam (MULTA), Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA), Muslim Liberation Army to name a few. It has been alleged that the purpose of these organisations is to spread Islamic fundamentalism in the entire North-East.[11] Further, there are also fears that foreign agencies including the ISI of Pakistan are using this easy practice of migration from Bangladesh to set up cocoons of terrorists in India to destabilise the political systems and create instability in the country. It is widely believed that Islamic militancy has been consolidating because of unabated Bangladeshi immigration.

All in all, illegal immigrants not only pursue activities such as smuggling and illegal trade, help run trans-border terrorist outfits but also help in gathering information for the extremist groups of North-East. Now, it has also been established that most of the armed insurgent groups in Assam like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) had established camps in Bangladesh through logistical information about the areas in Bangladesh provided by the network of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants which in turn compromises the security of Assam. The 30 Oct 2009 blast in Assam which killed 83 civilians and injured 30 was suspected to be the handiwork of ULFA, the NDFB and the HuJI from Bangladesh with certain elements from the migrant population helping them in carrying out this ghastly act.

With demography being dramatically altered by their steady influx, illegal immigrants have started wielding enormous political power in Assam. It has been argued that illegal migrant have become the majority in 11 out of 27 districts in the State and the dominant factor in determining electoral fortunes is 54 out of 126 constituencies in the local Assembly. A stage has been reached where no party can expect to attain political dominance without support from these Bangladeshi Muslims. It is this conversion of the illegal migrants into a political force that has made the indigenous population apprehensive of losing its identity and culture.


Ahmad, Shahnawaz (2012), “Bangladesh Illegal Immigration: Effects and Consequences”, Journal of Eurasian Studies, IV (3): 38-53

Bajaj, J.K (2012), “Decline of the Indigenous People and Growing Tensions in Assam” [www.cspindia.org] Accessed on 7 Jan 2013, URL: www.cspsindia.org/dl/CurrentArticles/AssamDemography1991-2001.pdf

Barbora, Sanjay, “Identity of a Recurring Conflict” [www.thehindu.com] Accessed on 7 Jan 2013, URL: www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/identity-of-a-recurring-conflict/article3704450.ece

Goswami, Namrata, “Bangladeshi Illegal Migration into Assam: Issues and Concerns from the Field” [www.idsa.in] Accessed on 7 Jan 2013, URL: www.idsa.in/system/.../IB_BangladeshillegalMigrationintoAssam.pdf

Kumar, Chrantan (2009), “Migration and Refugee Issue Between India and Bangladesh”, Scholar’s Voice: A New Way of Thinking, 1 (1): 64-82

Srikanth, H. “Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in the Northeast: Need for Radical Civil Reforms.” [www.nehu.ac.in] Accessed on 9 Jan 2013, URL: dspace.nehu.ac.in/jspui/bitstream/1/4832/1/Resolving%20ethnic.pdf

Weiner, Myron (1983), “The Political Demography of Assam’s Anti-Immigrant Movement”, Population and Development Review, 9 (2): 279-292

The author is a Research Assistant with CLAWS.

Views expressed are personal.


[1] H. Srikanth, “Resolving Ethic Conflicts in the Northeast: Need for Radical Civil Forums”, dspace.nehu.ac.in/jspui/bitstream/1/4832/1/Resolving%20ethnic.pdf, Accessed on 9 Jan 2013, p. 61

[2] Myron Weiner (1983), “The Political Demography of Assam’s Anti-Immigrant Movement”, Population and Development Review, 9 (2): 283

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p. 284

[6]NamrataGoswami, “Bangladeshi Illegal Migration into Assam: Issues and Concerns from the Field.” www.idsa.in/system/.../IB_BangladeshillegalMigrationintoAssam.pdf, Accessed on 7 Jan 2013

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sanjay Barbora, “Identity of a Recurring Conflict”, www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/identity-of-a-recurring-conflict/article3704450.ece, Accessed on 7 Jan 2013

[9]Illegal Migration: A Serious Issue, http://centreright.in/2012/07/illegal-migration-a-serious-issue/#.UOuu_mciS9s Accessed on 8 Jan 2013

[10]Shahnawaz Ahmad (2012), “Bangladesh Illegal Immigration: Effects and Consequences”, Journal of Eurasian Studies IV (3): 47

[11] Ibid.


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