Immigrants were once welcomed in Assam – Part 2

Immigrants from current Bangladesh were invited during the colonial though things changed rapidly as we approached the partition and beyond.

Immigrants were once welcomed in Assam – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

The background of the settlement of Muslims from Mymensing (now in Bangladesh) in Nowgong, Kamrup, Goalpara ( subsequently annexed by British for the purpose of reforming Assam 1921) has been totally forgotten. The two-fold objectives: 1. Stepping up the agricultural output of the State. 2. To show Assamese as the single largest population of this polyglot (reconstituted by British in 1912) with the help of a vast number of Bengalee-speaking immigrants termed as neo-Assamese, has been fulfilled during 1951-1971.
I quote the ‘Details of Land Settlement Changes’ from ‘Strangers Of The Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast ‘ by Sanjoy Hazarika. From this, it is clear to us that immigrants were welcomed in Assam.
Land settlement policy changes, Government of Assam, January 1945, as a result of an All-Party conference on the issue and the leadership of Gopinath Bardoloi (Sir Mohammad Saadulla was Premier of the State)
1. In the districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang and Nowgong there should be a systematic distribution of land for all landless people of all communities including the immigrants who came before 1938.
2. A family would not get more than 10 acres or 30 bighas of land.
3. If required land is not available in these four districts, in that case North Lakhimpur would be opened.
4. Those having land less than five bighas should be considered landless.
5. Reserved areas would be formed for the tribals. Its size would be double the size of the lands acquired by them at present. Along with this, lands would be kept reserved for (their) future expansion also.
6. What was decided in 1940, according to this formula, was that at least 30 per cent of the land of all districts, would be kept for future expansion. In the actual reserved grazing areas, even if they were found additional, no human settlements would be allowed. Of course, present settlers in these lands would not be evicted.
7. If any community failed to occupy fully the lands allotted to them within 2 years, in that case, these lands would be distributed among other communities. Throughout the state and in the three main districts (Darrang, Nowgong (or Nagaon) and Kamrup), advisory committees would be formed, one for each district, with representatives of all parties.
8. Same of the parts of the old scheme of the government with regard to the distribution of additional lands would be deleted.
(The August 1943 land proposals of Saadulla which created an uproar in Assam declared that the grazing lands should be converted to lands for settlement (by immigrants) in the districts of Darrang, Nowgong and Kamrup, and in Sibsagar and Lakhimpur districts, the foothills were to be reclaimed by landless local people. )
In Saadulla-Bardoloi -Chaudhury  Accord, signed on 22nd March 1945 in Shillong, Land settlement was mentioned in such way ;
(a) The policy of Land Settlement embodied in the Govt resolution of 15th January ’45 will be modified as follows:-
Paragraph (8) of the resolution shall be substituted by the following:-
In order to raise the standard of living of our cultivating classes, the Govt shall provide on the application, land in the planned settlement area, an economic holding which shall be at least 20 bighas for an applicant on a family of five persons or less. In no case shall a family or an applicant get more than 30 bighas.
Ali Haidar Laskar wrote in his book ‘ A history of the Muslims and the Barak Valley ‘ on this immigration issue
Mymensingh was the most populous of all the Bengal districts nearest to Assam next to Goalpara. In Assam, there were 67,79,978 acres of cultivable land out of which only 12,58,277 acres were cultivated. Shortage of manpower was an important factor for migration of East Bengal peasants into the Brahmaputra Valley. The vast expanse of cultivable wastelands in Assam could not escape the notice of the millions of farmers of Mymensingh. According to BP Singh, author of North East India,’ In attempting to enhance land revenue and augment the exchequer by exploiting the natural resources of the region the British found that the shortage of manpower in Assam was the greatest obstacle to the fulfilment of their plan.’ Labourers and cultivators from densely populated Mymensingh and other districts of East Bengal were invited by the British to sparsely populated Brahmaputra Valley. Migration of a vast number of tea garden labourers required more food also. Poor cultivators who were the inhabitants of same Pragjyotishpur/Kamrup got a chance to shift to Soumerpit, a part of former Kamrup. The Government of India introduced the ‘Grow More Food Campaign’ during the World War II and designed the extension of cultivation in Assam from 52.8 lakhs of acres to 57 lakhs of acres during the year 1943. Lands were allotted to migrants in the districts of Kamrup, Nagaon and Darrang by the Sadullah Government against Government’s policy of ‘ Grow more food.’
It was not easy for the immigrants to come to Assam, occupy wasteland and start cultivation. Most of the available lands had first to be reclaimed and made suitable for human habitation as they were infested with malaria and wild animals and were extremely unhealthy. The elements of uncertainty entered into the transactions involving the purchase of lands from the Assamese as the immigrants were strangers to the places. Instances were not wanting where a seller wanted back his land after getting the stipulated sum. ‘There is no record of the number of lives that had to be sacrificed before the wastelands of Assam became the homes of the immigrants. However, the immigrants became unwanted people after having greatly contributed to the wealth of Assam. (source: Muslims in Assam Politics by M Kar)
Initially, migration was welcomed by Assamese middle-class Hindus in the interest of improving vast wastelands as well as for the supply of cheap labour. Immigrants Muslims of Bengal first settled in South Salmara, Lakhipur and Bilasipara areas of former Goalpara district. The total number of such immigrated people up to 1881 AD was 49059. Migration gradually spread up to adjacent districts of Kamrup, Darrang and Nowgong. 85 per cent of immigrated farmers were Muslim and the rest 15 per cent were Hindus. For administrative purposes, many educated Hindus were also brought to Assam by the British Government. Up to the first quarter of the 20th century, the British Government encouraged migration as a matter of policy. There are instances of forceful migration of cultivators of Bengal to Assam by a nexus between the British and the Maruwari capitalists for production of more jute in Assam required for their jute mills running in Bengal. Many Assamese capitalists also encouraged the migration of cultivators. According to one of the greatest Assamese nationalist Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, ‘ We are further impressed with the belief that the people from some of the badly provided parts of Bengal could be likewise invited to immigrate.’
The migration of people from across the border of Assam was not a major countable factor at the initial stage of the British rule in Assam. But it became a burning problem in the socio-political life Assam. The large scale influx of East Bengal peasants brought about an abrupt change in the population structure of Assam. The Assamese people had a bitter experience of the language problem. Bengali was introduced in the Government offices and educational institutions of Assam in 1836, instead of Assamese. Inclusion of Bengali speaking districts of Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara in Assam in the year 1874 turned Assamese speaking people into a minority in Assam. The assumption of the Assamese people that the large scale influx of the people from East Bengal would endanger their identity became a political issue. According to Sanjoy Hazarika, ‘ The Assamese caste Hindu power block felt most threatened by the Muslim migration, fearing a loss of political power and economic and cultural dominance.’
In view of the increasing number of migrants, Deputy Commissioners of Assam were asked to take effective steps to meet the situation. In 1916 AD, Deputy Commissioners of Nowgong and Kamrup formulated a plan according to which new comers were allowed to settle in certain areas of the villages demarcated by a line called Line system.
Line system created a controversy. Any proposal to restrict inter-provincial migration was not acceptable to the British Government. It maintained that the settlement of migrants was on the whole beneficial as it was increasing the provincial revenue. Line system helped to develop a communal tension between Hindus and Muslims. During the meeting of Assam Legislative Council, Legislative Council members Kuladhar Chalia and Kamakhyaram Barua debated in favour of prohibition of migration. They supported the settlement of land with the natives only and demanded extension of policy of preference to the ‘children of the soil’ to political and other fields also. C S Mullan, the Census Commissioner of India, made a derogatory statement against immigrants in 1931 which instigated Assamese Hindus very much. The remark was a part of divide and rule policy of the British. Muslims and European members of the Legislative Council were against the proposal of line system. According to a European member, ‘ Such kind of step would be economically bad and it would hamper free flow of capital and enterprise. Large areas of wasteland and jungles would remain unproductive hampering trade and prosperity of the State.’ Regarding the issue raised in the name of ‘children of the soil’ a European member A H W Bentink remarked , ‘…so far as the Assam Valley is concerned Assamese other than Ahoms came from West, Ahoms came from East , the Kacharis came from North, the Sylhetis, Bengalees and Mymensinghs came from South and European came from overseas. Which of these have the best right to be called the children of the soil?’  Keramat Ali of Jorhat said, ‘ God’s spare lands are surely for God’s spare population.’ ( page 269-272)
Ali Haidar Laskar further mentioned the speech of Abdul Matin Choudhury. He wrote in his book as below: (page 273-274)
Controversy over Line system regarding settlement of immigrants was continuing and debates held in the days of Dyarchy system continued up to the days of Parlimentary system. Abdul Matin Choudhury, a member from Sylhet and a Muslim League stalwart of All India status said in the Assam Assembly debate, ‘If Sir your ancestor came to Assam with Mirzumla or Ahom King, if you came as invaders, despoiled the population, usurped the land and settled here, you will be called an indigenous Assamese, you will be treated as the pet child, you will be shown all the favour that benign Government can bestow. But Sir, if your ancestors came as pioneers, if they develop the country, if they cleared the jungle and made prosperous villages and habitable tracts, if they contributed to the development of the province, you will be treated as PARIAH in your land and you will be saddled with all difficulties and all the disadvantages that human ingenuity can invert…’. According to Choudhury, ‘Line system segregates communities by reasons of race and racial prerogative. An unjust and arbitrary distinction is made between the indigenous Assamese and immigrant Bengalees on the basis of early or recent advent of their ancestors to the province, a few centuries ago or during the course of the last fifty or sixty years ‘. Matin Choudhury further pointed out that immigrants from Sylhet/Cachar, inside the province, also suffered the same humiliation. Mohammed Monwar Ali of Sylhet brought a motion supported by Abdul Matin Choudhury to abolish Line system.
Admitting the question of preservation of Assamese culture Pandit Nehru wrote to Bishnuram Medhi, President of Assam Provincial Congress Committee, in 1937:
‘The immigration question is a complicated one and it has become a communal question which will make it more difficult of solution. Every effort should be made to avoid giving prominence to the communal aspect of it. The desire of the Assamese not to be overwhelmed by a non-Assamese people is perfectly legitimate. But it must be recognized that a sparsely populated area with vacant land like Assam is at present, cannot continue as it is with overcrowded province surrounding it. Therefore, immigration is bound to take place because of the economic urge for it. No amount of sentiment and not even laws will ultimately stop it.’
Regarding the line system, Pandit Nehru observed,
‘I do feel that the present line system is essentially bad as it creates or is likely to create two sharply divided areas hostile to each other. Immigrants should always be assimilated, otherwise, they will become foreign bodies always giving trouble. Therefore, the present line system is certainly undesirable. At the same time, to abolish it and leave the door open to the unrestricted immigrants without any safeguard would also be undesirable. ‘
Ruhini Kumar Choudhury, Revenue Minister of Muslim League Coalition Cabinet of Sir Sadullah remarked in the debate,
‘ … At the initial stage the Mymensingh immigrants were deceived in various ways…They had heard that land was available for purchase in some districts of Assam and they came with money; when they found that they could purchase land for much less than what they had to pay in Bengal, they paid for it and thought that they got it’. Further, he admitted that they were mostly ignorant people and they did not even know that they had got no title over the land. ‘Some Assamese, in order to feed fat their grudge against certain villagers, would sell the land to the Mymensingh immigrants and themselves lived elsewhere’.
Ali Haidar further wrote on the issue as below
The Assamese language was threatened with extinction in 1826 AD. There was a suspicion that an increasing number of Bengali speaking immigrants might reduce Assamese linguistically and culturally in their homeland. Eminent leaders of the Brahmaputra Valley suggested to stop of flow of migrants and to introduce Assamese language among migrants.
After the partition of the country, Maulana Bhasani migrated to Pakistan. Before leaving for Pakistan, Bhasani advised Muslims living in the Brahmaputra valley to accept the Assamese language. Moreover, migrant Muslims were directly influenced by Assamese intellectuals (Both Hindus and Muslims).
Ambikagiri Roy Choudhury welcomed the East Bengal peasants to assimilate themselves with the local people by adopting Assamese culture and language. Nilamoni Phukan also appealed to the peasants from Bengal to assimilate themselves with the Assamese culture and language. They argued that the Bengali Muslims as permanent settlers of Assam, should cooperate and integrate with the local Assamese like earlier Muslims i.e Garia and Maria who have already been integrated with local Assamese. The Assamese intellectuals gave all kinds of verbal assurances to accept Bengali Muslims as part and parcel of Assamese society and allow the rights and privilege to them as Assamese people enjoyed. The influence was so strong that migrant Muslims willingly accepted to be registered as Assamese in the census of 1951. As a result, percentage of Assamese speaking people increased in the districts of the Brahmaputra valley. Assamese population increased from ten lakhs to forty-eight lakhs and the Bengalee population decreased from forty lakhs to seventeen lakhs, during the period 1931-1951. Otherwise, it was impossible for the local Assamese to reconstitute the state of Assam in 1956, on the basis of Assamese language. Migrant Muslims also sacrificed their lives for the cause of Assamese language during the language movement of 1960. Those Muslims accordingly assimilated with the Assamese society and were nick named as ‘ Na-Asomia’ (New Assamese).
The fear of the Assamese people of losing their own language in their homeland diminished gradually when the migrants Muslim accepted Assamese as their mother tongue. The distinctive feature of the migrant Muslims of the Brahmaputra Valley is that, although their mother tongue is Bengali, they like to be identified as Na-Asomia or neo-Assamese. These Muslims of Assam consider themselves as an inseparable component of the Assamese society and thus, have been accomplishing a difficult task of assimilation and identification with the socio-cultural life of Assam.
According to Dr Birendra Kr Bhattacharyya, Ex –President, Assam Sahitya Sabha,
‘It must be said to the credit of the immigrant Muslims that they have been always in the forefront of the struggle of the state to make  ‘Assamese’  the state language and medium of instruction of higher education’.
According to Amalendu Guha,
‘In respect of most of the family of immigrant Muslims, the first member is no more alive. They left behind their sons and daughters and grandsons, who cannot speak the Bengali dialect in original form, rather, use a mixed dialect. In some respect, they became completely Assamese speaking. The Muslim students are taking education through Assamese language.’
Praising the contribution of neo-Assamese Muslims, Mahendra Bora explained in his Presidential address of Sahitya Sabha (Pathsala session, 1987) how they are immensely contributing to the Assamese literature and day to day life of Assamese society.
Girin Phukon observed in his book ‘Assam Attitude To Federalism’ published by Sterling Publishers Private Ltd as below:
It may be noted that there had been an excessive pressure of population on land in East Bengal together with the zamindari oppression and exploitation over the peasants. Thus suffering from the oppression of zamindars, these peasants were flocking to the Brahmaputra Valley in large numbers in order to settle down on its beckoning wasteland. In this connection, another fact may also be taken into consideration: The Bengal’s oppressed Muslim peasantry gradually became articulate and organized to fight against the exploitation of zamindars and money-lenders, who were mostly Hindus. The British imperialist and Bengal zamindars obviously thought it wise to send the landless peasants to the Assam Valley in order to check the revolutionary situation there. Thus immigration of East Bengal peasants into Assam was also encouraged under the landlord-imperialist machination. Moreover, this immigration was also connected with the growth of the jute industry in Bengal mostly financed by British capital. The expansion of jute cultivation became necessary with the expansion of jute trade. As the area of jute cultivation in Bengal was not unlimited, they wanted to grow the same in the soil of Assam. Hence the immigration of jute cultivators into Assam became imminent. At the same time, a favourable situation was obtained in Assam for this. As a result of the Moamoriya peasant rebellion in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the Burmese invasion in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a loss of almost half of the natural population of Assam. Moreover, diseases like kala-azar had yet another effect in that direction during the early period of the colonial rule. Thus, the natural growth of population in Assam was retarded for some time. Consequently, a large area of the valley remained vacant and uncultivated, and soon became covered with deep jungle. As the cultivable land was much more in proportion to the inhabitants, and as the Government did not want to be deprived of the land revenue from these lands, the British administration obviously encouraged large-scale immigration into Assam from the various famine-stricken areas and provinces of India.
However, this is not to imply that a section of the Assamese middle class did not help the process of immigration. It appears from the contemporary evidence available to us that the modernist element of the then Assamese society also welcomed the importation of immigrant labour and skilled people and did not suffer from a ‘Xenophobia’ of the later period. Bolinarayan Borah, a leading member of the Assamese middle class and an engineer by profession, wanted ‘good Bengali’ men to be appointed as teachers in the schools of Assam with high salary.
Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, another leading personality of the Assamese society during the middle of the nineteenth century, in a memorandum, submitted to AJ.M. Mills, pleaded that “the people from some of the badly provided parts of Bengal could be invited to immigrate” as a means of improving the population of the province. Gunabhiram Barua, a member of Assamese gentry, even estimated that no less than a million people could easily be settled from outside on wasteland of Assam. In fact, the Assamese elite of the nineteenth century was convinced that no economic progress was possible unless the then depopulated condition was restored to normalcy. Even some Assamese Mahajans provided a substantial part of the necessary finance to enable the immigrant peasants to bring virgin soil under the plough. Besides, many Assamese sold off their lands to immigrants at a good price; then they cleared new plots of wasteland and sold these again. At the same time, most of them encouraged the influx of East Bengal men to Assam with a view to employing cheap labour in their field and homesteads.
Since the early decades of twentieth-century the Assamese elite, however, became afraid of being swamped by the Muslim immigrants from East Bengal. Therefore, some of them advocated the immigration of Bihari Hindus into Assam to counter the influx of Muslims. As a matter of fact, Dr Rajendra Prasad had toyed with this idea of populating Assam with Bihari Hindu immigrants so that Muslim influx from East Bengal could be checked.
For instance, in his autobiography Dr Rajendra Prasad maintained:
I sounded the Assamese on the subject and they welcomed it. Some thought it better to have the Hindus of Bihar than the Muslims of Mymensingh. They welcomed the idea also because by themselves the Assamese were unable to bring the land under plough. But the influx of Muslims from Mymensingh was upsetting the population ratio, and the Assamese wanted to retain a majority in the Brahmaputra Valley. The influx from Mymensingh could be countered only by Bihari Hindus to settle down on the land.
Girin Phukon continued his observation as below,
Thus, it is evident that what was initially an economic issue was turned into a communal one, not only by the Muslim League, but also by some eminent Congress leaders. It may also be noted that since the majority of East Bengal peasants were Muslims, very often the conservative section of the Assamese Hindu middle class recruited a large number of Nepalis for their cultivation and household work. Thus Nepalis got encouraged to come to Assam. Over and above, the corrupt revenue officers, most of whom were Assamese, also gave settlement to the immigrant peasants.
Mahadev Sarma moved a resolution in the Assam Legislative Council on July 23, 1927 in order to restrict the settlement of land with immigrants.
Participating in the debate on the resolution, while Basanta Kumar Das (a Bengali) urged the preservation for sufficient land for the indigenous people, Nabin Chandra Bordoloi said that he “would not restrict immigration, so far as can be helped.” Thus it appears that along with the British, a section of Assamese middle class also contributed a great deal to the influx of outsiders into Assam.
In any case, it seems that the immigrant question, in its inception, was essentially an economic one, but since the inauguration of the provincial autonomy, it had been given a communal colouring because political power had come to be assessed on the numerical strength of different communities. Obviously, the imperialist power exploited the situation and successfully created a condition for a conflict between the Assamese and the immigrant communities. They thought that their interest could remain intact so long as there was disunity among the people in the name of language, religion and nationality.
It needs no mention that a large number of immigrants from Bengal happened to be Bengali Muslims. Being Muslims, they had a separate religious identity different from the majority of the Assamese people while at the same time, being Bengalis, they belonged to a linguistically distinct group.
Consequently, they (the Bengali Muslims), combined with the Bengali Hindu immigrants, constituted a sizable number of Bengali population in Assam. Thus the mass immigration into Assam, particularly from Bengal, had two major socio-political dimensions: it (i) began to increase the numerical strength of the Muslims in the province which threatened the dominant position of Assamese caste Hindu elite; and (ii) created the Assamese-Bengali tension mainly on the issue of lingua-cultural question.
Girin Phukon further pointed out in his book, “With the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, the issue of immigration got highly politicised. Over the years, the demographic composition of the Brahmaputra Valley was changed considerably by immigration. The proportion of Muslims in the population of the Brahmaputra Valley had increased from 9 per cent in 1881 to 10 per cent in 1931 and further to 23 per cent in 1941. In 1911, Muslims constituted only 0.1 per cent of the population of Borpeta sub-division; but by 1941, the percentage shot upto 49.* By and large, there was a tremendous increase of Muslim population in the Brahmaputra Valley districts (including the Garo Hills), during the period between 1911-1941 which may be shown as follows
Muslim population:
1911 – 3,55,320
1921 – 5,85,943
1931 – 9,43,352
1941 – 13,03,962
Thus the increase of Muslim population in the province gave an edge to the Muslim League to demand for the inclusion of Assam in Jinnah’s proposed East Pakistan. The Assamese upper caste elite were, however, convinced that the Muslim League Government in Assam under the leadership of Muhammad Saadulla was deliberately welcoming the Muslim element into the province with the introduction of ‘Land Development Scheme’.
Thus Harendranath Barua, a noted journalist, representing the sentiment of this section of the Assamese elite, observed:
“The Saadulla Government’s welcome to immigrants from Bengal, over 95 per cent of whom are Muslims, in the form of their Development’ Scheme has also close bearing on the Muslim League leaders’ demand for inclusion of Assam in the proposed Eastern Pakistan.”
Similarly, The Assam Tribune, which mainly championed the views of the Assamese upper caste elite, in one of its editorials complained that Saadulla Cabinet was ‘imbued with the idea of Pakistan” and the Land Development Scheme was “meant to reduce the importance of the Hindus both politically and numerically.”
It was also alleged that the immigrants were even provided free travel by the Saadulla government to come to this Province and to occupy vacant land. Whether the Muslim League government provided free travel to the immigrants or not, is difficult to ascertain. But it is evident that Muslim League leaders certainly encouraged immigration to Assam.
Thus Abdul Matin Chaudhury, the then Muslim League Minister of Assam, maintained: “Commonsense demands that for the development of the province, settlement of land ought to be facilitated and unrestricted immigration encouraged as a deliberate and definite policy.” The tempo of implementation of Land Development Scheme increased after 1939 when the bulk of the Hindu members of the Assembly, who were Congressmen, had to remain absent due to imprisonment or detention in connection with the Congress movement. In this connection, it may be noted that the Saadulla Government allowed Bengali Muslim immigrants to settle over one lakh bighas of land in Assam Valley during 1939-40 i.e., in just one year. The Muslim leaders felt that they could perpetuate their power in Assam only if the percentage of Muslims in the population was increased.
Phukon observed further in his book.
Obviously, therefore, the Muslim League leaders objected to the retention of the “Line System” and demanded its abolition. But on the other hand, they were enthusiastic enough to implement the colonisation Scheme. Under this ‘Scheme’ the Government of Assam took the responsibility to settle immigrants in a planned way in selected places. The first Colonisation Scheme was started in Nowgong in 1928 and it was followed by Borpeta and Mangaldoi sub-divisions. The areas allotted to 1,619 Muslim and 441 Hindu immigrant families under the Nowgong Scheme alone amounted to 47,636 acres till March 1933. During the six years preceding 1936 as many as 59 grazing forest and village reserves had been thrown open in Nowgong under the Colonisation Scheme for settling the immigrants. Thus it appeared to the Assamese elite that the Saadulla Government was following, as The Assam Tribune put it, “a completely anti-Assamese policy”, in the matter of immigration. This policy of the Muslim League government was resented by the Assamese elite and it led them to believe that the land settlement policy of the League Ministry was connected with their demand for the inclusion of Assam into the eastern zone of Pakistan. In fact a section of the Assamese elite described the settlement of land with the Muslim immigrants as an “invasion of the province” for the political design of the Muslim League. This feeling of the Assamese elite was, however, not without justification.
Maulavi Abdur Rouf, leader of the immigrant Muslims, in the course of his presidential address to the Reception Committee of the third annual conference of Assam Provincial Muslim League, held at Borpeta on April 7-8, 1944, maintained that:
“The same fresh blood which runs through their veins even today again took the rudder to tow their boats against the current of the ever-flowing Jomuna to make their way for a new conquest of Assam. Being deprived of their arms, shields and swords by the mercy of the British rulers, they with a cane shield and bamboo stick, spears and plough came and effected their landing either in chairs or in the jungles adjacent to the rivers. The souls of martyrs and devotees of past are witnessing this new expedition of the Bengali Muslims, the Holy servants of Allah, from above with yawning eagerness and thankfulness too…With increased vitality in the life of the community and with the help of numerous new reinforcements, the figure in the Borpeta sub-division alone could be raised up to 65,000 ”
Such statements of the Muslim leaders obviously caused much anxiety in the minds of the Assamese elite and they believed that the Assamese would, in due course, be swamped by the Muslim immigrants converting Assam into a Muslim majority province. This apprehension of the Assamese elite further accentuated by the Saadulla government’s policy of Census operation in 1941. For instance, in the 1941 Census, the population of Assam was classified on the basis of community rather than religion. In effect, a large number of tribals who were earlier treated as Hindus, Christians and Buddhists now came under the head “Tribal”. This implied that the Hindu tribals in Assam had been shown as non-Hindu in the Census Report of 1941. Consequently, the Assam Census figure for 1941 showed, as The Assam Tribune alleged, “an amazing rise in Muslim and tribal population and equally surprising fall in the population of Hindus, Christians and Buddhists in the province’. The Assamese elite complained that the League Ministry “manipulated the Census figures to serve their communal interest” (particularly to justify their demand for inclusion of Assam into East Pakistan) by showing a larger Muslim population than the actual number and a smaller figure for the Hindus.
Gopinath Bordoloi, the leader of the Congress, challenged the Census Report of 1941 and demanded its revision by an independent body. Similarly, Siddhinath Sarmah moved an adjournment motion in the Assam Legislative Council which generated a provocative response in the House. And The Assam Tribune in one of its editorials called upon the Hindus of Assam to unite and take necessary steps to counteract the “sinister move” of the Saadulla government.
Thus it is evident that owing to these factors, there was an apprehension in the minds of the Assamese elite that they would soon cease to be a dominant community in Assam. In the context of the slogan for Pakistan in pre-partition days, they feared that if the Muslim population of the province rose at the alarming rate at which it was then growing, Assam would become a part of Pakistan and Assamese people would lose their distinct identity. By and large, Saadulla government’s policy towards the immigration from Bengal was being increasingly viewed as a calculated move to turn Assam into a Muslim-majority province, so that it could qualify herself for inclusion into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
The second dimension of immigration into Assam from Bengal was the tension between the Assamese and the Bengalis which subsequently became an endemic problem of the province. In order to have a fuller appreciation of this problem, we have to look through its basic causes.
As noted earlier, just after the British occupation, Assam was brought under the administrative jurisdiction of Bengal and later on, she was made a separate province in 1912 with the inclusion of three other districts of Bengal namely, Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara. Because of close association with Bengal for a considerable period, the population of these districts, particularly of Sylhet and Cachar, adopted the Bengali language and culture and developed the ways and outlook of Bengal. The population of the Brahmaputra Valley, on the other hand, remained isolated from Bengal and developed a language and culture (i.e., Assamese), markedly different, as they saw it, from the temperament and character of their Bengali neighbour. As a result, there emerged a problem of establishing cultural and political integration between these two streams.
What added fuel to this fire was that, as we mentioned earlier, the members of public services were brought by the British, mostly from Bengal, to this province; since they (Bengalis) had learnt English earlier. In fact, the British won over the Bengalis through the spread of English education first and took them to Orissa, Bihar and Assam so as to carry on colonial administration smoothly. And, as already noted, a large number of land-hungry Muslim immigrants from Bengal, who happened to be also Bengalis linguistically, came to Assam and adopted cultivation as their profession. In effect, within a short time, the Bengali-speaking people emerged as the second-largest group in the Assam Valley (also called the Brahmaputra Valley). Thus, the immigrant Bengali population of Assam Valley may be divided into two main categories:
(i) Cultivators who had moved in recent years, particularly in the twenties and the thirties of this century. These were mainly Muhammadans from Mymensingh (ii) Educated men, both settlers and sojourners whose presence was mainly caused by the British rule. This was a small, yet a very important and influential group whose influence in professional and public service was considerably increasing. The senior positions in the services were generally held by the Bengalis who, therefore, had considerable influence over the decision-making process in Assam. This naturally included the question of recruitment. Hence, the Bengali employees in different services continued to increase in number. The Assamese elite, however, resented this development and asserted that the increase of Bengali civil servants in Assam was mainly due to “nepotism and cliquishness of the Bengalis.”
Another factor which favoured the continued occupation of the public offices and professions by the Bengalis was that the British introduced the Bengalee language, in place of the Assamese, as the official language of the province in 1837 and it remained so for nearly half a century. Assamese children were, under compulsion, taught Bengalee as their vernacular.
It was not until 1873 that the Assamese began to be taught in primary schools and another quarter of a century was to elapse before it found its way into the high schools. Perhaps, finding the Assamese language closely akin to the Bengalee, the British looked on its differential as merely a dialectical variation which ought to yield to what they considered the more cultivated language of the Calcutta standard. It was this logic which was probably responsible for the introduction of Bengalee language in Assam. Although the British introduced it for their administrative convenience, it had also the effect of reinforcing their policy of ‘divide and rule’ in perpetuating the tension between the Assamese and the Bengalis on the lingua-cultural question. It is, however, surprising that the elite of the then Assamese society did not immediately react to this language policy of the British. Rather, it seems that they readily accepted it and learnt Bengalee. Although in 1853, in course of a memorandum submitted to A.J.M. Mills, Anandaram Dhekial Phukan urged the Government to re-recognise the Assamese language, he did not want that “Bengalee should be altogether abolished from the schools.” On the contrary, he pleaded that “it should be cultivated as a language indispensable to complete the course of vernacular education, and that the standard Bengalee works should likewise be introduced in the higher classes.”
At any rate, the replacement of Assamese by the Bengalee as the official language had a far-reaching effect. With the growth of Assamese sub-nationalism, the Assamese intelligentsia became increasingly conscious of establishing their language on a sound footing. They had to work hard to popularise the Assamese language among different non-Assamese people of the province. It may be noted that prior to independence, it had never been the language of the majority of the people residing in the geographical entity called Assam.
Although the Assamese language was introduced in the schools of Assam in 1873, the Bengali community continued to have separate Bengali schools for themselves and they were not inclined to adopt Assamese as their medium of instruction. Together with the Bengali Hindu elite, the Muslim immigrants from Bengal also demanded equal rights for the Bengalee language.
Thus Matiur Rahman Mia, who represented the views of Muslim immigrants in the Assam Legislative Assembly, pleaded:
“We are Bengalees, our mother-tongue is Bengalee. Under the circumstances if this Assamese language be imposed as a new burden on our shoulders, on our children’s shoulders and if we are deprived of our mother-tongue, then that will amount to depriving our children of opportunities of education.”
Similarly, the third session of the Assam Domiciled and Settlers’ Association [renamed as Assam Citizens’ Association, which championed the views of the Bengali middle class in Assam, held at Nowgong on March 24, 1940, reiterated the demand for equal citizenship rights and education through the medium of one’s mother-tongue, irrespective of race and language. By and large, a major section of the Bengali settlers viewed the Brahmaputra Valley as a bilingual area.
And they posed a challenge to the unilingual concept of the Brahmaputra Valley, as upheld by the Congress since 1920. But the Assamese elite apprehended that if Bengali immigrants get equal right to education through their mother-tongue then gradually the Bengalee will come to predominate and the Assamese language and culture “Will be drawn in the Babel of the tongue.’ Therefore, they wanted that the Bengalis should learn Assamese and assimilate with the Assamese culture in order to contribute in the formation of a larger Assamese Society. Strange though it may seem, while the Assamese elite wanted to protect themselves from Bengali dominance they, at the same time, wanted to see the emergence of the whole of the north-eastern zone as a single political unit having a common language i.e., the Assamese. Somehow, they did not accept their idea of Assamese becoming the language of the whole of the north-east region was in some way similar to the Bengali idea of enforcing the legitimacy of the Bengalee being the language of this area. They were, however, forced to take up what tended to become a lingua-political question i.e., the position of Assamese language, literature, vis-a-vis the claims of the Bengali elite. The question of language got tied up with the economic issues, which, therefore, got highly politicised.
Economically, the business of Assam was controlled by the Europeans and the Marwaris. The Bengalis had hugely captured the petty trades, clerical and other jobs and professions like law and medicine, etc. In fact, the positions of influence and profit which the Assamese elite desired to hold were in large part in Bengalis’ hands. It is interesting to note that although the Marwaris and the Europeans exploited the Assamese economically, the Assamese elite did not feel their dominance in the same way as they felt in the case of the Bengalis. This was due to the fact that the former did not pose a socio-cultural threat to the Assamese as the Bengalis did. In any case, the Assamese elite who were late in coming to; commercial and industrial fields found themselves in some difficulty and they deeply felt a sense of deprivation. More importantly, they felt that together with the British, the Bengalis were responsible for many of their economic miseries. Unfortunately, though inevitably, this situation eventually led to continuous tension between the Assamese and the Bengalis.
Mention may be made that the colonial rulers gave constant encouragement in this direction. Curiously enough, while the British themselves were also responsible for immigration into Assam, particularly from East Bengal, they at the same time even posed themselves as the champion of ‘Assamese nationalism’. Indeed, they warned the Assamese that their own people would be turned into a minority in their homeland unless Bengali immigration into the Brahmaputra Valley was not checked. Thus C S Mullan in his Census Report, 1931 clearly noted that the distinct Assamese identity was being threatened by the large number of immigrants from Bengal.
He even compared the immigration into Assam with a military invasion and maintained that:
“By 1921 the first army corps of the invaders had conquered Goalpara. The second army corps which followed them in the years 1921-31 has consolidated their position in that district and has also completed the conquest of Nowgong.
The Borpeta sub-Division of Kamrup has also fallen to their attack and Darrang is being invaded. Sibsagar has so far escaped completely, but the few thousand Mymensinghias in North Lakhimpur are an outpost which may, during the next decade, prove to be a. valuable basis of major operations”
It is debatable whether these remarks were accurate, but rightly or wrongly it provoked the Assamese elite considerably. And, since emergence of “Assamese nationalism” was a middle-class phenomenon, taking advantage of such remarks made by the British officers, the Assamese elite wanted to project its own interest as the interest of the toiling Assamese peasants and workers so that the latter could be politically mobilized in the struggle for power with the elite of non-Assamese outsiders, particularly the Bengalis. To some extent, they succeeded in this effort. As a result, a sense of fear of being swamped by the Bengalis began to grow so deeply in the minds of Assamese people that the word “Bengali” was used to mean anyone who was not an Assamese.
Surprising though it may seem as the Census superintendent of 1931 observed, there was a “tendency for Assamese enumerators to write down any foreign tongue as ‘Bongola'(which means something foreign).” In fact, most of the Assamese people used to call the Bengalis as ‘Bongal’ (an inhabitant of Bengal which they meant foreigner). Indicative of this feeling was that in less sophisticated Assamese rural areas a European was popularly known as “Boga Bongal” (white foreigner) as distinguished from ‘Kola Bongal’ (black foreigner) i.e., Bengalis. By and large, the Assamese people began to look at them as a ruling race, next in command to the British. Thus sometimes they characterised the National Movement in Assam as the ‘Bongal Kheda Movement’ (Oust Bengali Movement). This was the basis of the attitude formed by a section of the Assamese towards the Bengalis in the course of a century and a half of this encounter.
What worsened this situation was that the militant section of the Bengali middle class even thought of establishing their dominance in Assam maintaining their distinct Bengali identity. For instance, according to a report in the Amrita Bazar Patrika on November 20, 1935, the Bengali residents of Assam assembled in a big public meeting at Tezpur and demanded that:
The brains of the 5 lakhs of Bengali-speaking Hindus, the wealth of 20,000 Marwaris, the great labour force (6,00,000 ex-tea garden coolies) of Biharis, the agricultural instinct of 5 and 1/2 lakh Sikhs, 1,40,000 Nepalis and other settles, if united together, these settlers would surely rule this country. The Assamese leaders must live here on the terms of the Bengali settlers who have already overflooded the province.
Such news published in the Calcutta papers provided at least some justification for the Assamese fear of being uprooted by the Bengalis in their own home. As unfortunately it often happens, the result was that a section of the Assamese elite tended to become hostile to the Bengali-speaking residents of Assam. The reasons for this hostility against the Bengali settlers as distinct from the other non-Assamese elements of the population were many. But more important perhaps was the fact that other settlers such as the tea garden labourers, the Marwaris, the Biharis and the Nepalis who also formed a sizable section of the non-Assamese population of the province did never threaten the position of the entrenched Assamese elite as the Bengalis did. In their psychology of fear, the Assamese elite thought that the Bengalis not only proclaimed their distinct identity within the province but also sometimes dreamt of ‘Greater Bengal’ which would include, among others, the territories of Assam.
The Assam Tribune asserted that as a measure of the fulfilment of their mission of making Assam a part of “Greater Bengal ‘ the Bengalis welcomed “more and more immigrants.” For this reason, the Assamese became more apprehensive of the Bengalis than any other non-Assamese group. What accentuated this apprehension of the Assamese elite were the remarks made by some people outside the province. For example, in 1944, Professor Humayun Kabir, the then Private Secretary to Maulana Azad, the Central Education Minister, writing in his monthly review, India, commented:
“One can easily visualise a Bengali State, comprising of about ten million people and living in a compact area. Such a State would include the present administrative province of Bengal and some of the outlying districts in Assam and Bihar. In fact, the province of Assam may be wholly incorporated in it. Cachar and Sylhet in the Surma Valley and Nowgong and Goalpara in the Assam Valley are Bengali majority districts. There can hardly be an Assam if these districts join Bengal.
Such statements, made by a person so close to Maulana Azad, caused a great deal of anxiety in the minds of the Assamese elite about the existence of a distinct entity of Assam. The sensational statements of this type, even if they were rare, received wide publicity in Assam and they evoked considerable resentment among the Assamese elite. Thus since the beginning of the present century, there had been a constant and continuous feeling in the minds of the Assamese elite that the Bengalis not only posed a threat to their language and culture but also to the very existence of Assam.
The partition of the country further accentuated the fears and anxieties of the Assamese elite for their distinct identity. After partition, streams of Hindu refugees flowed to Assam from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The 1951 Census Report showed the number of refugees in Assam as 274,455.
Of these 272,075 came from East Pakistan; 647 from West Pakistan and 1,733 from other unspecified areas. Because of its proximity to East Pakistan, the Cachar district alone sheltered 93,177 refugees. The number of refugees in other districts was as follows: Goalpara -44,967, Kamrup – 42,871, Darrang – 18,833, Lakhimpur – 13,965, Sibsagar – 7,514, Khasi Hills – 5,990, Garo Hills – 5,072.
With the coming of these refugees, new dimensions were added to the existing tensions between the major religious and linguistic communities in Assam. The Assamese elite felt that they were now between two fires”: (i) there were the Muslim immigrants whose hearts would always lie in Pakistan; (ii) there were then the Hindu refugees who wanted to overwhelm the province and “Bengalised” it. The Assam Tribune, in its editorial article -“Refugees”, clearly articulated this sentiment of the Assamese elite and maintained:
Since independence, the attack is being carried on from two flanks. First, there are the Muslim immigrants whose love and attachment to Pakistan are as strong as ever. There is no evidence of a change of heart and yet they are finding it much easier to migrate to this province under the shelter of the secular state policy of the Government of India. Then there are the Hindu immigrants who apparently want to create a Bengal in this province.
It seemed to the Assamese elite that most of the refugees were not ‘genuine’ who came under the garb of refugees only to engage themselves in business, contract and in some other services. They complained that these people had no intention to settle permanently in Assam by adopting Assamese language and wanted to remain as citizens of both ‘Pakistan and Hindustan.’ In fact, the Assamese elite believed that these people had deliberately migrated to Assam from different areas of East Pakistan not because of any communal trouble there, but to take the benefit of better living conditions and due to other economic and political reasons. They even suspected that the refugee problem was connected with the expansionist design of Eastern Pakistan, that is, League leaders’ demand for inclusion of Assam into Pakistan.
It may, however, be noted that most of the Assamese leaders did not have an objection to accepting the ‘Misplaced persons’ for whom it was impossible to remain in Pakistan, provided they agreed to settle permanently in Assam accepting the Assamese language and culture.
“The Assamese people would not have objected to absorb a reasonable quota of refugees”, as The Assam Tribune put it, “on the understanding that these refugees will completely merge themselves in the province keeping aside their separate linguistic claims.”
But the way in which the refugee problem was dealt with by the Central Government created considerable resentment in the minds of the Assamese elite. They felt that the economic and cultural existence of the Assamese people was being seriously menaced by the “so-called refugee problem created to cover up the old question of immigration. Indeed, what they pleaded was that “Assam” must exist, and exist as the homeland of the Assamese people”. For this reason, The Assam Tribune demanded:
The Centre must not be blind to Assam’s interest and must not adopt any policy that will ultimately lead to the annihilation of Assam. The danger point has almost been reached, and the Centre should not expect Assam to commit suicide with her eyes wide open.
Probably, in view of such pleas from the Assamese elite, the Indian Parliament passed the “Immigrants Expulsion Act” on February 1950 to discourage Muslim immigration from the then East Pakistan. The Act provided for the removal of immigrants, except bonafide refugees whose stay in Assam was undesirable politically. However, after partition, a huge influx of Bengalis from erstwhile East Pakistan created a new scare in the minds of the Assamese elite for their distinct identity. The new immigrants, particularly the Bengali Hindu peasants, artisans, petty traders and ‘bhadralok’ numbering 2,73,000 settled down in towns and villages at the time of the 1951 census.
It naturally aggravated the Assamese elite’s apprehension of being swamped by the Bengalis and they felt that it would have “detrimental political consequences.’ Thus in a memorandum addressed to Sri Prakash, the then Minister of Scientific Research and Natural Resources, Government of India, and President of Assam Refugee Rehabilitation Enquiry Committee, the Asom Jatiya Mahasabha expressed its concern in the following manner:
The problem of Bengal refugees in Assam definitely means a vision of the creation of ‘Brihattar Banga Samrajya’ based on ‘Bongalism’ or Bengali language in which combined efforts of a powerful section of Bengali speaking old settlers of Assam, West Bengal, East Pakistan and also of the Bengali settlers in other parts of India, who think themselves more in terms of Bengali than Indian, can easily be seen from the trend of their mentality and movements. Behind the Bengali refugee relief movement as carried on by the Bengalis, and their persistent effort to rehabilitate them in Assam beyond her capacity, lies this motive aimed at disruption of the strength of the Indian Union for a sovereign Bengali.
Thus, the Assamese elite argued that the refugee problem involved not only the question of life and death of the Assamese people but also that of the safety, security and independence of the Indian Union, In fact, in the garb of the plea for ‘the strength of Indian Union’, their inherent desire was to get rid of the Bengali refugees.
It may, however, be noted that the Assamese leadership was not opposed to the entry of the refugees qua refugees but only to the Bengali refugees. For instance, the Jatiya Mahasabha expressed a preference for refugees from Punjab rather than from Bengal. In a similar vein, The Assam Tribune, in one of its editorials also pleaded that Assam should welcome a quota of refugees from Punjab.
It is interesting to note that while pleading for Punjabi refugees, Sukdev Goswami argued that being a frontier province, Assam needed stalwart people like Sikhs and Panjabis so that Assam herself could raise an army to thwart any possible aggressor.
Moreover, at the back of the mind of the Assamese elite, there may have been the idea that the number of Punjabi refugees who would have been able to come so far away would necessarily be small. They could be assimilated; and in any case, they would not have posed the threat of becoming the majority in the province. But on the other hand, the Assamese elite apprehended that since the Bengali population had already constituted a sizable section in the province, the new Bengali refugees would strengthen the cause of the Bengalis posing a severe threat to the Assamese language and culture. In view of this, The Assam Tribune criticised the policy of the Central Government regarding the refugee problem and asked:
Has Assam no right to exist as the land of Assamese people? Is it the intention of the Government to turn the Assamese people into minority community in their own province and jeopardise their language, culture and their very existence?
It, therefore, seems obvious that the Assamese elite were noticeably agitated over the issue of “refugee”. Their anxiety on this issue was, however, not without any justification. In this connection, it needs mention that the migrant population constituted the largest proportion of Assam’s population. Thus out of Assam’s total population of 9,044,000 in 1951, as many as 1,344,000 constituting 14 per cent, were born outside Assam, compared with 6 per cent in the case of West Bengal and 5 per cent in the case of Bombay. There was no significant emigration from Assam to counteract this massive immigration.
From the evidence examined so far, it appears that throughout the long period, particularly since the beginning of the present century, the Assamese elite had been in constant fear and anxiety of being gradually dominated by the non-Assamese Indians, particularly the Bengalis, both culturally, economically and even politically. Secondly, the growing demand for Pakistan heightened the Assamese elite’s nervous concern over their future political and cultural status. Unrestrained immigration from Bengal was increasingly being viewed as a calculated move to turn Assam into a Muslim majority province so that she could qualify herself for inclusion into East Pakistan. Even after the partition, these fears still persisted.
And these factors obviously influenced the Assamese elite in the articulation of their attitude toward the federal polity in India when the Constitution was being framed.
Over and above, the Assamese elite were very much concerned about the economic backwardness of Assam. It is remarkable that despite being potentially one of the richest provinces in the Indian Union, Assam found herself economically backward. The Assamese elite called it “a rich province with the poor people.” Indeed, Assam possessed enormous economic raw materials such as crude oil, tea, timber, jute, coal, etc., which contributed a large share of revenue to the central exchequer and yet she remained one of the most undeveloped provinces in India. The successive Financial Enquiry Committees also admitted the economic backwardness of Assam.

Continued in Part 3

About Author: Bishu Dutta Choudhury

Bishu Dutta Choudhury is a journalist based out of Silchar.

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