Illegal Immigration in Assam: A threat to the Indigenous People

The long-standing issue of illegal immigration from the neighboring country of Bangladesh has posed and continues to pose a threat to the social, economical and cultural security of the indigenous people of Assam. This article is an essay on illegal immigration.

Historical Background

An illegal immigrant can be defined as a person who enters or resides in another country unlawfully without the country's authorization or someone who enters the country legally but overstays.

According to Section 2(b) of The Citizenship Act, 1955, an "illegal migrant" means a foreigner who has entered into India - (i) without a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf; or
(ii) with a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf but remains therein beyond the permitted period of time.

Assam, the largest northeastern state in India is a bed of ethnicity, cultural and linguistic diversity and is abundant with natural resources. Since colonial times, this state has been suffering the problem of excess migration that has caused tremendous pressure on its territory.

In the year 1826, Iyandabu Treaty was signed between the British and the Burmese where after Assam went into British rule.

During the British period, labourers were imported from Nepal (known as "Gorkha soldiers" or "grazers" who worked for the Indian Army) and undivided Bengal to work in the tea gardens of Assam. The local people, as a matter of fact, welcomed the outsiders whose labour provided economy to the state. In 1873, the British introduced Inner Line under the East Bengal Frontier Regulations to restrict the immigrants, particularly Bengali Muslims. However, it remained ineffective.

In the year 1905, at the time of the partition of Bengal, population from the East Bengal started marching towards the fertile lands of the Brahmaputra and Surma Valleys. Later on, the All India Muslim League (formed in 1906) encouraged the migration to increase the Muslim population in Assam for political reasons. As a consequence of this, the Bengali population became dominant and Bengali language was made the state language and also the language used as a medium of instruction in schools. Sentiments against the Bengalis arose in the Assamese circles (Assamese was labeled as a dialect in 1937). Thereafter, riots ensued between Assamese and Bengalis and subsequently, many Bengalis fled the region and some changed their linguistic identity and turned Assamese in the 1960s.

Post-independence, factors that induced illegal immigration were mainly two. They were impoverishment in the home country of Bangladesh because it was newly formed and being a low-lying area it suffered from environmental crisis and ethnic persecution, because of the fact that Urdu was made the national language in East Pakistan that had made the Bengalis revolt while the Bengali population was more than 60%.

Moreover, even though Bangladeshi Muslims have primarily migrated to India, even Bangladeshi Hindus have migrated to various parts of India as a result of harassment and discriminatory treatments meted out to minorities living in Bangladesh.

Tensions were rife between East Pakistan and West Pakistan that led to large-scale infiltration of people from East Pakistan to India, fearing persecution. The Chakma refugees, who had also migrated to East Pakistan, were relocated to the North-Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA) in Arunachal Pradesh owing to the Mizo insurgency.

According to the 'Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace', also known as the 'Indira-Mujib Treaty', signed between then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister of Bangladesh Seikh Mujibur Rahman in 1971, India agreed to take the responsibility of all migrants who entered India on or before March 24, 1971. Another pertinent reason for the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants is the porous Indo-Bangla border.

Issues and Concerns

But, unchecked migration was a cause of huge worry for the local inhabitants of Assam. It increased the pressure on the land and caused depletion of forest cover. The illegal immigration issue is more of a political problem as it has destabilized the region of Assam and led parties like the Congress and The Communist Party of India to indulge in vote-bank politics.

The gravity of the situation was highlighted by former Governor of Assam, Lt. General S.K. Sinha in his report submitted to the President of India in November 1998. In his report he stated "The unabated influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into Assam and the consequent perceptible change in the demographic pattern of the state has been a matter of grave concern. It threatens to reduce the Assamese people to a minority in their own state, as happened in Tripura and Sikkim."

The situation worsened after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 that threatened to alter the demographic trend of Assam. It is a cause of immense concern that as opposed to national average of 331%, the population of Assam has soared by 710% from 1901-2001. As per 2011 census, 34.22% of 31.2 million people constitute the Muslim population of Assam, making 11 out of 33 districts of Assam, Muslim-majority.

Lackadaisical attitude of the concerned authorities propelled the local youths to take up matters in their hands. An anti-foreigner movement was launched in the state in 1979 which was led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) that went on for six whole years. The movement was with the intention of stopping and deporting the illegal immigrants into Assam. This resulted in the Nellie Massacre in 1983, labeled as independent India's biggest mass uprising, wherein 3000 Bangladeshi Muslims were killed. The immediate cause of the Assam Agitation was the 1978 Lok Sabha election in Assam wherein 45,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants' names were found in the voters list. The movement made 885 Assam youths "martyrs."

A significant fallout of this movement was the formation of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) that demanded secession from mainland India and is still active in the state, despite being declared as a terrorist organization. The agitation came to an end with the Assam Accord of 1985 signed between then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, AASU and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP).

However, no fixed time was set for the implementation of this Accord. In the Accord, 25 March, 1971 was fixed as a cut-off date in the sense that people who had migrated to Assam post this date would be identified and deported to Bangladesh. To give effect to this rule, The Citizenship Act, 1955 was amended. However, it is surprising that, the Constitution has not been amended in this regard.

Till date, illegal immigration from Bangladesh continues in Assam. Ethnic violence had erupted as a consequence of this influx between the Bodos and the Muslims owing to the Bodo resentment against Bangladeshi immigrants who had encroached on the former's lands and threatened the identity of the Assamese people of the State along with the tribals. Bodo-Muslim violence occurred in the state in 1952, 1979-85, 1991-94, 2008 and recently in 2012. In July 2012, Bodoland Territorial Administrative Districts (BTAD), comprising of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri that is administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council, witnessed a large-scale ethnic violence between these two factions wherein 77 people were killed and 40,000 displaced. Bodos have been demanding a separate state of Bodoland to assert and protect their identity as the largest tribe in Assam.

It would not be wrong to state that the issue of illegal immigration is first and foremost a security issue for the whole of India and not just the state of Assam. It is a multi-faceted problem. The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, the mushrooming of mosques and madrassas along the border areas of Assam and West Bengal with Bangladesh is evidence of this security threat. Militant outfits, who support the Muslim minority train the Muslim youths who then threaten to plot terror operations against India and such activities has been on the rise. It is alarming to know that Bangladesh has refused to take back over 29,000 persons declared as illegal migrants by Foreigners' Tribunals since 1985, because Bangladesh does not recognize the verdicts given by India's Foreigners' Tribunals.

Measures Taken

The liberal attitude of the Central Government and lack of a strong political will on the part of successive State Governments has resulted in unabated migration of Bangaldeshi Muslims into Assam thereby threatening the indigenous people. In fact, tribes like the Tiwas and Bodos were the first victims of encroachment of their lands by the illegal settlers.

The Supreme Court has time and again lashed at the State Government for not doing enough in this regard. The Burdwan blasts of 2014 caused much concern to the Supreme Court, who, on the raising of the alarm by the Border Security Forces (BSF) regarding the porous border that causes infiltration, orders the Center to complete the fencing of the Indo-Bangla border, ensure continuous patrolling and installation of floodlights along the riverine boundary.

Many Public Interest Litigations (PILs) have also been filed by tribal groups in Assam who feel the burden of such illegal migration the most.

As of March 2015, the Apex Court had rejected an affidavit submitted by the Assam Government on the steps taken to control the influx as "vague" and "highly unsatisfactory."

The State Government, on various occasions have failed to execute the orders of the Court pertaining to sealing the Indo-Bangla border, updating process of the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) or deportation of illegal immigrants.


Although India and Bangladesh share cordial relations, the phenomenon of illegal immigration is a thorn in their relations and unless both countries negotiate on this matter and Bangladesh agrees to cooperate, the situation will persist. In the worst case scenario, India would be compelled to use force to evict the illegal settlers leading to a big humanitarian crisis. So far, the neighboring country has refused to recognize these immigrants as Bangladeshi nationals and has opposed their deportation.

As for the Indian authorities, it is high time this issue is ascribed as a national issue and given due share of importance. The fencing work must be completed as soon as possible and identification and deportation must be done expeditiously. Moreover, the Government must show some urgency in the completion of the NRC update process.

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Guest Author: Subir Deb07 Jan 2017

It is true that "..... illegal immigration is first and foremost a security issue for the whole of India and not just the state of Assam. It is a multi-faceted problem. The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, the mushrooming of mosques and madrassas along the border areas of Assam and West Bengal with Bangladesh is evidence of this security threat." But, the author has made the same mistake like many experts by brushing "Hindu" and "Muslim" immigrants with the same brush. These Hindus are Bangladeshi NOT by choice but were made so when partition of India on communal Hindu-Muslim line was accepted by the Congress leadership without any clause of transfer of population. Please think it from their point of view and then write.

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