Demographic changes and illegal migration in Assam

 

Assam and parts of the Northeast India shut down on January 8, 2019 over the issue of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.  The bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955,  to grant citizenship to non Muslims including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who came to India on or before December 31, 2014 due to religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The Bill requires such immigrants to spend at least six years to be eligible for citizenship. The prime reason for its opposition is because of its contradictions with the essence of the Assam Accord as well as the National Register of Citizens being currently updated. Once passed, this bill will legitimize the citizenship of illegal Hindu Bangladeshis; thus endangering the demographic landscape of the indigenous people of  the region. The Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report on the issue has completely disregarded the demographic impact by saying- “The Assam Government should help settle migrants especially in places which are not densely populated, thus, causing lesser impact on the demographic changes and providing succour to the indigenous Assamese people.” Hence it is important to look at a quantitative analysis of the impact  on demographics due to illegal migrations; so as to understand the significance of this massive resistance against the Bill, 33 years after the anti-foreigners’ agitation in 1979-1985.

After independence of India, Assam has seen a rapid and suspicious population growth. Comparing Assam’s decadal growth rates with the national average decadal growth rates show large differences during the decades 1951-61, 1961-71 and 1971-81.

Period Assam (in %) India in (%)
1901-11 +11.0 +5.8
1911-21 +20.5 -0.3
1921-31 +19.9 +11.0
1931-41 +20.4 +14.2
1941-51 +19.9 +13.3
1951-61 +35.0 +21.6
1961-71 +35.0 +24.8
1971-81 +23.3 +24.7
1981-91 +23.6 +23.5
1991-01 +18.8 +21.3
2001-11 +16.93 +17.6
Source: CMIF, basic statistics relating to Indian Economy.

At the same time, decades 1951-61, 1961-71 and 1971-81 is also the period considered to have maximum Bangladeshi migration due to increasing poverty, mounting unemployment , uncontrolled rise in Bangladeshi population,high density of population and displacement by  severe floods and cyclones .

Though migration of people from this region was not new, but during the period of 1947 to 1971 it occurred at a higher pace as over 4.7 million persecuted Hindus from East Pakistan had sought refuge in India. When the Liberation War of Bangladesh began, the military of Pakistan used unprecedented force and terror to smash it which compelled about 10 million people to cross over to India in 1971. Many of such refugees returned to Bangladesh after the end of Liberation War in 1971, but a considerable undocumented segment stayed back.

It is thus not surprising to see the period 1951-81 to have swelled in the decadal growth curve.

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Out of total 33 districts of Assam, the districts of Dhubri,Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaon, Nagaon, Dhemaji, Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi have witnessed the maximum illegal influx. Most of these districts share borders with Bangladesh.

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Source: A Study of Migration from Bangladesh to Assam, India and Its Impact

In terms of population growth as well, these group of districts have shown the highest

increase.

During 1981-91, three border districts of Assam, namely, Dhubri (71%), Cachar (56%), and Karimganj (58%) had very high growth of Muslim population. During the next decade, (1991-2001), though Assam showed lower population growth compared to the overall growth of India’s Population, Census figures clearly points to the fact that increase of Muslim population in 9 districts were far higher than that of non-Muslim population.

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Thus there is an undeniable demographic change due to illegal influx of migrants.

An analysis of religious demographics provide further insightful results.

 

According to census 2011, there is extraordinarily high growth of Muslims during 2001-11. Their growth of 29.6 percent in this decade is 2.7 times that of Hindus at 10.9 percent. More importantly, the rate of growth of Muslims during this decade has increased, though marginally, as compared to the previous decade, while there has been a sharp decline in the growth of Hindus and of the total population.
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In the context of  Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which provides citizenship to non Muslims, though Muslims form a major chunk of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, we need to look at the composition of migrants. Clear numbers on illegal migrant population and their respective composition based on religion is not easily available and hence we have to extrapolate and draw inferences from relatable empirical data.

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The census figures show the out-migration of Hindus from East Pakistan during 1951-61 to be around 2.1 million. To verify if these out-migration numbers correspond to illegal immigrants entering India, we look at population movement in border states of India during 1951-1961.

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The Hindu population increase in Assam, West Bengal and Tripura has been calculated as around 2.3 million. These numbers are in strong resemblance with the out-migration statistics of East Pakistan in 1951-61. Therefore we can make a fair assumption that  there was considerable amount of Hindu migration from Bangladesh in 1951-61 and was around 2 million.  Considering average decadal growth rate of India between 1951-2011 of 22.25 (Table 1), we can make a rough estimate of 6.67 million Hindu Bangladeshi migrants residing in India currently. However this calculations have ignored interstate migrations, subsequent out migrations, variation of growth rate among migrants etc to arrive at a rough estimate. Moreover the cutoff date of 24th March 1971 to classify illegal Bangladeshi migrants under National Register of Citizens have further made matters complex.

The major demographic consequence of such illegal migration is the crisis of indigenous identity. The Bodo-Muslim ethnic clashes are a direct outcome of this identity and cultural conflict. Changes in local languages has been another consequence of such migration.

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Further, encroachment of land by illegal migrants have changed the land use patterns in Assam in addition to environmental impacts. The rising number of ‘D- voters‘ (Doubtful voters) is a direct political impact and misuse of the issue to build vote banks. Other social, political, economic impacts have been extensively discussed in most academic work and hence we will restrict ourselves only to the demographic aspect.

Thus considering the massive demographic consequences of illegal migration,Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 can be considered as short sighted and flawed, which completely disregards the long term and wider negative impacts of granting citizenship based on religion.

References:
5. Centre for Policy Studies (2016), Decline of Hindus and the Rise of Muslims in Assam
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