Tea cultivation in Assam began to take a rapid and commercial shape from the 1860s onwards with the general organization of the sector. With new plantations coming up on a rapid scale, there arose an emergent need for workforce to work in the plantations.
So, to meet the manpower needs, the British brought labourers mainly from Chota Nagpur plateau, Andhra and Orissa. This led to an obvious rise in the population of Assam and the need for extra food-grains to fill the newly added stomachs.
Around this time, Kaala Azar broke out in Assam and took an epidemic shape leading to a heavy loss of life. In the book Planter Raj to Swaraj by historian Amalendu Guha, it has found clear mention about the dreaded disease spreading rapidly from 1881 onwards.
Between 1881 and 1891, the disease killed 18 percent people in the present day district of Goalpara alone. And in the next decade, 7.1 percent people in Kamrup, 9 percent in Darrang and 24.8 percent of the population in Nagaon perished in this calamity.
It is noteworthy to mention here that most of the perished population was engaged in cultivation. So, the general effect due to the loss of lives of mostly cultivators, in conjunction with the rise in immigrant population in the newly started tea plantations, led to food scarcity.
So, the British started encouraging the migration of the Bengali Muslim farmers from then East Bengal to settle down in the affected districts in Assam. As Assam was sparsely populated and land was aplenty, the Bengali settlers reclaimed vast stretches of the uncultivated land and stated growing rice and vegetables.
Gradually, the food production in Assam started increasing. Interestingly, the Assamese caste Hindus of the Brahmaputra valley not only did not oppose the coming of these settlers, but welcomed them openly.
The situation started changing considerably in the 1930s though. The population of the native Assamese began to increase, leading to demands for cultivable land and also as there was an increase in the number of working class amongst the east Bengal settlers, competition started brewing between the indigenous and the immigrant population. The indigenous population of the Brahmaputra valley started fearing about them losing their majority status to the East Bengalis.
After India’s independence in 1947, Assam’s first Chief Minister Gopinath Bordoloi was instrumental in securing the sovereignty of the state. He wanted the Bengali majority Sylhet district of Assam to merge with East Pakistan to reduce the number of Bengalis in post independence Assam.
The riots on religious grounds shortly after Independence targeting the Bengali Hindus — who were academically and economically advanced — by the Bengali Muslims led to the development of a sympathetic attitude for the Bengali Hindus amongst the indigenous population of Assam.
The anti foreigners movement of 1979-85, which culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord, led to the displacement of the Bengali Hindus from the position of eminence. This led to the change in perception of the indigenous Assamese population towards the Bengali Hindus, who were seen to be of a non-aggressive nature and assimilative.
It is in this context that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 was passed by the Parliament of India on 11 December 2019, whereby all immigrants belonging to six religious groups, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who came to India without valid documents uptil December 31, 2014, will be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.
Now, this is being construed as a direct subversion of the Clause 5 of the Assam Accord, which provides for the identification, deletion of names from electoral rolls and expulsion of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, irrespective of religion, who came to Assam after March 24, 1971. Moreover, National Register of Citizens (NRC) is also being updated in Assam under the Supreme Court’s supervision by taking into account March 24, 1971 as the cutoff date for determination of Indian Citizenship. This had led to protests not only across Assam but the entire North East.
But what is surprising is despite such seemingly open protests and negative outpourings against this move by the BJP-led government, the opposite was reflected in the results of the last assembly and Panchayat elections, where the BJP and its allies were able to garner majority support. Now, is this a silent support to the CAB, 2019 by the caste Assamese Hindus and tea tribe community on religious lines?
Nevertheless, history will be witness to what happens and no one will be left unaffected by this ongoing turmoil, which unfortunately is being driven towards an uncertain mode.
There seems to be a parallel diversion of the issue of illegal immigration to that of language politics with noted litterateur and ex parliamentarian Dr. Nagen Saikia calling for the separation of Barak valley from the state of Assam. Though his statement was met with indignation by most, only time will tell if another friction point on the lines of the language agitation evolves in the scene.
Pransu Raj Kaushik is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Management Studies, Dibrugarh University. Views expressed are personal.
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