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Resurgence of Bengali-phobia driving anti-CAB protests in Assam

Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti leader Akhil Gogoi at a protest rally against the Citizenship Bill in Dibrugarh, Assam, on December 10, 2019. PTI
North-East India is a divided house over the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) with the most vociferous protests being witnessed in Assam. The Modi government’s decision to grant non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan citizenship has led to students, political parties and civil society groups hitting the streets in Assam. Such massive fears stem from the fact that Assam continues to be a society that feels it is becoming less ‘Assamese’.

Why do Assamese fear the CAB? A part of the answer lies in neighbouring Bangladesh, from where millions of people have migrated to India over the years. In 1951, Bengali-speaking Hindus comprised 22 per cent of Bangladesh’s population. After the 1971 India-Pakistan war and the subsequent formation of Bangladesh, many more are believed to have migrated to Assam, with which Bangladesh shares a border. In 1981, Hindus, numbering around 10 million, comprised 12 per cent of Bangladesh’s population. By 2011, the number of Hindus in Bangladesh has grown by just a million. They now comprise 8.5 per cent of the population. The number of Muslims in this 30-year period in Bangladesh has, meanwhile, grown by more than 100 million. Hindus in the country are poorer than Muslims, have lower fertility and are likely to die earlier. Unlike Pakistan’s persecution-driven migration of Hindus, the community has economic reasons to migrate to India from Bangladesh. Although both Hindus and Muslims have migrated to Assam over the years, a study by the Belgium-based International Union for Scientific Study of Population found that Hindus had out-migrated the Muslims in 18 of the 21 years considered for the study. The study found that 86 per cent of this migration of Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus to India happened between 1992 and 2004.

As these demographic changes and migration patterns have evolved in Bangladesh, Assam’s contours too have changed radically. In 1961, there were seven million Assamese language speakers in Assam, as compared to two million Bengali speakers. In 2011, the number of Bengali speakers grew more than four-fold to touch nine million. Assamese speakers, meanwhile, just about doubled to 15 million. So while Bengali-speaking Hindus are declining in Bangladesh, the numbers of Bengali speakers in Assam is growing exponentially. A much more peculiar phenomenon seems to be unfolding in Assam since 1991.

The number of Bengali speakers in Assam has grown marginally more than the Hindu and slightly less than the Muslim population from 1991 to 2011. At the same time, the number of Assamese speakers has grown by half the Hindu or Muslim population during this period. From 1991 to 2011, the number of Assamese speakers grew by just two million. The number of Bengali speakers, Hindus and Muslims grew by almost four million each. Effectively, most of the population growth in Assam seems to be making the state more ‘Bengali’.

This is where the fear of the CAB leading to a complete socio-cultural metamorphosis of Assam seems to be stemming from. Bengali language and culture seems to be leading the population evolution in Assam. The Modi government’s CAB proposes a cut-off date of December 31, 2014 for a refugee to be considered for citizenship. This in effect would nullify the Assam Accord of 1985, which had set March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date. If the CAB goes through Parliament, which would lead to the new law superseding the Assam Accord, millions of Bengali speakers who left Assam for other states fearing the National Register for Citizens (NRC) exercise or were left out of the NRC would be entitled to citizenship of India and therefore the right to live, work and raise a family in Assam where they have strong community bonds.  

That’s why the present protests in Assam have a resemblance to the anti-Bengali movement of the 1980s. All Assam Students Union (AASU) which had spearheaded the 1979-85 anti-Bengali agitation is again the most visible face of the protests against CAB. The 1980s agitation had led to widespread mob violence including the gruesome Nellie and Khoirabari massacre. Assam has had a history of anti-Bengali movement since the 1960s. The infamous ‘Bongal Kheda’ (drive away the Bengalis) movement that began in 1960 led to widespread picketing of Bengali Hindu families, street violence and conversion of Bengali language schools to Assamese. With the pace of protests picking up every day in Assam, the Modi government’s CAB certainly seemed to have stirred fears of a resurgence of anti-Bengali hatred in the state.

Year   Assamese speakers Bengali speakers Proportion of Assamese speakers Proportion of Bengali speakers
1961 6.8 million 2.1 million 57% 18%
1991 12.9 million 4.9 million 58% 22%
2011 15.1 million 9.0 million 48% 29%
Source: Census of India

Year  Hindus Hindus as %age of population
1951 9.72 million 22.0%
11.07 million 12.3%
2011 12.73 million 8.5%
Source: IUAPS

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