This article was first published in Eclectic Times, September 2012 issue.
The most vigorously propagated ‘reason’ for the recent spate of violence in the BTC districts, beginning with Kokrajhar, is that it has been the result of rampant illegal immigration of Bangladeshi nationals into the Bodo areas and widespread encroachment on their land. This has been the opinion articulated by many influential functionaries, from an Election Commissioner of India in an op-ed in The Indian Express to the former Home Minister of India in the floor of the Lok Sabha. But how accurate is this perception?
Let us begin by first examining the nature of demographic transformation the BTC districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri have witnessed since the Census of India 1951, and then see if the conclusions support the above perceptions.
Source: Census of India 2011, Provisional Population Totals – Assam: Paper 1 of 2011, Annexure 3, table 2, Page 34.
Table 1 represents the Percentage Decadal Variation in Population since 1951 as per successive Censuses in the BTC districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri which were formed subsequent to the Bodo Peace Accord in 2003 out of the Scheduled Tribe majority, Bodo dominated areas of the existing districts of Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup (Rural) and Darrang.
It would be immediately noticeable that between 1951 and 1991, the BTC districts had a noticeably higher decadal growth rate of population than even the presently Muslim majority districts like Dhubri and Barpeta. But it is unlikely that the higher growth rates of population were contributed either by the Muslims of immigrant origin or even illegal immigrants. It would be evident from the fact that even in 2001, the districts of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Nalbari and Darrang, out of which much of the territorial area of BTC was carved out, Muslims had constituted just 20.3, 38.5, 21.3 and 35.5 percent of the population respectively. When the BTC districts were carved out of them, it was inevitable that the percentage of Muslim population in the newly created districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri went down even further.
Table 1 further show that the decadal growth rates population in the areas out of which BTC districts were formed further declined between 1991-01 and in the last decade, during which these districts were formed into separate territorial entities, growth rate declined even further, Kokrajhar showing a noticeably low of only 5.19%.
The above empirical evidence certainly doesn’t support any claims of rampant illegal immigration of Bangladeshis into these BTC districts as neither the population growth rates have been ‘abnormally’ high nor have the percentage of Muslim population gone up in any alarming way at all.
There is, however, more empirical evidence refuting large scale encroachment of land. The districts of Kokrajhar and Chirang, where the violence have compelled above 4 lakhs to flee their homes and take shelter in relief camps, have among the lowest densities of population still in 2011, being 280 and 244 persons per square kilometre respectively, whereas neighbouring Dhubri and Bongaigaon districts have a population density of 1171 and 425 persons per square kilometres.
Immigration has been a phenomenon the Brahmaputra valley has long been witness to, and over centuries immigrants and natives have mingled and assimilated to create the composite Assamese identity. In the period since the mid 1800s, the Bengali Muslim peasants of erstwhile East Bengal became the largest group of people to have migrated into Assam. The sizeable Muslim population, but Assamese speaking now, residing in the lower Assam districts are inevitably the descendents of those immigrants. In the fractious exclusionary politics that has however taken root in Assam over the past decades, it yields political dividends to keep many of these Muslims labelled as Bangladeshis and blame them for every perceivable ill that beset us. It is time we re-examined facts to differentiate them from fiction.