Migration of outsiders into Assam has a long history. The British administration had encouraged migration of thousands of Biharis to work on the tea-plantations and of hundreds of thousands of Bengali peasants to settle on the vast uncultivated tracts of Assam. Till recently, Assamese landlords had welcomed the hardworking Bengali tenants in the sparsely populated Assam. Between 1939 and 1947 Muslim communalists encouraged Bengali Muslim migration to create a better bargaining position in case of partition of India. Partition led to a large-scale refugee influx from Pakistani Bengal into Assam besides West Bengal and Tripura.
In 1971, after the Pakistani crackdown in East Bengal, more than one million refugees sought shelter in Assam. Most of them went back after the creation of Bangladesh, but nearly 100,000 remained. After 1971, there occurred a fresh, continuous and large-scale influx of land-hungry Bangladeshi peasants into Assam. But land in Assam had by now become scarce, and Assamese peasants and tribals feared loss of their holdings. However, this demographic transformation generated the feeling of linguistic, cultural and political insecurity, which overwhelmed the Assamese and imparted a strong emotional content to their movement against illegal migrants in the eighties.
The demographic transformation of Assam created apprehension among many Assamese that the swamping of Assam by foreigners and non-Assamese Indians would lead to the Assamese being reduced to a minority in their own land and consequently to the subordination of their language and culture, loss of control over their economy and politics, and, in the end, the loss of their very identity and individuality as a people. Though illegal migration had surfaced as a political matter several times since 1950, it burst as a major issue in 1979 when it became clear that a large number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had become voters in the state. Afraid of their acquiring a dominant role in Assam's politics through the coming election at the end of 1979, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (Assam People's Struggle Council), a coalition of regional political, literary and cultural associations, started a massive, anti-illegal migration movement.
The leaders of the movement claimed that the number of illegal aliens was as high as 31 to 34 per cent of the state's total population. They, therefore, asked the central government to seal Assam's borders to prevent farther inflow of migrants, to identify all illegal aliens and delete their names from the voters list and to postpone elections till this was done, and to deport or disperse to other parts of India all those who had entered the state after 1961. So strong was the popular support to the movement that elections could not be held in fourteen out of sixteen constituencies.
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