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It is a long way to citizenship in Assam – Part 1

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]N endeavour to understand the ongoing process of update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) cannot be meaningful if one discards the historical changes that the region underwent on account of almost unfettered immigration of landless people from neighbouring land.


It was inevitable when it started


The winds of demographic change began to blow in Assam almost immediately after the British colonisers set their eyes on the province. After the end of the costly First Anglo-Burmese War fought from 1824 to 1826, fortune smiled on the British who succeeded in wresting control of what is now largely present-day Assam from the Burmese.

Assamese society and the economy were ill prepared to meet the sudden demands that followed the discovery of tea, coal and oil by the British. Labourers arrived from Bihar, Orissa and parts of the sub-continent to take up manual jobs at the plantations while educated Bengalis took up administrative and teaching jobs. Meanwhile, the abundant cultivable wastelands proved attractive to the landless peasants from the neighbouring districts of East Bengal.

The British began to administer Assam under a Chief Commissioner as a separate province from Bengal only from 1874 when Goalpara and Sylhet (now a part of Bangladesh) were a part of Assam. Wasteland Grants of 1835 and 1854 opened up forests and cultivable wastelands of Assam to settlers from East Bengal. Migrants settled in river banks and char lands. The superior technologies and the policies of the British ensured a steady and regular flow of revenue and a firm grip on the natural resources of the region.

In 1853, Major H Vetch, the then Deputy Commissioner of Assam wrote to A J M Mills, a judge of the Sudder Court in Calcutta who was on deputation to the north-eastern frontier to enquire mainly about judicial anomalies:

 “In a country so abounding with wasteland as Assam and with so scanty a population, Government may well part with a portion on any terms, if thereby settlers be induced to come into the country.”

Some British officials, however, saw the disastrous consequences that unregulated migration brought to the lives, culture, habits and traditions of the indigenous population of the region. The Line System introduced by them demarcated a boundary beyond which the settlers from East Bengal (then a part of the province of Bengal and now a part of Bangladesh) were not allowed to hold land.

Alarm and the politics relating to the line system and immigrants


As the flow of the immigrants began to swell, there was a concern in several quarters. With the formation of the autonomous provincial government, upon the introduction of the Government of India Act, 1935 the immigrants and their leaders became a significant force in the political landscape of Assam. It was just a matter of time before they started demanding the abolition of the line system. A line system enquiry committee was constituted to look into the feasibility of continuing with it.

The committee acknowledged the significant differences in the habits and customs of the peasants who have migrated from Bengal from those of the indigenous people. It was not in favour of allowing immigrants to settle everywhere. It acknowledged the haphazard settlement by squatting and strongly condemned it. In one dissenting note, a member pointed out that the frequent changes in its course by the river Brahmaputra rendered many people landless. In another note, it was highlighted that there were rumours in adjoining districts of East Bengal that the line system was on the verge of being abolished and all immigrants would be given lands. This note also acknowledged that a bulk of the floating population comprised of peasants who were brought by the earlier immigrant settlers who possessed large stretches of lands varying from 500 to 1000 bighas.

Within a few months after the publication of the report of the Line System Enquiry Committee, the first Premier of Assam, Maulavi Saiyid Sir Muhammad Saadulla faced a no-confidence motion and resigned in September 1939. Shri Gopinath Bardoloi, who later became the first Chief Minister of Assam after independence, led a coalition ministry which passed a resolution in November 1939 that provided for:

(i) denial of land settlement to anybody in the village and professional grazing reserves.

(ii) regulated settlement of landless peoples including immigrants on available wastelands, subject to a holding of 30 bighas per family; and

(iii) eviction of all immigrant squatters from areas declared protected tribal blocks in the sub-montane region.

This caused much resentment amongst the immigrants and more importantly consolidated the immigrant leaders. Saadulla, who was back in power on November 17, 1939, called for an all community conference in Shillong. By way of a resolution published by the Revenue Department, a Development Scheme was introduced.

The Development Scheme, interestingly, proposed to open up certain areas only for settlement by indigenous landless people and immigrants, who came to Assam before January 1, 1938. It is not clear how this identification of such immigrants was proposed to be done but this clearly appeared to be the first attempt at trying to legitimise the stay of immigrants who arrived before a particular time.

Those affected by flood and erosion and those who were illegally squatting in some lined villages and grazing reserves were also offered to be accommodated under the scheme. Even the “grow more food” scheme launched by the British to meet the requirement of the war contributed to an increase in the number of illegal settlers in Assam. The pace of settlement amongst immigrants saw an unprecedented acceleration during this campaign. Contrary to the resolution to adhere to the cut-off date of 1.01.1938, Saadulla gave more settlements to even those who came after 1938.

An ICS officer from Maharashtra, S P Desai, who was appointed to look into de-reservation of grazing areas for settlements, stated in his report that the development scheme “opened the floodgate” and resulted in the invasion of reserved areas by the immigrants. According to Nirode K Barooah in his book “Gopinath Bardoloi, ‘The Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre”even Saadulla acknowledged during the third Muslim League conference at Barpetta in April 1944 that Assamese Muslims were being driven out of their homelands as a result of the forcible encroachments by the Muslim immigrants.


Flickering hope


Pursuant to an adjournment motion moved by Congress MLA, Beliram Das on November 16, 1944, on the forcible occupation of grazing reserves by immigrants from Bengal, an all-party conference was held in December 1944 to prepare a new immigrants’ settlement policy.

After the conference, Saadulla’s Ministry passed a new resolution in January 1945 which accepted that:

  • Lands would be allocated to the landless people of all communities, including the pre-1938 immigrants in Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang and Nagaon;
  • No family would get more than 10 acres or 30 bighas;
  • Landless persons would be those having less than five bighas of land for cultivation;
  • Tribals would be given separate areas which would be double the area in their possession;
  • 30% of cultivable wastelands would be kept aside in every district for future expansion.


Muslim League Ministers, Munawar Ali and Abdul Matin Chaudhury who then held the finance and revenue portfolios respectively ensured that the implementation of the scheme failed.

According to Gopinath Bardoloi, they were present along with squatting immigrants whenever government officials sought to take action. They directed officials not to evict immigrants who were in illegal occupation of lands for more than three years.

Despite increasing hostilities elsewhere in the country between Congress and the League, an extremely novel experiment was carried out when the fifth Saadulla Ministry was formed in Assam in March 1945. Half the cabinet was constituted of members selected by the opposition. This was the outcome of hectic talks between Saadulla, Bardoloi and another leader, Rohini Kumar Chaudhury, resulting in a tripartite agreement.

With an intent to have a planned land settlement, the government proposed an economic holding of at least 20 bighas per applicant or per family of five persons or less. The allotment of 20 bighas would apply to the indigenous and the immigrants alike. The tripartite agreement even contemplated the issuance of directions to the Deputy Commissioner to ensure that certain grazing reserves were kept free from encroachment at all times.

The agreement and Saadulla’s appointment of Rohini Kumar Chaudhury as the Revenue Minister infused of a lot of hope amongst the people. However, by the middle of May, the Muslim League High Command cautioned Saadulla against the implementation of the agreement, particularly on the land settlement.

The President of the Assam Muslim League, Abdul Hamid Khan encouraged evicted people to return and reoccupy their land. Khan took part in a large protest meet at Mangaldoi against the eviction drive. Demonstrators surrounded the court and immigrants occupied all wastelands on many river banks. To check the deteriorating law and order situation, Bardoloi passed the Assam Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance on November 18, 1946. The League observed black flag day on January 3, 1947. On March 19, 1947 Bardoloi sought military help from the Central Government which was sent much later only to guard the frontier areas and not to help in eviction.

Meanwhile, Sir Akbar Hydari succeeded Andrew Clow as the Governor of Assam and had an altogether different scheme of tackling the influx issue which by and large ensured status quo. In any event, the issues surrounding the Sylhet referendum soon occupied the centre stage and the eviction drive lost all force.


To be continued …

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Abir Phukan is a Delhi-based advocate practising in the Supreme Court of India
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