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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Assam Tangle: NRC, Immigrants and “D” Citizens brewing Crisis to Warrant Attention

Sunday 23 December 2018


by A.K. Biswas

In a massive exercise by the Registrar General of India (RGI), monitored by the Supreme Court of India, 28,983,677 out of 32,991,384 applicants were found eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). He declared 40,07,707 to be ineligible. According to him, the draft was published under “supervision, monitoring and directions of the Supreme Court. It is a legal process and has been conducted in a transparent, fair, objective and meticulous manner.”1

The All India Matua Mahasangha [whose headquarters are at Thakurnagar, North 24-Parganas, West Bengal] voiced serious grievances that one million Matuas, who are Namasudra, are excluded from the NRC. In protest rail services were badly paralysed by Matuas at different railway stations in Eastern Railway’s Sealdah section on August 1, 2018 thus affecting normal life in Kolkata.

The Census of 2011 returned 693,215 Kaibartta Jaliyas, accounting for 31 per cent (22,31,321) Scheduled Caste population. For Namasudras, the corresponding figures are 6,31,542 2, and 28.3 per cent respectively. These two castes work out to 2.2 per cent and 2.02 per cent of the total 3,12,05,576 population of the State respectively. Eight decades ago, the Census returned 1,70,519 Namasudras, who were the largest caste in Assam in 1931, while the Brahmans with 1,59,116 were the second largest in the province.3

Import of the working class in tens of thousands became the felt need of Assam with the introduction of tea cultivation on a commercial basis in 1853-54. Between 1911 and 1921 labourers were recruited largely from Bihar and Orissa, Bengal, Central Provinces and Berar, United Provinces, Central India Agency, etc. A contingent of 12,90,000 outsiders were enumerated in 1921 and 8,82,000 in Assam in 1911. They aggregated at 21,72,000. These migrants were broadly of two categories—those who worked in the tea gardens and those who were, by and large, engaged in agriculture and related activities, besides traders, shopkeepers and professionals.4

G.T. Lloyd, ICS, and the Superintendent of Census, 1921, observed that Assam-bound migration reflected “the attractions of the province by the tea industry and waste land available for colonisation, as well as the home-staying propensity of the natives of Assam”. He further highlighted that the great increase in migration of those born in other parts of India represented “mainly colonists from Eastern Bengal and the new tea garden labourers”.5 In the 1911 and 1921 Censuses the largest exodus of the working classes from Bihar and Orissa was recorded—399,000 and 571,000 respectively. Bengali migrants during the same period, on the other hand, aggregated at 194,000 in 1911 and 376,000 in 1921.6 The ‘coolies’—[Mundas, Santals, Gonds, etc,] from Central Provinces, and Chota Nagpore “are the best men for the climate and work of the tea gardens”,7 noted the concerned Census Report.

A large number of coolies, whose “time-expired” for contract of engagement, did not go back to their native places. Officially esteemed as “an asset” Lloyd noted that “the coolies who settled in Assam and opened up new land are undoubtedly an asset.... In four upper districts of Brahmaputra Valley, where they are found in large numbers, they are reported to be much more industrious than the local Assamese cultivators, and they certainly increase the available food supply.”8 The government estimates of Assam-ward inflow of labour in the decade ending 1921 aggregated at 769,000 at the rate of 77,009 a year. In 1920-21, the ex-coolies and/or their descendants held 3,00,000 acres of land.9

In the 1891 Census Report Edward Gait, ICS, touched an insightful aspect to merit notice. It might have been thought that “the amount of cultivable land, the fertility of the soil and the low rents prevailing would have induced some portion of the overcrowded cultivators of Bengal to find their way to Assam and take up land here”. But this does not appear to be the case. The coolies for tea gardens came to Assam because they were more usually indigent, and were specially recruited and brought to the province at the expenses of the persons for whom they were to labour. Even railway lines were opened up between Bihar to Assam for safe, prompt and convenient movement of the labour forces. Paid steamer services were organised for the labourers to travel on the mighty Brahmaputra.

“No such inducements exist to bring ryots to Assam,” observed Gait, “to take up land for cultivators and they, therefore, do not come. A certain number of persons from the neighbouring Bengal district of Mymensingh, Dacca and Rangpur have crossed the boundary and settled down in Sylhet and Goalpara, but this can scarcely be called immigration. They have only moved a few miles from their original home and the accident of boundary alone has brought them within the limits of Assam.”10 By 1921, Goalpara boasted of 20 per cent of its population who were Bengali settlers. In Nowgaon, they formed 14 per cent. Barpeta subdivision of Kampur district and Darrang were engaging their close attention.11

Kamrup Deputy Commissioner Bentinck is quoted in a Census Report that “They (Bengalis) do better cultivation than the local people and as such they have reclaimed and brought under permanent cultivation thousands of acres of land which local cultivators had for generations past merely scratched with haphazard and intermittent crops or recognised as exigent of efforts beyond their inclination. The large undulating expenses of char lands to be seen in late March or early April finely harrowed, weeded and newly sown are something to which the spectacle of ordinary Assemese cultivation is quite unaccustomed. They have besides their industry shown examples of new crops and improved methods.”12

Are the Namasudra and Kaibartta Jaliya 

 immigrants or sons of Assam soil?

Extremist attacks on Bengalis in Tinsukia, Assam, resulting in an unfortunate tragedy claiming the lives of five innocent and defenceless men—four Namasudra and one Jalia Kaibartta by caste, all Scheduled Castes—left the entire Bengali-speaking people there greatly shocked, traumatised and terrorised. The victims identified were Shyamlal Biswas, Avinash Biswas, Ananta Biswas, Dhananjay Namasudra and Subal Das. The attackers came in Army fatigue, called out the youths busy playing Ludo, were taken to a place and shot point-blank range dead.

Table-1 below underlines a close affiliation and bonding of the Namasudras with Assam over a century-and-a-half. One is baffled to believe that this community having lived in Assam for generations over a century-and-a-half are not yet deemed as sons of the soil. Exclusion of a million of them as outsiders in an exercise under the august “supervision, monitoring and directions of the Supreme Court.... conducted in a transparent, fair, objective and meticulous manner” may surprise many well-meaning people with conscience.

There are elements who seem to be keen on balkanising India into small and belligerent parts. Not long back, we had occasionally heard strident demands, “Mumbai for Maharashtrians”, “Bengaluru for Kannadigas”, “Bihar for Biharies”, “Assam for Assamese”, etc. Those who propagate such puerile ideas are few in number and target the spirit of India as constitutionally crafted and established. We can be sure that Assam too boasts of thousands of men who in liberality of thought, catholicity of ideas and vision, magnanimity of head and heart are taller than the pigmies, who, in the darkness of hatred and prejudice, killed five innocent men in Tinsukia.

We have heard high-pitch sermons that India is not a ‘dharamshala’ and therefore unwelcome guests have no place to stay here. But what about those who lived here for generations and contributed to the growth of the country bit by bit with their toil and brawns? Should they too be targeted for exclusion?


1. Hindustan Times, July 30, 2018.

2. Handbook on Social Welf are Statistics, Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, Statistics Division, January 2016, p. 51. The Kaibartta Jaliyas with 6,93,219 persons represented the largest the caste in Assam in 2011 while Namasudras are the second largest.

3. Census of India 1931, Vol. I, Part 1 by J. H. Hutton, ICS, p. 462. Surprisingly, the Kaibartta Jalia is missing from the concerned statistical table.

4. Census of India 1921 Vol. 3 Assam Pt.1 (report) by Lloyd, G.T., p. 38. The figures were rounded off by census authorities for convenience.

5. Ibid., p. 35.

6. Ibid., p. 38

7. Ibid. The term coolie has been used in the census report and returns.

8. Ibid., p. 39.

9. Ibid., p. 40.

10. Ibid., pp. 29-30.

11. Ibid., p. 41.

12. Ibid.

13. Handbook on Social Welfare Statistics, Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, Statistics Division, January 2016, p. 51.

14. Census of India 1931, Vol. I, Part 1 by J. H. Hutton, ICS, p. 462.

15. Census of India, 1901, Vol. III, Assam, Report Part I by G.T. Lloyd, Shillong, p. 154.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Census of India, 1901

19. Report on the Census of Bengal, 1872, General Statement V.B. pp. cxxxviii-cxxxix.

A retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, A.K. Biswas, Ph.D, is a social anthropologist and commentator.

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