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Understanding linguistic conflicts and NRC in Assam through maps

Map 1: Bengali and Non-Bengali speaking provinces in Bengal Presidency, 1941.

By Selim Jahangir and Mehebub Sahana

The updation and release of final draft of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) on 30 July, 2018 seems to be the ending of several decades-long issues of ‘illegal foreign immigrants’ (specifically Bangladeshi). The updated draft has enlisted 28.9 million citizens out of 32.9 million applicants for inclusion, leaving out 4,007,707 persons, accounting for more than 10 percent of the State’s population,  as ‘outsiders’ or ‘stateless’. However, the excluded applicants have been given a chance to file claims and objections, between August 30 and September 28, at various NRC Seva Kendras. In their claims they have to prove that they or their ancestors were Indian Citizen on or before 24 March, 1971, the cut-off date in the Assam Accord, 1985. The ultimate draft will be published by 31 December, 2018.

The process of NRC and publication of the draft have given a fresh impetus to the political parties to claim credits and pit ‘indigenous’ against ‘outsiders’. Many have attributed that the credit should go to the regional political forces like All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) for their relentless efforts in the completion of the NRC draft. Many are praising the Supreme Court-appointed coordinator, Prateek Hajela, and his 55,000-odd workforce for successfully completing such a massive and complex exercise. However, in the context of settling tangled ‘foreigner’ question, many in the ruling BJP party overwhelmingly demanded the NRC to prevent the ‘infiltrators’, the unfinished process of partition.

Historical Background

Issues of migration and demographic change have been a central concern in Assam politics since Independence. In fact, the demographic change in Assam can be traced back to the colonial state when the British introduced the plantation economy in the 19th century. The British forcibly brought in the tribal labourers from the central India tribal belt, including Chota Nagpur and Bihar, to work in the plantations and endorsed migration of Muslim farmers from Bengal. This process of migration of Bengali-speaking farmers continued even after the Partition and Independence in 1947. From the Map 1, one can easily understand that the majority of the provinces in Bengal Presidency, 1941, were dominated by the Bengali-speaking people over the Non-Bengali speakers. The linguistic, ethnic, and religious divides across the Barak and Brahmaputra valley, subsequently, gave birth to a sentiment of ‘indigenous’ and ‘outsiders’ and demanded a sensitive solution from the political class. Along with the first National Census, the State government had published an NRC in 1951. Later in the 1970s and 80s, the student organizations started protests demanding the detection and deportation of ‘illegal migrants’. The Assam Accord of 1985 pledged to address the concerns around the citizenship issue and this final draft is the updation of the 1951 NRC.

BUrmese Conce

Linguistic conflict and binary

The student protests during the 1970s and 80s posited an Assamese/Non-Assamese binary. But the BJP breached it further by distinguishing between Muslim and Hindu migrants – the former is tagged as infiltrator and the latter as eligible for citizenship. But here we argue that the present conflict and the binary of ‘indigenous’ and ‘outsider’ is not about religious division but an issue of linguistic dominance. In this context, it is important to mention that the Bengali speakers have increased from 22 percent to 30 percent from 1991 to 2011, whereas the Assamese speakers have decreased from 58 percent to 48 percent in the same period. The BJP and its allied organizations deemed these Bengali-speaking migrants as Bangladeshi Muslim illegal immigrants and posited them as a threat to national security. The BJP, with its jingoism and national security demand, promulgated migration as an onslaught on the status of Assamese language as the Bengali-speaking people were increasing in numbers. But the data in the Table 1 clearly demonstrate the gradual decrease of Muslim migrants from 1951 to 2011.

bengal Presidency

Map 1: Bengali and Non-Bengali speaking provinces in Bengal Presidency, 1941.


Decades Number of New Immigrants Hindus Muslims
1951-1961 295785 261220 32565
1961-1971 312495 246205 66290
1971-1981 No Census
1981-1991 24415 21560 2856
1991- 2001 3323 2742 581
2001-2011 2675 2399 276

Table 1: Trends in New Immigrants in each decade in Assam from Bangladesh: 1951-2011
Source: Census reports for Assam (1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011)

However, if we see the present Bengali speaking majority districts (see, Map 2) in Assam, it can be drawn that the majority of them are residing along the southern bordering districts of Dhuburi, Goalpara and Barpeta; eastern bordering districts of Marigao and Nagao; and south east bordering districts of Karimganj and Hailakandi. There was, therefore, an anxiety that there would be large-scale deletion of names from these bordering districts as these districts were considered as the hub of Bangladeshi illegal migrants. Since 2014, BJP started demanding NRC and in 2016 when Sarbananda Sonowal became the Chief Minister of Assam, the central and state governments hastened the NRC process under the close monitoring of the Supreme Court. But the draft has not substantiated this apprehension; rather the highest percentage of deletion, ranging between 25 to 31 per cent, has been found in the districts of Darrang, Nagao, Bongaigaon, and Kamrup Metro.


Map 2: Bengali-Speaking majority districts in Assam.

The present diversity in ethnicity, language, and religion in Assam is the result of a long process of migration due to tumultuous social, economic, and political changes in the region. The linguistic map of Assam and Bangladesh also characterizes the diversified ethno-linguistic groups in the region (see, Map 3). The different languages that are mainly spoken in different regions of Assam are Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Sylheti, Garo, Khasi, Mikir, Dimasa, Chakma, Mizo, Bishnupriya, Nepali, Rajbanshi, and several other tribal languages. From the map it can been seen that the Bengali-speaking people are not confined within the bordering districts only but have spread in the central and eastern parts of the state and have adapted the socio-cultural behaviour of the native region. Now the history cannot be reversed to reconstitute the region exclusively for the ‘indigenous’ Assamese people. The identity and nativity of various ethnic groups said to have formed due to linguistic differentiations. The regional political forces exaggerated that the regional cultural and linguistic traditions are being overwhelmed by the migrants in general and the Bengali speaking migrants in particular. Therefore, they have long been demanding to weed out the ‘foreigners’. These political forces persistently made efforts to build political narratives around this linguistic conflict for their own interests. The general secretary of Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Parishad (AJYP), for instance, Udayan Kumar Gogoi, on 16 September, 2017, had called upon the Assam government to strictly implement the Assamese language in all government and commercial activities in the State as per the State Language Implementation Act, 1960. Such policies would aggravate the sentiments of ‘native’ and ‘outsider’ in the region.

Fear of Exclusion

Since publication of the final draft, a sense of fear and exclusion is prevailing among the linguistic and religious minorities. The climate of uncertainty has stirred over the possible ramifications of statelessness. Though the Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, has mentioned that “a person whose name does not appear in the NRC will not be treated as a foreigner”, a miasma of suspicion and anxiety prevails among the ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities fearing that they will be deemed as ‘outsiders’ and will be targeted. Abdul Hussain, 45, from Muslim dominated Barpayak no. 1 in Nellie said, “My name is there in the list but my wife’s and children’s names are not. If I am an Indian, then how are my children foreigners?” Similarly, Bijoy Dutta, a 55-year-old mechanic, responded that though he got his name in the list but his three brothers and their extended 20 children are not in the list. Ashmina Begaum is in perpetual fear of being picked up by the police. She said, “They put a ‘Bangladeshi case’ on us. We have had to sell most of our land and our vegetable shop to pay the lawyer.”


Map 3: Present linguistic regions in Assam and bordering districts of Bangladesh.

The linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity in a globalized society is as essential as geographical diversity of the region. Culture and language are integral components of any society; they do not exist in isolation. They become richer and complex under new influxes and traditions. Instead of invoking nativist sentiments, the political mainstream should lead to amalgamate the different socio-cultural groups to maintain the delicate social equation in the region. Lastly, the 4 million people left out in the draft should be dealt with caution for an amicable solution on humanitarian grounds.

Selim Jahangir
, Ph.D., International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai, and Mehebub Sahana, Ph.D., Department of Geography, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.


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