A ‘god-sent’ opportunity?


back to issue

IN the wake of the Partition Assam lost one of her districts to Pakistan. Mountbatten’s partition-plan announced on 3 June 1947, provided inter-alia for a referendum to be held in the Sylhet district of Assam to decide whether it should remain a part of the Indian province of Assam or go to East Pakistan. The Sylhet referendum was held on 6 July 1947 and the result went in favour of a merger with Pakistan. Assam thus lost a wealthy district causing serious loss of revenue.

But the Assamese people in general greeted this loss and the Assam press projected it as a gain. This attitude, somewhat unusual in the context of the national aspiration of the period, has its origins in what can be called the long-cherished quest of the Assamese – carving out a homogenous province for themselves. The Assamese perceived the partition of 1947 as a god-sent opportunity to attain that goal. In fact, the Assamese Congress leaders were sowing the seeds for subsequent manoeuvres in this direction well before the partition plan was announced. Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, wrote in his journal as early as April 1946, that Gopinath Bordoloi, the Congress Premier of Assam, gave the Cabinet Mission to understand that ‘Assam would be quite prepared to hand over Sylhet to Eastern Bengal.’1

Bordoloi wrote to Sardar Patel on 18 February 1948:

‘Maulana Sahib (e.g. Azad) seemed to come to the conclusion that the only alternative to this state of things is to separate the Bengali district of Sylhet and a portion of Cachar from Assam and join these with Bengal – a consummation to which the Assamese people are looking forward for the last 70 years.’2

The Assam Pradesh Congress Committee in 1945, in its election manifesto, stated:

‘Unless the province of Assam is organised on the basis of Assamese language and Assamese culture, the survival of the Assamese nationality and culture will become impossible. The inclusion of Bengali speaking Sylhet and Cachar and immigration or importation of lacs of Bengali settlers on wastelands has been threatening to destroy the distinctivness of Assam and has, in practice, caused many disorders in its administration.’



Of course, the partition of India was yet a far cry in 1946 and the Congress high command allowed the Assam Congress to air the proposal for the transfer of Sylhet to Bengal only as a part of a futuristic plan for a reorganisation of the provinces within undivided India. But in June 1947, the situation was totally different. The transfer of Sylhet to Bengal now meant its transfer to East Pakistan and the Congress high command could in no way sponsor such a proposal.

But to the Assam Congress it did not matter whether Sylhet went to Pakistan or remained in India. The Bengali speaking district was regarded as an ulcer hindering the emergence of a unilingual Assam. Hence, when the decision for the referendum was announced, Gopinath Bordoloi, conveyed to all concerned, that the Cabinet was not interested in retaining Sylhet.

‘It was indeed the lifetime opportunity for the Assamese leadership "to get rid of Sylhet" and carve out a linguistically more homogenous province. When the results of the referendum were declared, there was a feeling of relief in the Brahmaputra valley. The Sylhet leaders were discouraged when they tried to salvage a portion of the district through an effective representation to the Boundary Commission.’3



The partition of the country, for the Assamese leaders, was perceived not as a tragic development but as a ‘god-sent opportunity to carve out a linguistically homogenous province.’ Since then more than fifty years have elapsed, but Partition has continued to retain these perceived significances in Assam. In 1947, Partition facilitated the ouster of Sylhet, but in isolation this proved to be insufficient for delivering the desired homogeneity. The need arose to evolve a new strategy and here again ‘partition’ came handy. In fact, the foreigner issue, projected as the core question associated with the survival of the Assamese nationality, has drawn its entire rationale from Partition. In other words, had there been no partition, there would not have been any ‘foreigner issue’ in Assam.

The objective of this presentation is to show:

(a) how Partition has been used as an instrument to deal with a problem which originated at least half a century earlier;

(b) how Partition provides a suitable cover for serving an old wine in a new bottle to consumers at the national level.



Partition came to assume an altogether different significance in Assam during the post-independence decades. It has been endowed with a ‘surplus-value’ to earning rich dividends. It is necessary to look into the problem of immigration in Assam since the British days and assess the endeavours of the Assamese politicians to resolve the problem pre- and post- independence.

Immigration has been a matter of concern for the people of Assam since the turn of the 20th century and what is today known as the ‘foreigners’ problem is simply a projection of this old unresolved issue under a new nomenclature.

For reasons rooted in the history of this region, the Brahmaputra valley had an abundance of cultivable wasteland when the British occupied the territory in 1826. Land-hungry peasants, mostly Muslims, from over-populated East Bengal flocked to Assam under the patronage of the colonial administration as well as local zamindars and mouzadars.

Initially, this migration was hailed as a positive phenomenon by the Assamese gentry. In 1885-86, the writer Gunabhiram wrote a series of articles highlighting the desirability of such immigration. Even as late as 1929, Jagannath Bujar-Barua, well-known intellectual, told the Assam Banking Enquiry Committee that ‘immigration has brought prosperity to Barpeta area.’ However, post 1920 the Assamese public opinion was apprehensive that unchecked immigration might change the demographic composition of the province, reducing the ethnic Assamese to a minority in their homeland. This apprehension reached its apogee when C.S. Mullan, the Census Superintendent of Assam, in his Census Report, 1931, made an ill-conceived observation that:

‘The immigrant... has almost completed the conquest of Nowgong. The Barpeta subdivision of Kamrupa has also fallen to their attack and Darrang is being invaded. Sibsagar has so far escaped completely, but the few thousand Mymansinghias (immigrants from Mymansingh district of East Bengal) in North Lakhimpur are an outpost which may, during the next decade, prove to be a valuable basis of major operations.’



Since then the primary concern of the Assamese leadership centred around two objectives: (i) save Assam from the constant flow of Muslim immigration, and (ii) separate Bengali speaking districts of Sylhet and Cachar from the administrative unit of Assam in order to free government offices from the clutches of the Bengali Hindu employees. When Jawaharlal Nehru came to Assam in November 1937 for an election campaign, two memoranda were submitted to him, one by Asamiya Sanrakshini Sabha, another by Asamiya Deka Dal. The first memorandum emphasised:

‘...as a means of saving the Assamese race from extinction, a considerable section of the Assamese intelligentsia has even expressed their minds in favour of the secession of Assam from India.’

In the second memorandum a detailed programme was chalked out to save the Assamese race and among other measures, it suggested: (i) transfer of Sylhet to Bengal, (ii) total ban of Bengali immigration to the Brahmaputra valley for a period of twenty years, and (iii) strict naturalisation laws for resident Bengali immigrants.

Nehru, however, was not impressed by the arguments and he wrote to the APCC President: ‘Indeed, even from the point of view of developing Assam and making it a wealthier province, immigration is desirable.’ Nehru’s observation was not taken kindly by the Assamese people who saw an unusual growth rate of Muslims in the Brahmaputra valley during the two decades between 1921-1931 and 1931-1941. Between 1921 and 1931 the growth rate of the Muslim population in Assam was 45.8% against a general growth rate of 19.8% and between 1931 and 1941 it was 32.9% against 20.5%. However, despite Nehru’s advocacy, the Congress high command allowed the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee to pose as the saviour of Assamese nationality and the election manifesto of the Pradesh Congress in 1945 incorporated a pledge to this effect.



When the provincial unit of Indian National Congress, putting aside its national commitment, legitimised a branding of the immigrants of Indian origin as undesirable elements, it was quite likely that the more sectarian section of the Assamese population would go even further to expand the denotation and connotation of the term ‘immigrant’ and demand, for Assam, a different kind of political entity. On 20 July 1947, just 20 days before Independence, Birinchikumar Barua, reputed litterateur and historian of Assam, put forward a candid version of the popular perception of an immigrant:

‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Culturally, racially, and linguistically, every non-Assamese is a foreigner in Assam. In this connection we must bear in mind that Assam from the very ancient times never formed a part of India.’



It is apparent that though the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) is a much later phenomenon, its thesis is not. When Barua was busy furnishing a definition of a ‘foreigner’, some of his compatriots were busy inciting public sentiment for the creation of a sovereign Assam. Asom Jatiya Mahasabha, the leading organisation claiming to represent the Assamese cause, took an initiative in this mid-summer excursion. The Shillong Times, dated 27 August 1947, published a statement signed by four Jatiya Mahasabha leaders which proclaimed:

‘With Sylhet joining Pakistan, Assam has grown smaller in area but attained greater homogeneity which has prompted Assam to be free and sovereign. From the days of antiquity, Assam was not only free but indomitable in power... When the (Assam) Congress and public agitated against the grouping of Assam with Bengal, it was Mahatma Gandhi himself who said that Assam should resist this against the whole world. But now she is grouped with rest of India, a mightier force than the other. Assam’s sovereignty was a fact of ages ago and it should be of the future.’

The propagation of the same ideal continued and The Assam Tribune, dated 4 January 1948, reported:

A meeting of the Asom Jatiya Mahasabha, Kamrup branch, was held on the 1st January in the church field to discuss the development in the country in all aspects. The President expressed the view that Assam should come out of the Indian Union and become an independent country like Burma or any other country.

Further, ‘Sri Ambika Giri Roy Choudhury, General Secretary, Asom Jatiya Mahasabha has this morning sent a telegram from Jorhat to Aliba Imti, President, Naga National Council, Kohima. Sri Roy Choudhury, in the wire, informed the National Council President that the Asom Jatiya Mahasabha workers assembled at Jorhat have expressed their fullest sympathy with their Naga brothers’ stand for self-determination.’

It needs to be stressed that in 1947-48, the political environment of India was fluid and there was nothing ‘wrong’ if some quarters demanded secession of Assam from India at a point when the redrawing of the country’s frontier lines was already on the agenda.



The transfer of Sylhet to Pakistan was hailed by the Assamese public opinion. The only daily newspaper of Assam, The Assam Tribune, hailed the transfer of Sylhet: ‘The Assamese public seem to feel relieved of a burden’ (21 July 1947). But the most blatant version of this jubilation was pronounced by Sri Akbar Hydari, Governor of Assam. Speaking on behalf of the provincial Congress cabinet, when the Assam Assembly met on 5 September 1947 for the first time after Independence, he said:

‘The natives of Assam are now masters of their own house. They have a government which is both responsible and responsible to them. The Bengali no longer has the power, even if he had the will, to impose anything on the people of these hills and valleys which constitute Assam.’

But this jubilation was short-lived. The problem of the refugee influx, inbuilt within the Partition proposal itself, threatened to neutralise the gains achieved by the ouster of Sylhet. Why? Because most of the refugees crossed over from Sylhet, the district which had been a part of Assam since 1874, to newly formed Assam again! Gopinath Bordoloi and his Congress ministry opposed tooth and nail the central government’s bid to settle these refugees in Assam.

The attitude of the Assam ministry can be gauged from the following government circular issued on 4 May 1948:

‘In view of the emergency created by the influx of refugees into the province from East Pakistan territories and in order to preserve peace, tranquillity and social equilibrium in the towns and villages, the government reiterates its policy that settlement of land should be in no circumstances made with persons who are not indigenous to the province. The non-indigenous inhabitants of the province should include, for the purpose of land settlement during the present emergency, persons who are non-Assamese settlers in Assam though they already have lands and houses of their own and have made Assam their home to all intents and purposes’ (Revenue Deptt. no. 195/47/188 dt. 4.5.48).



Thus the Bordoloi ministry pursued a policy that put a ban on the settlement of land not only to the refugees but also to all non-Assamese settlers who might have been living in Assam for generations. The central government assessed the availability of fallow cultivable land in Assam through a committee headed by Dorab Gandhi who reported that 18 million acres of cultivable land could be used for the new settlement.

This figure also tallied with the Assam government’s own assessment as given in its publication, The Problem of Agricultural Development (Assam Government Press, 1946, Table VI, p. 8) and Industrial Planning and Development of Assam (Government of Assam, 1948). The Census of India, 1951, Vol. 1 also reported that in Assam and adjoining areas ‘the percentage of unused land is highest among all the sub-regions of India’ (p. 22). The central government insisted that the vast tracts of wasteland in Assam should be utilised for production, as the available surplus was more than sufficient to accommodate both refugees and indigenous landless people.



It needs to be mentioned that the refugee population in the Brahmaputra valley was only 2.4 lakh in 1954 as admitted by the finance minister of Assam on 29 March 1954 in reply to an Assembly question. But this very meagre number was regarded as a burden by the Assam government even when the entire country was doing everything possible to help rehabilitation of these victims. It is interesting to note that ‘the deletion of names from the voters list’, a demand so consistently pressed by the All Assam Students Union since 1979, is also a device originally perceived by the Bordoloi ministry. A circular issued on 28.5.48 to the District Officer said:

‘The government desires to draw your personal attention with regard to the following non-resident population of the district. These people are not qualified to be voters. They may be staying with friends, relations or as refugees or labourers. Great caution will be necessary on the part of your staff to see that not a single individual of this class manages to creep into the electoral roll by any chance’ (Circular No. L.801/47).

Mohanlal Saxena, who was sent by Nehru to look into the problem of refugees in Eastern India, in his report wrote: ‘The refugees who have got into the state of Assam are there inspite of the unhelpful attitude of the state government.’

Whereas the influx of Hindu Bengali refugees remained a cause of concern for the Assamese leadership, the behaviour of the immigrant Muslims gave them some temporary satisfaction. The province of Assam incorporated two Bengali speaking districts of Sylhet and Cachar and five tribal districts within its jurisdiction for administrative convenience.



For example, the percentage of the Assamese speakers to the total population was only 31.4% in the 1931 Census. But when the first post independence Census was taken in 1951, it was found that the absolute number of Assamese speaking people had grown from 19,73,250 to 49,13,929, thereby showing an absurd growth rate of about 150% in twenty years. This miracle happened because immigrant Bengali Muslims reported Assamese as their mother tongue in the 1951 Census.

R.B. Bhagaiwala, ICS, the Superintendent of Census operations in Assam, in his report explained:

‘There is a striking increase in the percentage of people who speak Assamese in 1951 (56.7) over those of 1931, which was only 31.4 per cent; there is an equally striking decrease in the percentage of people speaking Bengali in 1951 which is only 16.5 against 26.8 per cent in 1931. With the solitary exception of Assamese, every language or language group in Assam shows a decline in the percentage of people speaking the same. All this decline has gone to swell the percentage of the people speaking Assamese in 1951. The figures do not fail to reflect the aggressive linguistic nationalism now prevailing in Assam, coupled with the desire of many persons among the Muslims as well as tea garden labour immigrants to adopt Assamese as their mother tongue in the state of their adoption. It is not unlikely that some amongst the persons who have returned their mother tongue as Assamese had done so from devious motives, even though their knowledge of Assamese may not amount to much’ (Census of India, 1951, vol. XII, Part 1-A, pp. 413-14).

The resultant situation was aptly summarised by Myron Weiner:

‘After 1947 the Bengali Muslims became de facto allies of the Assamese in their conflict with the Bengali Hindus. Bengali Muslims have been willing to accept Assamese as the medium of instruction in their schools, and have thrown their votes behind Assamese candidates for the state Assembly and the national Parliament. They have declared Assamese as their mother tongue. In return, the state government has not attempted to eject Bengali Muslims from lands on which they have settled in the Brahmaputra valley, though earlier leaders had claimed that much of the settlement had taken place illegally... There is thus an unspoken coalition between the Assamese and the Bengali Muslims against the Bengali Hindus’ (Sons of the Soil, p. 124).

This tactical adoption of the Assamese language by the Bengali Muslims and their calculated support extended to the Assamese leadership in electoral politics served Assamese interest in two vital ways. First, Assamese speakers for the first time in history became an absolute majority in Assam. This status was further consolidated in subsequent decades by the enactment of the Assam Official Language Act, 1960, which made Assamese the sole official language of the state.



Second, the electoral support of the Bengali Muslims ensured Assamese leaders a safe passage to the political power structure of the state, essential for retention and expansion of Assamese hegemony over the diverse peoples of the state. Moreover, in the fifties and sixties, the immigrant Muslims were an educationally backward community. Hence they were in no position to compete with the Assamese middle class in the expanding job market created as a sequel to the governmental development plans and welfare programme, precisely the field in which the Hindu Bengalis were tough competitors. So, a coalition with the immigrant Muslims was considered by the Assamese leaders to be all gain and no loss.



However, in the mid-seventies, Myron Weiner could foresee that this Hindu Assamese and immigrant Muslim agreement did not promise a ‘wholly stable coalition?’ He predicted two possible scenarios for its breakdown: (i) if there were to be a new major influx of Bengali Muslims into Assam, or (ii) if Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims coalesce. Weiner was broadly correct in his prediction though the development did not take shape exactly the way he had visualised.

The coalition between the Hindu Assamese and Muslim Bengalis had been subjected to an inbuilt contradiction from the very beginning. As early as 1936, Khan Bahadur Nuruddin Ahmed of Nowgong, on behalf of the immigrants, raised a vital question:

‘My Hindu friends of Assam valley, in order to prevent them (immigrants) from falling into the hands of the organisers of the Domiciled and Settlers’ Association, have been telling the immigrants that they regard them as Assamese people. But it is no use calling them Assamese without giving them the status of the Assamese.’

Here lay the crux of the problem. The Muslim immigrants and the Assamese Hindus were tied up in an alliance of convenience. The support of the immigrants was necessary for swelling the number of the Assamese speakers, but in return the Assamese gentry did not want to confer full-fledged Assamese status on the immigrants. The latter were allowed to retain agricultural holdings reclaimed by them, but their bid to enter middle class professions or share political power was frowned upon by the Assamese gentry.

However, monopoly in agricultural production gave economic stability to a section of the immigrants and they sent their children to schools and colleges. By the mid-sixties, a nucleus of a middle class was visible amongst the immigrants, and the pound of flesh could no longer be denied to them. The Congress had to concede the demand for Muslim quota while nominating candidates for Assembly and Parliament elections. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Moinul Haque Choudhury emerged as champions of the Muslim immigrant interests and their control over the Muslims vote bank enabled them to acquire enough political clout both at the national and the state levels of Congress politics.



The emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 along the entire western borderline of Assam gave a new twist to the situation. Since the British occupation of Assam, the Assamese middle class had been concerned with the threat posed by what it called ‘Bengali expansionism’. The creation of Bangladesh, on the basis of an avowed Bengali nationalism with elements of secular ingredients like language, culture and so on, was perceived by the Assamese leaders as an alarming development which could induce a new factor capable of wiping out the traditional divide between the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims.

What Myron Weiner was not in a position to foresee was that his monograph, Sons of the Soils, published in 1978, played a crucial role in renewing the fear of Bengali expansionism in the Assamese mind. Weiner’s book is full of both oblique and direct references to this supposed danger such as (i) ‘Fortunately for the Assamese, the Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus were unable to come together politically,’ or (ii) ‘There is thus an unspoken coalition between the Assamese and the Bengali Muslims against the Bengali Hindus. It is not a wholly stable coalition however, since it could be shattered if there were to be a new major influx of Bengali Muslims or if Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims coalesce.’ Weiner also worked out his own calculation to show that the ethnic Assamese formed only 30.5% of the total population of Assam whereas Bengali Hindus and Muslims of Bengali origin (now enumerated as Assamese speakers) formed more than 41% of the population.



Things came to a crux when the Assembly election of 1978 took place in an unforeseen liberal atmosphere caused by the lifting of the Emergency and the end of Congress rule at the Centre. For the first time the Congress lost and the Janata Party came to power in Assam. But more significantly the number of leftist MLAs (communists of different varieties) rose to 23 from two in the previous Assembly. The number of Muslim MLA’s also rose to 27 from 17. While in popular parlance, communists were regarded as stooges of Bengali nationalism in the Brahmaputra valley, Muslim politicians of all shades were considered protagonists of Muslim Bengal.

In an Assembly of 126 members, given the fluid political situation, the respective strengths of 23 leftists and 27 Muslims influenced the process of ministry formation. A.F. Golam Osmani of the Janata Party was made a minister and for the first time this Bengali Muslim leader stressed his Bengali identity more than his religious affiliation. In him some discovered a potential danger – would he be capable of accomplishing that unity of Bengali Hindus and Muslims which, according to the prognosis of Myron Weiner, was destined to dislodge the Assamese from their privileged position.



The last straw on the camel’s back was the election to the Guwahati Municipal Corporation which took place the same year. The CPM captured 13 out of 30 seats of the corporation and became the single largest party. The Assamese media came out heavily against the election for it had installed ‘stooges of Bengali nationalism’ in the civic body of the most important city of Assam.

These immediate factors, coupled with the century-old apprehension of alien domination, created the background of what subsequently came to be known as the Assam agitation. The burning of the Times of India in Guwahati on 23 July 1978, had marked the prelude to mid-1979. The initial thrust of the agitation was against Indians and outsiders, as the term foreigner was unheard of till the end of 1979. We need not go into the stages through which the transformation of terminology was effected, but it needs to be added that the change was the product of a skilful manipulation.

In short, the term outsider is still used in non-official conversations within Assam since in sells well in the domestic market, whereas the term foreigner is a later innovation for the consumption of the national press and national conscience. Thus the same commodity is being sold with rare acumen under two different brand names in two different markets to suit the taste and demands of two different varieties of consumers.

The problem of Assam is a vexed one and there is no tailor-made solution for it resolution. Some believe that once the identifiable foreigners are expelled, the agitation will fizzle out. They miss the basic point that a foreigner in the legal sense and a foreigner in Assamese perception are not the same and expulsion of the former will serve the objective of the agitators only marginally. Even if we think of an extreme solution of reserving Assam to the Assamese speakers alone, the Assamese mind will still be haunted by an apprehension of a different variety.



Twenty years earlier, Birendra Kumar Bhattacharjee, the reputed Assamese litterateur and a Jnanpith awardee, pointedly put forward the core of the Assamese apprehension: ‘Can the ambition of Assam to remain a Hindu and Assamese state be fulfilled within the bounds of the secular Constitution? This is the real question?’ (The Assam Tribune, 23 April 1980). His apprehension originates from, to use his own words, ‘the rapid increase of Muslim immigrants in the state and their proliferation due to the practice of polygamy’.

According to the 1991 Census, the Muslim population of Assam between 1971 and 1991 showed a rise of 78% whereas the Hindu growth rate during the same period was 44%. In absolute terms, the Muslim population of Assam in 1971 was 3592125 and in 1991, 6373204. This rise was surely reflected in the percentage of Muslims within the Assamese bloc which by a moderate estimate, could not be less than 30%. Udayon Misra, a renowned Marxist scholar from Assam, in a seminar organised by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla argued that traditional Assamese symbols like Namghars, Bihus, Kamakshya, Sankarite Vaisnavism were all essentially linked to Hinduism. He doubted whether these symbols would be capable of retaining the same significance when at least 30% of the Assamese speakers were Muslims.

Needless to say, these Muslims (known as Na-Asamiya or the neo-Assamese) whose forefathers were accommodated zealously within the fold of the Assamese speakers fifty years back for ensuring majority status of the Assamese within the state, may not be satisfied with the use of pure Hindu symbols as the rightful expression of their new identity. On the other hand, no linguistic group can act in unison if the aspiration of 30% of its component suffers from a sense of deprivation. This dichotomy between language and religion is destined to add yet another complexity to the vexed problem of the Assamese assertion.



It is evident from the aforesaid narrative that Partition has been inextricably intertwined with the Assamese quest for attaining a homogenous territory. In 1947, it was hoped that Partition would ensure the fulfilment of this long-cherished dream but that hope was belied. Hence, in 1979, the magic of Partition was once again invoked to invent the term ‘foreigner’ with a two-edged connotation. To date, the term retains its efficacy as a trump card for drawing sympathy for the cause of Assamese assertion. Swayam Prakash, in his famous short story ‘Partition’, expresses his agony in the following words: ‘It (Partition)’s not over yet. It’s happening – each moment, each hour!’4 In Assam too, Partition is still alive – but for a different reason.



1. Wavell, the Viceroy’s Journal, n. 21, 1 April 1946, p. 234, quoted from Amalendu Guha, Planter-Raj to Swaraj, p. 319.

2. Sardar Patel’s Correspondence 1945-50. V. I, III, Ahmedabad, 1972, p. 194.

3. Amalendu Guha, Planter-Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam, 1826-1947, pp. 219-20.

4. Image and Representation: Stories of Muslim Lives in India edited by M. Hussain and M. Asauddin, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000.