In the decadal growth of the Muslim population of India between 2001 and 2011, the highest in terms of percentage points has been in Assam. Its Muslim population has risen from 30.9 per cent to 34.2, a change of 3.3 points as compared to the national average of 0.8.
The proportion has increased by 28.8 percentage points in Darrang district, 14.88 points in Kamrup, 13.86 points in Nalbari, and 11.37 points in Barpeta. The rise in these districts, in fact, is higher than in districts bordering Bangladesh, where the Muslim population has been traditionally high. Among these border districts, Dhubri has seen a rise of 5.67 points and Karimganj of 4.08 points.
Academics are inclined to junk the theory that illegal immigration is the reason behind this rise. “What the figures show was expected, in the sense that of 126 legislative assembly constituencies in Assam, there are 40 constituencies where Muslims account for 40 to 80 per cent of the population,” said Noni Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science, Gauhati University. “However, while immigration from Bangladesh was a real issue in the decades 1971-81 and 1981-91, this trend has been coming down over the years. Muslims who do continue to come from Bangladesh move on to other states for employment. Now, the rise in Muslims is home-grown, in the sense that the population of East Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam is increasing.”
Accusations, principally from the BJP, against the Tarun Gogoi government of having turned a blind eye to illegal immigration have been a sticking point in state politics for years now. The Gogoi government has 78 of the 126 seats in the current assembly. In Darrang, where the increase in Muslim population is the highest, the Congress has 9 of the 15 constituencies with the rest split between the AGP and Bodoland People’s Front. Of the 24 in Kamrup, Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front hold six to the Congress’s 10.
With assembly elections due next year, and whispers about how UPA sat on religion census data for fear of a backlash before the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress is maintaining a studied silence. Calls and messages to Gaurav Gogoi, Congress MP and son of the chief minister, went unanswered. Other senior leaders pleaded inability to speak on this.
Mahendra Singh, BJP secretary in charge of Assam, said of the rise in Muslim population, “These are all illegal immigrants… They are protected by the government while the original inhabitants of the area, scheduled tribe Hindus, have been forced to leave because of the rising dominance of these immigrants. The very composition of the population there has changed there. This has been happening in large parts of lower Assam and Barak Valley.” Darrang, Kamrup, Barpeta and Nalbari are in lower Assam; among border districts, Dhubri is in lower Assam and Karimganj in Barak Valley.
AIUDF leaders who the BJP alleges have “shared the electoral spoils’’ are dismissive of the allegations. The party won three Lok Sabha seats last year — in Dhubri from where Ajmal contested, his brother Sirajuddin’s seat Barpeta and the reserved seat of Karimganj. Party chief Ajmal was not available for comment but his brother links the rise in Muslim population to poverty and consequent lack of family planning.
“The rate of childbirth in these area is very high, productivity is at its peak,” Sirajuddin said. “These are poor, unemployed people. What do they do when there is nothing else to do? They produce children. That is the story of this area. All this talk about illegal immigration is political gimmickry. Why would Bangladeshis come to this poor region? They would go to Arab countries. Bangladesh has developed so much that they are even better off there than here.”
Among the AIUDF’s assembly seats are Goalpara East and West bordering Dhubri district.