Friday, 7 September, 2007

ULFA and the Changing Demographic Face of Assam
Author: Arjun Nair Publication: Institute of Peace and Conflict StudiesDate: July 30, 2007URL:

The situation in Assam has once again caught the attention of the public eye with a series of attacks and abductions, beginning in January 2007 and intensifying in May, resulting in the deaths of over a hundred innocent civilians and leaving hundreds more injured. Although the killing of civilians is not a new phenomenon on Assam, it is the renewed targeting of the Hindi speaking population that is causing worry not just to the state government and the centre, but also to the indigenous Assamese population, whose interests the ULFA claims to protect. Needless to say, the ULFA's renewed focus on the migrant population is causing them to leave in droves back to their places of origin, mostly in Bihar and Jharkhand. According the North-East Hindi-speakers Forum, at least 100,000 Hindi-speaking migrants have fled the state so far since the attacks in January, with the rate of exodus quickening after the attacks in May. Why the renewed focus on migrant workers? Why, more importantly is it worrying the native Assamese people? And what effect do these attacks pose to the demography of the state?
The expulsion of migrants is, and always has been an issue high on ULFA's agenda. In the December 2006 issue of the organization's mouthpiece, Freedom, migrant workers were described as a threat to the existence of an independent Assam and a cause of considerable damage to the social fabric of the state. However, many believe that the renewed attacks are an attempt by ULFA to boost its sagging approval rate, which was last polled at less than four per cent in a public opinion poll conducted by an NGO, the Assam Public Works, late last year. The strategy, going by the dismal approval ratings doesn't seem to be working for the ULFA. By attacking crowded commercial areas - allegedly to corner prized real estate - they are directly affecting business opportunities in the state and forcing the state to call for more security forces, whose presence is not welcome by the Assamese people. However it is the rapidly increasing population of illegal immigrant workers from Bangladesh that has caused tensions in the past and further threaten ULFA's support base.
The void left behind by the fleeing Hindi-speaking population has been quickly filled by the Bangladeshi population in the state that is unofficially estimated to be 10 million-strong. In the article from Freedom quoted above, the ULFA makes its priorities clear regarding illegal immigrants. It clearly states that illegal workers from Bangladesh and Nepal must be driven out, "but before that the illegal migrants from India must be expelled. The main illegal foreigners in the State are the Indian rulers and the principal illegal occupational forces are the Indian Army who also must be driven out from the State." This is an almost complete turnaround from ULFA's originally outright opposition to the presence of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and is explained by senior ULFA leaders including its commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah being granted asylum by Dhaka and their generous donations to the major political parties such as the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
The direct fallout from the attacks on Hindi-speaking migrant workers and their leaving the state, has been the increase in fear of Islamization of the state which began with the immigration of Bangladeshis. The 2001 Census figures in Assam showed the increase of Muslim population from 24.56 percent in 1971 to 30.91 percent in 2001 which gives some indication of the importance of minority politics to the ruling parties which have done little to prevent this vast influx of illegal migrants. This could lead to the rise of terrorism associated with Islamic organizations operating out of Bangladesh and could lead to a situation similar to Kashmir for the Indian government, according to some theorists. Furthermore, Assamese believe they are slowly losing their political franchise and are fearful of an eventual merger with Bangladesh, which ULFA would be instrumental in bringing about, if it continues its current policy of attacking migrant populations.
On 16 January 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured full security to Hindi-speaking migrants and gave a tough message to militant outfits that there would be no compromise if they resorted to violence. However, while Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had requested for an additional 4,000 paramilitary troops following the January attacks, the Centre's priorities lay in allotting a similar number of troops to oversee the elections in Uttar Pradesh in June. In order to prevent the rise of another base for terrorist activities in the already troubled northeast, it is time the central government mended its lax policy concerning Bangladeshi immigrants and took firm steps to protect the Hindi-speaking migrant population whose role in Assam's stability has been ignored.

Arjun Nair Research Intern, IPCS

No comments: