by Angshuman Choudhury Jul 26, 2019
In November 1998, Srinivas Kumar Sinha, the then Governor of Assam and also former Vice Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, penned a rare report titled ‘Report on Illegal Migration in Assam’ and sent it to the then President KR Narayanan. Since then, the 22-page report has acquired a cult status among those who stringently oppose “illegal immigration” from Bangladesh into Assam (and the North East) and root for policy measures to expel them.
Sinha’s report has been cited, quoted, summoned umpteen times by opinion-makers, scholars, researchers and retired government officials to hammer the claim that Bangladeshi immigrants have inundated Assam and need to be identified and expelled. Here, here, here, here are but a few examples (also see first presentation in this report of a recent discussion at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies). Two decades have passed since he wrote it, and yet, it is still the go-to document for large segments of the policy circle who believe that illegal immigration from Bangladesh into Assam is a threat of apocalyptic proportions.
This endearing obsession with Sinha’s report is both odd and understandable. Odd, because the report is rife with contradictions, factual inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies and sweeping conclusions that have no basis in reality. Understandable, because it drives home an old rhetoric in a manner that appears fresh, compelling and assertive, but not necessarily grounded in data, which is exactly how the anti-immigrant lobby largely operates.
Since the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is set to be out by the end of next month, it is important to revisit Sinha’s all-powerful 1998 report, which continues to give legitimacy and intellectual credence to the hugely problematic and discriminatory citizenship determination regime in Assam. This is even more so because excerpts from the Sinha report found mention in the 2014 Supreme Court judgment that sanctioned the NRC, and the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report on the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill. It is, thus, crucial to reiterate, if not done earlier, the fallacies, inconsistencies and generalisations in this immortal document that was one of the first official reports to have recommended the updation of the 1951 NRC since the Assam Accord of 1985.
The report is divided into five chapters and ends with an appendix of policy recommendations. The first two chapters — ‘Introduction’ and ‘Migration Into Assam’ — form the core premise of the whole report, also reflecting Sinha’s own thinking on the subject. This analysis will focus on these two sections.
Immigration and insurgency
In the introduction, Sinha argues that illegal immigration from Bangladesh “was the prime contributory factor behind the outbreak of insurgency in the State.” This is simply not true. While the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the first and once the largest of all insurgent outfits based in Assam, was indeed born at the very outset of the anti-immigrant Assam Movement (1979-85) and even included the illegal immigration issue in its initial pamphlets, the armed group had a much more diverse set of factors behind its birth.
The ULFA’s primary motivation came from an independentist popular sentiment that aspired to liberate Assam from the clutches of the “colonial Indian administration”. Massive economic disenfranchisement and underdevelopment, made worse by the extractive economic machinery that the Indian state was running in resource-rich Assam, lit the fire for a separatist armed struggle that might have only been temporarily fanned by the illegal immigration issue. In fact, several scholars contend that for the ULFA, Assam’s independence from India was a more serious priority over expelling illegal immigrants.
What’s more, just thirteen years after it was formed, the ULFA released a 15-page booklet in June 1992, titled ‘The People of Assam of East Bengal Origin’ in which it affirmatively recognised the positive contribution of the Bangladeshi migrant community to the state’s development, calling it a ‘major part of the national life of the people of Assam’ and a key contributor to the state’s agrarian economy. The outfit also categorically distanced itself from the Assam movement leaders, and thus, from the whole “illegal immigration” discourse.
Outdated sources, conspiratorial arguments
Sinha’s report is also flushed with ample conspiratorial thinking based on heavily outdated sources. For instance, in the introduction, he writes: “The long cherished design of Greater East Pakistan/Bangladesh, making inroads into the strategic land link of Assam with the rest of the country, can lead to severing the entire landmass of the North East, with all its rich resources, from the rest of the country.”
To qualify this, Sinha cites four sources: former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1969 book, The Myth of Independence, where he talks about Pakistan’s “good claim” to Assam; former Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s book, Eastern Pakistan: Its Population and Economics, where he makes an economic case for Assam’s inclusion in East Pakistan; a 1991 article in Holiday by late Bangladeshi leftist journalist (whom Sinha erroneously calls a “diplomat”), Sadeq Khan, that invokes the controversial concept of ‘lebensraum’ or the idea of finding new land (read: Assam) to settle Bangladeshis; and another 1991 article by former Bangladeshi foreign secretary and its first ambassador to China, Abdul Momin, in which he talks about “borderless competitive trade of labour” across Bangladesh and India.
Sinha collates these disparate narratives to conclude that Assam faces the threat of a “demographic invasion” from Bangladesh. This is just jumping the gun. At best, these writings reflect the personal thinking of specific individuals drowning in their own nationalist utopias, and hardly ever translated into institutionalised policies. To pass them off as ultimate proof of some grand geostrategic revisionist plan to conquer Assam is warped and misleading. Further, Sadeq Khan merely talked about a “natural overflow of population pressure”, not any organised attempt by Dhaka to forcibly settle Bangladeshis in Assam — a conspiracy theory that, strangely, has a loyal fan base of its own even today.
Moreover, writing in 1998 — 29 years after Bhutto’s book and at least 27 years after Sheikh Mujibur’s — Sinha should have known that geopolitical circumstances and norms had shifted so much by then that politically fragile South Asian countries, such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, could not have afforded to openly practise territorial expansionism or settler colonialism in their neighbourhood, particularly against a much more powerful country like India, without inviting armed conflict or irking the Western bloc. Hence, his alarmism was largely unfounded.
What is perhaps most surprising is that later in his report (Point 11), Sinha himself states that “there is no evidence of Bangladesh authorities organising the movement of population.”
Sinha’s fixation with outdated narratives actually doesn’t begin with Pakistani or Bangladeshi stalwarts, but with a senior official of the British colonial administration, Charles Seymour Mullan (whom Sinha incorrectly calls “SC Mullan”). In 1932, Mullan, as the Census Superintendent of Assam, published an infamous report in which he warned of an “invasion of a vast horde of land hungry Bengali immigrants” into Assam, which Sinha quotes in his own report. Mullan, much like Sinha himself, is now a legendary and oft-quoted figure within anti-immigrant lobbies in both Assam and Delhi.
But Mullan’s report came out a good 66 years prior to Sinha’s, that too during a time when the Indian Union or the Bangladeshi state as we know them today weren’t even born. The fundamental administrative and political conditions of the subcontinent during the colonial period were vastly different from those in Sinha’s time. For starters, there was no international border between Assam and East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Even the push factors for migration into Assam that existed during Mullan’s period had largely dissipated by 1998. There was also no systematic colonial policy to bring in labour to Assam when Sinha was writing the report.
Thus, to yank out Mullan’s antiquated data interpretation to prove continuing immigration from Bangladesh into modern-day Assam is misleading.
Sinha also gives in to the ‘Muslim jihad’ conspiratorial lobby by claiming that “Pakistan’s ISI has been active in Bangladesh supporting militant movements in Assam.” While this might be partially true in terms of some degree of militant mobilisation, there has never been any credible evidence of an organised Islamist militancy in Assam that is large enough to be a serious national security concern. In this analysis, Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray, former member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), writes that the Islamist movement in Assam “has remained at best a fringe movement, failing to both attract cadres and also to upgrade the quality of arms in its possession.”
Self-contradictions, ambiguous data
Perhaps the most glaring failure of Sinha’s report is its over-reliance on raw data, made worse by sweeping conclusions drawn without any rational basis or correlation. Moreover, his data interpretations and conclusions contradict themselves at many places.
For instance, in Point 18.a, Sinha outlines how “census records [of Bangladesh] indicate a reduction of 39 lakhs Hindus between 1971 and 1981 and another 36 lakhs between 1981 and 1989”. From this, he immediately concludes that “these 75 lakhs (39+36) Hindus have obviously come into India” and “perhaps most of them have come into States other than Assam”. In an earlier section (point 6), Sinha also cites the decadal percentage data on decline in the Hindu population in Bangladesh during 1947-91 (from 27 to 10 percent), and then hastily concludes that “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh into Assam are now almost exclusively Muslims” — an argument he reiterates in Point 20.
One only wonders as to how Sinha reached these conclusions. While a decrease in the Hindu population in Bangladesh could actually indicate their outward migration, it is practically impossible to conclude which country or Indian states they entered into without matching the Bangladesh census figures with the Indian state-wise census data. Further, if Hindus were in sharp decline in Bangladesh during most of the post-independence period till the decade Sinha was writing in, one only wonders what drove him to conclude that most of the new illegal immigrants in Assam are Muslims.
In a later section (point 19.c ‘Explanatory Note’), Sinha cites some data on the decadal growth rate of Hindus and Muslims in India and Assam. He says that “during the period 1971-91, Hindu growth rate in Assam was much less than the All India figure.” This is a strange exaggeration. During that period, as per his own data, the Hindu growth rate in Assam was 41.89 percent, only slightly less than the all-India rate of 48.38 percent, and not “much less” as Sinha claims.
Further, he claims that the growth rate of Muslims in Assam (77.42 percent) was “much higher” than the all-India rate in that period (55.04 percent). It is unclear where Sinha sourced this data from, since there was no census in Assam in 1981 because of the Assam Movement. In a 2017 book titled Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement written by former professor of statistics at Gauhati University, Abdul Mannan, the figures are vastly different. According to his data, the all-India growth rate of Muslims between 1971 and 1991 was 71.47 percent, not 55.04 percent, which essentially means that the difference in the growth rates in Assam and India between 1971-91 is only marginal.
Even if we concede to the authenticity of Sinha’s data, his immediate conclusion that the higher Muslim growth rates in Assam “suggests continued large scale Muslim illegal migration into Assam” is erroneous. There could be several other factors behind the rising growth rate, among which high fertility rates and economic impoverishment are key. Mannan attributes this to “social backwardness and relative poverty among Muslims”. He also points out how the growth rates of Assam’s Scheduled Castes (81.84 percent), Scheduled Tribes (78.97 percent) and Christians (95.37 percent) were even higher than that of Muslims during the same period.
This was confirmed by Assam-based political scientist, Akhil Ranjan Dutta, in a December 2017 essay for Economic and Political Weekly, where he argued that “backwardness of these communities [Muslims and SCs, STs, and Christians] in all dimensions of development” (and not illegal immigration) is to be blamed for the higher growth rates. Mannan also challenges the “higher growth rate means more illegal migration” logic by citing data that indicates that Muslim growth rates in Upper Assam districts — where there is little to no immigration from Bangladesh — were higher than those in Lower Assam that receives most of the immigrants.
Sinha’s tryst with dubious data continues in a subsequent section (point 16) where he quotes an admission to the Parliament by former Home Minister Indrajit Gupta on 6 May, 1997, wherein the latter put the number of illegal immigrants residing in India at 10 million. Sinha also cites an India Today report from 10 August, 1998, that gives rough state-wise figures of illegal immigrants, citing a “Home Ministry/Intelligence Bureau source”. These figures are not based on any census data, and are obscurely sourced, which renders them unreliable.
What is even more shocking is that Sinha quotes the former Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteshwar Saikia, who on 10 April, 1992 said that there were three million Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in Assam but did a volte-face two days later, claiming that there were no illegals in Assam. Sinha does mention Saikia’s U-turn, but then goes on to qualify his core claim through anecdotal and xenophobic rhetoric: “One can see for oneself, the large scale infiltration of Bangladeshis that has taken place into Assam. Looking at the population in the border areas of Assam, sometimes one wonders whether one is in Assam or in Bangladesh.”
In another instance of self-contradiction, Sinha first argues (page 4, point 1) that the movement of people of East Bengal to Assam was “initially” for “economic reasons”, but developed “both communal and political overtones” with the approach of independence. However, in a later section (page 6, point 9, ‘Contributory Factors’), Sinha argues that “illegal immigration into Assam has been taking place primarily for economic reasons”, in light of the fact that “Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated country”. In a point further down, he attributes the large-scale migration pattern to “ethnic, linguistic and religious commonality between the illegal migrants and many people on our side of the border”, and not on any communal or political design to settle Bangladeshis in Assam.
Evidently, Sinha’s “historic” report to the president is a tapestry of unsourced data sets, unqualified conclusions, historical inaccuracies and internal contradictions. All of these can be aptly summarised in Sinha’s words himself: In point 15, while justifying his citation of Mullan’s 1931 report, Sinha says the following that unwittingly reflects the crux of his own report:
“Unfortunately, today we have no census report on the basis of which we can accurately define the contours of trans-border movement. Thus we have to rely on broad estimates of theatrical extrapolations (emphasis added by this author) to work out the dimension of illegal migration that has taken place from East Pakistan/Bangladesh.”
“Theatrical extrapolations” is exactly what this legendary 1998 report by a former Assam state governor is.