The edgy Northeast has a new reason to fight about — the exercise to update the national population register or census.
If territorial diktats are preventing villagers in disputed areas along inter-state borders from cooperating with enumerators, linguistic decrees have threatened to create a divide between the Assamese and Bengalis, the two largest communities in Assam.
Over the past fortnight, enumerators in Assam have had to beat a retreat from certain areas bordering Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland.
Enumerators were reportedly chased away from villages in Narayanpur area of Lakhimpur district bordering Arunachal Pradesh. “We are inquiring into why villagers refused to answer census questions,” said Lakhimpur Deputy Commissioner Jayant Narlekar.
Residents of three villages located in the Boko circle of Assam’s Kamrup district but claimed by Meghalaya also refused to cooperate. “We are told the villagers refused to give information until enumerators from Meghalaya arrived,” said Joint Director of Census (Assam) Dilip Kumar Dey.
Trouble in the area cropped up after the Assam Police helped officials register a few families. Subsequently, a village headman named Hyndro Samakha warned of strict action against “any Khasi found to have enrolled with Assam”.
Similar incidents were also reported from areas of Assam’s Golaghat district bordering Nagaland. Allegedly under pressure from Naga militants, villagers insisted on being enumerated by officials from Nagaland.
“We are not aware of census-related trouble in the border areas. Besides, we are yet to undertake the exercise of enumeration,” Director of Census (Nagaland) Hekhali Zhimomi told HT from Dimapur.
Census officials attributed the incidents of local level political leaders taking advantage of villagers’ ignorance about the census exercise. “The enumeration form and questions therein make it clear this is merely a headcount without mention of language, religion or territory. Such data won’t be recorded until February next year,” a senior official said.
Besides, demography is a touchy issue in Assam. The fear of indigenous Assamese – they are a minority with barely 30 per cent – being overrun, particularly by Bengali-speaking migrants from Bangladesh, had led to communal clashes and anti-foreigner agitations in the past.