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In Assam, a minority in their own land

The Assamese have wanted illegal Bangladeshi immigrants out of their land since 1979. But it is they who are being crowded out — partly due to divisions created by that very campaign. Rahul Karmakar reports.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2009 21:17 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times

Radhakanta Talukdar looks at his neighbours every day, thinks of his bullet-ripped brother and feels wretched.

The 45-year-old schoolteacher’s brother Khargeswar Talukdar is an icon in the region, the first man to die in the watershed 1979-1985 Assam Agitation against Bangladeshis streaming in illegally from across the border.

But in his Assamese village of Ujan Borbori, 140 kilometres west of Assam’s capital of Guwahati, the foreigners they wanted
out having moved within sniffing distance.

The 2001 Census confirmed the worst fears of the Assamese: They are now a minority in their own land.

The Barpeta district where the village is located, for instance, is now 40 per cent Hindu and 59 per cent Muslim against 51 per cent Hindu and 49 per cent Muslim in 1971. A large number of the Muslims are accused of being illegals, though exact figures are impossible to confirm independently.

Khargeswar was bludgeoned to death by the police during a protest in December 1979. His hometown was once a pilgrimage for
the khilonjia (sons of the soil, in Assamese) who jolted New Delhi, alerting it to the silent invasion from across the border.

Politics walked faster than the agitation.

“My brother’s sacrifice has gone in vain,” says Radhakanta. “The very leaders who egged him on to face death for the motherland now bow before the electoral strength of the migrants.”

Nothing, perhaps, exemplifies the village’s predicament better than a 700 bigha (1,039 hectare) government plot that was to have been named Swahid Khargeswar Talukdar Nagar.

The land has been occupied for years by allegedly illegal Bangladeshis.

It’s the same story across Barpeta and five other districts along the porous border.

Here, politics is centred on the locals’ fears and insecurities of being outnumbered by the outsiders.

And, ahead of the general election, local parties are raving about the latest census figures as they trade charges of ‘patronised encroachment’ and the creation of votebanks.

But the Assam Agitation also sowed the seeds of division among various indigenous communities.

Slogans like ‘Leave Assam if you are not Assamese’ angered large tribal groups, such as the identity-conscious Bodos.

Some tribes stopped counting themselves among the mainstream Assamese, leading to a further drop in the figures and fuelling simultaneous movements for self-rule or statehood.

One of the consequences was the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) five years ago.

Chirang was carved out of Barpeta after the Bodos, north-east India’s largest plains tribe, revolted against ‘Assamese hegemony’, their movement for self-rule taking off from the Assam Agitation.

The land rights of non-tribals here are restricted.

Khargeswar Talukdar’s family is among those who lost land here.

“My relatives have left that region. Part of our paddy field has fallen in BTC and that land is as good as gone,” Khargeswar’s mother Sabitri (69). “We have become outsiders in our own backyard.”

Retired schoolteacher Akshay K. Misra (61) has a different take. “We have ourselves to blame,” he says. “Landowners desperate for a quick buck have sold or leased their fields to illegal immigrants. With prosperity and numerical strength, they are now asserting themselves politically too.”

The youth, however, seem oblivious to the perceived onslaught. “We have grown up with them, so we don’t think of them as any different unless someone points it out,” says Misra’s son Siddhartha (16).

Besides, say other youngsters, life wouldn’t be the same without their cheap labour.

First Published: Mar 24, 2009 00:15 IST