The Politics Of Demography In Assam And West Bengal (Outlook)

Linking demography with national security has always been on the Sangh Parivar’s agenda. Now government agencies have begun to take action.

By Snigdhendu Bhattacharya 

“It was a planned idea to increase the population, establish dominance, supremacy, and make this country Pakistan,” said Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak or the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological-organisational parent of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “It was about Punjab and Sindh then, (while) Assam and Bengal are critical now.”

Bhagwat was addressing a gathering at Guwahati, the capital of Assam, in July 2021, two months after the BJP, riding a wave of sentiments against “Bangladeshi-Muslim infiltrators”, had returned to power in the state to rule for a second consecutive term.

Assam’s population growth rate has been higher than the national average between 1951 and 2011, recording a 3.88-fold increase (80.28 lakh to 3.12 crore), whereas India’s population increase was 3.35 times during the same period. Between 1951 and 2011, Assam’s population density recorded a 3.9-times increase, whereas the national average was 3.26-times.

As a result, whereas Assam’s population density was lower than the national average in 1951, it surpassed the national average by 1971, one of the reasons that led to the launch of the militant and violent anti-outsider campaign in 1979.

The rapid growth of population and change in demography impacting electoral equations have been at the core of Assam politics for over four decades now, starting with the launch of the anti-outsider agitation in 1979. In a 2012 paper, titled “The Killing Fields of Assam: The Myth and Reality of Its Muslim Immigration”, economist Vani Kant Borooah wrote that Assam had “spawned some of the most egregious incidents of anti-immigrant violence in South Asia directed mainly, though not exclusively, against Bengali Muslims”.

Population growth and demographic change have also been one of the core issues of the RSS, which got involved in the Assam agitation soon after it broke out. In fact, in 1980, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told Parliament that though Assam’s student leaders were ready for a settlement, the RSS was fuelling trouble. The RSS has, since that time, consistently linked population growth —read demographic change— especially in Assam and West Bengal, with the country’s internal security.

However, by 2021, the governments at the Centre and in Assam had also started doing so. In October, the Union home ministry under Amit Shah increased the territory of the Border Security Force (BSF) from 15 km to 50 km in Assam and West Bengal. During the annual Director General of Police conference held between November 19 and 21, 2021, a paper presented by the Assam Police claimed that demographic changes in Assam’s districts bordering Bangladesh were a matter of security concern…

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