Assam Movement

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Assam agitation
A Students Rally during the Assam Movement.jpg
A Students Rally during the Assam Movement
Caused byImproper inclusion of foreign nationals in electoral rolls[1]
Methodsdemonstrations, civil disobedience
Passage of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act
Parties to the civil conflict
All Assam Students Union, All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad

The Assam Movement (also Anti-Foreigners Agitation) (1979–1985) was an popular uprising in Assam, India, that demanded the Government of India to detect, disenfranchise and deport illegal Bangladeshis.[4][2] Led by All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) the movement defined a six-year period of sustained civil disobedience campaigns, political instability and widespread ethnic violence (Nellie massacre, 1983).[5] The movement ended in 1985 with the Assam Accord.[6][7]

It was known since 1963 that foreign nationals had been improperly added to electoral rolls[8]—and when the draft enrollments in Mangaldoi showed high number of non-citizens in 1979[9] AASU decided to campaign for thoroughly revised electoral rolls in the entire state of Assam by boycotting the 1980 Lok Sabha election.[1][10] The Government of the day could not accept the demands of the movement leaders since it came at considerable political costs[11] and the movement escalated to economic blockades, oppression and ethnic conflict.

The problems that germinated the Assam movement and the problems that it created continue to fester.


Political Demography of Assam[edit]

The decadal population growth of Assam against that of India.[12]
Estimated Illegal Immigrant Arrivals[13]
Type and period Estimate (rounded)
1947–1951 (Refugees)[14] 274,000
1951–1961 221,000
1961–1971 424,000
1971–1981 1,800,000

Assam, a Northeast Indian state, has been the fastest growing region in the Indian subcontinent for much of the 20th century with the population growing six-fold till the 1980s as against less than three-fold for India.[15] Since the natural growth rate of Assam has been found to be less than the national rate, the difference can only be attributed to a net immigration.[16]

Immigration in the 19th century was driven by British colonialism—tribal and low castes were brought in from central India to labour in tea gardens and educated Hindu Bengalis from Bengal to fill administrative and professional positions. The largest group, Muslims peasants from Mymensingh, immigrated after about 1901—and they settled in Goalpara in the first decade and further up the Brahmaputra valley in the next two decades. These major groups were joined by other smaller groups that settled as traders, merchants, bankers, moneylenders, and small industrialists.[12] Yet another community that had settled in Assam were Nepali dairy farmers.

The British dismantled the older Ahom system, made Bengali the official language (Assamese was restored in 1874), and placed Hindu Bengalis in colonial administrative positions. By 1891, one-fourth the population of Assam was of migrant origin. By the beginning of 20th century when Assamese nationalism began to grow it began to look at both the Hindu Bengalis as well as the British as rulers.[17] In the post-partition period as Assamese nationalists tried to dismantle Bengali Hindu dominance from the colonial period the tea garden labourers as well as the Muslim Bengalis supported them.[18] Ever mindful of being the neighbour of the populous and culturally dominant Bengali people,[19] the Assamese were alarmed that immigration not only had continued illegally in the post-independence period but that illegal immigrants were being included in electoral rolls.[20]

Cross-border immigration[edit]

Immigration from East Bengal to Assam became cross-border in character following Partition of India—the 1951 census records 274,000 refugees between 1947 and 1951, most of who are estimated to be Hindu Bengalis. Immigration of Muslims from East Pakistan continued—though they declared India as the birth country and Assamese as their language they recorded their religion correctly; and on the basis of natural growth rate, it was estimated that the immigrants numbered 221,000 between 1951 and 1961. In 1971, the surplus over the natural growth was 424,000 and the estimated illegal immigrants from 1971 to 1981 was 1.8 million.[13]

The social upheaval of this first wave initially united Assamese and local Muslims, who shared the Assamese language as well as loyalty to the Congress Party, and a series of nationalistic policies such as the Assam Official Language Act of 1960 sought to assure their continuing cultural dominance.[21]

Foreign nationals in electoral rolls[edit]

In 1963 official reports emerged for the first time that foreigners were enlisted in Indian voters list by politically interested parties.[8] In 1965 the Government of India directed the Assam Government to expel Pakistani (later Bangladesh) infiltrators but the implementation had to be given up when a number of Assam legislators threatened to resign.[22] In 1978 S L Shakdher (the then Chief Election Commissioner) at a conference[23] and a cabinet minister at the Rajya Sabha[24] admitted that the practice of enlisting foreigners in electoral rolls was going on.

AASU had included "expulsion of foreigners" in their charter demands and after Shakdher's announcement in 1978, called a three-day program of protest.[25]

Mangaldai Lok Sabha by-election, 1979[edit]

After the Lok Sabha member from the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha Constituency had died the Election Commission started the process for a by-election and published the draft electoral rolls and ordered a summary revision in April 1979.[26] It received a list of about 47,000 doubtful names of which about 36,000 were processed. Of these processed names 26,000 names (about 72 percent) were confirmed to be non-citizens.[27]

With the fall of the Morarji Dessai government in July 1979 and the subsequent government of Charan Singh in August, 1979, early Lok Sabha elections were called and the Mangaldai by-election was cancelled.[28] Nevertheless, the large number of non-citizens in electoral rolls became a sensation and by October 1979 AASU decided to oppose the newly announced elections.[29]


AASU and AAGSP basic position[edit]

A foreigner is a foreigner; a foreigner shall not be judged by the language he speaks or the religion he follows. Communal considerations (either religious or linguistic) cannot be taken into account while determining the citizenship of a person; the secular character of the Constitution does not allow that.

(Emphasis in original, AASU and AAGSP 1980:6)[30]

AASU and AAGSP position regarding illegal immigrants[31]
Period Demand
1951– Review legal status of all aliens
1951–1961 Identify, probably give citizenship
1961–1971 Distribute throughout India
1971– Deport

Even though the relationship of the Assam Movement to the earlier Assamese Language Movement was clear[32] the leadership specifically kept the issue of language out and staked their claims purely on the basis of population statistics and constitutional rights and presented a set of demands that were secular and constitutionally legitimate.[33] They clearly defined who they considered to be foreigners and tried to project the problem as not local but constitutional.[30] Despite these formal positions movement leaders did use ethnic themes for political mobilization.[34] The Assam Accord that concluded the Movement, in its Clause 6, called for protection of the "Assamese people".

The Government of India position[edit]

Indira Gandhi came to power after the 1980 Indian general election, and she met the Movement leaders in Delhi on 2 February 1980. She did not accept the demand to use the NRC 1951 and the Census report of 1952 as the basis for identifying foreigners and suggested 24 March 1971 as the cut-off date instead since she wanted to factor in the Liaquat–Nehru Pact of 8 April 1950 and her own agreement with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972,[35] and the talks stalled.

Phased Developments[edit]

The duration of the Assam Movement could be divided into five phases.[36]

June 1979 to November 1980[edit]

AASU sponsored the first general strike on 8 June 1979 demanding the detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of foreigners.[37] This was followed by the formation of the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, an ad hoc coalition of different political and cultural organizations, on 26 August 1979[38][39] On 27 November 1979, AASU-AAGSP called for the closure of all educational institutes and picketing in state and central government offices. Mass picketing was arranged in front of all polling offices where candidate filed their nominations, in the first week of December 1979. No candidates were allowed to file nomination papers in the Brahmaputra valley.

December 1980 to January 1983[edit]

On 10 December, the last date for submitting the nomination papers, was declared as a statewide bandh. The government proclaimed a curfew at different parts of the state, including the major city of Guwahati.[citation needed]

At Barpeta, then IGP K.P.S. Gill led the police force in escorting Bagam Abida Ahmed to file nomination papers; they attacked protestors. Khargeswar Talukdar, the 22-year-old general secretary of Barpeta AASU Unit, was beaten to death and thrown into a ditch next to the highway at Bhabanipur. Talukdar was honoured by the Assam Movement as its first Martyr.[40]

On 7 October 1982, while leading a procession from Nagaon to hojai in support of a bandh called by the All Assam Students Union, Anil Bora Was beaten to death at Hojai by people who opposed the bandh as well as the Movement.[41]

Election of 1983[edit]

Subsequently, violence spread across the Brahmaputra valley. In a stunning incident on 18 February 1983, during the Nellie massacre, a mob of indigenous Assamese killed 2,191 suspected immigrants, in 14 villages in Nagaon district.[42]


The parliament passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IM-DT) in October 1983 and began to implement it in Assam. Negotiations took place between the government and AASU-AAGSP during the later parts of 1984 and first part of 1985. In May 1985, formal talks started and the Home Secretary led the central government team. Several rounds of talks took place during May–July 1985. Initially the Assam coalition wanted immigrants from the 1961–71 waves to be disfranchised and dispersed to other areas of the country. By August 1985, they had agreed to a new cutoff date of January 1966; immigrants who had entered illegally after that were to be detected and barred from applying for Indian residence or visa for 10 years.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "If there were a number of 'foreigners' in only one constituency—Mangaldai—what about other constituencies?...Naturally then, the next step for the AASU was to oppose the 1980 Lok Sabha elections without a thorough revision of electoral rolls of not just in Mangaldai but in the entire state...AASU leaders gave a call to political parties to boycott the polls till the EC revised the state's electoral rolls." (Pisharoty 2019:30)
  2. ^ a b Baruah, Sanjib (1999). India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 116. ISBN 081223491X. The citizenship status of many of the newer immigrants was ambiguous[...] The campaign also led to friction between the ethnic Assamese and some of Assam's "plains tribal" groups.
  3. ^ "By September 1980 the immigrant organizations had become a third force in the negotiations on the Assam movement's demands. The government invited AAMSU leaders to Delhi for consultation during the negotiations between the government and the movement leaders." (Baruah 1986:1196)
  4. ^ "[T]he movement leaders demanded that the central government take steps to identify, disenfranchise, and deport illegal aliens." (Baruah 1986:1184)
  5. ^ "The years since 1979 saw governmental instability, sustained civil disobedience campaigns, and some of the worst ethnic violence in the history of post-independence India, including the killing of 3,000 people during the February 1983 election." (Baruah 1986:1184)
  6. ^ Sanjib, Baruah (1986). "Immigration, Ethnic Conflict, and Political Turmoil – Assam, 1979–1985". Asian Survey. University of California Press. 26 (11): 1184–1206. doi:10.2307/2644315. JSTOR 2644315.
  7. ^ "Implementation of Assam Accord".
  8. ^ a b "One of the first official admissions of this fact has been made in a publication of the Ministry of External Affairs as early as 1963. It is reported that 'enlistment of foreigners in the voters' lists has at times taken place at the instance of politically interested persons or parties." (Reddi 1981:30)
  9. ^ (Pisharoty 2019:28)
  10. ^ "Preparations to a bye election to the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency in mid 1979 revealed that out of 47,000 alleged illegal entries of the names of foreigners brought to the notice of the electoral registration officers, 36,000 were disposed of and out of these as many as 26,000 or over 72 per cent were found to be and declared as illegal entries being those of non-citizens. What is true of the Mangaldoi constituency could be true of many other constituencies. No wonder, Mangaldoi became the rallying point of a renewed attack on the electoral rolls culminating in the boycott of the Lok Sabha poll in January 1980." (Reddi 1981:31)
  11. ^ "To treat Hindu immigrants from East Pakistan and what subsequently became Bangladesh as illegal, irrespective of what the citizenship laws state, would have alienated significant sections of Hindu opinion in the country. On the other hand, to explicitly distinguish between Hindu "refugees" and Muslim "illegal aliens" would have cut into the secular fabric of the state and would have alienated India's Muslim minority. To expel "foreigners" would also have political costs internationally in terms of India's relations with Bangladesh: the official Bangladeshi position is that there are no illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in India." (Baruah 1986:1192f)
  12. ^ a b (Weiner 1983:283)
  13. ^ a b (Weiner 1983:285–286)
  14. ^ This number is reported in the 1951 census.
  15. ^ "Throughout this century Assam has been the fastest growing area in the subcontinent. Its population has grown nearly sixfold since 1901 when it had a population of 3.3 million; India's population has grown less than threefold over this period." (Weiner 1983:282)
  16. ^ "Since there is no evidence that Assam's rate of increase was significantly different than that in the rest of India (in the 1970s its estimated rate of natural increase was actually slightly below the all-India average), the difference can only be accounted for by net immigration." (Weiner 1983:282)
  17. ^ "By the beginning of the twentieth century Assamese nationalists were pitted against the Bengalis as well as against the British, both of whom were seen as alien rulers." (Weiner 1983:283)
  18. ^ "In this campaign to assert their culture and improve the employment opportunities of the Assamese middle classes, the Assamese won the support of two migrant communities, the tea plantation laborers from Bihar, and the Bengali Muslims." (Weiner 1983:284)
  19. ^ "One should not underestimate the extent to which the peoples of the northeast, and especially the Assamese, have a sense that they are a small people living next to a vast Bengali population eager to burst out of a densely populated region. Bangladesh (in 1980) had a population of 88.5 million, West Bengal (in 1981) had 54.4 million, and Tripura 2 million, for a total of 145 million Bengalis, making them numerically second only to Hindi speakers in South Asia, and the third largest linguistic group in Asia." (Weiner 1983:287)
  20. ^ "The influx became politically alarming when the Election Commissioner in 1979 reported the unexpected large increase in the electoral rolls. To many Assamese it appeared as if the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims together were now in a position to undermine Assamese rule." (Weiner 1983:286)
  21. ^ "The Assam Official Language Act". The Assam Gazette, Extraordinary. 19 December 1960. Archived from the original on 26 February 2016. Retrieved 6 August 2020.
  22. ^ "In 1965 when relations with Pakistan were deteriorating, the state government under instructions from New Delhi began expelling Pakistani "infiltrators."9 But the process had to be stopped when eleven members of the state Legislative Assembly protested that Indian Muslims were being harassed in the process, and threatened to resign." (Baruah 1986:1191)
  23. ^ "On October 24–26, 1978 (t)he CEC declared "I would like to refer to the alarming situation in some states specially in North-Eastern region wherefrom disturbing reports are coming regarding large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls." (Reddi 1981:31)
  24. ^ "On November 27, 1978 a cabinet minister, while replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, confirmed that 'large scale inclusion of foreign nationals in electoral rolls, specially in the North-Eastern region, has been taking place." (Reddi 1981:31)
  25. ^ "On 28 October 1978, AASU registered its first reaction to Shakdher's comment by calling a three-day Satyagraha, including a dawn to dusk bandh in Guwahati demanding 'reservation of 80 percent jobs for locals'." (Pisharoty 2019:17)
  26. ^ (Pisharoty 2019:24)
  27. ^ "Preparations to a bye election to the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency in mid 1979 revealed that out of 47,000 alleged illegal entries of the names of foreigners brought to the notice of the electoral registration officers, 36,000 were disposed of and out of these as many as 26,000 or over 72 per cent were found to be and declared as illegal entries being those of non-citizens." (Reddi 1981:31)
  28. ^ (Pisharoty 2019:29)
  29. ^ Iyer, Sukanya (14 August 2018). "Must Read: NRC For India— A Paradigm Shift from Vote Bank Politics to "India for Indians"". The Fearless Indian. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  30. ^ a b (Kimura 2013:48)
  31. ^ "AAGSP and AASU took the position that the government should review the legal status of all those who had entered the state after 1951. Bengalis and other non-Assamese would have to produce some evidence of their citizenship. Foreign nationals who had come between 1951 and 1961 should be screened and probably given citizenship. Those who came between 1961 and 1971 should be declared stateless and distributed throughout India. And those who had come after 1971 should be returned to Bangladesh." (Weiner 1983:289)
  32. ^ "[T]here is a clear connection between the language movements of the 1960s and the 1970s and the antiforeigner movement." (Kimura 2013:49)
  33. ^ (Kimura 2013:49)
  34. ^ "Apart from Assamese cultural and historical symbols, the movement leaders drew on legal and constitutional arguments and symbols as well. Despite the presence of ethnic themes in the process of political mobilization, constitutional values significantly structured the demands of the movement." (Baruah 1986:1185)
  35. ^ (Pisharoty 2019:47)
  36. ^ "Five phases can be distinguished: (1) June 1979 to November 1980; (2) December 1980 to January 1983; (3) the election of February 1983; (4) March 1983 to May 1984; and (5) June 1984 to December 1985." (Baruah 1986:1193)
  37. ^ "On June 8, 1979, the All Assam Students Union sponsored a 12-hour general strike (bandh) in the state to demand the "detection, disenfranchisement and deportation" of foreigners. That event turned out to be only the first of a protracted series of protest action." (Baruah 1986:1192)
  38. ^ "On August 26, 1979, the AGSP was formed as an ad hoc coalition to coordinate a sustained statewide movement." (Baruah 1986:1192)
  39. ^ "Among these were PLP, Assam Jatiyatabadi Dal (AJD), AJYCP, Assam Yuva Samaj, the Young Lawyers' Conference, Assam Sahitya Sabha, Karbi Parishad, Plain Tribes Council of Assam (Brahma) and All Assam Tribal Sangha. They were supported by the State Government Employees Federation besides various teachers' associations.(Pisharoty 2019:41–42)
  40. ^ 1 Feb, Kangkan Kalita | TNN | Updated; 2019; Ist, 10:40. "Kin of 76 killed in Assam stir return awards | Guwahati News – Times of India". The Times of India. Retrieved 5 July 2019.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  41. ^ "Tale of two villages & their martyr duo".
  42. ^ "...the majority of the participants were rural peasants belonging to mainstream communities, or from the lower strata of the caste system categorized as Scheduled Castes or Other Backward Classes." (Kimura 2013, p. 5)