Why do Bengali Muslims migrate to Assam

  • What are the historical reasons for which Bengali Muslims migrate to Assam and consequences on Assam’s demographics?

The Supreme Court monitored National Registry of Citizens found 19 lakhs individuals whose names are excluded. Whilst the nation is focused on Assam, where a lot of the migrants may be Hindus fleeing persecution in Bangladesh, what we forget is that illegal immigrants are present across the country.


This article is Part One and extract from the essay ‘All you wanted to know about Bangladeshi Infiltration into India’. Read on. 


Assam was annexed by the British and made part of Bengal presidency in 1826. When the British partitioned Bengal in 1905 Assam became part of Muslim dominated East Bengal. In 1911 partition of Bengal was annulled and Assam again became a separate province.


Retired Intelligence Bureau officer R Upadhyay wrote in Southasianalysis.org, “The All India Muslim League in its founding conference at Dacca on December 25-26, 1906 hatched a conspiracy to increase the Muslim population in Assam for improving its strength in the region. Census Superintendent C. S. Mullan in his Census report of 1931 validated this political conspiracy of AIML.” (1)


The British developed the tea industry in Assam. They imported Bihari labour. To meet the growing demand for food they encouraged Muslim peasants from East Bengal to work on virgin land in Lower Assam.


Note that the Assam government formed in 1921, with the support of the Assam Mohammeden Association, supported migration from East Bengal in the name of ‘grow more campaign’. Lord Wavell described the settlements as: “Grow more Muslims, rather than grow more food.” Edavelth Nalaamveetil Rammohan, Frontier in Flames, page 19.


Veer Savarkar was one of the first national leaders to see the danger. Early in the 1940s, as Vaibhav Purandare writes in his recent biography Savarkar: The True Story of The Father of Hindutva, “The big worry he had was about Hindu-majority Assam. He perceived a demographic threat there as a result of what he termed ‘the massive influx of Muslims’ from other, mostly eastern, provinces, and asked local Hindus to be on the alert and thwart its ‘deliberate Islamisation’.” Page 281


The subsequent growth in Muslim population made the Muslim League want Assam to be included in East Pakistan. In 1946, Assam and West Bengal were grouped together. In fact, “Mr Moinul Haque Chowdhary the Private Secretary of Jinnah, who after Independence became a Minister in Assam and later at Delhi, told Jinnah that he would "present Assam to him on a silver platter". (3) Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi rebelled against the Congress High Command, supported by Gandhi, so the League plans failed.


Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in his book Myth of Independence wrote, “It would be wrong to think that Kashmir is the only dispute that divides India and Pakistan. One at least is nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute, that of Assam and some districts of India adjacent to East Pakistan. To these, Pakistan has very good claims. East Pakistan must include Assam to be financially and economically strong”.” (2)


Even a pro-India leader like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who would go on to become the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh, wrote in his book, Eastern Pakistan: Its Population and Economics, says, "Because Eastern Pakistan must have sufficient land for its expansion and because Assam has abundant forests and mineral resources, coal, petroleum etc, Eastern Pakistan must include Assam to be financially and economically strong". (3)


Bangladesh is a densely populated country. It seeks to reduce its population through migration. Leading intellectuals in Bangladesh have been making out a case for "lebensraum" (living space) for their country.


Former Governor of Assam Lt Gen S K Sinha wrote to the President of India in his 1998 Report on Illegal Infiltration into Assam and said, “Mr. Abdul Momin, former Foreign Secretary and Bangladesh's first Ambassador to China wrote in 1991, "The runaway population growth in Bangladesh resulting in suffocating density of population in a territorially small country, presents a nightmarish picture. If we in Bangladesh ingratiate ourselves with the hill tribes within our borders, our bulging population might find a welcome in adjacent land inhabited by kindred peoples”. (3)  


From the above the existence and reason for infiltration into Assam are clear. Deeper intent was to merge Assam with modern day Bangladesh, so the country has economic resources and a larger landmass.


Details of Infiltration into Assam including Bodo Muslim conflict.


Let us now look at population by religion and growth rates. No Census was taken in 1981.


Table 1: Assam % of population Indian Religions vs. Muslims






Indian Religions











We can be see that the percentage of Muslims in Assam has steadily grown from 24.6 to 34.2 percent in 2011. Let us now review the community-wise growth rates in Table 2.

Table 2 - Community wise Growth rate in Assam %


Indian Religions%

Muslims %

State Growth in Population%

National Growth%


























Note that between 1951 and 1971, Assam's population increased by about 35 percent each decade against a national average of 22 percent and 25 percent. Paper 1 of the Census Report in 1963 says that at least 2.2 lakh illegal immigrants appear to have settled down in Assam between 1961 and 1971. 

From 1951 to 1971, the population growth rates for the State were in sync with major religions. The gap started after the 1971 Bangladesh War for Liberation and increased thereafter. Thus while the population of Assam grew at 17.07 percent in 2011 and 18.92 percent in 2001, Muslim population growth grew at about 29 percent and Indian Religions at 10.6 percent and 13.9 percent respectively. Can the higher percentage of Muslim population growth be explained by high fertility rates alone?   


Kaushik Deka wrote in DailyO, “The 1971 Census revealed an increase of 8,20,000 Muslims in Assam - 4,24,000 more than what could be accounted through natural increase. Between 2001 and 2011, India’s Muslims grew from 13.4% to 14.2% - while in Assam, they grew from 30.9% to 34.2%. 14 of Assam’s 27 districts have shown higher population growth than the state’s average of 17% with Muslims as a majority in nine of them. Just one statistic - voter numbers in Assam grew by more than 50% in less than a decade, from 5,701,805 in 1970 to 8,537,493 in 1979. This triggered the Assam Agitation, against illegal infiltrators.” (4)


Note that the 1951 Census is constrained by the fact that by virtue of the Nehru-Liaquat Ali Pact of 1951 immigrant Muslims who had left Assam for East Pakistan and returned due to the pact were not part of the 1951 census and thus Muslim population of 1951 was understated.


Is the current NRC Assam’s first? 

No. Kaushik also wrote that the main reason why NRC was prepared in 1951 was that, “The illegal immigration from Bangladesh - previously known as East Bengal or East Pakistan - has afflicted Assam from colonial times. In 1881, Muslims accounted for a mere 9% - but increased to 19% in 1931 and 23% in 1941. The 1951 census estimated the number of migrants from East Bengal at around 1 million to 1.5 million, between one-tenth to one-sixth of the state’s population.” (4) Let us now look at district wise population trends of Muslim majority districts.

Table 3 - Percentage Population in Muslim majority districts Census figures






1. Dhubri*





2. Goalpara* 1





3. Barpeta





4. Hailakandi 5





5. Nagaon





6. Karimganj* 5





7. Bongaigaon*





8. Darang 3





9. Marigaon* 4





10. Kamrup 2





*Have border with Bangladesh.


Notes 1. Goalpura district was divided into Bongaigaon, Dhubri, Kokrajhar. 2. Kamrup was divided into Barpeta, Nalabari and Kamrup. 3. Darang was divided into Darrang and Sonitpur. 4. Nagaon was divided into Nagaon and Marigaon. 5. Cachar was divided into Karimganj, Hailakandi and Cachar. 1991 and onwards figures are of individual districts.


According to the 2011 census, nine of Assam’s 27 districts have become Muslim majority.

It would worth mentioning the role played by former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (Lok Sabha constituency Barpeta) in encouraging infiltration. Long-time Assam Hindu residents will tell you that post-Independence, Ahmed started getting the East Pakistani Muslims into Assam in large numbers and building a vote bank.


Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar’s last article ‘Immigrants or Vote Banks’ for Lokmat Times Nagpur confirmed this. He wrote, “Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then a top Congress leader from Assam, once admitted that for the sake of votes, the Muslims from neighbouring East Pakistan now Bangladesh, were brought into Assam. (Source, Sheila Bhatt tweet. Full article can be read here )


Shekhar Gupta wrote for India Today in 1986, “Broadly the Congress(I) was unable to decide what its constituency was, the traditional Ali-Coolie-Bengah (a term coined by former Congress president D.K. Barooah for the party's stronghold among the Muslims, tea labourers and Bengali immigrants) or the ethnic Assamese.” Needless to say Ali meant Bangladeshi Muslims.  


Yet politicians are in denial mode. “On 10 April, 1992, Shri Hiteshwar Saikia, the then Chief Minister of Assam stated that there were 3 million Bangladeshi illegal migrants in Assam but two days later, he did a volte face and said there were no illegal immigrants in Assam.” (3)


Cause of the Bodo Bangladeshi conflict 


The Bodo-Muslim problem is mainly due to clash over the land occupied by the Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants.


Upadhyay wrote, “Against the backdrop of various reports on the problem of Muslim immigrants and its link with Bodo agitation, the Government at centre after a series of talks created Bodoland Territorial Council in February 2003 with Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) under its jurisdiction.” (1)


“The creation of BTAD under the provision of the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution by carving out of eight existing districts was however strongly resisted by the Muslim settlers in the area who had migrated to this region from erstwhile eastern Bengal as it prohibited the non-tribal to buy land there.” (1)


It took an Assamese to empathise with Bodo pain. M P Bezabarua wrote in the Times of India in 2012, “The Bodos in refugee camps must be feeling aggrieved that the nation does not understand their anguish in being refugees in their own beloved land that has nourished them for hundreds of years. They were one of the earliest settlers in the region. The ‘great Bodo people’ were spread over the entire Brahmaputra and north Bengal and East Bengal.” 

Bangladeshis are present in and around Dimapur, Nagaland.

Infiltration into Nagaland

Bangladeshi Muslims have infiltrated into Christian majority Nagaland too.


According to this 2016 Outlook article the Dimapur area alone is believed to have more than 100,000 illegal migrants. During a 2014 visit this author got to know of Bangladeshi men marrying Naga girls, belonging to the Sema (Sumis) tribe, in large numbers. Changed demographics and these marriages contributed to social tensions.

R N Ravi, ex-Intelligence Bureau and now Governor of Nagaland wrote in Rediff.com in 2014 that the local labour force is streaming out of the region looking for jobs in peninsular India, creating a vacuum that makes it easier for the Bangladeshis to fill in.

He added that, “An empirical research conducted in the eight colonies of settlers that emerged in the last two decades at Lahorijan in Karbianglong district of Assam, adjoining Dimapur in Nagaland, has revealed some startling facts. Lahorijan is in close proximity to Dimapur town. It is littered with sprawling unauthorised colonies of Muslim settlers. However, at least 26 per cent among the settlers were found to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh who arrived after 1990 and continued to stream in, at a higher pace, in the last decade. The assessed population of the eight colonies that were subject to the survey was over one lakh.”


In its obsession with Pakistan and need to secure support of a Muslim majority nation in this fight, India has ignored the dangers from non-stop illegal immigration from Bangladesh.   



1. Bodo-Muslim conflict in Assam – Historical roots

2. Demographic invasion of India from the north-east by Brig Amrit Kapur

3. Lt Gen S K Sinha 1998 Report on illegal migration into Assam.

4. Kaushik Deka in DailyO.

5. 2011 Census Assam

6. Religious Demography of India 2001 Revision by Joshi, Bajaj and Srinivas.

7. PhD Thesis of Shri Ratan Sharda.

8. Religious Demography of India by Joshi, Bajaj and Srinivas.

Utmost care has been taken in presenting Census Numbers. Errors if any are advertent.

First published in Swarajyamag.com and here 

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