Assam witnessed a large influx of illegal immigrants from East Bengal since the 1920s. With the passage of time, the illegal immigrants encroached upon the lands set apart for professional grazing reserves. This infiltration was supported by the communal policies of the Assam Provincial Muslim League under the leadership of S.M. Sadullah. A rapidly increasing number of refugees coming from East Bengal and later newly-formed East Pakistan in the 1940s created tension among the indigenous Assamese people and many tribes in the state.
The Noakhali riots in October 1946 led to the first influx of Hindu refugees in Assam in considerable number. The Noakhali riots were a series of semi-organized massacres, rapes, abductions, and forced conversions of Hindus to Islam, as well as looting and arson of Hindu properties perpetrated by the Muslim community in the districts of Noakhali in the Chittagong Division of Bengal ( now in Bangladesh) in 1946 – a year before India’s independence from British rule. Thereafter, between 1948 and 1971, there were large-scale migrations of all religions from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) to Assam.
The demographic transformation of Assam created apprehension among many Assamese that the swamping of Assam by foreigners and non-Assamese Indians would lead to the Assamese being reduced to a minority in their own land and consequently to the subordination of their language and culture, loss of control over their economy and politics, and, in the end, the loss of their very identity and individuality as a people. Though illegal migration had surfaced as a political matter several times since 1950, it burst as a major issue in 1979 when it became clear that a large number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had become voters in the state. Afraid of their acquiring a dominant role in Assam’s politics through the coming election at the end of 1979, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (Assam People’s Struggle Council), a coalition of regional political, literary and cultural associations, started a massive, anti-illegal migration movement.
The leaders of the movement claimed that the number of illegal migrant was as high as 31 to 34 per cent of the state’s total population. They, therefore, asked the central government to seal Assam’s borders in order to prevent further inflow of migrants, delete the names of illegal immigrants from the voters list and to postpone elections till this was done. They also demanded that the illegal immigrants who had entered the state after 1961 be deported or dispersed to other parts of India. This was termed the “Assam agitation” which culminated into extreme violence in the Nellie massacre and the Khoirabari massacre. The unrest officially ended on 15 August 1985, following the Assam Accord, which was signed by leaders of AASU-AAGSP and the Government of India.
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