Posted by: John Elliott | August 21, 2012

Assam problems fester since Indira Gandhi had “no plan” in 1983

Thousands flee home to north-east after social media distorts events

Indira Gandhi told me during a Financial Times interview in February 1983 that her government would wait until the situation in Assam cooled down before taking the next step to resolve a crisis in which some 3,000 people had just been killed. There had been controversial state assembly elections in the state and the government had sent in 75,000 troops to control the violence.

The Indian prime minister said that she had “no plan as such” to resolve the crisis. The problems of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh dated back to Indian partition in 1947 “and we can’t just wish that away”. Bangladesh should, she added, take back migrants who had entered India when their country was being created (out of Pakistan) in a 1971 war. Beyond that, she said blandly, her Government would wait. (FT February 25, 1983).


Now nearly 30 years later, the problems of Assam and other north–eastern states remain, and it seems that the Indian government is still waiting until the situation cools down.

But the world is now different, as has been demonstrated in the past few weeks with what is probably been one of the biggest sudden mass migrations since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Tens of thousands of Assamese and other workers and students from north–eastern India have fled home from Bangalore and other cities in the south of the country because they feared mass attacks in retaliation for communal violence against Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants in the north-east. There have been some individual attacks, but the panic has been spread by reports and pictures faking anti-Muslim atrocities in Assam and nearby states that have been carried by mobile phone text messages and other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are many lessons to be learned from these events, not least the way that social media can be used to stir up trouble in international as well as local conflicts. India has (controversially) banned bulk text messages for two weeks, closed 250 allegedly offending web pages, and claimed that many of the false messages originated in Pakistan (which perhaps inevitably Pakistan has rejected).

There are also lessons about how increased labour mobility means that communities need to absorb newcomers, as well as about older problems such as the treatment of both ethnic and religious minorities (in this case north-east India’s Muslims) and migrants from neighbouring countries (such as those from Bangladesh). Sadly, political parties often prefer to make capital out of minorities as happened today in Mumbai(where two people were killed in a riot ten days ago). Today part of the chauvinistic Shiv Sena political movement staged a massive anti-immigrants demonstration in the city.

Distant sisters but One India

But perhaps the biggest new lesson for India is that the seven north-eastern states – often known as the seven sisters – can no longer be treated Indira Gandhi-style as a distant delayable problem.

Ever since independence in 1947, the Indian government has regarded armed insurgencies and other uprisings and illegal immigration issues in states such as Assam, Nagaland and Manipur as events that have virtually no impact on the rest of India, located as they are far away on the other side of Bangladesh. That is rather similar to the way that the growing threat from Naxalite (Maoist) rebels in central and eastern India used to be regarded as a distant irritant that did not need Delhi’s urgent attention – something that has been corrected in the last two or there years.

This is yet another example of something I have written about before on this blog – that India can no longer survive as it has in the past by simply turning muddle and adversity into some form of (often inadequate) success, assuming that everything will eventually function adequately. I last wrote about it commenting on last month’s power blackouts and railway disasters.

My theme is that the pace of events and economic development – and now of communications – mean that issues such as the north-east can (to use an English idiom) no longer be swept under the carpet, as they have been for decades. The escalation of the various forms of social media – and economic integration – should help to bind the country together, with the north- east being seen as part of the mainstream. But they can also split India apart, with the people from the north-east feeling so isolated and vulnerable in southern Indian cities that they flee home.

So the north-east has indeed come to Delhi, in a political sense. It has also come as a social and economic phenomena with a vast influx of mostly young, energetic and friendly people who have come to the capital and the southern cities for work, or as students.


“The staff come from the north-east”, is a remark frequently heard about a restaurant. This is not said in a derogatory way, but as a slightly dismissive description of a people who, looking more Chinese than most Indians, are indeed regarded as internal migrants from a distant part of the country and not as part of the mainstream, even though they have become an important part of these cities’ economies.

Yet when Mary Kom (left), a woman boxer from Manipur, won a bronze medal in the Olympic Games, India celebrated with a fervour that could not have been greater if she had come from Mumbai or Delhi.

As the BBC reported from Assam yesterday, the migrants who have fled home fear reprisals after the very-exaggerated social media reports of clashes in the north-east between indigenous tribals and Muslim settlers. Bengali-speaking Muslims were forced out of their villages after attacks by the indigenous, predominantly Hindu Bodo tribe that have put more than 300,000 refugees in relief camps.

In a battle that is basically over land, the Bodos accuse the Muslims of being illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but Nilim Dutta, a political analyst, said that most of Assam’s Muslims had lived there for generations. “Over time, the Bengali migrants prospered, just like immigrant communities all over the world. This created a sense of resentment among the native Assamese communities as they both competed for resources and jobs.”  There is also dissension between long-term Assamese and newer Muslim groups which is being exploited by local politicians.

Next February, it will be 30 years since Indira Gandhi said she was waiting – in an FT interview with Alain Cass, then the Asia editor, and with me (I had just been appointed south Asia correspondent and moved to Delhi a few months later).

Whatever steps have or have not been taken since then, the basic problems clearly remain. But the world is now different, as we have seen in the past few weeks, so surely the waiting game is over.


  1. North east people are very cool and friendly and they are very patriotic, we should use their bravery, martial arts, in Indian Army and sports. People of north east shoudl not feel resented just because thre four people pass ugly and discriminatory comments on them, after all whole nation is with you. People like Mary Kom, Bhupen Hazarika, PA Sangma have made our nation proud. So i appeal to all Indians never discriminate anybody on the basis of region. This is our biggest strength i democracy, let us follow that to remain united for ever, as there are many foreign and anti national elements whose sole aim is to weaken our country and our democracy, thereby causing unrest to society and economy.

  2. Agreed

  3. Get the illigal immigrants lost,establish border line tightly,punish the miscreants mercilessly. In some years, problem can be under control.

  4. There is no doubt in my mind that this problem can be dusted under the carpet, though it has been for the last 30 years or more. Illegal immigration has to be stopped, even if it means loosing vote banks. The gandhi/congress dynasty approach is of vote banks to get willy-nilly elected. They have no interest in integrating India, whether it is NE or anyother state. Integration has to be all inclusive. entrepreuners to move to NE to look for opportunities, People from NE to move to other parts to exploit opportunities without fear and fervour. They are venturing out, they are assimilating, but the hostility towards them will just alienate them away from mainstream for ever. They are hard working and pleasant. They do not have inhibitions. they are willing to do any job. they are honest. why should we prevent them from earning their livelyhood by these miscreations by anti nationals.

    Let bold decisions be taken to push back those who are illegal and compeletly stop any more out pours from the other side. It is a serious matter and has to be resolved. if we do not we could face eruptions all over as were seen in Punjab not long ago for more or less the same reasons Vote banks and sectorian creations to cause confusion and unrest. Economy has to be the religion at all levels of soceity. Religion has to be practised peacefully either in designated areas or in the confines of houses. Public display creates that fervour.

  5. Policymakers and even laypersons read it wrong quite often. People from the Northeast try their best to blend in with the mainstream elsewhere in India. But those in mainland India tend to push them back, while at the same time asking them to join in. There is a severe form of hypocrisy at play.When ‘mainland’ people say “there are many students from the Northeast in Bangalore”, they miscalculate the data because a Chinese-looking face easily stands out in the ‘Indian’ crowd. But the same cannot be said about thousands of students from Bangalore or Mumbai who are say, living in Delhi, because they don’t look like the Chinese and don’t have Mongoloid features. One cannot bunch together a group of students travelling in Delhi Metro just by looking at them and say, “hey, that’s quite a lot of students from Bangalore.”
    The administration and people in general in the metros feel that abnormal number of Northeast students migrate in search of a better livelihood. But that is true of any other state in India. It is not abnormal. The problem is that the public feel they see only a large number of Northeast students on the streets because they look different, when there are more number of students from other parts of the country living in the metros. The latter group don’t get singled out because they don’t look like the Chinese.
    The number of students from the Northeast that go elsewhere to study and pursue a career is very less than the number of students from Bihar or UP that migrate to other parts of the country. But nobody points a finger at them or single them out or casually say, “There are just too many students from Bihar in Delhi.” But to students from the Northeast they blatantly say without any thought “you know a lot of your type are here (in Delhi or wherever)” as if just a cursory glance is enough to form a genuine opinion.
    The problem is quite simple to see: racism.

  6. Hello John,
    Most of the border districts of Assam have shown unusual population growth amongst the Muslim community, for whom a different country (Pakistan, later Bangladesh) was carved out in 1947 and 1971. That community has grown in the border districts of Assam at a rate that is even higher than the rate of growth in Bangladesh. It has also been reported that that a sizeable section of population has disappeared from the Bangladesh census rolls. The Congress Party is accused of thriving on ‘vote bank’ politics and having provided documents (often by dubious means) to pass the illegal immigrants off as legal Indian citizens.
    The border between Assam and Bangladesh is very porous. Assam and the North East of India are very rich in natural resources and also very fertile. Since before Independence, the proponents of Pakistan wanted to convert the sparsely populated region of North East India (home to innumerable tribes mainly of Tibeto Burman descent) to a Muslim majority region by encouraging Bengali Muslim peasants of the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) into the region.
    Lord Wavel, Viceroy of India in the Viceroy’s Journal, London, December 22, 1943 said: ” …The chief political problem is the desire of Muslim Ministers of Assam to increase the immigrations into uncultivated Government lands in Assam under the slogan of ‘Grow more food’ but what really is to ‘Grow more Muslims’ (Politics of Migration by Dr. Manju Singh, Anita Publications, Jaipur, 1990, Page 70).
    Useful sources of information are:
    1) Report on Illegal Immigration into Assam Submitted to the President of India, by Lt Gen S K Sinha, the former governor of Assam) m
    & the papers published in the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications

  7. The people of NE are absolutely awesome to hang out with. They are coolest people I have met during my stay over several years in Bangalore and Delhi. Its absolutely fundamental that we all need to make them feel like us, among us wherever they live. This blame game needs to stop and responsibilities should be taken both by locals and by the people of NE in their equity in the society they live in. The contribute towards it and they must feel secure. This even was absolutely shameful and whoever is behind it must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

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