NRC tangle: Are Namasudras not welcome in Assam?

In 1931, the Namasudras formed the largest caste of Assam, and British records suggest that they have had a significant presence for over a century in a region where the poor from the Hindi heartland have often migrated for work and stayed back. Yet, today, the All India Matua Mahasangh says a million Namasudras have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens, writes A.K. Biswas

In a massive exercise in Assam by the Registrar General of India (RGI), monitored by the Supreme Court of India, which concluded in the end of July 2018, out of a total of 32,991,384 applicants, 40,07,707 were found ineligible for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The RGI claimed that the draft was published under “supervision, monitoring and directions of the Supreme Court. It is a legal process and has been conducted in a transparent, fair, objective and meticulous manner.” [1]

According to the All India Matua Mahasangh, which has its headquarters in Thakurnagar, North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, a million Namasudras (the largest community among the Matuas, the followers of Harichand Thakur) were excluded from the NRC. In protest, rail blockades were held on 1 August 2018 at different railway stations in the Eastern Railway’s Sealah Division. According to the 2011 Census, Assam was home to 6,31,542 Namsudras[2], accounting for 28.3 per cent the state’s Scheduled Caste population (22,31,321) and 2.02 per cent of the entire population of the state (3,12,05,576). Eight decades ago, in 1931, the census returned 1,70,519 Namasudras as the largest caste in Assam, while the Brahmins with 1,59,116 were the second largest in the province. [3]

A Namasudra Samaj convention held in Sealdah, West Bengal, in 2014 (courtesy http://sreesreeharichandthakurandhisreligion.blogspot.com)

Then, on 1 November 2018, the killing of five innocent and defenceless men – four Namasudra and one Jalia Kaibartta by caste – in Tinsukia, Assam, left the entire Bengali-speaking people there shocked, traumatized and terrorized. The victims identified were Shyamlal Biswas, Avinash Biswas, Ananta Biswas, Dhananjay Namasudra and Subal Das. The attackers came in army fatigue late in the evening, asked the youths who were playing Ludo to accompany them, took them to the bank of Brahmaputra River and shot them dead.

The family of Dhananjay Namasudra, one of the five men killed by unidentified assailants in Tinsukia, Assam (courtesy Scroll.com)

The import of labour in tens of thousands was felt with the introduction of tea cultivation on commercial basis in 1853-54 in Assam. Between 1911 and 1921, labourers were recruited largely from Bihar and Orissa, Bengal, Central Provinces & Berar (Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha today), United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand today), Central India Agency (Bundelkhand and parts of Madhya Pradesh) for tea gardens. They numbered 12,90,000 in 1921 and 8,82,000 in Assam in 1911. These migrants broadly were of two categories – those who worked in tea gardens and those who were by and large engaged in agriculture, and related activities, besides traders, shopkeepers and professionals.[4]


G.T. Lloyd, ICS, Superintendent of Census 1921 observed that Assam-bound migration reflected “the attractions of the province by the tea industry and waste land available for colonization, as well as the home-staying propensity of the natives of Assam.” He further highlighted that the great increase in migration of those born in other parts of India represented “mainly colonists from Eastern Bengal and the new tea garden labourers.” [5] In 1911 and 1921 censuses, the largest exodus of working classes from Bihar and Orissa was recorded – 399,000 and 571,000, respectively. Bengali migrants during the same period, on the other hand, totalled 194,000 in 1911 and 376,000 in 1921. [6] The “coolies”, the term used in the gardens for Mundas, Santals, Gonds and other Adivasis from Central Provinces, and Chhota Nagpur “are the best men for the climate and work of the tea gardens”, [7] noted the census report concerned.

People queue up at an NRC Seva Kendra in Assam (courtesy DNA)

Large number of coolies whose contract of engagement expired did not go back to their native places. Officially esteemed as “an asset” Lloyd noted that, “the coolies who settled in Assam and opened up new land are undoubtedly an asset … In the four upper districts of Brahmaputra Valley, where they are found in large numbers, they are reported to be much more industrious than the local Assamese cultivators, and they certainly increase the available food supply.” [8] The government estimates of inflow of labour into Assam for the decade ending 1921 was 769,000 at the rate of 77,009 a year. In 1920-21, the former coolies and/or their descendants held 3,00,000 acres of land. [9]

In 1891 census report, Edward Gait, ICS, touched on an insightful aspect of these migrants. It might have been thought that “the amount of cultivable land, the fertility of the soil and the low rents prevailing would have induced some portion of the overcrowded cultivators of Bengal to find their way to Assam and take up land here”. But this does not appear to be the case. The coolies for tea gardens come to Assam because they were more usually indigent, and were specially recruited and brought to the province at the employers’ expense. Even railway lines were opened up between Bihar to Assam for safe, prompt and convenient movement of labour. Paid steamer services were launched for the labourers to travel on the mighty Brahmaputra.

“No such inducements exist to bring ryots to Assam,” observed Gait, “to take up land for cultivators and they, therefore, do not come. A certain number of persons from the neighbouring Bengal district of Mymensingh, Dacca and Rangpur have crossed the boundary and settled down in Sylhet and Goalpara, but this can scarcely be called immigration. They have only moved a few miles from their original home and the accident of boundary alone has brought them within the limits of Assam.” [10] By 1921, Goalpara boasted 20 per cent of its population who were Bengali settlers. In Nagaon, they formed 14 per cent. They appeared keen on bringing the forests of Barpeta subdivision of Kampur district and Darrang under cultivation. [11]

Kamrup Deputy Commissioner Bentinck is quoted in the Census report as saying, “They [Bengali] do better cultivation than the local people and as such they have reclaimed and brought under permanent cultivation thousands of acres of land which local cultivators had for generations past merely scratched with haphazard and intermittent crops or recognised as exigent of efforts beyond their inclination. The large undulating expenses of char lands to be seen in late March or early April finely harrowed, weeded and newly sown are something to which the spectacle of ordinary Assemese cultivation is quite unaccustomed. They have besides their industry shown examples of new crops and improved methods.” [12]

The table below underlines a close affiliation of the Namasudras with Assam over a century and half. One is baffled to believe that this community having lived in Assam for generations over a century and half are not yet considered sons of the soil? Exclusion of a million of them as outsiders may surprise many well-meaning people with a conscience.

Namasudras of Assam in the censuses between 1872 and 2011

Year2011[13]1931[14]1921[15]1901[16]1891[17]1881[18]

 
1872[19]
Population623,542170,619167,000170,000174,0001,74,000

 
23,240*

 

*Even the authorities themselves considered 1872 census as imperfect

There are elements who are bent on balkanizing India into small and belligerent parts. Not long ago, we have heard political demands of Mumbai for Maharashtrians, Bengaluru for Kannadigas, Bihar for Biharies, Assam for Assamese, and so on. Those who propagate such ideas are few in number and target the spirit of India as Constitutionally crafted and established. We can be sure that Assam boasts of millions who in liberality of thought, catholicity of ideas and magnanimity are taller than the mercenaries who, in the darkness of night, killed five innocent, harmless men.

We have heard high-pitched sermons about how India is not a “dharamshala”. But what about those who have lived here for generations and contributed to the growth of the country bit by bit with their brawn and toil? Should they too be identified for exclusion?

Copy-editing: Anil

[1] The Hindustan Times, 30 July 2018.

[2] Handbook on Social Welfare Statistics, Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Department of Social Justice & Empowerment, Statistics Division, January 2016, p 51. The Jalia Kaibartta with 6,93,219 members was the largest caste in Assam in 2011 followed by the Namsudras.

[3] Census of India 1931, Vol I, Part 1 by J. H. Hutton, ICS, p 462

[4] Census of India 1921, Vol 3, Assam, Part 1 (report) by G.T. Lloyd, p 38. The figures were rounded off by census authorities for convenience (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.55982/page/n51).

[5] Ibid, p 35

[6] Ibid, p 38

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid, p 39

[9] Ibid, p 40

[10] Ibid, pp 29-30

[11] Ibid, p 41

[12] Ibid

[13] Handbook on Social Welfare Statistics, Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Department of Social Justice & Empowerment, Statistics Division, January 2016, p 51

[14] Census of India 1931, Vol I, Part 1 by J. H. Hutton, ICS, p 462

[15] Census of India, 1901, Vol III, Assam, Part I (report), by G. T. Lloyd, Shillong, p 154

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Census of India, 1901

[19] Report on the Census of Bengal, 1872, General Statement V. B. pp cxxxviii-cxxxix


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