Assam: confronting a failed partition


back to issue

EVERY evening at a military border closing ceremony at Wagah, Indian and Pakistani soldiers ritually enact the mutual hostility between the two countries. Through a display of ‘choreographed Punjabi machismo’, the ceremony underscores – and exaggerates – the lines drawn by the Partition of 1947. There may be a resemblance between western and eastern Punjab, says Sikh scholar Gurharpal Singh,1 but the border closing ceremony at Wagah cannot but give the feeling that Pakistan would have to be invented, if it wasn’t there already.

There is no equivalent of Wagah on our eastern border. This is not an accident. The two borders are not alike. Unlike Punjab where an ‘exchange of population’ amidst extraordinary brutality more or less ended in the immediate aftermath of the Partition, in the East the process remained open-ended. Migration of Hindus from East Pakistan/Bangladesh continues till this day.

The Partition in the East is different in another important sense. The insertion of an international border did not change much, especially from the perspective of Assam and the rest of Northeast India. The integration into British colonial India had turned this relatively sparsely populated region into a frontier: legally opened for new settlements. Labelling the border international – and adding the qualifier ‘illegal’ to describe one set of immigrants – did not suddenly stem the tide of people. The Partition only intensified the migration pressure from eastern Bengal, with waves of Hindus now added to the flow. Yet when the locals saw signs that they could become minorities in their ancestral lands, this flow became a politically explosive issue in Assam even before the Partition – as far back as the 1930s. It shaped Assamese attitudes toward the Partition.


For all its twists and turns, politics in post-independence Assam has been mostly about a single issue: dealing with the failure of the 1947 Partition. Even the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa), for instance, grew out of this predicament, although Ulfa’s explanation for why the system tolerates a process that could turn locals into minorities in their ancestral lands has a twist. Since it rejects the paternalistic idiom of ‘neglect’ – so popular among our policy-makers – Ulfa argues that it is just another piece of evidence that proves Assam’s subordinate status in the pan-Indian dispensation.

But the rest of India does not particularly want to hear about the failure of the 1947 Partition. New Delhi prefers to hide behind legalisms, hoping that people would not notice the gap between the legal and the real. It insists on portraying some of the region’s major concerns as a pathology that would be cured by mainstreaming the region through economic development, or simply with political craftsmanship. From time to time, when things turn ugly, New Delhi likes to send the army with a retired military general as governor – with simple-minded ideas about history as a psychological tool of counter-insurgency – to back up a parallel counter-insurgency regime.

To be fair, New Delhi’s position is unenviable. A novelist can perhaps lament that a nation may have been ‘insufficiently imagined’. But history cannot be that forgiving. At least within the lifetime of a generation or two, there is no room for second thoughts. Those who officially speak in the name of our post-Partition nation’s foundational institutions, or its politicians, cannot utter such words. The Wagah ritual is perhaps designed to remind us of that.

Until the 1970s, the Congress party ruled governments dealt with the floodgates of immigration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh into Assam relatively quietly, by simply enfranchising ‘refugees’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ alike.2 This is not difficult because the exercise of franchise is based not on citizen registration, but on ‘rudimentary documents’. From the perspective of the locals however, the practice of voting by non-citizens has had an increasingly significant impact on political outcomes, and as a result, on their sense of having control over their own destiny.


Yet, it did not take a radical Assamese nationalist to upset the applecart. Ironically, the initiative came from no less a constitutional authority than India’s Chief Electoral Commissioner. In 1978, S.L. Shakdher spoke publically of the ‘large-scale inclusions of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls.’ Although the Chief Election Commissioner spoke the unspeakable, he did so in the only language he knew: the language of the law. Seemingly unaware of the political firestorm that he was about to set off, he warned that ‘a stage would be reached when the state may have to reckon with the foreign nationals who may in all probability constitute a sizeable percentage, if not the majority of population.’

These words were the lightening rod for the Assam Movement of 1979-85. However, Shakhder soon realized that the power of the law or his authority, could not resolve ambiguities that are at the heart of the nation’s foundation. By 1983, the Election Commission had to eat its words and organize an election using the same electoral rolls that Shakhder had criticized in 1978. But the flip-flop exacted a terrible price, etched in our public memory by the Nellie massacre.


After Nellie, for quarter of a century, the Indian state tried to manage the political challenge of a failed partition, with an extraordinary piece of legislation: the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act – hereafter IMDT law – until it was overthrown by the Supreme Court in 2005. In effect, the IMDT law formalized an Assam exception to India’s citizenship laws and gave legitimacy to the questionable citizenship practices prevalent in Assam.

The Foreigners Act of 1946 generally applies to cases of disputed citizenship in the country. The burden of proving citizenship status under that law is on the person concerned. The IMDT law reversed the burden and spelt out an elaborate procedure for registering a complaint about another person being an illegal immigrant. The text of the IMDT Law makes for interesting reading. A person making a complaint must be a resident within the jurisdiction of the same police station as the person ‘in relation to whom the application is made is found or resides.’ Leaving aside the question of the time, energy and skills needed for lodging such a complaint, the goal of the law clearly was to build a solid wall of protection around a person so charged: solidarities based on local residential, ethnic and political networks are unlikely to distinguish between the legal and the illegal immigrant. The law even specified an application format for making complaints, and provided that a complaint could be rejected if it was ‘frivolous or vexatious or it does not comply with the requirements.’3


Abdul Muhib Majumdar, an influential lawyer and politician from Assam’s Cachar district that borders Bangladesh, played a key role in crafting the IMDT law. He explained the need for the law by pointing out, quite appropriately, the tension between the Indian reality of very few people possessing a major citizenship document like a passport, and the standard procedures for enforcing citizenship laws being premised on proper documentation. ‘The Foreigners Act,’ he said, making a crucial, albeit extraordinary distinction, ‘is applicable to foreigners only, like those with passport(s) who have overstayed in the country.’ When ‘the suspect claims that he is not a foreigner,’ said Majumdar, ‘there is no provision in the Act to deal with him under such situation.’ As a result, he explained, there was a need for a ‘judicial trial’, that he said the IMDT Act provides.4

By appearing to accede to the key demands of the Assam Movement and signing the Assam Accord in 1985, while knowing fully well that it would be a meaningless gesture so long as the IMDT law was there to blunt its effects, New Delhi showed its capacity for impressive political jugglery. That put a temporary lid on the question of the failed Partition. The Congress party could once again present itself as the mantle of the sole provider of security to minorities, and begin winning elections in Assam, though it had to temporarily make room for the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) after the Assam Accord was signed.


This IMDT regime came to a screeching halt when Supreme Court in July 2005 ruled the law unconstitutional. The ruling went further than what even the law’s strongest critics in Assam could have hoped. In effect, the Supreme Court agreed with much of what the leaders of the Assam Movement and others were saying for years. The law, said the court, ‘had encouraged massive illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam and that it is the "main barrier" to identifying illegal immigrants. There can be "no manner of doubt" that Assam is facing "external aggression and internal disturbance" because of large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh.’5

But only a naive legalist would expect a court to settle once for all such fundamental political questions. There is, after all, what Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls, ‘a profound inner conflict at the heart of Indian constitutionalism.’ The question of the Indian Constitution’s final arbiter has no easy answer. The courts and the Parliament often engage in ‘an iterative game of action-response-rejoinder that can be played out any number of times.’6 The IMDT verdict was no exception. The Congress party-led government in New Delhi, faced with the prospect of the verdict becoming a serious liability in the Assam elections of early 2006, issued two notifications that effectively brought back the provisions of the IMDT law through the backdoor, though in a legally indefensible way. The notification was immediately challenged in court and it barely survived the year. But that was enough to help the Congress win the state Assembly elections, against an unprecedented challenge.


By far the most significant political figure to emerge out of the profoundly transformed post-2005 political scene in Assam is Badruddin Ajmal. He shot into national prominence when his new political party, Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), won 10 seats in the 126-member state Assembly in 2006.

Ajmal is an unusual figure in Indian politics. He probably detests what the BJP or the AGP would call the politics of ‘minority appeasement’ or of ‘vote banks’, as much as they do. However, he rejects that style of politics on behalf of Muslims. In Assamese politics, however, one must always distinguish between the ethnic Assamese Muslims – once an influential community, but now a small minority – and Ajmal’s primary constituency: the East Bengali origin Muslims. Ajmal seeks to assert the rightful share of power by the state’s 26.6 million Muslims. That such a bold Muslim voice would now emerge in Assam is not surprising. Muslims currently constitute nearly 31 per cent of the state’s population, second only to Jammu and Kashmir’s; that is about the same as the proportion of Muslims in undivided India.

Badruddin Ajmal is a small-town boy with a global business empire, with friends in Islamic circles in India as well as abroad. He is a product of globalization – a successful NRI of sorts, though he does not fit with the media image of a successful NRI businessman. Ajmal Perfumes produces attars and fragrances that sell not only in India and Middle Eastern countries, it has different lines of perfumes for African and East European markets as well. The House of Ajmal has showrooms and production units in Mumbai. His Dubai-based Ajmal Group of Companies boasts of a network of shops and distribution outlets in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Rs 30 crore of his reported wealth that made Ajmal the richest candidate in Assam is only a small part of his global worth.


Whatever may have led Ajmal to launch AUDF, his political optic and track record had not been local until now. Businessman-politician Ajmal is also Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Al-Qasmi. He is a member of the Majlis-e-Shura of his alma mater Darul Uloom, Deoband, and a major benefactor of the institution. He has been on the frontline of the defence of the embattled Deobandi madrasas. Ajmal heads the Assam unit of the Jamait-Ulema-e-Hind, hardly surprising considering his ties with Deoband. The organization played a key role in protests against the Bush visit to India in March 2006.

Can Ajmal’s political moves in Assam be separated from everything else he does? Is it possible that his disenchantment with the Congress goes deeper than what makes him oppose Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in Assam? In that case, the emergence of this powerful alternative Muslim voice might have implications for Muslim politics in India well beyond Assam.


In Assam’s politics, the consequences of the failed Partition, therefore, have now entered an unfamiliar and somewhat unpredictable phase. It is unlikely that ‘who can guarantee security’ would remain for long the overwhelming question that the East-Bengali-origin Muslims would ask, which has limited their political choices in the past. If that happens, the Congress may not be able to hold on to this base for long. But this time it might lose it not to a regional force on pragmatic grounds as in the past, but to a more assertive Muslim voice. At the same time, while Ajmal’s early success is impressive, it is somewhat localized so far: the bulk of Assam’s East Bengali-origin Muslims have not switched over to him, and he has no support whatsoever among ethnic Assamese Muslims.

There were significant pressures on Gogoi from the Congress High Command to make overtures toward Ajmal. Gogoi, however, successfully fought back those demands, insisting on describing Ajmal as a ‘communal’ politician. Surely, Ajmal too would have liked to have friends at high places in Delhi, given his business interests and wider political optic. But politics of the failed Partition in post-2005 Assam does not easily fit old moulds.

No one expected the Assam Congress to get a majority by itself. Gogoi, therefore, had to find other electoral allies. He entered a pre-poll alliance with the faction of the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front led by Hagrama Mahilary (BPPF-H). This party won 12 seats in Assam’s Bodo dominated areas, providing Gogoi with the support he needed to form the government. BPPF-H is an organization of former militants of the Bodo Liberation Tigers and of the All Bodo Students Union. The tougher line of Bodo militants against ‘illegal immigrants’ has earned them respect among ethnic Assamese supporters of the AASU and the AGP.

Gogoi, however, cannot afford to be seen as being too close to this constituency. Yet this alliance is important to Gogoi not merely because he depends on the support of BPPF-H Assembly members for his government’s survival, the symbolism of presiding over an alliance of indigenous groups is important to him. Since 2006, Gogoi has been walking a careful line between nurturing this constituency, and not losing further ground to Ajmal among Assam’s East Bengali-origin Muslim voters.


By the end of 2006 the Indian Supreme Court intervened once again; this time to nullify the pre-election notifications that had brought back the IMDT law by the back door. Perhaps a sign of the changing political climate, Ajmal’s AUDF said that the Supreme Court has only exposed the Congress party’s machinations: that ‘the notifications were issued only with the political motive of winning the support of the minorities ahead of the Assembly polls.’

However, the most devastating judicial critique of citizenship practices in Assam so far is a July 2008 verdict of the Gauhati High Court. In a case involving as many as 61 people who had been found to be ‘foreigners’, the court said that most of them were able to avoid ‘proceedings against them as well as their deportation from India’ and that they have ‘incorporated their names in the voters’ lists on the basis of which they must have cast their votes.’ One of them with a Pakistani passport even contested the state Assembly elections in 1996. Going further than any judicial opinion so far, the court said, ‘large number of Bangladeshis’ in the state now play ‘a major role in electing the representatives both to the Legislative Assembly and Parliament and consequently, in the decision-making process towards building the nation.’ Not mincing words, the court described their political influence as that of ‘kingmakers’.


Since then, Assam is once again in uproar. This turn of events can potentially become quite dangerous. Activists of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and other Assamese nationalist organizations, as well as the BJP’s Bharatiya Janata Yuba Morcha (BJYM), have rounded up suspected Bangladeshis, handing them over to the police. Muslim organizations have protested such vigilante actions. A bandh sponsored by the Muslim Students Association, Assam to protest the harassment of genuine Indian citizens turned violent in Bodo dominated areas.

Chief Minister Gogoi has criticized the court’s remark that Bangladeshis are ‘kingmakers’, calling it sweeping and unsubstantiated. He has accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of ‘communalizing’ the issue, and has warned people against taking the law into their own hands. A convention organized by the Assam State Jamiat Ulema has also expressed concern about these organizations acting as law enforcers. The AASU, the AJYCP, the AGP as well as important Muslim organizations have repeated familiar demands: to expel Bangladeshis, to implement the Assam Accord, and update the National Register. However, in light of past experience, and the repeated confirmation of the worse fears of the ethnic Assamese by august institutions such as the High Court and the Supreme Court, it is unlikely that the issue can be contained for much longer within this tired old discourse. On the other hand, given the assertive Muslim opinion and the strong Muslim youth organizations of today, street confrontations over vigilante action can easily go out of hand.


By now high constitutional bodies such the Election Commission, the Supreme Court and the Gauhati High Court have spoken in different ways and confirmed that ‘illegal immigrants’ and their electoral power is not just a figment of the Assamese imagination. But the nation seems unwilling to recognize what it must: that the Partition has failed in serious ways in this part of the country.

How long can we go on with this politics of denial, for which Assam has already paid a heavy price? Can the political process begin speaking the unspeakable, as the judiciary has done? The implications are far reaching, and figuring out solutions within such a framework would mean conversations that go beyond the national to the subcontinental. We do not live in such a neighbourhood. But if we are unprepared to do that, we should at least stop our suspension of disbelief and the pretension that Wagah’s border closing ritual reflects reality on the ground on our eastern borders. We cannot go on making policy based on fictions. If we persist in this politics of denial, it can only push the people of Assam toward greater despair and more uncertain times.



1. Gurharpal Singh, ‘Beyond Punjabi Romanticism,’ Seminar 567, November 2006, p. 17.

2. The terms are in quotes because legally speaking there is no room for making this distinction. The category ‘refugee’ or rather ‘displaced person’ in the official vocabulary of the times, does not usually apply beyond the immediate post-Partition years after the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950.

Hiroshi Sato, ‘Normative Space of the Politics of Citizenship in Eastern India’, in Kyoko Inoue, Etsuyo Arai and Mayumi Murayama (eds.), Elusive Borders: Changing Sub-Regional Relations in Eastern India. Institute of Development Economics, Tokyo, 2005, pp. 103-04.

3. Government of India, The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 (Enacted 25 December 1983). http://www. illegal_migrants_Act.htm

4. Cited in Shakil Ahmed, ‘Muslims Forced to Live in the Shadow of Partition Policy’, The Milli Gazette, 5 August 2005, emphasis added.

5. Supreme Court of India, Judgment on writ petition (civil) 131 of 2000, 12 July 2005. Bench R.C. Lahoti, G.P. Mathur and P.K. Balasubramanyan.

6. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘The Rise of Judicial Sovereignty’, Journal of Democracy 18(2), April 2007, pp. 74-75.